November 18, 2015

Time to Wake Up: The Climate Denier Castle

Mr. President, I am here to speak in what is probably my 119th “Time to Wake Up” speech related to climate change.

I would like to take this occasion to express my appreciation to a person whom the TV cameras can probably see behind me sitting on the staff bench, Joseph Majkut, who has been a fellow on my staff for over a year now. He has been very instrumental in helping me prepare these speeches. I am grateful to him.

Today, I ask that we imagine a dark castle with looming ramparts and tall towers. It is strongly built, and it is well defended. Its defenders are determined and implacable. They patrol those ramparts and from their castle battlements attack and harass their opponents. The castle’s thick walls are built to keep out unwelcome things. In this castle, those unwelcome things are science–the science of climate change; truth–the truth of what carbon pollution does to our atmosphere and oceans; and decency–the human decency, in the face of that information, to try to do the right thing.

This is Denial Castle, the fortress of climate denial constructed by the big polluters. Like many castles, this castle is built on elements that date back to earlier wars. Some parts date back to tobacco companies denying that smoking causes cancer. Some parts of it date back to the lead industries denying that lead paint poisons children. Some parts go back to denial of what acid rain was doing to our New England lakes and denial of what pollution was doing to our atmosphere’s ozone layer. There might even be a few bits dating back to denial that seatbelts and airbags were a good idea. But now it is the big carbon polluters who command Denial Castle. They now enjoy the power to pollute for free, so they attack climate science. They send out trolls to disrupt Web sites and blogs. They harass climate scientists. One minion became attorney general of Virginia and so harassed a University of Virginia scientist that Mr. Jefferson’s university had to use university lawyers and the State supreme court to get the harassment stopped.

This castle has within it its own little stable of scientists to trot out like trained ponies to create false doubt and uncertainty about the harm carbon pollution causes. Of course, the polluters have mouthpieces, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, to help spread their fog of doubt and denial.

Most of all, they have weaponry. The weaponry on these dark ramparts is not just pointed outward at science and at the public; those polluter weapons point in, as well, at the Members of Congress who are held hostage inside the castle. This is not just a fortress; it is also a prison. Members know that if they try to escape, the full force of the polluters’ political weaponry will fall on them. Many of the hostages are restless, but escape is hazardous. Some are actually happy to help man the ramparts. Look at the effort by Senate Republicans this week to override the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan–our Nation’s most significant effort yet to assert global leadership in staving off the worst effects of climate change.

For those Republican Senators who want out of Denial Castle, escape is hazardous because Citizens United, that shameful Supreme Court decision, armed the polluters on the ramparts with a terrifying new weapon: the threat of massive, sudden, anonymous, unlimited political spending. A Republican in a primary has virtually no defense against that. One minute you are on course to reelection; the next moment a primary opponent has millions of dollars, pounding you with negative ads, and the polluter-funded attack machine has turned on you.

One polluter front group actually warned that anyone who crossed them would be “at a severe disadvantage,” and that addressing carbon pollution with a price on carbon would be a “political loser.” From a group backed by billionaires now threatening to wield, just in this election, $750 million in political spending, that is not a very subtle threat.

Of course, a threatened attack doesn’t actually have to happen to have its political effect. A threat, a quiet threat, a secret threat can be enough. We will never see those threats unless we are in the backroom where they are made. That is the unacknowledged danger of Citizens United.

What were the five Republican judges thinking when their Citizens United decision unleashed unlimited political spending and its dark twin, the silent threat of that unlimited political spending? This is not an idle concern. By 2 to 1, Americans think the Justices often let political considerations and personal views influence their decisions. Americans massively oppose the Citizens United decision–80 percent against, with 71 percent strongly opposed. Most tellingly, by a ratio of 9 to 1, Americans now believe our Supreme Court treats corporations more favorably than individuals. Even self-identified conservative Republicans by a 4-to-1 margin now believe the Court treats corporations more favorably than individuals.

Linda Greenhouse, who long resisted drawing such a conclusion, has written that she finds it “impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Republican-appointed majority is committed to harnessing the Supreme Court to an ideological agenda.” Other noted Court watchers such as Norm Ornstein at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Jeffrey Toobin long ago reached a similar conclusion.

Let’s look carefully at what those five Justices did in their 5-to-4 Citizens United decision. Let’s start where they started, with the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment protects honest elections by allowing limitations on the influence of money. The First Amendment allows limitations on election spending when they reflect a reasonable concern about corruption.

If you are a judge who wants to unleash unlimited corporate money into elections, you need to get around that problem, which they did by making the factual finding that all this corporate money will not present even a risk of corruption, not a chance. That is obviously false, but they said it anyway, which is interesting. But wait, it gets more interesting still. To make that factual finding, they had to break a venerable rule–the rule that appellate courts don’t do factfinding. They broke that rule.

They did something else, too. Every time Congress or the Supreme Court had examined corporate corruption in elections, they found a rich, sordid record of corporate corruption of elections. That is American history. The five Justices knew a record like that in the case would have made it pretty hard to find no risk of corporate corruption of elections. All the evidence would go the other way.

How did the five Justices make sure the case had no good evidentiary record on corporate corruption of elections? Very cleverly. They changed the question in the case–what the Court calls the question presented. They changed the question late in the case, after there was any chance to develop a factual record on that new question presented. It is very unusual, but it is exactly what they did. Then they overruled a hundred years of practice and precedent of earlier Courts.

One could argue that each one of these different steps was wrong. Certainly, the ultimate factual finding, that corporate money can’t corrupt an election, is way wrong. But the worst wrong is that these steps are linked together in a chain of necessity you must follow to get that result.

What is the chance that these conservative Justices just happened to change the question presented, which just happened to prevent there being a robust factual record on the very question where they just happened to need to make false factual findings about corruption; which just happened, this of all times, to be the time they broke the rule against appellate fact finding; all of which just happened to provide the exact findings of fact necessary to get around that First Amendment leash on corporate political spending?

Put all those steps together, and what you see is Justices behaving not like an umpire evenly calling balls and strikes, but like a locksmith carefully manufacturing a key, each of whose parts is precisely assembled to fit the tumblers and turn a particular lock. The result was amazing new weaponry for the corporate polluter apparatus, political Gatling guns in a field of muskets, which the polluters have deployed very effectively to silence debate about climate change.

Before Citizens United, Republicans regularly stood up to address climate change. A Republican nominee campaigning for President had a strong climate change platform. A Republican

President spoke of its urgency. Republican Senators authored and sponsored big climate change bills. Republican Congressmen voted for the Waxman-Markey bill in the House or wrote articles favoring a carbon tax and then came over and became Senators.

But after Citizens United, there was virtual silence. The polluters used Citizens United’s new political artillery to shut debate down.

Money can be speech, but it isn’t always. Money can also be bribery, bullying, intimidation, harassment, shouting down, and drowning out. The legendary turn-of-the-century political fixer Mark Hanna once said:

There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.

He didn’t say that because money is free speech. Money is political artillery. Look at the munitions. My gosh, most dark money political ads in the last election were negative ads. At times, virtually all on the air have been negative ads. Many ads have been reviewed and deemed false or misleading. At times, a majority of the ads running were deemed false or misleading. That is not debate; that is artillery.

The power to fire that artillery opens the way for secret threats and promises to use or not use that artillery. It does cause corruption when a politician will not vote his conscience because he hears those whispered threats and fears that new artillery. But even with all this new political artillery, the Denier Castle is not as secure as it looks. It is built on a foundation of lies–lies that the science of climate change is unsettled, lies that there is no urgency to this, lies that there will be economic harm if we fix the problem. The truth is exactly the opposite. The effects of carbon pollution are deadly real in our atmosphere and oceans. Time is running out to avoid the worst of the peril, and a sensible political response to climate change actually yields broad economic gains.

The Denier Castle’s foundation of lies is slowly crumbling. The cracks are already beginning to appear. Twelve Republican House Members escaped from the castle–far enough to sponsor a climate resolution. Young Republicans–under 35–by a majority think climate denial is ignorant, out of touch, or crazy. Conservative heartland farmers see unprecedented weather in their fields and coastal fishermen see unfamiliar fish in their nets. Corporate climate leadership grows, from Walmart, Coke and Pepsi, Ford and GM, Mars and Unilever, General Mills and many others, and whole industries like the property casualty insurance industry. Of course, well-respected military leaders warn of climate change as danger, a catalyst of conflict. With all that comes the economic tide of lower and lower cost clean energy–energy which is probably cheaper already than fossil fuel, if the energy market weren’t rigged by the polluters to favor their dirty product.

The blocks of the Denier Castle are loosening and beginning to fall. Mortar sifts down. The whole structure of deceit and denial is creaking and crumbling. Fear is starting to spread within the castle about what will happen when the lies are exposed and all the bullying revealed. Will there really be no price to pay for all that deceit and denial in a world of justice and consequences?

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has gotten so anxious that it accuses me of “treat[ing] [climate] heretics like Cromwell did Catholics,” all because I, the junior Senator of the smallest State, had the temerity to say that mighty ExxonMobil, one of the biggest corporations in the history of the world and a Goliath if there ever were one, should maybe have to tell the truth in the place we trust in America to find the truth–an American courtroom. Exxon has gotten so frantic that their public relations people are starting to use bad language, things I can’t even say on the Senate floor.

Even this week’s Clean Power Plan challenge has an air of desperation–a last-ditch effort to show the fossil fuel industry that folks have done all they could before they stand down and evacuate the castle. The dark castle will fall, and it will fall abruptly. It will collapse. More hostages will break free, and a torrent will follow. When the lies and political influence are all exposed, there will come a day of reckoning. For all faithful stewards of God’s Earth, and for our American democracy, that will be a day of joy, a day of honor, and a day of liberation. Each one of us can push a little harder to make that day come a little sooner. Let us lean into our tasks and to our duty.

I yield the floor.