Sheldon Whitehouse and Ted Lieu Demonstrate Superior Climate Change Activism

Subtitle: Politicians School Scientists In How To Do It

Alternative Title: Where were Bernie and Hillary????

You need to know right away that the Lede to this story is buried way the hell down the page.

That’s OK, though, because others are covering this, and the point of my missive is to put the current situation into a somewhat larger context. Ultimately, the point I want to make is this: Even when a problem is mired in deeply entrenched corporate interests, small groups of tenacious heroes can make the world measurably better, and there is such a thing happening right now in the interaction between scientists, one of the world’s largest scientific organizations, one of the world’s largest energy companies, and a handful of elected officials who are doing the right thing.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

-jfk

A handful of citizens recognize some sort of economic or social injustice involving a corporation. They organize on their own time (they have day jobs) to fight the injustice, and have some success.

A handful of employees of those businesses, or trade organizations that are funded by those businesses, are in charge of public relations and lobbying. They fight the citizens on both fronts, but the citizens were too well organized and the citizen efforts took them by surprise.

The citizens go home at the end of the day, have a party to celebrate their victory, and go back to their day jobs.

The public relations and lobbying employees go home at the end of the day, play with their kids and binge-watch something on Netflix. Then, they also go back to their day jobs. The thing is, their day jobs are to make sure that nothing like this happens again. And, if they can eventually undo the citizens’ group’s success, and maybe even push back a step or two, they get to keep those day jobs.

While the citizens are busy being librarians, sales people, school teachers, and union electricians, the public relations and lobbying employees are busy making sure that the next time a group of citizens comes out of nowhere to effect change, they won’t be able to. It may take a bit of time, but laws will be passed, regulations adjusted, and details of the the inner workings of the corporations and the think tanks and trade organizations that they fund will be updated.

If you’ve ever spent any time in a coffee house in an iffy neighborhood, you know about this problem, because at some point (this may have been more true back a few decades) you were approached by a young man or woman, or even a couple, carrying a clip board and a short stack of tabloid format newspapers. You had a conversation, and you and this person found yourselves in nearly complete agreement on all the issues: education, workers’ rights, health care, military spending, voting rights, women’s rights, social justice, and all of it.

But then the conversation takes an unexpected turn. The person you are talking to points out that every time the people (and you and this person are the people, as are the citizens in the story I related above) manage one step forward, pull off some sort of success, put into effect a small but meaningful incremental change, the corporations and their allies in government change the system to make sure that doesn’t ever happen again. And, for a bonus, they anticipate the next one or two possible incremental changes and make sure they don’t happen either. One step forward, two steps backwards.

Actually, that is not the unexpected turn in the conversation. You actually were already thinking that before the person in the coffee shop mentioned it. Once you think about how things actually work, you realize that incremental change is often the product of temporary and short term efforts by people otherwise involved in other things, but the efforts to stop such change is the product of well trained, richly resourced, and highly effective experts with full time employment with the job description of stopping future incremental change that is not in the interest of the corporation.

Then, the truly unexpected part of the conversation happens. The guy in the coffee shop makes the observation that incremental change will not only always ultimately fail, but it will generally strengthen the establishment and make future change increasingly difficult, so the only way to effect real change is to totally overthrow the government and their corporate overlords.

The only way to make the world work for regular people is a full scale bloody revolution.

The scary part of this conversation is that for a moment it makes total sense to you.

You realize that your new friend in the coffee shop, who by the way has the clip board out and is trying to sell you a subscription to Socialist Worker Monthly, is right. For a moment you imagine yourself wearing all black, with a beret, meeting in the basement of the pet shop down the street, learning how to make bombs or disassemble and reassemble an assault rifle. If you are a young straight unattached male and the guy in the coffee shop is an attractive girl, you may be liable to actually join the revolution for a few months.

But, most likely, that fantasy of overthrowing the government will be soon replaced with memories of some of your history lessons and Wikipedia readings. You’ll realize that these violent revolutions generally take decades, everybody dies, and the scenario, with the establishment cronies managing the opposition, also works at a much larger scale. For example, huge proto-corporate (and Royal) interests manipulated the government and military to maintain the lucrative Triangle Trade in the 18th century, with the American Colonists getting screwed on taxes and expected to be grunts in their colonial wars. The American Revolution put an end to that. But today, Big Energy, Big Ag, Big Pharm and all the rest are capable of pulling the strings of the government marionettes, exploiting the post-Revolutionary free American workers to do their bidding. In the words of Bono, F*ck the revolution.

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”

-Desmond Tutu

Sounds pretty bad. Like there is no hope.

Hope does come along now and then, though. Bernie Sanders was hope for a lot of people, who saw his possible presidency as a full on revolution that would totally change the system, and contrasted that with a Clinton presidency, focused on incremental change.

But Sanders would have been one person, in one of the three equally powerful parts of our government, against 535 members of Congress whose careers require funding from the established corporations. And he’s not going to win anyway. So maybe we need to make the best of incremental change.

“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

-The lede of this post

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is one of the largest scientific organizations in the world. The AGU runs an annual meeting as well as a number of other programs that cost money, and there are many sponsors. One of those sponsors is ExxonMobil. This makes sense, because ExxonMobil, and other petroleum companies, rely on the science practiced by many member of the AGU. Not only does it make sense, but it is right and just that major corporations that benefit from a particular area of science spend money on that science. That expenditure can take many forms, including having well funded research laboratories staffed by excellent scientists within the corporation, supplying grants to scientists working at universities or think tanks, and pitching in with the AGU to help fund their conference.

But, remember those full time employees who were briefly bested by that organized group of citizens? Well, ExxonMobil has that. They have people who are focuses on managing their corporate interests at many levels. And, it recently became apparent that the excellent scientists who worked in the ExxonMobil (the name of the corporation was different then) decades ago had discovered, verified, and documented the important fact that Big Oil’s corporate activities would ultimately lead to catastrophic change in the planet’s environment because of the release of previously trapped carbon, though the burning of oil and gas (and coal as well).

Decisions were made to suppress that research. This is a little like a company making an unsafe car seat keeping their own research indicating this danger under wraps. But it is different from that example because car seats are inherently a safety device. So it is a little more like producing a profitable kind of food that has a serious, but hidden, health effect.

But really, those analogies are weak and, frankly, not needed. What it is like is producing the energy that runs our society and economy and knowing full well that using this form of energy to do so many things will, itself, be a civilization ending enterprise, while at the same time being aware that there are alternatives. But, those alternatives are the business interest of other corporations. So you keep that information under wraps.

The suppression of this important research became known just recently, and a highly specialized set of citizens – scientist associated with the American Geophysical Union – agitated to get the AGU to stop taking funding from ExxonMobil.

The higher ups in the AGU considered this possibility, and eventually decided that “it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently, either directly or indirectly.”

A lot of people saw that as a ridiculous justification for a bad decision. Some might even figure that the previous acts of an earlier incarnation of this giant corporation would be sufficient for the AGU to refuse future sponsorship. But, one could argue that they were bad guys back then but now are good guys, so, well, the AGU needs the money anyway, so why not forgive and forget and get on with it?

Graham Readfearn at Desmog now tells us that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and House Representative Ted Lieu, have written a letter to the AGU explaining how ExxonMobil has pulled the wool over the AGU’s eyes, causing us to take a step or two backwards with this decision to continue receiving funds.

The letter is to AGU president Margaret Leinen (quoted above) and expresses disappointment with the AGU’s decision.

Here’s the key fact. The AGU has a policy to not accept funding from entities that spend money to promote science disinformation. The AGU had determined that they could not unequivocally know if ExxonMobil was doing so. Part of the reason the AGU determined this is because ExxonMobil told them that they were not funding science misinformation.

The letter from Senator Whitehouse and Representative Lieu states:

EM gave money as recently as 2014 to several organizations that cast doubt on climate change, so we are surprised at AGU’s conclusion. According to EM’s most recent Worldwide Giving and Community Investments report, in 2014, EM funded several organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science, including:

  • American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ($61,500): ALEC has promoted model legislation with a finding that human-induced global warming “may lead to deleterious, neutral, or possibly beneficial climatic changes.”[1]
  • Hoover Institution ($50,000 to its Arctic Security Initiative): Hoover Senior Fellow Terry Anderson, who is not a climate scientist, argued that climate data since 1880 supports a conclusion that it would take as long as 500 years to reach 4 °C of global warming.[2]
  • Manhattan Institute of Policy Research ($100,000 to its Center for Energy Policy): Institute Senior Fellow Robert Bryce stated, “The science is not settled, not by a long shot…. If serious scientists [at the European Organization for Nuclear Research] can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere. Furthermore, even if we accept that carbon dioxide is bad, it’s not clear exactly what we should do about it.”[3]
  • National Black Chamber of Commerce ($75,000): Chamber President and CEO Harry Alford stated, “[NOAA and NASA] have reported that there has been no global warming detected for the last 18 years. That is over 216 months in a row that there has been no detected global warming…. Scientists, as well as NOAA and NASA, call this state of no warming a ‘Global Pause.’ How long it will last no one predicts. For all we know it may last another 20 years or even forever.”[4]
  • Pacific Legal Foundation ($10,000): A senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation attacked EPA’s authority to regulate CO2 because it is a “ubiquitous natural substance essential to life on Earth.”[5]

We have seen no evidence to indicate EM’s behavior has changed since 2014.

You can read the entire letter here.

“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

- Francis Bacon

This is obviously a significant development, with respect to the AGU, climate scientists, and all that. But this breaking new story has led me to think about four related but rather extended points.

First, Senator Whitehouse and Representative Lieu are true climate hawks, with records of congressional action on climate change. They are rare birds, too rare. It is not common to be fully active on climate change and have a job in the United States Congress. We need to appreciate their efforts and demand that others join them.

Second, the work done here by these two elected officials should have been done by the AGU. The AGU made weak decision, favoring the financially beneficial status quo and justifying this by not doing the research that was needed. The AGU had its eyes closed, and it is hard to imagine how that could not have been on purpose.

Third, and perhaps tangential to the current issue, but perhaps not: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders didn’t do what Whitehouse and Lieu did. I’m sure it is unfair to accuse them of negligence by not having picked up on this particular story, going after ExxonMobil and correcting the AGU. But think about this for a second. If either one of them had done this – if either’s campaign staff had figured this out and developed a public statement by the candidate that looked a lot like the Whitehouse-Lieu letter – their climate change stock would have gone through the roof, and they would have done something that could actually make a difference.

I don’t fault either of these Democrat’s campaign for failing to do this one specific thing. That would be asking too much. But the fact is that neither candidate has done anything like this during the current primary season, or ever in their previous career. A Sanders supporter might point to Sanders’ prior work on climate change legislation, but it must be understood that Sanders supports a reduction to 80% reliance on non fossil carbon fuel by 2050, which is too little too late. That has been his position for several years, and it is out of date and widely recognized as inadequate, especially following the post-Paris reorientation to a 1.5 degree limit.

A president Donald Trump would probably burn fossil fuel on purpose to piss off the hippies. Either Sanders or Clinton would be a thousand times better. But that stark difference should not lead us to accept mediocracy in our leaders in the issue of climate change.

So the fourth point is this, and it is not about the AGU, but inspired by these recent developments. There are climate hawks in Congress, but only a few, and none of them are running for president. In choosing between Sanders and Clinton to determine which one might have the best climate change policy, it is easy to decide that one of them (or even both of them) have a good policy. But the truth is, neither candidate is where we need them to be on climate change. Both candidates have strong points, and different strong points, backed up by detailed policy positions and enhanced by histories of legislation or activism of one sort or another. And when we list those strong points, we do not find climate change policy among them.

I reject all efforts to compare Sanders and Clinton on climate change, at this point in the primary process, for two reasons.

First, Clinton will be the nominee, based on math. So the comparison is moot. Second, the Democratic Party did not put forth a sustained climate change savvy candidate for us to choose. So, we can’t like what we have now, we can not be satisfied. We have to hold the candidate’s feet to the fire, push, cajole, insist, vigorously engage.

The scientists who asked, in a letter, the AGU to cut ties with ExxonMobil tried to take a step foreword. The AGU caused us to take a step backwards. Let’s help Whitehouse and Lieu push us two steps forward, one against ExoonMobile (by helping the AGU to make the right decision) and one in the current presidential race, by demanding better of our candidates.

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Good article, Greg. Pretty much my feelings on the subject, too. My only real beef, and it's a nitpick, really... is that you managed to spell ExxonMobil wrong in almost every place in the article (except for an AGU quote, of course), and in several different variations.

But maybe it's because you also have it spelled wrong as a keyword, and can't fix it because of that? ;-)

By metzomagic (not verified) on 12 May 2016 #permalink

Maybe I was writing about a little known obscure company with a similar name????

Anyway, yes, my fingers are like a bad version of autocorrect. Speling fixed.

Exoonmobile must be Dutch/French ... and I loved mediocracy. The other thing about violent revolutions is that the revolutionaries are often worse rulers than the ones they overthrow. And if they aren't, they get overthrown, too.

"Sanders supports a reduction to 80% reliance on fossil carbon by 2050, which is too little too late".

A commonly expressed target is reduction BY 80% or TO 20% reliance by 2050. 80% reduction by 2050 is potentially in line with a 2 C peak warming, given some post-2050 sequestration, and is probably close to the best we can hope for anymore.

My understanding is that this is the position Sanders had taken. But I have not looked closely, as the current election is hard for me to even think about and I've been avoiding most of it outside TX-21.

Could you verify whether it is TO 80% or BY 80%?

(By the way, everybody please support the fellow who is running against Lamar Smith here in TX-21, Tom Wakely, who is definitely a climate hawk. See more at http://www.wakely2016.com)

Also, good iodea on Wakely, I sent a modest donation a few weeks back.

First, a small thing, but ExxonMobil is spelled ExxonMobile ten times in this post, and once as ExoonMobile. Could this be fixed?

Second, I expressed my displeasure with the AGU before it reached its wishy-washy decision. I think I'll send them another email now.

Third, one thing about corporations, large and small, is that they have their own internal conflicts, disorganization and inefficiencies however they may look from the outside, and they have to balance actions and tactics with respect to a wide range of disparate actors, ranging from national and subnational governments and their agencies, to competitors, customers and even their own shareholders and employees as well as the citizenry of the countries in which they operate.

While the U.S. may be an exception among Western democracies (and Citizens United didn't help), to portray corporations as near-unstoppable juggernauts would be a major error.

metzomagic pointed out the Exxon misspellings while I was writing my long run-on sentence/third paragraph. I'll try it again.

One thing about corporations, large and small, is that they have their own internal conflicts, disorganization and inefficiencies however monolithic they may look from the outside. They also have to balance actions and tactics giving consideration to a wide range of disparate actors: national and subnational governments and their agencies, competitors, customers and even their own shareholders and employees in addition to the citizenry of the countries in which they operate.

The Great Climate Change Bamboozle
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
H. L. Mencken

Earth’s carbon cycle contains 46,713 Gt (E15 gr) +/- 850 GT of stores and reservoirs with a couple hundred fluxes Gt/y +/- ?? ebbing and flowing between those reservoirs. Mankind’s gross contribution over 260 years was 555 Gt or 1.2%. (IPCC AR5 Fig 6.1) Mankind’s net contribution, 240 Gt or 0.53%, (dry labbed by IPCC to make the numbers work) to this bubbling, churning caldron of carbon/carbon dioxide is 4 Gt/y +/- 96%. (IPCC AR5 Table 6.1) Seems relatively trivial to me. IPCC et. al. says natural variations can’t explain the increase in CO2. With these tiny percentages and high levels of uncertainty how would anybody even know?
Mankind’s alleged atmospheric CO2 power flux (watt is power, energy over time) increase between 1750 and 2011, 260 years, was 2 W/m^2 of radiative forcing. (IPCC AR5 Fig SPM.5) Incoming solar RF is 340 W/m^2, albedo RF reflects 100 W/m^2 +/- 30 (can’t be part of the 333), 160 W/m^2 reaches the surface (can’t be part of the 333), latent heat RF from the water cycle’s evaporation is 88 W/m2 +/- 8. Mankind’s 2 W/m^2 contribution is obviously trivial, lost in the natural fluctuations.
One popular GHE theory power flux balance (“Atmospheric Moisture…. Trenberth et. al. 2011 Figure 10) has a spontaneous perpetual loop (333 W/m^2) flowing from cold to hot violating three fundamental thermodynamic laws. (1. Spontaneous energy out of nowhere, 2) perpetual loop w/o work, 3) cold to hot w/o work, 4) doesn’t matter because what’s in the system stays in the system) Physics must be optional for “climate” science. What really counts is the net RF balance at ToA which 7 out of 8 re-analyses considered by the above cited paper concluded the atmosphere was cooling, not warming. Of course Trenberth says they are wrong because their results are not confirmed by the predicted warming, which hasn’t happened for twenty years.
Every year the pause/hiatus/lull/stasis continues (IPCC AR5 Box TS.3) IPCC’s atmospheric and ocean general circulation models diverge further from reality.
As Carl Sagan observed, we have been bamboozled, hustled, conned by those wishing to steal our money and rob us of our liberties. Hardly a new agenda.
BTW I have a BSME same as Bill Nye so I’m as much a scientist as he is.

By Nick Schroeder… (not verified) on 13 May 2016 #permalink

Both Sanders and Clinton have strong points on climate change, but the question is will they actually deliver on their promises once elected. As for Trump, he actually refers to Climate change as a made up hoax! The Republican presidential front-runner repeatedly has said he isn’t “a believer” that humans have played a significant role in the Earth’s changing climate. http://o-vegas.com/news/global-warming/

The Great Nick Schroeder Bamboozle...

As real scientists have observed, we have been bamboozled, hustled, conned by those like Nick, wishing to steal our money and rob us of our liberties. Hardly a new agenda.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 15 May 2016 #permalink