Steve Connor: Echoes of climate change battles are no accident

 

There are striking parallels between the attempt by the tobacco industry to seek academic research data held by Stirling University using the Freedom of Information law and the campaign to gain access to research data held by the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

In both cases, researchers were collecting the information in the belief that the data would be used only by themselves or shared with colleagues at other universities or research institutes engaged in the same line of work.

In both cases, the scientific evidence has been political dynamite because of the regulatory implications for society at large. Scientific evidence in both cases has been fundamental to legislation that has had or will have an impact on millions of people around the world, whether it is laws to curb smoking or legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But there are also differences. The Stirling University institute is dealing with a couple of FOI requests from one huge organisation, many times larger than itself.

The Climatic Research Unit, meanwhile, has dealt with as many as 168 FOI requests over the past four years, mostly from individuals who have concerns about the quality of the data on which the climate scientists have based their conclusions.

The other difference, of course, is that the climate data is culled from scientific instruments rather than the personal testimony of children who have been promised confidentiality.

But there is a further surprising parallel between the two sets of FOI requests. The scientific denialism shown by Big Tobacco can be linked with the climate denialism of the fossil-fuel industry through organisations that foster both types of scepticism.

Big Tobacco and Big Oil have both fostered the idea that scientific evidence published in peer-reviewed journals can be undermined by their own hastily compiled reports.

They use similar language when they speak of "junk science" that does not tell them what they want to hear, and the "sound science" that does.

As the author George Monbiot says in his book Heat, both lobby groups recognise that the best chance of avoiding regulation is to challenge the scientific consensus by sowing disinformation and personally undermining those who carry out the research.

As one tobacco industry memo stated: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

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