April 4, 2016

The WSJ’s Long Record of Protecting Polluters

The Wall Street Journal is quite irate that I rank them with industry front groups and cranks denying climate change. But they have a record whenever industrial pollutants are involved. Look at the Journal‘s commentary on acid rain, on the ozone layer, and on climate change. There is a pattern: Deny the science, question the motives, exaggerate the costs, help the polluters. When they are wrong this often, but keep at it, you have to wonder whether they care about whether they’re right or wrong, or whether they are performing some other service.

In the 1970s, scientists first warned that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), then commonly used as refrigerants and aerosol propellants, could erode the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer and increase human exposure to ultraviolet rays, causing cancer. The Journal‘s editorial page doggedly fought back, devaluing the science and attacking any regulation of CFCs.

January 1976: an editorial proclaimed that the connection between CFCs and ozone depletion “is only a theory and will remain only that until further efforts are made to test its validity in the atmosphere itself.”

May 1979: an editorial said that “it now appears the excitement over the threat to the ozone layer was founded on scanty scientific evidence.”

March 1984: the editorial page claimed that concerns about ozone depletion were based on “premature scientific evidence,” that “new evidence shows that the ozone layer isn’t vanishing after all; it may even be increasing.”

March 1989: an editorial called for more research on the “questionable theory that CFCs cause depletion of the ozone layer,” and implored scientists to “continue to study the sky until we know enough to make a sound decision regarding the phasing out of our best refrigerants.” They attacked the motives of reformers.

A February 1992 editorial insinuated: “It is simply not clear to us that real science drives policy in this area.” And they warned that action to slow ozone depletion would be costly…

A March 1984 editorial claimed that banning CFCs would “cost the economy some $1.52 billion in forgone profits and product-change expenses” as well as 8,700 jobs.

An August 1990 editorial warned of “a dramatic increase in air-conditioning and refrigeration costs.” Media Matters reports the Journal also claimed “the economy will have to shoulder at least $10 billion to $15 billion a year in added refrigeration costs by the year 2000.”

A February 1992 editorial warned of “big price increases on many consumer products.”

Despite this, Americans actually listened to the science. Congress took action, the ozone layer and the public’s health were protected, and the economy prospered. What about those terrible costs that the Journal predicted? According to the EPA’s 1999 progress report, “Every dollar invested in ozone protection provides $20 of societal health benefits in the United States.” One dollar spent, twenty dollars saved.

When scientists began reporting that acid rain was falling on most of our Northeastern United States, similarly, out came the Journal again: saying “data are not conclusive and more studies are needed”; arguing that “nature, not industry, is the primary source of acid rain”; claiming “the scientific case for acid rain is dying”; and charging “that politics, not nature, is the primary force driving the theory’s biggest boosters”; all even as President Reagan’s own scientific panel said that inaction would risk “irreversible damage.”

Now let’s review the Journal on climate change.

June 1993: they claimed “growing evidence that global warming just isn’t happening.”

September 1999: the page reported that “serious scientists” call global warming “one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.”

June 2005: they asserted that the link between fossil fuels and global warming had “become even more doubtful.”

As late as December 2011, an editorial said that the global warming debate requires “more definitive evidence.” The Journal polluter playbook produced the usual warnings that “a high CO2 tax would reduce world GDP a staggering 12.9 percent in 2100 — the equivalent of $40 trillion a year,” making “the world poorer than it would otherwise be”; that this was all really motivated by “political actors” seeking to gain economic control; and that the science wasn’t clear, that “global surface temperatures have remained essentially flat.”

Here’s a real beauty:

A December 2009 Journal editorial claimed that climate scientists were suspect because they “have been on the receiving end of climate change-related funding, so all of them must believe in the reality (and catastrophic imminence) of global warming just as a priest must believe in the existence of God.” If it is a conflict of interest to be “on the receiving end” of scientific funding “related” to the field of inquiry, that would make all science not discovered by surprise a conflict of interest. Of course, if science is itself a conflict of interest, that neatly moots the real conflict of interest of the science-denial machinery designed to masquerade as science but come up with industry-friendly results.

There is such machinery, according to numerous investigative books, journalists’ reporting, and academic studies. I won’t belabor this here, but look at the work of Professors Naomi Oreskes at Harvard University, Robert Brulle at Drexel University, Riley Dunlap at Oklahoma State University, and Justin Farrell at Yale University, or the work of investigative reporter Jane Mayer, among many others. Which brings us to the Journal‘s question, “Why even raise the possibility of RICO suits — and suggest it to the Justice Department — if Mr. Whitehouse’s goal isn’t to punish those who disagree with him on climate?”

One reason is that such a suit by the Department of Justice under the Clinton and Bush administrations was successful against the fraudulent industry enterprise to sow false doubt about tobacco’s dangers (before the RICO suit was won by DOJ, the Journal had called it “abuse,” “hypocrisy,” and “a shakedown”). So there’s the little matter of this being the law.

A second reason is that if there is indeed a core of deliberate fraud at the heart of the climate denial enterprise, no industry should be big enough to suppress investigation of that fraud. Most of the writers I mentioned note similarities between the tobacco fraud scheme and the climate denial operation, as has the lawyer who won the tobacco lawsuit for DOJ; as apparently have more than a dozen state Attorneys General.

Climate skeptics — people who “disagree” with me on the reality of climate change — are not the targets of such an investigation, any more than smokers or people who “disagreed” with the Surgeon General were targets of the tobacco case. Those folks may very well be victims of the fraud, the dupes. Fraud investigations punish those who lie, knowing that they are lying, intending to fool others, and do it for money. No one should be too big to answer for that conduct.

This is an important difference, and it’s the difference I’m talking about when I say the Wall Street Journal editorial page is trying to saddle me with an argument I’m not making because they don’t have a good response to the one I am. Frankly, all this makes it look like they are out to protect the fraudsters, by misleading regular people about what such a lawsuit would do and continuing their long tradition of downplaying or denying scientists’ warnings about the harms of industries’ products.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse