Time to Wake Up: Reaction to the Web of Denial

Mr. President, as the Senate reconvenes after several weeks of work in our home States, I am back for the 145th time asking my colleagues to wake up to the pressing reality of climate change. We are sleepwalking through this moment, willfully ignoring the warning signs of an already altered Earth, largely because of a decades-long corporate campaign of misinformation on the dangers of carbon pollution.

Just last week, while we were back home, scientists at the International Geological Congress presented the beginning of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Transitions between geological epochs are marked by a signal--a signal in the global geologic record, like the traces of the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous epoch.

What are the signals of the beginning of the Anthropocene?

Humans--anthropos--have increased carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to 400 parts per million and rising today--a pace of increase not seen for 66 million years and a level never seen before in human history on this planet. We have also dumped so much plastic into our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles can be found virtually everywhere and are now even infiltrating our food chain. We have poured so much pollution into our atmosphere--that thin blue shell under which we currently thrive--that permanent layers of particulates, such as black carbon from burning fossil fuels, are left in sediments and glacial ice. The signals we are leaving are many, and they are clear.

Dr. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who coined the term “Anthropocene” remarked back in 2011, “This name change stresses the enormity of humanity's responsibility as stewards of the Earth.” His words echo those of Pope Francis, who tells us this in his encyclical Laudato Si’, “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Yet attempts to address climate change are stifled in this Chamber by an industry-controlled, many-tentacled apparatus deliberately polluting our discourse with phony climate denial as it pollutes our atmosphere and oceans with carbon. Polls show more than 80 percent of Americans favor action to reduce carbon pollution. So our inaction signals the filthy grip these bad actors have on this Chamber.

Before the recess, 19 colleagues came to the floor to shine a little light on this web of climate denial spun by those actors. All told, we delivered over 5 1/2 hours of remarks describing the activities, the backers, and the linkages of dozens of denier groups.

A growing body of scholarship examines this climate denial apparatus, including work by Harvard's Naomi Oreskes, Michigan State's Aaron McCright, Oklahoma State University's Riley Dunlap, Yale's Justin Farrell, and Drexel's Robert Brulle. Their work reveals an intricate, interconnected propaganda web that encompasses over 100 organizations, trade associations, conservative think tanks, foundations, public relations firms, and plain old phony-baloney polluter front groups. In the words of Professor Farrell, the apparatus is “overtly producing and promoting skepticism and doubt about scientific consensus on climate change.”

Well, our little floor effort got the attention of the climate deniers.

Shortly after our “web of denial” floor action, Senator Schatz and I received a letter from ExxonMobil telling us that it believes the risks of climate change are real, that it no longer funds groups that deny the science of climate change, and that it supports a carbon fee, like our American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a copy of this letter.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the record as follows:

Exxon Mobil Corporation,

Washington, DC, July 21, 2016. 
Hon. Sheldon Whitehouse, 
U.S. Senate, 
Washington, DC.

Dear Senator Whitehouse,

I am writing in response to comments you recently made on the Senate floor about ExxonMobil and our position on climate change and felt it important to better inform you of our position. ExxonMobil shares the same concerns as people everywhere--how to provide the world with the energy it needs to support economic growth and improve living standards, while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is a dual challenge. Technological advancements in the ways in which we produce, deliver, and use energy are critical to our ability to meet this challenge.

ExxonMobil believes the risks of climate change are real and warrant thoughtful action.

As a global issue, addressing the risks of climate change requires broad-based, practical solutions around the world. ExxonMobil believes that effective policies to address climate change should:

Ensure a uniform and predictable cost of carbon across the economy; Be global in application; Allow market prices to drive the selection of solutions; Minimize complexity and administrative costs; Maximize transparency; and Provide flexibility for future adjustments to react to developments in climate science and the economic impacts of climate policies.

As policymakers develop mechanisms to address climate change risk, they should focus on reducing the greatest amount of emissions at the lowest cost to society. Of the policy options being considered by governments, we believe a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the best--a position we first took more than seven years ago.

We are actively working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our own operations and to help our customers reduce their emissions as well. That means developing technologies that reduce emissions, including working to improve energy efficiency and advance cogeneration. In fact, our cogeneration facilities alone enable the avoidance of approximately 6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, and allow us to feed power back to the grid in certain instances.

Since 2000, ExxonMobil has spent approximately $7 billion to develop lower-emission energy solutions. That figure does not include the fact that as the nation's leading producer of natural gas, ExxonMobil has contributed substantially to the overall drop in U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions over the past decade.

We are also advancing conventional carbon-capture-and-storage technology while at the same time pursuing innovative carbon-capture solutions involving carbonate fuel cells. This far-sighted research aims to reduce the cost of carbon capture to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. Advancing economic and scalable technologies to capture carbon dioxide from large emitters, such as power plants, is an important part of ExxonMobil's suite of research into lower-emissions solutions to mitigate the risk of climate change.

And we are pioneering development of next-generation biofuels from algae that could reduce emissions without competing with food and water resources.

We reject long-discredited efforts to portray legitimate scientific inquiry and dialogue and differences on policy approaches as “climate denial.” We rejected them when they were made a decade ago and we reject them today.

To advance the quality of analysis and discussion of leading public policy challenges, we provide funding to a broad range of non-profit organizations that engage in the development and consideration of options to address them responsibly and effectively. Often these organizations support free market solutions and expanded economic growth. We consider our support for such organizations from year to year to assess their continuing contribution to the public discussion of social, environmental, and economic issues. As you know, several years ago, we discontinued funding several non-profit organizations when we determined that our support for them was unfortunately becoming a distraction from the important public discussion over practical efforts to mitigate the risks of climate change.

If you, or your staff, would like to discuss this or any other matter, please let me know and, as always, we would be pleased to meet.

Theresa Fariello

It is a nice letter, but its claims simply do not conform to our experience.

In 2015, for instance, ExxonMobil repeatedly funneled millions to groups peddling climate denial. According to its own publicly available “2015 Worldwide Giving Report,” ExxonMobil contributed over $1.6 million to organizations that were profiled in our floor statements, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

ExxonMobil's letter claims that the company's support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax dates back 7 years. If that were so, you would think at some point during those 7 years Exxon executives would have expressed that support to the authors of a carbon fee bill. My and Senator Schatz's American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act meets all the relevant criteria mentioned in the letter, yet ExxonMobil has not endorsed the bill or lobbied our colleagues on its behalf or even expressed interest in meeting with either of us to discuss the Whitehouse-Schatz proposal and how to make it become law.

Behind ExxonMobil's professed support for a carbon fee, here is what we really see: zero support from the corporation and implacable opposition from all ExxonMobil's main lobbying groups--the American Petroleum Institute, for instance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its array of various front groups. The actual lobbying position of ExxonMobil is vehemently against the revenue-neutral carbon tax ExxonMobil claims to support.

The letter from ExxonMobil was not the only letter in response to our July floor speeches. Twenty-two organizations in the Koch-funded network with lengthy records of climate change denial also sent a letter objecting to being characterized as Koch-linked climate deniers.

This group of organizations, which purportedly is not a group, sent their letter out on a common letterhead.

Since the “web” of climate change denial is designed to be so big and sophisticated, with so many parts that the public is made to believe it is not a single, special-interest-funded front, that may not have been their smartest move. Interestingly, some of the groups that participated in this letter were not even mentioned in our floor remarks. Such is the “web of denial.”

In our reply to them, Senators Reid, Schumer, Boxer, Durbin, Sanders, Franken, Warren, Markey and I noted that they are all well supported in the web of climate denial, to the tune of at least $92 million, in a network bound together by common funders, shared staff, and matched messages. It is one beast, though it may have many heads.

We offered these organizations a simple test. If you are for real, disclose all of your donors. There is a lot of dark money going into these groups. So we asked: Show us that you “represent many, many millions of Americans” --as they claimed in the letter--not just “many, many millions” of dollars from the Koch brothers' fossil fuel network.

I contend that these organizations are well-funded agents of hidden backers with a massive conflict of interest, and that it is their job to subject our country to an organized campaign to deceive and mislead us regarding the scientific consensus surrounding climate change and to do so with the purpose to sabotage American response to the climate crisis.

I contend that the conflict of interest of their hidden backers runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars. If you use the Office of Management and Budget's social cost of carbon, one can calculate the annual polluter cost to the rest of us from their carbon pollution at over $200 billion per year. Think what mischief people would be willing to get up to for $200 billion per year. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the effective subsidy for American fossil fuels is actually even higher--$700 billion per year. For that kind of money, you can fund a lot of front groups.

The front group's letter points out that our Founders intended for public policies to be well informed and well debated. Well, I could not agree more.

On July 31, leading national scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Geophysical Union, sent Members of Congress a no-nonsense message that human-caused climate change is real, that it poses serious risks to modern society, and that we need to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. This conclusion is based on multiple independent lines of evidence and the vast body of peer-reviewed science.”

That is the voice of fact, analysis, and reason. We are well informed by the real scientists. The scientists have the expertise, the knowledge, and the facts. What they don't have is that massive conflict of interest that requires setting up an armada of front groups and that gives them the $100 billion motivation to run this scheme. It is time to let the scientists and the facts take their place.

This issue has been thoroughly debated and vetted in the legitimate world. It is time now for us here in Congress to wake up to our duties and at last to act.

I yield the floor.