What phony op-eds about climate change have in common

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has published an opinion piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about the “web of denial” a number of senators have turned their focus on this week. It’s so worth reading, I reproduce it here:

What phony op-eds about climate change have in common

Beginning in 1999, the Department of Justice pursued (and ultimately won) a civil lawsuit against several major tobacco companies. By denying the negative health effects of tobacco, the suit alleged, the industry was engaging in fraud. Today, researchers often compare the fossil fuel industry’s support for an array of groups that propagate climate change denial to the tobacco industry’s pattern of denial of the dangers of its product. Last spring, I wrote an opinion piece recommending a similar civil investigation into the fossil fuel industry for spreading fraudulent information about climate change. At a subsequent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, I asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch whether the Justice Department had taken steps consistent with a civil fraud investigation to explore the industry’s possible culpability.

An extraordinary barrage of opinion pieces ensued, more than 100 all told, asserting—wrongly—that any such investigation would be a violation of the First Amendment. I say “wrongly” because it is actually settled law—even cited in the tobacco case itself—that fraud is not protected speech under the First Amendment. This raises the question whether the phony “science” supporting climate denial has a twin in equally phony “opinion” writing.

Although the opinion pieces appeared in many outlets, they shared common markers. They regularly confused civil law with criminal law, suggesting that I wanted to “slap the cuffs on people” or was seeking “prosecutions.” They regularly conflated investigation with prosecution, as if the industry would not be able to defend itself through the investigative process. They almost always overlooked the government’s victory in the tobacco fraud lawsuit. Ignoring the tobacco lawsuit allowed these writers to feign horror over use of the civil RICO statute, which many pieces pointed out was designed to go after “mobsters.” But the civil RICO law has been used to sue other organizations, including, of course, the tobacco industry. Last, the pieces suggested that I wanted to target “scientists” or “people who disagree” with me (not the fraud standard, obviously). In sum, these op-eds’ common markings indicate orchestration off a central script.

Another common flag was that virtually every author or outlet that ran one of the pieces was a persistent climate denier. Examples include that constant industry voice, the Wall Street Journal editorial page; columnist George Will; the Heartland Institute, which has infamously compared people who “believe in Global Warming” to the Unabomber; the voluble Hans von Spakovsky from the Exxon and Koch-funded Heritage Foundation; and a torrent of lesser-known (but often more vitriolic) tagalongs. Many participants were repeat performers: Spakovsky, for instance, wrote three separate op-eds, published in over a dozen different outlets over three weeks in April of this year. He recently fired off yet another. One might wonder where he finds the time.

The pieces contain a shared logical fallacy: presuming the propriety of the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial operation, when that would be the very question at issue. Was there fraud, or wasn’t there? If there were actual fraud at the core of the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial operation, the free speech argument would evaporate, since fraud is not protected speech.

The pieces also shared a peculiar mix of high emotional tone with highly selective concern. The insults were bitter, the language extreme, and the comparisons often absurd (the junior Senator from Rhode Island is the terrible inquisitor Torquemada, for instance, and ExxonMobil is the lonely Galileo). The authors and outlets climbed on a very high horse to scourge climate-related investigations. Yet not long ago, an attorney general of Virginia used his investigative powers to harass a climate scientist at the University of Virginia so vilely that the university took the attorney general all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court to stop him. Where then was this outrage? A US Senator has called for criminal prosecution of climate scientists in what climate deniers like to call the “ClimateGate scandal” (which after multiple—yes—investigations, turned out to be no scandal at all). Where then was this outrage? Republican-led Congressional committees regularly fire off government subpoenas to harass climate scientists. Where then is this outrage? The over-sensitivity subsides when the investigative target is an individual scientist.

Finally, let’s think through what it would mean if fraudulent corporate speech were protected by the First Amendment. Out would go state and federal laws protecting us from deceitful misrepresentations about products; consumer protection offices would shrivel or shut their doors; and it would be open season on the American consumer. That’s a dark world to envision, but it’s the world that will result if corporate lies about the safety of products or industrial processes are placed beyond the reach of the law.

Some academics and journalists are now examining a network of front groups propagating climate denial. They include popular authors like Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer; academic researchers like Dr. Robert Brulle of Drexel University, Dr. Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University, and Dr. Justin Farrell of Yale University; and climate scientists like Dr. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, who continues exposing the machinery that has relentlessly smeared and harassed him.

The climate denial apparatus illuminated by the work of these writers and others is the untold story behind our obstructed American politics of climate change. This recent outburst of error-plagued criticism is connected to that apparatus, and seems designed, like climate denial “science,” to protect the fossil fuel industry—in this case, from any investigation—by deploying a common array of falsehoods, omitted facts, and misstatements of the law, all in a four-alarm tonal realm between dudgeon and hysteria. The breadth of the op-ed assault suggests that a new level of critical scrutiny will be needed at honorable editorial boards to make responsible choices between legitimate and honest opinion and clever, made-to-order, industrial-scale dissemination of industry propaganda.

Sheldon Whitehouse is a US Senator representing Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Follow him on Twitter @SenWhitehouse.

18 responses to “What phony op-eds about climate change have in common

  1. Philippe Chantreau

    This is so clearly outlined, factually correct, and skillfully expressed, it would deserve at least double the exposure that the propagandists were given. Refreshing.

  2. You may want to click the link to the original at the top of the post (the original has some embedded links that are not active in the copy). Here is a sequential list of links (some occur more than once; I compressed a few contiguous repeats) in the CJR piece:

    Click to access exxon_report.pdf











































  3. “Many participants were repeat performers: Spakovsky, for instance, wrote three separate op-eds, published in over a dozen different outlets over three weeks in April of this year. He recently fired off yet another. One might wonder where he finds the time.”

    One might also wonder how he merits publication with such ease.

  4. Ralph Snyder

    I also saw this piece. It is beautifully written and cogent. I am sharing it wherever I can.

  5. Overcoming the corrupting influence of huge sums of dark money is *hard*, and a task I’m hoping humanity can overcome in the next few years before it’s all too late.

    Jane Mayer’s Dark Money shines a bright light in those dark areas the likes of the Koch Brothers would really rather remain hidden. Joe Public needs to collectively read that book for comprehension and vote the dark money funded politicians out of office.

    But, alas, I’m afraid Joe Public is too busy keeping up with the Kardashians to give a rat’s arse that we being sold down the river :-\

  6. But of course, an equal part of the problem is the right-wing think tanks that prop up the Republicans exclusively, like the CEI, CFACT, ALEC, Heritage Foundation, Heartland Institute, George C. Marshall Institute, et. al. These are by definition supposed to be *non-profits* and *non-politcal*, yet they all funnel millions of dollars per year of dark money to causes that are decidedly *very political* and against humanity’s long term best interests. How/when is this illegal activity going to be stopped?

    • Thanks. Eye-opening. (And some of the links are worth it, too, such as the one about Sean Noble’s falling out with the Kochs–it shines a light (no pun intended) on the battles over solar energy in Arizona, where the black hats have succeeded in rolling back net metering policies.)

    • Yes, meher engineer, thanks for that link. A small fine considering the scale of the problem, but at least they were successfully prosecuted.

      It’s a start :-)

  7. “By denying the negative health effects of tobacco, the suit alleged, the industry was engaging in fraud. Today, researchers often compare the fossil fuel industry’s support for an array of groups that propagate climate change denial to the tobacco industry’s pattern of denial of the dangers of its product.”

    This is an inapt analogy, because cigarettes had a direct effect on the tissue of human beings – cancer, addiction, and heart disease. Big tobacco lied about this direct effect.

    Big oil is telling the truth about the direct effect of their product – you can burn it in your car to make it roll along the road. The indirect effect of people (not Exxon) burning gasoline in their cars is supposed to be monitored and regulated by a government agency called the EPA. And the EPA’s recommendations are supposed to be informative to the U.S. Congress – which has a responsibility to protect the public from environmental dangers. The Congress – not Exxon.

    AFAICT, funding disinformation campaigns is not a crime in the U.S. – A Fox News affiliate won a court judgement that deliberate lies could still be called “news”. Now, a news organization that tells deliberate lies and calls it news, and broadcasts those lies on U.S. bandwidth could be seen as breaching its charter to act in the public interest and could be taken off the air, in a just world.

    And a cabal of individuals who have spent millions of dollars to subvert the scientific consensus on AGW, which has delayed the proper global response to lower CO2 emissions, and has resulted already in the deaths of millions of people might well be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court for Crimes Against Humanity. THAT is the question we should be debating, not the incredibly weak tea of investor “fraud”.

    • Fossil fuel’s effects on the atmosphere are equally direct, and the effect on human lungs is no more indirect than that of ‘second-hand smoke,’ which now has an entrenched role in the relevant law.

    • Tobacco lied! Fossil fuel lied! in a commercial setting those are both fraud!
      Same crimes deserve same punishment.

      When their vendors lied to them, the fossil fuel companies went after the liars with every tool in the law books. When the fossil fuel companies lie to their customers, we should go after them with every tool in the law books. Fair is fair.

      Charges of fraud are fair. So are Crimes Against Humanity. So are charges under CERCLA, RCRA, Exchange Act. and RICO, and likely bribery for buying the fossil fuel exceptions to CERCLA and RCRA.

      They were a bunch of arrogant bullies, that will no doubt be surprised as they are taken to task for past misdeeds. They will hire lawyers and PR firms, but they will be remembered in history as “arrogant bullies”, or worse!

  8. I just attending a showing of Time to Choose, a remarkable effort, and strongly recommend it. Very elegantly done, authoritative, and devastating.
    (I couldn’t get the trailer but there were several clips when I scrolled around on the site. Its call to action includes many agencies and actors people will recognize.)

  9. “Fossil fuel’s effects on the atmosphere are equally direct, and the effect on human lungs is no more indirect than that of ‘second-hand smoke,’ which now has an entrenched role in the relevant law.”

    Those effects are after FF’s are burned in your car. Gasoline is not [CO2].

    But this is not what the AG’s suit is about anyway.

    • Still see this as analogous; after all, the effects on lungs are after you burn the tobacco, too. And in both cases, the burning constitutes “normal use.” Also analogous: the industry in question did their damnedest to obfuscate dangers *that they knew about*, both to the public, and to government agencies. (In the case of tobacco, this was the office of the Surgeon General.)

      But you are right; this hardly merits an extended quibble.

  10. “Those effects are after FF’s are burned in your car.” And lung cancer and heart disease occur after cigarettes are burned in your mouth.

  11. Shouldn’t forget the Middle East, either:


    54 C is pretty darn toasty, even for Basra, Iran.