May 10, 2016

Time to Wake Up: Harassment of Climate Scientists

Mr. President, today I rise for the 136th time in my series of speeches on the continuing threat of global climate change. Real science–the peer-reviewed kind–continues to prove the established connection between carbon pollution and the startling changes we see in our climate and oceans, changes that are so profound that we will leave to our children and grandchildren a world very different from the one we knew growing up.

Nonetheless, powerful fossil fuel interests still willfully spread disinformation about climate science. There are obvious similarities between the fossil fuel industry’s denial of its products’ climate effects and the tobacco industry’s denial of its products’ health effects. These similarities are sufficient that a proper inquiry should be made about pursuing a civil lawsuit like the one the Justice Department brought and won against Big Tobacco.

I have made that suggestion and, wow, did that set off an outburst. The rightwing climate denial outfits and the fossil fuel industry mouthpieces went into high gear.

I think there were about 100 “spontaneous” reactions to my Washington Post op-ed and to a related question that I asked Attorney General Lynch. This outburst was interesting. There was usually only a degree or two of separation between the outlets and mouthpieces engaged in this outburst and the fossil fuel industry. Most of the arguments were the same, with the same telling falsehoods, omissions, and oversights. Among these misstatements, various outlets said that the aim of any such investigation would be to “silence climate dissidents” and squelch “independent thought”; indeed, that such an inquiry would be “an affront to the scientific method.” Any investigation of fraud would be an attack on science. Well, maybe if most of your science is fraud, you see things that way, but the charge is just not true in any ordinary sense of the words involved.

And the language was nearly hysterical. I was the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and mighty ExxonMobil was lonely Galileo; the State attorneys general were involved in a “Soviet-style investigation” and “gangster government.” Oh, it was big talk indeed.

It does raise this question: If the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the other fossil fuel industry mouthpieces were such resolute guardians of the scientific method, where were they when actual peer-reviewed climate scientists were investigated and harassed and bullied for doing their jobs?

We took a look, and here is what you see from the mouthpieces: possible civil investigation of the fossil fuel industry, massive indignation; actual investigations of legitimate climate scientists, silent equanimity.

Here is some of the history. This February, the chairman of the House Science Committee issued a government subpoena to NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, seeking to investigate NOAA scientists’ deliberative materials. And this was not the first time. The chairman issued a previous government subpoena against NOAA scientists after the journal Science published a NOAA report debunking the fossil-fuel-funded climate deniers’ contention that global warming had paused.

So the junior Senator from Rhode Island mentions a possible inquiry into fossil fuel industry fraud, and industry mouthpieces go ape. The committee chairman actually issues subpoenas against scientists and not a peep.

In 2005, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee thought to investigate the personal emails of a climate scientist after he published a study showing the rapid increase in global temperatures. This investigative effort was so rank that even fellow Republicans objected. Sherwood Boehlert, then a Republican Congressman from New York, expressed his “strenuous objections” to the chairman’s “misguided and illegitimate investigation.”

Even with that public warning of a misguided and illegitimate investigation against scientists, there was not a peep from the mouthpieces.

In 2010, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia launched an investigation against a University of Virginia faculty member–a climate scientist, of course. The Attorney General served the University of Virginia with a series of civil investigative demands to produce documents related to the work of the offending UVA faculty member. Well, to its credit, UVA refused, and won a multiyear legal battle with the Attorney General that went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Again, Attorneys General consider investigating the fossil fuel industry, and all the mouthpieces go ape. An actual attorney general harasses an actual climate scientist to the point where the university has to send its lawyers to defend him, and from the mouthpieces, there was not a peep through all those years of litigation.

In 2011, as the Cuccinelli investigation was underway, an oil industry front group called the American Tradition Institute, which is now known as the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, doubled down and sought identical materials from UVA through a Freedom of Information Act request. Again, UVA objected, and in 2014 the Supreme Court of Virginia unanimously threw that out too, based on, quoting an earlier Virginia Circuit Court ruling in the case, “the concept of academic freedom and … the interest in protecting research.”

So you suggest an investigation of the industry, and the denial apparatus goes ape. But here an industry front group actually went out to investigate climate scientists in a way that caused the Supreme Court of Virginia to call in the concept of academic freedom against them. And they are still at it. Despite the UVA loss in court, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute has since filed FOIA requests against scientists at NASA, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the University of Delaware, and the University of Arizona. That is some double standard.

In 2009, a hacker stole more than 1,000 emails and 3,000 other documents from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in Britain who were working on a United Nations report on climate change. Naturally, the climate denial apparatus went to work to select passages from the emails to assert that the climate scientists manipulated data. This turned out after multiple–yes–investigations to be false. Six official investigations ensued, clearing everyone of any wrongdoing: a three-part Penn State University investigation, two separate reviews commissioned by the University of East Anglia, a United Kingdom Parliamentary report, an investigation by the NOAA inspector general’s office, and an investigation by the National Science Foundation’s inspector general’s office.

Throughout all of these investigations of the climate scientists, was there a peep of concern out of these mouthpieces about investigative intrusion on science? Nope.

Here in this Chamber, a Senator, then the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, our senior Senator from Oklahoma, publicly called for a criminal investigation into American and British scientists who had worked on the U.N. report or had communications with the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit. The Senator claimed that scientific data “was contrived and fabricated” and that “in an attempt to conceal the manipulation of climate data, information disclosure laws may have been violated.” He even named 17 “key players” in the controversy, including–wouldn’t you know it–that UVA scientist who had been the subject of harassment by the attorney general. His staff report suggested that the scientists violated “fundamental ethical principles” and “may have violated Federal law.” He called scientists at the Climate Research Unit “scientists who commit crimes.”

Wow. There you go–a Senator calling for criminal investigation of actual climate scientists. That must have set these mouthpieces squawking about the intrusion of investigation into science; right? Well, actually, no. Again, there was not a peep of concern.

Mr. President, climate science constantly finds itself in the crosshairs of a climate denial apparatus that has an ugly side. InsideClimate News reports climate scientists often face death threats, vituperation, claims of fraud, and other forms of intimidation. And science is starting to look at that denial apparatus. Sound, peer-reviewed academic work shows how a carefully built apparatus of disinformation has been misleading the public and policymakers about the risks of carbon. That is scientific work. Sound, peer-reviewed academic scientific work shows how disinformation campaigns, funded by fossil fuel interests, have sowed doubt about climate science and have been effective in shaping American public opinion.

A recent study by 16 scientists, including John Cook of the University of Queensland, Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University, and Peter Doran of Louisiana State University, examined the discrepancy between what the public thinks and what scientists know about climate change, and they found “the consensus that humans are causing recent global warming is shared by 90-100 percent of publishing climate scientists.” Why the gap in public recognition from what the scientists know? Because of a persistent effort “manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change.”

Part of the work of this denial apparatus has been to harass and investigate climate scientists over and over and over again. So when these mouthpieces with one or two degrees of separation from the fossil fuel industry have an outburst about the sanctity of science from any investigation, well, that deserves an eyebrow. And when the only time their concern for scientific integrity appears is when an investigation might look at the fossil fuel industry, but they are quiet as mice whenever actual climate scientists are being investigated, well, that merits further skepticism.

There are a lot of reasons why the scientific integrity argument doesn’t apply to a fraud investigation of the fossil fuel industry and its front groups. Actually, there are too many reasons for me to go into here and now in the allotted time. But here is the bottom line:  one, the argument is a phony, designed to protect from investigation an industry that may well have engaged in deliberate fraud on a massive scale; two, the clamor is phony, whipped up a hundredfold but through industry mouthpieces; and three, the sincerity is completely phony because the mouthpieces have had nothing to say for years, when real climate scientists were actually investigated. They only swung into action when the possibility emerged that the fossil fuel industry may have to face investigation for fraud.

There is a wooden cross in faraway Antarctica memorializing the Scott expedition to the South Pole. It is carved with the closing line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” To the real physicists, chemists, oceanographers, meteorologists, geologists, and climatologists actually engaged in climate science, let me say, you embody this spirit of discovery and perseverance. The real scientists have not shrunk in the face of fossil fuel threats, investigations, and intimidation. The fossil fuel campaign of denial has not stymied the flow of new climate research nor dimmed the fervor with which the real climate scientists pursue and share their knowledge. These men and women–hardworking and often unsung–deserve our praise, and, after some of the nonsense they have been put through, they probably also deserve an apology.

But right now they must be looking on in wonderment–and, I hope, with some wry humor–at the sudden outburst of newfound concern from fossil fuel mouthpieces for the so-called sanctity of the scientific process. Of all the people to make that claim, this crew has the least business making it.

I yield the floor.