There were two local meetings last week that dealt with public policy issues that may affect all of us for years to come. And it was interesting to observe the way in which corporate money impinged on the proceedings and sought to influence the outcome.
The first meeting was a forum, led by Dr. Judith A. Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, dealing with global warming and hurricane activity.
Curry said there’s been a lot of public debate over whether global warming is real and what effect it has on our weather systems and climate. “Unfortunately, the public debate has diverged from the scientific debate,” she said. Scientists agree that global warming is occurring and that sea temperatures are rising. Now the debate centers on whether these rising temperatures are the cause of hurricanes becoming more intense. Another mystery scientists are trying to unravel is why only the North Atlantic is seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes.
Much of the public debate over global warming arises at least in part from these still unanswered questions. Not that there is really anything for the public to debate. The questions are far too esoteric and technical for most laymen to comprehend. And that’s exactly the kind of environment some corporate interests in this country thrive on. The energy companies and their right-wing think tanks and media monkeys have spread the word that global warming is a hoax and their “evidence” is that scientists still don’t have all the answers on the causes and effects of this phenomenon.
Of course, it’s the nature of science to never have all the answers. Only religious and political ideologues claim that power. But in a nation where general understanding of science is woefully lacking, ideologues and corporate money can play hell with public policy by claiming scientists are arrogant elitists, who are making up facts to fit some diabolical agenda.
The typical response of the Bush Administration and its corporate sponsors to alarms of global warming is, “We need more information.”
That’s nonsense, Curry said. “The risk of global warming is greater than the risk of terrorist attack or avian flu. Why do we set higher standards for the risk of global warming before we take action?”
Asked how there could be so much debate and indecision about something that seems so clear to scientists, Curry said, “ExxonMobil wants to sell fuel and can’t sell fuel if people fear global warming.”
The second meeting I attended last week was the regular Charleston City Council confab, where city fathers and mothers rehashed the proposed municipal ban on smoking in public places. Nearly a dozen business leaders and health professionals stood up and called for the new law, citing scientific data that secondhand smoke is dangerous for employees and customers, and public opinion research that shows an overwhelming majority of South Carolinians want smoke-free public accommodations.
One person spoke on behalf of the hospitality industry, saying that customers would flee across the city limit to smoke if the city banned cigarettes in bars and restaurants. It is the same tired old argument the tobacco industry has been putting out for years. There is no verifiable evidence to support this claim and quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. Yet the claim persists, along with bogus data purporting that secondhand smoke is harmless. Of course, this follows the decades-long campaign that sought to convince the public and policy makers that cigarette smoking was as harmless as orange juice. Over the past 50 years the tobacco industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on bogus research and public information campaigns. The result is that 400,000 Americans still die from cigarettes each year.
The person most responsible for creating the great storm of misinformation and misunderstanding over smoking and global warming is one Dr. Frederick Seitz. According to Mark Hertsgaard, writing in the May 2006 Vanity Fair, Seitz helped R.J. Reynolds Industries assemble and publicize the medical research it used for many years to argue that the data on cigarette smoking were inconclusive. Now he is working his magic for the auto and energy industries to “disprove” global warming, through an industry front group called Global Climate Coalition.
“Al Gore and others have said, but generally without offering evidence, that the people who deny the dangers of climate change are like the tobacco executives who denied the dangers of smoking,” Hertsgaard writes. “The example of Frederick Seitz … shows that the two camps overlap in ways that are quite literal…”
Bad science makes bad policy and for decades we have seen corporate money pumping bad science and misinformation into Washington. Is it any wonder that today we see it trying to effect public policy in Charleston?