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We call it life

Global warming and friendly gases

In an attempt to mitigate the impact of Al Gore’s new film on global warming, an organisation called the Competitive Enterprise Institute has released two new television adverts that aim to counter what it calls “global-warming alarmism”. The bland name of the Competitive Enterprise Institute conceals the fact that it is funded by, among others, Exxon, Amoco, Texaco, and the American Petroleum Institute. The oil industry’s strategy for dealing with global warming has long been to try to instil confusion and doubt in the public, to “teach the controversy”, as they say in another context, even when there is no controversy. On the evidence of these ads, that is still their approach. Here is the full transcript of the voiceover for one of the ads, entitled “Glaciers”:

You’ve seen those headlines about global warming. The glaciers are melting, we’re doomed. That’s what several studies supposedly found.

But other scientific studies found exactly the opposite. Greenland’s glaciers are growing, not melting. The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner.

Did you see any big headlines about that? Why are they trying to scare us?

Global warming alarmists claim the glaciers are melting because of carbon dioxide from the fuels we use. Let’s force people to cut back, they say. But we depend on those fuels, to grow our food, move our children, light up our lives.

And as for carbon dioxide, it isn’t smog or smoke, it’s what we breathe out and plants breathe in. Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution, we call it life.

Note how the vast global scientific consensus on human-caused warming of the earth is reduced to a conspiracy theory featuring a shadowy, anonymous “they” who are “trying to scare us”. “They” (in other words, the world’s scientists) are “alarmists”, which has the same tang of unreason as other helpful words like “extremists”. This much is par for the course in industry-funded “scepticism”.

The attempt to rebrand a gas, carbon dioxide, meanwhile, is comical. It is true, of course, that we breathe out carbon dioxide, as a waste product; what the advert doesn’t mention is that if we were to breathe in too much of it, we would die. A strange effect for a gas they call “life”. And it is true that plants breathe carbon dioxide in; but what is as well known is that there aren’t enough plants on the planet to breathe in all the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

Cleverer is the line “they call it pollution”. It attacks a straw man who believes that all pollution (smog, smoke, and so on) is made up of carbon dioxide and nothing else. Of course that is false. On the other hand, most people do consider that the extra carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is a pollutant. It is an unassailable scientific fact that carbon dioxide heightens the intensity of the greenhouse effect. Running for office in 2000, even George W. Bush had pledged to regulate the emission of carbon dioxide by power plants. Once in office, though, he reneged. White House spokesman Scott McClellan explained: “CO2 should not have been included as a pollutant during the campaign. It was a mistake.” Not a scientific mistake, of course; a political one.

The rhetorical crux of the advert, however, is its claim that there are some “scientific studies” that apparently “found exactly the opposite” from the studies about melting glaciers. As a matter of fact, the CIE’s claims about the studies it cites are demonstrably false . . .

Helpfully, the first pages of the studies in question are shown on screen. When the voiceover says “Greenland’s glaciers are growing, not melting”, we see the abstract of a paper entitled “Recent Ice-Sheet Growth in the Interior of Greenland”, with a glowing halo around the word “Growth”. Eagle-eyed viewers may spot the fact, however, that the article is only talking about the “interior”, and not the edges. In fact, the paper stresses that available data confirms that the edges are thinning. And as can be seen from the extended abstract here, the paper actually goes on to say: “[T]here is still no consensus assessment of the overall mass balance of the ice sheet.” Thus, this paper expressly does not say, as the advert claims it does, that the glaciers as a whole are “growing”.

Next, when the voiceover claims that “The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner”, the abstract of a paper called “Snowfall-Driven Growth in East Antarctic Ice Sheet Mitigates Recent Sea-Level Rise” appears, with another little halo of light around the word “Growth”.

It is immediately apparent that the article in question is talking about the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, not the Antarctic in general. So does this paper actually support the advert’s claim that “The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner”?

To check, I simply went to the source. I emailed the co-lead author of that article, Professor Curt H Davis, Director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Missouri, to ask him. His response was unequivocal:

Our article does NOT in fact support this statement. […] Our result is only for East Antarctica. Moreover, we make it clear that our results are for the interior and it is well known that the edges are losing mass.

So our conclusion is clear. The CEI’s claims that “Greenland’s glaciers are growing” and that “The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker” are not in fact supported by the very scientific papers it cites as evidence.

They call it life. You might prefer to call it lying.

Update: 05/19/2006 In a University of Missouri news release today, Professor Davis says: “These television ads are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate. They are selectively using only parts of my previous research to support their claims. They are not telling the entire story to the public.”  

  1. 1  SW  May 19, 2006, 12:14 am 

    Thank you for writing about the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I have always supported the CEI and have requested official permission to paraphrase their slogan in my campaign. As someone who drinks his own urine, I have long sought a simple, short response to all those urologists and nephrologists who consider urine a “waste” product: well, “they call it waste, we call it life.” You are quite right, too: scientists are alarmists. And they really seem to abhor recycling as well. Urine is a natural substance, produced by the body, with all sorts of chemicals and substances that are useful to plants and the whole circle of life. The more we drink urine and the more we bathe in this natural substance, the healthier we will be. I am looking to market my product – “Pee-Super” – and know that the CEI will provide marketing support if extremists and alarmists try to undermine nature’s golden waters.

  2. 2  ryran  May 19, 2006, 3:28 pm 

    okay whoa the above comment is a little too bizarre for me.

    mmmm anyway.

    VERY nice job with this Steven. Came here from ThinkProgress.

  3. 3  Chris Brauner  May 19, 2006, 7:18 pm 

    Good work on exposing this rediculous ad campaign. My journey to this article started this morning with viewing the trailer for Al Gore’s new movie. I then started to read some comments and someone posted the links to the “We call it Life (Lying)” ad campaign. I was beside myself watching those commercials. I watched the glacier one and did what you did, went to the source. I knew those article HAD to be taken out of context as only a hidden agenda would require. I got an email back from Curt H Davis as well which he gave me your link. I knew deep down that any respectable scientist would not lend their hard work and research to such an underhanded attempt to obscure FACTS. My biggest question is, don’t these people want to live on this planet too? All the money Big Oil is stealing from us isn’t going to do them any good when they are killed by the planet they are destroying. Do they not have children? Do they want them to die as well? I am so outraged by these evil people.

    By the way, a little bit crazy on the urine thing. Point made, but still a little bit crazy.

  4. 4  Lily  May 20, 2006, 3:49 am 

    I sure hope someone gives Prof. Davis some air time….TV….not the excess CO2 we need to survive. :)

    SW, quite clever, your post made me chuckle. He WAS joking, you guys.

  5. 5  Janno  June 13, 2006, 4:03 pm

    An adviser on rail privatisation, indeed. That certainly bolsters the CEI’s credibility, not.

  6. 6  Gus  June 23, 2006, 2:26 pm 

    I saw this. It’s great isnt it? Beyond satire.

  7. 7  arthur  June 29, 2006, 4:10 am 

    It is not beyond satire. Check out this bit from the daily show:

  8. 8  Steven Poole  June 29, 2006, 12:08 pm 

    Thankfully, nothing is beyond the Daily Show. :)

  9. 9  Al Goreman  March 17, 2007, 9:57 am 

    You should analyze your own deceptive use of words. Truly, you are a master at using words as weapons.
    No controversy? Why would you be writing about a non-controversy? Unless you reject out of hand any facts and information that are contrary to your obviously unshakable beliefs, you must acknowledge there are numerous accomplished scientists who question the affects of increased carbon dioxide on the planet’s temperature and viability.
    You decry referencing global warming proponents as a shadowy, anonymous “they”, yet you have no problem identifying the oil industry as a monolithic, conspiratorial “they”. You also suggest scientists supporting global warming theories are entirely ethical, honest, objective and have no agenda; yet any scientists who support a contrary conclusion are just the opposite – – or don’t exist.
    You state if we breathe too much carbon dioxide we will die. But you don’t say how much it would take (a lot)or point out oxygen levels also would have to be reduced significantly. By the way: Too much oxygen and we would die, too.
    And you have a habit of not citing your sources. At least the evil oil industry did that so you could check them.
    You claim there are not enough plants on the planet to process the carbon dioxide we create but there always always is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than the earth’s plant population is able to process, which is why we have carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And even PETA acknowledges food production creates more green house gases than the burning of fossil fuels. Besides, numerous studies evidence increased CO2 creates greater plant growth and increases sustainability during drought.
    And I love your use of the phrase “unassailable scientific fact”. Says who? The omniscient scientists who make up these “facts”? Interesting how you unwittingly distinguish scientific fact from mere fact, i.e., the truth.
    Then you attack the claim that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are growing as being absurdly false. I’ll grant you those claims clearly did not offer all the evidence, but then neither you nor the unimpeachable Dr. Davis ever address whether the “unassailable scientific fact” of growth in the interior of the ice sheets exceeds the loss in mass caused by melting at the edges, which, if the case, would mean the ice sheets are indeed growing, albeit vertically rather than horizontally, i.e., getting thicker rather than thinner. Try being objective and honest before you start calling others liars.

  10. 10  Steven  March 17, 2007, 11:55 am 

    This is rather pitiful as denialism and FUD go.

    Truly, you are a master at using words as weapons.


    By the way: Too much oxygen and we would die, too.

    So all those astronauts breathing pure oxygen in their spacesuits die, hmmm?

    And even PETA acknowledges food production creates more green house gases than the burning of fossil fuels.

    Modern food production, including energy for machinery, fertilisers and transportation, contributes to GHG concentration by burning fossil fuels.

    Then you attack the claim that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are growing as being absurdly false.

    No, I merely showed that the CEI lied about what the studies they cited actually said. Good luck with working on your reading comprehension.

  11. 11  Jon Elliott  March 20, 2007, 3:29 pm 

    Being a retired professional diver, having worked at depths of over 450′ I can assure you that breathing 100% oxygen for prolonged periods will cause pulmonary oxygen toxicity and eventually kill you.

    For example, to work as a diver at 450′ you could only breath a mixture of 3% oxygen and 97% helium. If you increased the oxygen percentage it would become toxic due to the partial-pressure of gasses (Boyles Law).

    However, I doubt I will be around in 2050, more is the pity, because I would love to see if this “man made disaster” does turn out to be true? Clearly you have certainty on your side. The older I get, the less certion of anything, other than death and paying taxes I become.
    Best regards

  12. 12  Steven  March 20, 2007, 4:25 pm 

    Nasa spacesuits do provide an atmosphere of 100% oxygen at 1/3 atmospheric pressure, though of course it is true it’s not very good for you for repeated/prolonged periods. And if the Earth’s atmosphere was 100% oxygen we would all die sooner rather than later, though I am not sure this constitutes much of a reason for us to continue pumping out CO2 from fossil fuels.

  13. 13  Jon Elliott  March 21, 2007, 4:39 pm 

    Our addiction to fossil fuel use should be curbed without any doubt whatsoever. However, my reason for being enthusiastic in lowering carbon footprints is fossil fuel security. At one time, when I was working in the North Sea, we exported energy – now we have to import energy, it follows that we are weaker and less secure having to do so.

    Call me cynical, but I believe governments and pressure groups capture public imagination, by offering up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts. They balance effectiveness and honesty. If that was true of Iraq then it could also true of “climate change”.

    Control energy policy and you control the economy, liberty and freedoms. Kyoto smacks of global government that seeks to ration energy use – doesn’t that make you feel a touch uncomfortable?

    Or put it another way – if the “science is settled” then why are the research climatologists and other ‘ologists still in receipt of massive government funding and continue to bid for further funding?

    Perhaps they do need funding if only to get Al Gore, to realise that “warming” is logarithmic – if you double the amount of CO2 in the air by adding xCO2 to an atmosphere containing xCO2, and you get a warming of “y” degrees, you do not get another “y” degrees of warming by adding another xCO2. You would need to 4x to achiever that.

    Anyway, even though we may differ on our reasons for wanting less Co2, we do agree that it should happen. I suppose that could be called some kind of “consensus”? If so, then maybe Al Gore is correct, when he suggests that, now there is “consensus”.

    Best regards

  14. 14  bi  February 11, 2008, 5:54 am 

    “Or put it another way – if the ‘science is settled’ then why are the research climatologists and other ‘ologists still in receipt of massive government funding and continue to bid for further funding?”

    Why yes, the science of nuclear fission is settled, so we should stop all nuclear physics research now!

    “Kyoto smacks of global government that seeks to ration energy use – doesn’t that make you feel a touch uncomfortable?”

    Ahem. Good science isn’t good because it makes you “feel” “uncomfortable”.

    If you want to dispute the science, please offer up real arguments and real science instead of grasping at shadows.

  15. 15  Jon Elliott  February 17, 2008, 5:31 pm 

    Comment 14 is dated Feb’ 11, 2008 without any indication as to who made it?

    Who ever made it, missed my point, I am all for any research going forward – “nucler fission”, “climate change” & so on – all I was attempting to argue was that you and the Al Gore camp state emphatically that the “science is settled”. So “settled” that any further research is uneccesary, implying that anyone who thinks otherwise is a “flat earth” thinker. If, as you seem to imply, there is a need for further “research” funded by the tax-payer, then what are they researching? Your claimed “settled science” has suggested narrowing dates for the gloom and doom – end of days scenario. You have claimed the culprits and the reasons. What other “funded research” is necessary by the climate and other “…ologists”? You’ve done the research into alternative fuel sources. Perhaps you need the tax-payers money for researching “banging of drums”?

    It follows that the we cynics encourage equal research, only come at the problem from a different perspective. It is not a given, that the end of days is going to occur, nor is it all our [human] fault, after all cows do fart methane. Get some funding and research the diet of cows and maybe I would be more sympathetic to the funding distribution. Even though it, along with other funding streams, maybe “BS”

    As for “shadow grasping” – I did stand up the “warming is logarithmic”, arguement – but that is probably just maths, nothing scientific about that?

    I also argued breathing 100% oxygen can be toxic, “Boyles Law” which describes the relationship between the product pressure and volume within a closed system as constant when temperature remains at a fixed measure; both entities remain inversely proportional. “Shadow Grasping”? hmmmmm?

    Either way, words like “same boat” come to mind, even “same direction”, the only differences seem to be the “coxswains”. However, in my boat, our crew are a lot calmer, not hostile, receptive to an “ongoing” debate.

    On the bright side, your crew are so certain, you do believe, you have faith in your “settled science”, as did another, Noah. Come to think of it, I might start investing in Ark Builders?

  16. 16  Steven  February 17, 2008, 6:28 pm 

    you and the Al Gore camp state emphatically that the “science is settled”

    No I don’t. No Al Gore doesn’t. No the IPCC doesn’t. Do try to get your facts straight.

    Update: actually, Gore has said “the science is settled”, an unfortunate choice of words that has given much glee to “climate sceptics” over the years. But clearly what he meant was that there is no room for dispute that GHG from fossil fuel use cause warming of the atmosphere. He most certainly did not say, as Jon Elliot alleges, that “further reasearch is unnecessary”. There’s lots of other science that isn’t settled, of course, relating to the extent of future sea-level rises &c, as Gore himself points out. But the only people disputing the first fact are shills, partisans and scientific illiterates.

    I also argued breathing 100% oxygen can be toxic

    And I informed you that NASA astronauts breathe 100% oxygen in their spacesuits. So give it up.

  17. 17  bi  February 27, 2008, 12:51 pm 

    I’d like to talk about another ‘point’ from Jon Elliott:

    It follows that the we cynics encourage equal research

    ExxonMobil and friends have deep pockets. They could’ve easily funded any amount of solid, rigorous evidence-based research they wanted on the subject of global warming… but they didn’t. Instead, they preferred to spend their money on rubbish PR events, think-tank ‘science’, and bogus advertising campaigns like the CEI ad just described. Why?

    The Canadian denialist group Friends of Science spent $200,000 on airing silly ads filled with nonsense ‘science’. They could’ve spent it on actual research, but they didn’t. Why?

    So much for “equal research”.

  18. 18  bi  March 3, 2008, 4:59 am 

    In more hilarious news: the AGW denialists have now taken to calling themselves “climate realists”. Maybe Steven Poole can write a blog post about this.

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