Opinion: Green Light

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Deflection Is the New Denial of Climate Change

By Tom Osborne

Readers, this column is my response to Skip Hellewell’s guest opinion in the Aug. 25 edition of the Indy, which I find very troubling. 

I’ll offer another view of how we might look at the spate of calamities, like hurricane/tropical storm Hilary, that are currently ravaging much of the globe. Cutting to the chase, I see in Mr. Hellewell’s column a textbook example of what some climate writers consider a new strategy–deflection–to discourage effective climate action.

A disclaimer: I make no pretense of being a climate scientist or any other type of scientist. I’m a humanities scholar and critical thinker, in addition to being a climate activist.

So, what do I mean by deflection? Deflection, in this instance, and utilized by Mr. Hellewell, refers to the strategy of resisting action to address climate change without explicitly denying the existence of human-caused Earth warming by referring to “the complexity and unknownness of Nature.” Sometimes, deflectors will refer to environmental activists as “the climate change crowd” (Mr. Hellewell’s terminology). Again, the deflector is not expressly denying anthropogenic planet-warming while at the same time making clear that s/he is not a member of that “crowd.” This way, an inactivist or one opposed to governmental action addressing global warming may obtain the results of denying the problem without explicitly and vocally doing so. 

Public relations firms are working overtime for Big Oil, perfecting deflection language. This is truly insidious given the climate crisis we and the coming generations, including my young grandchildren, are encountering right now. As a concerned citizen, I will continue speaking out and sharing with readers fact-based and credibly sourced information and opinions. 

My focus on deflection here is prompted by my concern that this is a strategy employed by Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and a host of other fossil fuel giants to make sure that their record profits keep rolling in while at the same time avoiding the disrepute of denying the reported 99.9 percent scientific consensus on human-caused climate change (See the Cornell Chronicle, Oct. 19, 2021)

To learn more about deflection, I’m reading climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann’s recent book, The New Climate War (2021). Mann is the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, is affiliated with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has an extensive record of both peer-reviewed articles and books for laypersons on the science of climate change. His New Climate War analyzes and gives numerous examples of deflection. 

Lastly, I’m troubled by Mr. Hellewell’s cavalier dismissal of “the plethora of dire [climate] warnings.” He cites a certain Dr. Kenneth Richards (Hellewell misspelled the last name) who, in one “peer-reviewed” journal article, purportedly shows that nearly all these predictions since “Earth Day 1970” have been wrong. I tried to find out who Dr. Richard (corrected spelling) is and found his climate writings published by the Heartland Institute, which denies the impacts of and scientific consensus on climate change and the damaging health effects of smoking tobacco. For me, this discredits his work. 

Thus, I’m presenting the graph, sourced from The Harvard Gazette (Jan. 12, 2023). It shows that Exxon-Mobil’s scientists accurately predicted the trajectory of temperature changes from 1977-2003. The research was carried out by a team of Harvard scientists plus those from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Simply put, even Exxon-Mobil’s scientists warned early and accurately about the dangerous effects of carbon emissions on Earth’s biosphere. Yet that company’s head office kept a tight lid on these findings and resorted to ingenious and devious methods of misleading the public on the impacts of fossil fuels. How many lives have been lost and will be lost due to the poisonous and warming emissions of this company and this industry?

Readers, if you’ve gotten this far in my column, I thank you for your attention and perseverance. I’m grateful to live in Laguna Beach, whose citizens are environmentally concerned and will act on credibly sourced information. 

Tom Osborne, PhD, an environmental historian, is writing his fifth book, which traces California’s rise as a global environmental leader. With his wife, Ginger, he co-leads the Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. [email protected].

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