Web of denial: the US Senate climate campaign is critical

Democrats are stepping up their fight against the well-organised misinformation campaign on climate change, write Robert Brulle and Timmons Roberts

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change, the misinformation campaign has functioned as an effective barrier to action on climate change for nearly thirty years.

It has done so by refuting evidence that climate change is real, human-caused, and requires aggressive action by the US.

Building on decades of social science research and over 100 peer-reviewed articles, 19 senators took to the floor last week to document and critique a series of think tanks and trade associations, which comprise what they called “the web of denial.”

Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has courageously staked out this position over the last four years in a series of over 140 floor speeches, led the group.

This time he stood at the front of a phalanx of 19 senators, including democratic leaders in the Senate, who were willing to speak out about the dangerous impact of climate denial front groups.

The speeches supported a senate resolution which argues that: “fossil fuel companies…developed a sophisticated and deceitful campaign that funded think tanks and front groups, and paid public relations firms to deny, counter, and obfuscate peer reviewed research, and use that misinformation campaign to mislead the public and cast doubt in order to protect their financial interest.”

Introduced by senators Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, Brian Schatz, Barbara Boxer, Jeff Merkley, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken and Whitehouse the resolution is a clear indication that if the Democrats gain a majority in the November’s presidential elections, they will probably investigate fossil fuel firms and the actions of their front groups.

Resolution supporters compare the behaviour of fossil fuel companies today to that of the tobacco industry decades ago, which deliberately distorted and suppressed scientific findings that proved the dangers of smoking. 

These senators are making an important attempt to reorient the debate around climate action away from climate denial, to exposing how the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry use their political and economic power to systematically undermine action.

The events in the Senate raise crucial issues of reason, democracy, and openness, and it will be very interesting to see what comes next. One can certainly anticipate that actors in the web of denial will mobilise in response to these speeches.

What happened

Over two days, nineteen different senators took to the floor and spoke. Senate minority leader Harry Reid spoke about Americans for Prosperity, a group that received over US$1 billion (6.7 billion yuan) in funding from the Koch foundations, which is fossil fuel funded.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire described the Competitive Enterprise Institute, funded directly by oil and coal companies, a group which have been leaders of the misinformation movement on climate change in the name of protecting liberty.

The list of groups these speeches documented is stunning in both the number of shadowy institutes, and the impact they have had in delaying action needed to protect our children and vulnerable people around the world.

For example, senator Tom Udall talked about Western Fuels Association, the coal industry group that has made outlandish claims about the benefits of greater levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

While senator Tim Kaine, potential vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton, talked about the impacts of climate change on his state of Virginia, especially the massive Norfolk naval base that is threatened by sea level rise. 

Kaine talked about the Science and Public Policy Institute, which denies sea level rise and the climate change crisis; and the Donors Capital Fund, which hides where its funding comes from.

The list goes on. Senator Schatz talked about the deceptively named Center for Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change and the heavy-hitting Heartland Institute. Heartland continues to hold “counter conferences” at the UN negotiations, this year at the Hotel California in Paris.

One of the most destructive of the web’s members has been the US Chamber of Commerce. Millions of small businesses join the organisation in ignorance of the savage lobbying and campaign attacks against responsible action to prevent climate change undertaken in their names.

Why it matters

The US Senate has been key to climate change inaction globally because international treaties have to first pass through the chamber with a super-majority in order to be ratified. Due in part to the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in 1997, the US Senate never voted to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

The US is a crucial place for climate action: its foot-dragging has arguably set back global progress on the issue for 15 or even 25 years. Dragging the web of denial into the light makes clear that these decades of inaction have not occurred by chance.

Last week’s happenings are important because Senate Democrats have unified to expose and oppose the network of organisations engaged in the effort to systematically distort information on climate change. Scholarly research shows that these institutes received nearly a billion dollars in funding to promulgate a series of neoliberal causes, including misinformation on the causes and impacts of climate change.

Watch for the backlash. Already, a public release from the Energy and Environment Institute (which has twice been renamed recently) called the Senate effort a “fundraising” and “publicity stunt” for the Democratic Party, distracting the nation from other pressing issues.

The issue of manipulation of public perception of science is reflective of a much larger problem in America today: political inequality has allowed vested interests to hijack and distort discourse and democratic governance, crippling our ability to act on the key challenges of our time.

The original version of this article appeared on Climate Home and can be found here