Crackers #3: Fred Singer and the non-conserving neo-conservatives

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By Sandi Keane | Environment correspondent

The title “rocket scientist” conjures up a trusted authority figure with an IQ in the stratosphere, a potential Einstein, someone whose ability to grasp basic scientific facts is as certain as night follows day.

But understanding the basics of why the world is warming doesn’t require you to be a rocket scientist. The majority of us understand that we are contributing to the problem. We also know the answer. That is, most of us — with the exception of a couple of rocket scientists, ironically.

Our story today is about a rocket scientist who has consistently argued against landmark scientific studies on the dangers of tobacco and second hand smoke, acid rain, DDT, CFCs and, in the last 20 years, global warming. The irony is that, as one of a small but potent group of deniers, it was his rocket scientist credentials that fooled a credulous media into skewing public opinion on the need for action.

This is a story about Dr. Fred Singer, a pioneer in rocket science, weather satellites and air traffic control; an expert in oil economics and the Earth’s atmosphere; and a man who became Reagan’s Chief Scientist at the Department of Transportation back in the 80’s. Singer is the real life rocket scientist who is not only the denial industry’s pin-up boy (well actually, that might be a bit of a stretch for a man nearly 90 years old) but whose record of continuously being on the wrong side of scientific consensus could probably challenge Emma Duncan as 2011’s Biggest Loser (just joking).

In Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s thorough inquisition into this public deception, Merchants of Doubt, Singer is confirmed as one of a small cadre of scientists who were, and still are, responsible for hoodwinking the public, time and time again. With strong industry and conservative political connections, they ran an effective campaign to mislead the public over a period of four decades. One of the key players, along with Singer, was Frederick Seitz — who died in 2008, some 20 years after the denial industry decided he’d become “elderly and not sufficiently rational”. Seitz was a solid state physicist who rose to prominence during WW2 when he helped built the atomic bomb, later becoming President of the US National Academy of Sciences and distinguishing himself with numerous awards. Like Singer, Seitz’s credentials were gold-plated.

Singer and Seitz used their five-star scientific credentials to cement their celebrity status with admirals, generals, senators, congressman, presidents and vice presidents. They were savvy media operators. And the media was a willing listener. As the superstars of the science world, they exploited their credentials to the hilt.

Credentials weren’t all they had in common. Both men were anti-Communist to the extreme, libertarian, hawkish and united in their efforts to arm the US to the teeth with the latest high tech weaponry against the perceived Soviet threat. Both were associated with the conservative think tank in Washington DC, the George C Marshall Institute, founded to defend Reagan’s “Star Wars” (Strategic Defense Initiative).

For the past forty years, Singer, Seitz and the rest of their small cabal of scientists – all deeply influenced by the Cold War – have waged war against any environmental problem that necessitated government action. Whether it was DDT, the harmful effects of smoking, anthropogenic acid rain, ozone depletion or global warming, this powerful, high profile posse unleashed what was to become the biggest scientific fraud perpetrated on a trusting public in our planet’s history.

Both Singer and Seitz pulled off their first major hoax on the public by denying the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. From 1979 to 85 Seitz distributed $45million to scientists around the country on behalf of F. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Their brief was to find other links to lung cancer other than cigarettes to get tobacco off the hook.

Fred Singer co-authored a major report attacking the US Environmental Protection Agency over the health risks of second-hand smoke. Singer’s anti-EPA report was funded by an indirect grant by the Tobacco Institute. Using a tried and tested tactic successfully adopted by Big Carbon in the later global warming “debate”, the grant was channeled through an industry funded right-wing think tank, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. So successful was the hoax played out on the public, so complicit was the mainstream media, so willing were the conservative politicians to forfeit policy decisions for hard cash that someone eventually came up with the bright idea of publishing the ultimate science bashing bible: ‘Bad Science: A Resource Book’a how to handbook filled with successful strategies to undermine science, along with a list of “so called” experts for hire whenever a negative sound bite was called for.

Whilst the money in the early years came from Big Tobacco, it later came from Big Carbon via foundations, right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups supported by hundreds of industry-funded phony grassroots community groups, now notoriously known as ‘astroturfs’. The same strategies, tactics and same shoddy hired guns manipulated public opinion to ensure that polluters could go on polluting. Is it any wonder that the Coalition – which receives $millions from the fossil fuel industry, as revealed in graphic detail in Guy Pearse’s High & Dry – has come up with a climate action plan that allows the polluters to keep on polluting? As I write this story, Tony Abbott is still tap dancing around on the plain packaging legislation, weighing up the $millions his party has received in donations from Big Tobacco. Revealed just yesterday was the sobering and disgraceful fact that only three countries in the world continue to take money from British American Tobacco. One is the right-wing Harper government in Canada, another the Solomons (no comment) and the third, the Coalition in Australia. We are playing with the health of millions here, particularly our young people. Abbott was once our Health Minister. Smoking appalls him. Surely he isn’t going to be bought on this?

The right in USA and Australia are now hell bent on destroying environmentalism. A good example was the extraordinary editorial we saw last year in the official party organ of the Australian Liberal Party, the Australian, which called for the Greens “to be destroyed at the ballot box” . Murdoch owns 70% of the media in Australia. Former editor, Bruce Guthrie, revealed in The Age last week that Newscorps’ editors in Australia have been given the command to back Abbott.

When and how did the force of nature and the natural world become the enemy? When did environmentalism in the USA and Australia become “the slippery slope to communism”?

American high office has long had a history of caring for the environment. It was a Republican President, Ulysses Grant, who established the world’s first national park, Yellowstone. Another Republican, President Abraham Lincoln, who established Yosemite National Park. President Richard Nixon set up the Environmental Protection Agency and the landmark Clean Air Act. Going further, in 1972 Nixon signed the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Ocean Dumping Act; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act; and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Nixon's term also saw passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.

And in Australia? It was the Liberal Party’s Sir Robert Menzies who, as Prime Minister, signed the Antarctic Treaty and established the CSIRO and wasn’t it Malcolm Fraser who rescued Fraser Island from sand miners?

What brought about this rapid change in attitude by conservative politics to the natural world? According to Sharon Beder in her study, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism the answer lies in the threat of costly environmental regulations. Corporate executives viewed environmentalism as "the life and death PR battle of the 1990s." As consultant Bob Williams wrote in US Petroleum Strategies in the Decade of the Environment’, “to put the environmental lobby out of business, the petroleum industry must render the environmental lobby superfluous, an anachronism.”

Right wing politicians were the first to fall into line softened up by Big Dollars from Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Carbon and Big Tobacco. The compliant right-wing mainstream media followed.

Having been a strong advocate for the environment as governor of California, once in the White House, "the Reagan administration adopted an extraordinarily aggressive policy of issuing leases for oil, gas and coal development on tens of millions of acres of national lands — more than any other administration in history, including the current one," the Wilderness Society's David Alberswerth has reported.

Environmental regulations were rolled back, from the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act. In his first year of office, the EPA reported a 79% reduction in the number of enforcement cases filed from regional offices to the EPA. Funding for renewables was slashed, just as we saw under Howard with the removal of the MRET. Like Australia, the renewable energy sector went into freefall and international investors moved elsewhere.

Probably the most dismal record of all is that of President George W Bush whom Robert F Kennedy Jr called “the worst environment president in our nation’s history”. With deep ties to the oil industry, Bush rolled back environmental laws, opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for mining, stepped up logging and fought against fuel efficiency standards adopted in most other countries. Bizarrely, he even floated the idea of sponsorship of the US’s national landmarks, commonly referred to as the “Pepsi Grand Canyon fiasco” (a strategy used in a cynical campaign by large corporations referred to as ‘greenwashing’). Fred Singer was there all along as the most prominent of the government’s scientists, helping to politicize and distort government science, especially on global warming.

One of the techniques which we’re all now familiar with is the employment of specialist PR firms to set up community front groups such as the artificial grassroots support groups; to fund conservative advocacy groups; even getting biased ‘environmental educational’ material into schools — all to cast doubt on claims about environmental damage with the aim of winding back environmental regulations. It’s known as the ‘paralysis by analysis’ technique.

In the mainstream media, hired guns like Fred Singer continue to be trotted out as independent experts. As Oreske and Conway charge, such has been the complicity of the media that no-one ever questioned whether a physicist could possibly also be epidemiologist, ecologist, atmospheric chemist or a climate scientist. Instead, we’ve seen how the IPCC with its 1000s of climate scientists is being challenged by a tiny cabal of anti-communist, non-qualified, industry-backed scientists. We’re told the debate is evenly divided; that the science isn’t settled. In the case of Singer and Seitz, neither has published anything since the 1960s. Instead they have been paid simply to question, confuse and mislead the public so that any action is dragged out as for long as possible to maximise short term profits. The propaganda is repeated in the USA and Australia by (mostly) right wing politicians, bloggers, even Presidents and Vice Presidents, as if there truly were an even split amongst the world’s scientists. Both the Republican Party and Australian Liberal Party received millions of dollars from the fossil fuel lobby. In the USA, campaign donations are relatively transparent. Not so in Australia where they are often laundered through a complex trail of foundations and think tanks as exposed by former Howard government advisor turned whistleblower, Dr. Guy Pearse, when he followed the money trail in his doctoral thesis High & Dry. So, don’t bother checking the Australian Electoral Commission’s register. All you’ll find is window dressing with small amounts donated by mining companies to both our major parties.

Thanks to the media, back in the 90s, the public continued to believe that the cause of acid rain was other than sulphate and nitrogen (both by-products from burning coal and oil), ten years after this had been scientifically verified. Same with the hole in the ozone layer that the media continued to claim was caused by volcanoes.

The mainstream media in the USA, Canada and Australia are still presenting misinformation on global warming as if the debate is in full swing – 25 years after the U.S. national Academy of Sciences announced that global warming was occurring from man’s use of fossil fuels. Even the ABC gives air time to the likes of Prof Ian Plimer, Lord Monckton and other climate skeptics defending this as ‘balance’. Ian Plimer is a mining geologist and director of 4 mining companies, calculated to be worth around $350,000 p.a. No pressure there! Monckton has no scientific qualifications whatsoever. What is the ABC thinking? The general public trusts the ABC. If the ABC is confused, why shouldn’t we doubt the science? The amount of airtime given to just these two alone defies all logic. We might as well be discussing whether the moon landing was a con.

You’d have thought we’d have learned the lesson from the PR war by Big Tobacco when real action was delayed for nearly 20 years. People died needlessly thanks to hired guns like Fred Singer. As one famous tobacco memo read ‘Doubt is our product’ and, indeed, we saw millions of dollars spent to prop up an artificial controversy when there wasn’t one.

In Pearse’s “High and Dry” he describes how the ‘greenhouse mafia’ (the ‘in house’ name used by the carbon lobby to describe itself) here in Australia hijacked the global warming debate to stop action on climate change during the Howard government. As in the US, astro-turf groups, funded by vested interests, sprung up everywhere to give the impression of community dissent. Landscape Guardians and Australian Conservation Foundation, when, in fact, it is the exact opposite of Australian Conservation Foundation. If you’d like to check the number of astro-turf organisations or right wing advocacy groups masquerading as think tanks, I recommend you take the time to check out Greenpeace International’s Exxon Secrets.

Scientists like Fred Singer who have turned their back on science and truly betrayed the planet and all its living creatures, deserve to be condemned. If Fred Singer were a medical professional, he’d have been deregistered and probably prosecuted for medical research fraud, which is why we have nominated him today for our “crackers” award. This cynical, self-servicing hoax played out by vested interests on the world with the help of feckless scientists driven by political agendas, has to be the most immoral, callous and self-serving in history. How much damage has already been done? How many lives lost? Once we’ve fouled our nest, where do we go? The planet deserves our protection. When all the coal, oil and uranium has been mined, what is left? It is time our mainstream media showed some backbone and followed Independent Australia in exposing what some are calling not just the crime of the century but the crime of the geological epoch.

In Stockholm last week, seventeen Nobel laureates met for the third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability. Their Stockholm Memorandum ends with a message for people like Dr. Fred Singer and those who would lead us to environmental and economic ruin:

"We are the first generation facing the evidence of global change. It therefore falls upon us to change our relationship with the planet, in order to tip the scales towards a sustainable world for future generations."

Further recommended reading:

  • Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway – Merchants of Doubt, published by Bloomsbury Press, N.Y. 2010
  • Guy Pearse – High & Dry (John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future) published by the Penguin Group (Australia) 2007
  • James Hoggan – Climate Cover-Up – the Crusade to Deny Global Warming, published by Greystone Books, Vancouver, Canada 2009
  • Haydn Washington & John Cook – Climate Change Denial – Heads in the Sand, published by Earthscan 2010
  • Sharon Beder – Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, published by Green Books, Devon, UK, 1997, 2nd edition May 2002
  • Clive Hamilton – Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change published by Black Inc Agenda 2007

* 'The Planet vs East Bumcrack' is a weekly column by Independent Australia environment correspondent Sandi Keane, in which she discusses the pseudo-science that typically characterises anti-environmentalist arguments. The term 'East Bumcrack' comes from an following episode of ABC's Insiders, where journalist Annabel Crabb used the term to describe the science used by Andrew Bolt to argue against climate change as arising from "East Bumcrack University".


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