This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, I was sitting at the microphone representing the United States during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development when an agenda item arose about whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming then already discernible as largely predicted by the peer-reviewed science, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers include, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, changes in ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.
A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the growing global warming was led human-caused. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which have consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing are largely caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities.
The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how our planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of energy a molecule of CO2 generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) have determined that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s.
Climate change is not only a terrifying future problem, it is already causing increasing devastation and human suffering to more and more parts of the world. Just in early March, Cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi killing over a 1000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands of others in Mozambique alone. The New York Times described the devastation as follows:
Nearly a week after southern Africa was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in decades, it was all rescue workers could do to try to reach the victims let alone count the dead. People were climbing to trees desperately waiting for some form of rescue. Around them, the remnants of homes sat in piles, collapsed as easily as if they had been houses of cards. Hundreds of thousands of people in Mozambique alone were displaced and everywhere there was a vast inland sea where once there had been land.
The 1.1 0C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution that the mainstream scientific community has attributed to human activities has already caused brutal suffering caused by increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa.
Because even modest amounts of additional warming create the risk that certain thresholds, or “tipping points,” in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth. These thresholds include ice sheet destabilization, methane leakage stored in permafrost and oceans, loss of the energy reflective properties of sea ice, and changes to the ocean heat circulation system among others. If some of these tipping points are triggered, the increased warming will subject some parts of the world, including many African states, large parts of the middle east, and hundreds of cities near oceans to multiple impacts including crop failures, deadly heat waves, expansion of tropical diseases, flooding, and drought. Thus, future devastation threatened by climate change is horrifying. For this reason, all the nations of the world in 2015 agreed to adopt policies that limited warming to as close as possible to 1.5 0C but no greater than 2.0 0C. Yet limiting the warming to these levels will require all nations and levels of government, including state and local governments, to act with a war-like coordinated effort to decarbonize the global economy.
Despite the universal agreement among nations that climate change is human-caused and very dangerous, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy invited Gregory Wrightstone on March 27 to testify on climate change issues. Mr. Wrightstone’s only qualifications to testify as an expert on climate change are bachelors and masters degrees in geology and some published research on geology including the geology of the Marcellus shale. Although Mr. Wrightstone acknowledged that he has never published in the peer-reviewed climate science literature, Mr. Wrightstone took issue with the conclusions of 97% of climate scientists who publish in peer-reviewed climate science literature and who support the consensus view on human causation of climate change and its potential catastrophic impacts to the human race from current climate change trends. The “consensus” view on climate science is also supported by 80 academies of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science, and at least 21 prestigious scientific organizations whose members engage in science relevant to climate change including the American Geophysical Union, the European Geosciences Union, the Geological Sciences of America and London, organizations whose members include geologists, Mr. Wrightstone’s discipline.
The consensus view of mainstream science has often been initially articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization created by the world’s governments and the United Nations at the suggestion of the United States in 1988 to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate change science and make recommendations to the world’s governments on climate change policies. IPCC does not do independent scientific research but approximately every five years examines the peer-reviewed scientific literature and draws conclusions which are further reviewed by climate scientists and approved by the experts from the governments of the world. The IPCC has issued five comprehensive assessments starting with the first assessment report in 1990 and several special reports. The 5th assessment was published in 2014 and was written by 861 climate scientists whose nominations were reviewed to determine whether they had expert qualifications in climate science. (IPCC, 2014)
Mr. Writestone’s testimony began with a statement that he would “undercut the notion that our changing climate is primarily caused by human-caused increases in greenhouse gases and those changes are having negative impacts on Earth’s ecosystems and on humanity.”
Skepticism in science is a good thing, in fact, it is the oxygen that allows science to make contributions to human understanding of how the world works. But skeptics, to be taken seriously, must abide by the rules of science which require that scientific claims be subjected to peer-review. Mr. Wrightstone’s claims about climate change made during the March 31 hearing not only have never been peer-reviewed, but they were also either dramatically inconsistent with peer-reviewed climate change science or were cherry-picked facts that although true on their face do not undermine the conclusions of peer-reviewed science. “Cherry-picking” means picking from possible facts only those facts that support a predetermined conclusion while ignoring other facts. Examples of Mr. Wrightstone’s cherry-picked arguments made in his testimony to undermine the scientific consensus view that human activities were responsible for raising atmospheric CO2 to dangerous levels included that:
The current concentration of CO2 is very low compared to other levels in the historical record, ignoring the strong scientific consensus that current elevated CO2 levels are a human-caused and global catastrophe is likely unless there is an unprecedented international effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions;
Earth’s ecosystems thrived when CO2 levels were much higher, ignoring the fact that when atmospheric CO2 levels got high enough, the resulting warming tripped dangerous positive feedbacks which led to abrupt warming increases that several times caused mass extinctions of much of life on Earth and mainstream scientists believe that the current rise in global temperatures is approaching levels which may trigger several of these positive feedback triggers which could cause abrupt very dangerous levels of warming;
CO2 is good because it promotes plant growth and prevents the Earth from getting too cold, ignoring the huge scientific literature that has identified enormous human suffering and damages that current levels of warming have already caused particularly harming the world’s poorest people and the potential to cause abrupt climate change which could cause mass extinction;
Current concentrations of CO2 are not unprecedented if one looks at the full history of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than the time span usually considered, ignoring the scientific evidence that that high CO2 levels in the Earth’s history were sometimes responsible for causing mass extinctions and conditions such as sea level rise which would now cause hard-to-imagine destruction especially to hundreds of the Earth’s most populated cities small island states, and poorest people and countries.
Several sociologists, including Dr. Robert Bruelle from Drexel University and Riley Dunlap from Oklahoma State, among others, in many peer-reviewed sociological papers and in a recent book (Dunlap and McCright, 2015), have documented how some fossil fuel companies or their industrial organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute, and free market fundamentalists foundations and think tanks have funded and supported efforts to undermine the public’s faith in the consensus view of climate science similar to the way the Tobacco Industry supported disinformation about the health threats of smoking tobacco. One of the tools in this effort has been to financially support or publicize the claims of climate skeptics whose claims frequently have not been subjected to peer review.
Mr. Wrightsone’s claims, like many of the arguments made by climate skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry, not only have not been subjected to peer-review, they were dramatically inconsistent with the large body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
I have no evidence that Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony was orchestrated by any members of the Pennsylvania fossil fuel industry or politicians that frequently represent their interests, however, his testimony was similar to the problematic claims of the skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry organized climate science disinformation campaign.
Mr. Wrightstone also took issue with the frequent claim that the consensus climate science is supported by 97% of climate scientists by stating he was one of the 97% while ignoring that the full claim is that 97% of scientists who engage in “peer-reviewed” climate change science, a group he does not belong to, support the consensus view along with every academy of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science.
Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony included arguments against two proposals under consideration in Pennsylvania that would lower GHG emissions from the state. One, a petition before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board to establish a Pennsylvania cap and trade program similar to programs in other states. The second proposal is known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative which is a proposed multi-state cooperative program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.
His argument against these two programs was that the Governor and the House Committee should make recommendations on these two programs that were based on scientific facts, not on a politically driven narrative of coming planetary gloom. Yet the “facts” of science are established in constant testing through peer-review.
On May 1, the Senate Majority Policy Committee held a hearing about climate change at which Mr; Wrightstone along with climate change deniers David Legates (The Heartland Institute) and Joe Bastardi (WeatherBELL Analytics/frequent FOX News contributor) also testified making arguments that disagreed with the enormous peer-reviewed science which has been synthesized by 861 climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s and agreed to by every government in the world and every Academy of Science in the world. The testimony of all three of these skeptics took issue with elements of the scientific consensus view agreed to by every country in the world and their Academies of Science.
We have written extensively on this site under the category “disinformation” in the above index about why the fossil fuel disinformation campaign is some new heinous crime against humanity. (see index above under “disinformation”) Also see D. Brown, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity?
Yet, because the Pennsylvania state government has done little so far to adopt aggressive climate change policies, but Pennsylvania Governor Wolf has announced his intention to begin to adopt Pennsylvania climate change policies that will significantly reduce Pennsylvania’s GHG emissions, the legislative hearings discussed in this article which have been devoted to publicizing the views of climate skeptics who have not published the claims made in the hearings in peer-review journals are likely only the beginning of more intense efforts to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate science.
Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of GHGs among US states, behind only Texas and California. The Keystone state is responsible for 1 percent of global emissions yet has only 0.19 percent of the global population.
The Pennsylvania legislature and the Wolf administration have thus far failed to enact policies that will prevent activities in Pennsylvania from causing harsh climate impacts here and to hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people around the world. Although Governor Wolf in January took the welcome step of issuing Pennsylvania’s first executive order on climate change which included a goal of reducing GHGs by 26 percent reduction by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, from 2005 levels, these targets are woefully short of Pennsylvania’s fair share of needed global action to achieve the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming as close as possible to 1.5 0C and no greater than 2.0 o C and nothing has yet been done to decarbonize the Pennsylvania economy as required of the world to by the Paris Agreement.
IPCC said in an October special report that to limit warming to 1.5 0C, total global CO2 emissions would need to fall by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero by 2050. (IPCC, 2018) If Governor Wolf takes climate change seriously, it is very likely that members of the fossil fuel industry in Pennsylvania will try and undermine Pennsylvania citizens’ support for the consensus climate science position by among other tactics making arguments similar to those made by Mr. Wrightstone.
Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change,The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
I. Introduction. Relative Lack of Media Focus on the Danger of Appointing the Exxon CEO to be US Secretary of State Given the Enormity of the Climate Change Threat.
How should those who are concerned about the enormous threat of climate change respond to the Trump nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be the US Secretary of State given the enormous damage that Exxon has already caused through the company’s successful efforts in delaying the adoption of US climate change policies?
Trump’s selection of Tillerson for Secretary of State has received considerable understandable attention from the US media largely because of concern about Exxon’s ties to Russia, including, for instance, a contract with Russia negotiated by Tillerson in the amount of $500 billion that can’t be executed until economic sanctions placed on Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine are lifted.
Given the potential meddling of Russia in the recent US presidential election and potential conflicts between Russia’s and US interests, appointing someone to be the lead US foreign policy administrator who is the chief executive of a company with such close ties to Russia creates reason for obvious concerns about the ability of the Secretary of State to manage foreign policy so as to protect US interests while ignoring the interests of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company which are sometimes in conflict with American goals.
Conflicts between Exxon’s interests and US foreign policy interests are likely to frequently arise in the Trump administration. For instance, it is in the US interest to keep the price of fossil fuel very low but not in the interest of a fossil fuel company, nor Russia for that matter, both of which could benefit from high fossil fuel prices.
Receiving considerable less attention from the US media is the propriety of appointing someone to be US Secretary of State who has been the chief executive of Exxon, a company with a well documented hostility to government policies on climate change. This hostility has not only manifested itself in Exxon’s spending of many millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to oppose proposed US domestic policies on climate change and supporting politicians who have consistently opposed proposed US climate change policies but also, even more disconcerting, Exxon has funded organizations who have been actively fighting to stop the United States from adopting climate change policies by employing morally reprehensible tactics to undermine citizens’ understanding of the scientific basis for the need to aggressively respond to climate change.
As we have explained, on this website in considerable detail (see articles under disinformation campaign in the index), although scientific skepticism is good because skepticism is the oxygen of science, Exxon has funded organizations engaged in disinformation who have used utterly indefensible tactics including: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about climate change science, (2) manufacturing false scientific claims about climate change by holding bogus scientific conferences at which participants have made scientific claims that have never not been subjected to peer review, (3) supporting front groups and fake grass roots organizations to oppose climate change policies whose creation was designed to hide the real parties in interest, (4) cherry-picking mainstream climate science by emphasizing a few minor issues in climate science about which there is some scientific uncertainty while ignoring the huge body of climate change science which is undisputed and claiming the uncertainties undermine the entire body of mainstream climate science, and (5) funding public relations strategies to undermine US citizens confidence in mainstream climate science, and (6) cyber bullying mainstream climate scientists and journalist who report on growing climate change risk.
Fossil fuel company support of the climate change disinformation campaign has been responsible for at least a twenty-five year delay in the United States response to climate change, a delay which has also thwarted international efforts to achieve a global solution to climate change and has made the threat of climate change now extraordinarily dangerous and made the warming limit goals agreed to by the world in Paris in 2015 to as close as possible 1.5 degrees C but no more than 2 degrees C extraordinarily difficult to achieve.
And so, the chief executive of a company has been nominated to lead the development of US foreign policy including forging an international position on climate change which company is already responsible for enormous potential climate change caused harms to the world created by the delay which is attributable to their funding and that of several other fossil fuel companies, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations.
Although entities other than Exxon have also contributed to the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign, a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) in October concluded that the main organizations comprising the climate denial echo chamber were funded by ExxonMobil and Koch Family Foundation and produced misinformation that effectively polluted mainstream media coverage of climate science and polarized the climate policy debate. The study is: Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change, October 12, 2015.
This study’s analysis of 20 years’ worth of communication data between participants in the climate change counter-movement by Yale University researcher Dr. Justin Farrell shows beyond doubt that Exxon and the Koch Family Foundations have been key actors who funded the climate disinformation campaign and ensured the prolific spread of their doubt products throughout our mainstream media and public discourse about climate change.
“The contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,” Dr. Farrell told the Washington Post. Dr Farrell said: “This counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own.”
As we have explained on this website, the tactics deployed by the climate change disinformation campaign funded by some fossil fuel companies including Exxon and others should be understood as a new kind of crime against humanity because they are deeply morally reprehensible even if not classifiable as a crime under existing law because of the enormous climate change harms these tactics have caused to tens of millions of poor vulnerable people around the world, some of which are already occurring as others are already in the pipeline.
Thus an argument can be made that Exxon and the other entities who have funded the climate change disinformation campaign to protect their profits should be made to help pay for at least some of the climate change adaptation responses that are now needed to protect poor vulnerable people around the world from rising seas, floods, droughts, and diminished water supplies and the enormous damages from climate change that will be experienced because of the approximate three decade delay in responding to climate change that is attributable to the climate change disinformation campaign which began to get organized in the late 1980s. (Several law suits that have been filed against Exxon and other fossil fuel companies by plaintiffs seeking damages from climate change harms have been dismissed thus far, often on the grounds that allocating climate change damages is a political rather than a judicial function yet a growing number of cases continue to be filed seeking to establish legal liability of fossil fuel companies for their role in spreading misinformation about climate change.)
Yet, rather than making Exxon responsible for the enormous damage it has done through its successful efforts to prevent government policies to reduce GHG emissions., President-elect Trump has nominated Exxon’s CEO to be the spokesperson for US foreign policy including climate change foreign policy. This is arguably like appointing the CEO of Philip Morris to be the Surgeon General of the United States.
II. Why Has the US Media Given Little Attention About the Danger from Climate Change of Making the Exxon CEO US Secretary of State?
Why has the US press mostly ignored the extreme danger of making the CEO of a huge powerful oil company Secretary of State which company has been responsible for dangerous delays in responding to climate change through the use of morally reprehensible tactics and which company’s profits are greatly threatened by policies that rapidly reduce GHG emissions?
It would appear that the media’s relative lack of concern about nominating an Exxon CEO to run the State Department is attributable to Exxon’s and Tillerson’s announcements which began in 2006 that they had changed their views on climate change, agreed that human-induced climate change was a threat worthy of policy responses which include potentially putting a price on carbon, and Exxon would no longer fund organizations participating in climate change denial. (For a discussion of Exxon’s and Tillerson’s gradual shift on climate change see John Schwartz, New York Times, Tillerson Led Exxon’s Shift on Climate Change; Some Say ‘It Was All P.R.‘)
In fact, some recent press coverage of Tillerson’s nomination to be the US Secretary of State have uncritically portrayed the Exxon CEO as a climate change advocate.
For instance Media Matters has reported in a CBS Evening News Report on December 13, anchor Scott Pelley said of Tillerson: “The lifelong oil man has no government experience, but he did convince Exxon to acknowledge climate change.” [CBS Evening News, 12/13/16]
Media Matters also reported that on December 10, an NBC news segment discussing Tillerson, correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported, “During his time at the world’s largest public energy company, Tillerson acknowledged the science behind climate change, supporting a carbon tax, while also expressing support for the Paris Climate Agreement.”
And so it would appear that Exxon’s and Tillerson’s recent stated changes in their positions on the acceptance of climate change science is responsible to the US media’s largely uncritical coverage of Tillerson’s nomination despite Exxon’s role in successfully undermining US responses to climate change and the basic conflict that exists between rapidly reducing GHG emissions and Exxon’s profits and the value of its oil reserves.
In what is likely an attempt to rebrand Exxon from being a climate change policy obstructionist, recently Exxon has produced TV commercials in which the company announces that is supporting the development of carbon capture and storage technologies that would reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
III. Has Exxon actually stopped funding climate denial organizations?
In July 2016, DeSmog Blog reported that Exxon’s most recent financial disclosures show that the company “continues to support organizations that claim greenhouse gases are not causing climate change, or that cuts to emissions are a waste of time and money”:
Organisations including the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Black Chamber of Commerce — all organisations with a record of misinformation on climate science — all received grants in 2015 from ExxonMobil. The 2015 tally brings the total amount of known Exxon funding to denial groups north of $33 million since 1998. (DeSmog Blog, 7/8/16)
According to a recent article in the Guardian, Exxon gave more than $2.3 million to members of Congress and a corporate lobbying group that deny climate change and block efforts to fight climate change – eight years after pledging to stop its funding of climate denial.
IV Has Exxon and Tillerson Actually Become Advocates of Government Action On Climate Change.
Does Exxon and Tillerson fully accept the mainstream peer-reviewed science on climate change? It is not clear.
Although both Exxon and Tillerson have asserted that they agree with the mainstream scientific view that human-induced climate change is a significant threat that must be dealt with, it is not clear that either accepts the scientific implications of the mainstream view including, for instance, neither that some fossil fuels must be left in the ground unless carbon capture and storage technology can be made affordable and proven effective nor that there is an urgent need to immediately aggressively reduce GHG emissions if the the international community hopes to prevent dangerous climate change. .
Tillerson has stated that he believes that climate change is a problem with an engineering solution. This suggests he supports the development of technologies that can either store carbon in the ground or remove carbon from the atmosphere. Yet no such technologies have been yet identified that can be deployed at the scale currently needed and that are also affordable and technologically effective despite the fact that these technologies are needed to justify continued use of oil and gas at current rates.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, to limit warming to the warming limit goals agreed to in Paris in 2015 of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C, the world must reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
CO2 emissions from energy and industry must be zero globally around 2050 for a 1.5°C limit, which is around 10-25 years earlier than for a 2°C limit. Full decarbonization for 1.5°C limit is therefore needed by mid-century, and mid-way through the second half of the century for 2°C limit. (Climate Analytics)
Thus, the international community must achieve net zero GHG emissions from the energy and industrial sectors in 33 years to have hope of limiting warming to 1.5°C and 58 years to achieve zero GHG emissions to limit to 2°C. To achieve these civilization challenging goals, the world must act quickly and aggressively. In fact rapid reductions are particularly needed in the next few years as UNEP has concluded. In fact there is an urgency of enhancing pre-2020 mitigation efforts to have any realistic hope of achieving the warming limit goals agreed to in Paris in December 2015. (See UNEP, Emissions Gap Report 2016, pg 9)
If nations quickly respond to the obligation to begin reducing GHG emissions to achieve zero emissions by 2050, this will require rapid expansion of non-fossil energy, a possibility due to recent rapid reductions in the cost of solar energy, and require energy companies to hold fossil fuel reserves in the ground. This could leave energy companies with unprofitable reserves, or assets “stranded” underground unless carbon capture and storage or atmospheric carbon removal technologies are deployed at scale because they have become affordable and technically effective. Yet carbon storage has not yet proven affordable nor effective at the scale that would be required to prevent dangerous atmospheric GHG concentrations from continuing to rise.
Exxon has not accepted this idea. In 2014, shareholders seeking greater accountability from the company on the potential that some of its reserves would have to be left in the ground submitted a resolution to disclose how its reserves would be affected if climate action reduced demand. The company, in response, produced a report that said it would be “highly unlikely” that countries would enact action aggressive enough to affect demand. Two years later, the world’s nations agreed to the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions to zero by late in this century.
Has Tillerson questioned or denied mainstream climate science since 2006?
Yes. In settings with stock analysts or other executives Tillerson has at times reverted back to Exxon’s old narrative that cast doubt on climate science. At the company’s 2013 annual shareholder meeting, for instance,Tillerson said: “Notwithstanding all the advancements that have been made in gathering more data, instrumenting the planet so that we understand how climate conditions on the planet are changing, notwithstanding all that data, our ability to project with any degree of certainty the future is continuing to be very limited….If you examine the temperature record of the last decade, it really hadn’t changed.” Thus Tillerson adopted the frequently discredited claim of many climate change deniers that global rises in temperatures paused in the last decade.
At the 2015 annual meeting, Tillerson said it might be better to wait for better science before taking action on climate change. “What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don’t get the effects we predict?” (Inside Climate News, Rex Tillerson’s Record on Climate Change: Rhetoric vs. Reality)
For these reasons, it is not clear that Exxon or Tillerson are willing to support US government responses on climate change that are now urgently required to deal with the climate emergency facing the world.
V. What Should Those Who Are Concerned Abouaret Climate Change Do In Response to the Tillerson Nomination.
Given the enormity of the threat to the world from climate change, the indefensible role that Exxon has played in delaying US action on climate change, and the lack of clarity about whether Rex Tillerson supports policies needed to rapidly reduce global GHG emissions to safe global emissions, concerned ciitzens should strongly oppose the Tillerson nomination while demanding that the nominee respond to the following questions under oath before a confirmation vote is taken in the US Senate:
Do you support development and deployment of non-fossil energy in the United States as rapidly as possible until technologies which can sequester carbon or remove carbon from the atmosphere have been demonstrated to be economically feasible and technically effective?
If you agree that the United States should respond to climate change by putting a price on carbon, will you immediately support legislation which creates a price on carbon at levels necessary to reduce US emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions?
Do you agree that US policy on climate change should seek to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of preventing warming from exceeding as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2.0 degrees C above pre-industrial levels?
If you agree that US climate policy should seek to limit warming to between 1.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C, do you agree that the US should clearly explain how its policies will achieve these warming limit goals of the Paris agreement?
Since you agree that human-induced climate change is a threat to people and ecological systems around the world, do you agree that Exxon should no longer fund the campaigns of politicians that deny that human-induced climate change is a threat worthy of a strong national response?
Since GHG emissions from the United States not only threaten US citizens and ecological systems but people and ecological systems around the world, do you agree that US policy on climate change should respond to the US responsibility to prevent climate change from harming all people and ecological systems around the world?
Do you agree that people and nations who could be harmed by high levels of US GHG emissions from the United States have interests in US climate change policies and if so their interests should be considered in formulating US climate policy?
Do you agree that nations that emit GHGs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?
If you disagree that high emitting nations have responsibility to help finance reasonable adaptation needs or unavoidable damages from climate change in countries which are largely not responsible for climate change, how do you interpret the “polluter pays” principle of international law?
Do you deny that when the US formulates a GHG emissions reduction target it has a duty both under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which it ratified in 1992 and the Paris Agreement to formulate its commitment after consideration of what “equity” requires of the United States and if so what does the term ‘equity” under the UNFCCC mean to you?
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Exxon changed its position at about the time that Rex Tillerson became the CEO of Exxon.
On January 8, 2009, Rex Tillerson gave a speech in Washingotn
This is the second entry in a three part series on sociological insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book on sociology and climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.
In the first entry in this series, we described the new book’s contributions to understanding why a sociological understanding of the cause of climate change and reflection on the deep ethical and moral problems with the arguments of the opponents of climate change policies are mostly missing from the dominant climate change literature and the media coverage of global warming. This entry looks at the books conclusions of how mainstream climate change science has been undermined by opponents of climate change policies and thereby changed the cultural understanding of climate change, initially in the United States, and later, in other countries.
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm. (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see, Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign” and Chapter 10 of Dunlap and Brulle, 2015)
Before reviewing the contributions of the new book to understanding how powerful interests undermined proposed national responses to climate change through the creation of a countermovement, we note the enormity of the damage that has been caused by the over three decade delay in responding to climate change which is attributable to the success of this climate denial countermovement.
Now that: (a) atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are in excess of 403 ppm, (b) the world agreed to try and limit warming to 1.5 degrees C in Paris at COP21 under the UNFCCC to prevent potentially catastrophic harm to hundreds of millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world and the ecosystems on which they depend, (c) to stay within the 1.5 degrees C warming limit will require rapid civilization challenging GHG emissions reductions in most countries, and (d) these needed reductions are so steep that it may be impossible to stay within a carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to prevent warming from exceeding the limit, the denial countermovement discussed in this the book is likely responsible for enormous amount of harm around the world particularly to those poor people who are most vulnerable to rising seas, storm damage, drought, floods, vector borne disease, killer heat waves and,acidifying oceans. For this reason, the denier countermovement is not just a morally and ethically reprehensible phenomenon, but a heinous global tragedy.
Although the new book on sociology and climate change contains many insights about how economically powerful entities have changed the cultural understanding of climate change and thereby prevented the United States and some other countries from responding to the growing threat of climate change, one chapter, in particular, titled Challenging Climate Change,The Denial Countermovement describes how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depended on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).
Before describing this chapter’s contribution to understanding how the climate disinformation campaign accomplished its goals of preventing the regulation of fossil fuel, we note that this website includes 17 entries on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, Start Here and Index Tab above under Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics).
On this website, we have consistently noted that scientific skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. The tactics have included:
(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,
(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of well-settled climate change science,
(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty about climate science which have not been submitted to peer-review,
(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science,
(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science,
(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies, and
(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.
The Dunlap/Bruelle book refers to the climate change disinformation campaign as a countermovement. A countermovement is a sociological term for a social movement that arises in response to another social movement that threatens the interests of those who form the countermovement. The climate change countermovement arose when those corporations and organizations who were threatened by calls for governments to take action to reduce the threat of climate change organized themselves to protect their economic interests that would be threatened by regulation of fossil fuels. The climate denial countermovement is often identified as an extention of an anti-environmental countermovement that began to form after Earth Day in 1970 when some corporations and free-market fundamentalists foundations reacted to the large number of environmental laws that were passed in the early 1970s at the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
The chapter in the new Dunlap/Brulle book on the climate denial countermovement both reviews some previously published sociological analyses of this countermovement and contains new information on how powerful economic interests have undermined government policy-making on climate change.
The Dunlap/Brulle book asserts that efforts to deny climate change began to get organized in the United States shortly after James Hansen testified in the US Senate in 1988 that climate change was already visible, testimony which put climate change squarely on the US public agenda (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 300). The book further claims that organized denial continued to grow and reached an unprecedented level in 2009 when the newly elected Obama administration and the Democratically controlled Congress increased the likelihood of US action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the result that no climate change legislation was enacted. The book claims that these efforts have continued relatively unabated since then (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.300). Further, climate change denial has become a virtual “litmus test“ for Republican politicians, strongly enforced by elements of the conservative movement (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p. 300).
The book outlines the historical and cultural conditions that have provided fertile soil for the climate denial countermovement including the rise of the anti-government sentiment in the United States that grew with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. This analysis attributes the displacement of Keynesian economics from the late 1940s until the 1970s by the anti-regulatory economics of neoliberalism as responsible for a fundamental shift in governing philosophy that significantly reduced constraints on capital accumulation and growth. This created a “global growth imperative” that was hostile to the kind of government regulation required to reduce the threat of climate change (Dunlap R., and McCright, A., 2015, p 303).The authors stress that an understanding of the success of the denial countermovement requires some understanding of the growth of the global economic system and its ideological grounding by conservative politicians (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 303).
The chapter asserts that leading fossil fuel corporations (most notably ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, industry associations (e.g. for example American Petroleum Institute and Western Fuels) initially led efforts to deny climate change. (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p 310). These fossil fuel actors were joined by a wide range of other corporations and business associations to fund climate science deniers and Conservative Think Tanks and various groups promoting climate change science denial (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 310).
The book explains some corporations and their allies viewed the rise of the environmental movement in the1970s with alarm and as a result opposition to environmental programs developed particularly in the American West where battles over access to natural resources raged and became a component of a wider conservative countermovement that was born in the 1970s in reaction to the progressivism of the 1960 (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p 304).
The chapter also notes that the international environmental policy agenda in the early 1990s, symbolized by the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit,” greatly threatened conservatives’ and industries’ neoliberal agenda and unfettered global markets (Dunlap. R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 305).
The book claims that conservatives in the United States learned from the Reagan administration’s experience that it was unwise to attack environmental protection directly, given that Americans were generally supportive environment protection (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.306). As a result, the book claims the conservatives and their industry allies learned to prevent the implementation of government policies that might threaten their political and economic interests by undermining the scientific foundations of environmental policy proposals (Dunlap R.and McCriight, A., 2015, p.306). As result conservatives seized upon the strategy of “manufacturing uncertainty” that had been previously effectively employed for several decades by corporations and entire industries, most notably the tobacco industry in efforts to protect their products from regulations and lawsuits by questioning the scientific adequacy of claims that their products were hazardous (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.306). As a result, conservatives began labeling science supporting the need to regulate industry to protect the environment as “junk science.” This strategy became the favored tactic employed by conservatives and their industry allies when government showed interest in expanding environmental regulation and the major focus of attempts to prevent the adoption of climate change policies in the early 1990s (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.306).
The book explains that participants in the denial movement undermined the public’s confidence in climate change science by attacking the validity of climate models, the use of paleoclimate data to establish climate trends, attacked individual climate scientists and scientific institutions, published dubious non-peer reviewed climate science reports, funded self-proclaimed climate scientists exporters, and many other tactics that manufactured scientific uncertainty.
The book explains why the complexity of climate change science made it particularly vulnerable to a strategy of manufacturing uncertainty designed to defeat proposed government regulation of industry and to create public controversies about the science (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).
The book also explains how the denial countermovement has evolved, changed, and expanded over the past quarter-century, changes that included new key actors, supporters, and tactics while the basic strategy of manufacturing uncertainty has expanded into manufacturing public controversy about climate science up until the present (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.309).
The book also identifies the major participants in the denial countermovement which include portions of the fossil fuel industry and corporate America, conservative think tanks, a relatively small number of contrarian scientists, front groups and Astroturf organizations, conservative politicians and media, and the denial blogosphere (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).
The book also describes how the denial countermovement which began in the United States was diffused internationally to countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and recently into several European countries including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Dunlap R. & McCriight, A., 2015, p.316)
The chapter on the denial countermovement ends with an acknowledgment that further sociological research is necessary to better study the evolving countermovement’s components, strategies, and tactics not only within individual nations but also across nations to better understand how this phenomenon has become a full-fledged global advocacy network.
The last post in this series will identify the importance of sociological insights about government responses to climate change for advocates of climate change policies.
Brown, D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.
Brown, D. (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics, Routledge/Earthscan
Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change,The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Although numerous articles on this website have acknowledged that responsible scientific skepticism is a positive force in the advancement of science, as we have explained in numerous articles under the category of “disinformation campaign” there has been a well-funded climate change disinformation campaign that since the 1980s has been engaged in the following ethically dubious tactics including:
Lying or reckless disregard for the truth about climate science,
Cherry picking the science by focusing on unkowns while ignoring what is well-settled in climate science,
Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists,
Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed climate science through the creation of ideologically motivated conferences and publications,
The use of ideological think tanks to promote the views of climate change deniers through their media outreach, speakers bureaus, publications, and conferences,
The use of front-groups and fake grass-roots organizations, known as Astroturf groups, to promote the views of climate change deniers that hide the real parties in interests,
Making specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.
This website contains numerous articles on the many ethical problems with the corporate and free-market fundamentalist foundation funded climate change disinformation campaign that was in full bloom by the mid-1980s. These articles examine the tactics of the disinformation campaign through an ethical lens that distinguishes it from responsible scientific skepticism. See, for instance:
The climate change disinformation campaign that arose in the 1980s was part of what sociologists call a countermovement, that is a movement that arises when elements of society are threatened by social movements that are perceived to potentially adversely affect their interests.
An environmental countermovement arose in the United States in response to the rise of the modern environmental movement which was born in the late 1960s in response to among other things, the publications in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and a growing number of highly visible pollution events including the Santa Barbara oil spill and the fire in the Cuyahoga River in 1969. After Silent Spring, many more citizens understood that toxic substances were widely distributed throughout the world at levels that could harm human and animal health.
The beginning of the modern environmental movement in the United States has often been pegged by environmental historians to Earth Day on April 22, 1970. On the first Earth Day in New York City tens of thousands of people concerned about environmental issues marched and paraded in lower Manhattan and many thousands attended speeches in Union Square Park. New York City was only one of hundreds of locations throughout the United States where Earth Day events took place on April 22, 1970.
The rapid rise of the modern environmental movement that was undeniable by April 1970 was perceived to be a threat to many members of the US business community, As a result, soon after the first Earth Day in 1970, the environmental countermovement began to organize. Sociologist Robert Brulle summarizes the rise of countermovements as follows:
Counter-movements originate as the change movement starts to show signs of success by influencing public policy, and threatening established interests. The elites of these interests then respond to these threats by fostering countermovements to protect their interests by opposing or challenging social movements. ….The countermovement organizations that emerge take the form of elite driven efforts to mobilize economically impacted populations, or populations that share similar interests of ideologies. [Brulle]
Many sociologists and environmental historians also attribute the speed of the rise of the environmental countermovement to a 1971 memo of Lewis Powell to the US Chamber of Commerce that was based on the claim that the American free enterprise system was under attack from the social movements that arose in the 1960s including the environmental movement.
Powell was a corporate lawyer, a former president of the American Bar Association, and a board member of eleven corporations, including Philip Morris and the Ethyl Corporation, a company that made the lead for leaded gasoline. Powell had also represented the Tobacco Institute, the research arm of the tobacco industry, and various tobacco companies. Within two months after his 1971 memo, President Richard Nixon nominated Powell to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served for fifteen years.
The Powell memo criticizes corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s and calls for a much more aggressive response from the business community that it claims is needed to protect fee enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. (Powell Memo)
The memo specifically recommended that businesses:
Designate a member of senior management who has responsibility to fight attacks on the free enterprise system,
Expand the role of business organizations to fight the threats of the free market including the US Chamber of Commerce which has the time, finances, and organizational capacity to powerfully unify the response of the business community,
To counter criticism of the business community from college campuses, business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce should support scholars who will defend the free enterprise system, develop speakers and support speakers’ bureaus that will counter the liberal rhetoric coming from college campuses, subject textbooks to ideological review, insist on equal time for speakers exposing the views of the business community for speakers on campuses, insist that college faculties be balanced by those who will defend the free enterprise system, request that graduate schools of business include courses that support the free enterprise system, encourage local chambers of commerce to provide the views of the business community in high schools, establish staff who work with the media to communicate to the general public the views of the business community, monitor and criticize television programs that unfairly criticize the free enterprise system and where appropriate file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, monitor radio and other media and pressure them to cover the views of defenders of the free enterprise system, support scholars who support the free enterprise system to publish in scholarly journals, establish incentives for scholars to publish defenses of free enterprise in books, papers, and pamphlets, spend more money on advertising that expressly supports the free market system.
Much more aggressively support politicians who support the interests of the business community.
Become much more involved in the judicial system to support the interests of the business community by, among other things, filing litigation and amicus curiae briefs in important cases.
Harness the power of corporate shareholders to advance the interests of the business community.
Dramatically increase finances in support of opposition to those threatening unfettered markets including increasing the staff of organizations like the Chamber of Commerce to engage in this work.
Much more aggressively defend the free enterprise system by among other tactics linking personal freedom to free enterprise.
Shortly after the Powell memo was sent to the Chamber of Commerce in 1971, much more aggressive tactics in defending the free enterprise system by the business community became evident including the following:
The organizational counterattack of business in the 1970s was swift and sweeping — a domestic version of Shock and Awe. The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did. The number of corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of 1980.(Bill Moyers, The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations, September 14, 2012)
In 1972, three business organizations merged to form the Business Roundtable, the first business association whose membership was restricted to top corporate CEOs.The Business Roundtable quickly developed into a formidable group, designed to mobilize high-level CEOs as a collective force to lobby for the advancement of shared interests. Within five years the new mega-organization had enlisted 113 of the top Fortune 200 companies, accounting for nearly half of the economy. (Bill Moyers, The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations, September 14, 2012) .
Business also massively increased its political giving — at precisely the time when the cost of campaigns began to skyrocket (in part because of the ascendance of television). The insatiable need for cash gave politicians good reason to be attentive to those with deep pockets. Business had by far the deepest pockets, and was happy to make contributions to members of both parties.(Bill Moyers, The Powell Memo: A Call-to-Arms for Corporations, September 14, 2012)
Powell’s legal recommendations inspired “a multi-faceted, comprehensive, and integrated campaign” coordinated and funded by large corporations and rightwing foundations “to create taxpayer subsidized law firms… to rewrite American jurisprudence… advanc[e] their agenda before judges, lawyers, legal scholars, and government policy makers… [and] sought to assure control over the future direction of the law” by installing ideologically friendly faculty in law schools, as well as organizing and rewarding students with scholarships and clerkships under conservative judges, and placing those judges on the bench. (Jerry M. Landay, The Attack Memo that Changed the World)
The California Chamber of Commerce picked up on the Powell Memo and proposed what became in 1973 the Pacific Legal Foundation, the first of eight regional litigation centers. The Olin, Scaife, Bradley, Smith Richardson, and Coors’ Castle Rock foundations, and others, continue to underwrite these operations. , (Jerry M. Landay, The Attack Memo that Changed the World)
Huge corporations, including Powell’s Philip Morris, invested millions of dollars in the Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center and other legal foundations to bring litigation demanding new corporate rights. In rapid succession, corporations and supporters funded the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Mid-Atlantic Legal Foundation, the Mid-America Legal Foundation, the Great Plains Legal Foundation (Landmark Legal Foundation), the Washington Legal Foundation, the Northeastern Legal Foundation, the New England Legal Foundation, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the Capital Legal Center, the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, and many others.(Clements)
The number of companies with Washington lobbying offices grew from 175 in 1971 to 2,445 a decade later. Along with 2,000 different trade associations, businesses have a combined Washington staff of 50,000, plus 9,000 lobbyists and 8,000 public relations specialists. (Smith. Who Stole the American Dream)
Since 1972 and continuing to the present, conservative foundations also heavily underwrite scores of institutes and policy centers that operate along the general lines proposed in the Powell memo. These agitprop operations are modeled on the Heritage Foundation, and include the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, the National Association of Scholars and Accuracy in Academe, Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center, and Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media. (Jerry M. Landay, The Attack Memo that Changed the World)
Business expanded its acquisition of media to help it control the message and viewpoint. Today six corporations control 97% of all media in the US. By insisting on the mandate of “balance” any unwanted fact or statement can be countered and diminished by claiming a need for equal time. These will generally be provided by the dozens of conservative think tanks and speakers. Television, radio and magazines are closely scrutinized for where and when to counter or insert business friendly news, information or preference. Most media today expends vast amounts of coverage on business and financial news. (Ron Sandahl)
Powell’s court opinion in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti shifted the direction of First Amendment law by declaring that corporate financial influence of elections should be protected as individual political speech. This directly set up Citizens United to become law. (Ron Sandahl).
Huge corporations, including Powell’s Philip Morris, invested millions of dollars in the Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center and other legal foundations to bring litigation demanding new corporate rights. By 1978, the millions of dollars invested in the radical corporate rights campaign began to pay off. The first major victory for the corporate rights advocates came in 1978, with a corporate attack on a Massachusetts law in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti. Several international corporations — including Gillette, the Bank of Boston, and Digital Equipment Corporation — filed a lawsuit after the people of Massachusetts banned corporate political spending intended to influence a citizen referendum. Justice Lewis Powell cast the deciding vote and wrote the 5–4 decision wiping off the books the people’s law intended to keep corporate money out of citizen ballot questions. For the first time in American history, corporations had successfully claimed “speech” rights to attack laws regulating corporate money in our elections. (Clements)
With that success, an emboldened corporate rights campaign next attacked energy and environmental laws. In the 1982 case of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation v.Public Service Corporation of New York, utility corporations and the array of corporate legal foundations all argued that a New York law prohibiting utility corporations from promoting energy consumption violated the corporations’ rights of free speech. The corporations won again, and again Justice Powell wrote the decision for the activist Supreme Court that he had imagined in his 1971 Chamber of Commerce memo.Over a period of six years, Justice Powell wrote four key corporate rights( decisions for the Supreme Court. (Clements)
Although many new voices have emerged in the 40 years since it circulated Powell’s memo, the U.S. Chamber has expanded its leadership position within the corporate power movement, leading dozens of judicial, legislative and regulatory fights each year. Measured in terms of money spent, the Chamber is by far the most powerful lobby in Washington, DC, spending $770.6 million since 1998, over three times the amount spent by General Electric, the second-largest spender. At the same time, the Chamber has reinforced its lobbying power by becoming one of the largest conduits of election-related “independent expenditures,” spending over $32.8 million on Federal elections in 2010. The Chamber sponsors the Institute for Legal Reform, which has spearheaded the campaign for tort “reform,” making it more difficult for average people who have been injured, assaulted, or harmed to sue the responsible corporations. Along with well over a dozen legal foundations, the Chamber has also helped shape the powerful “business civil liberties” movement that has been a driving force behind the Citizens United decision and other judicial actions that have handcuffed regulators and prevented Congress from putting common-sense checks on corporate power. (Cray)
It is clear from the above that the climate change disinformation campaign is only one element in an organized effort of corporations and free market fundamentalists foundations to limit the power of citizen movements to protect human health and the environment when these movements threaten corporate profits or unregulated markets.
Brulle, R., 2000,Agency, Democracy, and Nature, MIT Press, p. 619
Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concludes that national debates about climate change policies and the press coverage of these issues are for the most part ignoring the obvious ethical and moral problems both with how nations are justifying climate change commitments and the arguments of climate change policy opponents at the national level. (See Nationalclimatejustice.org under “lessons learned.”) This is so despite the fact that:
(a) It is impossible for a nation to think clearly about climate policy until the nation takes a position on two ethical issues: (1) what warming limit the nation is seeking to achieve through its policy, and (d) what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. These are ethical issues that can’t be decided through economic or scientific analysis alone.
(b) Climate change policy making raises numerous ethical issues that arise in policy formulation. (See below)
(c) Ethical arguments made in response to the arguments of climate change policy arguments are often the strongest arguments that can be made in response to the claims of climate policy opponents because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
(d) Climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral, ethical, and justice issue. These features include: (a) It is a problem overwhelmingly caused by high-emitting nations and individuals that is putting poor people and nations who have done little to cause the problem at greatest risk, (b) the harms to the victims are potentially catastrophic losses of life or the destruction of ecosystems on which life depends, (c) those most at risk usually can’t petition their own governments for protection, their best hope is that high emitters of ghgs will respond to their moral obligations to not harm others, and, (d) any solution to the enormous threat of climate change requires high emitting nations to lower their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a classic problem of distributive justice.
Our research has discovered that most journalists and national debates about climate policies around the world have largely ignored the numerous ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation and instead usually have narrowly responded to the arguments of the opponents of climate policy which have almost always been variations of claims that climate change policies should be opposed because: (a) they will harm national economic interests, or (b) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action.
Yet numerous issues arise in climate change policy formation for which ethical and moral considerations are indispensable to resolve these issues and moral arguments about these issues are by far the strongest responses to arguments on these issues usually made by opponents of climate policies. The issues include:
Can a nation justify its unwillingness to adopt climate change policies primarily on the basis of national economic interest alone?
When is scientific uncertainty an ethically acceptable excuse for non-action for a potentially catastrophic problem like climate change given that waiting until the uncertainties are resolved makes the problem worse and more difficult to solve?
Should proponents or opponents of climate change policies have the burden of proof to scientifically demonstrate that climate change is or is not a threat before climate change policies are in enacted?
What level of proof, such as, for instance, 95% confidence levels or the balance of the evidence, is needed to demonstrate climate change is a threat that warrants policy responses?
What amount of climate change harm is it ethically acceptable for a nation to impose on those nations or people outside their jurisdiction who will be harmed without their consent?
How aggressive should a nation be in achieving carbon neutrality?
Do high emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible or is their responsibility limited to assuring that their ghg emissions are no greater than their fair share of safe global emissions?
How transparent should a nation be in explaining the ethical basis for national ghg commitments particularly in regard to sufficiency of the ambition and fairness of the national commitments?
To what extent does a nation’s financial ability to reduce ghg emissions create an ethical obligation to do so?
What are the rights of potential victims of climate change to consent to a nation’s decision to delay national action on the basis of national cost or scientific uncertainty?
Who gets to decide what amount of global warming is acceptable?
Who should pay for reasonable adaptation needs of victims of climate change?
Do high emitting nations and individuals have a moral responsibility to pay for losses and damages caused climate change to people or nations who have done little to cause climate change?
How should national ghg targets consider the per capita or historical emissions of the nation in establishing their national climate commitments?
How should a nation prioritize its climate change adaptation needs?
Who has a right to participate in a nation’s decision about funding and prioritizing domestic and foreign adaptation responses?
How does global governance need to be changed to deal with climate change?
What difference for climate change policy-making is entailed by the conclusion that climate change violates human rights?
If climate change violates human rights, can economic costs to polluting nations be be a relevant consideration in the development of national climate policy?
Can one nation condition its response to the threat of climate change on the actions or inaction of other nations?
Which equity framework should a nation follow to structure its response to climate change?
What principles of distributive justice may a nation consider in determining its fair share of safe global emissions?
What kind of crime, tort, or malfeasance is spreading disinformation about climate change science by those who have economic interests in resisting constraints on fossil fuel?
What are the ethical limits of economic reasoning about the acceptability of climate change policies?
What ethical issues arise from cap and trade or carbon taxing solutions to climate change?
What is ethically acceptable climate change scientific skepticism, for instance should all climate skeptics be expected to subject their claims in peer-reviewed journals?
Can a politician avoid responsibility for taking action on climate change simply on the basis that he or she is not a climate change scientist?
What ethical obligations are triggered by potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts from climate change and who gets to decide this?
What are the ethical limits to using cost-benefit analyses as a prescriptive guide to national climate policies?
What responsibility do high emitting nations have for climate refugees?
When are potential adverse environmental impacts of low emitting ghg technologies such as solar and wind a valid excuse for continuing to use high emitting ghg fossil fuel technologies?
Who gets to decide whether geo-engineering techniques which could lessen the adverse impacts of climate change are acceptable as long as these techniques could also create potential previously unexperienced environmental impacts?
What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of sub-national governments, businesses, organizations and individuals for climate change?
Can poor nations which have done little to cause climate change justify non-action on climate change on the basis of their lack of historical responsibility for climate change if some citizens or entities in the country are emitting high amounts of ghgs?
Do poor low-emitting nations have any moral responsibility for climate change and what is it?
When should a nation be bound by provisions of international law relevant to climate change including provisions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they agreed to such as the “no-harm,” and “precautionary? principles and the duty of developed nations to take the lead on climate change?
To what extent should stakeholder groups that advise governments on climate policies be gender and minority representative?
This website contains over 160 articles on these and other climate change ethical issues.
During his speech on August 31 in Alaska, President Obama not only spoke about the enormity of the climate change threat and the urgency of strong action, he also acknowledged that the United States has responsibility for causing the problem. He said:
I’ve come here today, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and its second largest emitter, to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating this problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.
He spoke in clear terms about the enormity of the climate change threat:.
Our understanding of climate change advances each day. Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought. The science is stark. It is sharpening. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present. But the point is that climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now. Climate change is already disrupting our agriculture and ecosystems, our water and food supplies, our energy, our infrastructure, human health, human safety — now. Today. And climate change is a trend that affects all trends — economic trends, security trends. Everything will be impacted. And it becomes more dramatic with each passing year.
But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively. People will suffer. Economies will suffer. Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems. More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.
If we were to abandon our course of action, if we stop trying to build a clean-energy economy and reduce carbon pollution, if we do nothing to keep the glaciers from melting faster, and oceans from rising faster, and forests from burning faster, and storms from growing stronger, we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields no longer growing. Indigenous peoples who can’t carry out traditions that stretch back millennia. Entire industries of people who can’t practice their livelihoods. Desperate refugees seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own. Political disruptions that could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe.
President Obama also acknowledged that because nations have delayed in taking meaningful climate action, the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. More specifically he said:
On this issue, of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us.
And so President Obama admitted that: (a) climate change is a civilization challenging problem with dire potential consequences for nations and vulnerable people around the world, (b) the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming, and, (c) the United States has responsibility for causing the problem.
The United States is not only responsible for the current crisis because, as President Obama noted, it is the second highest emitter of ghg in the world behind China, it has historically emitted much more ghgs into the atmosphere than any other country including China, it is currently near the top of all nations in per capita ghg emissions, and the US has been responsible more than any other developed nation for the failure of the international community to adopt meaningful ghg emissions reduction targets from the beginning of international climate negotiations in 1990 until the Obama administration. (For a detailed description of the blocking role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations since 1990 until the Obama administration, See Brown, 2002, American Heat; Ethical Problems the US Response to Global Warming, and Brown, 2013, Climate Chang Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm)
As we have documented in numerous articles on the disinformation campaign on this website, although responsible scientific skepticism is necessary for science to advance, the climate change disinformation campaign has been involved not in the pursuit of responsible scientific skepticism but in tactics that are morally reprehensible including: (a) telling lies about mainstream climate scientific evidence or engaging in reckless disregard for the truth, (b) focusing on unknowns about climate science while ignoring settled climate change science, that is cherry-picking the evidence, (c) creating front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind claims, (d) making specious claims about “good science”, (e) manufacturing science sounding claims about climate change by holding conferences in which claims are made and documents are released that have not been subjected to scientific peer-review, and (d) cyber bullying journalists and scientists. These tactics are not responsible scientific skepticism but disinformation.
In the late 1980s, the European Union proposed that all developed countries should accept binding ghg emissions reductions targets. These targets would have likely been agreed to in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change if the United States did not oppose them. The United States virtually standing alone prevented the inclusion of binding targets in the treaty which was finalized in 1992 and ratified by the US in that same year. During the next 20 years, the US continued to block a meaningful global solution to climate change while being one of only a handful of nations that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty in which most developed countries accepted a ghg reduction target.
During this time, the climate change disinformation campaign also successfully prevented enactment of meaningful US domestic climate change laws and policies.
For the last several decades, US media has largely failed to cover the fact that the longer the world waits to make significant reductions in ghgs, the more difficult the problem becomes to solve. In this regard, the staggering enormity of the current challenge to the world to prevent dangerous climate change is rarely commented on in the US media despite the fact the 25 year delay in facing this problem has now made the problem a civilization challenging problem. For instance, James Hansen in a recent affidavit submitted in a legal proceeding against the State of Oregon asserted that the world must now reduce ghg emissions at a rate of 6% per year to avoid dangerous climate change. Yet as Hansen notes, if the world began to phase out of fossil fuel in 2005 the rate of reductions needed would only be 3.5% while waiting until 2020 will require a 15% reduction per year. Thus the delay in confronting climate change that is attributable to a large extent to the climate change disinformation campaign and its political mercenaries has made the problem much more difficult to solve with the result that harsh climate change impacts are much more likely. Because the harshest impacts from climate change will likely be experienced by some of the world’s poorest people in Africa,Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, the damage caused by the climate change disinformation campaign may become a global catastrophe.
And so the world is now facing a civilization challenging problem entailed by the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Although President Obama has announced administrative measures that would begin to reduce US ghg emissions, these measures are now being intensely fought by the climate change disinformation campaign and its political representatives and the Obama commitments still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global ghg emissions. In fact, in his August 31 speech, President Obama said after describing his climate initiatives: “But we’re not moving fast enough.” And now it may be too late to prevent huge climate change induced harms because the world has lost 25 years in reducing the threat of climate change in no small measure due to the United States opposition to a meaningful global solution.
President Obama’s August 31 speech in Alaska implicitly acknowledged this conclusion. Yet the US media largely continues to fail to cover the enormous damage that has been caused by the delay in confronting human-induced warming .
When US President Obama announced revised regulations on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants on August 3, 2015 in a laudable speech supporting the new rules, as he predicted opponents of US climate change policy strongly attacked the new rules on grounds that they would wreck the US economy, destroy jobs, and raise electricity prices. Although President Obama defended the new rules on the basis that they were necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, that time was running out to do so, and that the rules would protect human health of US citizens, the speech failed to develop some of the obvious profound implications for climate policy of the conclusion that climate change is a moral problem, although President Obama did assert twice in the speech that climate change is a moral problem.
Although the Obama speech has rightly been praised by those who believe the US must take strong action on climate change, his speech did not acknowledge that:
US ghg emissions are harming and seriously threatening hundreds of millions of people outside the United States. There was no mention in the speech how US ghg emissions were harming others around the world.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change have done almost nothing to cause the existing threats to them.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change can do little to protect themselves, their best hope is that high emitting nations, sub-national governments, organizations, entities, and individuals will respond to their moral responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change.
If climate change is a moral problem, the US may not base its climate change policies on US interests alone, it must respond to its obligations to not harm others outside the United States. Therefore costs to the US economy alone may not be used to justify failure to reduce US ghg emissions.
The United States must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, a fact which leads to the conclusion that the new rules for power plants are still not stringent enough in light of the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that developed countries must reduce their ghg emissions by a minimum of 25% to 40% by 2020 to prevent dangerous climate change and the new rule will only achieve 32% reduction by 2030 coupled with the added fact that any reasonable interpretation of what equity requires of the United States would require the US to be closer to the 40% reduction by 2020 and surely reduce US ghg emissions well in excess of 40% by 2030.
One of the reasons the world is now running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change is because fossil fuel companies and their allies in the US Congress has prevented the United States from taking serious action on climate change since 1992 when the George H. W Bush administration agreed in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that the United States should adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference on climate change on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. Thus the United States, more than any other developed country, has been responsible for the disastrous 30 year delay in formulating a serious global response to climate change, while delays make the problem harder and more expensive to solve and increase the likelihood of triggering dangerous climate change.
The United States is more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas concentrations to 400 ppm CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere than any country and has among the highest per capita ghg emissions as any country in the world.
The climate change opposition in the United States has successfully prevented the United States from adopting policies that would have significantly reduced US emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty despite the fact that the United States agreed in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing its ghg emissions to safe levels.
Those nations who have consistently emitted ghgs above their fair share of safe global ghg emissions are responsible for the reasonable adaptation costs and damages of poor nations and people who have not caused climate change.These responsibilities are required both by basic ethics and justice and international law. These financial obligations will far exceed hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
Editor’s Note: The lead author of the following article on the climate contrarians is Dr. Robert Nadeau, Professor Emeritus, George Mason University. I am a minor contributing author. This article continues a series of 15 previous articles on the “Climate Change Disinformation Campaign” that can be found under that topic in the Index on this website.
Crimes Against Humanity: The Genocidal Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians.
When scientists make presentations at meetings or conferences on the existing and projected impacts of climate change, they describe in jargon laden language and in emotionally neutral terms what their research has revealed about these impacts. But during informal conversations over a few beers during the evening or late at night, these scientists no longer feel obliged to divorce their scientific heads from their human hearts. On these occasions, they use colorful and often profane language to express their disdain and contempt for the small number of scientists known as global warming skeptics who are well compensated by conservative think tanks for misinterpreting and abusing scientific knowledge.
The scientists involved in these conversations also vent their anger toward the oil and energy companies that sponsor massive disinformation campaigns on radio and television designed to convince Americans that their security, peace and economic well-being are utterly dependent on the consumption of increasing amounts of “clean and plentiful” fossil fuels. They say unkind things about the mangers of the American news media for running endless stories about the human suffering and financial losses caused by extreme weather events and saying nothing about the fact that climate change is contributing to the frequency and intensity of these events. But if the conversation goes on long enough and the hour is late, one or more of these scientists will say what the others firmly believe but are reluctant to admit—the fate of the Earth is sealed by the ignorance, lack of compassion, and inexhaustible greed of its human inhabitants and life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival.
The reasons why these empirically oriented rational thinkers have come to this dire conclusion are abundantly obvious in recent scientific research on the existing and projected impacts of climate change. This research has not only shown that massive reductions in worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases over the next two decades will be required to prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change. It has also revealed that if we fail, as now seems likely, to accomplish this feat, there is a high probability that life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival. (Hansen et al. 2013) But as the scientists involved in the late night conversations know all too well, this research is largely ignored by the mainstream media, rarely discussed by political leaders and economic planners, and conspicuously missing in the rancorous public debate about climate change.
The usual explanation why this insane situation exists, as climate scientist Michael Mann put it in a recent article in the New York Times, is that there is a “violent strain of anti-science” in this country which “infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on television.” (Mann, 2014) What Mann did not say in this article but knows very well is that the primary source of this infection is the well-financed, highly coordinated, and very effective campaign of the climate change contrarians.
The Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians
This campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists that had been paid by the tobacco industry to challenge the scientific evidence that smoking is harmful to human health were hired by oil and energy companies to challenge the scientific evidence about climate change. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010) The campaign greatly expanded during the 1990s after some increasingly vocal scientists warned that the threats of climate change were menacingly real and government must regulate emissions of greenhouse gases. (Pooley, 2014) The intent of the new coalition of free market think tanks, corporations, right wing conservatives, and billionaires with vested interests in the fossil fuel business was to accomplish one mayor objective. The objective was to convince the American electorate, along with their representatives in government, that there is no scientific basis for believing that climate change is a serious problem caused by human activities.
The phrase that best describes how this case was made on advertisements on radio and television, conservative talk shows, op-eds in major newspapers and magazines, and in the allegedly expert testimony of a small number of “contrarian” scientists is “Big Lie.” The phrase was originally coined by Adolf Hitler in “Mein Kamp” to describe a lie so colossal that is impossible to believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so famously.” George Orwell later appropriated the phrase in Nineteen Eighty Four and redefined it to mean “to tell deliberate lies while believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient.”
Orwell also said that the tellers of Big Lies were capable of holding two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them. For example, the climate change contrarians repeatedly and earnestly claimed that they were great lovers of science, had enormous respect for scientists, and were only concerned about the uncertainties and lack of scientific rigor in climate science. And yet they launched a full scale attack on the personal and intellectual integrity of climate scientists, did everything possible to destroy their reputations and end their careers, and completely misrepresented and distorted their scientific research.
For example, the campaign launched a full scale assault on climate scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) at the University of East Anglia in 2009 after their emails were hacked and widely distributed over the internet. Some of the emails in this “private” correspondence contained unkind words about research done by scientists in the employ of the petroleum industry and others contained statements that could be interpreted out of context as suppressing this research. But in the view of the climate change contrarians, these comments constituted sufficient evidence to charge all IPCC scientists with everything from professional misconduct to engaging in a conspiracy to suppress scientific research that was not in accord with their ideological and political agendas.
Also consider what occurred after two climate change contrarians claimed that IPPC scientists made two scientifically inaccurate predictions about the environmental impacts of global warming in their 2007 report. One of these predictions, the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, was made in a 738 page working paper and did not appear in the 2007 report. The other prediction about crop failures in North Africa did appear in the background information section of the 3,000 page report but had no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions drawn. Nevertheless, the lawyers for the prosecution in the campaign of the climate change contrarians accused the IPCC scientists of committing fraud and coined the term “climategate” to refer to an alleged conspiracy to cover up or suppress the truth about climate change.
The ability of the climate change contrarians to hold two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them was also apparent in an email written by Republican spin doctor Frank Lutz to the Bush administration in 2002: “The scientific debate is closing against us but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” (Lutz, 2007)
During the years that followed, the campaign of the climate change contrarians realized this goal by contributing large sums to conservative think tanks and political action groups, funding institutes that produced studies which claimed that there was no scientific consensus about climate change, and lavishly compensating allegedly “independent” scientists who were willing to testify that this claim was valid before Congressional committees. The campaign also used its resources to generate numerous economic analyses which allegedly revealed that any attempts by government to curb emissions of greenhouse gases would have a devastating impact on the American economy. (Broder, 2010)
American Legislative Exchange Council
The unacknowledged legislators of the climate change agenda in the United States are members of an organization known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to the ALEC website, this organization is committed to “Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty” and “works to advance fundamental principles of free-enterprise, limited government and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” (ALEC, 2014) What the website does not say is that ALEC provides a forum for corporations to collaborate with members of state legislatures to create model bills which the legislators will later introduce and lobby for in their own legislature. The website also fails to mention that the model legislation is almost entirely written by the corporations and introduced by the legislators without any mention of the source.
Also, nothing is said on this website about the fact that ALEC does not disclose its membership, meets in secret, and the general public are not told where the meetings are held and would be forcefully expelled if they tried to attend. It is also worth noting that the allegedly non-partisan members of state legislatures are right wing Republicans and that prominent and powerful right wing Republicans in both houses of Congress regularly attend the meetings of this secret organization. According the New York Times, special interests have “effectively turned ALEC’s lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they vote, and collaborating on bills effecting hundreds of issues.” (McIntire, 2012) -And the Guardian described ALEC as “a dating service for Republican legislators and big corporations, bringing them together to frame rightwing agendas in the form of model bills.” (Pilkington, 2013a)
In December of 2013, the membership of ALEC consisted of 1,801 members of state legislatures, more than 85 members of Congress, fourteen sitting or former governors considered alumni, and about 300 representatives of corporations, foundations, and think tanks. (Pinkelton and Goldberg, 2013) About 98% of the funding for ALEC comes from corporations, trade associations, and corporate foundations and the contributions of the corporations alone are estimated to be $6 million a year. Some of this corporate money is used to pay for “scholarships” that help to cover the costs of the family vacations that legislators take to ALEC conventions at posh resorts in August after their legislative sessions end. (PR Watch, 2011)
The state legislators who are members of ALEC introduce about 1000 pieces of model legislation each year and about 200 or more pass into law. One the first measures signed by then Governor of Texas George W. Bush was model legislation from ALEC that granted corporations immunity from prosecution if they told regulators about their violations of environmental law. Other model legislation from ALEC was designed to accomplish the following: obviate the decision by the Supreme Court to allow the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants; grant Congress the authority to block the enforcement of the Clean Air and Water Act; authorize state governments to open up federal lands to oil, gas and coal exploration; eliminate waste reduction and mandatory recycling laws; give legal protections to corporations against the victims of lead poisoning; eliminate federal regulations on coal combustion waste; call on the federal government to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and criminalize environmental activism. (Steinbruner et. al., 2013)
The Koch Brothers
The poster children of the campaign of the climate change contrarians are 78 years old Charles Koch and his 73 year old brother David Koch. The Koch brothers are American oligarchs who preside over a vast financial empire and know from experience that money is power and can buy elections and set the political agenda at all levels of government. According to Kenneth Vogel, the “billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are among the most dominant forces in American politics, rivaling even the official Republican Party in its ability to shape policy debates and win elections.”(Vogel, 2014) The brothers managed to accomplish this feat by creating a vast network of politically active non-profits that operate in concert and have a shared ideological agenda. This network is so vast that a detailed diagram of its organization and money flows took up half a page in the print edition of the Washington Post. (Washington Post, 2014) Some of the better known groups in this network are Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action for America, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Club for Growth.
Like most of the other billionaires who support the campaign of the climate change contrarians, the Koch brothers have vested interests in the fossil fuel business. The bothers are 85% owners of a multinational corporation, Koch Industries, whose core business is the refining and distribution of petroleum and the manufacture of chemicals, fiber, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper. Koch Industries also owns 2 million acres of land in Alberta, Canada which contains enormous quantities of tar sands oil. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from its source in the Boreal forest in Alberta to the Gulf Coast. If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers and other billionaires in the fossil fuel business could realize billions of dollars in profits. Not surprisingly, the campaign of the climate change contrarians is doing everything possible to ensure that the pipeline will be approved by the State Department and President Obama.
The message conveyed to the American people in advertisements on radio and television sponsored by this campaign is that tar sands oil is a safe and reliable source of energy and the Keystone XL pipeline will create jobs, promote economic growth, and help to free the United States from dependence on foreign oil. The campaign has also used its considerable resources to dominate and control the public debate about the pipeline and to ensure that virtually nothing is said in this debate about the scientific research on its potential environmental impacts. For example, there has been no mention to my knowledge in the mainstream news media that scientific research has shown that the process of extracting, transporting, refining, and burning of tar sands oil results in significantly higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than for conventional oil. (Biello, 2013) And only a few passing mentions were made in the back pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post of the results of recent scientific studies on the environmental impacts of these emissions.
One of these studies was done by James Hansen, one of the best known and highly respected climate scientists. Hansen and his team calculated how many gigatons (billions of tons) of carbon dioxide is contained in the tar sands oil in the Boreal forest in Alberta. This calculation revealed that the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide contained in tars sands is twice that previously emitted by burning oil during the entire period in which oil has been a source of energy. They then calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that would be in the atmosphere if we fully exploit the tar sands oil and continue to burn the remaining supplies of oil, gas and coal. In this scenario, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be higher than in the Pliocene era more than 3.5 million years ago. Further increases in average Earth temperature would result in the rapid melting of the ice sheets, a sea level rise of at least 50 feet above current levels, and the extinction of twenty to fifty percent of the species on this planet. To put it bluntly, the price that could be paid for the use of all of these “safe and reliable sources of energy” would be an end to human civilization. As Hansen put it in language anyone can understand, “Game over for the climate.” (Hansen, 2012)
If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers could potentially realize $100 billion in profits from the tar sands oil contained in the 2 million acres of land owned by Koch Industries in Alberta. The net worth of the brothers is now exceeded only by that of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison and ranks fourth in the world. Add the potential profits from the tar sand oil and the net worth of the Koch brothers would rank first in the world. The question here is why two impossible rich old men would feel compelled to become even richer by dumping enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to create an environmental disaster that would imperil the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The answer, if there is one, is that the Koch brothers, along with virtually all of the other members of their network of politically active groups and shadow government, are true believers in market fundamentalism.
In this quasi-religious belief system, there are two articles of faith that the true believers regard as transcendent and immutable truths. The first is that the dynamics of free market systems can resolve virtually all human problems, including the climate crisis, if they are not interfered with by government. The second is that the growth and expansion of free market systems lifts all boats and serves the greater good and the only legitimate role of government in the management of economic activities is to promote and enable this growth and expansion. This explains why the Koch brothers and the other participants in the campaign of climate change contrarians feel justified in buying elections and creating a shadow government that serves their vested interests and advances their ideological agenda. It also explains why they have no compunctions about subverting and violating the principles of democratic government and telling Big Orwellian Lies about the science of climate change.
There Ought to Be a Law
There are two definitions of crimes against humanity in international law that could apply to the campaign of the climate change contrarians. The first is “grave offences that are part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population,” and the second is “inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical harm.” (Brown, 2013) -There is no doubt that the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science constitute a “widespread and systematic attack against” all of humanity. There is also no doubt that the contrarians were fully aware that they were misleading people in ways that could eventually result in “great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental and physical harm.” It is not possible for a variety of reasons to charge the Koch brothers and the other contrarians in their vast network with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But we could at least begin to call them by a name that is more appropriate for those who have committed crimes against humanity.
The dictionary definition of a contrarian is a person who takes an opposing view. This implies that a climate change contrarian has a view of climate change that is opposed to and could be as valid as other views. My candidate for a more accurate and appropriate definition of climate change contrarian is as follows: “One who lies about the science of climate change and imperils the human future to protect and enhance his or her financial interests and has no regard for the principles of democracy or the welfare or will of the people of the United States.” But since this definition is too long to routinely use in descriptions of the activities of the contrarians, a better idea might be to add the word genocidal in all future references to their campaign. Hence the new name would be the “genocidal campaign of the climate change contrarians.”
One can hope that the Koch brothers and the members of their vast network will have a crisis of conscience and use their money, power and influence to prevent the ecological disaster they are now in the process of creating. But in the likely event that this does not happen, those of us who care about the human future must be prepared and willing to wage a war aptly described by the American philosopher William James: “What we need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war proved itself to be incompatible.” (James, 1902)
The soldiers in the volunteer army that wages the moral equivalent of war must not only be prepared and willing to publicly challenge the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science and to expose and ridicule the motives of the tellers of these lies. They must also be prepared and willing to fight all the battles required to replace the Koch shadow government with a government that will work tirelessly to prevent an ecological disaster on a scope and scale that is virtually impossible to even imagine. The weapons that will be useful in fighting these battles are protests, rallies, town meetings, boycotts, and political campaigns promoted and organized with videos, documentaries, films and web-based communications networks.
Many people will be understandably reluctant for both personal and professional reasons to respond to this call to arms in a war compatible with their spiritual selves. But what is at stake in this war is not access to scarce national resources, the balance of power between nation-states, or the economic and political hegemony of the United States. It is a human future in which our children and grandchildren can live secure, rich and meaningful lives on a flourishing Earth. This is not merely the work of an age, but a work that could preserve the memory of all ages, and it hard to imagine that anyone could serve a greater good or answer to higher calling.
Hansen, J., Kharecha P., Sato M., Masson-Delmotte V., Ackerman F., et al.,2013, Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLoS One 8(12). Vermeer M., Rahmstorf S. (2009) Global Sea Level Rise Linked to Global Temperature, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed NCBI Google Scholar; Grinsted A., Moore J., Jevrejeva S. (2010) Reconstructing Sea Rise from Paleo and Projected Temperature Rise, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Liu J., Song M., Hu Y., Ren X. (2012) Changes in the Strength and Width of the Hadley Circulation, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Parmesan C., Ecological and Evolutionary Response to Recent Climate Change, Annual Review of Ecology and Evolution of Systems 2006, 37: 637-639; 7: 2287-2312; Marshall J. and Soloman S., editors, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change., Climate Change 2007 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Final Report of Synthesis and Assessment Product,” 4.1, 4.2, 2.3, 1.2. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, avail from: http://www.usgcrp.gov;Rahmstorf S., Coumou D. (2011) Increase in Extreme Weather Events in a Warming World, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed/NCBI Google Scho
Hansen, J., 2012, Game Over for the Climate,”New York Times, May 9. 2012.
James, W., 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: Longmans Green), p. 367.
Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:
1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.
This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others. Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.
It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change. In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.
2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so. Implicit in this argument is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so. Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.
A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.
4. No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:
It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific view of climate change is later vindicated;
It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.
For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.
Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.
A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.
Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.
And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.