BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two recent stories in the news have more to do with each other than you might think. The first, in The Toledo Blade, was about two competing measures on the Ohio ballot, one supported by R.J. Reynolds to loosen restrictions on smoking in public places, the other, backed by the American Cancer Society, to tighten them. The second news story, reported everywhere, notes that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a law to cut emissions back to 1990 levels out of concern for global warming. What do secondhand smoke and global warming have in common? George Monbiot, a professor at Oxford University and columnist for The Guardian, writes in his new book, Heat, that in the early '90s, tobacco companies decided to challenge new findings on secondhand smoke by launching a campaign to discredit the scientific studies on global warming.
GEORGE MONBIOT: They realized that if passive smoking was the only thing they campaigned on, their fingerprints would be all over it. So they were advised not to campaign only on passive smoking but to link it with other issues which bore on regulatory matters, and the first of those issues was global warming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the evidence that you have to document this campaign?
GEORGE MONBIOT: The great thing about one of the big lawsuits against the tobacco companies is that one of the outcomes was to force the companies to put their archives on public record. And so you can go through the source material documenting exactly what their strategy is. And in this case, they say, we're going to set up this so-called grass roots coalition. We are going to call it the Advancement for Sound Science Coalition. We're going to tell it to campaign against junk science, which is any science we don't like, and campaign in favor of sound science, which is any science we do like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you describe what we call "Astroturf," fake grass roots campaigns.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do they do beyond Astroturf?
GEORGE MONBIOT: There's a document which says we should launch this away from the big media outlets because they're quite likely to smell a rat, whereas elsewhere, where journalists seem to be more naive, we think we'll be able to pass this off okay. It was a cleverly run campaign, and, unfortunately, journalists right across the U.S. were far too credulous, and the messages were picked up by many U.S. politicians as well as by the public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These P.R. firms and the grass roots organizations and the think tanks, repeating the line of this Philip Morris coordinated campaign, they weren't necessarily lying, were they? You write that they might just have been selecting and highlighting the research that suited them.
GEORGE MONBIOT: The great majority of what they did was selection rather than invention, and they would cherry-pick research results completely out of context and suggest that these research results showed that climate change wasn't happening, or, indeed, that passive smoking didn't cause any adverse health effects, whereas if you look at the science as a whole, it showed a very clear pattern of climate change and a clear pattern of adverse health effects caused as a result of secondhand smoke. But in some instances, they did circulate information which was just plain wrong and which had no source.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, if the goal was to muddy the waters for the issue of passive smoking by muddying the waters on global warming, did it work?
GEORGE MONBIOT: Certainly the muddying of the waters on global warming has been extremely successful, and I would suggest that it's been more successful than the muddying of the waters on passive smoking, because, certainly in the U.S., more authorities have taken action on passive smoking than they have on climate change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You aren't suggesting by your article, though, that Philip Morris took charge on muddying the waters on [LAUGHS] global warming, do you? I mean, certainly Exxon and the other big oil companies had a fair hand in all of that.
GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, that's absolutely true, but the point here is that one of the campaigns, which was by far and away the most central to corporate-funded climate change denial, the Advancement for Sound Science Coalition and junkscience.com and the other things that it spawned, was actually started by Philip Morris rather than by Exxon. And Exxon only came in later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you look at how the media have tried to deal with the situation of, say, global warming, we've noted quite a lot on this program that a false equivalency has been injected into the argument, the sense that there are some scientists that think one thing and some scientists think another. And you've got the appearance of balance when in fact most scientists think one thing and only a very few scientists think the other. Are we still dealing right now, do you think, with this false equivalency when it comes to discussing global warming, or have we finally gotten over it and accepted that there is a consensus on the issue?
GEORGE MONBIOT: While there is no substantive debate taking place among scientists about whether man-made climate change is happening or about whether it represents a very serious threat to many of the world's people, in the media, that debate is still going on. What it reflects is this very concerted effort by corporations to cast doubt on the science.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George, thank you very much.
GEORGE MONBIOT: That's my pleasure. No trouble.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Monbiot is a professor at Oxford University and columnist for The Guardian. His new book is called Heat.