'Vast Blind Spot': IPCC Accused of Ignoring 'Decades Long' Fossil Fuel Misinformation Campaign on Climate

Read time: 6 mins
Charles Koch

The United Nations (UN) climate science panel is being accused of ignoring research into fossil fuel-funded misinformation campaigns that have been key to holding back action on global warming.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — an assessment of more than 6,000 research papers — found global warming caused largely by fossil fuel burning would have severe impacts even if limited to 1.5°C (2.7°F).

Described by the IPCC as “one of the most important climate change reports ever published,” the report is designed to inform policy makers and the public around the world.

But several researchers are angry the report did not take account of academic research into the “decades-long misinformation campaign” funded and promoted by fossil fuel interests and so-called “free market” conservative think tanks that has been a major brake on progress.

Several researchers say the lack of consideration of academic research into misinformation campaigns was a vital but missed opportunity to educate the public and policy makers. The groups that have colluded with the fossil fuel industry have been credited with pushing President Donald Trump to pledge to pull the U.S. from the UN's Paris Agreement.

A Vast Blind Spot

This is an important barrier to climate action, but it is never addressed,” said Professor Robert Brulle of Drexel University, who has published research on the funding and influence of climate science denial efforts. 

A large existing literature on this was ignored by the IPCC,” he added.

The IPCC special report showed that keeping global warming to 1.5°C would require a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use between now and the middle of the century.

As well as assessing the impacts of global warming at 1.5°C compared to 2°C (3.4°F) on people and the environment, the report’s chapter four detailed factors that influence policy makers and the public’s response to climate change.

Dr. Timmons Roberts of Brown University in Rhode Island was one of more than 50 contributors to the chapter.

He said the “highly organized misinformation campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry” was a “main factor driving inaction,” yet he said this was described as a “vast blind spot” in the report.

“It leaves readers and policy makers without tools to address the problem in the real world,” added Roberts.

Professor Justin Farrell of Yale University has published a detailed analysis of the work of a network of more than 150 organizations that form a “climate counter movement.” Farrell found those groups had been key to polarizing the public on climate change. 

He said: “We cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand about the real reasons why climate change science is ignored and solutions are continually subverted.”

He said social science research had revealed “how and why climate science continues to be purposefully undermined at large scales by powerful industry and political actors.”

Farrell added: “The public — and the planet — deserve to hear this evidence and know the truth, and any report on climate change can and should integrate these well-researched facts.”

Funders of groups that have pushed misinformation on climate science and the impacts of policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions include petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch, energy companies including ExxonMobil and hedge fund billionaire and Donald Trump backer Robert Mercer. Many millions more have flowed through so-called “dark money” routes, including Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

Ignore at our Peril

Dr. John Cook of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication said it was “impossible to understand and change public attitudes” on climate change without considering misinformation campaigns.

He said: “Social science research tells us that efforts to communicate the reality of human-caused global warming can be undone by misinformation — so we ignore climate science denial at our own peril.”

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol said it was crucial the public was aware about such campaigns “so they can dismiss the noise generated by contrarians for the propaganda that it is.”

Some research on the tendency for conservative white males to deny human-caused climate change, work led by Professor Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University, was cited in the IPCC report.

But Dunlap said there was a “large body of social science research” that had documented the misinformation campaign and its tactics and impacts.

He said: “The IPCC should take this accumulated body of knowledge into account and publicize it, thereby helping to pull back the curtain on the 'denial machine' so that the public can see through the misinformation it spreads.”

Difficult Circumstances

The report does reference some research into ways that action to cut emissions could be stymied. The report says “industry group lobbying, further contributed to reducing space for maneuver of some major emitting nations.”  People with a “free market ideology” also tended to have “weaker climate change beliefs,” the report says. People who perceived themselves to be “protected by god” were less prone to take measures to adapt to climate change.

People with “particular political views and those who emphasize individual autonomy” were prone to rejecting climate science or believing there was “widespread scientific disagreement about climate change.”

Professor Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland in Australia has also researched climate science denial and said he did not want to be critical of IPCC authors who were “doing a great job in difficult circumstances.”

But he said the report was “relatively silent on the role of political elites in supporting organized campaigns of misinformation about climate change.”

He said: “This is something that most neutral observers would agree is a big factor in stopping progress on climate change, particularly in Australia and the U.S.”

But I can also understand why the authors might want to steer clear of making any explosive statements around this. One of the great triumphs of the skeptic movement is that they’ve made it feel ‘political’ or ‘biased’ to talk frankly about political interference in Australia and the U.S.”

DeSmog contacted the two coordinating lead authors of chapter four of the IPCC report, but had not received a response at time of publishing.

Main image: Charles Koch at a conference in Aspen in 2016. Credit: Fortune Brainstorm TECHCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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