Dealing in Doubt

Part 2: Denier Tricks and Tactics

Page - September 10, 2013
Dealing in Doubt --> Part 2: Denier Tricks and Tactics --> Climate Denial and U.S. Politics [and Conclusion]






2001 - 2008: The Bush White House


The eight years of the Bush White House was a key opportunity for the climate deniers.

During the 2000 presidential campaign debates, George W. Bush declared that global warming was “an issue that we need to take very seriously.”[1] He promised to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol, but backed off that promise soon after coming into power. 

In early 2001, communications expert Frank Luntz, had written the following advice on climate change: 

“The scientific debate [on climate change] remains open. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…”

This became the guiding strategy of the White House and the Republican Party for the remainder of the administration. In 2003 the advice in the Luntz memo was circulated to all Republicans on the Hill by the GOP press office. Interestingly, the wordsmith Frank Luntz has since changed his mind on global warming and now believes it’s caused by human activities. 



During the Bush years, the denier industry enjoyed easy access to the White House, principally via former employees of the American Petroleum Institute (API), on whose board Lee Raymond, Exxon CEO sat until 2005 when he retired.

In early 2001 lawyer Phil Cooney left his 15-year stint at the API (where he was “climate team leader”) to take up a position as chief of staff at Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), where he advised the President on global warming policy and science. In 2005, it was revealed that he had been watering down scientific reports. He resigned soon after and went to work for Exxon

At the API, Cooney’s boss for many years had been William O’Keefe, former chair of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Bill O’Keefe had left the API to concentrate on running his front group the George C. Marshall Institute. From 2001-2005 he was employed by ExxonMobil to lobby the Executive Office of the President, the White House and Senate on climate change. Perhaps coincidentally, ExxonMobil dropped O’Keefe’s lobby contract at the same time Phil Cooney left the CEQ to work for Exxon.

A memo obtained by the National Resource Defence Council (NRDC) under the Freedom of Information Act showed Exxon lobbyist Randy Randol suggesting replacements the Bush Administration could make to the IPCC membership, “to assure none of the Clinton/Gore proponents are involved in any decisional activities.”  The suggested recruits included John Christy and Richard Lindzen.

It also recommended the Administration employ Dr. Harlan Watson. The Bush Administration subsequently did appoint Harlan Watson to head both its UNFCCC and IPCC delegations. 



The same memo that recommended Harlan Watson contained a direct request: 

"Can [IPCC Chair Dr Robert] Watson be replaced now at the request of the US?" 

Subsequently, there was launched a successful effort to oust then IPCC Chair Dr Robert Watson. Watson, an atmospheric scientist, had been at the forefront of the climate issue for over 20 years, coordinating international science and reaction to the ozone hole crisis, then global warming. He had served as Chair of the IPCC between 1996-2002. 

In April 2002, the Bush Administration opposed Watson’s re-appointment, instead successfully backing IPCC vice-chairman Rajendra Pachauri, to replace him.

Robert Watson himself commented:  

“So those who say I'm an advocate don't want to hear the message that indeed the earth is warming; that most of the warming of the last 50 years is attributable to human activities; that carbon dioxide is the key human-induced greenhouse gas and that most of it comes from fossil fuels. There are some people who clearly don't want to hear that message, but that is the message of the IPCC…”

Fred Singer made an oblique reference to Watson’s demise after the AR4 was published, saying "Compared to earlier reports, the "Fourth Assessment" is really quite sober, perhaps because a real scientist, less given to ideology, heads the effort.”[2]



Polling in the US has consistently showed a lower level of concern about climate change compared with the rest of the world.   

A Pew Global poll in June 2013 found that “Concern about global climate change is particularly prevalent in Latin America, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Asian/Pacific region, but majorities in Lebanon, Tunisia and Canada also say climate change is a major threat to their countries. In contrast, Americans are relatively unconcerned about global climate change.” 

While there has been no conclusive research to show that this is due to climate denial campaigns, a closer inspection of the research is revealing.

The polling in the US consistently shows a party political divide on concern about global warming. And a June 2013 study published in the journal “Public understanding of science” concluded that a key link between climate change denial and conservative outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh was an inherent distrust of scientists.

"Conservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening," stated the authors.  

But nowhere is the denial in the US more prevalent than in its leadership.

The fossil fuel industry and the think tanks running climate denial campaigns, such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (that founded the Tea Party movement) spent huge sums of money around the 2012 Presidential election. With their pressure on candidates to ditch any climate policies, and their catchcry that Obama was running a "War on Coal", they had the White House scared, resulting in little to nomention of climate change from either candidate in the run-up to the 2012 elections and no questions at any of the Presidential debates on the subject.

The Washington Post noted that the Republican election platform had almost no mention of climate change, a marked contrast to its 2008 election platform for the McCain-Palin ticket. 

Post elections, the results were clear. According to the Center for American Progress, “almost 55 percent — 127 members — of the current Republican caucus in the House of Representatives deny the basic tenets of climate science. 65 percent (30 members) of the Senate Republican caucus also deny climate change.”

But this strategy may be beginning to backfire. In July 2012 a poll by the League of Conservation Voters found 80 percent support among under 35 year olds for President Obama’s climate policies. But even among the minority who were unfavorable to Obama, 56 percent supporting climate action and just 38 percent opposed.

And in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and widespread droughts, floods and wildfires across the US, that, in turn, led to a rise in public concern, the White House itself has finally begun to take notice.

In May 2013, the National Journal’s Coral Davenport reported what she called “The coming GOP civil war on climate change.”

Already, deep fissures are emerging between, on one side, a base of ideological voters and lawmakers with strong ties to powerful tea-party groups and super PACs funded by the fossil-fuel industry who see climate change as a false threat concocted by liberals to justify greater government control; and on the other side, a quiet group of moderates, younger voters, and leading conservative intellectuals who fear that if Republicans continue to dismiss or deny climate change, the party will become irrelevant.” 



Climate change is happening now, is caused by human-induced industrial activities and will have catastrophic consequences. Those three assertions are backed by the most rigorous scientific undertaking in history. Indeed, as this report was being written, the UK Meteorological office published a review of 100 different science papers, concluding that it was “even more likely” that climate change is happening and that we are causing it.

 More scientific assessments will be published over the next year including the upcoming IPCC Fifth Assessement - AR5 and the US National Climate Assessment (NCA) in early 2014. The stated purpose of the NCA includes that it:

  • “Informs the nation about already observed changes, the current status of the climate, and anticipated trends for the future
  • Establishes consistent methods for evaluating climate impacts in the U.S. in the context of broader global change

Each of these reports brings more clarity to the scientific consensus and also brings a counter attack from the climate denial machine. Attacks on the IPCC AR5 and the National Climate Assessment are already underway, well before they are published.

This briefing outlines the lengths to which the fossil fuel industry has been willing to go to prevent these conclusions from being accepted. It provides just a flavour – a few examples of some of the more virulent attacks aimed at undermining public confidence in climate science, all aimed at preventing government action to fight the climate crisis. All of which means, the correct response to attacks on climate science is scepticism.

This recent history, as well as the prior history of denial by the tobacco companies and chemical, asbestos and other manufacturing industries, is also important not to forget, because, like the other industries that came before it, the fossil fuel industry has never admitted that it was misguided or wrong in its early efforts to delay the policy reaction to the climate crisis. To this day, it continues to obstruct solutions. 

The individuals, organizations and corporate interests who comprise the ‘climate denial machine’ have caused harm, have slowed our response time, which will in the end cost more in impacts – both economic and ecological. Eventually these interests will be held accountable for their actions.


[1] Commission on Presidential Debates, Transcript of the 2nd Gore – Bush Presidential Debate, October 11, 2000.

[2] “Not so dire after all,” Op Ed, New York Sun, Feb 2 2007 p. 8. Also available at “The week that was” February 2007