Last summer, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was embarking on the final stages of its latest synthesis report, a billboard was being quietly erected on the outskirts of Calgary, Alberta. Home to the University of Calgary and the seat of much of the academic research related to oil and gas exploration in this bitumen-rich province, Calgary was the perfect place to pitch a controversial view of climate change.
With a carefully selected cadre of scientists behind it, Friends of Science made rapid headlines when it advertised its explanation for climate change. There was nothing new to scientists challenging the notion of man-made global warming. What snagged the attention of rush-hour motorists was its premise – one that could both explain the debate over a warming climate and seem almost palatable.
“The sun is the direct and indirect driver of climate change. Not you. Not CO2,” the organization asserted. The statement would seem like music to the ears of harried drivers, already dealing with unpredictable floods and diminishing snow pack in Calgary, who are genuinely skeptical of the barrage of political rhetoric coming over the Canada-U.S. border. This was, after all, a Calgary-based organization, near a publicly-funded research university.
But even if bold claims need bold proof, the organization’s mandate wasn’t necessarily to propel more research into the matter. Its goal, says Keith Stewart, climate and energy coordinator for Greenpeace Canada, is to increase doubt in the minds of viewers.
“[Their] goal is to sow doubt and create uncertainty that can result in delayed action,” said Stewart, who suggested that the organization’s chief aim is “to delay action on climate change as long as possible.”
The concept isn’t new. Plenty of organizations in the U.S. have demonstrated that presenting a simpler, more appealing answer to the public can ultimately turn votes, build distrust and slow controversial initiatives that would be expensive to key industries. The Heartland Institute, American Council on Legislative Change and Heritage Foundation all put forth unique outlooks on science and climate change with one universal message: Perhaps moving away from fossil fuels isn’t as timely as the IPCC suggests.
In the case of Friends of Science, the premise that seems to gain traction isn’t whether science is flawed or fossil fuels are necessary -- but whether climate change begs answers from heavy, technical research that the average citizen doesn’t have access to or can’t answer. Its website has become a repository of research papers that, on the surface at least, demand a deeper look at whether climate change is really man-made and whether the environmental warning signs noted in the IPCC’s synthesis report really warrant attention.
Nor is the organization new to this effort. Established in 2002 by a small group of academic researchers, it has maintained its website since that time, lobbying against bills and action that require voter consensus. Around 2006, the organization’s intentions were called into question after it was discovered that its funding was being routed through Calgary Foundation research and the U of Calgary.
“Ultimately, the university stopped that,” Stewart said. “[The] money was being put through the Calgary Foundation." The names of donors weren't traceable, said Stewart. "And so you couldn’t find out who was funding them.”
Stewart said that it is still unclear who most of the donors are, but that they are likely associated with Alberta’s “oil patch,” symbolized by the 875,000-square-mile area from which much of Canada’s heavy oil comes from. With more than 60 percent of the land leased to extraction companies, there is big money to be gained in keeping climate change legislation at bay. Two of the organization’s three board members have been accused by environmental groups of having direct ties with oil companies.
While it is also unclear whether all of the papers that the organization puts up on its website are by members or supporters of the organization, many of the news it posts remains out of context with current data. Research from 2009 suggesting that Himalayan glaciers were not retreating from global warming has since been thrown into question. This year’s research suggests that the glaciers are thinning first and then retreating, lending further evidence to the forecast of ongoing glacier loss.
Friends of Science, however, has not updated its link. And the organization’s claim-to-fame assertion that the sun may be propelling climate change is now being debated by researchers, who say that the actual intensity of the sun has not kept pace with the warming trend – either on Earth or on other planets.
“Our concern is that they are trying to misinform the public to slow the adoption of policies to stop climate change. That’s a disservice to science, but it also does an enormous disservice to Canadians, and in particular, to generations who are going to pay the real cost of our inaction today,” said Stewart.
As for the billboard, Stewart said that efforts to have the it taken down were unsuccessful, after the Advertising Standards of Canada refused to take action. According to Greenpeace, the ASC stated in its letter that the matter was, in its opinion, beyond its ability to address effectively and conclusively as it would require scientific assessment that was beyond its purview. Stewart pointed out that the ASC could well have quoted the Royal Society of Canada, which would have the scientific background to make an assessment and has come out clearly on climate change. But the industry organization declined to take that measure, so the billboard stays up, for now.
As far as Friends of Science's database of research, there is always a benefit to having a huge database on peer-reviewed articles at hand for public use, especially as we move closer to understanding what climate change really means for the planet. The question that is always at the heart of science and should be asked here, of course, is not who reads the papers -- but what we ultimately do with the data.
Image credit: Kevin Galvin
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.