By Elliott Negin
The steady parade of unqualified, ideologically driven appointees for key Trump administration positions has resumed now that things in Washington have settled down after the mid-term elections. Last week, Trump tapped Matthew G. Whitaker to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This Thursday, the Senate will hold a hearing to confirm attorney Bernard McNamee to fill a vacancy at the five-member, presidentially appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a relatively obscure—but critically important—independent agency that oversees interstate power lines and pipelines.
Trump presumably picked McNamee to put the administration's pro-fossil-fuel spin on a number of key decisions FERC will make in the coming months, especially one that would bail out uneconomic coal plants. If that happens, Americans will be saddled with higher electric bills, more toxic air pollution and more heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change. The commission also will be considering rules that would encourage energy storage, rooftop solar installations and remotely located renewable sources.
McNamee would replace Robert Powelson, a former utility executive and Pennsylvania utility regulator who left the commission in August after less than a year. One of the three Republicans on the commission, Powelson maintains that FERC should be insulated from political pressure. "I don't make any decision based on the fact that I'm a lifelong Republican," he told Energywire. "I have a mean independent streak in me."
McNamee, who has no utility sector experience, is all about partisan politics. He worked for Republican attorneys general in Virginia and Texas and advised Republican Sens. George Allen and Ted Cruz before joining the Department of Energy (DOE) in May 2017 as deputy general counsel for energy policy.
Last February, he left DOE to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by a rogues gallery of polluters, including Chevron, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. It's the same outfit that produced Trump's unqualified—and rejected—nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White.
While at TPPF, McNamee penned a paean to his favorite energy source for The Hill, a political trade publication, titled "This Earth Day, let's accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs." "We have been told that fossil fuels are wrecking the environment and our health," his April 17 column read. "The facts are that life expectancy, population and economic growth all began to increase dramatically when fossil fuels were harnessed…." Renewable energy sources, he added, cannot replace fossil fuels, but not to worry, "America is blessed with an abundant supply of affordable natural gas, oil and coal."
McNamee rejoined DOE in June as the executive director of the agency's policy office. Before and after his brief stint at TPPF, he promoted Energy Secretary Rick Perry's proposal to require regional transmission operators to buy electricity from power plants that can store a 90-day fuel supply on site, ostensibly to strengthen electricity-grid resiliency. The plan, which would prop up coal and nuclear plants that have been struggling to compete on the open market with cheaper natural gas and renewables, would cost ratepayers an estimated $17 billion to $35 billion annually.
At Trump's behest, Perry asked FERC in September 2017 to issue grid resiliency rules to protect failing coal and nuclear plants. FERC rejected the request, concluding that DOE did not provide any evidence that coal and nuclear plant retirements would undermine grid reliability. An analysis by Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM of the impact of closing at-risk plants in its region also found no threat to the grid.
Besides trying to reverse FERC's coal- and nuclear-power bailout decision, McNamee could do lasting damage in other ways. For example, the commission is currently not required to consider the impact of climate change when making electricity policy decisions, but the two Democratic commissioners think the "social cost of carbon"—the financial damage caused by carbon pollution—should be incorporated in environmental reviews for gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Likewise, the commission will be deliberating over whether it should eliminate barriers to electric energy storage, make it easier for solar panel owners to sell their excess power back to electric utilities, and recommend federal incentives for more transmission-line construction, which would enable remotely sited wind and solar projects to compete with natural gas. Given McNamee's biases, it is unlikely he would support any of those initiatives.
This week's confirmation hearing, hosted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, will be chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is no stranger to the FERC confirmation drill and quite knowledgeable about the commission's mandate. In her opening statement during a FERC commissioner confirmation hearing in 2013, Murkowski made a case for rejecting an Obama nominee that could be easily applied to McNamee.
"FERC is independent by law and by design. It is clearly distinct from executive agencies that carry out policy directives from the White House…," she explained. "It is critically important for us to enable the agency—and its professional nonpartisan employees who report to the chairman as their CEO—to maintain its strong culture as an expert agency free of undue political influence."
Murkowski should hew to that line on Thursday—and the Senate should reject the McNamee nomination.
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By Elliott Negin
New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood recently filed what could be an enormously consequential securities fraud lawsuit against ExxonMobil, exposing in great detail the company's long history of lying about issues related to climate change.
According to the findings of the AG's investigation, ExxonMobil kept one set of numbers internally about the likely future costs of carbon-emission rules while using another set for its shareholders that it knew to be false. For internal planning purposes, the company low-balled estimates for the cost per ton of carbon that would likely be imposed by regulation to make its projects appear to be more profitable. Meanwhile, the company told its shareholders it was using a higher, more plausible, price when determining its projects' long-term economic viability. By doing so, the complaint charges, ExxonMobil deceived its investors, falsely assuring them that its oil and gas reserves would not become unusable for economic reasons—what the industry refers to as "stranded assets."
The 97-page legal complaint is chock-full of examples of ExxonMobil reports and statements that deceived shareholders about the likely cost of carbon-emission standards. It charges the company with "a longstanding fraudulent scheme" that "was sanctioned at the highest levels of the company."
Just as the notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone was ultimately brought down on tax fraud charges despite a long rap sheet of murder and mayhem, the case raises the prospect that New York's unique securities fraud law, the Martin Act, could be the legal tool that holds the company accountable for a culture of deception about climate change that spans decades.
The legal complaint cites one notable corporate statement titled "ExxonMobil and the carbon tax" in which the company reiterated its dubious contention that it supports a carbon tax. In fact, ExxonMobil has never publicly supported an actual carbon tax bill and has consistently funded members of Congress who oppose the idea. The company did get some positive press recently for pledging to donate $1 million to Americans for Carbon Dividends, a new lobby group promoting a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but the group's plan would pre-empt climate-related lawsuits against fossil fuel companies and eliminate federal regulations curbing carbon emissions.
ExxonMobil also has long lied about its ongoing support for climate science denier groups. In 2007, a company vice president claimed it stopped funding them after the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that ExxonMobil had spent millions of dollars on dozens of groups to sow doubt about the reality and seriousness of climate change. The company's own corporate giving reports show that it continues to fund them to this day. From 1998 through last year, ExxonMobil spent at least $36 million on climate science disinformation groups, more than any other funder besides Charles and David Koch, the multibillionaire owners of Koch Industries.
The bottom line of the New York AG's complaint is that, when calculating costs for major projects, ExxonMobil "assumed, contrary to its representations [to investors], that existing climate regulation would remain in place, unchanged, indefinitely into the future."
What would make ExxonMobil so confident that currently weak-to-nonexistent carbon-emission standards would remain the same? Likely its success over the past 20 years in stifling meaningful government action. After all, ExxonMobil and the rest of the US fossil fuel industry have spent enough money on their friends in Congress that a critical mass of them deny the reality of human-driven climate change. So, as long as fossil fuel industry-funded groups continue to provide lawmakers with bogus studies and ply the news media with industry mouthpieces, it is not surprising that ExxonMobil believed it could maintain the status quo.
As the New York AG complaint shows, however, ExxonMobil's strategy relied on the belief that it could get away with privately counting on business as usual while telling investors it was taking into full consideration the risks to its business posed by the global effort to dramatically curb carbon emissions. When it comes to defrauding investors in New York state, this looming court battle may prove the company wrong.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Don Anair
Gov. Brown signed several pieces of legislation this year on clean energy and transportation and one of those, signed on a boat in San Francisco bay on a windy afternoon, was squarely aimed at ensuring ride-hailing companies contribute to California's climate efforts.
The California Clean Miles Standard and Incentive Program (SB 1014 authored by Sen. Skinner) brings ride-hailing companies into the climate solutions fold by establishing decreasing climate emissions targets (yet to be determined) for companies like Uber and Lyft. This ground-breaking legislation is the first of its kind, and sets an important example for how the increasingly popular transportation option of ride-hailing can help accelerate emission reductions from transportation, rather than exacerbate them.
Why Ride-Hailing is Important for Climate Change
App-based on-demand ride services (aka ride-hailing) have been a huge boon to mobility for millions of people, providing a convenient option for getting from point A to point B. But these services also have implications for the amount of global warming emissions coming from transportation. And since transportation climate emissions in California are growing and now account for more than 40 percent of statewide emissions, getting a handle on this source of pollution is critical.
Ride-hailing may help or hinder efforts to reduce emissions for several reasons:
- Ride-hailing is growing rapidly. Trip miles by Uber and Lyft increased more than 100% in 2016 and greater than 60% in 2017 (CPUC report). As of 2017, Uber was operating in 172 cities and towns in California and Lyft in more than 92. Statewide, ride hailing is only a small percentage of overall miles traveled (California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) estimated it at 2%) but in some places is a sizable percentage of daily trips. In San Francisco, for example, SFMTA estimates that 15% of in-town trips, and 20% of total miles traveled during the week, is in ride-hailing vehicles.
- Ride-hailing is increasing vehicle miles traveled and congestion. While ride-hailing is getting some people to leave their own cars at home, it is also leading to additional car trips that increase vehicle emissions and congestion in some cities. That's because ride-hailed trips often displace trips that would have been completed by walking, biking, or transit, or add trips that would not have been taken at all. As noted in this white paper on the Future of Mobility by researchers from the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, "in 3 out of 4 studies, more than a third of respondents would have taken public transit, walked, or biked, in place of" ride-hailing. Furthermore, even when they displace personal car trips, ride-hail trips can end up adding more vehicle miles than the car trip they are displacing because "dead-heading" miles—miles traveled without any passengers between drop-offs and pick-ups—can account for an estimated 20% (SFMTA) to 40% (CPUC) of all ride-hailing miles. Several cities are trying to get a better handle on congestion impacts from ride-hailing services from New York to San Francisco and solutions to deal with it.
- Ride-hailing could usher in a new era of car-pooling. It's never been easier to share a ride with someone if you live in an area where UberPOOL or LyftLine are available. In California, pooled-rides represent more than 30% of the ride requests by Uber and Lyft passengers (CPUC). Significantly increasing vehicle occupancy by pooling rides is one way to increase passenger miles without increasing vehicle miles or pollution and app-based services are providing the tools to make this work.
- Ride-hailing could accelerate the electrification of vehicle miles traveled. A typical car travels about 12,000 mile per year. But a driver for Uber or Lyft could easily drive double that or more. As an example, a report on taxis in New York City indicated a typical cab travels 70,000 miles in one year. So an EV used in a ride-hailing service has the potential to travel a whole lot more miles than a typical EV used by an individual for personal transportation. Replacing gasoline-powered ride-hailing trips with EV ride-hailing trips could slash climate emissions since powering cars with electricity instead of oil reduces emissions, even when accounting for emissions from generating the electricity.
- Ride-hailing has the potential to support greater use of mass transit or could possibly undermine it. With easily accessible ride-hailing offering an attractive first-mile and last-mile option, commuters may find some forms of mass transit more attractive. A surveycarried out by researchers at UC Davis of ride-hailing users found respondents increased their use of heavy-rail (including subways and commuter rail) and walking (see figure). But it's not all good news. Respondents also reported a decrease in bus and light rail use and on net, the study authors report an overall decrease in transit use by current ride-hailing users. So ride-hailing could help improve mass transit, by making it more accessible, convenient and efficient than it is today, but it could also undermine transit by pulling passengers away.
Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States, October 2017 by Regina R. Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra
Ultimately, ride-hailing services will make the biggest contributions to reducing climate pollution from transportation if they lead to more pooled rides, less overall VMT, more vehicle electrification, greater utilization of mass transit and more biking, walking or scooting. But that outcome is far from guaranteed without clear public policy direction. And that's just what SB1014 is designed to provide.
The California Clean Miles Standard and Incentive Program – SB1014
- Establishes a global warming emissions baseline for ride-hailing companies by January 2020
The new law requires the California Air Resources Board to establish an emissions baseline, on a per-passenger-mile basis, for ride-hailing companies.
Here's a basic example of how to calculate an emissions per-passenger-mile metric. First, take all the vehicle miles traveled by ride-hailing vehicles – waiting for passengers, between pick-ups and drop-offs, and during the actual trip with a passenger or passengers. Then estimate the emissions for those miles traveled based on the efficiency of the vehicles used. Finally, divide that by the number of miles each passenger actually travels in the vehicle.
The bill does add one more factor into the mix—did the trip facilitate walking, riding, or other modes of zero emission or active transport? It's not exactly clear how this will ultimately be wrapped into the calculation. Here's one possibility. If a passenger uses Uber Express Pool and walks a few blocks to the pickup location, that might be factored into the overall passenger miles, hence reducing the overall emissions per passenger mile figure.
- By 2021, sets annual emission reduction and zero emission vehicle targets starting in 2023 to be implemented by the Public Utilities Commission
After setting a baseline, the California Air Resource Board is tasked with establishing annual emission reduction targets to apply to companies starting in 2023. Along with setting overall emission per passenger mile targets, the bill also requires specific targets for increasing passenger miles traveled using zero-emission vehicles. The CPUC will implement the actual standard given their role in regulating ride-hailing companies.
- By January 2022, and every two years after, requires companies develop emission reduction plans.
Once targets are set, ride-hailing companies will develop plans to demonstrate how they will comply with the standards.
- Calls for state agencies to consider these goals in their vehicle electrification planning and funding decisions.
Several state agencies, including the California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission and the California Air Resources Board, that make decisions about funding for vehicle incentives and charging infrastructure deployment will now consider ride-hailing electrification goals in their decision making. The bill also calls for the program to support sustainable land-use objectives, and clean mobility goals for low and moderate-income drivers, while minimizing any negative impacts.
Setting a Strong Standard Will Ensure Ride-Hailing is a Climate Friend, Rather Than Foe
This bill sets up a structure for ensuring ride-hailing delivers on its potential to help accelerate climate reductions in the transportation sector. It complements the current efforts of Uber and Lyft to promote electrification on their platforms and reduce climate emissions. It also ensures they are accountable for making steady progress while providing flexibility in how they meet the goals.
SB1014 could have required a more straightforward metric, like emissions per vehicle mile traveled or just an EV deployment requirement, but that would have only encouraged lower emitting vehicles. Instead, by using an emissions per-passenger-mile metric, the standard can encourage a broader range of positive outcomes including: use of cleaner ride-hailing vehicles, greater vehicle occupancy (i.e., pooling), more efficient operations with less deadheading, and encouraging increased use of active transportation. All of these are ultimately important in moving toward a more sustainable, and low emission transportation future.
The California Air Resources Board is on tap to develop an emissions baseline with finalization by January 2020 so I'd expect a public announcement in the next few months regarding a process.
No one except for Uber and Lyft knows exactly how many miles Uber and Lyft vehicles are driving, the vehicles that are driving them, or how many passengers are in them. All of this information will be critical to developing a baseline to measure future emission reductions against. Ride-hailing companies will need to be transparent with regulators about the underlying data they are reporting on and be accountable for its accuracy.
Setting the structure and stringency levels of the program will be the next critical challenge. If both Lyft and Uber stand by their public commitments to more sustainable transportation, then the process for developing emissions targets should prove to be productive.
Don Anair, research and deputy director of the UCS Clean Vehicles Program, is a vehicle engineer and an expert on diesel pollution, advanced vehicle technologies, and alternative fuels.
By Brenda Ekwurzel
If you look at headlines from the last year, ExxonMobil, Chevron and other major fossil fuel companies have seemingly turned a new page on climate change. Recently, ExxonMobil received major kudos for giving $1 million to Americans for Carbon Dividends, a lobbying offshoot of the industry-backed Climate Leadership Council. Shortly before that, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum got good press for each pledging $100 million to the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which amounts to less than one percent of their capital and exploration budget for 2018 (ExxonMobil's is $28 billion while Chevron's is $15.8 billion). Companies have also touted their support for the Paris climate agreement as well as their research and investments in renewables.
But, as I and my colleagues have analyzed, this "support" is a PR distraction when these companies are keeping up business-as-usual. They intend to continue producing, marketing and selling fossil fuels at current levels for the foreseeable future, which runs counter to the steep reductions in carbon dioxide and methane emissions needed to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Tuesday the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a scorecard, which analyzed what eight major fossil fuel companies are saying they're doing about climate change, and just how much these companies are doing to drastically lower their emissions.
What did we find? Contrary to media reports and shiny company press releases, most of these major fossil fuel companies continue to mischaracterize climate science.
Why is this important? Any company that makes, markets and sells a product that is the primary cause of climate change has a responsibility to stay on top of and clearly communicate with the public scientific developments regarding their product. Misrepresenting climate science and underplaying the urgency of action allows companies to justify their business as usual practices all while climate impacts, including increasingly frequent and severe weather events such as Hurricanes Harvey and Florence, get worse and costlier. Releasing inaccurate statements allows companies to "check the box" for voicing belief in climate change, while continuing to funnel tens of tens of millions of dollars to climate-denying politicians, trade associations and other industry groups that do the dirty work of opposing climate policies.
Major Fossil Fuel Companies Fail to Accurately Represent Climate Science
We measured whether companies consistently and accurately acknowledged the scientific evidence of climate change in their public platforms. Overall, they didn't do great.
We found that five of the eight companies we studied had made public statements on climate change that underplayed the need to urgently reduce emissions, emphasized scientific uncertainty and/or were blatantly incorrect. Only BP amended its statement after UCS and Barnard College called the company out for its deceptive language.
These statements are surprising since these companies have known about climate change for at least four decades now, which would be plenty of time to figure how to make it a priority to accurately convey the latest developments in climate science. Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued climate assessments which companies can rely on. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment (2014) represents the latest* mainstream scientific consensus on climate change and it clearly states that "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." The primary human influence is through the burning of fossil fuels.
*(Earlier this month, this group released a special report detailing the impacts of a global average temperature increase of 1.5C relative to 2C above pre-industrial levels, and pathways to limit temperature increase to that level. See my colleagues' blog series about what the report means for us and for climate policy).
Let's see how oil and gas company statements on climate change stacked up.
ExxonMobil employs a dedicated climate change team and boasts about leading research around cutting-edge technology, such as carbon capture and storage. Yet the company's statements on climate change, including the one above, do not consistently reflect the current scientific consensus around the issue.
Contrary to ExxonMobil's claims, scientific understanding of the likelihood, magnitude and time frame of climate impacts as tied to human-caused climate change has advanced greatly. Research has over the last decade developed to the point where scientists can identify and quantify the part human-caused climate change plays in many types of extreme weather and other climate impacts. For many impacts, the likelihood is high; the magnitude is severe; and the timeframe is now. Scientists have shown, for example, that the likelihood of heat wave similar in magnitude to the one that hit Europe in 2003—during which over 30,000 people died—has doubled. Scientists have also shown that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall that hit Houston during Hurricane Harvey roughly three times more likely and 15 percent more intense.
No matter how much ExxonMobil talks about using oil to lubricate wind turbines, the company knows that most of its oil and gas are being burnt by cars, by energy generation, by human activity—which is the primary cause of climate change.
Chevron's statement misrepresents the IPCC Fifth Assessment's conclusions, as mentioned earlier, that human activity is "extremely likely" to be the dominant driver of warming since the 1950s, not simply one possible cause of many possible causes, as is implied by Chevron's phrase "due in part." Chevron's seemingly subtle shift in wording is significant because the report shows that the overwhelming majority of the world's top researchers agree that burning fossil fuels is by far and away the largest contributor to climate change. Injecting any doubt or uncertainty into that conclusion is disingenuous at best, and outright deceiving at worst.
Above: Chevron Corporation. 2018. Climate change resilience: A framework for decision making. Online here, accessed Oct. 15.
If Chevron is going to quote the IPCC, the company should, at the very least, cut-and-paste from the panel's report.
ConocoPhillips's statement on climate science suggests the last decade-worth of climate research, including the most recent IPCC report, simply doesn't exist.
Above: ConocoPhillips. No date. Climate change position. Online here, accessed Oct. 15.
There are three major issues with the company's statement: 1) the claim that increasing atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases "can lead" rather than "are leading" to climate change, as has been established since at least the IPCC third assessment report, is followed by 2) highlighting uncertainties on the first point, when there are none and 3) proposing that it is sufficient for the company to "manage" global warming emissions rather than reducing them. Alone, each of these statements is problematic and inaccurately represents the mainstream scientific consensus. Together, they subvert the public's understanding of climate science and supply the company with an alibi for continuing to extract, sell and profit off of fossil fuels.
BP – Old and New
When we analyzed BP's statements from 2018 we found similarly misinforming language. But when we pointed the problematic language out to company representatives (as we did with all eight companies studied), BP promptly made changes that brought its statement back in line with climate science. As you can see in the first attempt, BP emphasizes scientific uncertainty by referring to atmospheric carbon's "possible" climate impact. Svante Arrhenius, more than a century ago, published the fundamental scientific principle that changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration results in changes to Earth's temperature.
Above: BP PLC. 2018a. Energy and the environment. Online here, accessed May 22.
BP's new statement, on the other hand, is an excellent example of an accurate copy-and-paste. The company's new statement mentions the IPCC 5th Assessment and, unlike Chevron, gets its facts right in stating that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is extremely likely to be the primary driver of climate change.
Above: BP PLC. No date. Energy and the environment. Online here, accessed Oct. 15.
Above: First quote: Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. No date. Climate change and energy transitions. Online here, accessed, Oct. 15. Second quote: Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. 2018c. Energy Transition. Online here, accessed July 10.
Shell's PR machine has gone into overdrive recently in an effort to paint the company as a climate leader. While Shell falls short in a number of areas, its statements on climate science and the need to reach net-zero emissions are accurate and consistent. There's no equivocating, no hedging, no backsliding, no prevaricating and no hiding inaccurate climate statements on less popular pages of its website. Climate change is real, it's caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, and we need to make changes immediately. Check, check and check.
Additional Studies on the Language of Climate Deception
Several peer-reviewed academic papers have documented how fossil fuel companies have used public communications to mislead the public about the state of climate science and its implications. A University of Reading study published this year showed that up until the mid-2000s, climate change was discussed as a problem with a solution; more recently fossil fuel company language has portrayed climate change as unpredictable and unknowable. Last year, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes analyzed 187 climate change communications by ExxonMobil and found that while company's scientists were quietly contributing to climate science and writing reports about it to company executives, the company was paying for advertisements that told a different story.
Whether through outright climate denial, sowing public confusion on climate science, or funding of third-party groups that spread climate disinformation, each of these companies has tried to obscure climate science. But, as we saw with BP, the threat of public exposure and pressure apparently pushed the company to correct its website. As with most companies, major fossil fuel companies want to avoid the reputational risk of being branded climate deniers. This is why public watchdogging really matters.
Fossil fuel companies need to acknowledge scientific evidence that shows
1. The extraction and burning of their product is the main driver of climate change and,
2. avoiding the worst climate impacts requires dramatic cuts to carbon emissions immediately.
UCS and members of our science network and supporters will continue to hold these companies accountable for what they (and their trade groups) say and do on climate change.
Brenda Ekwurzel is a senior climate scientist and the director of climate science at UCS.
On Indigenous People’s Day, a Look at the Movement to Revive Native Foodways and How Western Science Might Support—For a Change
By Ricardo Salvador
"Tribes are not sovereign unless they can feed themselves," noted Ross Racine, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. This is such a brutal fact that that the destruction of Native foodways was used by the U.S. government to effectively weaken, destroy and remove Native people from their ancestral lands during the period of Western colonization, genocide, expansion and cultural undermining that ran from the 17th into the present century (in the form of "Food Distribution Programs," largely the food that has made many Native communities both dependent and among the sickest in the world.)
It may be a legitimate question to some why a scientific organization wants to support dismantlement of the social inequities built into our food systems. Food and food production are fundamentally important to Native communities' health, well-being, economic resilience, cultural heritage and self-preservation. This means that restoring food sovereignty to Native communities requires the re-introduction of indigenous food production, distribution practices and infrastructure, in concert with the re-valuation of traditional ecological knowledge that has long been sidelined from Western notions of science.
The legacy of social and racial inequities woven throughout our food systems cannot be addressed without acknowledging the history of violent displacement and marginalization of Native American and Alaska Native communities, and the appropriation of their land and resources. In its most intensive and intentional phase, during the 60-year period now known as "the Indian Wars," from 1830-1890, the federal government massacred tens of thousands of Native peoples and "removed" surviving communities to isolated "reservations." Entire ways of life and foodways were intentionally destroyed. Native communities were forced to become dependent on an exogenous food system that funneled the most unhealthful foodstuffs toward reservations and further eroded knowledge about native foods and their production and preparation. These were overt control measures, including strict federally imposed limits on fishing, foraging and hunting on Native lands. As a consequence of these measures, Native self-provisioning, traditional food knowledge and health were destroyed, and those communities now suffer some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country and the world.
Indigenous methods of scientific inquiry have their best chance to find a home in our nation's "1994 Land-Grant Institutions"—colleges and universities established with federal resources to support research, education and extension related to food and agriculture. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, then director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), stated that these tribal colleges and universities TCUs "teach in a cultural context that [empowers] students by drawing on the strength of their peoples' history, indigenous knowledge, and traditions." Yet research at TCUs is supported by a NIFA funding stream that is entirely separate from, and inferior to, that of other land grant institutions. Therefore, in recent years, a coalition of tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits have come together to demand increased federal funding for NIFA Tribal Programs. In addition, the pressure from dominant culture is to emulate the pattern and ostensive "success" of agricultural approaches that have been developed on the basis of western science. Instead, the leadership and autonomy of Native people must be acknowledged and supported to recapture and reconstruct their traditional knowledge of agriculture, gathering and food, together with their connection to health and wellbeing, and to integrate that knowledge with Western approaches in a manner of their own choosing.
The White Earth Food Recovery Project
One of the more significant things I ever did while on the faculty of the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University happened when a Native friend, Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe), told me about a project she was involved with to revive the foodways of her father's people at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. She told me how they knew that corn was central to the polycultural food system of their ancestors, and that they knew that to recover their physical, cultural and economic health they had to start by reconstructing their food system with their native species. But these had been lost to colonization and cultural destruction. She asked whether I knew how to get hold of seeds that were as close as possible to Ojibwe corn.
I called my buddy, Mark Millard, a geneticist who was the maize curator for the USDA's Plant Introduction Center just down the road from my office. I still vividly remember the chills I felt when I repeated Winona's question to Mark and he responded: "How close do you want to get to White Earth Ojibwe corn?" It turned out that in the 1920s, the USDA had collected seed of that very corn and dutifully reproduced it in the intervening 80 years. There was soon a package of precious seed on its way to Winona and the White Earth food recovery project was on its way.
Such efforts to reclaim food sovereignty as a way to recover health, in all its dimensions, among the nation's survivors of a traumatic campaign of Native American genocide is gaining momentum, and particularly so among the TCU network, known colloquially as "Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities," or even more eccentrically, the "1994s." Ironies are plentiful in explanation. As Europeans colonized North America from the east coast westward, they established infrastructure and institutions to facilitate their settlement project.
Almost everyone has at least a glancing acquaintance with the fact that establishment of the transcontinental railroad was a keystone of this project. This was financed by a "land-grant scheme" whereby the federal government killed and removed Native inhabitants to "clear the way" for settlers, then gave itself permission to apportion the "empty land" (the popularly beloved first-person chronicler of these developments, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famously described her family's entry into today's Kansas with the words: "There were no people here, only Indians.") The federal "land-grants" were used by railroad companies not only for right-of-way but for sale to raise cash to support their operations. Similarly, the federal government "granted" land to states to establish the colleges that were to generate knowledge for white farmers to subdue the prairies and other conquered lands so that both Native people and vegetation could be replaced with more "productive" alternatives.
The resulting institutions, today's "Land Grant Universities," thereby have a complicated history. In the history of education, they were the first established expressly so that a higher education was accessible to the salt of the earth, and was no longer the exclusively for society's privileged, but it was also clear who these colonizer institutions were for. They were not for Natives, and they were not for African Americans, both of whom were the victims and subordinates of colonization. It is for this reason that a completely separate network was subsequently established to "serve" the African-American population of farmers and rural citizens, now known as the "1890 Land Grants." It is important to remember that this underscores exclusion than rather social equity, since they were established to reinforce that African Americans were not welcome (in the Southern U.S.) within the exclusive hallways of the original Land Grant universities (now known as "the 1862s," for the year their authorizing legislation was passed.) It will surprise no one that compared with the 1862 Universities, the Crown Jewels of the Land Grant University system, the 1890 and 1994 counterparts are egregiously underfunded.
What Must "Science" Now Do?
Which brings us to the "1994 Land Grants." It took that long for the federal government to recognize the exclusion of the continent's first peoples from its tradition of public support for higher education. But that support historically had been in an effort to destroy Native life, knowledge and culture, acknowledging it only as an item of study. For Native people, of course, the object is instead to revive the thriving worldview and knowledge system that sustained their forebears for millennial generations.
So this is where the federal government is now with this project: The federal government funds research, education, and extension activities at 1994 institutions through the Tribal College Research Grant Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program is to help 1994 institutions become centers of scientific inquiry and learning for remote and rural reservation communities, with an emphasis on research questions generated by Native community interests. Projects funded through this program may help a tribe "improve bison herd productivity, discover whether traditional plants can play a role in managing diabetes, or control invasive species," among other areas of emphasis. Alongside the research program, the Tribal College Extension Program supports informal, community-based learning, which may include farmer education, youth development, and rural entrepreneurship.
In the summer of 2017, the Native Farm Bill Coalition—made up of 22 tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits—published a report assessing risks and opportunities for Native communities in the 2018 farm bill. The authors acknowledge that tribal organizations have "struggled to rally the support of tribes to effectively advocate for greater Native inclusion in previous Farm Bills," and present the report as a springboard to amplify tribal voices in the federal food and agriculture policy process. The report's recommendations, include increased funding for extension services for tribes, earmarked funding for tribal groups within existing NIFA research grant programs, and new research programs at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, that focus on the important and increasing role that traditional knowledge plays in the environmental, natural resources, ecological, food science, nutrition, and health research.
Science is a human endeavor. It does not exist without humans, and it serves the purposes of humans. It served the colonizing and genocidal project of the U.S. in several ways. The Union of Concerned Scientists seeks to put science in service of the project to recover the dignity and viability of lifeways that respect and sustain Native wisdom and healthful, thriving cultures. For this reason, my team and I will be working to establish a relationship with leaders, faculty and fellow scientists at the nation's Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and to learn how me might become part of a project that aligns our science and intentions with a completely different direction and outcome than the perverted precedent we all must thoughtfully reflect on each October on Indigenous People's Day.
Columbus, Ohio, cancels #ColumbusDay to honor veterans instead, as cities and states replace the holiday with Indig… https://t.co/AA8TMqsAcF— USA TODAY (@USA TODAY)1538998210.0
By Karen Perry Stillerman
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, I've joined millions who've watched with horror as the Carolinas have been inundated with floodwaters and worried about the various hazards those waters can contain. We've seen heavy metal-laden coal ash spills, a nuclear plant go on alert (thankfully without incident), and sewage treatment plants get swamped. But the biggest and most widely reported hazard associated with Florence appears to be the hog waste that is spilling from many of the state's thousands of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), and which threatens lasting havoc on public health and the local economy.
And while the state's pork industry was already under fire for its day-to-day impacts on the health and quality of life of nearby residents, Florence has laid bare the lie that millions of animals and their copious waste can be safely concentrated in flood-prone coastal areas like southeastern North Carolina.
CAFO "Lagoons" are Releasing a Toxic Soup
The state is home to 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually. As rivers crested on Wednesday, state officials believed that at least 110 hog manure lagoons—open, earthen pools where pig waste is liquified and broken down by anaerobic bacteria (causing their bubblegum-pink color) before being sprayed on fields—had been breached or inundated by flood waters across the state:
The tally by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is rising rapidly (it was just 34 on Monday). Perhaps not surprisingly, the state's pork industry lobby group is reporting much smaller numbers: by Wednesday afternoon, the North Carolina Pork Council's website listed only 43 lagoons affected by the storm and flood.
In any case, the true extent of the spills may not be known for many days, as extensive road closures in the state continue to make travel and assessment difficult or impossible.
The Scale of North Carolina's CAFO Industry is Shocking
In 2016, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used federal and state geographical data and analyzed high-resolution aerial photography to create a series of interactive maps showing the locations and scale of CAFOs concentration in the state. The map below shows the location of hog CAFOs (pink dots), poultry CAFOs (yellow dots) and cattle feedlots (purple dots) throughout the state.
Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used public data to create maps of CAFO locations in North Carolina in 2016.
Note the two counties in the southeastern part of the state, Duplin and Sampson, where the most hog CAFOs are concentrated—nearly as pink as a hog lagoon, these counties are Ground Zero for the state's pork industry. In Duplin County alone, where hogs outnumber humans 40-to-1, the Waterkeeper/EWG data show there were, as of 2016, more than 2.3 million head of swine producing 2 billion gallons of liquid waste per year, stored in 865 waste lagoons. (Duplin County was also home to 1,049 poultry houses containing some 16 million birds that year.)
The State's CAFOs Harm Communities of Color Most
"Lagoon" is a curious euphemism for a cesspool. Even without hurricanes, these gruesome ponds pose a hazard to nearby communities. In addition to the obvious problem of odor, they emit a variety of gases—ammonia and methane, both of which can irritate eyes and respiratory systems, and hydrogen sulfide, which is an irritant at very low exposure levels but can be extremely toxic at higher exposures.
These everyday health hazards hurt North Carolinians of color most of all. To pick on Duplin County again, U.S. Census figures show that one-quarter of its residents are black and 22 percent are Hispanic or Latino. And a 2014 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, compared to white people, black people are 54 percent more likely to reside near these hog operations, Hispanics are 39 percent more likely, and Native Americans are more than twice as likely.
What does all that mean for health and environmental justice? Residents near the state's hog CAFOs have complained for years of sickening odors, headaches, respiratory distress and other illnesses, and have filed (and begun winning) a series of class-action lawsuits against the companies responsible for them.
Just this month, researchers at Duke University published new findings on health outcomes in communities close to hog CAFOs in the state. They found that, compared with a control group, such residents have higher rates of infant death, death from anemia, and death from all causes, along with higher rates of kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for low-birthweight infants. (Read the full study or this review.)
CAFO damage from Florence was predictable … and will get worse
Releases of bacteria-laden manure sludge from CAFO lagoons in flooding like we're seeing this week compound the day-to-day problem, and they're inevitable in a hurricane- and flood-prone state like North Carolina. Between 1851 and 2017, 372 hurricanes have affected the state, with 83 making direct landfall in North Carolina. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 wreaked havoc similar to what we're seeing this week.
As you can see on the map below, Florence dumped between 18 and 30+ inches on every part of Duplin County.
It's not surprising that flooding from such an event would be severe. And while the North Carolina Pork Council called Florence "a once-in-lifetime storm," anyone who's paying attention knows it's just a matter of time before the next one.
Millions of Animals are Likely Drowned, Starved or Asphyxiated
In addition to the effects on communities near North Carolina's CAFOs, it's clear that Hurricane Florence has caused tremendous suffering and death to animals housed in those facilities. Earlier this week, poultry company Sanderson Farms reported at least 1.7 million chickens dead, drowned by floodwaters that swamped their warehouse-like "houses." Some 6 million more of the company's chickens cannot yet be accounted for. Overall, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Tuesday put the death toll at 3.4 million chickens and turkeys and 5,500 hogs, but those numbers may very well rise.
A major reason we don't yet know the full extent of animal deaths in North Carolina's CAFOs is that road closures due to flooding has cut off many of the facilities, preventing feed deliveries and inspections. Many animals likely also died in areas that experienced power failures due to the storm. According to this poultry industry document, a power outage that interrupts the ventilation system in a totally enclosed poultry CAFO can kill large numbers of birds by asphyxiation "within minutes."
North Carolina Farmers Face Staggering Financial Losses and Likely Bankruptcies
And what about the farmers? Many of the nation's hog and poultry producers are in already in a predicament. Corporate concentration has squeezed out many independent farmers, meaning more operate as contractors to food industry giants like Smithfield and Tyson. In the U.S. pork industry, contract growers accounted for 44 percent of all hogs and pigs sold in 2012. The farmers have little power in those contracts, and an early action of the Trump administration's USDA served to remove newly-gained protections against exploitation by those companies. The administration's trade war isn't helping either.
As one expert in North Carolina put it as Hurricane Florence approached:
A farmer (who operates a CAFO) has very little flexibility. They take out very large loans, north of a million dollars, on a facility that is specifically designed by the industry, as well as how the facility will be managed. Remember that 97% of chickens and more than 50% of hogs are owned by the industry. These farmers never even own the animals. But if the animal dies, and how to handle the waste, that's on the farmer. That's their responsibility.
I know many individual farmers who do the best they can, who work as hard as they can, who treat their animals with respect. But there's only so much they control. They can't control the weather. They can't control the hurricane. These farmers are part of an industry that says, for the sake of efficiency, you have to put as many animals as possible into these facilities.
Post-Florence, these contract farmers are likely to receive inadequate compensation for the losses of animals in their care. A series of tweets this week by journalist Maryn McKenna, who has studied the poultry industry, illuminates the issues:
So, as the waters recede, many hog and poultry farmers are about to find themselves responsible for a ghastly cleanup job. Imagine returning home to find thousands of bloated animal corpses rotting in the September sun. They they were your livelihood, and now they're not only lost, but an actual liability you must pay to have hauled away.
Public Policies Should Encourage Sustainable Livestock Production, not CAFOs
And so it goes for farmers in today's vertically-integrated, corporate-dominated, CAFO model. But it doesn't have to be this way. Public policies can give more power to livestock farmers in the marketplace, protect animals and nearby communities from hazards associated with CAFOs, and facilitate a shift to more environmentally and economically sustainable livestock production practices.
If Hurricane Florence teaches us anything, it's that flood-prone coastal states like North Carolina are no place for CAFOs. At a minimum, the state must tighten regulations on these facilities to protect public health and safety. A 2016 WaterKeeper Alliance analysis found that just a dozen of North Carolina's 2,246 hog CAFOs had been required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act, with the rest operating under lax state regulation. The state and federal government should also more aggressively seek to close down hog lagoons and help farmers transition to more sustainable livestock practices or even switch from hogs to crops. A buyout program already exists but needs much more funding.
In the meantime, the federal farm bill now being negotiated by Congress also has a role to play. At least one farm bill program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, has been used in ways that underwrite CAFOs. In a 2017 analysis of FY16 EQIP spending, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that 11 percent ($113 million) of EQIP funds were allocated toward CAFO operations, funding improvements to waste storage facilities and subsidizing manure transfer costs. And the House version of the 2018 farm bill could potentially increase support for CAFOs by eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program—which incentivizes more sustainable livestock practices and offers a 4-to-1 return on taxpayer investment overall—and shifting much of its funding to EQIP.
The post-Florence mess in North Carolina illustrates precisely why that's a bad idea. Particularly in a warmer and wetter world, public policies and taxpayer investments should seek to reduce reliance on CAFOs, not prop them up.
By Doug Boucher
I was recently invited by the editors of the journal Tropical Conservation Science to write an update of a 2013 article on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon that I had published with Sarah Roquemore and Estrellita Fitzhugh. They asked me to review how deforestation has changed over the past five years. The most notable result, as you can see from the graph in the just-published article (open-access), is that overall it hasn't changed. And that's actually quite surprising.
During the late 90s and early 2000s the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon averaged about 20,000 square kilometers per year, driven by the rapid expansion of cattle pasture and the commercial soybean industry. Then, starting around 2005, it began to drop rapidly, falling by 70 percent in just half a dozen years. This dramatic drop cut Brazil's national global warming emissions very substantially, in addition to having important benefits for biodiversity and for the people of the Amazon basin.
Since then—essentially no net change. There have been small fluctuations up and down in the annual measurements of deforestation (up in three years and down in three years, to be specific) but it remains at basically the same level. In 2017 the annual loss of Amazon forest was 6,947 km2; that compares to 6,418 km2 in 2011.
Why is this surprising? Because in the same period, Brazilian politics has been incredibly chaotic. To cite the most striking developments during this turbulent period: one President has been impeached and removed from office; an ex-President (during whose administration the decrease in deforestation was achieved) has been jailed and prevented from running again; and politicians across the political spectrum have been implicated in the corruption scandal known as "Lava Jato"—or Car Wash. Not to mention a major economic depression, the passage of legislation weakening of Brazil's Forest Code, and the indictment of the world's largest meatpacking company, JBS S.A., on charges relating both to deforestation and to selling tainted meat.
Why Then, Did Deforestation Remain Essentially the Same?
While there are many factors involved, the lack of change does seem to reflect the institutionalization of the reasons that caused deforestation to drop in the earlier period. These include regulations (and prosecutions) limiting the sale of beef and soy from deforested areas; increased transparency concerning who is deforesting and to whom they're selling their beef and soy; improvements in efficiency which allowed farmers and ranchers to raise output without clearing more land; and underlying these, the development of a political movement, led by Brazilian NGOs, that made deforestation an important issue in national politics.
If the lack of change in deforestation is interesting, so is the way that the international media have covered it. My co-author Dora Chi and I reviewed news stories on Amazon deforestation (using Lexis-Nexis; our search found 134 print articles from 2013 through 2017) and discovered a common theme: the idea that although deforestation had fallen in earlier years, now it had gone back up. As our review showed, even though this interpretation isn't borne out by the data, it was nonetheless quite frequently used in the media narratives about deforestation.
Perhaps this mis-interpretation simply reflects a common journalistic tendency to write "on the one hand… but on the other hand…" stories. Or maybe it's that you can't get a story into print if it says that there's nothing new. It may also reflect our tendency to present data such as deforestation rates as percentages, without realizing how they can be misleading because they're using different denominators. A quick example—if my income dropped by 50 percent last year, then turned around and increased by 50 percent this year—am I now back to where I was two years ago? No—I'm actually still 25 percent below that level.
So, both the lack of change in the data, and the mis-communication of its stability in the media, are notable phenomena. But there's a third (non-)event worth noting, and that's the fact that deforestation hasn't dropped to zero, as it would have if the earlier trend had continued. This is a major failure in terms of its effect on climate change and efforts to reign in global emissions. It shows that Brazil's political turbulence has had important consequences for the global environment.
By Elliott Negin
A decade after pledging to end its support for climate science deniers, ExxonMobil gave $1.5 million last year to 11 think tanks and lobby groups that reject established climate science and openly oppose the oil and gas giant's professed climate policy preferences, according to the company's annual charitable giving report released this week.
Nearly 90 percent of ExxonMobil's 2017 donations to climate science denier groups went to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and three organizations that have been receiving funds from the company since it started bankrolling climate disinformation 20 years ago: the American Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which—in a surprise move—ExxonMobil recently quit. (More on that later.)
The other ExxonMobil denier grantees last year were the Center for American and International Law ($23,000), Federalist Society ($10,000), Hoover Institution ($15,000), Mountain States Legal Foundation ($5,000), National Black Chamber of Commerce ($30,000), National Taxpayers Union Foundation ($40,000), and Washington Legal Foundation ($40,000).
ExxonMobil's funding priorities belie the company's purported support for a carbon tax, the Paris climate agreement and other related policies, which it reaffirmed in a January blog post by its public affairs director, Suzanne McCarron. If, as McCarron claims, ExxonMobil is "committed to being part of the solution," why is the company still spending millions of dollars a year on groups that are a major part of the problem?
ExxonMobil's History of Deceit
There is ample evidence that Exxon was fully aware of the danger its products pose to the planet since the 1980s and likely even earlier. Nonetheless, the company helped initiate a fossil fuel industry-backed climate disinformation campaign in 1998, a year before it merged with Mobil.
The company's behind-the-scenes role went largely unnoticed for nearly a decade, but in early 2007, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) revealed that it had spent at least $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to fund a network of more than 40 think tanks and advocacy groups to manufacture doubt about climate science under the guise of being neutral, independent analysts.
In response to the negative press generated by the UCS report, ExxonMobil vowed in its 2007 Corporate Citizenship Report to "discontinue contributions [in 2008] to several public policy research groups whose positions on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner."
Note that the company only promised to stop funding several policy groups, not all, and it did in fact drop some high-profile grantees, including the Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute and Institute for Energy Research. But it never completely ended its support for the disinformation network. From 1998 to 2007—the year of the pledge—it spent nearly $23 million on it. From 2008 through last year, it spent another $13.17 million, for a total of $36.13 million over the last 20 years. As far as anyone has been able to determine from publicly available data, only Charles and David Koch, the multibillionaire owners of Koch Industries, have spent more to deceive the public about climate science and block government action on climate change.
Last year, $1.35 million of the $1.5 million ExxonMobil spent went to the following four organizations:
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: Sponsoring Slanted Studies
In 2014, ExxonMobil committed to give $5 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Capital Campaign in $1 million-a-year increments on top of its annual dues, despite the lobby group's history of misrepresenting climate science and the economics of transitioning to clean energy. Last year, the company kicked in another $15,000 for the Chamber's Corporate Citizenship Center, bringing its total donation to $1,015,000.
If one takes ExxonMobil's climate policy claims at face value, the Chamber's positions are polar opposite.
ExxonMobil has been very vocal about its support for the Paris climate agreement, for example, and during its former CEO Rex Tillerson's brief stint as U.S. secretary of state, he reportedly implored President Trump to keep the U.S. in it. What did Trump cite last year when he announced he was pulling out of the accord? A widely debunked report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Cosponsored by a former ExxonMobil grantee—the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF)—the report maintained that the Paris accord would cost the U.S. economy nearly $3 trillion over the next several decades and eliminate 6.5 million industrial sector jobs by 2040.
According to analyses by the Associated Press (AP), Politifact and The Washington Post, however, the Chamber and ACCF cooked the books. As the AP put it: "The study makes worst-case assumptions that may inflate the cost of meeting U.S. targets under the Paris accord while largely ignoring the economic benefits to U.S. businesses from building and operating renewable energy projects."
American Enterprise Institute: Undue Faith in the Market
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an 80-year-old free-market think tank in Washington, DC, has received more from ExxonMobil than any other climate science denier organization. In 2017, ExxonMobil gave AEI $160,000, bringing its total to $4.49 million since 1998.
Economist Benjamin Zycher, the only AEI staff member who writes regularly about climate issues, rejects mainstream climate science, insists a carbon tax would be "ineffective," and has called the Paris agreement an "absurdity." He not only disagrees with ExxonMobil's professed climate policy positions, he has attacked the company for taking them.
Zycher's colleague Mark Thiessen, a regular contributor to The Washington Post, also dismisses the Paris accord, maintaining that "free enterprise, technology, and innovation—not pieces of parchment signed in Paris and Kyoto—will revolutionize how we produce and consume energy." Never mind that it often takes regulations to drive innovation and force corporations to adopt cleaner technology. Without federally mandated air pollution controls, for example, power plants and other industrial facilities would be emitting considerably more toxic pollution than they do today.
Manhattan Institute: Propaganda Masquerading as News
Another free-market think tank, the Manhattan Institute, received $115,200 from ExxonMobil last year for its Center for Energy Policy. Since 1998, it has received $1.25 million. Like Zycher and Thiessen at AEI, Manhattan Institute fellows oppose a carbon tax and the Paris accord.
Earlier this year, the New York City-based organization hired longtime TV newsman John Stossel, former host of Fox Business Network's Stossel and ABC's 20/20, to interview Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Oren Cass for a slickly produced, 4-minute YouTube segment titled The Overheated Costs of Climate Change.
Cass, who regularly testified before Congress against Obama administration climate efforts, told Stossel that the Paris climate agreement "was somewhere between a farce and a fraud." Stossel wholeheartedly agreed. "The Earth is warming," Stossel intoned in his wrap-up. "Man may well be increasing that. But the solution isn't to waste billions by forcing emissions cuts here while other countries do nothing. Well, pretend to make cuts. Trump was right to repudiate this phony treaty."
Waste billions while other countries do nothing? Besides the fact that it is now cheaper to produce electricity from utility-scale solar and wind energy in the U.S. than nuclear, coal and even natural gas, as of last November—a year after the Paris agreement officially went into effect—China, India and other major carbon emitters were already making significant progress in meeting their Paris accord commitments.
The other glaring problem with the segment is it's a prime example of fake news. With a former network news show host playing anchor, viewers could easily mistake the piece as a clip from of a legitimate newscast. At least one member of the conservative echo chamber treated it that way. The Washington Free Beacon, an online news organization funded by GOP megadonor Paul Singer, ran a news story about the Stossel-Cass interview on March 19.
American Legislative Exchange Council: Fossil fuel Industry 'Bill Mill'
On July 12, ExxonMobil announced it had ended its longtime membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council after a disagreement over the corporate lobby group's climate policy. From 1998 through last year—when Exxon Mobil reported it gave the group $60,000—ALEC received $1.93 million from the oil company.
Over the last two decades, ALEC has routinely featured climate science deniers at its conferences and supplied state lawmakers with a range of fossil fuel industry-drafted sample legislation, including bills that would restrict investment in renewables, eliminate incentives for electric vehicles, and hamper the solar industry from selling electricity directly to residential and business customers.
Since 2012, more than 100 corporations, including BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and electric utilities Entergy, Pacific Gas & Electric and Xcel Energy, have severed ties with ALEC, in many cases because of its regressive policy positions.
ExxonMobil's exit from ALEC came just months after the company fought to defeat a draft resolution sponsored by the Heartland Institute—an ExxonMobil grantee from 1998 through 2006—calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to "reopen and review" its "flawed" conclusion that climate change poses a threat to human health. The EPA's "endangerment finding" requires the agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other global warming emissions as hazardous pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
After ExxonMobil and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a utility trade group, objected to the resolution, the Heartland Institute withdrew it and accused the two of being in league with the likes of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.
"Big corporations like ExxonMobil and trade groups like EEI have long been members of the discredited and anti-energy global warming movement," Heartland's president, Tim Huelskamp, said in a Dec. 7 press release. "They've put their profits and 'green' virtue signaling above sound science and the interests of their customers."
Huelskamp's ludicrous assertion notwithstanding, some might construe ExxonMobil's exit from the American Legislative Exchange Council as a welcome change in direction. The company's money trail, however, clearly shows that it is still financing climate science denier groups that denigrate any and all climate policy options and provide cover for Congress and the current administration to do nothing. Until ExxonMobil stops funding these groups, its avowed support for a carbon tax, the Paris agreement and other climate initiatives can't be seen as anything more than a cynical PR ploy.
By Elliott Negin
On Monday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by San Francisco and Oakland against the five biggest privately owned oil companies for climate change-related damages. Why? He believes the problem is too big to be decided by the federal courts and that Congress and the administration should take care of it.
Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, and the courts are at least partly to blame.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William Alsup agreed with the plaintiffs that there is a "vast [scientific] consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has … materially increased carbon dioxide levels," which has driven up average global temperatures and raised sea levels. Likewise, he noted that the oil companies "have allegedly long known the threat fossil fuels pose to the global climate," but nonetheless funded public relations campaigns that "downplayed the risks" and disparaged climate scientists.
At the same time, however, Alsup insisted that environmental harms attributed to burning fossil fuels have to be balanced with the fact that "the industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal."
"Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress," he wrote, "would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?"
The answer to the second part of the question is emphatically yes (and it doesn't require ignoring our own responsibility).
The Oil Companies Knew
Alsup is of course correct that industrialization would not have happened without fossil fuels. But he neglects to take into account the pernicious role the defendants—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell—have played to block government action to curb carbon emissions over the last three decades. If the U.S. and other industrialized nations had begun the necessary transition to low- and no-carbon energy back then, the likely consequences of climate change would be significantly less dire.
Rising sea levels alone will wreak havoc along the California coast. San Francisco, Oakland and six other California jurisdictions that have filed similar climate lawsuits can expect accelerating sea level rise to threaten some 8,800 homes by 2045, representing $76 million annually in today's local property taxes, according to a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. By the end of the century, some 52,000 homes that currently contribute $435 million in annual property taxes will be at risk.
As Alsup pointed out in his ruling, the alarm bells about climate change began ringing in the late 1980s. Thirty years ago—on June 23, 1988, to be precise—NASA scientist James Hansen generated front page news when he warned Congress about higher temperatures and rising seas. That same year, the United Nations convened the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
A year later, 50 corporations and trade groups founded the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to discredit climate science. Its charter members included none other than British Petroleum (now BP), Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Shell.
Until it disbanded in 2002, the GCC conducted a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming. One of its fact sheets for legislators and journalists encapsulated its main talking points, disingenuously claiming that "the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood" and that "scientists differ" on the issue.
Thanks to a leaked internal GCC memo from 1995, we now know that the coalition's own scientific and technical experts were telling its members that greenhouse gases were indeed causing global warming. "The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established," the document stated, "and cannot be denied."
Exxon scientists, meanwhile, were aware of the threat posed by fossil fuels as early as 1977, according to a 2015 investigation by InsideClimate News. Nevertheless, the company purposely chose to emphasize "uncertainty" and, since it merged with Mobil in 1999, it has spent tens of millions of dollars on a climate disinformation campaign that continues to this day.
Courts Need to Take Responsibility
Alsup concluded that the courts are not the proper venue to address climate damages. Given the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, Alsup contends the issue is best left to Congress and the administration to handle.
Alsup's conclusion presents us with a Catch-22. Kicking any decision about curbing global warming emissions to the political branches of government ignores the fact that both Congress and the current administration are tightly tied to the coal, oil and gas industries. And that hand-in-glove relationship is largely due to questionable Supreme Court decisions.
The genesis of our predicament can be traced back to the early 1800s. Since then, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that have granted corporations the same rights as people. More recently, in 1976, it ruled that limits on campaign contributions violate the First Amendment, essentially equating money with free speech. And in the 2010 Citizens United case, the court ruled that the government cannot limit a corporation's independent political donations.
These decisions have enabled the fossil fuel industry to exert undue influence over federal energy policy. Not only have coal, oil and gas companies collectively spent tens—if not hundreds—of millions of dollars over the past few decades to manufacture doubt about the reality and seriousness of climate change, they have spent considerably more on campaign contributions and lobbying to stymie efforts on Capitol Hill to combat climate change.
In the 2015-16 election cycle alone, for example, the five defendants in the San Francisco-Oakland climate case together spent $9.8 million on federal candidates and another $58.3 million to lobby Congress and the administration, according to government data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Our three-branch system of government ostensibly rests on the concept of checks and balances. When Congress and the executive branch are hopelessly corrupted by petrodollars, it is incumbent upon the judiciary to compensate for this imbalance, which utterly fails to serve the public interest.
Fortunately, Judge Alsup's ruling is not the last word. Similar climate-damage lawsuits have been filed by cities and counties in California, Colorado, New York and Washington state.
A recent press statement by Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell puts these lawsuits into perspective.
"In almost all large-impact litigation, the courtroom doors are usually shut in the beginning, but if plaintiffs are persistent and keep knocking, the doors will open up," said Kimmell, an attorney and former head of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "This was true in the fights against Jim Crow and Big Tobacco, and we expect that the same tenacity will be necessary to overcome the entrenched political and economic influence of this deep-pocketed industry."
By Elliott Negin
President Trump was so impressed by the military parade he saw in Paris on Bastille Day last July that he ordered the Pentagon to plan a bigger one for Washington, DC.
"It was one of the greatest parades I've ever seen," Trump told reporters when he met with French President Emmanuel Macron in New York in September for the opening of the UN General Assembly. "It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France. We're going to have to try to top it."
Of course Trump wants to top it. All things Trump are always "huge," from his inauguration day crowd to his nuclear button to his tax cut. But if the president really wants to outdo France, below are some tremendous French things that the United States would do well to emulate.
The French Are Safer
After the mass shooting last week at a Florida high school, Trump tweeted his "prayers and condolences" to the victims' families. His initial comments also focused on mental health, not guns, despite the fact that early last year he signed a bill revoking an Obama-era rule that made it harder for mentally ill people to buy firearms.
The French, by contrast, do a lot more than offer empty platitudes: They have stringent gun laws. French citizens who want to buy a gun have to apply for a hunting or sporting license, which requires a psychological evaluation and, if acquired, must be renewed every five years. Gun sales, meanwhile, are tightly regulated and require official background checks.
Stricter controls definitely make a difference: France has significantly fewer guns in civilian hands and fewer gun-related deaths per capita than the United States.
In 2013, for example, there were an estimated 10 million guns, both legal and illegal, in France, which at the time had a population of 66 million. That year, 1,750 people were killed by firearms, amounting to 2.65 deaths per 100,000 people.
By contrast, the United States, with a population of 316.2 million in 2013, had an estimated 357 million guns in circulation—more than one gun per person. That year, there were 33,636 U.S. gun deaths, or 10.64 deaths per 100,000—four times the rate in France.
They're Healthier, Too
White House doctor Ronny Jackson assured Americans in January that President Trump is in "excellent health." Given the results of Trump's physical exam, that's debatable, but the health of the U.S. health care system is not. It's in bad shape, especially when compared with France's.
France's public-private hybrid health care system is consistently rated among the best in the world. Last year, for example, France placed 18th in the health category in the Legatum Institute's annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 149 countries on health outcomes, economic performance, education quality and six other categories. The United States health care system, meanwhile, came in 30th.
Like every other industrialized nation besides the United States, France has universal health coverage. All French citizens are covered by the government's Assurance Maladie, and most also have private insurance through their job or the private market. The government sets prices for appointments and procedures and reimburses them at 70 percent. It's similar to Medicare and Medicaid, but because the system covers the entire population, the French government has more leverage to keep prices low.
The United States spends more than twice per capita on health care than France, but French babies have a better chance of staying alive and living longer than American newborns. France's infant mortality rate, according to 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) data, is 3.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. At 5.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, U.S. infant mortality is higher than in any comparable industrialized democracy. And at the end of life, France boasted a combined male and female life expectancy of 82.4 years, putting it in 9th place in a 2015 WHO survey. The United States, by contrast, ranked 31st, with a combined life expectancy of 79.3 years.
They Eat Better
France's obesity rate is 15.3 percent, slightly better than the 15.9 percent for the entire European Union. By contrast, nearly 38 percent of American adults are obese, including President Trump, who apparently fudged his height to avoid being classified that way.
French and U.S. stats on food and farming tell a similar disparate story. In 2017, France ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row in the Food Sustainability Index, which grades 34 countries worldwide in three categories: food loss and waste, nutrition policies and sustainable agriculture. It bested every other country in reducing food waste and came in fourth in nutrition on the strength of its programs that promote healthy diets. In the sustainable agriculture category, it placed third, largely due to a national agro-ecology program that, among other things, is encouraging farmers to cut their pesticide use in half by 2025 and rotate their crops to increase soil fertility.
The United States, conversely, ranked 21st overall, mainly because of policies that cultivate bad eating habits and destructive industrial farming practices. The fact that Americans consume high levels of meat, saturated fat and sugar placed the United States 24th in the nutrition category. Only Australians eat more meat than Americans, but not by much, and U.S. sugar consumption is the highest among all of countries in the study. The result? More than 40 percent of American children are overweight, the most in any of the countries surveyed.
At 31st out of 34, the U.S. ranking for sustainable agriculture is even more worrisome. Only India, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates ranked lower. The low U.S. score is attributable to a number of factors, including livestock production, which strains water resources and emits methane, and the fact that a tiny fraction of agricultural land is devoted to organic farming while nearly a quarter is used for biofuel production and animal feed.
They Make Education More Affordable
France starts children off with free, universal preschool at écoles maternelles. With 100 percent preschool enrollment for 3- to 5-year-olds, the country ranked first among developed countries in 2014, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international association.
The United States, where some states offer preschool programs from age 4 but most offer nothing at all, ranked 36th out of the 40 nations OECD surveyed. In 2015, only about a third of American 3-year-olds and 60 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Most schools of higher education in France, meanwhile, are state-subsidized, which keeps tuition relatively low, even by European standards.
In 2007, the average public university in France charged $234 per year (189 euros) for a bachelor's degree, $321 for a master's degree, $487 for a doctorate and $757 for an engineering degree. The average bachelor's degree takes three to four years, so students spend $702 to $936 for their entire undergraduate education. There are pricier options, but compared to the cost of higher education in the United States, they are still a bargain.
The United States is home to the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world, but they are also among the most expensive. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.
The high cost of a college diploma saddles American grads with debt that can dog them for much of their adult life. Currently there are more than 44 million borrowers with more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, which after home mortgages is the highest consumer debt category in the United States. For the class of 2016, the average student loan debt was $37,172.
They Treat Workers Better
The national minimum wage in France is 9.88 euros an hour, the equivalent of $12.25 an hour in the United States. The U.S. national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, although some states and municipalities now require as much as $15.
The official work week in France is 35 hours, so a French employee making minimum wage would gross the equivalent of $22,297 a year and is entitled to health care coverage, a minimum of five weeks paid vacation and 11 national holidays, as many as 90 days paid time off, and a maximum of three years of medical leave pay, which is covered by the state social security system. Maternity leave, which is at least six weeks before childbirth and 10 weeks afterward, is paid.
Most minimum wage employees in the United States working 40 hours a week gross $15,080 a year. Employers with more than 50 employees are required to offer health care benefits or pay a penalty, and most provide only two weeks paid vacation along with 10 federal holidays. Employers with 50 or more employees also are required to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity (or adoption) leave or family sick leave.
At the other end of the pay scale, U.S. CEOs make considerably more than their counterparts in other industrialized countries when compared to what average workers earn. In 2014, the ratio between CEO and average worker pay in the United States was 354 to 1, meaning that for every dollar an employee got paid, the head of the company made $354, far outpacing the 148 to 1 ratio in Switzerland, the country with the second highest pay gap. In France, the ratio was 104 to 1.
They're Downplaying the Role of Nuclear Weapons
France, which has always maintained a much smaller nuclear force than the United States, currently has a total of 300 warheads deployed on submarines and bombers. In the 1990s, it eliminated its land-based missiles and signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The United States, conversely, has some 1,590 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on submarines, bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as well as 2,390 redeployable warheads currently stored in a "hedge" stockpile, some 500 smaller deployed and stockpiled tactical (battlefield) warheads, and an estimated 2,300 retired warheads slated for dismantlement. The United States signed the CTBT the same time France did, but 22 years later, the U.S. Senate has still not ratified it.
ICBMs pose a big problem. The United States keeps them on hair-trigger alert, which dramatically increases the chance of an accidental, erroneous or unauthorized launch in response to a false alarm, a much more likely scenario than an actual attack. A number of retired generals and former high-level government officials have called for taking ICBMs off high-alert status, while others have called for scrapping them altogether. Under the Trump administration, taking ICBMs off hair-trigger alert or retiring them are highly unlikely possibilities, and the Pentagon's recently released Nuclear Posture Review lowers the threshold for nuclear use.
They Do a Better Job Protecting the Environment
Two recent studies ranked France way ahead of the United States when it comes to environmental protection. In the aforementioned Legatum Prosperity Index, France placed 4th out of the 149 nations surveyed. The United States was 34th. The second study, published annually by the Bertelsmann Foundation's Sustainable Governance Indicators program, rated U.S. environmental policies 39th out of 41 countries, mainly because of the U.S. government's inability to seriously address climate change. France, on the other hand, ranked 12th, largely because of its leadership in international climate diplomacy.
France's climate leadership is evidenced by its binding commitment as a signatory to the Paris climate agreement to reduce its domestic emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. By contrast, the Trump administration announced it was pulling out of the accord (which it cannot officially do until November 5, 2020—the day after the next presidential election) and made it clear it has no intention of honoring the U.S. national pledge.
As part of its plan to meet its Paris accord targets, the French government announced last July that it will ban the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, and French automakers are already doing their part. Peugeot, Citroën and Renault ranked first, second and fourth on a 2017 list of large car manufacturers with the lowest carbon emissions, and Renault started selling battery-powered cars in 2011.
The Trump administration, conversely, wants to weaken fuel economy standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission is now considering permitting an average fleetwide standard of 36.7 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2026, considerably less than the 46.6 mpg requirement imposed by the Obama administration with the auto industry's consent. According to an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis, such a rollback would mean cars and light trucks would emit at least a half a billion more tons of carbon pollution and consume an extra 50 billion gallons of fuel over their lifetimes.
They Hold Cleaner Elections
Unlike the U.S. system of legalized bribery, French campaign finance laws keep special interest money out of politics. French citizens can contribute as much as $5,750 (4,600 euros) to one or more candidates for a specific election, but corporations, unions and advocacy groups are not allowed to donate to political campaigns or parties. In addition, the government has placed limits on campaign expenditures pegged to the office level. Electoral campaigns are relatively brief, and national television and radio stations air political ads free of charge for all candidates during the three months preceding an election. All paid political ads during that time are prohibited. Citizens are automatically registered to vote when they reach the age of 18, and elections are held on a Sunday to make it easier for people to vote.
Restraining corporate influence in elections is one of the key reasons France outpaces the United States in many of the categories cited above. While special interests—from the gun lobby to industrial polluters to Wall Street—keep U.S. politicians on a tight leash, French elected officials are freer to represent the interests of their constituents, not the narrow interests of deep-pocketed campaign contributors and unregulated super PACs.
So, Mr. President, instead of spending as much as $50 million on parade displaying overpriced military hardware, how about trying to top some of these much more significant French accomplishments? America has proven time and time again that it can outperform the rest of the world, but history has also shown that it takes leadership to do it.
Dave Cooke, Marcia DeLonge, Joshua Goldman, Chanelle Kacy-Dunlap, Rachel Licker and David Wright provided research assistance for this essay.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer in the Communications Department at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
As we observe Presidents Day, I'm thinking about a president's role in shaping the way we grow food in the U.S., and how we eat. Quite a few of our past presidents were farmers or ranchers at some point in their lives, and some had infamous relationships with certain foods, whether cheeseburgers or jelly beans or broccoli.
But a small number of presidents spanning the history of the republic have had particular influence on our food supply and culture, and its impact on the health and well-being of all Americans, including farmers. And notably, as we're also observing Black History Month, the interventions of those past presidents in our food system have often particularly affected African Americans.
1. George Washington: First farmer, innovator and slaveholder
Whether or not young George chopped down that famous fruit free, the post-presidency Washington grew cherries, along with apples, pears, other tree fruits and a whole lot of other food at his Mount Vernon estate, which comprised five neighboring farms on 8,000 acres. An innovative farmer who kept meticulous records, Washington was an early proponent of composting for soil health, and eventually phased out tobacco (the plantation crop of his day in Virginia) in favor of a diversified seven-crop rotation system including wheat for sale, corn for domestic consumption, and fertility-enhancing legume crops. (Sounds like a good idea.)
The grim reality behind Washington's farming success, though, is that his farms were worked by slaves. A slaveowner since age 11, when he inherited ten slaves from his father, Washington bought and sold black people throughout his life (reportedly treating them severely and separating family members through sale), and 317 slaves worked on his estate at the time of his death.
The devastating legacy of racial injustice and inequality at Mount Vernon is still with us, but it is being gradually undone. The 126-acre historic Woodlawn estate—originally part of Washington's farm network—was purchased by northern Quakers prior to the Civil War, expressly to prove that you could farm profitably without slavery. Today, the site is occupied by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Agriculture, whose work includes a mobile market delivering fresh, healthy, affordable food to food-insecure neighborhoods like this one in the Washington DC area.
2. Thomas Jefferson: Experimentation, failure, and a legacy of slave-centered agriculture
The third president has been called America's "first foodie" for his love of the table, and of French cuisine in particular. He ate a lot of vegetables, and introduced many new ones to the United States. On his Monticello estate, Jefferson introduced and experimented with a vast variety of food crops, including 330 varieties of 89 species of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of the fruits. An avid experimenter, Jefferson's trials often resulted in failure, leading neighbors to call him "the worst farmer in Virginia." But in truth he promoted techniques to build soil health through adding organic matter, and by sharing seeds and techniques widely, he promoted commercial market gardening and spread new crops that expanded the young nation's food traditions and palate.
Perhaps even more than Washington, Jefferson's legacy is marred by the stain of his complicity in slavery, and his racial views. He embodied the inherent social contradictions at the birth of this nation that we have yet to resolve, by denouncing the institution of slavery while simultaneously profiting from it—he owned some 600 slaves who worked on his Monticello farm and other holdings, employed brutal overseers, and fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings through a relationship that, by definition, could not have been consensual. His goal of "improving" slavery as a step towards ending was misguided, as it was used during his time as an argument for its perpetuation.
3. Abraham Lincoln: The USDA and the land-grant college system
Born in that legendary log cabin on his father's farm in Kentucky, Lincoln was, as he put it, "raised to farm work." His father farmed frontier land in southern Indiana before moving the family to Illinois, where Abe later got his political start in the state legislature. A believer in technological progress in agriculture, Lincoln advocated for horse-drawn machines and steam plows to take the place of hand labor. As president, he advocated for and signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he later called "The People's Department," since about half of all Americans at the time lived on farms. And Lincoln's early belief in the value of educating farmers came to fruition in 1862 when he signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which facilitated the transfer of public land to each of the states to establish colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts.
Lincoln fought a war over slavery (perhaps we're finally coming to agreement on that point?), issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and submitted the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery to the states for ratification just a few month before his violent death in 1865. But it would be another quarter century before freed slaves in the former Confederate states would get the benefit of a land-grant education Lincoln envisioned. A second Morrill Act in 1890 required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion for its land-grant colleges, or else to designate a separate institution for students of color. (See some of the achievements of some of the institutions known as 1890 schools here.)
4. Theodore Roosevelt: Cattle ranching and conservation
Teddy Roosevelt's is known as one of the nation's great conservationists, but that legacy was born out of a series of calamities. On a hunting trip in the Dakota Territory in 1883, the passionate outdoorsman discovered that native bison herds had been decimated by commercial hunters. Cattle ranching on the region's vast grasslands was booming in bison's wake, and he became interested in the cattle business, investing $14,000 (a huge sum at the time) in a ranch. Returning to politics in New York, Roosevelt was struck by tragedy with the death of both his mother and his wife on the same day in 1884, and he turned to the West and the ranching life to forget. But cattle in the Badlands at the time was itself a looming disaster: a boom with no regulation quickly led to massive overgrazing, and a scorching summer followed by a harsh winter in 1886-87 proved deadly. Tens of thousands of cattle, about 80 percent of the region's herds, froze and starved to death in a blizzard. Roosevelt himself lost over half his herd, and soon got out of the business.
But his experience with agricultural disaster helped shape the future president's views on the importance of conservation and led to an inspiring conservation legacy. Using his presidential authority, Roosevelt gave federal protection to more than 230 million acres of public land, creating the National Forest Service (now part of the USDA) and five national parks, and setting aside 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, and four national game preserves. In his words in 1908: "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation." (Nah, that couldn't happen, could it?)
5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Dust Bowl and soil conservation
In the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, FDR inherited economic and ecological catastrophes that hit farmers particularly hard. The Dust Bowl was caused by massive-scale plowing up of grasslands (the Great Plow-Up of the 1910s and 20s) followed by four distinct drought events in the 1930s. It scorched the Plains and literally blew away its soil, leaving millions of acres of farmland useless, driving farmers into bankruptcy and off the land, and worsening the banking and unemployment crises.
An amateur forester, Roosevelt understood the importance of soil conservation, and soon after taking office he established the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Erosion Service. The latter (now the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service) was the first major federal conservation effort to focus on privately owned natural resources. FDR also launched the Plains Shelterbelt Project effort that planted millions of trees, creating windbreaks (now at risk) on farms from the Canadian border to Texas. And he initiated farm policies to help farmers manage future boom-and-bust cycles by preventing overproduction. The Agricultural Adjustment Act enacted on his watch would grow into today's wide-ranging Farm Bill, which still struggles with how to deal with overproduction while providing livelihood for the nation's farmers and conserving soil and water.
6. Richard Nixon: Turning farming into big business
Nixon was a contradiction. Scholars continue to dissect his deep character flaws and divisiveness, but also his achievements. Among the latter, he created the EPA and signed the National Environmental Policy Act (both of which, one hopes, will survive the current administration's manyassaults), and he made dozens of other environmental proposals.
But his lasting legacy in agriculture continues to haunt us. That's because Nixon gave his blessing to his agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, to essentially undo decades of FDR's supply management policy. The Nixon years would be all about maximizing and consolidating farm production. "Get big or get out," Butz told farmers in 1973, and boy, did they. His policies encouraged farmers to plant as much corn and other commodities as they could, on every possible bit of land. Today, one might argue, we have Nixon and Butz to thank for persistent fertilizer pollution in our nation's waterways, for high-fructose corn syrup and the power and deception of the food industry, and for our enduring crisis of obesity and diet-related disease. See the full story of Secretary Butz, entertainingly told by Tom Philpott back in 2008, here. And read Butz's obit, which recounts how a nasty racist comment ended his political career.
7. George W. Bush: Justice for black farmers denied
While George W. Bush spent a lot of his presidency clearing brush on his Texas ranch, he wasn't particularly known for his agriculture policy. But during his administration, a long-simmering dispute between the USDA and black farmers came to a head. The background: in 1997 a group of black farmers sued the USDA, citing years of racial discrimination by the department, which denied black producers loans and other assistance and failed to act on their claims for years. The farmers prevailed in 1999, winning a $2.3 billion settlement from the government, the biggest in civil rights history. But there were limitations on who could collect under the Pigford settlement (named for lead plaintiff Timothy Pigford, a black corn and soybean farmer from North Carolina), and what kinds of documentation they would need to provide.
Under W's watch, many of the 22,000 farmers who had joined the Pigford suit were denied payment; by one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought damages were denied. And the Bush Department of Justice, representing the USDA, reportedly spent 56,000 office hours and $12 million contesting farmers' claims. Many farmers believed their claims were rejected on technicalities.
8. Barack Obama: Justice and healthy food, served
Much of the Obama food and farming legacy (which is hers as much as his) is well known: the now permanent White House kitchen garden (which, incidentally, includes a section honoring Thomas Jefferson with favorite varieties from his own garden at Monticello) along with the (possibly less permanent) improvements to school meals that resulted from the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act they championed, and the Let's Move! campaign. The USDA under the Obama administration also made other efforts to improve our nation's food system by promoting local and regional farm economies, increasing agricultural research, and strengthening federal dietary guidelines.
He also fixed a lingering problem with the Pigford discrimination settlement described above. Failure to effectively notify and communicate with black farmers eligible for payout under the 1999 settlement meant that many farmers were left out. Obama's Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder advocated for a fix, and in 2010, the administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement of the so-called "Pigford II" claims.
And now what?
These eight former presidents have made their mark on U.S. agriculture and food, delivering both progress and setbacks. Bottom line this Presidents Day? We still have a lot of work to do to achieve a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in this country.
Next time I'll look at what happens when the occupant of the White House is not only not a farmer, but seems puzzlingly (if not cynically) indifferent to farmers' concern. And when, instead of a healthy food advocate, he's an unabashed proponent of the same processed and fast foods that are damaging the health—and even shortening the lives—of our nation's children.
Karen Perry Stillerman is a senior communication strategist and senior analyst in the Food & Environment Program at Union of Concerned Scientists.
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.