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The well-funded and organized campaigns that influence climate change science online

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Climate Reality Project hopes to counter climate change misinformation campaigns with its grassroots online presence.

In a thorough post for InsideClimate News, Katherine Bagley examines the influence that both climate change campaigners and skeptics are having online (link). The tactics are more organized than you might think. From the campaigner’s side:

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.

This effort is relatively new and is up against a better funded and organized opposition. Again from Bagley’s post:

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.”

This tracks with other things I have read about organized climate resistance. In a story filed earlier this year, the Guardian UK exposed the coordinated effort to discredit climate change science (link):

Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned.

The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives.

The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and [the] Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more.

For what it’s worth, I haven’t noticed any comment ‘drops’ – dozens of simultaneous comments for or against a post – on this site. But posts about climate change do attract strong opinions – not just on this blog, but the rest of the site (example, example, example), which is not necessarily a bad thing. My experience, though, is that most comments quickly go off topic and reinforce previously held beliefs.

According to the Guardian UK, conservative billionaires have funded anti-climate change campaigns. Above, David Koch. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

To me, the online climate ‘debate’, for lack of a better term, resembles urban warfare and happens in the streets and alleyways of comment sections. Entrenched interest groups fight with each other. Bystanders receive collateral damage. It’s an effective way to sow disinformation and confusion.

It’s encouraging to see an organized effort to spread scientific facts, but I wonder if it becomes noise – like talking heads in political debates – to the masses.

Also check out Andy Revkin’s thoughts on this topic at Dot Earth (link).

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sault 5:55 pm 04/9/2013

    While I appreciate the help fighting back against the misinformation and downright lies concerning climate science we see on these comment boards, it would be impossible to carry out a discussion if we get waves of “copy and paste” posts because of these efforts. This goes for ANY side of the debate.

    However, I hope this is mostly aimed at articles that get hundreds and hundreds of comments on other sites, not the articles that usually see a few dozen here at SciAm. The reality-based community around here has had no problem handling the deniers and their nonsense so far.

    Link to this
  2. 2. David_Rogers_Hunt 7:59 pm 04/9/2013

    I would encourage everyone in the Global Climate debates to set up a Wikia site to debate this issue. http://www.heartland.org/ “the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.” has already set up http://www.climatewiki.org/wiki/Main_Page . I would imagine you don’t agree with what they say, but the idea of using Wikia sites, if embraced by both the advocates and the skeptics over AGW, could seriously promote the public’s interest in hashing out the scientific disagreements in an open and transparent fashion. I would love to see reasoned responses to http://www.climatedepot.com/a/9035/SPECIAL-REPORT-More-Than-1000-International-Scientists-Dissent-Over-ManMade-Global-Warming-Claims–Challenge-UN-IPCC–Gore or see someone take up the challenge at http://ultimateglobalwarmingchallenge.com/ and win. From my personal surveying of claims expressed upon the Internet, the AGW skeptics have been pleading for any and every opportunity to engage in open debate with AGW advocates. Take them up on it in as public a forum as possible. Otherwise it does look rather as though you are ducking the argument. Since that’s obviously not true, I look forward to hearing about such open debates at the soonest opportunity possible. Time is ticking!

    Link to this
  3. 3. sault 8:34 pm 04/9/2013

    David,

    Sorry, but all your links go to polluter-funded anti-scientific nonsense. There is NO debate on the science of climate change in the professional scientific community. There is no doubt that CO2 traps heat and that humanity has increased its concentration in the atmosphere by 40%. And the range of climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 is 2C – 4.5C. All this is totally NONCONTROVERSIAL between REAL scientists. And even if the Earth’s climate sensitivity is as low as 2C (the LEAST likely scenario), it still means we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions YESTERDAY. This is why it is IMPOSSIBLE to find a professional scientific organization that disagrees with the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

    The only REAL disagreement is on how to mitigate and adapt to the coming climate change. Those that have a vested financial interest in keeping the pollution pouring into our atmosphere, like the Heartland Institute among others, are the ONLY ones saying there’s scientific disagreement over climate change. Sorry, but you’re either being duped by this fossil fuel propaganda or are paid to post this stuff. Maybe the check came directly from Donor’s Trust…

    Link to this
  4. 4. littleredtop 9:28 pm 04/9/2013

    Spending more money to promote the concept of man made climate change won’t change the facts and the facts all point toward fraud. No one in their right mind disputes the fact that the average Earth temperature continues to rise, ever so slightly, as it has for thousands of years. What is in dispute is the cause. Who could be behind such blatant dishonesty? And more importantly, how can the general public be so stupid?

    Link to this
  5. 5. squidboy6 11:58 pm 04/9/2013

    “No one in their right mind disputes the fact that the average Earth temperature continues to rise, ever so slightly, as it has for thousands of years.”

    Actually the record doesn’t show that at all, it shows a slight cooling trend for thousands of years followed by a rapid increase in temperature starting with the industrial age. Lately the trend is really steep so you should try a different approach since the “fraud” is primarily one-sided.

    Link to this
  6. 6. chrissuard 12:27 am 04/10/2013

    Goodness if it gets any warmer we may have to repopulate Greenland, and who will get that bountiful harvest when the new climate brings on enormous productivity in the earths agriculture. I would like to join in with the “sky is falling” chorus, but there is no way of stopping the sun from shining, and I suggest we make the most of it. Now are any of you making money on research, carbon credits, pollution, propaganda? I hope for your sakes you do while this is a hot topic. My guess is a PHD in meteorology will have an uptic until a few more years of data prove one direction or another. Of course the problem with religion is the facts do not seem to matter.

    Link to this
  7. 7. sault 1:19 am 04/10/2013

    litteredtop,

    Funny how you clamor on about all these facts implicating climate science as a “fraud” yet you provide none of the facts which you speak of. Since you seem to be duped by fossil fuel propaganda, I don’t know how much good it’ll do talking to you, but at least admit that CO2 traps heat! I mean, if you DENY the basic spectral properties of one of the principle greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, how can you ever hope to contribute constructively to discussions on climate change?

    Link to this
  8. 8. stargene 2:54 am 04/10/2013

    It’s an extremely quaint and out-of-touch notion
    (to put it kindly) that a vast array of scientists
    across the world… climatologists, chemists,
    geophysicists, physicists, planetary astronomers,
    and more… has been perpetrating a hoax about
    anthropogenic global climate change, to bamboozle
    all humanity for lo these many years. And why?
    To get more grant money. Breathtaking.

    Just think about it… take thousands of scientists,
    men and women by definition having managed to
    grow up without having what Einstein would call
    ‘the holy sense of wonder’ killed in them, born to
    be very inquisitive about everything about the
    world; trained in skepticism and in the scientific
    method (the world’s most powerful bamboozle-
    and-BS-filter to date.)

    Now imagine this most cantankerous, independent
    minded crowd of individuals, each one practically
    frothing to probe and solve genuine mysteries,
    and then, oh by the way… publish it, decides
    to hoodwink everybody about something so
    immense and verifiable, so palpable and obvious
    as The Condition of the Planet Itself!

    Do you know how long such a conspiracy would
    last before it blew apart? Its half-life would be
    on the order of a microsecond. From the most
    powerful internal dissensions and disagreement
    you can imagine.

    A wonderfully ludicrous fantasy.

    Link to this
  9. 9. singing flea 5:24 am 04/10/2013

    Anyone not bright enough to realize that the Heartland Institute is funded by big oil, big tobacco and big pharma deserves the negative aspects of all three. These same deniers will all go to their graves while they let other peoples money do their thinking for them and at the same time never realize it was their money that was wasted too, along with their well being.

    As for the authors comment that,” For what it’s worth, I haven’t noticed any comment ‘drops’…” apparently he wasn’t around before SA editors dumped ten times the articles to drown out the comments that once were prolific and a healthy aspect of online science reporting at SA.

    Link to this
  10. 10. m 6:16 am 04/10/2013

    @littleredtop

    Yes average temperatures have increased marginally if we average it out over a thousand years.

    However and i hate using the word ignorant, actually I dont, youre a complete fraud and damn right useless tosser.

    If you look at the “hockey stick” of climate change you can quite clearly see anthropomorphic change is real.

    Link to this
  11. 11. m 6:18 am 04/10/2013

    Sorry typo, anthropogenic .

    Link to this
  12. 12. m 6:24 am 04/10/2013

    Well i wonder, shouldnt it be called anthropoklima or anthropoclima, anthropogenic means humans changing genes? something amiss here. However the climate skeptics couldnt care aless they do less research than a knats a.ss

    Link to this
  13. 13. Sisko 3:34 pm 04/10/2013

    It seems rather interesting that one of the chief cheerleaders for the position that AGW is a potential disaster for humanity and that humanity must immediately stop emitting CO2 is claiming that those who disagree with their belief are better funded.

    Interesting is probably the wrong word, since laughable is more accurate. People are skeptical of the claims of the position summarized above because it is logically un-defendable based on the data available.

    It is foolish to believe that the argument is being lost due to the big bad oil companies giving money to people. The argument is being lost because the science does not support many people fears. Hansen and Mann were wrong about the rate of warming and its impacts on the lives of humans. Mitigation actions in the US will not stop worldwide C2 levels from increasing and are almost always economically ineffective.

    If some big bad oil company wants to send me money, I would accept it, but lol, nobody has ever made such an offer and I probably de-bunk the positions promoted by Scientific American on this site as much as anyone.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Shmick 9:42 pm 04/10/2013

    Reply to m:

    As a bit of a Lexophile (word + lover) I thought I should respond that Anthropogenic is indeed correct as the roots are anthropo, ancient Greek “Man, Mankind, Humanity”, + genic, from Greek genos by way of Latin Genus “Birth, Origin, Type, Class”.

    A similar Gen-word that illustrates is “generate”.

    Off-topic I know, but so rarely can I contribute anything of substance to these comments, other than exasperated roll-eyes at the flood of denialist screeds that pollute every climate article here.

    Link to this
  15. 15. sault 12:54 am 04/11/2013

    Sisko, you don’t even make sense anymore. Your circular logic is truly amazing! Quit linking to the polluter-funded websites since they’re doing WONDERS for your credibility. Either supply proof to back up your assertions or take your opinions to some place more fitting.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Son of Liberty 5:32 pm 04/11/2013

    The perpetual keening regarding the funding of AGW skeptics is laughable. Lets discuss data.

    For the first time, the numbers from government documents have been compiled in one place. It’s time to start talking of “Monopolistic Science”. It’s time to expose the lie that those who claim “to save the planet” are the underdogs. And it’s time to get serious about auditing science, especially when it comes to pronouncements that are used to justify giant government programs and massive movements of money. Who audits the IPCC?

    The Summary
    The US government has provided over $79 billion since 1989 on policies related to climate change, including science and technology research, foreign aid, and tax breaks.
    Despite the billions: “audits” of the science are left to unpaid volunteers. A dedicated but largely uncoordinated grassroots movement of scientists has sprung up around the globe to test the integrity of the theory and compete with a well funded highly organized climate monopoly. They have exposed major errors.
    Carbon trading worldwide reached $126 billion in 2008. Banks are calling for more carbon-trading. And experts are predicting the carbon market will reach $2 – $10 trillion making carbon the largest single commodity traded.
    Meanwhile in a distracting sideshow, Exxon-Mobil Corp is repeatedly attacked for paying a grand total of $23 million to skeptics—less than a thousandth of what the US government has put in, and less than one five-thousandth of the value of carbon trading in just the single year of 2008.
    The large expenditure in search of a connection between carbon and climate creates enormous momentum and a powerful set of vested interests. By pouring so much money into one theory, have we inadvertently created a self-fulfilling prophesy instead of an unbiased investigation?

    http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/originals/climate_money.html

    Link to this
  17. 17. Tractorthoughts 9:14 pm 04/12/2013

    It is very sad that money mow seems to be defining reality. It is bad enough that it seems to dictate politics. Do those with huge amounts of money to spend really want to go down in history as being on the same level as those who forced Galileo to recant his “theory” that the earth revolved around the sun? I think I would rather accept what climatologists and the National Academy of Science tell me than what the Koch brothers want me to believe.

    Link to this

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