Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming

  • James Hoggan &
  • Richard Littlemore
Greystone Books: 2009. 224 pp. US$15, Can$20

Now that the Copenhagen climate negotiations have passed, it may seem as if those who deny the existence of climate change have faded into the background. Yet, in Climate Cover-Up, James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore argue that we should never stop paying attention to the pervasive influence of climate-change scepticism.

Since 2006, the authors have been running the climate blog Through this, they aim to combat what they see as a massive, ongoing public-relations campaign to distort people's perception of climate change by presenting scientific conclusions as biased. Hoggan is president and founder of a public-relations company in Vancouver, Canada, and also sits on the board of the David Suzuki Foundation, a science-based Canadian environmental organization. From this vantage point he became disgusted by how the tools of his trade were being misapplied. He argues that the public-relations business includes a duty to society to practise with “truth, accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to the public”. But when public-relations people confuse their role and become advocates for their clients, their tactics may veer into unethical terrain.

Hoggan and Littlemore, who is a journalist and speech-writer, document the unfolding of a multi-pronged public-relations assault on the veracity of climate change. One tactic is 'astroturfing' — the development of faux grass-roots organizations that aim to transform lobbyists into activists and that can make source-funding and motives difficult to track. A strategy originally used by the tobacco industry, it has been honed and expanded by groups funded by the oil, gas and coal industries.

The authors also identify leading sceptics who are often presented as climate 'experts', and debunk their credentials, affiliation histories and funding pathways. The words of these spokespeople, who are talented but often acting outside their area of expertise, have a long reach through the 'echo chamber' of blogs, newspaper editorials, reports, public talks and other forms of message reinforcement. Hoggan and Littlemore offer citations to support their strong assertions. They also make the reader keenly aware of the perils of legal action against those who have challenged sceptics in the past; the chapter on strategic lawsuits against public participation is disturbing.

Hoggan and Littlemore's arguments will not be new to followers of climate-change debates, but their narrative deftly exposes a landscape of denial that is unrelenting, extensive, international and tactically rich. It is a convincing and riveting tale of conspiracy that gives context to the e-mails leaked last year from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, and the besieged sense one gets from the communications of scientists caught in the vortex of efforts to unseat their research.

Aimed at a mass readership, the book does not address the changes that are under way through the new media inherent in the 'echo chamber', nor does it unpack models for the public understanding of science, the role of expertise, or relationships between science, the media and politics. In the United States, the partisan differences that have been revealed in polls about climate change are directly attributed to patterns of media consumption. The authors do consider the difficulties for reporters in assessing the claims of sceptics, and the increasingly limited resources available for investigative and scientific reporting.

Climate Cover-Up tackles brilliantly the strategies deployed when messages that are “tested for effectiveness, but not accuracy” are used to spread doubt about climate change. The authors' solution is to offer a prescription for navigating expertise and to demand leadership with the courage to act. To use their metaphor, this is what is needed before we all end up like lemmings, plunging over the cliff together.