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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Nobel Prizes, Climate Keywords

Google helps organize the world’s disinformation, too.

  • October 12, 2007

Google famously and charmingly admonishes itself, “Don’t Be Evil.” Google also cultivates the image of the ultragreen company, giving subsidies to employees to buy hybrid cards and spending millions to install 1.6 megawatts of photovoltaic panels at its Mountain View, CA, headquarters. So on the day that Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize for promulgating accurate climate science in the public interest, here’s a riddle: why does Google lend its technical muscle to science-bashing and fact-distorting websites that mislead Gmail readers and other Google customers on global warming and climate change?

When I registered for a Gmail account, I understood that Google would display advertisements related to words in my e-mails. The company explains: “Gmail uses a completely automated process to provide useful information and relevant ads in the sidebar of your Gmail account pages.” Fair enough. If somebody wants to offer me useful tips for insulating my house, or sell me a pack of energy-efficient light bulbs, I have no problem with that. Many of the ads that pop up next to my climate-related e-mails are, indeed, for such sites.

But I’ve also noted that part of the way Google has funded its hybrid subsidies is by taking checks from disinformation centers like www.CO2science.org (“Is carbon dioxide a harmful air pollutant, or is it an amazingly effective aerial fertilizer?”) and the slicker Heartland Institute, which has ties to Exxon/Mobil’s global-warming disinformation campaign. The Heartland site includes a simple quiz whose true-false and multiple-choice questions mislead readers into thinking that global warming is trivial, natural, and unlikely to result in any serious consequences.

Here are some true-false questions that don’t appear. 1: Mankind boosted levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide more than 30 percent in just 150 years–to levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years. 2: Virtually all scientists agree that much of the recent spike in global warming is almost certainly courtesy of human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases. 3: According to a vast body of peer-reviewed science, continued warming will likely cause great disruption to the stable climate we’ve enjoyed for 10,000 years and may trigger catastrophic sea-level rises.

Google spokeswoman Diana Adair wrote me to say that the ads from the two groups did not run afoul of its policies. However, those policies don’t seem to say anything about advertisements that are false or misleading and, in their way, evil.

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