Understanding climate with the Fraser Institute and Michael Chernoff

The Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based think tank, is very concerned about education.  So concerned, in fact, that they have taken it upon themselves to develop a new climate science curriculum for use in Canadian schools.

Needless to say, the educational value of the new program is highly doubtful. And it turns out that some of the funding for the project comes from an equally dubious source – a major shareholder of oil and gas company Encana who was also behind a misguided effort to foist the notorious contrarian film “Great Global Warming Swindle” on the British Columbia school system.

This story starts with comments made by sharp-eyed Deep Climate readers on the NOAA climate education defacement thread. Mauri Pelto was first off the mark, with the observation that the website of the Vermont State Climatologist featured a Fraser Institute publication called “Understanding Climate Change”. The 2008 booklet by Fraser staffer Nicholas Schneider, was a simplified contrarian account of climate change, based largely on a  previous Fraser opus, the Independent Summary for Policy Makers (co-ordinated by Ross McKitrick). The booklet was not only available for download, but was also “distributed to 15,000 teachers and students”. According to the Fraser press release, the booklet took no position on the “debate” about global warming.

“This book doesn’t debate whether or not the world is warming or how much of that warming is caused by human activity. Instead it provides readers with a basic understanding of how scientists measure and study the climate, along with an outline of what climate scientists know for certain and what remains relatively unknown,” said Vanessa Schneider, Fraser Institute Director of Student Programs.

“By giving people an overview of the current state of climate science, they have more knowledge to better decide for themselves what kinds of policies are needed to deal with climate-related issues.”

Bill Miller of DesmogBlog had a good overview of this at the time.

Scott Mandia has been following up with Vermont in an effort to get the link removed, but along the way also discovered the latest Fraser travesty, namely “Understanding Climate Change: Lesson Plans for the Classroom”. Apparently, the first effort lacked sufficient propaganda, uh, I mean pedagogical, value and so has been revamped as a six-lesson plan, complete with worksheets and teacher guide. The authors are Holly Lippke Fretwell and Brandon Scarborough, both young aspiring economists with little scientific background. And it shows.

Things get off to a rocky start with a discussion of the scientific method. The Galileo card is played early (p. 4):

For example, Galileo was convicted of suspicion of heresy for teaching that the sun, not earth, was at the center of our solar system (as originally formulated by Copernicus). Today, we know this to be true.

Scientific knowledge advances when scientists have the courage to question conventional ideas and to propose new theories supported by all the available evidence.

In lesson 2, we learn that “El Nina” (possibly a newly discovered politically correct version of La Nina) is a more likely explanation for “flooding in the Midwest” than anthropogenic gloabal warming (strawman, much?):

The El Nina effect, the result of cooler-than-normal ocean temperatures, increased snowfall. The snowmelt in spring subsequently swelled rivers.

At every step, students are encouraged to use “critical judgment” to consider any and all hypotheses other than anthropogenic climate change, and to emphasize scientific “uncertainty”. So that teachers are clear on the direction, helpful final thoughts are provided at the end of each chapter. Some sample section ending comments:

Similarly, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about climate change. (p. 43)

It is important to consider many perspectives when analyzing an issue. People may get a biased view of an issue if they hear only one group’s hypothesis. The information provided by a variety of sources is much more enlightening. (p. 66)

It is important for students to understand that resources are limited. We cannot do everything; trade-offs must be made. This is as true for governments as it is for individuals. In addition, values are subjective and vary considerably among people. This is one reason why it is difficult for politicians to prioritize the many, often conflicting, demands of constituents. (p. 104)

This last comment gets to the heart of the matter. In fact, lesson 6 includes a  summary of Bjorn Lomborg’s 2004 Copenhagen Consensus (p. 105). Possible global initiatives are helpfully summarized, and range from “Very good opportunities” such as disease control and trade liberalization (!) all the way to “Bad opportunities”, such as carbon tax and the Kyoto protocol. It turns out the world would be a much better place if we would just stop worrying about climate change, and get on with fixing “real” problems instead. That’s a very inspiring message for the citizens of tomorrow. Talk about educational basics – getting back to ABCs (“anything but climate”).

In a too clever-by-half analogy, “normative” and “positive” judgments about tobacco use and climate change are contrasted. Of course, the analogy is a smokescreen, so to speak, to present the idea that the only possible “positive” judgments about greenhouse gas emissions are relatively innocuous statements about emission levels (in contrast to the clear health risks posed by tobacco). Thus is the work of thousands of scientists clearly demonstrating anthropogenic global warming blithely dismissed. The reference also reminds us that the Fraser’s record on smoking is dubious; one 2000 case study claims “second-hand smoke provides a splendid example of junk science producing junk public policy.”

It would be too depressing to enumerate all the bogus science encountered along the way, much of it in the form of well-worn contrarian talking points. Suffice it to say we learn that “correlation is not causation” and that temperature change leads CO2 in general (p. 14). And that human emissions are only a small part of CO2 emissions (p. 27).

As is sometimes the case  for such publications, the acknowledgments page tells you all you really need to know:

The Fraser Institute wishes to acknowledge the generous support of Mr. Michael Chernoff and the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation.

It turns out that the Hecht Foundation supports “complementary and alternative medicine” (46%), but also gives generously to “economic education” (34%). At least there is no pretense that any science might be involved.

Michael Chernoff is in a different category altogether. Here is the oil industry donor par excellence, apparently willing to support any anti-AGW nonsense.

As noted in Queen’s University alumni magazine (cached at Zoominfo) Chernoff was a geologist who started a small exploration company that struck it big in Ecuador. His company, Pacalta,  was taken over in 1999 by Alberta Energy Company, which soon became Canadian oil and gas giant Encana. Thus did Chenoff become an Encana board director until 2006, and a major shareholder.

In 2007, Chernoff made a controversial offer:

High schools that accept free copies of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth are being offered free copies of The Great Global Warming Swindle to round out their lessons.

Mike Chernoff, who readily acknowledged his ties to the oil industry, made the offer through his charitable family foundation, saying if schools want to promote critical thinking among students, they should show them both videos.

“The intent would be that neither documentary could be shown without showing the other for balance,” he said Wednesday.

The Vancouver Sun enthusiastically endorsed Chernoff’s initiative, while taking one or two gratuitous shots at Al Gore:

Indeed, this is what education should be about. During the screening of these films, and follow-up discussion and assignments, high school students will be detached from their iPods long enough to consider their individual and collective approach to climate change. They will weigh the “evidence” the films use to build the case for or against drastic measures and apply critical thinking skills to assess the social and environmental cost of policies designed to combat climate change. It might encourage them to examine their personal lifestyles and determine their own carbon footprints, which will be a whole lot less than that of Al Gore, the former United States vice-president who stars in An Inconvenient Truth.

…  Could the science be wrong or, more insidiously, doctored? If the planet is doomed no matter what we do, should we do nothing?

Surely, it is only a coincidence that the Vancouver Sun’s editorial page editor is none other than Fraser alumnus Fazil Mihlar.

Meanwhile, over at the Ottawa Citizen, Chernoff expressed his desire to achieve “balance” in material presented to students:

[Chernoff] admits that Mr. Durkin’s movie has some extreme views, but he still plans to use his charitable organization to distribute copies of the film in Canadian high schools.

“I would say that you have to go over the top, and I think that’s exactly what the kids need is (to see a movie that makes them say) ‘Hey, Dad, we saw this film and these guys say that Gore’s crazy,'” said Mr. Chernoff, who now sits on the board of a couple of smaller Canadian oil and gas companies. “I may also feel that it’s over the top, but I think that’s what’s required.”

So this recent collaboration between Chernoff and the Fraser Institute makes eminent sense and is only the latest in a long association with Encana bigwigs. Retired Encana CEO Gwyn Morgan is a longtime Fraser trustee and is now one of three vice chairs. And, of course, it’s a given that Encana has been a significant contributor to the Fraser Institute. But that’s a story for another time.

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10 responses to “Understanding climate with the Fraser Institute and Michael Chernoff

  1. Nice expose, DC. I will be doing a public lecture titled: “Global Warming: Separating Fact from Fiction” next Friday night and will be discussing the Fraser Institute among many others. The FI appears to be Canada’s version of the Heartland Institute.

    It never ceases to amaze me that these folks will sacrifice our children’s future to save a few bucks today. Shameless.

    You should send this to DeSmogBlog and to ClimateProgress also. Perhaps RC, too.

  2. I appreciate the detective work — and I will be looking forward to reading it and the materials you’ve linked to more thoroughly a little later.

    However, I hope you don’t mind, but I have a little announcement to make:

    Their back…

    Clicking on Google search result:

    Grant detail (for the Fraser Institute)
    http://www.mediatransparency.org/pdagrantdetail.php?grantID=4851

    … brought me to:

    http://mediamattersaction.org/transparency/

    … and searching for the Fraser Institute then selecting funders gave me:

    The Fraser Institute

    http://mediamattersaction.org/transparency/organization/The_Fraser_Institute/funders

    Drill down on…

    Carthage Foundation
    $50,000

    Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation
    $18,221

    Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation
    $30,000

    John M. Olin Foundation
    $10,000

    Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
    $95,080

    Sarah Scaife Foundation
    $225,000

    Media Transparency 2.0 is right!

    Good use of Ajax. Parts of the webpage are able to update asynchronously without the whole webpage having to be updated. Seems instantaneous.

    Oh — and they have kept a version of the older Media Transparency website (there is a link to it on the new home page) — in case one gets nostalgic.

    The new site is something that will no doubt make many of those at SourceWatch (and DeSmogBlog, no doubt) happy. Frankly I was beginning to get paranoid — that someone had found a way to keep Media Transparency shut down permanently. But no doubt they heard about the hoops I was going through to use the site even though it was no longer there and they put the steam on.

  3. One of the things which bothers me about the propaganda effort represented by the lesson plan could best be summarized by the question, “What is the point?” I mean, simply in order to try and anticipate the actions of another individual or set of individuals in order to deal with them, one has to assume they are at some level “rational.”

    At least with regard to “Of Pandas and People,” there was some sort of objective that made sense, sort of. They wanted to indoctrinate the next generation. Under the guise of defending objectivity in the form of “presenting both views,” they wanted to use intelligent design as a vehicle to argue against “secularism” and scientific objectivity. They wanted to introduce a sense of victimization among the religious in a world that is presumably hostile to its values. They wanted to prepare the way for some sort of theocracy.

    But I don’t see that here. Sure, there is propaganda value in arguing that they are attempting to “present both sides fairly.” They can then claim that attempts to shut this project down are attacks upon free speech, or upon scientific objectivity, or upon good pedagogy. They might make the population somewhat more hostile towards genuine climate science and climate scientists, at least in the short-run.

    But there wouldn’t seem to be any real long-term goal. Sure, they can indoctrinate children using the usual sets of fallacies, but surely the deep pockets behind this operation — those pulling the strings — must be aware of the fact that by the time the kids are old enough to vote things will have progressed to the point that it will be increasingly difficult to convince the local village idiot that climate change isn’t taking place or that it isn’t serious.

    Are they only concerned with the short-term propaganda value behind this? Could they themselves be blithely unaware of the seriousness of climate change — and actually be buying into their own propaganda? At least with Howard Ahmanson in the case of intelligent design, he seems to represent just the sort of religious extremism he was trying to foment. Or is this an attempt on the part of the front organization itself or of some sort of parent organization to prove its value in order to attract deeper pockets?

    Not sure that there is much point in asking these questions. Perhaps I am simply over-thinking this. After all, if a car is barreling down on you it is probably not the time to sit down at a table and engage in a discussion of what the words “car-barreling-down” mean. But it is something that I wonder about.

  4. Timothy,
    The various actors are likely to have different motives. I would say think tanks and PR firms are merely selling services or projects. If the proposed project doesn’t make money, it doesn’t get done.

    As for Chernoff, he may have grandchildren who he feels are asking uncomfortable questions, or are being affected by supposed “propaganda”. A contrarian education program could be considered to be aimed at parents as much as the children themselves.

    Certainly I agree with you that the motivation is not as straightforward as in the case of Friends of Science where money went from oil and gas companies to PR practitioners like Tom Harris (APCO Worldwide) and Morten Paulsen (Fleishman-Hillard) through various conduits. There the goal was clear: Create doubt about the science in order to forestall effective regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by the Canadian government.

  5. The various actors are likely to have different motives. I would say think tanks and PR firms are merely selling services or projects. If the proposed project doesn’t make money, it doesn’t get done.

    That is something I noticed about the letter exchange between APCO Worldwide and Philip Morris in the case of the project / front-group “TASSC: The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition” and the campaign against the science of second-hand smoke. APCO was trying to show Philip Morris that they could be cost-effective, that they could solicit money from other companies and organizations in order to prove more cost effective. It was just business to them — and appeared decentralized rather than top-down. Looking simply at either Exxon or even the major foundations it is easy to fall into a view of the denialist movement as being almost strictly top-down and highly coordinated. But it would be a mistake to fall into that sort of view — although not quite on the same order as that of taking a given astroturf campaign at face value.

    As for Chernoff, he may have grandchildren who he feels are asking uncomfortable questions, or are being affected by supposed “propaganda”.

    I get the impression that he is less aware of the science and that for him it is more personal.

    A contrarian education program could be considered to be aimed at parents as much as the children themselves.

    I had considered that as well. Of course, if what the larger organizations are investing in isn’t indoctrination of a specific set of beliefs but more an ideology or worldview that makes people more susceptible to current and future propaganda efforts, then changing circumstances with respect to global warming may result in less of a hit to their long-term investment.

    At this point Patrick Michaels himself is admitting before his own audiences that we have not entered a period of global cooling, preparing them for the fact that some time soon the world annual temperature record will be broken — but then of course they will have other arguments. He adapts to changing circumstances, keeps his audience and moves on.

    At least with respect to the major foundations, there is a fair amount of overlap between those that support or have supported efforts against the climate science that recognizes global warming (in the guise of a libertarianism that has also been used to attack the scientific cases against second-hand smoke, CFCs and DDT) — and those that have pushed the religious right in the United States, and have therefore also been involved in creationist efforts against evolutionary biology. In any case, this is a bit of a mind-warp for me — coming as I have from what was essentially a libertarian background. Then again, perhaps John 8:32 might be relevant at this point.

  6. Timothy,

    1) Having lesson plans makes their Understanding Climate Change document appear to be more credible. I imagine that they are also pitching these lesson plans to political leaders.

    2) What better place to confuse folks than in high school just before they get to college where they presumably would be exposed to the truth by experts? I even know of one FACULTY member here who has an M.S. of Geology that is a Heartland Institute disciple.

    3) Maybe they can convince some teachers that there is no consensus or that the consensus is incorrect and then these teachers become unwitting accomplices. Recall that the State Climatologist of Vermont was fooled so it is easy to see how the lay person could be fooled.

    4) Students will become voters soon enough so doubt might deliver votes down the road.

    Scott

  7. Hi; a little off topic, but not entirely; Calgary Sun article about Conservatives starting a “war room” to deal with Copenhagen negotiations, spin, etc.

    http://www.calgarysun.com/comment/columnists/greg_weston/2009/11/15/11750296-sun.html

    hat tip to http://impolitical.blogspot.com/2009/11/conservative-anti-copenhagen-war-room.html a Liberal partisan blog, but it often has very good information.

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