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Monday, April 17, 2006

Paul Krugman: Enemy of the Planet

Paul Krugman tackles the trashing of science by oil companies, Exxon in particular, to cloud research pointing to global warming. He also notes how the press, in its quest to be balanced, aids and abets this effort:

Enemy of the Planet, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Lee Raymond, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, was paid $686 million over 13 years. But that's not a reason to single him out for special excoriation. Executive compensation is out of control in corporate America as a whole, and unlike other grossly overpaid business leaders, Mr. Raymond can at least claim to have made money for his stockholders.

There's a better reason to excoriate Mr. Raymond ... he turned Exxon Mobil into an enemy of the planet. To understand why Exxon Mobil is a worse environmental villain than other big oil companies, you need to know a bit about how the science and politics of climate change have shifted over the years.

Global warming emerged as a major public issue in the late 1980's. But at first there was considerable scientific uncertainty.

Over time, the accumulation of evidence removed much of that uncertainty. ... there's now an overwhelming scientific consensus that the world is getting warmer, and that human activity is the cause. ... To dismiss this consensus, you have to believe in a vast conspiracy to misinform the public that somehow embraces thousands of scientists around the world. That sort of thing is the stuff of bad novels. ...

So how have corporate interests responded? In the early years, ... many companies from the oil industry, the auto industry and other sectors were members of a group called the Global Climate Coalition, whose de facto purpose was to oppose curbs on greenhouse gases. But as the scientific evidence became clearer, many members — including oil companies like BP and Shell — left the organization and conceded the need to do something about global warming.

Exxon, headed by Mr. Raymond, chose a different course of action: it decided to fight the science.

A leaked memo from a 1998 meeting ... describes a strategy of providing "logistical and moral support" to climate change dissenters, "thereby raising questions about and undercutting the 'prevailing scientific wisdom.' " And that's just what Exxon Mobil has done: lavish grants have supported a sort of alternative intellectual universe of global warming skeptics.

The people and institutions Exxon Mobil supports aren't actually engaged in climate research. They're the real-world equivalents of the Academy of Tobacco Studies in the movie "Thank You for Smoking," whose purpose is to fail to find evidence of harmful effects.

But the fake research works for its sponsors, partly because it gets picked up by right-wing pundits, but mainly because it plays perfectly into the he-said-she-said conventions of "balanced" journalism. A 2003 study ... of reporting on global warming in major newspapers found that a majority of reports gave the skeptics — a few dozen people, many if not most receiving ... financial support from Exxon Mobil — roughly the same amount of attention as the scientific consensus, supported by thousands of independent researchers.

Has Exxon Mobil's war on climate science actually changed policy for the worse? Maybe not ... the Bush administration has done nothing, it's not clear that policies would have been any better even if Exxon Mobil had acted more responsibly.

But the fact is that whatever small chance there was of action to limit global warming became even smaller because Exxon Mobil chose to protect its profits by trashing good science. And that, not the paycheck, is the real scandal of Mr. Raymond's reign as Exxon Mobil's chief executive.

Previous (4/14) column: Paul Krugman: Weapons of Math Destruction
Next (4/21) column: Paul Krugman: The Great Revulsion

    Posted by on Monday, April 17, 2006 at 03:33 AM in Economics, Environment, Oil, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (80)

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