April 21, 2015

Time to Wake Up: Scientific Freedom and Silence in the States

Mr. President, as Americans celebrate the 35th Earth Day this week, I rise for the 96th time–I seem to be coinciding with the Presiding Officer’s schedule so he has been treated to his share of these speeches–to urge this body to wake up to the threat of climate change. It is real, not a hoax. It is caused by carbon pollution, and it is already making changes that we are already seeing in the world around us. We must cut our carbon pollution to prevent even bigger climate changes–changes in our atmosphere, oceans, and human habitat–potentially unprecedented in the history of our human habitation of this planet.

Yet the polluters who are producing this problem would have us do nothing. They make money when we do nothing. So we do nothing. The polluters run a racket. They all float onto us the costs and damage from their fossil fuel product–the costs of heat waves, of sea level rise, of ocean acidification, of dying forests, and more. The polluters happily dump those costs onto everybody else. And to keep this profitable racket running, the polluters spend huge sums on lobbying and politics, particularly right here in the Congress.

As one author has written, “rivers of money flowing from secret sources have turned our elections into silent auctions.” And the polluters get what they pay for. The Republican Party in Congress has become the political arm of the fossil fuel industry. The polluters also spend huge amounts on a big, complex PR machine to churn out doubt about the real science and cook up some paid-for science.

Documents recently discovered by Greenpeace show that one scientist, whose work consistently downplayed the role of carbon pollution and climate change, received–get this–more than $1.2 million from oil and coal interests over the last decade. Those nice people at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation gave him at least $230,000. In recent years, his grants came through Donors Trust, the front group that funnels money from oil, coal, and other special interests.

Well, what do we know? We know that financial incentives affect people’s behavior. Does anyone doubt that? That is life. That is why politicians have to disclose their political contributors, the gifts and benefits they receive, and even personal financial information. That is why regulatory agencies and scientific journals require scientific submissions to make plain who funded the work. That is why expert witnesses’ funding sources are relevant in court proceedings. And that is why Upton Sinclair once said: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

So we know that money talks. That is not news. What else do we know? Well, we also know about that industry playbook to keep safety regulation at bay by funding phony science and manufacturing doubt about legitimate science. That is not news, either. That has been around for years.

The tobacco industry campaign to mislead the public about the health effects of cigarettes was so fraudulent it was determined in Federal court to be a racketeering enterprise. Think about that–an industry campaign of deception about the risks of their product that persisted for years and was ultimately determined in Federal court to have constituted a racketeering enterprise. Does it sound familiar? And tobacco is not alone. The lead paint industry shut down its trade association, the Lead Industry Association, rather than answer questions under oath in a court proceeding.

Entire books have been written documenting this industry’s strategy, for example, “Merchants of Doubt,” which has recently been made into a documentary, or “Doubt is Their Product,” or “Lead Wars,” or “Deceit and Denial.” So we know the strategy.

Finally, we know something else. We know that a network of front organizations with innocent-sounding names has emerged to propagate the baloney science. This phenomenon has been well documented by Dr. Robert Brulle at Drexell University, among others. His follow-the-money analysis diagrams the complex flow of cash to these front groups that industry persistently tries to obscure. Well, here is what makes sense to me: If it is important enough for them to want to hide it, it is important enough for us to want to know about it.

So Senators Boxer, Markey, and I sent a letter to about 100 companies, trade groups, and other organizations affiliated with the fossil fuel industry. We asked whether they spent money to support climate research. It sounds reasonable, based on those three things that we know. Well, oh, my, what a fit of caterwauling that drew from the rightwing PR machine. Today, I will give a recap of the outrage highlights.

It is a “witch hunt,” said the far-right Heartland Institute, “what fascists do.” We are “ethically challenged ….. mental midgets,” said Heartland’s president. He later called this little letter “harassment … abuse of authority and misrepresentation of the facts.” Heartland, by the way, is that classy group that put up a billboard comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber, just to give an idea of their credibility. Finally, “[S]hame on you,” read Heartland’s response to our letter, which Heartland called a “campaign to stigmatize and demonize.”

The rightwing John Locke Foundation said our letter was “trying to McCarthyite” them. Rightwinger Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation said it was “an abuse of power.” Investor’s Business Daily got so excited they mixed up their metaphors to say we were both “inquisitors” and “stalk[ers],” out to “intimidate” and “threatening peaceful citizens.” They scoffed, “as if it were any of [our] business” to know if polluters are funding the science. Keeping that Spanish Inquisition theme going, the Washington Times called us “climate change Torquemadas.”

So it looks as if we hit the full faux-outrage quadrifecta–witch hunts, fascism, McCarthyism, and even the Spanish Inquisition. But then they got really serious, and they unlimbered the ultimate rightwing malediction. We were accused by the Cato Institute of–cover your ears, young pages–having “a widespread faith ….. in government’s ability to solve problems.”

Well, Cato made its position on climate change clear, saying that for us “to believe that man’s emissions of carbon dioxide are warming the planet” was a “bias” and that the legitimate science endorsed by everyone from NASA to the Department of Defense to every legitimate scientific society–every major legitimate scientific society in the country–all of that was “propaganda,” and that we, of course, were climate alarmists. Cato also sent us a letter in response to our inquiry, telling us we cannot “use the awesome power of the federal government to cow” Cato and others. Cow?

According to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which sadly has become a front for the fossil fuel industry, we were “trying to silence” the other side. Although, I have to confess, it is not clear how the other side would be silenced by simply having to reveal whose payroll they are on, which is all we asked.

Let’s be clear, our letter didn’t suggest that industry scientists should be silenced–just that the public should know if those scientists are being paid by the very industries with a big economic stake in the issue.

Let’s test how much the rightwing front groups care about the suppression of scientific information. Let’s look at their outrage over the reports of public employees in Florida being told–by the government no less–not to talk about climate change.

Interviews by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting with current and former employees, contractors, and volunteers at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection revealed that the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott issued an unwritten rule banning official use of the phrases “climate change” or “global warming.” Those reports have been corroborated by employees of other State agencies. We have heard stories of retribution against State employees who dare discuss climate change, of climate change-related projects being put on the back burner, and even of the term itself being edited out of official documents, including those produced by a university scientist. It sounds like suppression of science. Where was the outrage from the right? Where were the comparisons to fascism and McCarthyism and the Spanish Inquisition for this actual government-sponsored suppression of scientific information? Guess what. There was none.

It is not just Florida. Recently, the Republican members of Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands voted to prohibit the professional staff “from engaging in global warming or climate change work.” The Wisconsin timber industry, as Senator Baldwin and I have both pointed out, sees the threat climate change poses to Wisconsin forests, including, among other things, the frozen winter roads that loggers use to move their equipment around that warmer weather melts and turns to impassable muck. But the Republicans in charge of those lands have simply ordered State officials to ignore climate change, suppressing the science–plain and simple.

Where was the outrage from the rightwing groups that had fits about our little request for some transparency about what scientist is on whose payroll? Where was the outrage? There was none, which shows that the real issue has nothing to do with scientific freedom. The real issue here of freedom is the freedom of big, dishonest special interests to hide whose hand is in the puppet.

Here is where it really gets ironic. The enormous multibillion dollar polluting industries whose front groups accuse us of bullying–of being fascists and intimidators and Torquemadas–over our little letter are the very ones pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into elections, much of it secretly, for the plainly avowed purpose of threatening and punishing elected officials who might dare to cross them and acknowledge the dangers of carbon-driven climate change–of all people to be complaining.

Americans for Prosperity, to give one example, a Koch brothers venture, has said that Republicans who support any action on climate change will be put at a “severe disadvantage” in the 2016 elections. That is a serious threat, given the Koch brothers’ pledge to spend $900 million in this election cycle. Yet that same Americans for Prosperity Foundation blasted our little letter as “an attempt to silence those whose views do not meet with your approval.”

Please. Really? Against a $900 million campaign threat and a stable of paid-for scientists, against that massive screen of fossil fuel front organizations spouting industry propaganda, our little effort at getting a little transparency about who is funding the phony-baloney climate denial science–that is a raindrop against a torrent. We do indeed need to wake up.

I yield the floor.