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Atmosphere of Pressure: Union of Concerned Scientists Finds Widescale Political Interference in Global Warming Research

StoryFebruary 28, 2007
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While experts agree the debate over global warming has long been put to rest, climate scientists face ongoing political interference in their research. Two members of the Union of Concerned Scientists join us to talk about what it will take to move past climate change denial and bring about meaningful policy change. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of global warming has been in the news a lot recently. Just yesterday, an international team of scientists declared the global warming debate is over. It presented a detailed report to the United Nations to combat global climate change. The panel recommended pouring billions more dollars into research and development of cleaner energy resources, and stated failure to act will produce turbulent 21st century weather extremes, as well as spread drought and disease, expand oceans, displace costal populations.

The report, the result of a two-year study, was compiled by an 18-member group of scientists representing 11 nations. It comes just weeks after the world’s leading body of climate scientists, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Environmental Climate Change, concluded global warming is most likely caused by human activity and may be impossible to stop.

Also yesterday, a group of developing nations known as the Group of 77 said wealthy countries must take responsibility for causing climate change instead of laying the blame on others. Munir Akram, Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador and chair of the Group of 77, said though emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are increasing in booming Asian countries like China and India, quote, “most of the environmental degradation has historically been caused by the industrial world.”

Francesca Grifo and Brenda Ekwurzel join us now. Francesca is the head of the Union of Concerned Scientists scientific integrity program. Brenda is a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

FRANCESCA GRIFO: Good morning.

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this latest news, Francesca?

FRANCESCA GRIFO: Well, I think it’s consistent with a lot of the things that we found with our survey of climate scientists in the various agencies. I mean, they have been thinking about this issue and talking about this issue for a very long time. And finally it feels like the whole rest of the world is catching up and now on the same page with us.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you found. I mean, this is a very interesting report that you did of federal scientists in the United States.

FRANCESCA GRIFO: We talked to climate scientists across several agencies. We did personal interviews together with our collaborators at the Government Accountability Project. And what we found was that there were significant barriers to their ability to communicate the science. That means that if they’re not able to meet with the media to get that science out, that there’s very important information that the American people are not hearing about climate change science.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the percentages — it’s quite something — of scientists who feel that their reports have been suppressed, that they can’t do the kind of research they want to do, that when they do the research they’re not allowed to talk about it.

FRANCESCA GRIFO: There’s a number of issues here. I mean, one example is press releases. A scientist has an interesting set of results. They want to put that into a press release. They want to share the information, and they are delayed. It takes a long time to get that out, or the title of the press release is dramatically changed to make it something that isn’t interesting and exciting to the public, and obviously it doesn’t get covered. But what we found overall is that large numbers of scientists, 43 percent of those that we surveyed, for example, came back and said, you know, “I’m being asked to change my research. I’m being asked to do things like eliminate 'climate change' and 'global warming,' those words. I’m having trouble getting this stuff into peer-reviewed journals. I’m having trouble getting the word out.”

AMY GOODMAN: And who is doing it?

FRANCESCA GRIFO: Well, I think it’s hard to say exactly who’s doing it, because we’re not there. But we do have documents that we were able to obtain through Freedom of Information Act requests, and what’s happening are the public affairs officers are actually interfering. In one case, in order to not have a scientist do an interview alone, a public affairs officer flew from Washington all the way to Hawaii to be there at the interview to hear what was being said. And the other thing they do is, ahead of these interviews, scientists have to turn in questions, questions that, you know, are going to be asked and what their answers are going to be. And, of course, these are used to determine whether or not they’re allowed to do the interview.

AMY GOODMAN: Words like “global warming” vacuumed off of websites?

FRANCESCA GRIFO: Yes. We have seen that, but, you know, “global warming” and “climate change,” we’ve seen difficulties with, you know, the minders, as I said, coming along. I mean, just a whole slew of different issues. And we’ve seen this not just with climate change, I should say, but with a whole variety of other issues. For example, we had surveyed a large number of scientists across many federal agencies, and we had 699 federal scientists — I mean, this is the brain trust of our federal science — coming back to us and saying that they feared retaliation for talking about the missions of their agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of retaliation?

FRANCESCA GRIFO: Well, it comes in very different forms. I mean, it comes in not being allowed to go to conferences, not being allowed to publish, being told not to say certain things. I mean, a whole variety of things.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also done a very interesting major study on ExxonMobil: “Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science.” Brenda Ekwurzel, can you talk about this?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Yes. This report shined the spotlight on the very few that would intentionally misrepresent the good science that our federal scientists are doing, international researchers around the world, on global warming. And combined with perhaps muzzling some of the ability of our federal scientists to talk to the public, this left the public understandably confused for years about global warming. So this report gathered information that was known, but shed a very bright spotlight on those, so that the world could know that this is happening in the United States. In particular, many people around the world are wondering, why does the United States perhaps not act, as one of the largest emitters of heat-trapping emissions, why are we not acting to solve this problem? And once people understand that the public has been left confused and kept from the very good science that is out there, that makes sense. And so, now that is starting to shed away, and legislatures, state legislatures, are starting to enact global warming solutions around the nation as the information comes out.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the power of ExxonMobil. This isn’t just any company, the largest publicly traded company in the world, one of the most powerful corporations in the world. How exactly does it infiltrate scientific circles and prevent information from getting out?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Well, what we have is a money trail, that we can see that there are monies being sent to organizations, that those organizations hire people who we see in front of the media intentionally misrepresenting the science, cherry-picking data, and so on. And so, we know that ExxonMobil in the past has contributed money to these organizations who have well-known spokespeople who misrepresent the science.


BRENDA EKWURZEL: Now, when you think about ExxonMobil’s profits, we’re talking just a day of profit in one year, it’s not much money for them to do this little sideshow of misrepresentation. They also spend money a lot of money in good science at Stanford, at MIT, at other places around the world, where they do promote that we are trying to look for ways to capture and sequester carbon dioxide. But I think people might not have been aware of that very small trickle of money that had a very big impact, because the media is a very — that’s what most people perhaps get their information from.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the organizations that they support, the think tanks that put out reports, that people don’t realize where the money is coming from, so they think of them as independent organizations putting out that information, and the spokespeople that perhaps should be identified ultimately as speaking for or funded by ExxonMobil?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: That’s right. In the large organizations, you cannot draw it directly from the money that goes into that organization to that particular spokesperson. That gets blurry. But there are some institutes out there that really literally it’s $50,000 to a spokesperson who’s working out of his basement, and ExxonMobil is the single funder. And there are these groups that have interesting names, and it sounds like it’s an echo chamber of many, many people, but when you look, and the report shows, that it’s the same spokespeople that are associated with the very maybe 10 or 15 organizations, and it looks like an echo chamber of doubt about global warming and some of the science. And so, many of the scientists are spent defending their own good work. And that is a problem for the public, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: So you say the strategies are to manufacture uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence.

BRENDA EKWURZEL: That’s right.


BRENDA EKWURZEL: For example, some contrarians will say that the earth has not warmed over the past decade or so. And the reality is that eleven of the last 12 — of the 12 hottest years since 1850, when we have sufficient records worldwide, are the hottest on record. We are on an upward trajectory. And to get on media and say that this is not true, it’s simply unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: Promoting scientific spokespeople, another of the studies. Meaning?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Essentially, some people are literally working out of their basements, and their only tax return is showing money that’s directly from ExxonMobil.

AMY GOODMAN: Like who?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: I have to admit, I can’t — all these names, they sound so nebulous and so wonderful that I — in that they have “home” and “heartland” or it’s things competitive in their names that I can’t remember exactly the one that had the $50,000. But some are larger organizations that have legitimate analysis and so on, but the spokespeople who are talking about global warming, we know, are intentionally misrepresenting it. And Exxon funds these groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Attempting to shift the focus.

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Yes. It is a distraction, and it all leads to inaction on global warming, I think, because if people aren’t — I have seen America when we’ve been faced by problems in the past, and once we’re aware of them, we can unleash innovation and our incredible resources to solve major problems that we have in the past in our history. And this is one of the big crises that we have to face urgently now. And the fact that the American public has been kept in the dark a little bit is disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the latest headline, the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington agreeing to work together to reduce greenhouse gases. How will they do this?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: It’s similar to what the Northeast states started leading the way, the 10 Northeast states, the Mid-Atlantic states. It’s a regional cap-and-trade program, where you look at ways to say, as a state or a region, we do not want to emit global warming pollution above a certain level. And this was — and we can trade among each other. This was successfully used to solve the acid rain problem in the past. And that was a very successful program that cost much less than the initial designers thought. And it’s an American idea, cap and trade, and international governments are following this to solve global warming. And America has not quite signed on yet, but the states are leading the way to look at regional cap and trade to reduce global warming pollution.

AMY GOODMAN: Brenda Ekwurzel, the Oscars. Vice President Gore didn’t exactly win the Oscar, but it’s based on his speech, “An Inconvenient Truth.” That won the Oscar. Do you feel that there is a turning point right now, or do you feel there will be a huge backlash from these powerful corporations?

FRANCESCA GRIFO: Oh, to me? Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, Francesca Grifo.

FRANCESCA GRIFO: No, no, that’s OK. No. I think it’s really powerful that people are getting to hear about this in a whole variety of different venues. I mean, it’s so important, when we do have federal scientists being muzzled, when we do have them not able to really speak out in the ways that they are trained and able to do, to have a whole different, you know, aspect of it being on the Oscars. I mean, I thought it was fabulous that — and I thought it was fabulous that, you know, Al Gore was able to get up there and speak and that there was this support amongst that community in general for this issue and for the fact that it’s time to act. We’ve been in the dark a long time. We’ve had various forces that Brenda talked about and that we’ve talked about and found with our report, that have been keeping Americans from really taking action. And now is the time. I feel like, you know, the tide is really turning.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the most important single thing that could happen right now, in this last 10 seconds? What do you feel has to be done, Brenda Ekwurzel?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: I think that the states are acting because there’s an absence of national leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Even in the new Congress?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: I think the new Congress is starting to take meaningful action, looking at bills. And the question remains whether the executive branch will sign on to these bills that are being considered in Congress, which are very bold and will help solve the global warming problem. So we need national leadership, as well as state and congressional action.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Francesca Grifo is head of the Union of Concerned Scientists scientific integrity program. Brenda Ekwurzel is climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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