March 1, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Climate Science Denial Continues

Mr. President, as the Presiding Officer knows, this is my 129th “Time to Wake Up” speech to my colleagues about the serious threat of carbon pollution and our responsibility as Senators to heed that threat and to take steps to soften the blow of climate change. With each passing week, the evidence of climate change continues to mount and public understanding of the stakes of the climate crisis continues to grow.

Worldwide, 2015 was the hottest year since we began keeping records back in 1880, according to both NOAA and NASA. The last 5 years have been the warmest 5-year period on record since the World Meteorological Association. We know the amount of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere has risen to its highest level in at least 800,000 years—probably several millions of years but at least 800,000 years. Global sea levels are rising along our shores at their fastest rate in nearly 3,000 years. The current rate of change in ocean acidity is already faster than at any time in the past 50 million years. Our oceans are acidifying more rapidly than they have at any time in 50 million years. We measure that from the geologic record.

The American people get it. They understand that climate change is real. More than three out of every four Americans believe that climate change is occurring and that doing nothing to reduce future warming will cause a very or somewhat serious problem for the United States—three out of four. Even the majority of Republicans now acknowledge global warming, with 59 percent saying the climate is changing. When asked, “Do you think that the world’s climate is undergoing a change that is causing more extreme weather patterns and the rise of sea levels,” 70 percent said yes.

The American people have an extraordinarily diverse and qualified array of expertise supporting those convictions: virtually every major scientific society and agency, our American military and national security and intelligence officials, leading American companies, doctors, and faith leaders.

So the truth is winning out, right? The polluters’ campaign of deception and misinformation has been thwarted, right? Well, wrong. They are still at it.

A network of fossil fuel-backed front organizations with innocent sounding names still propagates counterfeit science in an attempt to cast doubt on the actual American scientific consensus. This network of polluter-paid deceit and denial has been well documented by Dr. Robert Brulle at Drexel University, Dr. Justin Farrell at Yale University, Dr. Riley Dunlap at Oklahoma State University, and others. Dr. Brulle’s follow-the-money analysis, for instance, diagrams the complex flow of cash to these front groups—a flow that the polluters persistently try to obscure. Dr. Farrell’s quantitative analysis of words written by climate denial organizations revealed a complex climate denial apparatus that is “overtly producing and promoting skepticism and doubt about scientific consensus on climate change.” “Doubt is their product” is the famous phrase.

Dr. Constantine Boussalis at Trinity College and Dr. Travis Coan at the University of Exeter released a new study in December examining more than 16,000 documents from 19 conservative think tanks over the period 1998 to 2013 and found “little support for the claim that the ‘era of science denial is over’ instead, discussion of climate science has generally increased over the sample period.”

Their study demonstrates that in spite of the broken global heat records over the last decade, rising sea levels, and accelerated melting of polar ice sheets, these conservative think tanks have, in recent years, actually increased their polluter-paid attacks on science.

The study explains these think tanks “provide a multitude of services to the cause of climate change skepticism.” These include: offering material support and lending credibility to contrarian scientists sponsoring pseudoscientific climate change conferences, directly communicating contrarian viewpoints to politicians—which is how we get infected here—and disseminating skeptic viewpoints out through the media.

It follows a playbook of fraudulent deception that we have seen before from industrial powers fighting to obscure the harms their products cause, tobacco being a fine example.

In 2002, the conservative strategist Frank Luntz summed up the scheme in a memo to the Republican Party, since leaked, titled “Straight Talk.” Here is what Mr. Luntz said:

Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate … The scientific debate is closing [against us, he said back in 2002] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.

This is the climate science version of the infamous 1969 tobacco industry memo that declared that “Doubt is our product.”

In her recent book “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer describes in-depth the means by which fossil fuel interests put their wealth to use exerting outsized influence on our American political process. First, she describes, they invest in intellectuals who come up with ideas friendly to the industry. Then they invest in think tanks to transform these ideas into “marketable policies”—stuff they think they can sell. As one environmental lawyer explains, “You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank” which “hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders.” Ms. Mayor describes this as the “think tank as disguised political weapon.”

Not surprisingly, think tanks in the climate denial scheme tend to be funded by fossil fuel interests like ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers or their fronts. The Kochs and their ilk use dark money channels to funnel money through a labyrinth of nonprofit groups that make the full extent of their meddling difficult, if not impossible, to fully determine. The Boussalis and Coan study identifies the Heartland Institute as a particularly important cog in the polluter-funded climate denial apparatus. According to their study:

Heartland’s shift towards science-related themes … dovetails with Luntz’s famous “Straight Talk” memo. It is therefore not a surprise that for a decade it has organized the annual International Conference on Climate Change (also known as Denial-a-Palooza), which serves as a forum for climate science deniers, or that it [Heartland] made headlines in 2012 after launching a controversial ad campaign which equated climate scientists with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Climate scientists, such as the ones who work at NASA and NOAA, are being equated with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber—very responsible behavior by Heartland, but Heartland gets big bucks from the fossil fuel industry and its front groups for this service.

Unfortunately, that is not all. Behind this well-paid conspiracy to fool the American public, which is failing, is a related political effort, which is not. The polluters are losing with the American public, but they still control Congress. Huge sums of dark money are spent on politics, particularly right here in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

As NYU law professor Burt Neuborne has written, “rivers of money flowing from secret sources have turned our elections into silent auctions.”

How huge are these rivers of money? Each election sets new records. In the 2012 Presidential cycle, the nonpartisan Center for Responsible Politics reported that dark money groups spent over $300 million, with over 80 percent of it coming from Republican-leaning outfits.

The torrent of dark money flooded the 2014 midterm elections, making them the most expensive midterm elections in American history. According to the Washington Post, at least 31 percent of all independent spending in that election came from groups not required to disclose their donors–dark money. That doesn’t even count spending on so-called issue ads, which is also not reported.

In this 2016 election cycle, dark money spending has broken new records again. These dark money groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, “are more integrated into campaigns than we’ve seen in the past.” The Koch brothers’ political network alone has vowed to spend $750 million this election cycle. They are through $400 million already and climbing. And the $750 million they have vowed to spend is more than the Bush and Kerry campaigns combined spent in 2004.

In our political debate, dark money dollars drown out the voices of average citizens with what has been aptly called “a tsunami of slime.” All that money is not spent for nothing. As one secret corporate donor exulted, “We can fly under the radar screen.… There are no limits, no restrictions, and no disclosure.” The result stinks, and it is polluting our public discourse.

The sad part is that it is working. Not one Republican Senator will stand up and address climate change in a meaningful way. I have a bill modeled on what conservative economists and the out-of-office Republican officials who are willing to address climate change all recommend as their solution. I did it their way—not a single cosponsor.

In the Presidential primary, it is even worse. One leading candidate has actually declared that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Tell that to NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Navy, and every single American National Laboratory. It is a preposterous statement offered by a person who presents himself as qualified to be President of the United States.

Another candidate—this one, I am sad to say, a Senate colleague—simply shrugs and says, “Climate is always changing.” No, not like this. And if you don’t believe me, ask NOAA, NASA, the U.S. Navy, and every single American National Laboratory.

Yet another candidate who is also a Senator dismissed the solid American scientific consensus on climate change as “partisan dogma and ideology.” Tell that to the scientists at NOAA, NASA, the Navy, and every single one of our National Laboratories, that what they are doing is not legitimate science, but it is partisan dogma and ideology. Again, that is a preposterous remark, but they have to say those things because the big fossil fuel money is so powerful in that primary race that they don’t dare cross them.

The powerful fossil fuel interests have created a beautiful situation. They no longer care which candidate wins the primary because they have schooled them all to climate denial. That is the achievement of dark money, and it is an achievement that is disgracing our democracy and will darken our reputation for decades. Its effect is that we do nothing—exactly what the big polluters want, exactly what the big polluters paid for. It is just sickening what these secretive special interests and their dirty dark money are doing to our American democracy.

It is time to wake up, Mr. President. I thank you.

I yield the floor.