Manufacturing Uncertainty

Conservative Think Tanks and Climate Change Denial Books

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Books denying climate change evidence are a potent means of manufacturing uncertainty. Most are linked to conservative think tanks, with few authored by individuals with scientific credentials, and fewer still having undergone peer review.

No sooner had anthropogenic global warming (AGW) been placed on the public agenda — perhaps most effectively by James Hansen’s 1988 Congressional testimony — than an organized campaign to deny its reality and significance was launched. The early campaign was centered in corporate America, symbolized by the Global Climate Coalition. But from the outset the conservative movement was also heavily involved — the two united by antipathy toward the prospect of government regulations to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Conservative think tanks (CTTs), core components of the conservative movement, have increasingly become central actors in the campaign, forming the Cooler Heads Coalition as flagging corporate support led to dissolution of the Global Climate Coalition.

The disinformation campaign against AGW has used the well-tested strategy of manufacturing uncertainty, constantly asserting that the scientific evidence is too uncertain to warrant regulatory action. CTTs offer an ideal vehicle for manufacturing uncertainty regarding climate science. Typically treated by media and policy makers as credible sources of objective information, CTTs have achieved the status of an “alternate academia.” It is common to see their representatives regarded as independent experts, being interviewed and testifying along with or in lieu of leading academics — including climate scientists.

A growing body of research has documented the multiple roles CTTs play in promoting climate change denial, including sponsoring and amplifying the voices of contrarian scientists and producing a vast range of media material.

Although just one of many forms of media used by CTTs, books are especially important. Authors of books critiquing climate science often come to be viewed by the media and sympathetic politicians as “climate experts,” regardless of their academic backgrounds or scientific credentials. Their books are frequently carried by major bookstore chains, many receive enormous publicity on CTT websites and from conservative and skeptical bloggers, and some are sold through the Conservative Book Club. In short, books are a potent means for diffusing skepticism concerning AGW and the need to reduce GHG emissions.

The authors’ recent study analyzed 108 English-language books espousing climate change denial published through 2010. These books reject evidence that global warming is occurring, that human actions are the predominant cause of global warming over recent decades, and/or that global warming will have negative impacts on human and natural systems — or what are commonly termed trend, attribution and impact denial. Besides focusing on book connections to CTTs, the study also examined the educational credentials and national backgrounds of their authors/editors.

Trends over Time

The first denial volume (Sherwood Idso’s Carbon Dioxide: Friend or Foe) was published in 1982. The remaining 107 books started coming out in 1989, the year after AGW had become a highly visible issue in the USA and the IPCC was established, with four being published that year. They were followed by 19 denial books published in the 1990s, 13 in the last half of that decade when the Kyoto Protocol was attracting extensive attention. Another 15 were published during the first half of the next decade, and a veritable explosion of 54 in the second half (especially 2007 to 2009), making a total of 69 from 2000 to 2009. Another 15 came out in 2010, yielding the total of 108 examined in the study.

Image of books by year
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Several developments fueled the production of more denial books starting in 2007: The release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) in both video and book form the prior year and the enormous publicity it received, culminating in an Academy Award for best documentary; Gore and the IPCC receiving the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize; publication of the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report claiming “unequivocal” evidence of anthropogenic global warming; consideration of climate change legislation in Congress; and an upturn in public concern about global warming.

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The ratio of climate change books (back row) to climate change denial books (front row) is illustrated by this chronological sorting of one individual’s extensive, but not all-inclusive, personal collection. See related sidebar below. (Photo credit: Michael Svoboda)

A notable aspect of the recent rise in denial books is the growth of self-published volumes. Thirty-three of the denial books were published by individuals on their own or via a “vanity press”: 30 since 2000, and 26 between 2007 and 2010.

Book Ties with Conservative Think Tanks

To examine links between the denial books and CTTs we used verifiable evidence of author/editor affiliation with a CTT (e.g., serving on advisory boards), book publication by a CTT press, or both. Seventy-eight of the 108 volumes, or 72 percent, have a verifiable link with a CTT, but underlying this figure are two interesting trends.

While 100 percent of the denial books published in the 1980s and 95 percent published in the 1990s are linked to CTTs, “only” 65 percent of those published since 2000 have a link to CTTs. Second, the large decline in the percentage of CTT links since 2000 is the result primarily of the preponderance of self-published books appearing over the eleven years, as only one-third of the 30 self-published books coming out since 2000 are linked to a CTT.

In contrast, 83 percent of the books from publishing houses since 2000 have links to CTTs. More generally, of the 75 denial books issued by a publishing house, 87 percent are linked to a CTT, whereas of the 33 self-published denial books, only 39 percent have such a link.

In recent years, production of climate change denial books has “diffused” from CTTs to a broader segment of the conservative movement, including lay authors lacking scientific credentials who typically self-publish their volumes, just as climate change denial has spread throughout most of the conservative sector of the public. Yet, on average, books affiliated with CTTs receive far more publicity, sell much better, and reach larger audiences than do self-published titles. In addition, individuals affiliated with CTTs are especially likely to produce multiple denial volumes — most notably Fred Singer with six and Patrick Michaels with five. Indeed, 14 of the 15 individuals who have published two or more denial books are affiliated with CTTs.

CTTs have clearly played a central role in the explosion of books promoting climate change denial. Those playing prominent roles in attacking climate science are especially likely to publish (or co-publish) denial books: the Cato Institute publishing five, the Heartland Institute four, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, The Marshall Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the U.K.’s Institute for Economic Affairs three each. These same groups are linked to many more books via author/editor affiliations.

National Origins of Books

The denial of climate change has also diffused geographically. Vigorous denial campaigns have developed in the U.K., Canada and Australia and — to a lesser degree — in several other nations. This diffusion has been stimulated by U.S.-based CTTs, which have sent representatives such as contrarian scientists Fred Singer and Patrick Michaels abroad to network and promote climate change denial.

The success in diffusing denial internationally is apparent in the spread of denial books. Nineteen of the denial books are authored (or, in one case, edited) by individuals in the U.K., seven by Canadians, six by Australians, and 10 by individuals from seven other nations. The proportion of denial books originating outside the U.S. has increased each decade, and since 2000 only 60 percent have come from the U.S.

The role of CTTs in diffusing climate change denial internationally is readily apparent. While 65 percent of all denial books in the U.S. have a link with a CTT (due to the large number of self-published books lacking such a connection), 79 percent of the books from the U.K. and 87 percent of the books from the various other nations are connected to CTTs. The strong connection between climate change denial books coming out of other nations (the large majority of which were published since 2000) comes close to the earlier situation in the U.S., where 94 percent of the books published before 2000 have a CTT connection.

Academic Credentials of Authors/Editors

A key strategy of CTTs is to enlist contrarian scientists to help manufacture uncertainty, as their scientific credentials (PhDs) help legitimate CTT critiques of climate science. We therefore examined the academic credentials of the authors/editors of the 108 denial books to ascertain the contribution of contrarian scientists to them, and to explore the backgrounds of the other authors/editors. Each author/editor was coded into three categories in terms of highest academic degree and the field in which it was obtained: (1) PhDs in natural science (regardless of the field, thus including chemistry, geology, soil science, etc., as well as those more directly related to climate science), (2) other PhDs or equivalent degrees (e.g., JDs and MDs), and (3) less than a doctorate.

Of the of 106 individuals who have authored/co-authored or edited/co-edited one or more of the 108 denial books, 32 have a natural science PhD, 24 have a doctorate in other fields (typically social science), and 50 have less than a doctorate.

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Part of a book shelf in a personal collection of climate change ‘skeptic’ books. See related sidebar below. (Photo credit: Michael Svoboda)

Each volume was then coded based on the highest/most relevant degree of any co-author or co-editor. Even with this “relaxed” coding scheme, whereby any natural science PhD degree held by any co-author/co-editor is treated as indicating potentially relevant scientific expertise, only 39 percent of the total 108 denial volumes are authored/edited by individuals with scientific credentials as normally defined in academic circles. Another 19 percent of the books are produced by individuals with other doctorates — primarily in economics, politics and law — and the remaining 42 percent by individuals without a doctorate.

Diffusion over time is again apparent, as natural science doctorates are involved in 80 percent of the small number of books coming out in the 1980s (four of five), 53 percent (ten of 19) in the 1990s, but only 33 percent (28 of 84) since 2000. We also find national variation in reliance upon contrarian scientists. Natural science PhDs are involved with nearly half (48 percent) of the denial volumes from the U.S., but only 11 percent from the U.K. and 35 percent from the remaining nine countries.

The data suggest that early on a small number of contrarian scientists, primarily from the U.S., played a critical role in planting and legitimating climate change denial within conservative circles. As denial evolved over time and spread throughout a larger segment of American society (particularly among conservatives) and to other nations, the seeds sown by the contrarians (78 percent of whom have ties to a CTT) have germinated. Currently a wide range of individuals without backgrounds in natural science, and by that criterion lacking relevant credentials for evaluating climate science, write books criticizing the field.

Freedom from Peer Review and Its Implications

It is often noted that individuals promoting climate change denial, including the small number of contrarian scientists, mainly criticize or “audit” the work of climate scientists (especially as summarized by the IPCC), and rarely contribute original research to peer-reviewed climate science themselves. Unlike mainstream climate scientists who publish primarily in scholarly journals, where peer review is designed to weed-out unscientific claims, these critics use a range of non-peer-reviewed outlets, ranging from blogs to newspaper editorials to the books studied here. None of the books are published by academic presses, and only a handful by presses that specialize in scientific topics, suggesting that very few (if any) undergo peer review — especially from climate scientists.

The lack of peer review allows authors/editors of denial books to make inaccurate assertions that misrepresent the current state of climate science. Like the vast range of other non-peer-reviewed material produced by the denial community, book authors can make whatever claims they wish, no matter how scientifically unfounded. In fact, the lack of peer review in what journalist-turned-activist Eric Pooley has labeled the “denialosphere” means that denial claims can be continually recycled, no matter how many times they are refuted by empirical test or shown to be theoretically untenable. Such claims have been termed “zombie arguments,” because they repeatedly rise from the grave.

Whereas scientific knowledge slowly but surely accumulates through testing — and then rejecting, modifying, and/or verifying — hypotheses and theories, the denial literature is cumulative in the literal sense. Regardless of how thoroughly denialists’ claims are discredited in the scientific literature, their advocates retain and reuse them whenever convenient. Non-peer-reviewed books espousing climate change denial offer an ideal means of presenting these claims, accounting for the growing use of such books in the campaign to discredit evidence-based climate science.

Riley E. Dunlap is Regents Professor and Dresser Professor in the Department of Sociology at Oklahoma State University, and Peter J. Jacques is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida.

Editor’s Note: The Dunlap-Jacques study that is the basis of this article appears in a symposium on “Climate Change Skepticism and Denial” published in the June, 2013 issue (Vol. 57, No. 6) of the American Behavioral Scientist. It extends prior analysis by Dunlap and Jacques of books espousing environmental skepticism, challenging the evidence of a wide range of environmental problems.

Background on Photos Accompanying This Report

*Yale Forum regular contributor Michael Svoboda was curious how his own collection of climate change and climate skeptical books would sort out chronologically. Presented here are nearly 200 books on climate change (the back row) and 29 books by climate skeptics (the front row). The collection is not comprehensive — by Dunlap and Jacques’ analysis, Svoboda has collected ~25% of the climate skeptical books published during this period — but the asymmetric bell curve depicted here might still be representative.

Having owned and managed an academic bookstore for nearly 20 years, Svoboda, now teaching at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.,  still follows the book market closely. With some allowance for the much longer lead time necessary for writing and publishing a book versus a news story, the curve resembles Maxwell Boykoff’s annually updated review of climate change coverage by major newspapers.

The release of former Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and of the three volumes of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 led to dramatic increases in news stories and books, increases more or less sustained through the December 2009 international climate meeting in Copenhagen. With books, however, the drop in response to the failure of Copenhagen was delayed; the number drops only in 2011 and then drops again in 2012. Perhaps the release of IPCC’s upcoming Fifth Assessment Report, starting later this year, will spur another increase in books about climate change. Look for follow-up coverage on this site.  

Also, because the size of the individual books affects the height of the columns, readers may wish to know the actual numbers represented in these images: 2004 – 4 climate change (CC), 2 skeptical (Sk); 2005 – 5 CC, 1 Sk; 2006 – 10 CC, 0 Sk; 2007 – 28 CC, 3 Sk; 2008 – 32 CC, 6 Sk; 2009 – 30 CC, 5 Sk; 2010 – 40 CC, 6 Sk; 2011 – 28 CC, 3 Sk; 2012 – 19 CC; 3 Sk. Svoboda had only 10 climate change books dating from before 2004. So far in 2013, he has collected eight books on climate change, none by skeptics.)

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20 Responses to Conservative Think Tanks and Climate Change Denial Books

  1. I HATE it when groups ranging from the Competitive Enterprise Institute to Heartland are referred to as “conservative.” They are not. They are, each and every one, nothing but fronts for corporations and the rich.
    Many years ago, when collecting information for one of my books, a research assistant asked the The Federalist Society for a copy of its Federal tax return, which such organizations are required by law to provide to those who request it, with one important exception: the return is not required to include the specific sources of income. In this case, however, the Federalist Society made the mistake of providing a copy of the return without the contribution information have been redacted.
    So, just much of the 20,000-member Society’s money that year came from dues? Zero. Where did it get its income? From 13 foundations run by corporations or the rich.
    These groups are NOT conservative, and please stop incorrectly calling them that and thus assisting them in this ruse.
    During my many years working for and with Republicans, I knew lots of conservatives–John Williams and William V. Roth, Jr., both of Delaware, for example and Bob Dole of Kansas. Fortunately, I spent most of my time working with Republic moderates such as Robert T. Stafford of Vermont, John Chafee of Rhode Island and David Durenberger of Minnesota. But that wing of the Republican Party no longer exists because its members were purged by radicals like the Koch Brothers and Art Pope of North Carolina.
    These are not conservatives but, as the late Paul Weyrich once stated publicly, radicals and revolutionaries: “We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of this country.”
    If you need to learn of this in excruciating detail, read my book: Cliffs I: How and Why America’s Billionaires and the Republican/Libertarian/Tea Party are Pushing Us Over.
    But, please, stop calling them conservative.

  2. RickA says:

    It would be interesting to know how many of the climate change books were peer-reviewed?

    Was Al Gore’s book peer reviewed?

    I am sure it will be a relief to many that the number of climate change books is larger than the number of skeptic books.

    Surely the larger number of climate change books means that all of the warming since 1850 is caused by humans, and none of it can possibly be naturally occurring.

    And even though the observations do not actually support the theorized indirect amplification feedback warming over and above the 1.2C which radiative physics posits for the 120 ppm increase in CO2 since 1850 (.8C of which we have already seen) – I am sure that the number of CC books versus skeptics books will put that issue to rest.

  3. Brian R Smith says:

    Thanks for this thorough study of the book publishing element of CTT media operations.

    Given that denialist arguments against science are based on willful lies emerging from self interested political & economic elites, one wonders if those elites and their cohort of publishers and authors have seriously considered the consequences of such a heinous betrayal of the public interest. They must know, but apparently do not fear that at some point, when the science and the true risks are overwhelmingly accepted, there will be a reckoning, and that the judgement of society on their actions will be appropriately harsh (and, I hope, punitive).

    But in the paper I couldn’t find the numbers that would help me with the degree of denialist book influence: 1) how many total copies sold or given away, indicating total readership and 2) how many of those readers are American.

    Later perhaps, it would also be useful to know how much money is spent on denialist book publishing compared to money spent on lobbying, press advertising, television ads and social media.

    • John Mashey says:

      “But in the paper I couldn’t find the numbers that would help me with the degree of denialist book influence: 1) how many total copies sold or given away, indicating total readership and 2) how many of those readers are American. Later perhaps, it would also be useful to know how much money is spent on denialist book publishing compared to money spent on lobbying, press advertising, television ads and social media.”

      This sort of data is really, really hard to get, except when documents leak. One might get some idea from Amazon numbers, but sometimes thinktanks buy many, inflating numbers. Heartland claimed a few months ago to have sent out 100,000 copies of “Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism.” I’ve spent endless hours looking at iRS Form 990s, but any book expenses are often included with other publishing expenses.
      This will give some idea of money flows

  4. Martin Lack says:

    I am seeing a lot of those ‘zombie arguments’ posted on my blog. I used to think this was just pythagoras and plate-spinning for fake sceptics… I am therefore very grateful to the authors for explaining why these old arguments never die; they just get resuscitated…

  5. Let’s not forget satire.

    The greatest comedic skit demonstrating denial is the Dead Parrot skit by Monty Python.

    The books that deny global warming are like the insistent clerk proclaiming the parrot is not dead.

  6. Marlin R. Turby says:

    I agree with the question posed by the late scientific communicator, Carl Sagan:
    ” What exactly, are the conservatives conserving”?

  7. Nullius in Verba says:

    Have you done a study on the number of ‘mainstream’ books with authors associated with or paid money by socialist/left/environmental think tanks, organisations, and foundations? e.g. Jimmy ‘Death Trains’ Hansen winning the $250,000 Heinz-Kerry award, etc. Not that I’m saying there’s anything in it. But it would be interesting.

  8. Doug Proctor says:

    Analysis of the contrarian books as a way of determining technical fitness is good, as well as determining possible bias due to political or corporate agendas. But you can’t just study one side if you are making a correlation to how societal beliefs are established.

    The same study needs to be done on pro-global warming as created by man-made CO2. There are a lot of influential pro-CAGW writers, including Bill McKibben, who would fail both the technical side and the non-financial agenda side. The signficant funds that Hansen and Suzuki and Mann get from their speeches should also be highlighted if you are trying to determine where possible bias may exist.

    An interesting study. Now let us have the other side and see.

    As for the WWF and Greenpeace – the technical merits of writers there is not so clear.

    A big problem with the pro-CAGW side is that the IPCC position is ASSUMED to be correct, and the books are all about the effects. The contrarian position goes after the rational for CAGW. So a comparison is going to be very difficult. It might be, in fact, there is only one book for the CAGW side: the IPCC AR4. All others may just start from that position.

    If that is the case, one might find that there are 50 highly technical people and books that say CO2-driven climate change is not true, and only one that says it is.

    So if you go with the consensus …..

    • Martin Lack says:

      What basis have you for wanting to assume the IPCC is incorrect? Notwithstanding government interference to consistently water-down the impact of the reports it produces, the IPCC summarises all the research that has been done. Assuming that the IPCC is incorrect is therefore one of two things:
      1. A rejection of the scientific consensus because you don’t like its implications for energy policy and/or growthmania on a finite planet; or
      2. A confession that you are a conspiracy theorist who thinks most of the people doing the research are either stupid, sloppy, or sinister.

      • Paul Quigg says:

        The IPCC review process is dominated by politicians from strange countries.

        • John says:

          I don’t think that is true, although the text has to be vetted across many nations. As has been pointed out on this site before, the IPCC predictions for global temperatures have been accurate over the last decade, unlike those of many of the contrarian predictions:

          • Paul Quigg says:

            The published IPCC review process shows an ever increasing proportion of politicians in each step of the review process in which only politicians write in the final review. I made no judgment on the accuracy or validity of the findings. The IPCC AR4 was quite reasonable if you read the footnotes of the text and graphs.

          • John Mashey says:

            Talk to any scientist who has actually participated in the writing of the SPM, which must be OK’d by Saudi Arabia, Russia, et al. How likely is it that they exaggerate concerns?

            Read Steve Schneider’s “Science as a Contact Sport” for a description of the wrestling, especially in Chapter 5.

    • In the Mohonk Preserve, a resort and nature area about 90 miles north of New York City, is the rarest of weather stations. It has been checked daily since Jan. 1, 1896, never been moved, never seen its surroundings change; and never been tended by any but a short, continuous line of family and friends, using the same methods. The average annual temperature there has risen 2.63 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures are up in all seasons, but summer heat waves have accelerated recently. Before 1980 it was rare for the temperature to crest above 89 degrees more than 10 days per year. Since then, such events have come to Mohonk on at least ten times per year and often on more than 20 days. At the same time, the number of freezing days has fallen, declining about one day less per year, every five years. Since 1970, the drop in freezing days has accelerated even further, dropping one day every two years. The thermometer has always been kept in the same place: a small box out of direct sun, a short walk from the Mohonk hotel. The brass rain gauge at one end of a boat dock is the original, from 1896.

      Measurements at Mohonk correlate closely with other widely spread, but less continuous records, and they paint a powerful confirmation of a warming climate. While the 1896-2006 temperature at Mohonk rose 2.63 degrees Fahrenheit, those over the land and oceans combined increased 1.2 to 1.4 degrees.

      Those who tend the Mohonk station receive no honoraria or speaking fees. Their conclusions, and those of others, are based not on speculative reasoning or “what ifs” like the “iris hypothesis” of Richard Lindzen of MIT, nor are they in the pay of coal producers like Patrick Michaels of Virginia. Instead they adhere to that which cannot be disputed: actual measurements, taken painstakingly each and every day for 108 years, and counting.

      Measurements. Facts, not fiction.

  9. Athelstan. says:

    richard pauli says:

    June 13, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Let’s not forget satire.

    The greatest comedic skit demonstrating denial is the Dead Parrot skit by Monty Python.

    The books that deny global warming are like the insistent clerk proclaiming the parrot is not dead.

    Interesting take Pauli, you don’t ‘do’ much satire, or know much about it – do you?
    Your above comment is priceless – and 100% wrong.

    What is it all about, this man made supposition, the mythically catastrophic effects of the man made CO2 molecule, the cloak and daggers, the mystery about climate science?

    The dishonesty, the cover ups, the very petty inter-disciplinary jealousies – most of the arch priests chief scientists and the majority of the promulgators of the myth of Global warming have pretty mediocre qualifications.

    There is no such discipline as ‘climate science’ it is a bastardized subject made up of lots of scientific disciplines, from geography to physics – but it seems to mostly include statisticians and not very good ones at that.

    Making reasonable critique of a flawed supposition MMGW – climate science wails en masse – “well you’re not qualified to say that!” ………upshot being warmists are correct and dissenters are amateurs.

    Honestly: that’s just skittish BS.

  10. Marlin R. Turby says:

    Science is not perfect by any means nor do scientists claim that it is. In fact that is perhaps what drives the self-correcting machinery of the scientific method as well as the peer reviewed process that experimentation and research is filtered through. It resembles natural selection more than any other human method and it delivers time and again.

    This computer that I type on, much less the internet would not exist, were it not for the high standards of testable science.

    If you visit the Heartland Institutes web site, click on “environment” then the “research “tab you will find a few paragraphs that are more or less utter nonsense. That is their version of “research”.

    No matter what the problem…relax unconstrained free markets can solve it!!! I’m not convinced.

    The research of science is testable. Heartland and the rest of the gang have no legitimate research, they sell doubt and they are rather good at it.

    America lags in science and math. The fossil fuel industry and their PR groups, think tanks, what-have-you, utilize and perpetuate ignorance as a resource. Think about it.
    Ignorance or should I say scientific illiteracy is a renewable energy and oh do they tap it.

    Cruel in the long term but a brilliant strategy. The problem is that the integrity of the life support systems that civilization is embedded in, isn’t a board game.

    Me… I would prefer and of course the Yale Forum, to name a few.

    But that’s just me….