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The Wall Street Journal, Climate Change Denial and the Galileo Gambit

Climate

Fossil fuel companies have been misleading the public and policymakers about the risks of their products for decades. These corporations should obviously be held accountable.

It's odd that we aren't able to discuss this straightforwardly. After all, accountability is common for other industries. When companies mislead the public about the health effects of the drugs they market, for instance, we hold them accountable.

ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies chose to suppress what its own scientists knew. From 1979 to 1983, the American Petroleum Institute operated a scientific task force to study climate change. According to a researcher who worked on the project, it was taken out of scientists' hands and quickly buried—and forgotten—until reporters rediscovered it just last year.

Similarly, when asbestos manufacturers misled the public about the cancers their product caused, they were held accountable. When Enron misled its customers and shareholders, it was held accountable. And when we learned that Volkswagen cheated consumers by secretly embedding an emissions control "kill switch" in it's diesel vehicles, citizens and government officials swung into action to hold the company accountable.

Most significantly, when we discovered that the tobacco industry hid information about the addictive nature and deadly toll of cigarettes and systematically engaged in a decades-long campaign to misinform the public, we held the industry accountable.

Given this history, let's be clear about what we now know regarding the fossil fuel industry's history of deception on climate change.

As early as the late 1970s, executives at fossil fuel companies were well aware that burning oil, gas and coal could cause irreversible and dangerous climate change. Indeed, as early as 1981, ExxonMobil was weighing whether or not to develop carbon-intense gas reserves off the coast of Indonesia because of the climate risks associated with the project.

ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies chose, however, to suppress what its own scientists knew. From 1979 to 1983, the American Petroleum Institute operated a scientific task force to study climate change. According to a researcher who worked on the project, it was taken out of scientists' hands and quickly buried—and forgotten—until reporters rediscovered it just last year.

Public agencies and university scientists were also tracking climate change around this same, of course, and the first high-profile climate hearings in the U.S. Congress occurred around 1988. That's when fossil fuel industry lobbyists and executives started pouring more money into front groups and advocacy campaigns aimed at spreading doubt about climate science and blocking action to reduce emissions.

Leonard Bernstein, an ExxonMobil scientist who advised one of the industry's public policy groups in the mid-1990s attempted to set the companies straight on climate science. He was rebuffed.

Despite executives' claims to the contrary, many oil and coal companies continue to support groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which spreads misinformation about climate science to state legislators, but denies that it denies climate science. And in the past few months, we've learned that now-bankrupt coal giant Alpha Natural Resources was funding a lawyer who has carved out a niche for harassing climate scientists.

If any other industry took such drastic steps to hide obvious risks from its products, would they find such ready defenders in the editorial pages of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal (WSJ)?.

Consider in this regard the deeply deceptive recent WSJ op-ed by David B. Rivkin Jr., who writes for the National Review and is a principal attorney in the fossil fuel industry attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency clean power plan, and Andrew M. Grossman, who represents the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), an organization with long-established ties to both the fossil fuel industry and the tobacco industry before it, including its ongoing affiliation with Chris Horner, the very lawyer Alpha was funding to attack climate scientists.

The main defense Rivkin and Grossman muster in the face of calls to hold companies accountable for funding deceptive campaigns about their products is that under the First Amendment, the government cannot prevent them or the groups they work with from speaking out.

No doubt. But when state and U.S. prosecutors successfully sued the tobacco companies for systematically misleading the public about the risks their products caused, no one's free speech rights were infringed. Instead, tobacco companies agreed to pay states for health care costs associated with their products, just as Volkswagen will have to pay its customers and other people who suffered from its deceptions.

The fossil fuel industry can and should be held accountable in the same way. And indeed, thousands of Americans are calling on state attorneys general and the Department of Justice to act.

Rivkin and Grossman also peddle falsehoods about me specifically. For example, they launder a popular myth in climate change denier circles that the famous "Hockey Stick" curve which my co-authors and I published sixteen years ago is "an artifact of [our] statistical methods." The claim is flatly untrue.

Our key finding, that the recent warming trend is unprecedented over at least the past 1,000 years, has not only been overwhelmingly affirmed by more than a dozen subsequent studies, but has been vastly strengthened. There is now widespread consensus in the scientific community that recent warmth is unprecedented over an even longer time frame (for the full story behind fossil fuel industry-funded attacks on me and the hockey stick, read my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars).

Perhaps more to the point, Rivkin and Grossman completely mislead readers about why CEI and the National Review are being sued by me. The lawsuit is not about their political stances or even their feelings or beliefs about climate policy or climate science. It focuses instead on their clients false, defamatory and libelous accusations that my work is fraudulent.

Indeed, given their affiliations with groups that have regularly attacked climate scientists, it's quite galling to see Rivkin and Grossman compare themselves to Galileo Galilei, the famous Italian scientist who bravely insisted that the Earth orbited the Sun and not the other way around. Such ironic attempts by climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and other science critics to usurp the mantle of legitimate scientific skepticism is so commonplace it has a name—the Galileo Gambit.

So let's be clear about the facts: Galileo had the courage to speak truth to the powerful interests of his day in the Roman Catholic Church, just as two generations of scientists have tried to speak truth about climate change to executives and lobbyists in the fossil fuel industry.

The Catholic Church declared Galileo a heretic and placed him under house arrest. Oil industry lobbyists don't have that kind of power, thankfully, so they merely suppressed internal climate research and started funding groups like CEI to publicly attack independent climate researchers, instead.

If he were alive today, Galileo would be appalled to witness industry shills attempt to wrap themselves in his legacy. He would not be on the side of powerful fossil fuel interests who fund attacks on scientific research; perhaps this time, ironically, he would be on the side of his Pope and the scientists whose council he regularly seeks, who respect facts and evidence and recognize the reality we live in for what it is.

Michael Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines and the recently updated and expanded Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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