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Climate Hawks Go on Offense Against Skeptics, but Impact Uncertain

With momentum building for U.S. climate policy, activists are going on the offensive against powerful skeptic interests. Will their efforts have an effect?

Apr 2, 2013
Al Gore

With momentum building for climate policy in Washington for the first time since 2010, environmentalists are going on the offensive to counter skeptics who helped derail global warming legislation in the past.

While their efforts do a good of identifying the formidable strength of organizations that reject the scientific consensus, it is too early to tell if their counter-weapons will have any effect in the climate wars.

The Climate Reality Project, a group overseen by Al Gore, is trying to win over public opinion by getting people to spread accurate global warming science in the comment sections of news stories online, where the battle rages with particular ferocity.

For example, a recent CNN article titled "Global Warming Is Epic, Long-Term Study Says" attracted nearly 12,600 comments. That's more than 50 times what articles published the same day on technology and environmental health received.

Last month, Gore's group launched a website that tips off users to climate news and encourages them to saturate readers' comments with scientific facts. For years, skeptics have filled comments with dismissive views of climate science to sow doubts about the consensus that fossil fuels are responsible for global warming—dominating that space, according to the group.

"We realized the other side's very aggressive, offensive strategy to foster skepticism was having a major impact," said Maggie Fox, CEO of the Climate Reality Project. "Addressing the comment wars seemed like a good place to start fighting back."

The Reality Drop site was created with pro bono help from advertising agency Arnold Worldwide and cost a few hundred thousand dollars to develop. An algorithm on the site generates a list of articles that have become overrun by skeptics or that contain misinformation. Scientific facts are displayed next to the articles, which people can cut and paste and "drop" into reader comments or social media accounts.

Since its launch, more than 150,000 people in 160 countries have visited the site—but the jury is still out on whether those who care about global warming will be motivated to participate. To encourage use, the program is set up like a game, with "players" racking up points for every article they comment on.

The Gore group is up against a large, sophisticated and well-funded adversary.

According to research to be released this month by Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, organizations that cast doubt on climate science have received hundreds of millions of dollars from energy companies and sympathetic interests to combat action on climate change and other progressive causes—including $235 million in 2010 alone. The organizations include the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, conservative groups at the forefront of climate skepticism.

"The money fueling these skeptic campaigns is more than environmental groups will ever be able to match," Brulle told InsideClimate News. "I wouldn't be surprised if their donations jump this year—as they did in 2008 and 2009."

Another new study in the peer-reviewed journal American Behavioral Scientist analyzes one of the most potent weapons in skeptics' arsenal: books denying climate science. The authors of the study counted 108 of these books, with an explosion of 63 titles appearing between the years 2007 and 2010, and found that conservative think tanks have played a central role in the boom. 

Activists say skeptics use the same tactics the tobacco industry deployed to deny the health risks of smoking, with one exception: the Web.

"During the tobacco wars, paid scientists were all over the news and in papers after any claim that tobacco was harmful to health," said Pete Favat, chief creative officer at Arnold Worldwide, the advertising agency that worked with Gore on Reality Drop. "The same thing is happening with climate. But the Internet makes battling this strategy harder because the skeptic response is immediate and all over the place."

Myron Ebell, a climate skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said his group plans to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to further regulate greenhouse gas emissions, among other climate policies.

But Ebell said he isn't concerned climate advocates will get anywhere close to the progress they achieved in 2009. 

That was the year the U.S. House passed cap-and-trade legislation, and a newly elected President Obama pledged to broker an international climate pact at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. Efforts failed by 2010.

"The people pushing for action have been wasting their time for the last 20 years," Ebell said. "It has been a very expensive dead-end."

Last month also saw the launch of another effort that the New York Times called "a blunt instrument in the climate war," a film that minces no words with its title, "Greedy Lying Bastards."

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