ExxonMobil’s Climate Disinformation Campaign Is Still Alive and Well
By Elliott Negin
"I want to use this opportunity to be 100 percent clear about where we stand on climate change," she wrote. "We believe the risk of climate change is real and we are committed to being part of the solution."
So why is the company still a part of—in fact, a major part of—the problem?
An exchange between Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt during a recent oversight hearing is a case in point, providing a window into how ExxonMobil's undue influence continues to block climate action.
During the Jan. 30 hearing, which was held by the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Sen. Cory Booker inadvertently provoked Inhofe by raising the issue of environmental justice. The New Jersey Democrat cited the threat climate change-induced flooding poses to three dozen Superfund sites in his state and asked Pruitt if he was "taking into account the environmental burdens disproportionately impacting communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities."
Inhofe seized the opportunity to contradict Booker, claiming that minority and low-income communities are disproportionately harmed by environmental protections, specifically citing the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which would have dramatically reduced carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants if Pruitt hadn't repealed it.
Booker, Inhofe said, was implying that Pruitt was trying to "punish" vulnerable Americans. "I wanted to just remind you," Inhofe told the committee, "that we had a guy I remember so well, Harry Alford. He was the president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. He provided some of the most powerful testimony that I have ever heard when it comes to the effects of the Clean Power Plan and some of the other regulations … on black and Hispanic poverty, including job losses and increased energy costs.
"[Alford] was very emphatic as to who was paying the price on these," the Oklahoma Republican continued, "and I think sometimes that the previous administration forgot that there are already people out there who are paying all they can pay just to try to eat and keep their house warm."
ExxonMobil's Echo Chamber
Inhofe's source for his assertion? A discredited, ExxonMobil-funded study by an Exxon-funded advocacy group that was based on discredited studies by other ExxonMobil-funded organizations.
Inhofe rested his argument on previous congressional testimony by Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), a shoestring, mom-and-pop operation that is unapologetic about taking fossil fuel industry money. "Of course we do and it is only natural," Alford wrote on NBCC's website. "The legacy of Blacks in this nation has been tied to the miraculous history of fossil fuel…. [F]ossil fuels have been our economic friend."
One of NBCC's closest economic friends is ExxonMobil, which has donated more than $1.14 million to the group since 2001.
What did the company get for that money?
In 2015, NBCC commissioned a report that claimed the Clean Power Plan would "inflict severe and disproportionate economic burdens on poor families, especially minorities."
How did NBCC arrive at its upside-down assessment? The Union of Concerned Scientists took a close look at the report and found it was based on several flawed fossil fuel industry-friendly studies. Two of those bogus studies were produced by ExxonMobil grantees: the Heritage Foundation, which received $340,000 from ExxonMobil between 2007 and 2013, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which received $3 million between 2014 and 2016.
The Chamber study, which came out just days before the EPA released a draft of the Clean Power Plan, was debunked not only by the EPA, but also by PolitiFact.com and The Washington Post. Among its many faults, the Chamber study—which was co-sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute—wildly inflated the cost of the plan and failed to consider the benefits of cutting carbon emissions.
ExxonMobil Spreads its Money Around
But there's more than just the fact that ExxonMobil financed deliberately flawed studies to try to derail the Clean Power Plan. The company also is a major supporter of a number of Senate EPW Committee members, including Inhofe, who are adamant climate science deniers.
Inhofe has deep ties to the oil and gas industry, which has donated $1.85 million to his campaign war chest over his long career in Congress, more than twice than any other industry. Three oil and gas companies are among the senator's top 10 corporate contributors: Koch Industries, Devon Energy and … ExxonMobil.
Six of the other 10 Republicans on the EPW Committee also are on ExxonMobil's donation list, including Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the current committee chairman. Roughly half of the $119,500 ExxonMobil contributed to the seven senators over the last decade went to Barrasso and Inhofe, the committee's previous chairman.
Then there's ExxonMobil's link to Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general before President Trump tapped him to run the EPA. From 2012 through 2013, he chaired the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and afterward served on the organization's executive committee. From 2014 through 2016, ExxonMobil gave RAGA $160,000 in three annual installments.
Just a few weeks after the company made its 2016 donation of $50,000, Pruitt and then-RAGA Chairman Luther Strange, at the time Alabama's attorney general, co-authored a National Review column attacking a coalition of state attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies for misleading investors and the general public about climate change. Parroting ExxonMobil's argument, Pruitt and Strange charged that the coalition was violating the company's first amendment right to free speech.
"The debate" over climate change, they wrote "is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged—in classrooms, public forums and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime."
In this case, Inhofe's counterfactual comment didn't make it into the ensuing media coverage. Along with nearly everything else that was said during the two-and-a-half hour marathon, it was eclipsed by a bombshell dropped by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. The Rhode Island Democrat revealed that during a February 2016 radio interview, Pruitt said Trump would be "more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama, and that's saying a lot." Whitehouse read Pruitt's remark aloud and asked him if he recalled making it.
"I don't," Pruitt responded, "and I don't echo that today at all."
"I guess not," Whitehouse replied.
Not surprisingly, that embarrassing nugget was the story. There was no way that Inhofe's rambling, ExxonMobil-sponsored falsehood could compete in the media with red meat like that. But overshadowed or not, Inhofe provided yet another incontrovertible piece of evidence that—despite ExxonMobil's statements to the contrary—the company is still very much engaged behind the scenes in trying to stymie any government attempt to seriously address climate change.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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