December 1, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Corporations Funding Phony Climate Denial

Madam President, as the Presiding Officer knows well, every week that I am here and the Senate is in session, I come to the floor to remind us of the damage carbon pollution continues to do to our atmosphere and oceans. Today I rise for the 120th time to urge my colleagues to wake up to the threat of climate change. I am not alone, although it sometimes seems a bit lonely here.

We have an advertisement today in the Wall Street Journal–we will find it here in 1 second; well, I seem to have mislaid it–that has a considerable number of American companies that have called upon the public and called on the readers of the Wall Street Journal to support a strong outcome in Paris. It matches another Wall Street Journal full-page advertisement–this one went back to October 22–which was “Republicans and Democrats Agree: U.S. Security Demands Global Climate Action.” That had 23 Republican former officials, including Senators Cohen, Coleman, Danforth, Hagel, Lugar, Kassebaum, Smith, and Snowe, Secretaries of Commerce, State, Treasury, members of the National Intelligence Council, Homeland Security advisers, and Trade Representatives. In total, 33 Republican and military officials were calling on us to get serious about it. So a lot of people out there, including Republicans, are interested in getting something done.

I wanted to build my remarks this week around something interesting that Pope Francis said this past weekend about the upcoming climate talks in Paris. He said: “It would be sad, and dare I say even catastrophic, were special interests to prevail over the common good and lead to manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and interests.”

“Sad,” and “even catastrophic”–let’s look at that part.

The fact is, we have changed the composition of our atmosphere, pushing the concentration of carbon dioxide beyond the range it has been in for at least 800,000 years, longer than our species has been on the planet. For 8,000 centuries, our Earth had an atmosphere between 170 and 300 parts per million of CO2.

Concentrations have now hit 400 parts per million, farther out of the range than the midpoint of the range, and that trend continues to rise. By the way, that is measurement. That is not somebody’s theory. That is not a computer-model run. We have measured that.

Last year was the hottest year since we began keeping records in 1880, a dubious distinction. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the last 5 years are now the warmest 5-year period in human history. This year is on track to be another recordbreaker, expected to reach the both symbolic and significant milestone of 1 full degree Celsius above the average temperature of the preindustrial era.

Many scientists agree that 2 degrees above the precarbon-era norm will likely mean irreparable harm to our planet and to our current way of life.

So it would, indeed, be sad and perhaps ultimately catastrophic if we were to do nothing.

Yet we in Congress continue to do nothing, which brings me to the next of Pope Francis’s words in that opening quotation: “special interests prevail[ing] over the common good.”

Well, doing nothing is just fine by the big polluters because they make more money when we do nothing. To keep their profitable racket running, the polluters spend huge sums on lobbying and on politics, particularly right here in the Congress. As one author has written, and I will quote him: “[R]ivers of money flowing from secret sources have turned our elections into silent auctions.” And the polluters get what they pay for. With the Congress of the United States distracted and deceived by their mischief, the effects of climate change just keep piling up.

This problem got worse in 2010 when the big polluters got a gift. They got handed a big, new political weapon. Thanks to five Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, all of them Republican appointees, the big polluters can now threaten lawmakers with the cudgel of unlimited, undisclosed Citizens United money.

So we do nothing, and the polluters offload onto everyone else the costs in damage from their fossil fuel product, the costs of heat waves, of sea level rise, of ocean acidification, of dying forests, of worsening storms and more. The polluters happily dump those costs onto everybody else. They suck up hundreds of billions of dollars in effective public subsidy, according to the International Monetary Fund, and of course they fight desperately to protect their favored status.

Pope Francis had it right–special interests indeed prevail over the common good.

And that brings us to the Pope’s words about them “manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and interests.”

I have spoken on this floor about the decades-long, purposeful corporate campaign of misinformation on climate change. The fossil fuel industry and its allies gin up doubt about the dangers of carbon pollution through a smokescreen of misleading public statements, sophisticated marketing, and polluter-funded front groups. The mission of these well-organized and mightily funded deniers is to manufacture a product–uncertainty, doubt. The polluters spend huge amounts on a big, complex PR machine to churn out doubt about the real science. It is a fraud. It is a deliberate pollution of the public mind.

We know that a network of front organizations with innocent-sounding names has emerged to propagate that baloney science. This network has been well documented by Dr. Robert Brulle at Drexel University and Dr. Riley Dunlap at Oklahoma State University, among others. Professor Brulle’s follow-the-money analysis, for instance, diagrams the complex flow of cash to these front groups, a flow that the fossil fuel industry persistently tries to obscure.

A new study was released just last week, a study by Dr. Justin Farrell at Yale University. His work examines how corporations have used their money to amplify the voices of climate deniers and to exaggerate scientific uncertainty. Dr. Farrell used computers to perform a comprehensive quantitative analysis of more than 39 million words written by 164 climate denial organizations–yes, there are 164 of them; this is a big beast–over a 20-year period. His study compared corporate-funded groups to the rest.

Professor Farrell’s stated purpose was to uncover empirically the actual social arrangements within which large-scale scientific misinformation is generated and the important role private funding plays in shaping the actual ideological content of scientific information that is written and amplified. He describes the climate denial apparatus as a complex network of think tanks, foundations, public relations firms, trade associations, and other groups that are “overtly producing and promoting skepticism and doubt about scientific consensus on climate change.”

Farrell describes the function of the network as, one, “the production of an alternative contrarian discourse,” and two, “to create ideological polarization around climate change.” Why polarization? Because “it is well understood that polarization is an effective strategy for creating controversy and delaying policy progress particularly around environmental issues.”

So the polarization we see in this building on this issue is a product created by a network of corporate-funded climate denial front groups. We are the living proof of the success of this scheme. Corporate backing created a united network, said Farrell, within which the contrarian messages could be strategically created. That is right, climate denial is “strategically created.”

Farrell’s data show particularly that donations from ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundations signal what he calls entry into a powerful network of influence, and that corporate funding influences the actual language and thematic content of polarizing discourse. And, of course, one of the areas of distinct corporate-funded polarizing discourse produced by this network was questions about the scientific veracity of long-term climate change. Again, it is the product of a scheme.

Professor Farrell made another comparison. He has made the same comparison that others have made with tobacco. I will quote him:

Well-funded and well-organized “contrarian” campaigns are especially important for spreading skepticism or denial where scientific consensus exists–such as in the present case of global warming, or in historical contrarian efforts to create doubt about the link between smoking and cancer.

To create doubt about the link between smoking and cancer. That echos the telling sentence from the tobacco denial campaign: Doubt is our product.

Just as Pope Francis said, the denial machinery is “manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and interests.” The actions of the climate denial machine have been so effective, they have made it “difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,” says Farrell. Doubt is still their product.

Every generation of Americans has faced its challenge, and each has risen to its challenge. Some generations left bloody footprints in the snows of Valley Forge to secure our independence. Some generations were torn to pieces by cannon fire in the great battles of the Civil War. Some generations endured mustard gas and trench warfare in World War I. Some secured the world’s freedom from the Axis powers in World War II. Some rebuilt the American economy after the Great Depression. Some were beaten, bombed, and burned as they struggled to secure the civil rights we now enjoy.

We are the generation whose duty it is to face down the climate crisis that threatens our planet and face down the folks behind this vast climate denial scheme. All we have to do to rise to our duty is to resist all the dark money, all the fossil fuel-funded threats and intimidation Citizens United made possible.

Let me read from an opinion that was in my clips today from David Brooks, a conservative columnist. I see him at American Enterprise Institute gatherings. He is a self-identified Republican conservative who was writing about climate change and the upcoming Paris conference. He says this as if he is communicating with Alexander Hamilton. He obviously is not, but that is his rhetorical device. He said, “So I seanced up my hero Alexander Hamilton to see what he thought” about the Paris climate conference. Here is what he said:

First, [Alexander Hamilton] was struck by the fact that on this issue the G.O.P. has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship–a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.

That is a conservative Republican economist talking about this.

We can get through this. We simply need conscientious Republicans and Democrats to work together in good faith on a common platform of established science, clear facts, and basic common sense. If we do that, we can protect the American people, the American economy, and our American reputation from the harm of the looming effects of climate change. It is on us. It is on us. We simply need to shed the shackles of corrupting influence and rise to our duty, as other generations always have.

We do not have to be the generation that failed. Yes, we are headed down a road to infamy now, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can leave a legacy that will echo down the corridors of history, so the generations that follow us will be proud of our efforts the way we are proud of those who did great things for our country before us. But sitting here doing nothing, yielding to the special interests, won’t accomplish that.

This new analysis out of Yale is an important addition to the increasing body of academic research and journalism that is shining some much needed sunlight on the shadowy enterprise of phony science and phony doubt that props up climate denial. It is time we all caught on to this deceptive enterprise. Being suckers down a road to infamy is not a good legacy.

It is time to wake up.