This weekend, America will pause to honor the thousands of men and women who fought and died to preserve ExxonMobil’s First Amendment rights, and protect it from the tyranny of justice.
Or at least that’s the way a lot of Congressional leaders and climate deniers are playing it.
The effort to cast Exxon as victim of a cabal between state Attorneys General, environmentalists, and other ne’er-do-wells followed reports by journalists from InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. They uncovered a howlingly hypocritical contrast between Exxon’s longtime internal embrace of climate science and its external support for climate denial.
Decades ago, Exxon began to ignore its own scientists’ warnings on the prospects for global disruption from climate change, opting instead to focus on climate change’s threat to the fossil fuel business model. Following the pattern set by tobacco, pesticide, asbestos and tetraethyl lead producers, Exxon circled the tankers and fought against progress on climate.
And just as Red State Attorneys General massed to assail Obama’s Clean Power Plan, their Blue State counterparts gathered to investigate whether Exxon’s concealing information that could impact public health, the environment, and the economy, constituted criminal behavior. The A.G. of the U.S. Virgin Islands subpoenaed forty years’ worth of Exxon records and hired a major class-action law firm, which seemed to jolt Exxon acolytes into action.
When the American conservative media machine kicks into action, it is an awesome thing, taking no prisoners while apparently serving as a real job-killer for the fact-checking community. I found dozens of opinion pieces, editorials, and unbalanced news stories in the three-week period from March 31 to April 22, all embracing ExxonMobil’s trampled free speech rights in the face of investigative reports and meddlesome Attorneys General. Curiously, not a single one of these First Amendment themed tomes made mention of the years of harassment, threats, bottomless FOIA requests, and Congressional inquiries targeting actual climate scientists.
From “mainstream” sources like Bloomberg and USA Today to movement mouthpieces like the Washington Times and National Review to countless ideological blogs and websites, the message repeated as if it were spit out of a photocopier. The Washington Post ran not one but two Exxon-victim pieces on April 22 (Happy Earth Day, y’all!)
To be sure, there were a few creative touches—The Washington Times piece likened the AGs’ investigation to the Spanish Inquisition, and an earlier piece in The Federalist posited a sort of ass-backwards Domino Theory: “The real target is everybody smaller than Exxon.”
On May 18, the meme took root in Congress. Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science Committee and his 12 Republican colleagues sent letters to seventeen Attorneys General and eight environmental groups demanding “all documents and communications” between the AG’s and the groups. The Committee’s press release asserted its “responsibility to protect the First Amendment prerogatives of academic institutions, scientists and nonprofit organizations.” Intentionally or otherwise, they forgot to mention Exxon.
Playing the world’s second-largest corporation as a victim of Big Climate sounds like a stretch (I can’t get that “Spanish Inquisition” image out of my head – Bill McKibben as Torquemada?), but let’s take a walk down Meme-ory Lane and recall how this business works, and why it’s so noxious.
Energy poverty: This one hit Peak Meme in 2015, when a horde of climate deniers made a pilgrimage to Rome to “advise” Pope Francis that his concern about climate change would hurt the poor in a most un-Christian way.
It’s also a favorite of those who would distract from climate change rather than deny it outright like economist Bjørn Lomborg, among others. A website backed by Peabody Energy, “Advanced Energy for Life,” dutifully contrasts the benefits of coal (or “sustainable coal,” as one study listed on the site puts it) versus the looming menace of renewables.
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I’m not a scientist: Marco Rubio helped this one take a brisk run through the headlines in 2014, with former House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell close behind.
The climate is always changing: Rubio again, and several of his rivals in the 2016 race. But Rush Limbaugh says it best.
Sunspots!! A favorite of Willie Soon, the astrophysicist who was discovered to have promised his corporate funders “deliverables” on his research minimizing human influences on climate.
Climate scientists are only in it for the money: So says Roy Spencer, a skeptical climate scientist. While Spencer has said “there is no fingerprint of human-caused warming,” he bristles when described as a climate “denier,” and has likened his critics to the Nazis. “Climate scientists need there to be a problem in order to get funding,” he told an interviewer in 2007. Public records from the University of Alabama system show Spencer has also avoided food stamps, with a base salary of nearly $191,000 in the last full fiscal year.
Polar Bear politics: Science has consistently demonstrated that polar bears are at dire risk due to the decline of Arctic ice cover. While some deny that the ice cover is shrinking, many have decided despite evidence to the contrary that polar bears are not only fine, but they’re breeding like hamsters. I wrote about this several years ago.
I could go on: There’s been no global warming in 18 years. Antarctic ice is growing. There’s global warming on Mars, so it’s not us. It’s us, but it will be awesome to be able to grow our own mangos in Winnipeg. Carbon dioxide is our friend. Al Gore and the U.N. are poised to take over the world. But let’s get straight to the one meme that puts this all in perspective.
The guys in the barn: In 1998 following the Kyoto climate agreement, a father-son team operating out of a converted barn in Cave Junction, Oregon, launched the Oregon Petition Project, which purported to collect tens of thousands of signatures from degree-bearing scientists who did not believe climate change posed a threat, if it existed at all.
Almost immediately, Art and Zachary Robinson’s petition came under fire. The credentialed scientists who signed the petition included one of the Spice Girls, and nearly the entire cast of the M*A*S*H TV show, along with a British fellow named Charles Darwin. They also received a sharp rebuke from the National Academy of Sciences. But as a meme, the Oregon Petition shot to the top, and the Robinsons were climate denial rock stars.
Nineteen years later, for some, the petition lives. The liberal website Scholars and Rogues counted 18 citations of the petition since 2008 on the conservative news site Newsmax. A Fox News story cited it just this past week.
So happy Meme-orial Day, and to all the memes, thank you for your service. I’m afraid that anyone who thinks climate denial will sacrifice its life any time soon are in for a disappointment.
And if you’re headed to the beach for the weekend, good news – it gets a tiny bit closer to you every year.