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Blowing Smoke

John V. Thomas

Blowing Smoke

What does lung cancer teach us about climate change?

The incidence of lung cancer, rare at the turn of the 20th century, increased dramatically with the mass production and marketing of cigarettes. By the early 1950s, with Americans smoking 350 billion cigarettes a year, the rate quadrupled in men and doubled in women, compared to 20 years earlier. By the mid-1950s, dozens of scientific papers conclusively established the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

The tobacco industry, with its profits threatened, attacked scientific consensus through public opinion in a campaign designed to create skepticism and controversy. The public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, with its influence over the Tobacco Industry Research Council was the primary engine for this media campaign.

Since skepticism in scientific research has traditionally been a valued component of honest debate, the industry had a perfect venue for its arguments. Even after the 1964 Surgeon General’s report that unequivocally linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer, the industry continued to insist that there was “no proof”, that “more research” was needed, that epidemiological studies were “merely statistical” and that both sides of the “controversy” had to be considered.

By creating an impression of scientific and medical uncertainty, the industry delayed implementation of effective public policy regulating tobacco for decades and maintained its profits. As a tobacco industry executive wrote in an internal memo to a colleague in the late 1960s, “Doubt is our product.”

The same corporate strategy is being used today by the fossil fuel industry to create skepticism and controversy regarding climate change. In the 1990s, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pulled together data from scientists around the world to give a consensus view. The data showed that climate change was occurring, that human activity was primarily responsible and if unchecked, would have catastrophic effects on our planet. These include rising ocean levels, floods, drought, extreme weather patterns, agricultural decline, spread of infectious diseases and changing ecosystems. In turn, these would potentially cause severe negative worldwide economic and social effects.

Yet Americans largely remain unconvinced. In a 2004 analysis of more than 900 peer-reviewed papers published by climate scientists over the previous decade, not a single paper disagreed with the big picture — that climate change is occurring and is largely due to human activity. However, a 2006 ABC News poll reported that 60 percent of Americans thought that there was scientific uncertainty about climate change.

In a 2008 poll conducted by the University of Illinois, 97 percent of more than 3,000 climate scientists, agreed that human activity was a significant factor contributing to climate change. Only 1 percent did not. However, a 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 36 percent of Americans believed that human activity contributed to climate change.

This disparity between science and public opinion has resulted from several factors. Largely, it has been due to the fabrication of controversy by “experts” at think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry. Purportedly independent scientists and grassroots organizations, funded by the same industry, present contrarian views without scientific merit in the blogosphere. The journalistic tradition of providing “balance” to every story, when done without an assessment of the relative scientific merits of opposing views, contributes to the disparity. The lack of disclosure of funding sources of organizations represented by “experts,” also makes it hard for the public to objectively evaluate the views presented.

The e-mails recently hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia have been seized upon by climate change skeptics as proof that scientists there colluded to suppress data which undermined their arguments. After a review of the  leaked emails, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC has stated, that even if the CRU data are omitted, the evidence for human activity being responsible for climate change is overwhelming.

We need to recognize, that once more, we are being duped by an industry whose only goal is profit. The question that future generations will have to answer is “At what cost?”

John V. Thomas is a retired physician and lives in Easton, Massachusetts.