To viewers of last night’s edition of CBC-TV’s The Fifth Estate, a "documentary" titled The Denial Machine, the name James Hoggan will be familiar. Mr. Hoggan is the talking head who loomed late in the program to issue lofty pronouncements on the science of climate change. His main role, though, was to provide a Canadian link in the program’s grand conspiracy theory about scientists who are skeptical of global warming. For non-viewers of last night’s presentation, here’s a hint of the show’s theme: Exxon did it.
Not much was said about Mr. Hoggan. He’s mostly just allowed to run on with his story, which by no coincidence is exactly the story The Fifth Estate told. For a first-rate demonstration of dishonest manipulation masquerading as investigative journalism, it’s hard to beat The Denial Machine. Using smear-a-minute techniques, host Bob McKeown, under executive producer David Studer, advances the idea that one or two U.S. global warming science skeptics — particularly Fred Singer and Pat Michaels — have single-handedly turned the media, plus the Bush and Harper governments, into climate change deniers.
Now, there isn’t space here to snip away at all the anti-corporate threads woven through Bob McKeown’s warped tale. In brief: Exxon has paid money to groups and organizations connected in some way with S. Fred Singer, a distinguished environmental scientist and atmospheric physicist. In 1990, he founded the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), dedicated to exposing junk science. SEPP has produced science reports on second-hand smoke, CFCs and ozone depletion, ultraviolet radiation and cancer, plus much work on climate change. In each case, Mr. Singer has taken contrary positions. His latest is a book, Global Warming: An Unstoppable 1,500-Year Cycle, just published by the Hudson Institute, also a likely recipient of Exxon Foundation funds, as are the Brookings Institution and hundreds of other U.S. organizations.
As a recipient of corporate funds, directly or indirectly, Mr. Singer is painted by The Fifth Estate to be a hack scientist for hire, a man without credentials or expertise or integrity who should be ashamed of himself for fronting for the likes of Exxon. Mr. McKeown confronts Mr. Singer with the CBC’s high moral rectitude: "Isn’t that misleading the public? Isn’t that letting us think that it’s coming from an objective source, but it’s not?"
The smear here is the implication that Mr. Singer is not an objective scientist because some corporate money supports his work, even though the money may be only remotely linked. This is standard anti-corporate fare, deployed to discredit ideas and people one doesn’t like. The main theme is that no corporation should be allowed to support any activity anywhere that might coincide with a corporation’s agenda.
As an aside, the fact that BP, Shell, the nuclear industry, giant ethanol firms and others all support climate theory for their own self-interested purposes seems not to bother environmental activists. Confusingly, although not mentioned last night, Fred Singer is also a big proponent of nuclear power, which he thinks is safe and economical and would benefit from a major plan to put Exxon and coal out of business. How does all that work in the conflict arena?
This brings us back to Mr. Hoggan. The Fifth Estate follows the currently hot green story line — science skeptics are funded by corporations, therefore science skeptics are dishonest fronts who cannot be trusted. Scores of reports from green groups and leftist media in Canada and abroad have pushed the idea. Earlier this year, The Globe and Mail ran a lengthy piece by Charles Montgomery, featuring Mr. Hoggan, claiming that the oil industry was behind Canadian climate skeptic Tim Ball. Essentially the same story, also featuring Mr. Hoggan, appeared in This Magazine, home of Canada’s left. Headline: "Playing dirty: Coming clean on climate change spin — how the PR industry sold the ‘made in Canada’ solution to global warming."
Mr. Hoggan told This Magazine writer Zoe Cormier and the Globe’s Charles Montgomery the same message. Essentially, "ethical" public relations firms and corporations should not be engaged in "manipulating public opinion" in important matters of public policy. If corporations do try to fight policy, they run a risk. "If you don’t want to end up looking like those cigarette executives standing in front of Congress a few years ago … don’t fight something that you are inevitably going to lose." It is no surprise that the cigarette executive image is a visual tipping point in The Denial Machine’s nasty little piece.
The essence of Mr. Hoggan’s message is that PR agencies and corporations should not be able to support and fund climate science that runs contrary to the official global government science. "I don’t think that the people who are involved in this should be able to get away with it."
So who is James Hoggan? He’s a public relations man, based in Vancouver. His firm, James Hoggan and Associates, is positioned as a feel-good local operation with clients in all the "right" public and private sectors. He also sits on the board of the David Suzuki Foundation.
One of his side efforts is a blog operated out of Hoggan and Associates. Funded by retired Internet bubble king John Lefebvre, the blog has one full-time and three part-time staff. They spend their time tracking down and maliciously attacking all who have doubts about climate change and painting them as corporate pawns.
There has been no mention on the blog, nor on The Fifth Estate, of James Hoggan’s client list. They include or have included the National Hydrogen Association, Fuel Cells Canada, hydrogen producer QuestAir, Naikun Wind Energy and Ballard Fuel Cells. Mr. Hoggan, in other words, benefits from regulatory policy based on climate change science.
But it is as a climate commentator that Mr. Hoggan gets carried away. On The Denial Machine, Mr. Hoggan is allowed to go on at some length about how climate skeptics are not true scientists, are not qualified, or have no expertise.
That takes some gall. Here’s a totally unqualified small-town PR guy making disparaging comments about scientists he says are unqualified while he lectures the rest of us on the science. "If you look in the scientific literature, there is no debate," he tells Mr. McKeown. It doesn’t seem to bother Mr. McKeown that Mr. Hoggan has no expertise. It is also a little rich to have a member of the Suzuki Foundation board pronounce other scientists unfit and unqualified for climate assessments, while geneticist David Suzuki roams the world issuing barrages of climate change warnings at every opportunity.
When I called Mr. Hoggan yesterday and asked, among other things, whether he thought David Suzuki is qualified to comment on climate issues, Mr. Hoggan said, "I’m not interested in doing an interview with you. Thanks very much for your call."
At the end of The Denial Machine, Mr. Hoggan confidently declares that most of the 60 scientists who signed a letter earlier this year asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reopen the climate science issue are science hacks. The letter was first published on this page last April 6. "We looked into the folks who were on that, and all but 19 were Americans and most of them are kind of infamous characters from the states who worked for the tobacco industry."
In fact, only 12 are Americans and at most two, counting Mr. Singer, have done past science work on tobacco. About 20 are Canadians, while others are from about a dozen other countries, from France to Norway to Australia and the Netherlands. Readers can check the names on the letter, which we’ve reposted today as an Online Extra at www.nationalpost.com.
Through the whole episode, The Fifth Estate did not do one bit of science verification. No mention, for example, of Mr. Singer’s role as one the first to notice that the United Nations’ claim that we are living through the hottest period in 1,000 years had to be statistically wrong. Without spending one second looking at the science, the CBC crew smeared and discredited the skeptical scientists with corporate associations. Exxon did it. James Hoggan, however, is the real villain.