Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Front (Climate Not Warming Division)

Larry Ribstein has been carrying on a virtual one-man jihad against NYT's Gretchen Morgenson. (Start here and just work back.) I have absolutely no intention of getting caught in that crossfire. However, when he takes off as a defender of the "rights of corporate free speech," well, that's a little much.

The occasion was a letter written to Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil by Jay Rockefeller (D. W.Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R. ME). The letter attacked ExxonMobil's past efforts as a leader of the global warming deniers and the Senators urged Tillerson to lead ExxonMobil to:
end its dangerous support of the "deniers" . . . . [and] to guide ExxonMobil to capitalize on its significant resources and prominent industry position to assist this country in taking its appropriate leadership role in promoting the technological innovation necessary to address climate change and in fashioning a truly global solution to what is undeniably a global problem.
Ribstein cheered the WSJ editorial that characterized Rockefeller and Snowe as "bullies." According to Ribstein:
The letter doesn't threaten explicitly. But if a 300 pound bouncer is standing over you and asking you pretty please to stop, no explicit threats are really necessary. These are two prominent senators and, as the WSJ editorial points out, there's any number of things the government can do to a corporation.
A few points:

First, Rockefeller and Snowe are not the "government." They are two senators, one from each side of the aisle. Thus, their actions differ significantly from, for instance, the last six years of Rove-lead shakedown of corporate interests to fund the partisan advantage of the Republican party. (An effort, by the way, that the WSJ editorial board joined in as cheerleader-in-chief.)

Second, ExxonMobil does not attempt to speak to these public issues directly. Rather, it hides behind front groups that it funds lavishly.

Third, ExxonMobil does not fund science. It funds pseudo-science designed to advance its short-term economic interests at the expense of the commonwealth. Between 1998 and 2005, it gave over $2 Million to the Competitive Enterprise Institute ("CEI"), a right-wing think tank. See here. Further, according to Rockefeller and Snowe:
A study to be released in November by an American scientific group will expose ExxonMobil as the primary funder of no fewer than 29 climate change denial front groups in 2004 alone. Besides a shared goal, these groups often featured common staffs and board members. The study will estimate that ExxonMobil has spent more than $19 million since the late 1990s on a strategy of "information laundering," or enabling a small number of professional skeptics working through scientific-sounding organizations to funnel their viewpoints through non-peer-reviewed websites such as Tech Central Station.
It is a false analogy to compare, as the WSJ editorial does, ExxonMobil's and CEI's efforts to those of "the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Sierra Club, [and] Environmental Defense [sic]." These organizations have no predetermined economic interest in taking one side or the other in any scientific dispute. Obviously, that is not the case with respect to ExxonMobil. The recipients of its largess are intended to merely mouth the party-line.

Senators Rockefeller and Snowe have it precisely right:
ExxonMobil and its partners in denial have manufactured controversy, sown doubt, and impeded progress with strategies all-too reminiscent of those used by the tobacco industry for so many years.
And, one could add, all-too reminiscent of those used by the lead mining industry, the asbestos industry, etc.

Let's be candid here: ExxonMobil is not funding the "other side" in some spirited and free scientific debate. Rather, ExxonMobil is engaged, as the Senators say, in a campaign of misinformation designed to support its narrow economic interests.

In an amicus brief in the case of Commonwealth of Massachusetts v.EPA, climate scientists David Battisti, William E. Easterling, Christopher Field, Inez Fung, James E. Hansen, John Harte, Eugenia Kalnay, Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, Pamela A. Matson, James C. McWilliams, Mario J. Molina, Jonathan T. Overpeck, F. Sherwood Rowland, Joellen L. Russell, Scott R. Saleska, Edward Sarachik, John M. Wallace, and Steven C. Wofsy, stated that:
The evidence of . . . changes [such as rising global temperatures, the shifting of plant and animal ranges, the global retreat of glaciers, and the retreat of arctic sea ice, with sea levels rising and oceans becoming more acidic], though attended by the uncertainty or caveats that appropriately accompany scientific knowledge, is nonetheless so compelling that it has crystallized a remarkable consensus within the scientific community: climate warming is happening, and human activities are very likely a significant causal factor. The nature of this consensus may be obscured in a public debate that sometimes equates consensus with unanimity or complete certainty.
To be blunt, large corporate interests are simply too well-heeled to allow them to have free rein in their efforts to influence the public debate, camouflaged by front groups. As we've seen with tobacco, lead, asbestos, auto design, and in so many other cases, the outcome of allowing this "corporate free speech" is all too often massive injury, sickness, and death.

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