Exxon: We believe in global warming, so we shouldn’t be criticised for funding global warming denialists

As everyone knows (or ought to know by now), one of main reason controversy over climate change is continuing in the face of overwhelming evidence is the fact that ExxonMobil has the cash spigot open to fund anyone willing to deny the evidence – the Competitive Enterprise Insitute, George Marshall Institute and the old tobacco industry network run by Steven Milloy, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer have been among the main beneficiaries. The Royal Society wrote to them recently, asking them to turn off the money tap.

Exxon’s response

The Royal Society’s letter and public statements to the media inaccurately and unfairly described our company.”

It went on: “We know that carbon emissions are one of the factors that contribute to climate change – we don’t debate or dispute this.”

So, they know the groups they are funding are lying, but they need to promote the idea that there is so much uncertainty that we should do nothing. The best way to do this is to create as much Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt as possible.

In plain view

The New Republic has a piece by Paul Thacker pointing out that Fox News science columnist Steven Milloy is a shill for, among other corporations, Philip Morris and ExxonMobil. It’s behind a paywall but that scarcely matters, because the relevant facts have been on the public record for years. As usual, Tim Lambert has the most detailed coverage, but a search of this blog or Crooked Timber will produce plenty more, and most of the info has been in Milloy’s Wikipedia entry for some time. In this context, the claim by Fox News, reported by TNR, that they were unaware of Milloy’s corporate payoffs speaks volumes for their capacity as a news organisation. I guess when you can just make it up, you don’t need to use Google.

What seems to be happening here, as with the Abramoff scandal is that facts that have been in plain view for ages can now be fitted into a media narrative – Republican sleaze in general and pundits for hire in particular. Whereas evidence of these kinds of links has been ignored or brushed aside in the past, they can now be seen as part of a systematic pattern of corruption.

If this narrative keeps running it’s going to make life a lot more difficult for the network of rightwing thinktanks and lobby groups that have proliferated in the US over the past two decades or so. Apart from the fact that most of them have at least one individual shill or fraud already exposed (AEI with Lott, Hudson with Fumento, Cato with Bandow and Milloy, TCS from top to bottom[1]) it’s going to become increasingly obvious that these guys have done little more than some unauthorised moonlighting. The organisations are engaged in the same kind of shilling, but on a larger scale. It’s hard to see how they can retain any credibility, or how any reputable person can continue work for any of them, unless all of the shills are sacked, and the organisations become a lot more open about their funding.

In this context, it’s heartening to note that Milloy has quietly departed from Cato where he was an adjunct scholar until the end of 2005. I don’t suppose this post had anything to do with it, but having called for Cato to sack him, I’m glad they’ve parted company. How long will it take Fox News to do something similar?

fn1. Except for Tim Worstall, who seems unaffected by the general atmosphere there.

Zombie DDT myth reanimated

A large part of my blogging career has consisted of attempts at zombie-slaying: finding ideas that have been refuted by the facts, but that remain undead. Zombies are hard to kill, but one I thought had been permanently dealt with – the myth that Rachel Carson brought about a worldwide ban on DDT, leading to millions of deaths from malaria[1]. Although quite a few people helped to show that this wasn’t true, the lion’s share of the credit, at least in the blogosphere, goes to Tim Lambert (who stopped blogging a while back, though his site still runs a montly open thread). Tim and I laid out the facts in a 2008 piece in the English magazine Prospect which made the following points

* DDT has never been banned in anti-malarial use
* The failure of DDT to eradicate malaria was due to resistance, promoted by overuse in agriculture and elsewhere, exactly as Carson warned. Bans on agricultural use of DDT helped slow the growth of resistance
* The attacks on Carson were undertaken by tobacco industry lobbyists, seeking (among other things) to pressure the World Health Organization not to undertaking anti-smoking campaigns in poor countries

Our primary targets were Steven Milloy and Roger Bate‘s Africa Fighting Malaria organization.

Whether due to our efforts or not, the DDT ban myth seems mostly to have died. Milloy, whose links to tobacco have thoroughly discredited him, seems to be out of the pundit business altogether. He still has an adjunct perch at the Competitive Enterprise Institute but his web page there shows only two opinion pieces since 2008. AFM is also quiescent – its website doesn’t show any research activity since 2011 and its staff all appear to have paying jobs in free-market thinktanks, suggesting a zombie organization.

But the zombie plague always recurs and just now I’ve seen (via Ed Darrell) another instance, oddly enough in an environmentalist magazine Greener Ideal. The author, one Mischa Popoff is described as ” former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector” and repeats the standard DDT myth before a segue into a defence of GMOs. But, as Ed Darrell points out, Popoff is being a bit cute here. DuckDuckGo reveals that he is in fact a Policy Advisor for The Heartland Institute and a Research Associate for The Frontier Centre for Public Policy (the latter being apparently a Canadian version of Heartland, as is the IPA in Australia. The site is down now, so I can’t check).

As long as Heartland lives, zombie ideas will never truly die.

fn1. As usual, the Australian right commentariat bought this one hook line and sinker. Miranda Devine excelled herself, but Blair, Bolt, Quadrant, the CIS and the IPA were all along for the ride.

The right in LaLaRouche land

I just spoke at an event organized by the UQ Greens to discuss emissions trading. There was lively debate over the relative merits, and prospects for success of emissions trading, carbon taxes, and direct regulation (my views here).

Things were made even livelier by the attendance of some LaRouche supporters who explained, as usual, that emissions trading was a genocidal plot by the British Royal Family. On an issue like climate change, LaRouchites represent the extreme fringe of rightwing opinion, taking the usual conspiracy theories about grantgrubbing scientists and environmentalist plans for world government into utterly paranoid territory.

But the traffic isn’t all one-way. On the issue of DDT, a lot of people buy a watered-down version of the LaRouche theory presented in LaRouche’s 21st Century Science by Gordon Edwards back in the early 1990s, according to which the US ban on agricultural use of DDT in 1972 produced a global ban on the use of DDT to fight malaria, costing millions of lives as part of a genocidal eco-imperialist plot.

Tobacco lobbyist Steven Milloy, looking for a stick with which to beat the environmental movement, used his junkscience site (then affiliated with the Cato Institute) to push Edwards’ LaRouchite fantasies, including the claims of genocide, but (doubtless in deference to conservative sensibilities) without the usual LaRouche link to the Royal Family (Milloy’s genocide clock is here). Roger Bate of AEI later took up the same line with great success, though he has backed away from it more recently.

But who would be stupid enough to fall for the second-hand propaganda of a nut group, recycled by the tobacco industry ?

(Answer over the fold)

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Defending Rachel Carson: the last word

The Prospect article defending Rachel Carson I wrote with Tim Lambert kicked off a lengthy round of blast and counterblast in the blogosphere. Some of the response did little more than illustrate the continuing gullibility of the RWDB segment of the blogosphere, notably including Andrew Bolt and Glenn Reynolds (start here). The more serious discussion began with links from Andrew Leonard at Salon and Brad Plumer at TNR, and a reply from Roger Bate, claiming that we had greatly overstated his links with the tobacco industry (Tim Lambert responded here and Andrew Leonard here and here, with plenty more evidence on this point). A further piece makes the claim (which I have no reason to dispute) that British American Tobacco has now switched sides and is arguing against DDT use in Uganda.

Through all this sound and fury, some progress was made. No one even attempted to defend the claim that the use of DDT against malaria had been banned, or the outrageous lies of Steven Milloy (still employed by Fox News and CEI, despite his exposure as a tobacco industry shill) who blames Rachel Carson for every malaria death since 1972. It even turned out that the much-denounced decision of South Africa to abandon DDT use (reversed when malaria cases increased because of resistance to the pyrethroids used as alternatives) was not primarily due to environmentalist pressure. As Bate noted in his reply, the main factor behind the decision was the unpleasant look and small of DDT sprayed on hut walls, which often led to repainting or replastering. A minor, but still striking point, is that DDT continued to be used for public health purposes in the US (against plague-bearing fleas) even after the 1972 ban on general use of the chemical, and is still available for these purposes if needed.

Update:Absolutely the last word Via Ed Darrell a quiet victory for friends of Rachel Carson with the abandonment by Senator Tom Coburn of a block on the naming, in her honor, of the post office in her birthplace. It appears that the campaign of denigration against Carson (and, by implication, the environmental movement as a whole) has become untenable.
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Republican War on Science: Science Fights Back

Via discussions at Wikipedia, this editorial in the Chemical & Engineering News, weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, The editorial notes

There really is a right-wing effort in the U.S. to discredit widely accepted science, technology, and medical information.

prominently represented by Fox News “junk science” correspondent Steven Milloy,

the tireless antiscience polemicist who started out as an apologist for the tobacco industry and spends most of his time these days claiming that all climate-change research is, of course, junk science. It’s a catchy little phrase that Milloy applies to, well, anything that doesn’t match his right-wing concept of reality

as well as those of Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (responsible for the original Oregon petition much beloved of our local delusionists) and the Journal of American Physicians & Surgeons (JAPS), the source of the most recent version of the petition.

What’s striking about this is that, as scientists go, chemists are not exactly renowned as radical extremists, and not many members of ACS would be involved in climate research. Recognition that the political right is at war with science is spreading beyond those most directly affected (such as researchers in climate change, biology, and epidemiology) to the broader community of scientists (and even, more recently engineers).

In the short run, the political costs of a war on science aren’t that great. There just aren’t enough scientists to make up a big voting bloc. But science, while fallible, is the most reliable source of truth we have, and most people know this. A party at war with science is, in the end, at war with truth, and truth will out.

In praise of Rachel Carson – Bate responds

Roger Bate of Africa Fighting Malaria has responded to my article with Tim Lambert defending Rachel Carson against the claim that she promoted a ban on DDT that has killed millions of people. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t like the article, and says we’ve overstated the extent of his work for the tobacco industry, though he doesn’t deny working for them. Since we’ve already debated that point with a commenter in the previous thread (the evidence is here with more detail here), I won’t go over it again, except to agree that we could have said more about the extent to which Bate has moved away from his initial position and his links with the tobacco lobby.

Instead I want to start with a focus on the areas of agreement which turn out to be surprisingly large. Most notably, Bate states

there are many ill-informed arguments for the use of DDT to be found, especially online. I may not have done enough in the early years of this decade to respond to those excesses, and may even occasionally indulged in them myself, but for many years I have tried to be logical.

He makes no attempt to defend Steven Milloy, the main target of our article, or his many imitators in the media and blogosphere (some Australian examples here and here.)

Bate also endorses Carson’s warnings on the dangers of overuse of agrochemicals, of which DDT was a major component, and the ban on agricultural use of DDT. He doesn’t challenge any of the points made in the article about the failure of the attempt to eradicate malaria using DDT, or about the role of resistance.

In fact, the only factual error he claims (leaving aside disputes about AFM and its funding) actually supports our case. The article stated that the public health exemption from the US ban on DDT had apparently never been used, and the word “apparently” was dropped in editing. Bate points out that DDT has been used in the US on a number of occasions, so that even the fallback claim of a “de facto” ban, pushed by many blogospheric promoters of the DDT ban story, is not true.

Finally, Bate’s article largely confirms our point that the origins of stories about the mythical DDT ban lie in the leadup to the Stockholm convention, during which, as we noted, some environmental groups pushed for the setting of a target date for DDT to be phased out, but ultimately agreed to preserve the DDT exemption. The link so commonly drawn to the US ban in 1972 is entirely spurious.
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In praise of Rachel Carson

Tim Lambert and I have a piece in the online edition of Prospect, defending Rachel Carson against the tobacco/DDT lobby. It was cut down for publication from a much longer article, which I’ve appended over the fold. The article shows how the legend that Carson caused the banning of DDT, just as it was about to wipe out malaria, was invented and popularised by tobacco lobbyists, notably Steven Milloy and Roger Bate, who wanted to mount a flank attack on tobacco’s archenemy, the World Health Organization.

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The monkey and the organgrinder

At Wikipedia, the fight against pseudoscience and Republican antiscience across a range of articles from global warming to passive smoking to Intelligent design to AIDS reappraisal, is continuous and bruising.[1]. Editors have learned to detect bogus sources of information almost immediately. One of my fellow-editors at passive smoking pointed me to an interesting letter to Science (paywalled, but I’ve quoted the important nit), shedding unintentional light on the way the disinformation machine operates. It’s from William G. Kelly of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness the front organization founded by legendary Phillip Morris shill, Jim Tozzi (Kelly is employed by Tozzi’s lobbying outfit, Multinational Business Services

Responding to criticism of the infamous Data Quality Act (for more on this see the Crooked Timber seminar on Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science) Kelly offers a classic non-denial denial, saying

Neither Phillip Morris (a multiproduct company) nor any other tobacco company (or nontobacco company for that matter) played a leadership role in the genesis of the DQA. While working with the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness in Washington, DC, I was personally involved with the development of the DQA, and no industry entity contributed to its formulation.

While we’re at it, can I point out that Henry II was nowhere near Canterbury Cathedral when Thomas Becket met with his unfortunate end. The whole point of having people like Tozzi and Kelly, and groups like CRE is that corporations don’t have to play a leadership role in promoting their own interests in Congress.

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DDT as a repellent

I got an email today from Phillip Coticelli at Africa Fighting Malaria pointing to a study by Donald Roberts (PDF), showing that DDT has a repellent effect in addition to its toxicity. The key finding is that that three out of five DDT-resistant Aedes aegypti mosquitoes avoid huts sprayed with DDT. Roberts argues that this is a reason for preferring DDT to alternative pesticides such as dieldrin. A few points about this are worth making
* First, it’s good to see AFM acknowledging the fact of pesticide resistance, which primarily accounts for the abandonment of large-scale attempts to eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes with pesticides. The libel put out by people like Steven Milloy and AFM founder Roger Bate[1], in which it is suggested that the failure of the eradication program was due to a mythical ban on DDT imposed at the behest of environmentalists, who callously caused millions of deaths, depends critically on ignoring resistance.
* Second, although the study is new, the claim is not. Roberts has been arguing the importance of repellent and irritant effects for a long time. And while the reporting of this study suggests that these benefits are unique to DDT, other work by Roberts has found that permethrin and deltamethrin are just as effective in this respect.

How does this relate to the general debate over the use of hut spraying as a strategy to fight malaria?
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