Time to Wake Up: The Denier's Playbook

As delivered on the Senate floor

I’m here today, for what is now the forty-ninth straight week in which the Senate has been in session, to urge that we wake up to the effects of carbon pollution on the Earth’s oceans and climate; to sweep away the manufactured doubt that so often surrounds this issue, and to get serious about the threat that we face from climate change.

When I come to the floor I often have a specialized subject.  I talk about the oceans and how they’re affected by carbon pollution.  Or I talk about the economics around carbon pollution.  Or I talk about the faith community’s interest in carbon pollution.  Today I want to talk about the role of the media in all of this. We count in America on the press to report faithfully and accurately on our changing world, and to awaken the public to apparent mounting threats. Our Constitution gives the press special, vital rights, so that they can perform this special, vital role.  

But what happens when the press fails in this role?  What happens when the press stops being independent, when it becomes the bedfellow of special interests?  The Latin phrase, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, who will watch the watchmen themselves, becomes then the question.  The press are supposed to scrutinize all of us. Who watches them when they fail at their independent role?

I want to speak about a very specific example: the editorial page of one of our nation’s leading publications, the Wall Street JournalThe Wall Street Journal is one of America’s great newspapers, and there is probably none better when it comes to news coverage and to reporting.  It is a paragon in journalism…until you turn to the editorial page, and then you step into a chasm of polluter sludge when the issue is harmful industrial pollutants.  When that is the issue, harmful industrial pollutants, this editorial page will mislead its readers, will deny the scientific consensus, it will ignore its excellent news pages’ actual reporting, all to help the industry; to help the campaign to manufacture doubt and delay action.

[Show Denier’s Playbook Chart]

As I’ve said before, there is a deniers playbook around these issues.  We’ve seen the pattern repeat itself in the pages of the Wall Street Journal’s on acid rain, on the ozone layer, and now—most pronouncedly—on climate change.  And the pattern is a simple one: deny the science; question the motives; exaggerate the costs.  Call it the Polluting Industry 1-2-3.

Let’s start in the 1970s, when scientists first warned that chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, which were commonly used as refrigerants and aerosol propellants, could break down the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer, which would increase human exposure to ultraviolet rays and cause cancer.  As outlined in a report by Media Matters, this is the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page embarked upon what would become a persistent and familiar pattern. 

For more than twenty-five years, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page doggedly printed editorials devaluing science and attacking any regulation of CFCs:

  • January 1976: an editorial proclaimed the connection between CFCs and ozone depletion “is only a theory and will remain only that until further efforts are made to test its validity in the atmosphere itself.”
  • May 1979: an editorial said that scientists “still don’t know to what extent, if any, mankind’s activities have altered the ozone barrier or whether the possibly harmful effects of these activities aren’t offset by natural processes. . . . Thus, it now appears--the editorial page continued—all the excitement over the threat to the ozone layer was founded on scanty scientific evidence.”
  • March 1984: we read on the editorial page that concerns about ozone depletion were based on “premature scientific evidence.” Rather, they said, “new evidence shows that the ozone layer isn’t vanishing after all; it may even be increasing.”
  • March 1989: an editorial called for more research on the “questionable theory that CFCs cause depletion of the ozone layer,” and implored scientists to “continue to study the sky until we know enough to make a sound decision regarding the phasing out of our best refrigerants.”

Again, deny the science.

Predictably, they also attacked the motives of reformers:

  •  A February 1992 editorial stated: “It is simply not clear to us that real science drives policy in this area.”

And, playbook 3, they warned that action to slow ozone depletion would be costly:

  • A March 1984 editorial claimed that banning CFCs would “cost the economy some $1.52 billion in forgone profits and product-change expenses” as well as 8,700 jobs.
  • An August 1990 editorial warned that banning CFCs would lead to “a dramatic increase in air-conditioning and refrigeration costs.” It added: “The likely substitute for the most popular banned refrigerant costs 30 times as much and will itself be banned by the year 2015. The economy will have to shoulder at least $10 billion to $15 billion a year in added refrigeration costs by the year 2000.”
  • A February 1992 editorial warned that accelerating the phase-out of CFCs “almost surely will translate into big price increases on many consumer products.”

Well, despite the protests of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, we actually listened in America to the science.  And we took action.  We protected the ozone layer and we protected the public’s health, and the economy prospered.  What about all those costs that they claimed?  Looking back, we can see that action to slow ozone depletion in fact saved money.  According to the EPA’s 1999 progress report on the Clean Air Act, “Every dollar invested in ozone protection provides $20 of societal health benefits in the United States.” One dollar spent, twenty dollars saved.

The Journal’s response?  Silence.  They just stopped talking about it.

So, on to acid rain.  In the late 1970s, scientists began reporting that acid rain was falling on most of our Northeastern United States.  Guess what?  Again, at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, out came the Playbook:

First, they questioned the science behind the problem:

  • A May 1980 editorial questioned the link between increased burning of coal and acid rain, concluding that existing “data are not conclusive and more studies are needed.” 
  • In September 1982 the editors told us that “Scientific study, as opposed to political rhetoric, points more and more toward the theory that nature, not industry, is the primary source of acid rain.” Nature is the primary source of acid rain.
  • A September 1985 Journal editorial claimed, “the scientific case for acid rain is dying.”
  • In June 1989, the editorial page argued that we needed to wait—it’s always needing to wait—for science to understand, for example, to what extent acid rain is man-made before enacting regulations.

During that same period, the Wall Street Journal editorial page also smeared the motives, declaring that the effort to address acid rain was driven by politics, not science: 

  • In July 1987, the editorial page wrote, consistent with number two there in the playbook: “As the acid-rain story continues to develop, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that politics, not nature, is the primary force driving the theory’s biggest boosters.”

Wall Street Journal editors also consistently opposed plans to address acid rain because of cost concerns, number three in the playbook:

  • A June 1982 editorial warned of the “immense cost of controlling sulfur emissions.”
  • A January 1984 editorial claimed a regulatory program for acid rain would cost “upwards of $100 billion.”

These claims were made even as the evidence mounted against their position; even as President Reagan’s own scientific panel said that inaction would risk “irreversible damage.” And of course the cost equation of the Wall Street Journal editorial page was always totally one-sided: always the cost to clean up the pollution; never the cost of the harm that the pollution cased.

That’s the industry playbook; faithfully spouted through the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal:  1) deny the science; 2) question the motives; and 3) exaggerate the costs.

But, we made undeniable progress against acid rain, despite the efforts of the editorial page.  And guess what?  The Journal editorial page suddenly reversed its tune.  A July 2001 editorial called the cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide “fabulously successful,” fabulously successful, noting that the program “saves about $700 million annually compared with the cost of traditional regulation and has been reducing emissions by four million tons annually.”

On this occasion, when its effort had failed, the Journal changed its tune.  But up ‘til then it was still the industry playbook:  1) deny the science; 2) question the motives; and 3) exaggerate the costs.

And now, with carbon pollution running us to 400 parts per million for the first time in human history, the Journal is using the same old polluter playbook against climate change.

The Journal has persistently published editorials against taking action to prevent manmade climate change.  As usual, they question the science:

  • In June 1993 the editors wrote that there is “growing evidence that global warming just isn’t happening.”
  • In September 1999 the page reported that “serious scientists” call global warming “one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.”
  • In June 2005 the page asserted that the link between fossil fuels and global warming had “become even more doubtful.” This is June 2005, and the Wall Street Journaleditorial page is questioning whether there is a link between fossil fuels and global warming.
    • A December 2011 editorial said that the global warming debate requires “more definitive evidence.”

As usual, back to the industry playbook, the motives of the scientists were smeared:

  • A December 2009 editorial claimed that leading climate scientists were suspect because they: “have been on the receiving end of climate change-related funding, so all of them must believe in the reality (and catastrophic imminence) of global warming just as a priest must believe in the existence of God.”

And as usual, we heard that tackling climate change, tackling carbon pollution, would cost us a lot of money:

  • In August 2009, the editorial page warned “that a high CO2 tax would reduce world GDP a staggering 12.9% in 2100—the equivalent of $40 trillion a year.” 
  • And just last month, October 2013, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal warned that in the face of climate change, “interventions make the world poorer than it would otherwise be.”

That same October 2013 editorial actually completed the full polluter playbook trifecta by also decrying the “political actors” seeking to gain economic control; and by questioning the science, saying “global surface temperatures have remained essentially flat.” They covered them all in just the one editorial.

If only the editorial page writers at the Wall Street Journal would turn the page to the actual news their own paper reports on climate change:

  • A March 2013 article reported, and I’ll quote: “New research suggests average global temperatures were higher in the past decade than over most of the previous 11,300 years, a finding that offers a long-term context for assessing modern-day climate change.”
  • A piece from the Wall Street Journal news in August 2013 revealed, and I’ll quote again:  “Average global temperatures in 2012 were roughly in line with those of the past decade or so, but the year still ranked among the 10 warmest on record as melting arctic ice and warming oceans continued to boost sea levels…”

Which takes me to a particular fact about what carbon pollution is doing. And that is that our oceans are taking the brunt of the harm from carbon pollution, and it’s time to stop looking the other way. But the Wall Street Journal editorial page doesn’t often address the effects of carbon pollution on oceans, perhaps because the changes taking place in our oceans are not a matter where the complexity of computer modeling leaves room for phony doubt to be insinuated. 

The oceans’ recent changes from our carbon pollution aren’t projections.  They aren’t models.  They are measurements.  Simple, unyielding measurements.  We measure sea-level rise with a ruler.  It’s not complicated.  We measure ocean temperature with a thermometer.  We measure ocean acidification on the pH scale. So, they don’t talk about that much at the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.  There’s no room for phony doubt, so they look elsewhere.

Well, we have the right to expect independent and honest media to teach the American public about the threats facing our oceans and our environment.  What a difference good reporting can make.  Exemplary and compelling storytelling can and does influence our national conversation and inspire change.

Reporters fail when they give false equivalency to arguments on each side of the political spectrum even though they’re not really equivalent.  Editors fail when they look at the science, look at the measurements, look at the real threats posed to our world, and then fail to tell us the unvarnished truth. 

The story of climate change needs to be told.  Our oceans need a voice.  It seems the big polluters already have one.

I yield the floor.