A chief talent of Fred Singer, the world-famous climate denier who died on April 6 at 95, was bullying scientists whose work he could never match, and whose findings threatened the bottom lines of his corporate polluter clients.
Singer was a physicist, whose most notable scientific work involved contributions to planetary science, as well as early satellite and rocket technologies. But beginning in the 1950s, and for a half-century thereafter, Singer offered up to the media his takes on the shortcomings of other sciences and scientists, especially those studying the impacts of toxic chemicals, air pollution, and smoking on the environment or public health. Singer’s opinion pieces appeared in newspapers all across the country, and he relished providing that perfect contrarian quote to a reporter on deadline who needed to “balance” a story about environmental regulations.
Singer seemed to take special pleasure in discrediting scientists who investigated the ways that human activity threatens public health and the safety of our planet, the sort of research that informs regulations to solve problems ranging from acid rain’s toll on forests to DDT’s impacts on wildlife, as well as — of course — the effects of climate change on us all.
Take the example of the ozone hole. In 1997, Oregon State University biologist Andrew Blaustein published a study in the esteemed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showing that increased exposure to UV radiation from the sun was likely causing deformities in frogs and other amphibians. This research was some of the strongest evidence yet that it was past time to end the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, the industrial chemicals causing the growing hole in the Earth’s protective layer of UV-blocking atmospheric ozone.
Instead of responding politely with a letter to the journal, Singer attacked Blaustein in the news media, falsely claiming in an op-ed published by The Cincinnati Enquirer that UV levels were not rising.
Just three years after baselessly denigrating Blaustein in a major newspaper, however, Singer reversed his thinking, and agreed that increased UV radiation was real and dangerous. Why? Because, as Singer wrote at the time, this meant that regulations to control smog would threaten public health. “Smog may be bad for the lungs,” he wrote in another op-ed for the Enquirer, “but it also protects against UV, which causes basal and squamous-cell skin cancers.”
Singer always denied that he took corporate money to spread disinformation, even after evidence came to light that he had: In a 1993 deposition, Singer admitted under oath that he’d been funded by coal interests, and had consulted for Exxon, Shell, and the American Gas Association on topics including climate change.
I first learned about Singer in the mid-2000s, when I worked as a science news reporter in Washington, D.C., for the journal Environmental Science & Technology. I often stayed late at work, digging through the “tobacco archive”: a trove of millions of internal documents that the tobacco industry was forced to make available as part of their settlement with states for decades of misleading the public.
Although by this time Singer was a nationally prominent climate denier, I wasn’t yet familiar with his work or reputation. But via the tobacco industry archive, I learned that in 1993, Singer had collaborated with a tobacco-funded PR firm to undermine the science on the dangers of smoking. Singer performed this stunt 29 years after the Surgeon General warned, in 1964, that smoking caused lung cancer; and 21 years after the Surgeon General’s 1972 call for a smoking ban in restaurants and other public places.
Not even whales were safe from Singer’s bile. In the early 1990s, when the United States considered trade sanctions against Norway for its plan to resume commercial whaling, Singer countered by organizing a conference of pro-whaling groups. In a press release promoting the conference, he called the proposed trade sanctions a move “to accommodate environmental extremists.” When reputable scientists refused to attend, Singer cancelled the event.
By this time, climate scientists were also in Singer’s sights. In early 1991, just a few years before inventing the whaling controversy, Singer had shown up at the office of oceanographer Roger Revelle, a pioneering and widely respected climate researcher with the University of California, San Diego. Singer wanted to discuss a draft paper that he’d written, and which Revelle had received months earlier and ignored.
Singer argued in the paper that climate change wasn’t real, even though by 1991 this position was already contrary to the growing body of scientific evidence that it was, which included Revelle’s own climate research and findings.
At the time, Revelle was a frail 82-year-old recovering from recent triple-bypass heart surgery, and just months from the grave. But that didn’t deter Singer, who over the course of many hours talked Revelle into making some minor modifications to Singer’s draft.
Singer then published the paper with Revelle listed as a co-author, not in a peer-reviewed and reputable science journal, but in an obscure magazine called Cosmos, put out by an equally obscure Washington-based social organization called the Cosmos Club. But because the article had Revelle’s name on it, it helped to keep the public doubting climate science, instead of debating what the nation needed to do to stop climate change.
Further, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway recount in their book Merchants of Doubt, the article served as a weapon the following year against one of Revelle’s most famous protégés, then-Vice President and presidential candidate Al Gore. In a 1992 article in The New Republic, climate contrarian Gregg Easterbrook cited the Cosmos article, observing that Gore hadn’t mentioned in his recent climate change book, Earth in the Balance, that “before his death last year, Revelle published a paper that concludes: ‘The scientific base for a greenhouse warming is too uncertain to justify drastic action at this time.'”
Singer then managed to quash an effort by another scientist to clear Revelle’s name. A Harvard post-doc named Justin Lancaster challenged Singer’s unethical behavior and the dishonest article. Singer responded in typical Singer fashion: He forced Lancaster to shut up by filing a libel lawsuit against him, and coerced Lancaster into signing a retraction.
The full details of this especially enraging chapter in Singer’s career only came to light in 2006, when Lancaster broke his silence and published documents online that fully backed up his denunciations of Singer. Calling the retraction he’d been forced to sign “the worst decision I ever made in my life,” Lancaster stated that he’d been confident that he would have won the lawsuit, but backed down because of its effect on his wife. “She was terrorized by this lawsuit,” he wrote, “scared we could lose our house and all our assets.”
More than any other, this series of actions in the early 1990s exemplified the Singer method: bullying and falsely discrediting the work of a dying scientist, and then protecting himself from the consequences by terrorizing the family of another scientist who called out his wicked behavior.
I regret the day when I ran into Singer in person and didn’t walk over and throw something at him. One summer morning in Washington, I took some friends across town to the Eastern Market neighborhood for brunch at Montmartre, a neighborhood treasure of Parisian flair and simple-yet-amazing French food, amid D.C.’s oversupply of high-priced French restaurants with mediocre dishes (which thrive in the city because lawyers can expense these meals to clients.) Halfway through my ham and cheese omelette with mustard crème, I looked across the restaurant and recoiled as if slapped. Seated two tables away was Fred Singer. Putting my fork down, I told my friends why I was no longer hungry.
They say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I spoke ill of Singer that day, and I feel no need to stop just because the bastard doesn’t breathe. What I saw that day was the face of evil, a detestable animal shoveling fine food into his fanged maw. Many have said to me in private that they also found him evil. That’s why evil persists: because too many fear risking the high salaries that pay for nice meals at French restaurants by speaking up in public. I would prefer to eat bologna sandwiches on stale bread and preserve my dignity.
As writer Anne Lamott once noted, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Today there’s a generation of young people coming into adulthood completely pissed off and frightened (for good cause) that because of people like Singer, we have done next to nothing to halt global warming. It’s true that others who are still alive have also done horrible things to protect the fossil fuel industry. But having studied Singer closely for years, I know that he did this not just for a paycheck. He did it with wild abandon and joy, and delighted in his power to frighten and cow those who tried to point out that he was wrong.
At this point in an obituary, I am supposed to pivot into a few paragraphs on the person’s history — home town, college degrees, career accomplishments, marriages and divorces — before ending with survivors.
But when it comes to someone like Singer, who really cares about these details? Nobody watches the History Channel to discover that Pol Pot’s first wife was named Khieu Ponnary, reads a book on sex offender Harvey Weinstein to learn about his childhood growing up in Queens, or turns to the news to learn that Donald Trump attended business school at Wharton instead of Stanford. It’s not relevant.
More important than reciting someone’s resume, is painting a portrait for readers of the deep emotions that person stirred within others. Capturing the essence of the deceased. So here goes:
Fred Singer was the beast whose name must not be said. He was the mad fantasy of corporate lawyers who, catching a glimpse of a harvest moon, tear off their ties and rip apart their clothing to release their inner werewolves. Howling with mad money glee, they leap from oak-paneled boardrooms with gold-coffered ceilings to run naked through the heartland of America, shitting nuclear waste in town squares. They pollute the air with foul breath, poison streams with toxic sweat — causing death, destruction, and horrifying economic misery — before ending the night’s orgy with a scrumptious dessert of fat little toddlers, roasted beneath a UV lamp.
The dead do not read. Obituaries are written for the living. Fred Singer is survived by 7.5 billion inhabitants of our planet, which is being destroyed by global warming.