Was Confusion Over Global Warming a Con Job?

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American attitudes about global warming are shifting, according to a new poll by ABC News, Time magazine and Stanford University -- but it has taken years for the public perception of the problem to catch up with the warnings.

That lack of concern may have been just what big oil wanted.

It's not as if the information hasn't been out there: A new ad by the Environmental Defense Fund warns time is running out to combat climate change, adding, "Our future is up to you."

But Virginia's top climatologist doesn't buy it.

"The American people have just been bludgeoned with climate disaster stories for God knows how long," said the climatologist, Pat Michaels, "and they're just, they've got disaster fatigue."

Michaels is one of a handful of skeptics still downplaying the danger. But they are a tiny minority.

The vast majority of scientists has determined global warming to be a real threat. So why has it taken so long to convince Americans?

Misinformation Campaign

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan blames a 15-year misinformation campaign by the oil and coal industries.

"The point of this campaign was not necessarily to persuade the public that global warming isn't happening," Gelbspan said. "It was to persuade the public that there is this state of confusion."

A 1998 memo by the American Petroleum Institute said, "Victory will be achieved when … average citizens recognize uncertainties in climate science."

To redefine global warming as theory -- not fact -- the industry funded research by "friendly" scientists such as Michaels.

The industry's influence even extends into the White House -- where up until a few months ago a former oil industry lobbyist, Phil Cooney, chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was one of the president's top environmental advisers, editing scientific reports to make global warming seem less threatening.

"From now on, we don't have scientists write reports and just take them," said Rick Piltz of the group Climate Science Watch. "We pass them through a White House filter before they're ever published. I mean, that's scandalous."

A few oil companies, led by BP, have changed their tune and are now aggressively addressing the problem. But some continue to promote the idea there are "uncertainties in the science."

ABC News' Geoff Morrell reported this story for "World News Tonight."

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