Volume 1 Issue 2, Article
University of Victoria
At the Gate of Disaster: A Case Study on the Promotion of Climate Science Rejectionism by Mainstream News Outlets and E-Commerce Companies
Climate science rejectionist Patrick Moore’s new book, Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom, has been promoted by a constellation of media and special interest groups around the world that share his views. However, its success as an “environmental science” bestseller on Amazon, has also been the result of support it received from mainstream news media outlets and ecommerce companies. Using a narrative reconstructed with investigative reporting techniques, this case study will apply gatekeeping theory to explore how those who platformed or publicized Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument failed to make its accuracy a determinant in doing so, instead prioritizing other concerns, such as freedom of expression and promoting a diversity of viewpoints.
Keywords: climate change; climate change skepticism; climate science denial; disinformation; gatekeeping theory; mass media; misinformation
À la porte du désastre : Une étude de cas sur la promotion du rejet de la science du climat par les médias grand public et les sociétés de commerce électronique
Le nouveau livre de Patrick Moore rejetant la science du climat, intitulé Fake invisible catastrophes and threats of doom (Fausse catastrophes invisibles et menaces d’un destin tragique), a été promu par une constellation de médias et de groupes d’intérêts spéciaux du monde entier qui partagent son point de vue. Cependant, son succès en tant que best-seller des « sciences de l’environnement » sur Amazon, a également été le résultat du soutien qu’il a reçu des médias grand public et des sociétés de commerce électronique. À l’aide d’un récit reconstruit avec des techniques de reportage d’investigation, cette étude de cas appliquera la théorie du gatekeeping (contrôle d’accès à l’information) pour explorer comment ceux qui ont mis en ligne ou rendu public l’argument des fausses catastrophes invisibles de Moore ont omis d’utiliser l’exactitude comme un facteur déterminant pour le faire, mais ont plutôt donné la priorité à d’autres préoccupations, telles que la liberté d’expression et la promotion d’une diversité de points de vue.
Mots clés : changement climatique ; scepticisme à l’égard du changement climatique ; déni de la science du climat ; désinformation ; théorie du gatekeeping ; médias de masse ; désinformation.
In 2021, a self-published book became an unlikely bestseller in Amazon’s environmental science category, accompanied by hundreds of five-star reviews praising its “non-sensational reasoning,” “reliable and truthful analysis,” and use of “factual evidence” (Beaton, 2021; Herman, 2021; Montgomery, 2021). In just 237 pages, it discussed a cornucopia of headlining issues: from climate change and species extinction to ocean acidification and wildfires. However, unlike many other environmental science books on similar topics, the book did not discuss how those forces could threaten our own species and the sundry species with which we share this planet. Instead, its author, former Greenpeace leader and prominent climate science rejectionist Patrick Moore, described them as Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom, the title of his book.
Its success has been the result of the support it received from of a constellation of conservative and climate science rejecting groups, major ecommerce companies, and members of the mainstream news media, including Canada’s largest newspaper chain, as well as two televised talk shows: one, which was backed by a leading West Coast university; and the other, which is rebroadcast on PBS stations across the United States. This case study will demonstrate how the diverse gatekeepers of our modern information ecosystem, which stretches beyond newsrooms to include civil society groups, private businesses, and public institutions, too often failed to make accuracy a determinant in their decisions to broadcast, publish, platform, or otherwise publicize Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument. That failure means Moore was able to use these platforms to build a ladder of legitimacy that took this argument from the fringes of the Internet to a wider and more mainstream audience.
The end result is the contamination of that ecosystem, jeopardizing the informed decision-making that is a notionally part of our democratic political system. When that decision-making is cast into the hazard, decisiveness in the public and private spheres can be forestalled in favour of delay, and, most dangerously, disregard. We have seen that in our response to the pandemic, as misinformation and disinformation has compromised health measures in many jurisdictions around the world (Butcher, 2021). And we have seen that in our response to climate change, which is still not being treated with the urgency it demands (McKie, 2021). However, as this case study will also demonstrate, what is less visible is how that contamination can be stopped.
Gatekeeping theory, as first articulated by Lewin (1947), postulates the behaviour of individuals and organizations can be understood as the outcome of a series of “in” or “out” decisions or impartial rules. That happens at gates along social channels leading to that behaviour. Hence, those responsible for such decisions, which are influenced by forces within those channels, are gatekeepers. Lewin suggested this model could be applied to “the travelling of a news item through certain communication channels in a group” (1947, p. 145). This suggestion was then actualized by White (1950) in his seminal paper “The ‘Gate Keeper’: A Case Study in the Selection of News,” which examined the reasons a wire editor of a morning newspaper, in an industrialized mid-West city, used and rejected stories that crossed his desk over a seven-day period.
Since then, gatekeeping theory has been an important lens by which mass communication scholars view the news media and, more broadly, how news messages are selected and disseminated (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). That theory has also been used to understand gatekeepers outside of newsrooms, which has been particularly important as a result of the proliferation of Internet-based self-publishing and self-broadcasting tools, including blogging and social media platforms (DeIuliis, 2015).
In recent years, there has been criticisms of gatekeeping theory in communications scholarship, with O’Sullivan et al. (1994, p. 127) dismissing it as “oversimplified and of little utility.” However, the application of gatekeeping theory persists and is appropriate in this case study for two reasons (DeIuliis, 2015). First, the study examines the choices gatekeepers made or did not make in platforming Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument, consistent with the theory’s focus on understanding “under what conditions these personnel make their decisions” (Hartley, 2019, pp. 144-5). As a result, it facilitates individual and organizational accountability, whether political or journalistic. Secondly, gatekeeping theory recognizes “people want information checked, evaluated, and edited for them by professionals” (Hartley, 2019, p. 145). Therefore, by acknowledging the value of that process and the fact gatekeepers “primary professional function is to make objective, impartial decisions,” this theory is best positioned to analyze when there are failures to do so (O’Sullivan et al., 1994, p. 126).
Such failures matter because classical democratic theory assumes citizens will use information to make “wiser decisions” about government (Berelson, 1952, p. 317-8, see also Davis, 1964, pp. 37-9; Dahl, 1989, pp. 99-100). By extension, misinformation can jeopardize that process, since it is impossible to make wiser decisions with inaccurate material. Yet how often do gatekeepers guard against the spread of misinformation within the context of the fraught debate about climate change?
This study explores that question by examining the dissemination of Moore’s argument about fake invisible catastrophes. To do so, investigative reporting techniques were used to assemble a narrative of that dissemination, drawing on archival and contemporaneous news media coverage of Moore and records related to speeches he has given about that argument, as well as interviews with participants in its dissemination, including Moore himself.
The material for this case study was collected for a journalistic project undertaken for the award-winning, British Columbia-based online magazine The Tyee, which found Moore misinterpreted the findings of scientists he cited to support his fake invisible catastrophes argument (Holman, 2021a, 2021c).
ACTIVISM TO INACTIVISM
The story of the dissemination of that argument begins in the early Seventies. Back then, Moore had earned a doctoral degree from the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forests after writing a thesis on how mining pollution was being administered in the province (Moore, 1974). He now refers to that degree as a doctorate in ecology (Moore, n.d.). Around the same time, Moore became an environmental activist. He describes himself as one of Greenpeace’s co-founders, a title the group contests (Greenpeace, 2010; Moore, n.d.). What is uncontested is he was the president of Greenpeace Canada, as well as a director with Greenpeace International (Moore, n.d.).
Since leaving Greenpeace in 1986, Moore has, in his own words, helped “guide governments and industries into sensible policies that would improve their environmental performance without driving them into bankruptcy” (Moore, 2021a, p. 6). He has also gained significant publicity for contesting the fact that human activity and carbon dioxide emissions are the main causes of the climate change we are now experiencing, which is how this case study will use the term climate science rejectionist when describing Moore in this study (Moore, 2021a, pp. 27-84). This definition is important since Moore has complained when the news media has referred to him as climate denier, even as he has admitted to be a “partial denier” (Moore, 2018b). The core of these complaints is his belief that the term is “culturally associated with the Holocaust…That is why this slur is used to discredit those of us who know the long history of [the] climate” (Moore, 2019b).
Regardless, his views would have found an easy home at Canada’s climate science rejecting Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the similarly-minded Heartland Institute in the United States, where Moore is listed as senior fellow and policy advisor, respectively (Frontier Centre for Public Policy, n.d.; Heartland Institute, n.d.). However, he is most active as the director and past chair of the Arlington, Va.-based CO2 Coalition, which aims to educate the “thought leaders, policy makers and the public about the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy” (CO2 Coalition, n.d.). Moore’s own educational work included making headlines two years ago with a viral tweet calling Democratic House Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez a “pompous twit” for supporting the Green New Deal, which he alleged would lead to “mass death” (as cited in Niemietz, 2019).
That position is consistent with the belief he outlines in his book that humans have “not actually altered the climate in any way out of the ordinary and there is no hard evidence that we will. The climate of Earth today is not at all unusual for an interglacial period” (Moore, 2021a, p. 77). In fact, in 2019, scientists concluded there is a 99.9971 per cent chance the hard evidence that human activities are responsible for global warming at the Earth’s surface is correct, a finding published in one of the world’s most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals, Nature (Santer et al., 2019).
Outside climate circles, Moore has defended a range of products and industries around the world, including genetically engineered foods, nuclear power and polyvinyl chloride (Moore, n.d.). However, he is perhaps best known for telling a French documentary filmmaker “you can drink a whole quart of [the herbicide glyphosate] and it won’t hurt you” (Moreira, 2014). He then refused to do that when the filmmaker offered him a glass of the chemical, which has been classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2015). The video of that exchange went viral and was widely reported around the world (Matthews, 2015).
INVISIBLE AND REMOTE THREATS
Moore’s more recent contribution to science rejectionism is Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom (2021). The book was released on Amazon’s American and Canadian stores in January, 2021. However, the book’s story actually begins with an essay of the same title that was written in August 2018 and revised in June 2019. In that essay, Moore argues, “The majority of alleged environmental threats and catastrophes are invisible or very remote, thus making it virtually impossible for the average person to validate them through observation” (Moore, 2018a).
Among the sixteen invisible threats he dismisses or diminishes in his book or essay are farmed salmon, genetically modified foods, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, nuclear radiation, pesticide residue, and undersea volcanoes (Moore, 2018a, 2019b, 2021a). But the other ten threats are all climate change-related, including coral reef deaths, species extinction, species endangerment, and ocean acidification. Indeed, climate change as a whole is the most prominent of the eleven fake invisible catastrophes catalogued in his book, which describes carbon dioxide as “the scapegoat of blame for an entire laundry list of negative effects” (Moore, 2021a, p. 6).
Before that book was published, Moore took his message on the road. The first speech he gave about fake invisible threats was in November 2018 to OKC Town Hall, an Oklahoma City forum for “nationally recognized speakers” (Oklahoma City Town Hall, n.d.). Other forums for that presentation included the July 2019 annual meeting of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, a Tucson, Ariz.-based group that promotes climate skepticism (Hickman, 2010). His speech was recorded and has been viewed more than 43,000 times on YouTube, as of July 1, 2021 (Friends of Science, 2020). At that meeting, other presenters spoke on topics such as “Technocracy: the road to a ‘scientific’ dictatorship,” “Induced abortion: The modern anthropogenic plague,” and “If not Oswald, who killed President Kennedy and why?” (Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, 2019).
But that association with conspiracy theories did not stop Moore from almost getting his message out to a more mainstream audience soon after. He was booked through the National Speakers Bureau to deliver a keynote address at a conference organized by the local government of Regina, the capital city of the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan (Ackerman, 2020). That conference was intended to help the city achieve its goal of having “operations, facilities, and [a vehicle] fleet that are 100 per cent renewable by 2050” (City of Regina, n.d.).
At the time, Regina city councillor Mike O’Donnell told reporters the topic of Moore’s speech was to have been “A Sustainable Energy Future” (as cited in Ackerman, 2020a). Soon, concerns were raised about the appropriateness of Moore speaking at the event (Melnychuk, 2020). Then he was interviewed on popular talk radio station 650 CKOM, where he told right-wing host John Gormley he would actually be discussing “Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom” (John Gormley Show, 2020).
Two days after being interviewed by Gormley, Moore’s keynote was cancelled, although the City said he still pocketed the $5,700 deposit on his $10,000 speaking fee (Ackerman, 2020b). “Actually, I don’t want to be part of such a stupid exercise,” Moore tweeted when that news broke. “It’s impossible to make a city 100% renewable” (Moore, 2020a).
He was not de-platformed for long. Moore announced he had been “RE-platformed in REgina” by Ezra Levant, the “rebel commander” of the far-right Canadian media outlet Rebel News (Moore, 2020b). In promoting that speech, Levant told his viewers it would take place the night before the Reimagine Conference at the Conexus Arts Centre, which had hosted controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson two years prior. “I knew we’d be a good fit if they were cool with Dr. Peterson,” Levant said. “They just wanted us to hire some extra security that night” (Rebel News, 2020).
That event was rescheduled for March 30, 2021. It was ultimately cancelled as a result of Saskatchewan’s pandemic restrictions (Gunn Reid, 2021). However, Moore also found a similarly receptive audience for his message at the Oregon Logging Conference, where he spoke to “500 loggers and foresters” after the cancellation of his speech in Regina (Moore, 2020c). The conference’s president lauded him as “knowledgeable in the facts and real science of our environment unlike much of the current ‘best available’ information which is more often than not, politically or agenda driven” (Oregon Logging Conference, n.d.).
Nevertheless, in a letter to the editor of the Eugene Weekly, one activist who protested Moore’s appearance wrote the “entire event bore little resemblance to a professional convention,” with speakers who “warned that cap and trade and endangered species protection threatened rural families’ way of life” and “demonized effete urban democrats and unpatriotic, lazy activists” (Watson, 2020). Moore contributed to that demonizing.
According to his own account of that protest, when eight to ten demonstrators “stood up screaming, ‘FALSE,’” he asked the audience to “forcibly remove them…I went short of asking the audience to injure them badly…The retards do not have a right to interfere with my right to free speech, as long as it is not defamatory or hateful” (Moore 2020c; Moore 2020d).
CLIMATE SKEPTICISM AS AN ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE BESTSELLER
Moore also exercised that right by turning his fake invisible catastrophes essay into a book project thanks to the time provided by the COVID-19 lockdown. He launched a crowdfunding campaign for it in September 2020, promising funders he would deliver a “hard-hitting, fact-based debunking of [the] most outrageous claims about climate, polar bears, coral reefs, GMOs, forests, etc.” (Moore, 2020e).
As examples of his work, he touted his previous book, Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, and videos featuring him that were produced for Prager University, an American non-profit that is not actually an accredited academic institution but instead promotes conservative ideas to teenagers and post-secondary students (Bowles, 2020; Moore, 2020e). That sales pitch raised more than $26,000 of its $30,000 goal to pay for a publicist and book designer (Moore, 2020e). The top contribution was from a $8,787 anonymous donor (Moore, 2020e). Other top contributors included Robert Bebb [$2,000], who ran as a candidate for the far-right People’s Party of Canada in the 2019 federal election (Bebb, 2021; Moore, 2020e).
However, two weeks after a media request was placed with GoFundMe about Moore’s campaign and whether the platform had any policies prohibiting fundraising for projects such as this, the company removed it. “Cancel-culture at work,” Moore tweeted (Moore, 2021e). For its part, a GoFundMe spokesperson stated Moore’s campaign was removed because it promoted misinformation, violating their terms of service (as cited in Holman, 2021a). Amazon has taken a different approach.
In mid-February 2021, Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom, charted as the fifteenth most sold and read book on Amazon.ca (Amazon, n.d.). It has also been listed in both Amazon’s Canadian and American shops as a Number 1 best-seller in the environmental science category. Asked about those sales and the book’s categorization, a company spokesperson wrote, “As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important and have policies that outline what products may be sold in our stores” (as cited in Holman, 2021d).
Those policies do not include any restrictions on the sale or promotion of climate science rejectionism, misinformation, or disinformation. Instead, censorship seems to be the foremost concern for Amazon, with its spokesperson saying the company is “mindful of a global history fraught with book censorship, and we do not take this lightly” (as cited in Holman, 2021d). The spokesperson did not respond to a question about how selling climate skepticism is consistent with founder Jeff Bezos’s climate change commitments (Gamboa, 2021; as cited in Holman, 2021d; Siegel & Greene, 2019).
At first, Moore’s book was promoted by conservative media outlets and climate skeptic groups such as Real Clear Markets, Rebel News, and Watts Up With That? (Moore, 2021b; Rebel News, 2021; Rotter, 2021) But then, Canada’s national newspaper chain, Postmedia, mainstreamed it.
NATIONAL NEWSPAPER PROMOTES BOOK WITH TAXPAYER HELP
Postmedia has a record of publishing climate science rejectionists and pumping up the oil and gas industry on its comment pages. In fact, a conspiratorial report commissioned for the Canadian province of Alberta’s controversial public inquiry into “anti-Alberta energy campaigns” singled out Postmedia’s flagship publication, the National Post, for featuring “editorial and commentator content that is generally critical of the energy transition” away from fossil fuels (Nemeth, 2020). That report also included multiple references to articles written by National Post columnists Terrance Corcoran and Rex Murphy, the latter of whom told attendees on a webinar, “You have to defy the conventional idea that if you deny global warming you are some sort of benighted Neanderthal” (Canada Strong and Free Network, 2021; Nemeth, 2020)
Nevertheless, Postmedia’s publications are still nominally considered mainstream news outlets in Canada. The company stated mission is to keep Canadians “in the know with ambitious, trusted and high-quality journalism” (Postmedia Network Canada, n.d.) Its publications also belong to the National NewsMedia Council, a voluntary, self-regulatory body that polices news industry ethics in Canada (National NewsMedia Council, n.d.). So, against that backdrop, it was surprising when the National Post’s business section, the Financial Post, ran an op-ed from Moore promoting his book on February 10 (Moore, 2021c).
In it, the former Greenpeace leader expounded on his argument that the environmental catastrophes we face today are “fake news and fake science” (Moore, 2021c). As an example, Moore claimed “the Great Barrier Reef is alive and well,” despite a recent study by James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (2020) that found it has “lost half its corals in the past three decades” (Australia Research Council, 2020; Moore, 2021c). The National Post had actually published news of that study, along with a story about the International Union for Conservation of Nature raising the World Heritage-listed site’s status to “critical” from “significant concern” (Reuters, 2020a, 2020b).
Moore then ended his op-ed, which prominently featured his book’s cover art, by promising the “main attraction” of Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom would be his belief CO2 will not wreak “havoc on an unsuspecting planet and all species of life thereon” (Moore, 2021c). Asked about Postmedia’s decision to publish that op-ed, the company’s communication vice-president Phyllise Gelfand wrote, “It was a commentary and no one paid Postmedia to publish it. We publish a variety of opinions” (as cited in Holman, 2021c). She did not respond to a question about the process the Financial Post took to verify the op-ed’s claims prior to publication, although Moore said he got a “good edit” (as cited in Holman, 2021c).
That edit was partially bankrolled by Canadian taxpayers. In the year ended August 31, 2020, Postmedia received $10.8 million in journalism tax credits from Canada’s federal and Quebec governments under a scheme to bailout the country’s floundering news industry (Postmedia Network Canada, 2020). However, to qualify for those tax credits, Postmedia must produce “original news content,” which includes commentaries, “based on journalistic processes and principles,” with one of them being a “commitment to researching and verifying information before publication” (Canada Revenue Agency, n.d.)
MOORE APPEARS ON A UNIVERSITY-SUPPORTED TALK SHOW
Nor was this the only support Moore’s argument received from the public sector. In February, the televised talk show Conversations That Matter featured him as a guest (Conversations That Matter, 2021a). At the time, the show was a partner program of the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, a conference facility at Vancouver, Canada’s Simon Fraser University that promotes “dialogue and engagement” to “increase mutual understanding and identify shared solutions” (Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, n.d.-b). The show’s subject: “Do catastrophic predictions come true?”
Stuart McNish, a veteran Vancouver broadcast reporter who formerly worked for one of Canada’s highest-rated television newscasts, started Conversations That Matter in 2014 (The Vancouver Sun, 2014). In October of that year, the Postmedia-owned Vancouver Sun, which is the largest broadsheet in British Columbia, announced the show would be available each week on its website (The Vancouver Sun, 2014). The newspaper wrote “initial funding for the program has come from a group of supporters who believe the show fills a need, and by contributions from viewers who wish to join in” (The Vancouver Sun, 2014). The Sun did not disclose who those supporters were. However, it did say the show would allow “leaders in their professions to take us inside their worlds on a wide range of topics” (Vancouver Sun, 2014).
According to his LinkedIn profile, McNish became an associate with the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in November 2014 (McNish, n.d.). By 2015, Conversations That Matter’s opening was branding it as one the centre’s partner programs (Conversations That Matter, 2015d). In an email, the centre’s executive director Shauna Sylvester wrote McNish raises the funding for the show himself, although those monies “do come through Simon Fraser University” (as cited in Holman, 2021c).
As of July 1, 2021, the show had more than 600 videos and 22,000 subscribers on YouTube (Conversations That Matter, n.d.). A search of that channel, as well as Vancouver Sun archives, indicates McNish has had climate activists and scientists and on his show, with the later including University of British Columbia’s Simon Donner and Sara Harris, as well as Greg Flato, who was the lead author for chapters in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth and fifth assessment reports (Conversations That Matter, 2015a, 2019a, 2019b).
However, his show has also featured guests who have discussed their climate science rejectionism, including Friends of Science communications manager Michelle Stirling, Princeton University physicist Freeman Dyson, and Trump administration National Security Council appointee William Happer, who co-founded the CO2 Coalition that Moore helps (Conversations That Matter, 2015b, 2015c, 2020b). Prior to his most recent appearance, Moore had twice been a guest on Conversations That Matter (Conversations That Matter, 2016, 2017). “I think he thinks I’m a conversation that matters,” Moore said. “He gets a lot of heat for interviewing me” (as cited in Holman, 2021c).
During his 2021 appearance, Moore accused journalists and scientists of “making up so-called narratives that are fake” (Conversations That Matter, 2021a). Moore also claimed it was “extremist to say that humans are the main factor in the changing climate of Earth because it has changed a lot more before humans were even here” (Conversations That Matter, 2021a). Instead, he attributed recent changes to a “gentle warming period” that has occurred since the Little Ice Age (Conversations That Matter, 2021a). “We are [a] tropical species. So warming of the Earth will not really be that big of a problem for human beings” (Conversations That Matter, 2021a).
McNish did not respond to a question about why he did not challenge Moore’s positions (Holman, 2021a). In the past, he has said “being tough on my guests is not what Conversations is all about” (Conversations That Matter, 2020a). Nor would he consent to an interview unless it was on his show (as cited in Holman, 2021a). The Wosk Centre’s executive director, Shauna Sylvester, was more communicative. In an email, she wrote, “I’d hope we were beyond climate denial” (Holman, 2021a). That said, Sylvester added her centre does not practice “editorial control” over Conversations That Matter (as cited in Holman, 2021a).
For its part, the Vancouver Sun does practice editorial control over what it promotes and publishes on its website, which included the episode Conversation That Matter featuring Moore (McNish, 2021). Yet, when Simon Fraser University communications professor Robert Hackett expressed concern about that decision, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Harold Munro told him, that while there is “no dispute” that climate change is real, “there is room for legitimate debate on our editorial pages about the best solutions, pace of change and fairness in sharing the financial and social burden” (as cited in Holman, 2021c).
Since the Conservations That Matter episode featuring Moore was aired, the show has posted a “revised” version of it that no longer includes the Wosk Centre’s logo (Conversations That Matter, 2021b). Subsequent episodes do not have that logo either. As of July 1, 2021, Conversations That Matter remained listed as one of the centre’s partner programs on its website (Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, n.d.-a). At the time of publishing this article, it is now listed as a “past program.” Neither McNish, who no longer lists himself as a Wosk Centre associate, nor Sylvester responded to a request for comment about those changes (as cited in Holman, 2021a). However, this was not the last time Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument would be given a mainstream audience.
PBS PLATFORMS “FAKE INVISIBLE CATASTROPHES”
Two months after his Conversations That Matter appearance, the former Greenpeace leader was featured on Canada Files, a television program presented by WNED, the public broadcaster that serves Buffalo, NY and Toronto, Ont. (Deeks, 2021). The half-hour program, which is rebroadcast on other PBS stations across the United States, premiered in 2020 to “give American audiences an opportunity to become aware of and appreciate Canadian heritage through the many guests they already know” (Schneekloth, 2020). Jim Deeks, a former news anchor at Canadian national broadcaster CTV’s Toronto affiliate, interviews those guests as the show’s host and executive producer. Prior to Moore’s appearance, its roster included luminaries ranging from author Margaret Atwood and musician Robbie Robertson, to astronaut Chris Hadfield and former Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin (Canada Files, n.d.-a).
Deeks, who served as executive director of the Canadian Open Golf Championship after he left CTV and was a former advertising agency copywriter, said he interviewed Moore after he was “identified to me as a person with a different perspective on climate change” (Canada Files, n.d.-b, Holman, 2021b) Prior to that interview, Deeks said he did “fairly extensive research into [Moore’s] background and credentials, read some of his previous articles, and watched an interview that he did about two years ago with [fellow climate science rejectionist] Rex Murphy” (as cited in Holman, 2021b). From that research, Deeks “found his views compelling, even if I didn’t agree with them, and in view of his educational and Greenpeace credentials, I felt that he was a valid candidate for our show” (as cited in Holman, 2021b).
During that show, Moore claimed the climate was changing “very slowly” compared to the “way climate has changed in the past,” despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluding the rate of warming is “much more rapid and very unusual in the context” of the temperature changes over the past million years (Deeks, 2021). Moore also incorrectly claimed there is “no actual proof” carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel use has anything to do with that warming (Deeks, 2021). He further claimed “climate change has sort of become what I would describe [as] a rather toxic combination of extreme left ideology and warped science” and that there was not a consensus among scientists that human activity is the main cause of global warming when, in fact, there is (Deeks, 2021).
Occasionally, Deeks gently questioned Moore’s claims. However, Deeks stated, “I also respect our viewers, and believe that they are intelligent and mature enough to make up their own minds about an alternative view. And, for that matter, who’s to say with absolute certainty that Patrick’s views are all wrong?” (as cited in Holman, 2021a, 2021b). Deeks also added that, since environmentalist David Suzuki had appeared on Canada Files the previous year, he had “already presented the views of mainstream science on the issue of climate change” (as cited in Holman, 2021a).
Nor did WNED seem particularly concerned with its platforming and publicity of Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument. In an email, the station’s senior director of corporate communications, Heather Hare, said those views, and others expressed on the show, do “not necessarily represent those of WNED” and that the station believes “strongly in the free expression of ideas” and their debate, with Moore’s episode representing “less than 30 minutes of hundreds of hours of programming” (as cited in Holman, 2021a).
Cumulatively, such responses demonstrate the information ecosystem gatekeepers responsible for broadcasting, publishing, platforming, or publicizing Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument often failed to make its accuracy a determining factor in whether to do so. What is striking, is that these failures took place in an environment of heightened concern about climate change and the effect of misinformation and disinformation on democratic discourse, as demonstrated by social media crackdowns on those who have alleged voter fraud during the 2019 American presidential election or denied expert guidance about COVID-19. They also took place in an environment where those gatekeepers knew or should have known about Moore’s lengthy history as a climate science rejectionist, quite apart from the scientific invalidity of many statements made in the book. Indeed, when the lead authors of the mainstream scientific studies Moore referenced to support his arguments were contacted, each of those who responded provided detailed explanations of how the former Greenpeace leader had misinterpreted their findings or conclusions (as cited in Holman, 2021a).
The only decision-makers who appear to have been concerned about the inaccurate nature of Moore’s arguments were GoFundMe and the City of Regina. However, GoFundMe’s termination of his crowdsource funding campaign only happened after it had been platformed for five months and was brought to their attention (Holman, 2021a). Similarly, Regina’s cancellation of Moore’s appearance at its sustainability conference only happened after the public criticized the city for platforming him (Ackerman, 2020a). In other words, GoFundMe and the City of Regina closed the gate on the former Greenpeace only after they had let him through.
In some cases, these decisions were not surprising. We would not expect decision-makers associated with climate science rejecting groups to close the gate on material supporting their beliefs. Nor would we expect that from those associated with conservative groups, given how evidence denialism has increasingly become one of the modern right’s defining features. However, we should expect better from the world’s biggest bookseller and e-book self-publisher [Amazon], a leading post-secondary institution [Simon Fraser University], the Government of Canada, and members of the mainstream new media [Conversations That Matter, the Financial Post, the Vancouver Sun, Canada Files, and WNED]. In accounting for their decisions to broadcast, publish, platform, or publicize Moore’s argument about fake invisible catastrophes, other forces appear to have taken precedence over the accuracy of that information. In public statements, his facilitators cited opposition to censorship and promoting a diversity of perspectives as their reasons for doing so.
Since that dissemination occurred, Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument has been spread even further by conservative media groups. For example, in April, he promoted his book on a talk show hosted by Denis Prager, the founder of an influential American online “university” that promotes conservative ideas to teenagers (The Dennis Prager Show, 2021). A month later, he appeared on Sky News to drum up readers in Australia, telling its audience, “The climate in this interglacial period, the last 10,000 years during which civilization occurred, is no different today than it has been throughout that whole period” (Smith, 2021). Soon after, the Washington Times featured Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom in its Inside the Beltway column (Harper, 2021). Two days later, the Epoch Times published a news story about the book (Teo, 2021). And, more recently, the American Spectator reviewed Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom, describing it as the book to give “intelligent young people in your family who parrot the received wisdom about climate change but whose minds are not yet set in progressive stone” (Isaac, 2021).
Moore is aware that decisions to broadcast, publish, platform, or publicize his argument could encourage other gatekeepers to do the same thing, helping him build a ladder of legitimacy to reach ever larger audiences. When the National Post published his op-ed promoting fake invisible catastrophes, he sent a tweet to Miranda Devine, a Fox News contributor with bylines in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph and New York Post, that read, “NatPost in Canada ran my op-ed today. Would love to write one for NY Post or do an interview. Timely. 21 Five-star reviews” (2021d). That has not happened so far. However, when the Epoch Times covered Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom, Moore wrote, “This is a breakthrough for the book and will hopefully see it in much wider distribution” (2021f). And he knows each positive review of his book does the same thing, writing, declaring, “93% of more than 1,000 reviews on Amazon are 4- 5-Star” (2021g).
That wider distribution matters because, according to a recent poll conducted by Vancouver, BC-based Research Co., 30% of Canadians and 39% of Americans think global warming is mostly caused by natural changes or is a theory that has not yet been proven (Canesco, 2020). That number is even higher among the residents of Alberta [38%], as well as among those who voted Conservative in Canada’s last federal election [52%] or are registered Republicans [62%] (Canesco, 2020). Moore’s argument and those like it only serve to fortify these beliefs. In doing so, these works can delay climate action in the face of mounting evidence of disaster.
Yet, that is not how Moore would likely perceive himself or what he is doing. In his autobiography Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: The Making of a Sensible Environmentalist, he wrote, “The greatest flaw in the more extreme environmental rhetoric is the tendency to characterize humans as a disease on the earth. This, in combination with doomsday predictions, causes people, especially young people, to give up hope for the future. Nothing could undermine more our prospects for finding solutions to environmental problems” (2013, p. 494). The provision of such hope is surely what Moore believes he is doing with his fake invisible catastrophes argument, even as he denigrates those he disagrees with, while sometimes ascribing unsavory motivations to them. We are all heroes in our own stories, with anyone but ourselves playing the villain. And, in Moore’s words, you can hear the echoes of the Greenpeace leader he once was.
After all, this is the same person who wrote a rebuttal in 1971 to a Vancouver Sun op-ed by a University of British Columbia faculty member who complained how it had become “politically fashionable to warn people about some ecological disaster” and obtain lots of publicity, “only to find out that there wasn’t any ecological disaster as first imagined” (Parsons, 1971). The faculty member referenced reports about the dangers of DDT, mercury contamination, dam construction and nuclear weapons testing as examples of “alarmist articles and pronouncements” (Parsons, 1971). In response, Moore, then a graduate student at that same university, wrote that the op-ed required “considerable comment as it is loaded throughout with misinformation and distortion, just what he is accusing the ‘environmentologists’ (sic) and journalists of doing in their reporting of ecological problems” (Moore, 1971).
Yet, exactly 50 years later, Moore has switched roles. He has gone from telling Washington Post readers just a few years ago that carbon dioxide is the “primary greenhouse gas responsible” for “catastrophic climate change,” to rejecting that fact, as well as the scientific consensus surrounding it (2006). Those who decided to broadcast, publish, platform, or publicize Moore’s fake invisible catastrophes argument have functionally done the same thing. In doing so, they seem oblivious to the risk that if citizens and our representatives replace facts with alternative facts, we will end up governing an alternate reality that bears little resemblance to the one under threat by so many ails.
There are no easy or quick answers here. We are all out of those. However, the pressing problems of today cannot be solved by a strict and reactionary adherence to the principles and practices of yesterday, such as promoting freedom of expression and so-called balanced coverage at the cost of platforming misinformation and disinformation. Such an approach can only lead to a darker tomorrow that will dramatically disprove Moore’s thesis that we have nothing to fear from all the too visible catastrophes that are even now afflicting us. The only way of keeping that darkness from overwhelming us is if the gatekeepers of our modern information ecosystem use accuracy as a determinant in their platforming decisions, helping buttress support for the evidence-based policies could help preserve our history and protect our future.
Note: Sean Holman published a research report on journalism and climate change in 2021 that included Facts & Frictions editor Patricia Elliott as a co-author. Dr. Elliott did not participate in the review of this article.
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Holman, S. (2022). At the gate of disaster: A case study on the promotion of climate science rejectionism by mainstream news outlets and e-commerce companies. Facts & Frictions: Emerging Debates, Pedagogies and Practices in Contemporary Journalism, (1)2, 27-41. http://doi.org/10.22215/ff/v1.i2.02