Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Petroleum and Propaganda

The Anatomy of the Global Warming Denial Industry

John W. Farley teaches physics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Our Last Chance to Save Humanity?” a review of James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren, appeared in Monthly Review in September 2010. He blogs at

James Lawrence Powell, The Inquisition of Climate Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 232 pages, $27.95, hardcover.

James Powell was inspired to write this important new book because of a remarkable paradox: among climate scientists, there is a near-unanimous consensus that global warming is occurring now, is largely human-made, and will cause very severe environmental problems if humanity continues business as usual. However, among the lay public the picture is much more mixed: only about half of the U.S. public agrees with the climate scientists. Why the enormous discrepancy?

Powell argues that “in the denial of global warming, we are witnessing the most vicious, and so far most successful, attack on science in history.” Although Powell himself is not a climate science researcher, he has an appropriate background to understand the field: he holds a doctorate in geochemistry from MIT and became a geology professor, teaching at Oberlin College for over twenty years. He has been a college president at three institutions, and served for a dozen years on the National Science Board. Powell’s book is a sharp attack on the global-warming denial “industry,” a network comprised of corporate funding, think tanks, popularizers, and propagandists, who all work with a compliant mass media.

Corporate Funders

Powell details the support of ExxonMobil for denialism, but omits the combative Koch brothers, owners of Koch Energy, the world’s largest privately held energy company. ExxonMobil is the biggest funder of global-warming denialism, spending nearly $16 million on more than forty organizations over the period 1998–2005. Powell also mentions in passing funding by ideological conservative foundations, motivated by opposition to government regulation of the economy.

Think Tanks

Chapter nine describes “Toxic Tanks”—think tanks that promote global-warming denial. These toxic tanks have swell-sounding names (e.g., “Frontiers of Freedom”) that do not hint they are climate-change deniers. Powell describes in detail four (out of a much larger number) of these fossil-fuel-company-funded think tanks.

1. The now-defunct Global Climate Coalition (GCC) included Exxon-Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, American Petroleum Institute, Shell, Texaco, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, and the American Forest and Paper Association. The GCC, established in 1989, operated from the offices of the National Association of Manufacturing. The GCC hired a PR firm which produced a video to combat the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. However, some of its member companies left the GCC; they thought it too risky to be publicly identified with global-warming denial, and feared the fate of Big Tobacco; it had ended up losing lawsuits for health-care costs of smokers, ultimately settling for damages of $251 billion. Beset by the defections, the GCC disbanded in 2001.

During its lifetime, the GCC established a research arm, the Science and Technology Assessment Committee, which was staffed by industry scientists. A committee led by Mobil Oil chemical engineer L. C. Bernstein produced a confidential 1995 report which was circulated to the members of GCC: oil and coal companies, electric utilities, attorneys, National Mining Association, etc. In a stunning admission, the Bernstein Report concluded that “the scientific basis for the greenhouse effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” The report knocked down one of the most popular contrarian arguments: that global warming could be attributed to changes in the Sun’s brightness. In opposition to the contrarian view, the Bernstein Report stated that changes in the brightness of the Sun were too small by at least a factor of five to cause the temperature change observed in the last 120 years. It pointed out that the deniers had no alternative theory of their own, saying “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.”

Thus, while the oil companies and their hired hands were proclaiming in public that global warming was not caused by burning fossil fuels, their own scientists were saying exactly the opposite in private. If you have never heard of the Bernstein Report, you have lots of company. It did not surface until 2007, a dozen years after it was written, during a discovery process in a California court proceeding.

2. Another ExxonMobil-funded think tank discussed by Powell is the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which originated as a Libertarian propaganda outfit supported by Big Tobacco. The manager for industry affairs for Philip Morris, Roy E. Marden, served for years on the Heartland board of directors. The Heartland Institute raised $676,500 from ExxonMobil between 1996 and 2006; after 2006 Heartland stopped identifying their contributors. The institute published a slim booklet, The Skeptic’s Handbook, whose publication costs were paid by “an anonymous donor,” and whose author, “Joanna Nova,” is a pseudonym. Vast numbers of the handbook were distributed for free—and in total over 150,000 copies have been distributed in fifteen languages. The recipients include 850 journalists, 26,000 schools, and 19,000 leaders and politicians. The largest single recipients are black churches (over 25,000 copies) and trustees at colleges and universities (over 20,000 copies). In addition, over 60,000 free copies have been downloaded from their website.

In February 2012, too late for inclusion in Powell’s book, confidential documents from the Heartland Institute were leaked to bloggers. Damaging revelations included the identification of some corporate funders of Heartland: Microsoft, tobacco giant Altria, the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and the General Motors Foundation. The documents describe payments by Heartland to some contrarian scientists: for example, Craig Idso, head of an organization of climate change deniers in Arizona, was receiving over $139,000 annually. The documents also describe Heartland’s plans for a “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Classrooms,” and the planned “curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain—two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.”

3. The George C. Marshall Institute, in Washington, D.C., was originally established in 1984 to flack for Reagan’s Star Wars program (officially SDI, the “Strategic Defense Initiative”), a scheme for shooting down incoming enemy missiles. A scholarly study by the American Physical Society found that Star Wars would not work, but nobody who mattered minded at all. If you think the goal was to defend the United States from attack, Star Wars showed itself to be useless against the 9/11 attacks. But if you think that one of the real goals of SDI was to spend money, then the program was a big success: by September 2001, Star Wars had homed in on the taxpayer for over $40 billion.

The Marshall Institute adopted other issues in addition to Star Wars, including second-hand smoke and global warming. The Marshall Institute proclaims that the health hazards of second-hand smoke are unproven. Regarding global warming, the scientists associated with the Marshall Institute have claimed at different times that (a) the twentieth century is not unusually warm, (b) global warming stopped in 2005, and (c) in any event increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will stimulate plant growth, thus fertilizing the earth. Therefore, increased carbon dioxide will be good for the planet.

Some of the scientists at the Marshall Institute have scientific credentials, but in fields that are remote from global-warming research. For example, Sally Baliunas and Willy Soon are both associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If you think that global warming is caused by increased brightness of the Sun, then Baliunas and Soon, both astrophysicists, have the relevant scientific background. If you do not think that the Sun is causing global warming, then Baliunas and Soon do not have expertise in the relevant discipline.

The claim that the Sun is causing global warming was refuted decades ago. If it were true, then both the surface of the earth and the stratosphere would warm. But if increased atmospheric greenhouse gases caused global warming, then the surface of the earth would warm, while the stratosphere would cool. In fact, stratospheric cooling has been observed, and it includes both natural contributions (volcanoes) and human-made contributions.1

Since 1979, direct observation of the Sun’s output by satellite has established a high-quality data base. The output exhibits periodic small (less than 0.1 percent peak-to-trough) oscillations, caused by the eleven-year sunspot cycle. After averaging over the sunspot cycle, there has been no increase from one cycle to the next in the intensity of the Sun. The latest solar data can been seen at the website of James Hansen and Makiko Sato.2

Baliunas and Soon published a paper in 2003 in the journal Climate Research. It claimed that there was nothing special about global temperatures in the twentieth century. Three editors for the journal resigned in protest against publishing the flawed paper.

The founder of the Marshall Institute, the late Frederick Seitz, was a distinguished physicist whose 1940 textbook, The Modern Theory of Solids, was a standard in solid-state physics, albeit a field very remote from climate-change science. Seitz served as President of the National Academy of Sciences and then President of Rockefeller University. Shortly before retiring from Rockefeller University, he began working as a consultant to R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, helping Reynolds to spend $45 million for research that was intended to discredit or downplay the health hazards of smoking. Seitz and Reynolds were especially interested in second-hand smoke. Seitz’s scientific credentials were impressive in their own field, but utterly nonexistent in the fields of the hazards of smoking or climate change.

The Baliunas-Soon study was funded by the American Petroleum Institute. The Marshall Institute received $630,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2005, in addition to funds received from the Sarah Mellon Scaife and John M. Olin Foundations. Like the Heartland Institute, the Marshall Institute no longer publishes its donor list. Baliunas was paid $52,000 by the Marshall Institute in 1997 for serving as a director. The CEO of the Marshall Institute, William O’Keefe, was formerly the COO of the American Petroleum Institute and chairman of the GCC, mentioned above.

One executive director of the Marshall Institute, Matthew Crawford, became so disillusioned that he resigned after only five months on the job. Crawford wrote that “the trappings of scholarship were used to put a scientific cover on positions arrived at otherwise. These positions served various interests, ideological or material. For example, part of my job consisted of making arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with the positions taken by the oil companies that funded the think tank.”3

The current Chairman of the Board of Marshall is Princeton physicist Will Happer, who was also my doctoral advisor at Columbia University in the early 1970s. Happer has had a distinguished career in atomic and laser physics, with over 200 publications in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, but none of them about climate change. In spring 2010, he testified before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are beneficial because they fertilize plant growth. It is a fact that the source of carbon for plant growth is atmospheric carbon dioxide. In support of his position, Happer noted that greenhouses use greatly elevated carbon dioxide levels to increase plant growth.

However, a German scientist, Justus Liebig, discovered in the 1830s “Liebig’s Law of the Minimum”: plant growth is controlled not by the total resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor). For example, in a desert, the limiting factor is typically water, not atmospheric carbon dioxide. Experiments have been conducted to seek increased plant growth caused by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in a realistic agricultural environment. These experiments have yielded meager results, as demonstrated in an article written by my University of Nevada, Las Vegas colleague Stan Smith and published in 2000 in Nature, perhaps the most prestigious academic journal in the natural sciences, or indeed anywhere.

Another study at Stanford University published in Science in 2002 reached the same conclusions. “Most studies have looked at the effects of CO2 on plants in pots or on very simple ecosystems and concluded that plants are going to grow faster in the future,” said Field, co-author of the Science study. “We got exactly the same results when we applied CO2 alone, but when we factored in realistic treatments—warming, changes in nitrogen deposition, changes in precipitation—growth was actually suppressed.”4

Like fellow physicist Frederick Seitz, Happer has a great deal of expertise, but none in the relevant scientific discipline (plant biology in this case).

4. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) was founded in 1984 to oppose government regulation in an astonishing range of fields: air quality, dioxin, drug safety, fuel-efficiency standards, labeling of alcoholic beverages, rent control, and security law. If that were not enough, CEI also opposes government regulation of high technology, e-commerce, intellectual property, and telecommunications. Whatever the field, government regulation is always bad. CEI filed lawsuits in the late 1990s challenging the Big Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.

The CEI’s “expert” on global warming is Myron Ebell, who claimed, in a 2007 interview in Vanity Fair, that the “hockey stick” paper by Michael Mann and co-authors was wrong: the oceans are not warming, warming is not causing animal habitats to shift, and global warming does not threaten polar bears. Ebell has attacked eminent climate scientist James Hansen because the latter was trained as a physicist, not as a climate scientist. It seems fair therefore to ask about Ebell’s training. He holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and later studied political theory at the London School of Economics and history at Cambridge University.

CEI has been actively opposed to doing anything about global warming; it funded a PR program, “Earth Summit Alternatives,” which generated articles and interviews opposing the results of the 1992 Rio Climate Summit. In 1997, CEI offered to provide experts to promote the claim that global warming is “a theory, not a fact.” The experts included Sallie Baliunas, Patrick J. Michaels, and S. Fred Singer (on Singer, see below). In 2006, CEI ran television advertisements in fourteen U.S. cities to counteract Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Not surprisingly, CEI has received funding from Amoco, Philip Morris, and ExxonMobil, with ExxonMobil giving $2 million between 1998 and 2005.

Popularizers and Propagandists

Powell discusses and dismisses several non-scientist deniers, including former weatherman Anthony Watts, British journalist Christopher Monckton, Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, and fictional thriller writer Michael Crichton. Powell also sketches a small number of contrarian scientists; in addition to Frederick Seitz, Sallie Baliunas, and Willie Soon, Powell discusses S. Fred Singer, Freeman Dyson, Richard Lindzen, and Tim Ball.

Singer, a physicist, is a “utility infielder” of contrarian science, with claimed expertise on second-hand smoke, the ozone hole, and global warming. His swell-sounding Science and Environmental Policy Program (SEPP) has only one employee—Fred Singer himself.

Freeman Dyson is a mathematical physicist at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. His mathematical abilities are impressive, but he knows very little about climate or climate science. Dyson is member of the Jasons, a group of scientists, mostly physicists, who advise the Pentagon. In the 1970s the Jasons did some computer modeling of climate, although nobody in the group had any background in climate science. Powell remarks, “If Dyson’s last brush with climate models was in the 1970’s, no wonder he scoffs at the models and derides those who use them” (69). Dyson advocates developing a “supertree” that can gobble carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground or convert it to useful liquid fuels. Selective breeding of plants goes back to Luther Burbank over a century ago, but there is no evidence that such a supertree is anything but a figment of Dyson’s imagination.

Richard Lindzen actually does have climate-related expertise. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard, and holds an endowed chair in meteorology at MIT. His CV runs to 350 publications, and he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He helped to prepare the 1995 and 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.

Lindzen is convinced that the climate system somehow has negative feedbacks that tend to cancel out the effect of any external change. He proposed a specific model that he thought would produce negative feedback, the “adaptive iris” model. Unfortunately for Lindzen, when field measurements were made, they disproved his model instead of confirming it. The vast majority of climate scientists believe the feedbacks are positive, over the time scales relevant to humanity, decades to hundreds of thousands of years, with negative feedbacks (caused by weathering of rocks) operating on a longer time scale of millions of years or longer.5 He claims that the mainstream climate scientists have not proven global warming. This naturally raises the issue of how much proof is required. Lindzen has such an extremely high standard of proof that he believes that the link between cigarette smoking and cancer is unproven.

Lindzen has accused mainstream science of selling out for money, while claiming that skeptics of global warming have lost their grants. Actually, Lindzen himself has been awarded over $3.5 million since 1975 from the National Science Foundation alone.

Timothy Ball, a less well-known denier, is a former professor at the University of Winnipeg. Over the last decade he has given over 600 public talks on science and the environment, at the breakneck pace of over one talk every six days. Between 2002 and 2007 he wrote thirty-nine opinion pieces and thirty-two letters to the editor in twenty-four Canadian newspapers, a rate of one a month. Despite this rapid pace, he found time to write for the denier website Tech Central Station, and to appear in both the denier documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle and in a Fox News special, Exposed: The Climate of Fear, hosted by Glenn Beck. Ball was associated with Friends of Science, a great-sounding name but in practice funded by oil and gas companies. Ball then left Friends of Science in order to establish the (even greater sounding) Natural Resources Stewardship Project. Two of its three directors were PR flacks for energy industry clients.

In 2006, Ball rashly initiated a battle that ended in defeat. In an opinion piece published in the Calgary Herald newspaper, he claimed both that he held Canada’s first Ph.D. in climatology, and that he was a professor of the subject at the University of Winnipeg for twenty-eight years. Ball also disparaged another Canadian professor, Dan Johnson, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Lethbridge. Johnson wrote a letter to the Herald accusing Ball of inflating his (Ball’s) resume, and claiming that Ball “did not show any evidence of research regarding climate and atmosphere.” Ball sued everybody in sight.

In the ensuring legal battle, Ball confessed to inflating his resume, admitted that he had been a professor for only eight years (not twenty-eight), and acknowledged that his doctoral degree was in geography, not climatology. The Herald newspaper expressed confidence in Johnson’s letter, and wrote “The plaintiff (Ball) is viewed as a paid promoter of the agenda of the oil and gas industry rather than as a practicing scientist.” In June 2007, the time came to show up in court; with his reputation in ruins, Ball dropped his lawsuit (72).

Four years later, Ball appeared to have learned nothing from his defeat in 2007. He wrote an article in 2011 for the Canada Free Press (CFP), a conservative website, in which he attacked Professor Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria, Canada.

Weaver sued. The CFP folded, issuing a groveling apology:

CFP also wishes to dissociate itself from any suggestion that Dr. Weaver “knows very little about climate science.” We entirely accept that he has a well-deserved international reputation as a climate scientist and that Dr. Ball’s attack on his credentials is unjustified. CFP sincerely apologizes to Dr. Weaver and expresses regret for the embarrassment and distress caused by the unfounded allegations in the article by Dr. Ball.

The CFP removed Ball’s article from its website, and for good measure removed nearly all of the 200 other articles that the prolific Ball had written from the CFP website as well.6

Politicians and the Mainstream Media

The oil companies control rafts of state and federal politicians through the system of campaign contributions. This is hardly news, and Powell devotes little space to the hordes of Senators and Congressional Representatives with campaign contributions from the energy industry. The fundraising champion in the Senate is James Inhofe (R-OK), who has received more oil company money than any other Senator, raking in over $662,000 between 2000 and 2008. Over in the House, Congressman Joe Barton has taken over $1 million in oil and gas company money during his twenty-seven-year House career.

Ken Cuccinelli, Attorney General of Virginia, is a favorite of the Tea Party, which was shown to be a Republican front group by Paul Street and Anthony Dimaggio.7 Cuccinelli issued a Civil Investigating Demand (CID) in 2010, demanding that the University of Virginia produce a wide range of documents relating to Michael Mann, a former professor at Virginia (and now at Penn State). Claiming to be determining whether or not Mann defrauded the taxpayers of Virginia by researching global warming, Cuccinelli demanded every document relating to Mann over the previous eleven years. To its credit, the University of Virginia rejected Cuccinelli’s demands and fought him. Cuccinelli lost in court on August 20, 2010, but his CID was dismissed without prejudice, meaning that he could file again. At the time of the original CID, three university committees had exonerated Mann, and three more committees exonerated him later. Cuccinelli attempted to continue his fishing expedition in August 2010 when he filed a new CID, but in March 2012 it was also dismissed, this time with prejudice.

Powell compares global-warming deniers to various other groups, including: the persecution of Galileo by the Catholic Church (the book cover depicts the trial of Galileo); Lysenko and his associates, who did a tremendous amount of damage to biological science in the Soviet Union; Creationists, who do not believe in Darwinian evolution; and AIDS denialists, who deny that HIV causes AIDS. In fact, “there is more evidence that HIV causes AIDS than there is for any other single human disease caused by an infectious agent, past or present,” according to Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus.

Powell also attributes some of the success of the deniers to a failure of the mass media. The mainstream media typically are limited to one of two “frames” of the issue:

The first is open support for climate change denial by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, etc. The second is “fake balance” from the more responsible mainstream media. The media loves controversy—at least if it can be kept within certain controlled limits. There must be two sides to every controversy. So climate change deniers, representing 3 percent of climate scientists (if that), are granted equal weight with the vast majority of climate scientists, representing 97 percent of climate scientists.8

In an Appendix, Powell lists thirty-three countries or regions whose scientific academies have accepted the basic findings of human-caused global warming, as well as sixty-seven professional societies. None of these scientific academies have denied the basic science of human-caused global warming. (Powell has excluded denier websites and front groups.)

The Tobacco Strategy: “Doubt Is Our Product”

One important source for Powell is Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.9 The global-warming deniers do not have to win the argument, they just have to get a draw. Their goal is to create the impression that there is a serious scientific controversy about whether or not modern anthropogenic global warming is really happening. The global-warming deniers are following today the same strategy adopted by the tobacco companies decades earlier—as one tobacco company executive proclaimed, “Doubt is our product.”

Climategate: Much Ado About Nothing

Powell devotes chapter fourteen to “Climategate,” which he justifiably subtitles “Much Ado About Nothing.” In November 2009, some still-unknown person burgled the emails of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Thousands of emails were posted on the internet. The denialist network took a handful of emails out of context, and claimed that the emails showed global warming to be a big hoax. The burglary and ensuing propaganda uproar occurred just weeks before the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, and it is hard to believe that the timing was coincidental.

A series of investigations followed, in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Every single one exonerated the scientists on the issue of scientific integrity.

The denialists claimed that the emails proved that climate scientists were admitting one thing in private while proclaiming something else in public. Actually, the topics covered in the emails were also discussed in the published scientific literature. The denialists were not familiar with this because most of the denialists are not scientists and do not read scientific literature.

For example, an email from climate researcher Kevin Trenberth laments that “it’s a travesty that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment.” The background is that we know that the earth is accumulating energy, but the temperature of the surface of the earth experiences short-term increases and short-term decreases along with a long-term increase. What Trenberth regretted was the lack of ability to predict how the energy flows among the various parts of the earth climate system (land surface, ocean surface, atmosphere, and deep ocean). Trenberth’s email was announcing the publication of his article “An Imperative for Climate Change Planning: Tracking Earth’s Global Energy.”10 In it, these issues were discussed in detail. The Trenberth email did not differ in any essential way from the published article. The email, as a communication from one expert to another, used shorthand that made it possible for deniers to take it out of context and distort its meaning.

What the emails did show was that the climate scientists were frustrated by constant attacks by denialists.

Sources, Dedication, and Limitations

Powell’s book ends with nineteen pages of notes and a seven-page bibliography. He draws upon a number of sources, including Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s admirable Merchants of Doubt; the Skeptical Science website which features frequently raised skeptical arguments; the blog (run by climate scientists); and helpful information from Greenpeace.

Powell’s book is dedicated to James Hansen, Michael Mann, Benjamin Santer, and the late Stephen Schneider, “scientists of courage and integrity.” James Hansen is a NASA scientist and one of the leading climate change researchers in the world. (For a review of Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren, see the September 2010 Monthly Review.11) Michael Mann, a physicist and climatologist currently at Penn State University, was the lead author on the famous “hockeystick” paper in 1998, which became a lightning rod for attacks by deniers. Benjamin Santer, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was a lead author for a chapter in the 1995 IPCC report. Santer was a target for many personal attacks by the deniers for his role. And the late Stephen Schneider, biology professor at Stanford and consultant to many government agencies, was an early (1980s) activist on the global-warming issue.

While Powell’s book is invaluable, the climate science background consists of a skimpy three-page chapter, including only one graph. Also barely discussed are the impacts of global warming. And outside the purview of the book is what to do about global warming.

One significant omission in the book is that Powell attributes the attacks on global warming to fossil-fuel companies (mainly ExxonMobil), and their hired hands, following the strategy pioneered by Big Tobacco. He does not consider that efforts to transition to non-carbon-emitting forms of energy also provokes opposition, or at least lack of support, from the rest of business. Many non-carbon forms of energy are more expensive than fossil fuels. Business wants to minimize costs, including the cost of energy; renewable energy imposes additional costs on business. Also, the largest consequences of global warming will start to occur a few decades in the future, beyond the time horizon of big and small businesses. Business has to meet a payroll every month, and many businesses must keep the stockholders happy with quarterly statements of earnings. A problem, however severe, that is decades in the future is so far off that many businesses are unwilling to make sacrifices now to prevent the problems in the future.

Many non-energy businesses are perfectly happy to sit out the battle, letting ExxonMobil take the lead in organizing and funding global-warming denial efforts. For their part, many politicians are perfectly willing to do nothing, rather than impose additional costs on their campaign contributors. The “flack” by the deniers provides a wonderful excuse; since the science is (supposedly) uncertain, do not do anything.

While the Republicans come in for a lot of justifiable criticism, many Democrats are pretty bad also. Recall also that at the time of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. Senate passed a Byrd-Hagel resolution expressing the Senate’s opposition to the Kyoto treaty. It passed the U.S. Senate by a lopsided 95–0. Despite the title of Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science, the Democratic Party is part of the problem as well, as demonstrated by the bipartisan and utterly overwhelming anti-Kyoto vote. Clinton and Gore went to Kyoto and signed the Kyoto Protocol but did not bother to take the treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification where it would have been dead on arrival. So Clinton and Gore got credit for good intentions, thus winning on symbolism, while the fossil-fuel companies won on substance.

In the global-warming denial industry, the upper-level funders and fundraisers must be aware that the think tanks are partisans of their financial contributors. The lower-level employees may or may not be aware. Certainly many of the consumers of the propaganda are unaware of the industry funding. Not surprisingly, in recent years, many think tanks have stopped listing their financial contributors. And a few liberal and leftist writers have been sufficiently misled by the denialist arguments that they have become deniers themselves. But I would be astounded if they too were on the ExxonMobil payroll.

This arrangement is reminiscent of another large-scale opinion-forming project, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization that was secretly funded by the CIA during the Cold War. The goal was to promote intellectuals who supported U.S. power and capitalism generally, criticizing the Soviet Union specifically and communism generally. Participants were not required to defend each and every U.S. policy, and this enhanced the credibility of the authors. The CCF supported magazines and conferences, and at its peak had branches in some thirty-five countries. Those at the top of the CCF knew about the CIA funding, while some contributors to magazines did not.

CIA funding was kept secret for two reasons: first, to promote the notion that Soviet citizens and their supporters were slaves to the government, while Western intellectuals were free men and women. Public acknowledgment of support by the CIA would ruin this pretty picture. (In fact, the 1967 exposure of the CIA funding led to the CCF becoming moribund.) The second reason was that many CCF intellectuals were social democrats, and U.S. conservatives would have objected to funding them.12

The CCF/CIA analogy holds lessons for the climate change denial industry. Those at the top of the organizations certainly know of their funding by fossil-fuel companies, but many members of the general public are unaware of the funding of denialist think tanks. Casual readers of denialist blogs are unaware of the funding, and it would be an error to assume that everyone spouting the denialist arguments is on the ExxonMobil payroll.


Powell is not a radical or leftist in any way, but his book could be evaluated bearing in mind Marx’s dictum that the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas of the whole society. The Inquisition of Climate Science explains in detail how the global-warming-denialist ideas that serve the interests of the oil companies (and fossil-fuels industry) become sincerely held beliefs for a significant fraction of society. Denialist ideas are rejected by the vast majority of climate scientists, and the oil companies themselves know better from their own scientists (as the Bernstein Report mentioned above shows). Nevertheless, they continue to promote and subsidize a denialist literature blocking the crystallization of mass demands for far-reaching social transformation, even though this is precisely what is required to avoid catastrophic global warming.

My bookshelf holds a number of books about global warming, but The Inquisition of Climate Science is unequalled, combining scientific accuracy with clarity of exposition. It is comprehensive in its scope despite its modest length of 232 pages. A typical chapter is ten pages long, with cute titles and subtitles (“Aren’t You Embarrassed, Mr. Will?”). The book is written in a lively manner that is accessible to the lay public; Powell is able clearly to explain phenomena that only a few decades ago were unclear even to specialists. Inquisition is the definitive popular refutation of many of the denialist arguments that are frequently heard in the media and on the web. Everyone who cares about global warming should have a copy.


  1. Venkatachalam Ramaswamy, et. al., “Anthropogenic and Natural Influences in the Evolution of Lower Stratospheric Cooling,” Science 311 (2006), 1138–41,
  2. Solar Irradiance,”
  3. Carolyn Mooney, “A Hands-On Philosopher Argues for a Fresh Vision of Manual Work,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2009.
  4. Stanley D. Smith, et. al., “Elevated CO2 Increases Productivity and Invasive Species Success in an Arid Ecosystem,” Nature 408 (2000):79–82; on Harold Mooney’s 2002 study at Stanford University, see Stanford University, “Climate Change Surprise: High Carbon Dioxide Levels Can Retard Plant Growth, Study Reveals,” ScienceDaily, December 6, 2002,
  5. James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (Bloomsbury: New York, 2009), 73, 159.
  6. Playing Tim Ball,” September 16, 2006,
  7. Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, “What ‘Populist Uprising?’ Part 1: Facts and Reflections on Race, Class, and the Tea Party ‘Movement’,” MRZine, April 21, 2010,
  8. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Kevin Trenberth, “An Imperative for Climate Change Planning: Tracking Earth’s Global Energy,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 1 (2009): 19–27.
  11. John W. Farley, “Our Last Chance to Save Humanity?,” Monthly Review 62, no. 4 (September 2010): 46–54.
  12. See the chapter on the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Knopf, 1969); see also James Petras, “The CIA and the Cultural Cold War,” Monthly Review 51, no 6 (November 1999) : 47–56.
2012, Volume 64, Issue 01 (May)
Comments are closed.