Still, a crucial question about the fossil-fuel industry remains to be fully explored: Which of its companies have funded the activities of the trade organizations and other third-party allies who deny the facts about climate change? In some cases, we already know the answers. In 2006, for instance, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom documented ExxonMobil's funding of 39 organizations that promoted "inaccurate and misleading" views of climate science. The Society was able to identify $2.9 million spent to that end by that company in the year 2005 alone. That, of course, was just one year and clearly anything but the whole story.
Nearly all of these third-party allies are incorporated as 501(c)(3) institutions, which means they must be non-profit and nonpartisan. Often they claim to be involved in education (though mis-education would be the more accurate term). But they are clearly also involved in supporting an industry -- Big Energy -- that couldn't be more for-profit and they have done many things to support what could only be called a partisan political agenda as well. After all, by its own admission, Energy45, to take just one example, exists to support the "Trump Energy Agenda."
I'm an educator, not a lawyer, but as one I can say with confidence that the activities of these organizations are the opposite of educational. Typically, the Heartland Institute, for instance, has explicitly targeted schoolteachers with disinformation. In 2017, the institute sent a booklet to more than 200,000 of them, repeating the oft-cited contrarian claims that climate science is still a highly unsettled subject and that, even if climate change were occurring, it "would probably not be harmful." Of this booklet, the director of the National Center for Science Education said, "It's not science, but it's dressed up to look like science. It's clearly intended to confuse teachers." The National Science Teaching Association has called it "propaganda" and advised teachers to place their copies in the recycling bin.
Yet, as much as we know about the activities of Heartland and other third-party allies of the fossil-fuel industry, because of loopholes in our laws we still lack basic information about who has funded and sustained them. Much of the funding at the moment still qualifies as "dark money." Isn't it time for citizens to demand that Congress investigate this network, as it and the Department of Justice once investigated the tobacco industry and its networks?
ExxonMobil loves to accuse me of being "an activist." I am, in fact, a teacher and a scholar. Most of the time, I'd rather be home working on my next book, but that increasingly seems like less of an option when Big Energy's climate-change scam is ongoing and our civilization is, quite literally, at stake. When citizens are inactive, democracy fails -- and this time, if democracy fails, as burning California shows, so much else could fail as well. Science isn't enough. The rest of us are needed. And we are needed now.
Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. She is coauthor, with Erik Conway, of Merchants of Doubt. Her latest book is Why Trust Science?
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Copyright 2019 Naomi Oreskes
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