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Global Warming

Senators Franken, Whitehouse confront the climate change doubt machine

On December 14, Senator Al Franken (D – Minnesota) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D – Rhode Island) gave a thorough review (read the transcript) [pdf] of how a cottage industry of conservative foundations funded by oil and coal industries has manufactured public confusion and misinformation on climate change, and how that erroneous message has been disseminated by bloggers, pundits, and biased media sources.

Their engaging discussion is an hour long, but it’s well worth watching, if only because such plain-spoken language on climate change has been such a rarity on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

It’s a terrific summary of how science has historically been the foundation of human prosperity and innovation, and how climate change science has been pilloried and undermined by a coordinated campaign. Science is no longer a foundation for public policy among candidates for president and many elected leaders. For more on the assault on science in America, see science writer Shawn Otto’s new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.

According to Senator Franken:

We rely on science and scientists, and if we are to progress as a country, if we and future generations of Americans are to be healthy and prosperous and safe, we better put science right at the center of our decision making. Yet, right now, foundations and think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry are spreading misinformation about the integrity of climate science, much as think tanks paid by the tobacco industry used misinformation to cast doubt about the health hazards of smoking. Ignoring or flat-out contradicting what climate scientists are telling us about the warming climate and the warming planet can lead to really bad decisions on natural energy and environmental policies here in Congress. So today Senator Whitehouse and I want to take some time to talk about climate science and about the fact that a scientific consensus on climate change has been reached. Climate change is happening and is being driven by human activities. From the National Academy of Sciences, to the American Meteorological Society, to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, all of the preeminent scientific institutions agree that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and are a threat to our economy, to our security, and to our health, and so do the overwhelming majority of actively publishing climatologists. This graph, taken from a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, shows responses to the survey question: Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures? What you see here is that as climate expertise goes up, so does the affirmation that climate change is real and is caused by human beings. Among the most expert pool of respondents, climatologists who are actively publishing on climate change…97 percent of that category of scientists answered yes.

Despite a broad common understanding among 97 percent of scientists working in the field, the public has remained confused and in doubt about what the science means and whether the problem is urgent—requiring coordinated policy action—or just a heated debate. Recalling the thesis of Naomi Oreskes’ 2010 Merchants of Doubt, Senator Franken reminds senators that in the past, truth in science has been obscured by some of the same actors in order to delay action on tobacco and public health risks of smoking.

There is a well-established link between the scientists who have worked for think tanks such as George C. Marshall Institute, Heartland Institute, and other foundations, which were funded at first by tobacco money and, since then, by the fossil fuel industry. These scientists have been paid to spread misinformation in order to cast doubt. That is all they have to do—on a whole host of scientific issues—first, tobacco and acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, and now climate change.

In the case of climate change misinformation and the cottage industry of denial, the financiers are the fossil fuel interests with the most to lose from a transition to a clean energy economy and energy efficiency. Again, Senator Franken:

The whole purpose of this scheme was to provide misinformation, to confuse the public, to manufacture doubt, and that is what is happening right now with climate change. Public data from the Security and Exchange Commission and from charitable organization reports to the IRS report showed that between 2005 and 2008, ExxonMobil gave about $9 million to groups linked to climate change denial, while foundations associated with the private oil company Koch Industries gave nearly $25 million. The third major funder was the American Petroleum Institute. All in all, the energy industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars, on lobbying against climate change legislation between 1999 and 2010, including a large spike in spending from 2008 to 2010.

The two senators then give a brief history of what they call Climategate-gate, the scandal of the attacks on legitimate scientists through the theft of their emails and the spread of false information across the internet on the eve of the Copenhagen conference.

And it is not enough that they have a stable of paid-for scientists to create doubt, to create phony science that raises the level of doubt; they also go out of their way to attack legitimate scientists. You would not think this would carry much weight in a proper debate, but amplified by the corporate money behind it, and designed, as the Senator said, with the purpose not to win the argument but to create doubt so that the public moves on, it is actually worse. One example of this attack on lifetime scientists has been the phony so-called Climategate scandal [or] Climategate-gate. In fact, the real scandal here wasn’t what the scientists did; the real scandal was the phony attack on the scientists.

Senator Franken makes the point that skepticism is a healthy and critical function in science, but denial is the refusal to review evidence or accept findings that are generally accepted and considered a basis for further scientific inquiry.

Now, let’s make a distinction between people who are climate skeptics and people who are climate deniers. This is kind of an important distinction. There is nothing wrong with skepticism. In fact, we love skeptics. Scientists are, by nature, skeptical. If someone has a new idea, they need to prove conclusively they are right before 97 percent of scientists will believe them. This has already happened for an overwhelming majority of climate scientists who have concluded, again, that global warming is happening and that it is caused by mankind. But there are a small number of them who still have questions. On the other hand, a climate denier is someone who would not be convinced no matter how overwhelming the evidence. And, as I pointed out, a lot of these deniers are being paid by polluters to say what they want.

Despite the broad efforts to undermine the public’s understanding, the senators cite calls for urgent action from some of America’s largest businesses. Because businesses must understand the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be, they are not influenced by the echo chamber of noise emanating from the climate denial cottage industry. According to Senator Whitehouse:

Here is a list of companies that have gone public with the need for us to do something about climate change: American Electric, Bank of America, Chrysler, Cysco, DuPont, Duke Energy, eBay, Toyota, Timberland, Starbucks, Google, GM, General Electric, Ford, Siemens, PepsiCo, Nike, Nishiland, and John Deere. I am picking these at random, but these are not fringe organizations. These are the core of the American business community, and they recognize what is going on.

…Coca-Cola is a serious American business, and here is what they say: The consensus on climate science is increasingly unequivocal—global climate change is happening and man-made greenhouse gas emissions are a crucial factor. The implications of climate change for our planet are profound and wide-ranging, with expected impacts on biodiversity, water resources, public health, and agriculture. So we put against that the core business community—iconic companies such as Coca-Cola, putting their very label behind the need to address climate change—and the phony-baloney paid- for scientists who are creating this doubt, and it is time to close this episode.

Not only are mainstream businesses seeing the need for action on energy and climate, but so is the U.S. Department of Defense, which must anticipate the significant national security challenges that America faces now and in the future. Senator Franken admonishes his Senate colleagues:

There are folks who get the cost of inaction, and that includes the Department of Defense. In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review— or QDR—the DOD identified climate and energy as among the major national security challenges that America faces now and in the future. To give you a perspective on the significance of this, ‘‘Crafting a Strategic Approach to Climate and Energy’’ was alongside other priorities laid out in the QDR with titles like, ‘‘Succeed in Counterinsurgency, Stability and Counterterrorism Operations,’’ and ‘‘Prevent Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.’’ This is serious stuff. It matters for DOD because climate change is predicted to increase food and water scarcity, increase the spread of disease, and spur mass migration and environmental refugees due to more intense storms, floods, and droughts.

Senator Whitehouse agreed with Senator Franken that climate change has become an issue of national security:

We had similar testimony in the Senate Intelligence Committee. The witness who testified before us released his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee and very much the same conclusion: We judge that global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the next 20 years. The factors that would affect U.S. national security interests as a result of climate change would include food and water shortages, increased health problems, including the spread of disease, increased potential for conflict, ground subsidence—the Earth lowering—flooding, coastal erosion, extreme weather events, increases in the severity of storms in the Gulf of Mexico, disruptions in U.S. and Arctic infrastructure, and increases in immigration from resource-scarce regions of the world.

In conclusion, both Senator Whitehouse and Senator Franken reviewed the opportunities in their respective states for new industries and new technologies to build a prosperous low-carbon economy.

Senator Franken’s final thoughts promote the domestic clean energy economy in which Minnesota has been a national leader:

Look, between the science supporting climate change and the reality of the dangers that climate change brings, we have to ramp up our efforts to master this challenge, and that means wise investments in clean energy R&D and deployment. They are just a good place to start. Plus, these investments encourage the growth of domestic clean energy—a domestic clean energy economy which would create jobs—and has created jobs—grow our manufacturing base, and keep us competitive in global energy markets. That is so important because Germany, China, Denmark, and countries all over the world are winning this race.

One of the great parts about this job is spending half the time here and half the time home in Minnesota. Minnesota is a national leader in clean energy. In 2007, Minnesota passed the highest renewable energy standard in the country at the time, and all our utilities are on track to meet the goal of 25 percent renewable by 2025.

Our largest utility, Xcel Energy, is on its way to 30 percent by 2020. We have universities such as the University of Minnesota Morris which is pushing the frontiers of innovation in greening its campus through a biomass gasification system which provides heating and cooling and electricity, wind turbines that produce power, and LEED-certified buildings. Our farmers have led the country in biofuels, and our universities are leading R&D efforts for the transitions to cellulosic and other advanced biofuels.

By the way, the first commercial cellulosic plant that is scaled up to commercial levels is being built right now. St. Paul has the largest district energy system in North America. It is heating and cooling all of downtown St. Paul with woody biomass. SAGE Electrochromics is a manufacturing plant in Minnesota that has cutting edge window glass technology that uses a little photovoltaic cell to control and turn these—these windows turn completely opaque and block out all UV during the summer. During the winter, they are these beautiful, huge windows that let in all the light. It isn’t like a Polaroid. It is an incredible technology. The University of Minnesota has just received two grants from the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Department of Energy, ARPA-E, that was patterned after DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that created the Internet. Across the State, businesses and cities are working together to make our buildings more energy efficient, using Minnesota- made technologies such as Marvin and Anderson windows. Minnesota, by the way, is the Silicon Valley of windows. We have 3M window films or McQuay heating and air-conditioning systems.

Just last month, I partnered with our cities and counties to launch the Back to Work Minnesota Initiative, aiming to break down barriers in financing retrofits, retrofitting public and commercial buildings across Minnesota. What is great about that, this pays for itself. You finance this and you retrofit a building; it puts people in the building trades to work who are in a depression, and it puts manufacturers that build energy-efficient materials and equipment, geothermal furnace systems and furnaces, heat exchange furnaces, pumps, and you save energy. The energy efficiency pays for the retrofit in 4 or 5 years and you can capitalize this and we are finding innovative ways to do that. It pays for itself and you lower our carbon footprint. You use less energy, create jobs, save money. It is win-win-win-win. This is something we have to do.

Both the President and Energy Secretary Chu have said we are in America’s Sputnik moment. They are absolutely right. Fifty years ago we were in a global space race. Today we are in a global clean energy race. Whichever country takes the most action today to develop and make clean energy technologies will dominate the global economy in this century. That means supporting financing for clean energy and energy efficiency projects. It means tax credits for clean energy manufacturing, providing incentives for retrofitting residential and public and commercial buildings. It means supporting basic research and keeping alive initiatives that support clean energy technology innovation. These need to be our priorities as we make energy policy and budget decisions. We can pay for these investments by cutting expensive, outdated subsidies for oil companies that are making record profits. There is a lot more to be done if we are going to win this global clean energy race, but it is not going to be easy. It means unifying as a country and starting to do things differently than we have been doing them. Albert Einstein said: We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. I am convinced we can win this race. No other country is better positioned. But first people need to understand the stakes. Climate change is real, and failure to address it is bad for our standing in the global economy, bad for the Federal budget, and bad for our national security. We can do better than that for our children and our grandchildren and posterity.

On December 14, Senator Al Franken and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave a thorough review of how a cottage industry of conservative foundations funded by oil and coal industries has manufactured public confusion and misinformation on climate change.

Add a comment 2 comments

  1. klem

    01.04.2012

    “Whichever country takes the most action today to develop and make clean energy technologies will dominate the global economy in this century.”

    Is this guy for real, does he seriously beleive this? He’s not really suggesting that wind turbines and solar panels are the technology of the future, like the automobile was last century. So if a country like Morroco made the most wind turbines and solar panels, it would dominate the worlds economy for the next 100 years. It is bizarre statements like this which give the green tech industry a bad name, it damages their credibility. No one can get excited about an industry when you have pitchmen like this guy making rediculous statements like that.

    No one believes that green tech is the economic driver of the future, if they did we’d all be driving electric cars (people like electric cars but almost no one actually buys one). Besides, fossil fuels now are more plentiful than ever before, it will remain the main energy source for the forseeable future, it will crush clean energy technologies.

  2. Emma from the Netherlands

    01.09.2012

    It’s not true that green technology isn’t the economic driver of the future. It is! The reason why people do not buy electric cars (for example), is because 1. the costs for buying the car. A second-hand car is much much cheaper. 2. the oil-industry still tries to hold back all the real developments towards a green tech society. There are many examples of major technical developments which could help us make the transition towards a society driven by green technologies. However, big oilcompanies buy the rights to produce these products, hide them in a drawer and keep on selling their – oil-driven – technologies.

    That’s why we the people need to make clear that we don’t want these oil-driven technologies anymore and that we want products made by/with green technologies and green energy. If the industry finally makes the transition, green techniques will become cheaper and widely accesible for the consumers.