July 6, 2016

Time to Wake Up: The Denial Apparatus

Mr. President, I am here for the 143rd time now to urge Congress to wake up to the damage that carbon pollution is inflicting on our atmosphere and oceans and to make a record for when people look back at this time and at this place and wonder why Congress was so unresponsive in the face of all of the information.

What are we up against that has prevented progress? What we are up against is a many-tentacled, industry-controlled apparatus that is deliberately polluting our discourse in this Nation with phony climate denial. That apparatus runs in parallel with a multi-hundred million dollar electioneering effort that tells politicians, “If you don’t buy what the apparatus is selling, you will be in political peril.”

As we look at the apparatus that is propagating this phony climate denial, there is a growing body of scholarship that helps us, that is examining this apparatus, how it is funded, how it communicates, and how it propagates the denial message. It includes work by Harvard University’s Naomi Oreskes, Michigan State’s Aaron McCright, Oklahoma State’s Riley Dunlap, Yale’s Justin Farrell, and Drexel University’s Robert Brulle, but it is not just them. There are a lot of academic folk working on this to the point where there are now more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles examining this climate denial apparatus itself. These scientists are doing serious and groundbreaking work. Dr. Brulle, for instance, has just been named the 2016 recipient of the American Sociological Association’s Frederick Buttel Distinguished Contribution Award, the highest honor in American environmental sociology. Dr. Brulle has also won, along with Professor Dunlap, the American Sociological Association’s Allan Schnaiberg Outstanding Publication Award for their book “Climate Change and Society”.

The work of all of these academic researchers maps out an intricate, interconnected propaganda web which encompasses over 100 organizations, including trade associations, conservative so-called think tanks, foundations, public relations firms, and plain old phony-baloney polluter front groups. A complex flow of cash, now often hidden by Donors Trust and other such identity-laundering operations, support this apparatus. The apparatus is, in the words of Professor Farrell, “overtly producing and promoting skepticism and doubt about scientific consensus on climate change.”

The climate denial apparatus illuminated by their scholarship is part of the untold story behind our obstructed American climate change politics.

This apparatus is huge. Phony-baloney front organizations are set up by the score to obscure industry’s hand. Phony messaging is honed by public relations experts to sow doubt about the real scientific consensus. Stables of payrolled scientists are trotted out on call to perform. Professor Brulle likens it to a stage production:

“Like a play on Broadway, the countermovement has stars in the spotlight–often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians–but behind the stars is an organizational structure of directors, script writers, and producers, in the form of conservative foundations. If you want to understand what’s driving this movement, you have to look at what is going on behind the scenes.”

The whole apparatus is designed to be big and sophisticated enough that when you see its many parts, you can be fooled into thinking it is not all the same animal, but it is, just like the mythological Hydra: many heads, same beast.

The apparatus is huge because it has a lot to protect. The International Monetary Fund has pegged what it calls the “effective subsidy” to the fossil fuel industry every year in the United States alone at nearly $700 billion. That is a lot to protect.

Here is one other measure. The Center for American Progress has tallied the carbon dioxide emissions from the power producers involved in the lawsuit to block implementation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, either directly or through their trade groups. It turns out they have a lot of pollution to protect. The companies affiliated with that lawsuit were responsible for nearly 1.2 billion tons of carbon pollution in 2013. That is one-fifth of the entire carbon output in our entire country, and 1.2 billion tons makes these polluters, if they were their own country, the sixth biggest CO2 emitter in the world–more than Germany or Canada. Using the Office of Management and Budget’s social cost of carbon, that is a polluter cost to the rest of us of $50 billion every year. When this crowd comes to the court, they come with very dirty hands and for very high stakes.

Not only is this apparatus huge, it is also complex. It is organized into multiple levels. Rich Fink is the former President of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. He has outlined the model they use called the “Structure of Social Change” to structure what he called “the distinct roles of universities, think tanks, and activist groups in the transformation of ideas into action.” As a Koch-funded grant-maker out to pollute the public mind, the Koch Foundation realized that multiple levels were necessary for successful propaganda production. They went at it this way: The “intellectual raw materials” were to be produced by scholars funded at universities, giving the product some academic credibility. I think at this point, Koch funding reaches into as many as 300 college campuses to create this so-called “intellectual raw material.” Then think tanks and policy institutions mold these ideas and market them as “needed solutions for real-world problems.” I guess they are using the technique of “think tank as disguised political weapon” described by Jane Mayer in her terrific book “Dark Money.”

Then comes what we would call “astroturf”–citizen implementation groups “build diverse coalitions of individual citizens and special interest groups needed to press for the implementation of policy change” at the ground level. So the apparatus is organized not unlike a company would set up manufacturing, marketing, and sales.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record Mr. Fink’s “The Structure of Social Change.”

Mr. President, investigative books, journalists’ reporting, and academic studies repeatedly compare the climate denial effort to the fraud scheme that was run by the tobacco industry to disguise the harms of smoking. When I was a U.S. attorney, the Justice Department pursued and ultimately won a civil lawsuit against tobacco companies for that fraud. When I was here in the Senate, I wrote an opinion piece about a possible DOJ investigation into the fossil fuel industry fraud on climate change. This gave me a new appreciation of the apparatus in action. In response came an eruption of dozens of rightwing editorials, most of which interestingly were virtually identical, with common misstatements of law and common omissions of facts. The eruption recurred some months later in response to me asking Attorney General Lynch about such an investigation when she was before us during a hearing of the Judiciary Committee.

Virtually every author or outlet in these eruptions was a persistent climate denier. Common markers in the published pieces seemed to point to a central script. When multiple authors all say something that is true, that is not necessarily noteworthy, but when multiple authors are all repeating the same falsehoods, that is a telling fingerprint. I happened to notice this because unlike most people, I get my news clips so I saw all these articles as they emerged in this eruption that took place. The articles regularly confused civil law with criminal law, suggesting that I wanted to “slap the cuffs” on people or “prosecute” people when the tobacco case was a civil case, and in a civil case there are no handcuffs. The articles almost always overlooked the fact that the government won the tobacco fraud lawsuit and won it big. The pieces usually said my target was something other than the big industry protagonist. My targets were described as “climate dissidents” or “independent thought” or “scientists” and “the scientific method” or even just “people who disagree with me.” Nothing like that transpired in the tobacco fraud case, obviously. Time and time again, the articles wrongly asserted that any investigation into potential fraud by this climate denial apparatus would be a violation of the First Amendment. This was a particularly telling marker because it is actually settled law–including from the tobacco case itself–that fraud is not protected under the First Amendment. So the legal arguments were utterly false, but nevertheless the apparatus was prolific. They cranked out over 100 articles in all in those two eruptions.

Now the State attorneys general who have stepped up to investigate whether the fossil fuel industry and its front groups engaged in a fraud have faced a similar backlash. First came the editorial barrage, often from the same outlets and authors as mine and usually with the same false arguments. Then, Republicans on the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee sent the attorneys general letters with a barrage of demands to discourage and disrupt their inquiries. A group of Republican State attorneys general even issued a letter decrying the efforts of their investigating colleagues. All of them insisted the First Amendment should prevent any investigation.

In one ironic example, the Koch-backed front group Americans for Prosperity rode to the rescue of the Koch-backed Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of the climate denial mouthpieces under investigation. The Koch-backed front group Americans for Prosperity announced it was joining a coalition of 47 other groups to support what it called “a fight for free speech,” but according to realkochfacts.org, 43 of the 47 groups in that so-called coalition also have ties to the Koch’s, and 28 of them are directly funded by the Koch’s and their family foundations. Welcome to the apparatus.

The Koch brothers’ puppet groups claim to stand united against what Americans for Prosperity described as “an affront to the First Amendment rights of all Americans,” but scroll back, and the tobacco companies and their front groups and Republican allies made exactly the same argument against the Department of Justice’s civil racketeering lawsuit–the one the Department of Justice won.

Big Tobacco’s appeal in court argued that, quoting the appeal, “the First Amendment would not permit Congress to enact a law that so criminalized one side of an ongoing legislative and public debate because the industry’s opinions differed from the government or ‘consensus’ view.”

How did they do? They lost. They lost because the case was about fraud, not differences of opinion. Courts can tell the difference between fraud and differences of opinion. They do it all the time. Fraud has specific legal requirements. The courts in the tobacco case held firmly that the Constitution holds no protection for fraud–zero–and the tobacco industry had to stop the fraud. Now the fossil fuel industry says it is different from the tobacco industry while it uses the very same argument as the tobacco schemers.

To really appreciate how bogus the First Amendment argument is, think through what it would mean if fraudulent corporate speech were protected by the First Amendment. Out would go State and Federal laws protecting us from deceitful misrepresentations about products. Consumer protection offices around the country would shrivel or shut their doors, and it would be open season on the American consumer. That is a dark world to envision, but it is the world that results if corporate lies about the safety of their products or industrial processes are placed beyond the reach of the law. I say lies because you have to be lying for it to be fraud.

This begs the question of whether there is really a difference of opinion about climate change among scientists. Last week, 31 leading national scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and 28 others sent Members of Congress a no-nonsense message that human-caused climate change is real, that it poses serious risks to society, and that we need to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They told us this:

“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.”

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the letter from the 39 scientific organizations.

That letter is the voice of fact, of scientific analysis, and of reason. Up against it is the apparatus. The apparatus has the money. The apparatus has the slick messaging. The apparatus has the political clout. It has that parallel election spending muscle, it has the lobbying armada, and it has that array of outlets willing to print falsehoods about climate change and, for that matter, about fraud and the First Amendment. The scientists? Well, they have the expertise, the knowledge, and the facts. Whose side we choose to take says a lot about who we are.

With that, I yield the floor.