Robert Samuelson

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  • STUDY: Newspaper Opinion Pages Feature Science Denial And Other Climate Change Misinformation

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS, KEVIN KALHOEFER & ANDREW SEIFTER

    The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The Washington Post all published climate science denial and other scientifically inaccurate statements about climate change on their opinion pages over the last year and a half, while The New York Times avoided doing so, according to a new Media Matters analysis of those four newspapers. The Journal published by far the most opinion pieces misrepresenting climate science, while all three instances of climate science denial in the Post came from columns written by George Will. The Journal and USA Today also published numerous climate-related op-eds without disclosing the authors’ fossil fuel ties, while USA Today, the Post, and particularly the Journal frequently published some of the least credible voices on climate and energy issues.

  • The Dean Of Yale’s Law School Just Schooled The Washington Post On Exxon And The First Amendment

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Yale Law School Dean Robert Post took to The Washington Post to completely dismantle the bogus claim that the attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil for fraud are trampling the company’s First Amendment rights. And in doing so, he pointed to one of several opinion writers who have misinformed the Post’s readers by advancing this “free speech” defense of Exxon's alleged deception on climate change. 

    Writing in The Washington Post on June 24, Robert Post criticized “ExxonMobil and its supporters” in the media for deceptively “[r]aising the revered flag of the First Amendment” to condemn attorneys general who are investigating Exxon. The attorneys general are looking into whether the oil company committed fraud by deliberating withholding truthful information about climate change from shareholders and the public in order to protect its profits. As Post explained, Exxon and its allies are “eliding the essential difference between fraud and public debate,” and if Exxon has indeed committed fraud, “its speech would not merit First Amendment protection.” He added: “Fraud is especially egregious because it is committed when a seller does not himself believe the hokum he foists on an unwitting public.”

    One of the conservative media figures that Post called out for distorting the Exxon investigations was The Washington Post’s own George Will, who penned an April 22 column peddling the false claim that the attorneys general pursuing Exxon are seeking to “criminalize skepticism” about climate change. And that wasn’t the only basic fact that Will butchered, as the Climate Denier Roundup explained at the time:

    George Will used his column in the Washington Post to offer a lesson on how this campaign [against Exxon] is part of a larger progressive strategy to shut down debate. But apparently it’s Will that needs a history lesson, as he uses as evidence a story about a 2013 IRS investigation accusing the agency of targeting conservatives. But that investigation “found no evidence” that the IRS actions were politically motivated.

    Unfortunately, Will is not the only voice on the Post’s opinion pages who has misrepresented the facts to defend Exxon.

    As the Climate Denier Roundup noted, the same day that Will’s column ran, the Post also published an op-ed by two officials at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a think tank that peddled climate science denial while receiving funding from Exxon. The CEI op-ed repeated the falsehood that the attorneys general are seeking to “run roughshod” over Exxon’s First Amendment protections and prosecute “dissent.” It also engaged in carefully crafted legalese about CEI’s relationship with Exxon, as the Climate Denier Roundup observed:

    Worth noting CEI’s careful phrasing about its relationship with Exxon, which CEI says “publicly ended its support for us after 2005.” With Donors Trust and others making it possible to anonymize giving, the key word is “publicly.”

    Flashback to November 2015, and the story at the Post is much the same. Like Will, the Post’s Robert Samuelson claimed in a November 8 column that investigations of Exxon are an “assault” on free speech, and that the “advocates of a probe into ExxonMobil are essentially proposing that the company be punished for expressing its opinions.” Samuelson also repeated Exxon’s bogus talking point that a 1989 Exxon document proves that groundbreaking reports about Exxon by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times "'cherry-pick[ed]' their evidence."

    Then there’s the Post editorial board itself, which prematurely concluded in a November 15 editorial that Exxon “didn’t commit a crime.” Perhaps the Post will reconsider after hearing from Robert Post on that matter. 

    From Robert Post’s June 24 op-ed in The Washington Post:

    If large oil companies have deliberately misinformed investors about their knowledge of global warming, they may have committed serious commercial fraud.

    [...]

    ExxonMobil and its supporters are now eliding the essential difference between fraud and public debate. Raising the revered flag of the First Amendment, they loudly object to investigations recently announced by attorneys general of several states into whether ExxonMobil has publicly misrepresented what it knew about global warming.

    The National Review has accused the attorneys general of “trampling the First Amendment.” Post columnist George F. Will has written that the investigations illustrate the “authoritarianism” implicit in progressivism, which seeks “to criminalize debate about science.” And Hans A. von Spakovsky, speaking for the Heritage Foundation, compared the attorneys general to the Spanish Inquisition.

    Despite their vitriol, these denunciations are wide of the mark. If your pharmacist sells you patent medicine on the basis of his “scientific theory” that it will cure your cancer, the government does not act like the Spanish Inquisition when it holds the pharmacist accountable for fraud.

    The obvious point, which remarkably bears repeating, is that there are circumstances when scientific theories must remain open and subject to challenge, and there are circumstances when the government must act to protect the integrity of the market, even if it requires determining the truth or falsity of those theories. Public debate must be protected, but fraud must also be suppressed. Fraud is especially egregious because it is committed when a seller does not himself believe the hokum he foists on an unwitting public.

    [...]

    If ExxonMobil has committed fraud, its speech would not merit First Amendment protection. But the company nevertheless invokes the First Amendment to suppress a subpoena designed to produce the information necessary to determine whether ExxonMobil has committed fraud. It thus seeks to foreclose the very process by which our legal system acquires the evidence necessary to determine whether fraud has been committed. In effect, the company seeks to use the First Amendment to prevent any informed lawsuit for fraud.

  • Exxon Is Trying To Whitewash Its Climate Change Deception, And Some Media Are Lending A Hand

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Exxon Image

    Amid a newly-announced investigation of ExxonMobil by the attorney general of New York and calls from all three Democratic presidential candidates for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a federal probe of the oil giant, Exxon is feeling heat over evidence that it deceived the public for decades about the science of climate change. So the company is lashing out at the media organizations that compiled that evidence, and recent opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are assisting Exxon's disinformation campaign.

    Following an eight-month investigation that included interviews with former Exxon employees and an extenstive examination of primary sources, including internal Exxon documents dating back to the 1970's, InsideClimate News published a six-part series in September and October detailing "how Exxon conducted cutting-edge climate research decades ago and then, without revealing all that it had learned, worked at the forefront of climate denial." The Los Angeles Times conducted its own investigation with Columbia University's Energy & Environmental Reporting Project and reached a similar conclusion: in the 1980's Exxon "earned a public reputation as a pioneer in climate change research," but by 1990 the company began "pour[ing] millions into a campaign that questioned climate change." The Times reported that the documents, along with "the recollections of former employees," indicate that ExxonMobil changed its stance on the issue because it "feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome policies."

    Exxon initially responded by seeking to dismiss the InsideClimate News investigation as the work of "anti-oil and gas activists" (never mind that InsideClimate News is a Pulitzer Prize-winning media organization). But now Exxon has adopted a new strategy: seek to discredit the Los Angeles Times' characterization of a single Exxon document in order to undermine the mountains of evidence that Exxon purposefully deceived the public about climate change.

    Exxon put this strategy into action in a November 5 blog post, in which Exxon Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Ken Cohen claimed that the Times was "deliberating hiding" a 1989 Exxon presentation it cited against Exxon because the document supposedly "undercuts the paper's claims that ExxonMobil knew with certainty everything there is to know about global warming back in the 1980s yet failed to sound alarms." The Exxon complaint was quickly picked up by a November 8 Wall Street Journal editorial, which claimed that the 1989 document proves that the InsideClimate News and Times investigations "selectively quote from internal Exxon documents," and a November 8 column by The Washington Post's Robert Samuelson, who repeated Cohen's claim that the 1989 document shows how the media investigations "'cherry-pick' their evidence."

    Exxon is attacking the Times for reporting that the 1989 presentation, by Exxon scientist Duane LeVine, showed Exxon recognized that "scientists generally agreed gases released by burning fossil fuels could raise global temperatures significantly by the middle of the 21st century." In particular, Exxon objects to the Times not mentioning that LeVine said in the same document, "I do not believe" that "the science has demonstrated the existence of [potential enhanced greenhouse] today," and "enhanced greenhouse is still deeply imbedded in scientific uncertainty." (LeVine defined "potential enhanced greenhouse" as the "enhancement of [the greenhouse effect] due to human activities.")

    But the Times is correct in pointing out that LeVine acknowledged the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels was projected to lead to significant warming. From page 20 of LeVine's 1989 presentation (emphasis added):

    [The Department of Energy's] CO2 projections are used in current climate models to predict important changes over the next 100 years. This set of results is taken from the National Research Council (NRC) report "Changing Climate".

    Consensus predictions call for warming 1.5-4.5 [degrees Celsius] for doubled CO2 with greater warming at the poles. Note that these numbers reflect the range produced by available models. No one knows how to evaluate the absolute uncertainty in the numbers.

    The extent and thickness of glaciers are predicted to decrease, leading to sea level rise. The NRC report chose a most likely value of 70 cm sea level rise. Other predictions suggest a broader range from 30-200 cm. The rise occurs both from a larger amount of water in the oceans, and from thermal expansion.

    Finally, climate change and higher levels of atmospheric CO2 affect agriculture and ecosystems.

    The Times is also correct when it says that LeVine urged Exxon to "[t]ell the public that more science is needed before regulatory action is taken ... and emphasize the 'costs and economics' of restricting carbon dioxide emissions." From page 33 of the presentation (emphasis added, ellipses original):

    To be a responsible participant and part of the solution to [potential enhanced greenhouse], Exxon's position should recognize and support 2 basic societal needs. First ... to improve understanding of the problem ... not just the science ... but the costs and economics tempered by the sociopolitical realities. That's going to take years (probably decades). But there are measures already underway that will improve our environment in various ways ... and in addition reduce the growth in greenhouse gases. That's the second need including things like energy conservation, restriction of CFC emissions, and efforts to increase the global ratio of re/de forestation. Of course, we'll need to develop other response options...implementing measures when they are cost effective in the near term and pursuing new technologies for the future.

    In the presentation, LeVine drew a distinction between historical warming up to that point -- which he claimed is "not enough to confirm enhanced greenhouse" (page 22) -- and projections, which he said "suggest ... significant climate change with a variety of regional impacts" and "sea level rise with generally negative consequences" (page 22). Then, after identifying the "key players" that were likely to increasingly call for action to address climate change (page 23), LeVine claimed there is a "misconception" that "enough research on the basic problem has been done," and argued that "failure to understand" the need for scientific advances and uncertainty in the climate models could "lead to premature limitations on fossil fuels" (page 31).

    So LeVine acknowledged the scientific consensus on climate change while simultaneously arguing that he personally did not believe anthropogenic global warming was fully proven and that more research was necessary before restricting fossil fuel use. In that sense, LeVine's presentation is indicative of Exxon's shift towards attempting to "emphasize [the] doubt," just as the Times described it.

    The year of LeVine's presentation also fits with the timeline for Exxon's shift on climate science that was identified in the InsideClimate News investigation (emphasis added):

    Through much of the 1980s, Exxon researchers worked alongside university and government scientists to generate objective climate models that yielded papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Their work confirmed the emerging scientific consensus on global warming's risks.

    Yet starting in 1989, Exxon leaders went down a different road. They repeatedly argued that the uncertainty inherent in computer models makes them useless for important policy decisions. Even as the models grew more powerful and reliable, Exxon publicly derided the type of work its own scientists had done. The company continued its involvement with climate research, but its reputation for objectivity began to erode as it campaigned internationally to cast doubt on the science.

    With this full context, it's clear that the Times' characterization of LeVine's presentation is justified and Exxon's response is a deceptive smokescreen.

    But it's also important to remember that LeVine's presentation is just one of many primary source documents examined by the Times and InsideClimate News. Here is a sampling of other documents showing that Exxon scientists and officials recognized by the early-to-mid-eighties that there was broad scientific consensus continuing to burn fossil fuels would lead to climate change, even if the amount of warming was still unclear:

    • Exxon Senior Scientist James F. Black (1978): In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels. A doubling of carbon dioxide is estimated to be capable of increasing the average global temperature by from 1 [degree] to 3 [degrees Celsius], with a 10 [degrees Celsius] rise predicted at the poles. More research is needed, however, to establish the validity and significance of predictions with respect to the Greenhouse Effect. It is currently estimated that mankind has a 5-10 yr. time window to obtain the necessary information.
    • Exxon Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory Director Roger W. Cohen (1982): [O]ver the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2. The consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 [plus-or-minus] 1.5) [degrees Celsius]. The uncertainty in this figure is a result of the inability of even the most elaborate models to simulate climate in a totally realistic manner. ... [T]he results of our research are in accord with the scientific consensus on the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 on climate.
    • Exxon Environmental Affairs Programs Manager M.B. Glaser (1982): Predictions of the climatological impact of a carbon dioxide induced "greenhouse effect" draw upon various mathematical models to gauge the temperature increase. The scientific community generally discussed the impact in terms of doubling of the current carbon dioxide content in order to get beyond the noise level of the data. We estimate doubling could occur around the year 2090 based upon fossil fuel requirements projected in Exxon's long range energy outlook. The question of which predictions and which models best simulate a carbon dioxide-induced climate change is still being debated by the scientific community. Our best estimate is that doubling of the current concentration could increase average global temperature by about 1.3 [degrees Celsius] to 3.1 [degrees Celsius].
    • Exxon Climate Modeler Brian Flannery And New York University Professor Martin Hoffert (1985): Consensus CO2 Warming: Transient climate models currently available, when run with standard scenarios of fossil fuel CO2 emissions, indicate a global warming of the order of 1 [degree Celsius] by the year 2000, relative to the year 1850, and an additional 2-5 [degrees Celsius] warming over the next century. However, the sensitivity of such predictions to known uncertainties of the models -- that is, the robustness of CO2 warming predictions -- has not yet been extensively explored.

    Image at top via Flickr user Mike Mozart using a Creative Commons license.

  • Myths and Facts About EPA's Carbon Pollution Standards

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    The Environmental Protection Agency's forthcoming regulations on greenhouse gas emissions will provide legally required protection for the health and welfare of Americans at a cheap cost, while allowing states flexibility -- contrary to media fearmongering about the landmark standards.

  • The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Fatalistic Climate Rhetoric

    Blog ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    Carbon Pollution

    A Washington Post columnist claimed that there is "no solution" to global warming in an op-ed that itself included -- and buried -- a possible solution to mitigate climate change. The damage done by advancing the defeatist claim that nothing can be done about climate change may make it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    This year has brought one landmark climate report after another, each stating with more certainty than ever that the cost of inaction against climate change will be far greater than the cost of mitigating catastrophe. The National Climate Assessment found that unchecked global warming will affect every region of the country and cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars. The report also found that it's not too late to implement greenhouse gas reduction policies to avoid this scenario. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the findings that climate change is having "sweeping effects" on every continent, and made the case for "immediate mitigation" in a subsequent report, providing hundreds of different pathways for countries to take in order to avoid the worst effects. The American Association for the Advancement of Science published an explainer on the current state of climate science, stating that "The sooner we act [on climate change], the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do."

    Yet in a May 12 op-ed, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson brazenly declared that "we have no solution" to climate disruption. He suggested for every report on global warming to come with a "disclaimer" that "we now lack the technologies to stop it," despite the fact that the reports he detailed in his op-ed actually found that these resources already exist.

    The "reality" Samuelson provides, that global emissions are currently projected to increase nearly 50 percent by 2040, mostly from fossil fuels, should warrant an even stronger case for action. The longer the world waits to take action on climate change, the costlier it will be -- up to $1.9 trillion in the U.S. alone, according to an analysis by Tufts University. In other words, Samuelson's "solution" -- to do nothing -- would end up costing the economy more in the long-run.

    Just because one U.S. policy may not be sufficient to negate global climate change does not make an action "futile." Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist and writer for The Guardian and Skeptical Science, analogized Samuelson's argument to "saying that somebody who's obese shouldn't stop eating deep fried Twinkies, because by itself that's not sufficient to lose 100 pounds" in an email to Media Matters. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman has also spoken out against this logic in the New York Times:

    What about the argument that unilateral U.S. action won't work, because China is the real problem? It's true that we're no longer No. 1 in greenhouse gases -- but we're still a strong No. 2. Furthermore, U.S. action on climate is a necessary first step toward a broader international agreement, which will surely include sanctions on countries that don't participate.

    Despite his fatalistic rhetoric (for which he has previously been criticized), Samuelson does offer a potential solution at the end of his column, one he has advocated in the past: a carbon tax:

    The most obvious idea is a carbon tax to help finance government and stimulate energy-saving technologies and new forms of non-carbon energy. If these technologies went global, the gap between rich and poor countries would narrow.

    So why is Samuelson claiming that a "central truth for public policy" is that "we have no solution?" Solutions exist, as he himself admitted later in the column. But the longer they are delayed, the worse the problem will become, especially if global warming worsens past a potential tipping point. Providing solutions to global warming in the media is essential for closing the "science-action gap" and creating change. Without knowing the solutions, the Washington Post's readers are more likely to reject the threat of climate disruption. Framing climate change as a solution-less problem may create a scenario where that's true.

    Photo at top via Flickr user Takver with a Creative Commons license.

  • Wash. Post Columnist Ignores Obama's Support For Balanced Approach To Deficits

    Blog ››› ››› ADAM SHAH

    In today's Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson misrepresented President Obama's approach to fixing our nation's deficit, which includes spending cuts in addition to tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.

    Samuelson claimed that Obama has misled the country "by implying that making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share will solve much of" the deficit problem. He then attempted to discredit the argument that raising taxes on the rich would close the deficit.

    But Samuelson is misrepresenting Obama's proposal for balancing the budget. Far from proposing tax increases alone, "Obama's plan for reducing the deficit would cut $2.50 in spending allowances for every $1 of increased tax revenue," as CBS reported on September 9. Republicans, however, have rejected that proposal.

    Obama has proposed combined spending cuts and tax increases for the wealthiest Americans for years.  In fact, some progressives have criticized Obama's budget proposals for cutting spending too much.