The Wall Street Journal, Climate Change Denial and the Galileo Gambit
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.
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.
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.
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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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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