It’s been amazing to have the opportunity to explore the complexities of the the American political system, and other political systems around the globe. I’ve never been one to naturally want to try and unpack the nuances of American government, politics, and citizenship, as I’ve always been a bit bored with those subjects in general. However, despite my bias, I’ve come out of GPC with a new found and persistent curiosity about government, politics, and citizenship in America. I’ve come to the realization that if I were to simply ignore the importance of my own country’s government and politics, I’d in turn be ignoring the importance of my own citizenship as an American. As I’m coming into my adulthood, and will be able to vote, I’m developing a budding sense of hope about my own power for good in politics. On the other hand, I’m still a bit apathetic and jaded about the importance of my vote, because of the other elements that majorly influence politics, like money, and um… well, money.
In my marine ecology class this year, I was given the opportunity to thoroughly research the issue of climate change, and as a result, dug a little deeper into what causes climate change denial in American politics. At the surface, climate change denial seems be the silly ideology of a few illogical Republicans and tin foil hat wearers, when in reality, it’s a calculated response by the giant fossil fuel dependent corporations that have their hands deeply rooted in the pockets of our politicians. Climate change denial in American politics is a perfect case to study, as it easily uncovers how true American democracy is continuously compromised by large sums of money.
Considering the fact that climate change is a phenomenon that is almost wholly driven by economic forces, it’s inherently a highly politicized issue, primarily by the major energy companies that profit off of the exploitation of fossil fuels. These major energy companies understand that policies that limit greenhouse gas emissions will hurt their bottom line. They also understand that manufacturing illusory uncertainty within the climate science community will cause uncertainty among voters and politicians, and ultimately result in political stagnation regarding the issue as a whole (Gore, 2006).
Climate change disinformation has been spread by a variety of different sources, from a handful of “credible” scientists, to a few U.S. state representatives, all the way up to the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality (Bush-Cheney Administration) (nytimes.com, 2015). The prevalence of this disinformation raises a few questions:
- Which specific companies are responsible for funding climate change denial campaigns?
- Specifically, how are these companies disseminating climate change disinformation?
- What can we do to stop it?
Regarding the first question raised (Which specific companies are responsible for funding climate change denial campaigns?), it’s difficult to pinpoint specific companies that have funded climate change denial campaigns, as it would be bad for business to broadcast a company’s habit of deceiving the public. To fund climate change denial campaigns, companies and billionaires with vested interests, utilize trusts like Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund to donate millions of dollars anonymously. The purpose of the Donors Trust, and the Donors Capital Fund, is to allocate the funds of donors toward a variety of conservative causes, however, it was observed in an analysis by Greenpeace, that in 2010, 46% (approx. $30m) of the two trust’s grants were channeled to “a host of conservative organizations opposing climate action or science.” It’s also worth noting that between 2002 and 2010, donors had used the two trusts to anonymously channel “nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change” (Goldenberg, 2013).
With regard to the second question raised (Specifically, how are these companies disseminating climate change disinformation?), it’s important to restate that climate change disinformation has been spread by a variety of different sources, from a handful of “credible” scientists, to a few U.S. state representatives, all the way up to the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality (Bush-Cheney Administration) (nytimes.com, 2015). As stated earlier, major energy companies will often fund heavily biased climate change research, to fabricate scientific uncertainty, and ultimately, to further their goal of causing political stagnation regarding climate change reform.
A great example of a climate scientist who has been majorly funded by prominent energy corporations, and frequently cited by climate change denial interest groups, is Willie (Wei-Hock Soon), a part-time scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Although Dr. Soon has a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering, and minimal formal training in climate science, his research is often cited by climate change deniers like the notorious U.S. Senator James M. Inhofe, “an Oklahoma Republican who claims that climate change is a global scientific hoax.” This year, documents were uncovered and published by Greenpeace (an environmentalist group) which prove that Dr. Soon “has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers.” Sources of Dr. Soon’s research funds include: Exxon Mobil, American Petroleum Institute, Southern Company Services, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and Donors Trust. Unsurprisingly, all sources named have highly vested interests in the fossil fuel industry (Gillis & Schwartz, 2015).
As disheartening as it may be, other major sources of climate change disinformation include the likes of Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (Mann, 2015), as well as Philip Cooney, the former chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality under the Bush-Cheney Administration (Revkin, 2005).
One would expect the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to be quite well informed on the topic climate change, however, that is not the case, as Lamar Smith “has long disputed the overwhelming scientific evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are changing the climate.” In October of 2015, “Mr. Smith issued a subpoena to Kathryn D. Sullivan, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, demanding all internal notes, emails and correspondence concerning a study its scientists published in the journal Science.” It’s safe to assume that Mr. Smith’s laughable demands were provoked by the study’s conclusion that the “rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as or faster than what was seen during the latter half of the 20th century,” a conclusion that is in direct contrast to “the claim, seized upon by climate-change deniers like Mr. Smith, that there has been a slowdown in the rate of global warming in recent years.” NOAA has rejected to comply with these demands, noting that “the confidentiality of communications between scientists is ‘essential to frank discourse.” Mr. Smith’s demands have yet to be opposed by his Republican peers (Mann, 2015).
A less recent, yet exceedingly troublesome example of climate change disinformation in U.S. politics, is George Bush’s decision (made in 2001) to appoint Philip Cooney as the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. To be clear, Philip Cooney, a former lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, and lawyer with a bachelor’s degree in economics, was appointed by the president of the United States of America to edit and censor all government headed research regarding climate change (Revkin, 2005). ‘Nuff said.
Finally, in the face of all of the discouraging information put forth, what can we do to stop the unrelenting stream of climate change disinformation, and political corruption? Well, in terms of just flat out stopping these companies and individuals from investing their large sums of money as they please, we can’t do much. However, there are plenty of other effective methods that we can employ to undermine climate deception tactics, and to work toward making our government and planet healthy again. Some major steps that we can take to build a brighter future include: always critically evaluating the sources of information regarding climate change, taking small yet consistent steps to reduce our individual carbon footprints, speaking out against climate injustice, speaking out against corporate deception tactics, taking responsibility of our own actions, and constantly challenging our idea of what really is necessary.
Gillis, J., & Schwartz, J. (2015, February 21). Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/us/ties-to-corporate-cash-for-climate-change-researcher-Wei-Hock-Soon.html
Goldenberg, S. (2013, February 14). Secret funding helped build vast network of climate denial thinktanks. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/feb/14/funding-climate-change-denial-thinktanks-network
Gore, A. (2006). An inconvenient truth: The planetary emergency of global warming and what we can do about it (pp. 260-287). New York, New York: Rodale Press.
Mann, M. (2015, December 8). The Assault on Climate Science. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/08/opinion/the-assault-on-climate-science.html
Revkin, A. (2005, June 8). Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/08/politics/bush-aide-softened-greenhouse-gas-links-to-global-warming.html?_r=0