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Gretchen Goldman: Trump pulls a page from industry’s disinformation playbook

By denying science, the Trump administration is putting lives at risk, says Gretchen Goldman

Last month, it was reported that the Trump administration is convening a panel on climate change—led by known climate contrarian William Happer. The panel will assess whether climate change represents a security risk, despite the fact that the latest landmark report showing the reality of the danger was only recently released out of numerous federal agencies—the extensively researched and peer reviewed National Climate Assessment.[1]

At the time, Trump greeted this report with the simple declaration, “I don’t believe it,” and many commentators have concluded that the point of this latest exercise is to question the consensus understanding of climate science. Happer and his fellow panellists are likely to downplay the risks that climate change poses to national security and surmise that we needn’t take national action to address this threat.

This news is par for the course for this administration’s treatment of climate change.[2] The tactics, though, long precede the Trump presidency.

For decades the fossil fuel industry has employed the same tactics, spreading misinformation to cast doubt on climate science and to stave off policies to protect the public from it. We know now that at least 50 years ago the fossil fuel industry already knew about the threat that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions posed.[3][4][5] But rather than warn the public or change their practices, they embarked on a multi-decade and multifaceted campaign of misinformation.

And the fossil fuel industry is hardly the only culprit. A tobacco industry executive famously said that “Doubt is our product.” Industry knew that if they could cast doubt in people’s minds about the harms of cigarettes, they could stave off regulation and make the public think smoking might not be so bad.

The tobacco and fossil fuel industries are the most well known offenders, but we’ve seen these tactics deployed across a wide range of issues. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Disinformation Playbook details the long history of tactics that companies have used to undermine science and dodge accountability. When a company’s product is shown to cause harm, bad actors have a clear set of plays. They question the science. They attack the scientists. They employ their own experts to counter the inconvenient science with unreliable, cherry picked studies. They try to buy credibility through alliances with academic and professional institutions. They interfere in policy making.[6]

We saw it when the auto industry fought limits on lead in gasoline, even evading regulations and harassing the scientists who sounded the alarm.[7] We saw it when Johnson & Johnson buried evidence of asbestos contamination in its talcum powder. And it was recently reported that Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, for years waged a campaign marketing their drug “as less prone to abuse and addiction than other prescription opioids,” despite possessing evidence to the contrary.

Sadly, these campaigns were effective for quite some time, allowing products that cause harm to stay on the market for longer than they should have. The effectiveness of this disinformation playbook has meant countless deaths from smoking and opioid abuse, neurological damage in children exposed to lead, and years of missed opportunities to reduce global warming emissions so that our society can avoid the worst effects of climate change.

These tactics aren’t just political theatre—they impose real and measurable damage on public health. And many of the people who have been carrying out campaigns of disinformation and political influence on behalf of powerful industries are the very same people President Trump has appointed to run the agencies that are supposed to enforce the law and protect us.[2] By denying science and putting the power of government agencies behind the tactics of the disinformation playbook that industry has refined for decades, the Trump Administration is putting lives at risk.

But we shouldn’t just throw our hands up and despair. We can counter and disarm the disinformation playbook—in our personal lives and at the policy level. Customers and shareholders have been more active in holding companies to a higher standard. In the courts, companies are starting to be held accountable for their efforts to deceive the public. And the US House of Representatives has proposed reforms to demand greater transparency around corporate political activities.

But when an industry’s very existence is dependent upon deceiving the public, they’ll be persistent—and that means science will continue to be vulnerable to interference. We must change the rules of the game. Our decision makers should prioritise public health over profits and companies should be held to a higher standard of corporate behaviour. To protect science and the people it should serve, the playbook must be stopped.

Gretchen Goldman is the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where she has led research efforts on the role of science in public policy for more than five years. Previously, Dr Goldman was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology working on statistical modeling of urban air pollution for use in epidemiologic studies of acute human health effects. She currently serves on the 500 Women Scientists Leadership Board,  the Air and Climate Public Advisory Committee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and the advisory board of InfluenceMap. 

Competing interests: The author is employed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organisation that advocates for the use of science in policy decisions. The Union of Concerned Scientists is funded by individual members and private foundations. The organisation takes no money from corporations or governments.

References

[1] USGCRP. Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II. Washington, DC, USA: US Global Change Research Program; 2018. https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/

[2] Goldman GT, Carter JM, and Reed G. Risks to Science-Based Policy under the Trump Administration. Stetson University Law Review 2017;47:267. https://www.stetson.edu/law/lawreview/media/VOL47-9.Goldman%20et%20al.pdf

[3] Brule R et al. 2019. Amici Curiae for US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Case: 18-15499, 01/29/2019, ID: 11171856.

[4] Supran G and Oreskes N. Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014). Environmental Research Letters  2017;12:8. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa815f

[5] Franta B. Early oil industry knowledge of CO2 and global warming. Nature Climate Change 2018;8:1024. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0349-9

[6] Berman E and Carter JM. Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking Under Past and Present Administrations. J Science Policy and Governance 2018:13;1. http://www.sciencepolicyjournal.org/uploads/5/4/3/4/5434385/berman_emily__carter_jacob.pdf

[7] Needleman, H. The removal of lead from gasoline: Historical and personal reflections. Environmental Research 2000;84(1):20–35. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935100940696