Timeline History and Inconvenient Truths of Ross Gelbspan’s and Al Gore’s “reposition global warming” Phrase

The idea of man-caused global warming is especially effective because it can be pounded into practically everybody’s head via an easily memorized 3-point mantra. Global warming believers need only to counter dry recitations of skeptic science material with assertions about the numbers of ‘IPCC scientists’, declare this to be the settled consensus opinion, then claim there is leaked memo evidence proving skeptics are paid industry money to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact” – hoodwink the public, in other words. Obviously, reporters aren’t then obligated to give fair balance to skeptics. In a nutshell, settled science, crooked skeptics, reporters may ignore skeptics, bam, bam, bam.

A timeline of where, how and when that “reposition global warming” phrase first showed up is something global warming believers would hate, since it might prompt a total loss of faith in the validity of that central accusation point. The loss could cascade into questions of whether the science actually is settled in the face of skeptics’ science-based criticisms, and people may also start to wonder about the ‘fair media balance’ idea, since they might not readily recall instances where skeptics actually received that from mainstream media reporters.

One thing to always keep in mind about the “reposition global warming” phrase accusation against skeptic climate scientists is how it is literally all that Al Gore and his followers have to prove skeptics are corrupt. Never mind that neither Gore nor anyone else who quotes the “reposition global warming” phrase and other memo phrases ever shows them in their full context or mentions any in-depth details about the leak, and none of them have ever proven a quid pro quo arrangement exists between skeptics and industry funders. As can be seen below, one of the biggest problems is Al Gore’s 2006 claim that Gelbspan discovered the memo containing that phrase, but Gore himself quoted from that same memo set years before Gelbspan first said anything about it.

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(Words highlighted in red indicate later key repetitions. Boldface words indicate serious contradictions)

  1. In early 1991, U.S. coal company associations created the Information Council for the Environment (ICE) pilot project public relations campaign to provide some balanced science assessments they thought were unfairly missing from Al Gore’s then-current narratives about the threat of global warming. The objective was to show how the debate was anything but settled, and one of the internal memos for the PR planners had this as the #1 strategy: “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Considering how the rest of the memo and other papers are worded, the sentence could have read, “Show how the man-caused global warming theory is contradicted by theories of natural variability”. The sentence in context with the rest of the PR papers gives no indication it is a top-down industry directive for skeptic scientists to lie about the issue.
  2. In order of appearance: A May 24, 1991 article in the Flagstaff Arizona Daily Sun mentioned the ICE campaign, “Global warming ad campaign termed irresponsible”, as did Phil Shabecoff’s Greenwire fax service in its June 19 1991 “Inside Track: Sowing the Seeds of Doubt in the Greenhouse” report; A June 24, 1991 Energy Daily article had specific ICE memo phrases in its title “Greenhouse ads target ‘low income’ women, ‘less educated’ men” and within its content; and a July 8, 1991 NY Times article about ICE, specifically repeated the “reposition global warming” phrase, saying it had received copies of the ICE memos from the Sierra Club.
  3. Al Gore’s January 1, 1992 “Earth in the Balance” book quotes directly from the ICE memos on page 360, “… some self-interested cynics are seeking to cloud the underlying issue of the environment…Documents leaked from the National Coal Association to my office reveal…as follows: “People who respond most favorably to such statements are older, less-educated males from larger households, who are not typically active information-seekers… another possible target is younger, lower-income women…”
  4. What little that can be seen at a Google books search of the June 1992 “The Greenhouse effect”, Volume 64, edited by Matthew A. Kraljic, shows the identical wording of the July 8, 1991 NY Times article.
  5. [12/23/14 Author’s note addition:] In the 1993 updated version of “Gaia, An Atlas of Planet Management”, a sidebar paragraph slightly alters the phrase by adding “ing” to the first word and an extra “a” near the end, but otherwise keeps the parentheses around the last bit, like the original ICE memo did. However, this book incorrectly names the ICE PR campaign as being the “Informed Citizens for the Environment“, a problem I detail at longer length here. Regrettably, this book offers not source for any material in it.
  6. Curtis Moore’s and Alan Miller’s August 1994 book “Green Gold” cites the “reposition global warming” phrase from the July 8, 1991 NY Times article. However, Moore and Miller also must have seen the other ICE papers firsthand, as they mention an interview with a person cited in an ICE memo who is not named in the NYT article.
  7. Ross Gelbspan’s first mention of the “reposition global warming” phrase that I can find happens during a December 15, 1995 Living on Earth National Public Radio interview. He also mentioned the “older, less educated men and young, low-income women” words, identical to what is seen in Gore’s “Earth in the Balance” book.
  8. [10/17/14 Author’s item addition:]  On January 25, 1996, The Phoenix New Times repeated the second half of the “reposition global warming” phrase along with the “older, less educated men and young, low-income women” words, and additionally provided other ICE memo phrases not found in Gelbspan’s radio interview…. months before the next entry below.
  9. An April 1996 “Ties That Blind: Case Studies of Corporate Influence on Climate Change Policy” report by the enviro-activist group Ozone Action stated it and Ross Gelbspan “obtained” the ICE documents.
  10. Andrew Rowell’s October 22, 1996 “Green backlash” book repeats the “reposition global warming” phrase, but his endnote #106 says nothing more than “ICE internal packet, Strategies, p. 3
  11. David Helvarg’s December 16, 1996 “Energy Companies Try the ‘Tobacco Approach’ to Evidence of Global Warming” article in The Nation (pages 3-4 here), like Rowell’s book above, the “reposition global warming” phrase, but does not say where it came from. The unusual thing about Helvarg’s article is that he mentions the name of ICE’s PR director, something that only two other publications (that I’ve been able to find) do – one was an obscure November 1991 Oregon free enterprise newsletter, the other was the Flagstaff Arizona Daily Sun paper I noted in item #2 above.
  12. Gelbspan’s April 1997 The Heat is On book cites the “reposition global warming” phrase without saying where he got it, his end notes simply stating, “ICE documents in author’s possession, Mission Statement, Strategy Statement, and Test Market proposal, February 1991”
  13. Mark Hertsgaard’s August 3, 1997 NY Times review of Gelbspan’s book stated, “…the fossil fuel lobby has achieved the goal stated in a 1991 planning memo unearthed by Gelbspan: to ‘reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.’  …No other reporter has told this story as comprehensively or explored its implications for human welfare as searchingly as Gelbspan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.” As seen in items 2 though 5, Gelbspan’s mention of the “reposition global warming” phrase occurred after those, and he is not a Pulitzer winner.
  14. Repetition of the “reposition global warming” phrase basically increases exponentially after 1997
  15. Gelbspan’s “Boiling Point” book was published in 2004 (it cites his 1997 book for the “reposition global warming” phrase), and Al Gore’s NY Times review of it said Gelbspan’s first book is “the best, and virtually only, study of how the coal and oil industry’ corrupts skeptic scientists.” One paragraph later, Gore said Gelbspan documented, “the largely successful efforts of companies like ExxonMobil to paralyze the policy process, confuse the American people and cynically ‘reposition global warming as theory rather than fact…’”.
  16. In a PBS Now April 22, 2005 broadcast, Gelbspan said, “This is some of the documents I gathered along the way that document this very, very cynical campaign of deception and disinformation….we got a copy of the strategy papers for that campaign. And it said that the purpose of the campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact”.
  17. Gore’s 2006 “An Inconvenient Truth” movie spells out the “reposition global warming” phrase full screen in red letters just before its 1 hour 13 minute point. The companion book for the movie says Gelbspan was the discoverer of the phrase.
  18. In his May 28, 2006 review of Gore’s movie, the late Chicago Sun Times movie reviewer Roger Ebert quoted Gore directly: “… the energy industry has paralyzed America for 20 years with disinformation like that. They’re using exactly the same strategy the tobacco industry used. … We found an internal memo from an energy industry group from 1998, written by their disinformation specialists, saying their objective was: ‘Reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.’
  19. Mark Hertsgaard’s May 2006 “While Washington Slept” Vanity Fair article is published, with what appears to be an unequivocal statement that the “reposition global warming” phrase originates from the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a mistake that is repeated at Wikipedia from 2006 to 2008, thus prompting other mistaken repetitions of that association worldwide. Wikipedia removed it when a critic forcefully pointed out how unsupportable the association was.
  20. One particularly widespread citation of the phrase is a quote in the August 5, 2007 Newsweek magazine article “Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine”. Reporter Sharon Begley did not say who was the source for her assertion that a “game plan called for enlisting greenhouse doubters to ‘reposition global warming as theory rather than fact,’ and to sow doubt about climate research just as cigarette makers had about smoking research.”
  21. At the Davos 2008 conference, Gore says (off camera), “Exxon Mobil has funded 40 different front groups that have all been a part of a strategic persuasion campaign to, in their own words ‘reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.’”
  22. Gore’s 7000+ word June 22, 2011 Rolling Stone article bypassed Gelbspan and his own “Earth in the Balance” book note and said the following: “… the script for this show was leaked to The New York Times as early as 1991. In an internal document, a consortium of the largest global-warming polluters spelled out their principal strategy: “Reposition global warming as theory, rather than fact.”
  23. As recently as just six months ago, a presenter for Gore’s Climate Reality Project said this: “A lavishly sponsored campaign, started twenty years ago, to distract us from the problem. In a memo that was leaked to the press several years ago revealed their strategy in their own words, which is to ‘reposition global warming as a theory rather than a fact.’” Western Fuels’ PR campaign started and ended over 22 years ago, it was not ‘lavishly funded’, and the leak of its memos in 1991 most certainly was more than ‘several years ago’. The presenter’s PowerPoint slide shows this statement: “We’ve seen this before… Their cynical objective, outlined in a secret memo by a consortium of the largest carbon polluters, that was leaked to the press, is–in their own words–to: “Reposition Global Warming as Theory Rather than Fact.”
  24. [7/9/15 Author’s item addition:]  Current as of today, The Union of Concerned Scientists “The Climate Deception Dossiers” web page features a handy infographic of the “reposition global warming” phrase, and a link to their downloadable PDF file of old Western Fuels ICE campaign memo scans, which is 100% identical to Greenpeace’s scan collection (which I linked to in item #1), after, of course, the deletion of the page 1 Ozone Action summary. As I noted in my June 10, 2013 blog post, nobody else (with one oddball exception) could bring themselves to point directly to Greenpeace’s “ICE memo collection” over the last two decades, and UCS only adds to this streak in a really strange way.
  25. [11/16/16 Author’s item addition:]  Current as of today, this Greenpeace page continues to prominently feature its Youtube video which attempts to portray the “reposition global warming” phrase as a sinister plot hatched by “industries” to hoodwink the public, which I detailed in this blog post.

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The “reposition global warming” phrase can only be evidence of a cynical quid pro quo arrangement when it is accompanied by proof that skeptic climate scientists were paid industry money in exchange for lies about global warming. When it is seen to be filled with irreconcilable faults and strangely shared talking points, it’s worthy of a much deeper look into why those problems are there.

(This blog piece is largely an update of my original 2010 timeline here, with many of the ‘hazy’ details cleared up.)