KINGSTON, R.I. – April 28, 2016 — A philosopher of science told about 200 people at the University of Rhode Island last week that empirical data is all that should matter in an examination of climate change — not ideology, not religious beliefs.
“To disbelieve the overwhelming scientific evidence on global climate change does not make one a skeptic, it makes one a fool,” said Lee McIntyre, research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University.
McIntyre joined U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and other scientists and policy experts at “Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation,” a daylong conference sponsored by the American Association of University Professors at URI.
Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the fossil fuel industry’s own scientists warned company officials about the reality of global warming in the 1980s. But what did the industry do?
It improved its own infrastructure, including raising ocean drilling platforms and strengthening pipelines in areas threatened by flooding and thawing, Kimmell said.
“They could have disseminated accurate information,” Kimmell said. “Could you imagine the credibility they would have had? British Petroleum (BP) tried this for a short time with its Beyond Petroleum Campaign,” but it didn’t continue.
“Instead the industry created a campaign of disinformation and denial,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel talked about the role of climate change in Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “Sea level rise added $2 million to Sandy’s toll in New York City,” said Kimmell.
Among the steps fossil fuel companies should take regarding climate change are: “Stop supporting disinformation campaigns. Support sensible climate polices and reduce the carbon levels of their fuels. (Oil from tar sands in Canada is some of the most carbon dense fuel being used in the United States.)”
Whitehouse, the keynote speaker for the event, said Rhode Island is already on the front lines of climate change.
“Sea level is up 10 inches at the Newport tidal gauge since the 1930s,” the senator said. “Mean winter water temperature in Narragansett Bay is up nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s, and our winter flounder fishery is virtually gone. In recent weeks, we had major news stories in The Providence Journal about our drowning seacoast marshes, our endangered historic Newport buildings, and our ocean fisheries in upheaval—all from climate change. It’s here”.
Whitehouse said more than three out of every four Americans understand that climate change is occurring, and that doing nothing will cause a problem for the United States. The senator said American people have extraordinary support for their convictions: from virtually every major scientific society, virtually every major state university (including, of course, URI and its Graduate School; of Oceanography), from the country’s national laboratories, American military and intelligence officials, and from leading American companies, doctors, and faith leaders.
URI and its Graduate School of Oceanography scientists are at the forefront of studying climate change, but the U.S. Congress needs to take action, Whitehouse said, then asking why Congress is frozen.
He said that threats to democracy by powerful corporations date back to the very earliest days of the nation, and that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison issued dire warnings about these influences.
“Thomas Jefferson wrote that our young nation should ‘crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.’”
Whitehouse said the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed special interests to spend—and more darkly, to threaten to spend—unlimited amounts in elections.
“In our political debate, dark money dollars drown out the voices of average citizens with what has been called ‘a tsunami of slime’; and all that money is not spent for nothing,” Whitehouse said.
He cited Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money, and its description of how fossil fuel interests have put their wealth to this use.
“They invest in intellectuals who come up with ideas friendly to industry. They invest in think tanks that transform these ideas into marketable policies. They funnel dark money through phony-baloney front groups, often untraceable, to propagate counterfeit science, to undermine public understanding of the issue in order to undermine action in Congress,” Whitehouse said.
The result of the industry’s newfound political clout, and of its climate denial apparatus, is that Congress does nothing, which is exactly what the big polluters want and what they paid for, he said.
“The emergence of masquerade science to compete with actual science is a key component of the propaganda effort. It plays by different rules than you all do: it is talk-show science, as opposed to peer-reviewed science,” Whitehouse said.
He told the audience that Americans have a duty to protect the nation’s democracy against special interests, adding, “We cannot be the nation that knew what carbon pollution was doing to our atmosphere and our oceans but could not rouse itself to do what was required. In previous generations, Americans risked everything to serve the higher interests of this great republic. We know great things can be done by America, because they’ve been done. We must not be the generation that failed at our duty.
“Part of the solution is to pull back secret control of American politics through dark money. But part of the solution is to recognize that a predatory, well-funded rival to real science has emerged, and to understand that real science has to find a way to call out its new, dark twin: industry-funded masquerade science.”
“The conference was a great success,” said Frank R. Annunziato, executive director of the AAUP, URI’s faculty union. “I was delighted with the speakers and with the exchanges between speakers and the audience. The speakers were delighted with the conference, as were Senator Whitehouse and his staff.”
CLIMATE CHANGE IS HERE: U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tells the audience at “Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation,” a daylong conference at URI last week that climate change is already having significant effects on Rhode Island.
EXPERT PANELISTS: Cornelia Dean, New York Times contributor and Brown University writer-in-residence; Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists; Lee McIntyre, research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University; and J. Timmons Roberts, Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of sociology at Brown, discuss the climate change at a daylong forum at URI sponsored by the American Association of University Professors.
A TIMELY QUESTION: Jody Lisberger, associate professor gender and women’s studies, asks a question during the conference, “Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation” at URI. Looking on at left is Pam Rubinoff, coastal resiliency specialist at the Coastal Resources Center.
URI photos by Nora Lewis.