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Report: ExxonMobil Spends Millions Funding Global Warming Skeptics

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A new investigation by Mother Jones magazine has revealed that ExxonMobil has spent at least $8 million dollars funding a network of groups to challenge the existence of global warming. We speak with the author of the report, a member of one the organizations that receives money from Exxon and a journalist covering environmental and climate change issues. [includes rush transcript]

Today is the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. To commemorate the occasion we take a look at the debate over global warming.

A new investigation by Mother Jones magazine has revealed that ExxonMobil has spent at least $8 million dollars funding a network of groups to challenge the existence of global warming.

We are joined on the line from Washington DC by Chris Mooney, the reporter who broke the story. His article– “Some Like It Hot”–appears in the May/June issue of Mother Jones magazine. We are also joined on the line by Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of 40 organizations identified in the report that receives funding from Exxon/Mobil. According to the article, CEI has received $1,380,000 dollars from Exxon. And on the line from Massachusetts we have journalist and author Ross Gelbspan. He also has an article titled “Snowed” in the latest issue of Mother Jones that explores why the U.S media pays relatively little attention to the issue of global climate change.

  • Chris Mooney, a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C., and a senior correspondent for the American Prospect magazine. He focuses on issues at the intersection of science and politics. His first book, “The Republican War on Science will be published in September.
  • Myron Ebell, oversees all global warming and international environmental work at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
  • Ross Gelbspan, journalist and author. As special projects editor of The Boston Globe, he conceived, directed and edited a series of articles that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He is author of “The Heat is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth’s Threatened Climate.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On the line from Massachusetts, we have journalist and author, Ross Gelbspan. He has an article in latest issue of Mother Jones that explores why the U.S. media pays relatively little attention to the issue of global warming. We go first to Chris Mooney, author of “Some Like It Hot.” Can you talk about your investigation into who funds the groups that question global warming?

CHRIS MOONEY: Sure. Amy, thanks for having me. In this Mother Jones article, I essentially started out from the premise which I knew, because I had had written on climate change before, that there were a lot of organizations out there that were challenging what is essentially the scientific consensus view that humans are causing global warming or challenging other aspects of climate science. And what we did was essentially a correlation or analysis where we looked at what the organizations were saying in terms of what they were saying about climate science. And sure enough, we found that a number of the organizations were actually receiving funding from ExxonMobil.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who these organizations are?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, by and large, they are — I would describe them as think tanks and public policy groups, largely on the sort of — on the right with free market principles, or sort of a more free market agenda. But, you know, that’s one thing, but they’re actually arguing about in a lot of cases the scientific content of whether global warming is happening, how serious it’s going to be, what are the impacts, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Ross Gelbspan, can you talk about this debate around global warming?

ROSS GELBSPAN: I can, Amy. And again, thanks so much for giving this subject the air time this morning. The very fact that you are using the word debate shows how pervasive this campaign of disinformation and deception has been. There really is no debate about global warming. What you have on the one side are more 2,000 scientists from 100 countries reporting to the U.N. in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history. What you have on the other side are basically a very small handful of so-called greenhouse skeptics, the majority of whom have been paid by the coal and oil industries, and for that reason, it has — because of the megaphone they have been given by industry, they have created the impression in the minds of journalists that it is really a debate, and as a result, most stories, until recently, have portrayed it as a he said/she said kind of thing. And I think the public basically took the attitude after a while, that, you know, come back and tell us what you know when you make up your mind. And as a result, the public has sort of turned off to this issue, even as the signals from the planet are becoming very shrill, and the timetable for action is very slow and narrow.

AMY GOODMAN: Myron Ebell, you’re with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, as Chris Mooney says, one of the organizations that receives a good deal of money, more than $1 million from ExxonMobil. can you respond to what these authors have said?

MYRON EBELL: Well, you know, I — Chris Mooney, I don’t really have much against his article, and I think he’s shown that there are a number of groups that mostly, as he said, on the conservative side that oppose the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty and oppose energy rationing policies. This is — it’s not a surprise that Exxon funds them, because I think Exxon is one of the very few corporations that posts all of its charitable contributions to non-profit groups on its website. So, I think anybody who is listening can go and look at those. Most corporations don’t. It would probably be a good idea if they did. The — you know, this large megaphone that we have, I’m a little bit surprised that Ross Gelbspan has mentioned that, because, of course, the environmental movement, which largely spends a lot of its effort supporting the Kyoto Protocol and energy rationing policies is a huge industry. The Sacramento Bee a couple years ago, maybe it’s three years ago now, estimated it was an $8.5 billion a year industry. Now, a lot of that is local groups, but if you just take the big groups, you see it’s about a $3 billion a year industry, just the big groups here in Washington, D.C., which is, you know, a couple of orders of magnitude larger than the effort on the conservative side on these issues. So, I don’t think we’re winning this debate because we have a bigger megaphone.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back and have a discussion and debate on this issue. Our guests, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, author Ross Gelbspan, as well as Chris Mooney. Both have pieces in this month’s edition of Mother Jones magazine on global warming. It’s the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. This is Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk about global warming on this 35th anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 1970, the first time it was celebrated. We’re joined on the telephone right now from Washington, D.C., by Chris Mooney. He’s the author of a piece in Mother Jones magazine called, “Some Like It Hot.” “Forty public policy groups have this in common,” he writes. “They seek to undermine the scientific consensus that humans are causing the earth to overheat, and they all get money from ExxonMobil.” Ross Gelbspan is also with us, has a piece in that issue of Mother Jones called, “Snowed.” He is a well-known environmental writer. And joining us on the line also from Washington is Myron Ebell. He is with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. And I wanted to ask Ross Gelbspan if you can respond to Myron Ebell about this issue of global warming and whether it really is a problem.

ROSS GELBSPAN: Well, before I respond as to whether it’s a problem, Amy, I’d like it respond to what Myron said about the amount of money spent on this disinformation campaign. I had figures a few years back — and when there was a large organization called the Global Climate Coalition. It had 54 industry members. These were mostly representatives of the coal and oil and auto and every manufacturing sector, and a few years ago, the last year for which I had figures, the Global Climate Coalition spent millions and millions of dollars on lobbying and public relations to say that climate [change] isn’t happening. One member group of this 54 group organization, the A.P.I., paid $1.8 million to a public relations firm on this issue, and by comparison, the five biggest environmental groups that also focused on climate change spent a total of $2 million, according to their own organizations. So there’s a huge mismatch in terms of the financial issues that — the financial outlays in terms of fighting this battle for reality, basically, and for the public perception.

But to step back for a second, when you are asking me how serious it is, the head of this intergovernmental panel on climate change, Dr. Ragendra Pachauri, said recently that we have about a ten-year window to make very, very deep cuts in our carbon fuel use, if, quote, “humanity is to survive.” This is a scientist. He speaks normally in very conservative and measured language. So, to hear that kind of talk is very, very troubling. Just to give you one last quick example, scientists have documented already the deep oceans are warming, the glaciers are melting, the icecaps are falling apart. We’re seeing violent weather increase. We’re seeing a change in the timing of the seasons. And all of that has happened from one degree of warming. By contrast, we’re now looking to a century of three to ten degrees of warming. So, I think the urgency is very, very important.

AMY GOODMAN: Myron Ebell of Competitive Enterprise Institute, your response?

MYRON EBELL: Well, you want me to respond to that. I hope we can get Chris back into this. Look, again, it’s easy to talk about big, bad industry and how powerful it is. Yes, industries do spend a lot of money on P.R. and lobbying, but if you are looking at the non-profit world which Chris Mooney’s article does, we’re really just small potatoes, and in fact, Bill McKibben recognizes that in his article, also in Mother Jones, when he calls us “a small group of clever and committed people,” and says what we have done to turn the global warming debate is one of the most mightiest political feats of our time. I think that may be a little exaggerated, but then what Ross Gelbspan says about global warming is very exaggerated. Dr. Pachauri, he’s a conservative, buttoned-down individual, yeah. When he was in Denmark, he called Bjorn Lomborg worse than Hitler. So, look, so that’s how careful he is in his speech. The global warming debate has turned from a scientific one where the I.P.C.C. publishes thousands of page reports which by and large are extremely good, which several thousand scientists work on. They do not all agree with the conclusions in the summary for policy makers, which is, you know, three 20-page summaries written by governments. These summaries then are abstracted by advocates for global warming alarmism to say, “Oh, we’re going to have lots more big storms. We’re going to have lots more this.” No, that isn’t what the report says. The report, the third assessment report — I have it sitting here, it’s a huge document published by Cambridge University Press — is not an alarmist document. And you can go through and find some things that are alarming and a lot of reasons not to be alarmed.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Mooney, would you like to respond?

CHRIS MOONEY: If I could jump in on that. I don’t think that that’s actually a fair assessment of what the I.P.C.C. actually says. And I actually have a quote here from the National Academy of Sciences in 2001. I’d just like to read it to you, because what the National Academy said in 2001 is that the I.P.C.C.'s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue. And I think that that's really what’s at stake here. And the National Academy is essentially ratifying what the I.P.C.C. had included in its summary for policymakers, I might add.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Mooney, you begin your piece by talking about the anti-environmentalist novel by Michael Crichton, State of Fear. Can you talk about the significance of this in popular culture and where you go from there?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well yes, I mean the scientific significance of it is probably not nearly as significant as the role that it’s playing in terms of giving those who are questioning both the scientific basis for action on climate change and actually, you know, the economic basis as well, something to rally around. I think that Michael Crichton has become somewhat of a hero for what I would term the “skeptic camp” and also a lot of the think tanks that are sort of part of that camp, and that is because he’s a prominent author. He has at least some scientific credential in medicine, not, obviously, in climate science. And he certainly has a megaphone. And so these groups have sort of rallied to him. Meanwhile, the scientists who are working in this area have been none too pleased with some of the statements in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about his book, State of Fear, and the impact that it has had, and what it is about, for those who have not read it?

CHRIS MOONEY: Oh, right, well, I mean, State of Fear, it’s a novel, right? I mean, it’s a novel laden with footnotes and charts and notes and author commentary that make it sort of a strange mélange of fact and fiction. And in it, essentially environment groups conspire —because global warming isn’t happening in the context of this book, environmental groups conspire to make people think it’s happening by causing big disasters. So, you know, a lot of people think it’s sort of wrong-headed, and I think that I would probably agree with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. You also refer to Steven Milloy, the columnist with FoxNews.com, who runs two groups out of his home that have received $90,000 from ExxonMobil. What are these groups?

CHRIS MOONEY: Well, essentially, we — you know, when we were going through the list of organizations that were supported, we found two, and we wanted to learn more about them. One of them was called the Advancement of Sound Science Center, and one of them was called the Free Enterprise Action Institute. And sure enough, we found that these were organizations that were linked to Steven Milloy. And this is a commentator who essentially debunks a wide range of sort of environmental, public health and other concerns under the auspices of his JunkScience.com website, but also in the media, including for FoxNews.com. And it wasn’t ever disclosed, at least as far as we could tell. We didn’t see a case in which it was disclosed that actually in some of the places where he’s debunking global warming concerns that, actually, you know, he’s actually been receiving funding from a company that obviously would have an economic stake in climate change policies.

AMY GOODMAN: And you spend almost two pages with a chart, “Put a Tiger in Your Think Tank.” Since you’re very clear about naming names, if you could go through these, as well as what you call the Cold Earth Society. Who the people are that you single out?

CHRIS MOONEY: Actually, I mean, I didn’t actually write that chart. I mean, that’s a part of the whole presentation, but I mean, I’m certainly happy to talk about some of the organizations. We have Myron Ebell on the line, so we can just, you know, we can start with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is clearly one of the organizations that is most prominent, I think, in sort of arguing both against climate change policies on an economic level, which I think, you know, I just disagree with them maybe about that, but actually on the scientific level then, I think it actually gets into the area of being misleading, when the scientific basis is being challenged and we have such a strong scientific consensus. So one of the things that Myron’s group has done is challenging the U.S. National Assessment on Climate Change, and they have actually gone to court to challenge this document, which is a well regarded scientific report produced during the Clinton Administration, and it’s actually been praised by the National Academy of Sciences. Again, I will just quote again from the same National Academy report that I was quoting before, when it talked about the National Assessment, it said, “It provides a basis for summarizing the potential consequences of climate change.” And then it went on to base two pages of the National Academy of Sciences report on this National Assessment report. So clearly, the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t see it as being a particularly problematic or troublesome document. So I’m talking specifically about attacks on the science of climate change, not the economics which is something that people can argue about.

AMY GOODMAN: Myron Ebell of Competitive Enterprise Institute.

MYRON EBELL: Well, you know, I don’t think that the — to go back to what Chris first said, I don’t think that the statement he read from the National Academy of Sciences is alarming, and in fact, I don’t see much reason to disagree with it. The fact is, it’s — there’s a sort of a tissue of — you start with the premise that the climate is changing, and pretty soon, you are talking about how scary it is. Well, the climate is changing all the time. The impacts are significant. If you look at the United States, for example, there is no warming or cooling trend if you average out the entire country. That’s true for quite a long time going back into the past. However, there are significant climate changes going on. The Pacific Northwest is warming up. The Atlantic Southeast, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, are cooling down. These are long term trends, 30, 40 years. They’re very significant. They have costs. They have environmental impact. And we have to deal with it. You can’t predict, on the basis of knowing what the global mean temperature is and whether it’s going up or going down, that the Pacific Northwest is warming up and the Atlantic Southeast is cooling down. There’s no way to get that. So, again, I think it’s — a lot of the alarmism is based on absolutely un-alarming statements, which have been sort of whipped up into a frenzy by people who really ought to know better.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ross Gelbspan, giving you the last word.

ROSS GELBSPAN: Real briefly, what Myron is saying about temperatures is really very, very misleading. 1998 was the hottest year on record, and 2001 replaced 1997 as number two. 2004 was the fourth hottest year on record. So, globally what’s happening is that the planet is warming. And what we’re seeing also is a much more unstable kind of climate with many more storms and more changes and more surprises. We’re seeing shorter, more severe winters, which will begin to take a much bigger toll on agriculture. There’s no question about the larger trends of what’s happening in the climate, regardless of how you cut it. And as the head of the I.P.C.C. said a couple of years ago, there is no debate among any statured scientist at all about the larger trends of what’s happening to the climate. So, I think that’s very disingenuous. And I think it’s very important to understand again that we have a really short time for action.

And I’ll go back to one study that was put out by a major group of scientists and policymakers at the beginning of the year, which said that we now have 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Traditionally that number was 280. When it reaches 400 parts per million, which will be within the next 10-15 years, that correlates with an increase of 2 degrees Celsius in the average global temperature, and that is the point at which a lot of impacts begin to sort of take on their own momentum and become runaway impacts. So scientists are really concerned about changes in the Gulf Stream, rapid temperature changes, die-offs of the forests, all kinds of things like this, which will begin to happen in a very, very short time if we keep pumping out all of these carbon fuels. And this is not alarmism. This is from the scientific community. And there is really no debate about what’s happening to the climate among the mainstream body of climate scientists.

AMY GOODMAN: Ross Gelbspan, we’ll have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us. As well, I want to thank Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Chris Mooney. Both Chris Mooney and Ross Gelbspan have pieces in this month’s issue of Mother Jones. The title of the issue, “As the World Burns.”

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