Sunday, July 12, 2015

Face Palms and the Four Horsemen of Climate Change Denial

By Bob Ferris

Caïn by Henri Vidal, Tuileries Garden, Paris, 1896.
Face palming has been with us a long, long time as one of the ultimate exhibitions of frustration.  Tell someone something a dozen or so times and your palm and forehead are likely to connect.  My palm is approaching my forehead as I look at outlet after outlet expressing outrage because Exxon-Mobil or other oil companies knew about the dangers of carbon emissions and elected to lie about climate change (1,2,3). 

While I am happy that this thread about oil companies lying about climate change for 30 years is making the rounds and people are beside themselves, it is not really “news” per se. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times wrote about this using the same source in a 2009 piece called "Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate" which was based on a 1995 draft paper that was seen by many. And there were a lot of us in the conservation community working with energy and oil companies on ways to mitigate carbon in the early 1990s which clearly indicated that they knew there was a problem and had some notion that they were responsible and had to do something.

Even without the above evidence it is absolutely ludicrous to think that the trained scientists involved with these companies did not know that carbon emissions were a problem and that their industry was largely responsible.  After all Bill McKibben wrote "The End of Nature" in 1989 which was a lay person breaking into a scientific conversation that had really been going on in earnest since 1965 when Roger Revelle presented the peril to Lyndon Johnson and Congress and was even introduced to the public earlier by the Frank Capra short "The Unchained Goddess" issued in 1958 (see above).  And the idea of greenhouse gases and the relationship between fossil fuels and climate dates back to 1896 and the work of Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius

So the issue to me is not whether or not the oil companies knew because it was certainly out there for anyone who looked and they obviously did. Nor is the issue that they lied because there is ample evidence that they prevaricated in a most Pinocchio fashion and that has been reported on repeatedly. And we know why when we look at the graph below.  The real story here should be who or what group or group of groups made the decision to deceive the public and also to shift their efforts from solving the problem to significantly perverting the political system of the US.

From 2008 Huffington Post article. (Nothing to see here.  No need for windfall profits tax.)
I am not the first to hop in line when a potential conspiracy is a foot, but the change from “let’s work together and solve this problem” to “what problem?” was just too abrupt to not have been orchestrated and coordinated.  It was just like a switch was turned off.  One day we were sitting around tables with oil and energy folks talking about mitigation projects like restoring long leaf pine forests in the South and other carbon sequestration projects and the next moment we were all alone.  

Also I do not think that the fact that we have had two presidents and one vice president with strong ties to big oil is just a random coincidence.  Since the release of the Pope's encyclical I have been thinking some about biblical imagery and the one that comes to mind in this instance is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse both because the imagery frames the methods involved as well as the consequences for the rest of us.  

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887.
The White Horse of Pestilence (Infection of Leadership)

Top Oil Industry Campaign Contributions 2013-2014 from Open Secrets
Only the people involved know exactly how the above decision was made, who made it, and how the strategy was developed, but if I were an oil executive and had made the decision that I wanted to forestall climate change regulation as well as maximize profits here is what I would do.  First I would make massive investments in political candidates and then try to develop more and more methods for funneling money into their campaigns (1,2).  I would also make sure that the officials that I helped put in office had a very clear idea of what legislation was most important to me and my allies (1).  Tops on my legislative work list would be weakening the Clean Air Act (1,2,3), the Clean Water Act (1,2,3), the Endangered Species Act (1,2,3) and the Environmental Protection Agency (1,2,3) or any other Act or agency that made it more difficult for me to externalize the environmental costs of my business.  I would also make sure that I had easier and less regulated access to public lands and their assets either through transfer to state ownership or private (1,2,3). 

2013 Numbers for Fracking Industry Contributions from Grist article.
The Red Horse of War (Attack of the Lobbyist)

Annual Lobbying by Oil and Gas Industry 1998-2013 from Open Secrets.
I would then invest in lobbying the crap out of my own people as well as those who might naturally be sympathetic to my interests.  Here too I would ask for subsidies for my industry and others so that we would have access to incentives to grow our businesses and increase our profits. 

The Sunshine Foundation recently looked corporate investments in politics and found an astounding and disturbing ROI.

The Black Horse of Famine (The Greedy Feeding from the Platter of Public Good-see PPS below)
Some of the Funding Sources for Climate Denial Groups showing trends and the emergence of Donors Trust (1,2) as a masking agent to hide sources of funding.  

Then I would game the non-profit sector using the IRS code to my advantage in setting up or investing in non-profits who would fight my battles for me and seem like an independent voice.  I would also set up think tanks to support the ideas of my elected officials and political movements to make it look like these officials taking actions contrary to the interests of the public actually enjoyed broad public support.

Some Examples: ALEC,  The Cato InstituteThe Heritage Institute, National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, the Tea Party,

The trajectory of the Koch fortunes which seems to track well with political investments.

The Pale Horse of Death (The Killer of Science and Reason)

And then I would attack the science and more importantly the scientists (1,2).  I would work hard to create doubt and play on the complicated nature of the science to create confusion in a public becoming increasingly unable to deal with science or math.  I would create new “science” publications at my think tanks that would publish and promote the work of contrarian scientists and even sponsor a few scientists myself and establish legitimate sounding forums, because I watched how successful this strategy worked for the tobacco industry. 

The above examples, links, parenthetical references and figures indicate that the above “hypothetical” strategy has been pretty much rolled out over the past three decades that the oil and energy sectors along with their allies like the Chamber of Commerce (1,2,3) has been doing their best to deceive the public on climate change.  Perhaps there was no grand central design behind all these actions and they happened independently, but I am dubious and I am not sure it matters anyway as we are still stuck with the political and social morass and the associated peril that this effort (or efforts) has created. 

Perhaps I will invoke the Pope here because I think these folks who partook of the "dung of the devil" at the expense of the entire Planet should make their reservations now for the place that never cools.  We have to start that process now and execute it in 2016 and we have to do it in the face of even more of the same as the horsemen become stronger and our prospects for a future weaker (1,2).  

Post Script

Lest the reader think me and my Four Horsemen construct too paranoid please consider that the Koch Brothers and their allies have provided funding for all of the above (see above graphic) as well as for groups providing Amicus briefs for Citizens United, the Heartland Institute, the Tea Party, and Willie Soon.  The Koch Brothers also meet regularly with their fellow rich people and select candidates (1,2,3,4,5) to work out collective strategies.  

Post-Post Script

I believe strongly in the non-profit sector and think that it should be open to any and all.  That said the core test must be public good.  And I have a hard time finding the public good in rich people pouring millions into organizations promoting falsehoods so that the donors can find it easier to make more money and move our country farther and farther away from a democracy.  

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