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How the Right Wing Denial Machine Distorts the Climate Change Discourse

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Several weeks ago, on June 17, I provided testimony about the threat of human-caused climate change to the Democratic Party Platform drafting committee in Phoenix, Arizona. Fittingly, my testimony was just one day before record heat struck Phoenix.

At the beginning of my testimony, I made the point, using slightly lofty language appropriate for the occasion, that the impacts of climate change are now so profound that we no longer need sophisticated signal-detection machinery to see them:

I am a climate scientist and have spent much of my career with my head buried in climate model output and observational climate data, trying to tease out the signal of human-caused climate change.

What is disconcerting to me and so many of my colleagues is that these tools that we've spent years developing increasingly are unnecessary because we can see the impacts of climate change playing out in real time on our television screens in the 24 hour news cycle.

Regardless of how you measure the impacts of climate change—whether it be food, water, health, national security, our economy—climate change is already taking a great toll. And we see that tool in the damage done by more extreme floods, like the floods we've seen over the past year in Texas and in South Carolina. We see it in the devastating combination of sea level rise and more destructive hurricanes which has led to calamities like "Superstorm" Sandy and what is now the perennial flooding of Miami beach. We see it in the unprecedented drought, like that which continues to afflict California, a doubling in the area of wildfire, fire burning in the western U.S. and indeed, in the record heat we may see this weekend in phoenix.

The signal of climate change is no longer subtle. It is obvious.

My point—that we don't need sophisticated techniques to identify the human fingerprint present in e.g. the doubling of extreme heat or the tripling (in fact) of western wildfire that we have seen in the U.S. in recent decades, ought to be clear to any honest observer.

It would be absurd to conclude that I was arguing that climate models and climate data are no longer necessary in climate science, especially given that they continue to form the bread and butter of my own scientific research (I've published over a dozen scientific articles using climate models and climate data during the past year alone).

So you can imagine my shock—yes, shock—that climate change deniers and conservative media outlets that serve as mouthpieces for them, would seek to convince their readers of just that.

It is an instructive ontological exercise to follow this particular affair—from its inception through the latest developments, sort of like observing a deviant version of the game "telephone" (or "Chinese whispers" for British readers) wherein the participants are actually trying to distort the message as it is passed along from one person to the next.

It all started on Monday, June 27 with Steven J. Milloy and his outlandishly untruthful claim "Michael Mann says there is no need for statistics."

Milloy, who actually calls himself the "junk man" with no apparent sense of irony, is a denier-for-hire who happily takes money from tobacco interests, chemical interests and of course fossil fuel interests to do their dirty work, attacking seemingly any scientist whose findings threaten their financial bottom line.

Milloy frequently publishes columns in the notorious Washington Times. Which brings us to the next stage of the affair ...

Later that same day, the Washington Times—a paper founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church, ran a piece by one Valerie Richardson entitled Michael Mann, scientist: Data 'increasingly unnecessary' because 'we can see climate change.'

Somehow "tools" have become "data." It almost seems like they're going out of their way to misrepresent my statements, doesn't it?

Almost as if to demonstrate that they too have absolutely no sense of irony, the Washington Times referred to me in the piece as a "Leading climate doomsayer" (the Unification Church, you see, is often considered a doomsday cult). The Washington Times also happens to be closely tied to ALEC—a Koch Brothers-funded organization that promotes climate change denialism and subverts efforts to incentivize renewable energy.

Next up at bat, Tucker Carlson's The Daily Caller, which later that day pushed the egregiously false headline Famed Climate Scientist Claims Data Now 'Unnecessary' To Measure Global Warming.

Understand that we have now gone all the way from what I actually said (that climate change impacts have become so profound now that we often don't need fancy techniques to see them) to something so patently absurd I couldn't possibly have said it (that we don't need data to measure global warming).

The Daily Caller, incidentally, is so fully immersed in Koch cash that is is listed as a "partner organization" of the Charles Koch Institute.

Witness now, after a two week hiatus, the hand-off from the Koch Brothers to the Scaife Foundations, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to be specific, which was founded by the now-deceased Richard Mellon Scaife. On July 13, the Tribune-Review perpetuated the smear with a climate change-denying editorial containing the farcical howler "[Mann] says facts no longer are necessary to substantiate the climate change story line." Just when you thought the distortion couldn't get more egregious ...

One day later, on July 14, the execrable Tribune op-ed was republished on the right wing website GOPUSA, a website connected to—you guessed it—Richard Mellon Scaife (though a bit of detective work is required to connect the dots).

Oil baron Richard Mellon Scaife and his empire were behind what Hillary Clinton famously referred to as the "vast right-wing conspiracy" to take down her husband, President Bill Clinton (for the record, she was correct).

Certainly, you're thinking, it must be a coincidence that nearly every player in this latest episode seems to be tied in some way to either the Koch Brothers or Scaife Foundations.

Or maybe not so much ...

Richard Mellon Scaife and the Scaife Family Foundations are, along with the Koch Brothers, the greatest private funders of climate change denialism, having stepped up their funding in recent years as fossil fuel corporations like ExxonMobil have come under increased scrutiny for their funding of climate change denial.

As I discuss in my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars about the attacks against me by climate change deniers looking to discredit the iconic "Hockey Stick" graph my co-authors and I published in the late 1990s (p. 64):

Wealthy privately held corporations and foundations with close interests in, or ties to, the fossil fuel industry, such as Koch Industries and the Scaife Foundations, have become increasingly active funders of the climate change denial campaign in recent years. Unlike publicly traded companies such as ExxonMobil, these private outfits can hide their finances from public view, and they remain largely invulnerable to outside pressure. In recent years, as ExxonMobil has been pressured by politicians on both sides of the aisle to withdraw from funding the climate change denial movement, Koch and Scaife have stepped up, contributing millions of dollars to the effort.

Koch funding played a major role in the faux scandal known as "climategate" which involved the misrepresentation of scientists based on out-of-context quotes (sound familiar?) taken from emails of theirs that had been stolen off a university computer server in the UK (p. 220):

One report showed that twenty or so organizations funded at least in part by Koch Industries had "repeatedly rebroadcast, referenced and appeared as media spokespeople" in stories about climategate.

Meanwhile, the Scaifes funded many of the personal attacks intended to discredit me and the "Hockey Stick" (p. 228):

In mid-January 2010, a group known as the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), which receives funding from the Scaife Foundations, led a campaign to have my NSF grants revoked. The perverse premise was that I was somehow pocketing millions of dollars of "Obama" stimulus money simply because I was a coinvestigator on several recently funded NSF grants. These absurd distortions were--no surprise--promoted by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others of similar persuasion.

and (p. 229):

Two Scaife-funded groups.. the Southeastern Legal Foundation and the Landmark Legal Foundation, had swung into action. The latter had already sued the University of Massachusetts and University of Arizona to obtain copies of my personal e-mails with my two hockey stick coauthors, while in May 2010 the former demanded extensive information from the NSF regarding grants that had been made to me as well as to several of my colleagues at Penn State, the University of Chicago, the University of Washington, the University of Arizona, and Columbia University.

It began to strike me as curious that so many of the demands that I be investigated could be traced back to organizations with ties to the Scaife Foundations. The Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania organization that is the recipient of considerable Scaife largess, for example, had been pressuring Penn State University to fire me since climategate broke in late November 2009. It managed to get the sympathetic Republican chair of the Pennsylvania state senate education committee to threaten to hold Penn State's funding hostage until "appropriate action is taken by the university against associate [sic] professor Michael Mann." Indeed, it was the Commonwealth Foundation attacks that essentially forced Penn State to launch its initial inquiry into the various allegations against me in December 2009 (similar inquiries and investigations of CRU scientists were initiated in the United Kingdom). The Commonwealth Foundation kept the pressure on for months through a barrage of press conferences and press releases attacking me personally and criticizing Penn State for its supposed "whitewash" treatment of any number of supposed offenses. It also ran daily attack ads against me in our university newspaper The Collegian for an entire week in January and helped organize a protest rally against me on campus. It is likely that these attacks forced Penn State's hand yet again, leading it, following the completion of the initial inquiry in February 2010, to move to a formal investigation, despite having found no evidence of misconduct in the initial inquiry phase.

What is the take-home message here?

As we head into the 2016 presidential election, it is clear that polluting interests and other bad actors are mobilized. They are doing their best to continue the attacks on science and scientists whose findings threaten their bottom line, to distract the public, to promote climate change denial propaganda and to support politicians who will support their agenda of denial and inaction.

The best defense is to study the positions of the candidates and make sure that climate action is at the top of your agenda when you go to the voting booth this fall.

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New research shows that there's actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought. Susan White / USFWS / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

In 1997, Charles Moore was sailing a catamaran from Hawaii to California when he and his crew got stuck in windless waters in the North Pacific Ocean. As they motored along, searching for a breeze to fill their sails, Moore noticed that the ocean was speckled with "odd bits and flakes," as he describes it in his book, Plastic Ocean. It was plastic: drinking bottles, fishing nets, and countless pieces of broken-down objects.

"It wasn't an eureka moment … I didn't come across a mountain of trash," Moore told Mongabay. "But there was this feeling of unease that this material had got [as] far from human civilization as it possibly could."

Captain Charles Moore looking at a piece of floating plastic in the ocean. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Moore, credited as the person who discovered what's now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, returned to the same spot two years later on a citizen science mission. When he and his crew collected water samples, they found that, along with larger "macroplastics," the seawater was swirling with tiny plastic particles: microplastics, which are defined as anything smaller than 5 millimeters but bigger than 1 micron, which is 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microplastics can form when larger pieces of plastics break down into small particles, or when tiny, microscopic fibers detach from polyester clothing or synthetic fishing gear. Other microplastics are deliberately manufactured, such as the tiny plastic beads in exfoliating cleaners.

"That's when we really had the eureka moment," Moore said. "When we pulled in that first trawl, which was outside of what we thought was going to be the center [of the gyre], and found it was full of plastic. Then we realized, 'Wow, this is a serious situation.'"

Captain Charles Moore holding up a jar of plastic-filled seawater from a research expedition in 2009. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Since Moore's discovery of the plastic-swirling gyres, there's been a growing amount of research to try and understand the scale of the plastic pollution issue, including several studies from 2020. This new research shows that there's actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought, and that the plastic even enters the atmosphere and blows back onto land with the sea breeze. Recent studies also indicate that plastic is infiltrating our bodies through food and drinking water. The upshot is that plastic is ubiquitous in the ocean, air, food supply, and even in our own bodies. The new picture that is emerging, scientists say, is of a biosphere permeated with plastic particles right down to the very tissues of humans and other living things, with consequences both known and unknown for the lifeforms on our planet.

How Much Is Really in the Ocean?

In the past 70 years, virgin plastic production has increased 200-fold, and has grown at a rate of 4% each year since 2000, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances. Only a small portion of plastics are recycled, and about a third of all plastic waste ends up in nature, another study suggests.

While new research indicates that plastic is leaking into every part of the natural world, the ocean has long been a focal point of the plastic pollution issue. But how much is actually in the sea?

Moore says it's "virtually impossible" to get an accurate estimate because of the ongoing production of plastic, and the tendency for plastic to break down into microplastics.

"This count is constantly increasing, and it's increasing at a very rapid rate," he said. "It's a moving target."

One commonly cited study, for which Moore acted as a co-author, estimated that there are more than 5.25 trillion plastic pieces floating in the ocean, weighing more than 250,000 tons, based on water samples and visual surveys conducted on 24 expeditions in five subtropical gyres. But even at the time of publication in 2014, Moore said he knew "that was an underestimate."

A more recent study published this year, led by researchers at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, indicates that there's a lot more microplastic in the ocean than we previously thought. When taking samples from the ocean, most researchers use nets with a mesh size of 333 microns, which is small enough to catch microplastics, but big enough to avoid clogging. But the team from Plymouth Marine Laboratory used much finer 100-micron nets to sample the surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the English Channel.

"Our nets clogged too, so we used shorter trawls and a specialized technique for removing all the plankton — microscopic plants and biota — from the sample to reveal the microplastics," Matthew Cole, a marine ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and author of the study, told Mongabay in an email. "This process is quite time-consuming, so it'd be challenging for all samples collected to be treated this way."

The research team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory collecting water samples. Matthew Cole

The researchers found there were 2.5 to 10 times more microplastics in their samples compared to samples that used 333-micron nets.

"If this relationship held true throughout the global ocean, we can multiply existing global microplastic concentrations ascertained using 333-micron nets, to predict that globally there are 125 trillion plastics floating in the ocean," Cole said. "However, we know these plastics keep on degrading, and these smaller plastics would be missed by our smaller 100 micron net — so the true number will be far greater."

Another team of researchers delved down to the seafloor in the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Mediterranean to take sediment samples. They found that microplastic accumulated at depths of 600 to 900 meters (about 2,000 to 3,000 feet), and that certain spots in the ocean, termed "microplastic hotspots," could hold up to 1.9 million pieces per square meter — the highest level ever to be recorded on the seafloor. The results of this study were published in Science in June 2020.

"We were shocked by the sheer number of [microplastics]," Ian Kane, the study's lead author, told Mongabay in May. "1.9 million is enormous. Previous studies have documented much smaller numbers, and … just talked about plastic fragments, but it's fibers that are really the more insidious of the microplastics. These are the things that are more readily consumed and absorbed into organisms' flesh."

A water sample containing plastic. Algalita Marine Research and Education

While these studies shine light on the fact that there's definitely more plastic in the ocean than we think, it still doesn't complete the picture, says Steve Allen, a microplastic expert and doctoral candidate at the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. Large quantities of microplastics still appear to be "missing" from the ocean, he said. For instance, one study suggested that 99.8% of oceanic plastic sinks below the ocean surface layer, making it difficult to detect, but Allen says this doesn't fully explain what's happening to all of the plastic that enters the ocean.

"We're finding some of it," Allen told Mongabay. "But we're … trying to explain where the rest of it went."

Allen and his wife, fellow scientist Deonie Allen, also from the University of Strathclyde, have been working to find their answer, or at least part of it, in an unlikely place: up in the sky.

‘Microplastics Are in Our Air’

As the ocean churns and breaks waves, air is trapped in tiny bubbles. When those bubbles break at the sea's surface, water rushes to fill the void, and this causes tiny, micro-sized particles, like flecks of sea salt or bacteria, to burst into the atmosphere. A new study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that microplastics are entering the air in the same way.

"[Bubbles] act a little bit like velcro," Deonie Allen told Mongabay. "Rather than the bubble going through the plastic soup and coming to the surface and not bringing any of the plastics with it, it actually collects [the plastic] and hangs on to it as it comes up. And when it bursts, the energy from the creation of the jet to fill the hole that's left in the sea … is what gives it the force to eject the plastic up into the atmosphere."

A lot of previous research on plastic pollution in the ocean has assumed that plastic remains in the seawater and sediment, or gets washed ashore. But this study takes a pioneering step to suggest that ocean plastic is entering the atmosphere through the sea breeze.

"This was just the next logical step to see whether what we're putting into the ocean was actually going to stay there, or whether it would come back," Steve Allen said.

A device used to collect air and mist samples to test for microplastics. Steve Allen

To obtain the necessary data for this study, the research team collected air and sea spray samples on the French Atlantic coast, both onshore and offshore. They found that there was a high potential for ocean microplastics to be released into the air, and suggested that each year, 136,000 tons of microplastics were blowing ashore across the world, although Steve Allen said this number was "extremely conservative."

This study specifically looked at microplastics, but the much smaller nanoplastics are likely going into air by the same means, according to the Allens. But detecting nanoplastics in the water or air can be challenging.

While this is the first study to look at the ocean as a source of atmospheric plastics, other research has examined the capacity of land-based plastics to leach into the air. One study, authored by the Allens and other researchers, found that microplastics were present in the air in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, even though the testing site was at least 90 kilometers (56 miles) from any land-based source of plastic, such as a landfill. This suggests that the wind can carry microplastics over long distances.

"We know that microplastics are in our air everywhere, from the looks of it," Deonie Allen said.

More research needs to be done to understand the implications of atmospheric microplastics on human health, but according to the Allens, it can't be good for us.

A "cloud catcher" used to collect data for research on microplastics in the atmosphere. Steve Allen

"Microplastics are really good at picking up the contaminants in the surrounding environment — phthalates, flame retardants, heavy metals," Deonie Allen said. "That will get released into the body, relatively effectively."

Enrique Ortiz, a Washington, D.C.-based ecologist and journalist who writes on the plastic pollution issue, says that this evidence should be a "wake up" call to humanity.

"The oceans are picking up the plastic that we throw in it, and that's what we're breathing," Ortiz told Mongabay "And that's the part that really … amazes me."

"But it's not just happening in coastal cities," he added. "No matter where you go, [even] in the middle of the Arctic … the human imprint is already there."

We're not just inhaling microplastics through the air we breathe — we're also getting it through the water we drink and the food we eat.

‘Our Life Is Plasticized’

Plastic waste isn't just leaking into the ocean; it's also polluting freshwater systems and even raining or snowing down from the sky after getting absorbed into the atmosphere, according to another study led by Steve and Deonie Allen. With microplastics being so ubiquitous, it should come as no surprise that they are also present in the food and water we drink.

Drinking water, including tap and bottled water, is the largest source of plastic in our diet, with the average person consuming about 1,769 tiny microplastic particles each week, according to a 2019 report supported by WWF. Other primary sources of microplastics include shellfish, beer and salt.

A new study published this year in Environmental Research found that microplastics were even present in common fruits and vegetables. Apples had one of the highest microplastic counts, with an average of 195,500 plastic particles per gram, while broccoli and carrots averaged more than 100,000 particles per gram.

"The possibility of plastics in our fruit and vegetables is extremely alarming," John Hocevar, ocean campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. "This should prompt additional studies to assess how much plastic we are consuming through our produce each day and examine how it is impacting our health."

"Decades of plastic use have contaminated our air, water, and soil," Hocevar added. "Eating just a bite of an apple could now mean eating hundreds of thousands of bits of plastic at the same time."

Through normal water and food consumption, it's estimated that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week, equivalent to the size of a credit card, according to the WWF report.

"Plastic is everywhere," Thava Palanisami, a microplastics researcher at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and contributor to the WWF report, told Mongabay. "We live with plastic and our life is plasticized — that we know. But we don't know what it does to human health. That's the biggest question mark."

While it's not entirely clear how plastic affects human health, research suggests that the inhalation of fibrous microplastics can lead to respiratory tract inflammation. And another study, referenced in the WWF report, shows that fish and other marine animals with high concentrations of microplastics in their respiratory and digestive tracts have much higher mortality rates. Another study, published in 2020, indicates that plastic accumulates in the muscle tissue of fish.

"If you look at what happens, for example, in fish — it [plastic] stays in their muscles," Ortiz said. "It's scary. If you look at the numbers, you're eating something in the order of one kilo of plastic every three years. I wonder, in our lifetime … if a percentage of our weight will be plastic that is still in our muscles."

"The problem is serious," Palanisami said. "We've got to stop using unwanted plastic and manage plastic waste properly, and … work on new plastic alternates."

Stemming the Tide  

Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at WWF, and leader of the organization's packaging and material science program, says the key to curbing the plastic pollution issue is making sure that plastic doesn't leak into nature in the first place.

"If you had a leaky faucet, would you bring out the mop first, or would you turn off the water?" Simon told Mongabay. "We're trying to stem that tide of plastic flowing into the ocean and into nature in general … but at the same time, trying to identify the different root causes of that leakage."

While Simon says there are various ways to try and stop plastic from entering the natural world, such as well-managed recycling and composting programs, she also said that large companies can play a critical role in helping to reduce plastic waste. WWF is currently spearheading a new program called ReSource, launched in 2019, that helps analyze companies' plastic footprints in order to work toward sustainable solutions. The program's website says 100 companies could prevent 50 million tons of plastic waste.

"We have three targets that we're looking at when we're partnering with companies," Simon said. "One, get rid of what you don't need. At the end of the day, we do need to reduce our demand for virgin nonrenewable plastic. Once you get rid of that, you think about the stuff that you do need — the things [for which] plastic is the right material choice. Where am I sourcing that from? Am I getting it from recycled content? Am I getting it from a sustainably-sourced bio base, or is it virgin non-renewable [plastic]? And then finally … how are you, as a company … making sure it comes back? Are you designing it in a way that it's technically recyclable into the places that it's ending up?"

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. Susan White / USFWS

While recycled plastic may seem like a satisfactory alternative to virgin plastic, a new study, published in July 2020, showed that children's toys made out of recycled plastic contained high levels of toxic chemicals, comparable to levels found in hazardous waste.

Moore, who has been studying plastic pollution since his discovery of the floating debris in the North Pacific Ocean, says he doesn't believe there's an easy fix to this issue, especially when it comes to the businesses that are producing large amounts of plastic.

"There's no change that corporations can make under the current system that will successfully combat plastic pollution," Moore said. "There is no technical fix to the plastic problem. It's not in the corporate portfolio to reduce sales of your products — the corporate portfolio is about increasing sales. The idea that [corporations] can be convinced to reduce their production and sale of the products that they make is a fantasy."

However, Moore says a solution could be found in "radical change," and that this moment of time, with the Black Lives Matter movement spreading across the world, could provide the opportunity for that change.

"Now is the time when a world historical revolution would be possible, when the people of the world could unite to change the system as a whole," Moore said.

"There won't be a techno fix and science won't develop … a new product that will get us out of the problem of plastic pollution," he said. "It will only come with the world as a whole agreeing to charter a new course towards a non-polluting future."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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