At long last, Donald Trump and his Republican co-dependents have a major piece of legislation they can use to show their “donors” and their diehard supporters that they are able to “govern.” This, anyway, is the story corporate media tell.
“Donor” is the media’s euphemism for “capitalist paymaster.” Both duopoly parties have them. They are a “bipartisan” bunch, loyal to their class, and therefore generally of one mind — though, of course, their first loyalties are to themselves. They pay the piper; they call the tune.
“Governing” comes down to enforcing intraparty discipline. This means riding herd on doctrinaire libertarians and later-day Tea Partiers. There are also still a few Republican Senators and House members who, on rare occasions, are capable of surprising everybody, including themselves, by summoning up a shred of moral decency and common sense. They need to be kept in line as well. This is especially crucial in the Senate, where the Republican majority is razor thin.
Fortunately, governing, so understood, has turned out to be a lot harder than sensible people a year ago feared. Immobility has been our salvation. The more that Trump and the GOP “govern,” the worse off we become.
Governing does not involve making nice to Democrats. If the members of the other duopoly party were a tad more obdurate, the way Republicans are, it might be different, but, as matters now stand, Democrats are irrelevant. When it suits them, Trump and the Republicans will mouth off about “bipartisanship”; in fact, though, they could care less. What matters is getting and keeping Republicans on board.
To that end, Republican legislators find it useful to pander to Trump’s diehard supporters. They hardly have to, however. Anyone who is still standing by the Donald must neither know nor care how dangerous he is, and how little he cares about matters of concern to them. The more Fox News time they log, and the more they immerse themselves in other rightwing propaganda, the less they know.
On the off chance that a ray of light somehow penetrates through the miasma that engulfs their minds, Fox and the others are there to set them straight. Fox is especially good for riling up “the darker angels of their nature.”
Therefore, there was never much need for a legislative victory to keep the Trump base on board. They are there for the duration.
Had the GOP tax scam gone the way of GOP efforts “to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Trump’s stalwart supporters would be standing by their man with much the same intensity and in roughly the same numbers as they were before they rammed their tax cuts through, and as they will be when the dreadful new tax regime takes hold.
The donors are another story. They are a demanding lot, and they expect some bang for their bucks.
Stacking the federal judiciary with rightwing judges and neutering regulatory protections is not enough for them. They want tax breaks too. And, before long, it will become even plainer than it already is that they want to privatize everything that they can milk for profit.
In short, their appetite for plunder is limitless. For them, there is no such thing as being too rich. Neither do they have time for, much less sympathy with, challenges, no matter how tepid, to the untrammeled power of their class.
Their flunkies in the House and Senate understand this perfectly. They understand too that, to keep the money flowing in, they need to demonstrate that their services are worth the cost. Thus they needed a win or at least something they could pass off for one.
Trump wanted a big win too – not so much to impress his class brothers and sisters, the ones who are already on board, as to impress himself. He wanted a victory because he is a pathetically vainglorious creature who cannot celebrate himself too much.
He is therefore always on the lookout for ways to toot his own horn, and always on the verge of decomposing when reality frustrates his efforts.
In his little bubble, surrounded by the most nauseatingly obsequious cabinet officers ever to disgrace the republic, and by a Vice President eager to take over but adept at feigning an adoring gaze that puts even Nancy Reagan’s to shame, he can get away with it.
However, at some level, surely even he must know better. External validation helps with that. In this case, though, he will soon be ruing the day he won.
Trump may know even less about what is in his tax scam than the average Republican legislator, but he nevertheless owns it. From now on, the tax scam rammed through Congress last week will be known as “the Trump tax cut.” When the economy starts heading south, as it soon will, that name will become toxic.
The polling data is clear: even now, the Trump tax cut is less popular than any tax increase in living memory. It can only go downhill from there. The morning after euphoria of the miscreants responsible for it will be short-lived. Before long, that stubborn, non-alternative fact may even penetrate the thick skull of the Commander-in-Chief.
Indeed, one can only wonder in disbelief at the sheer irrationality of the idea that led Trump and the Republicans to think that their scam would benefit them in next year’s midterm elections. There are times when something is not better than nothing, and any idiot could see that this was one of those times.
What the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan cobbled together, under the watchful eyes of their donors’ nefarious lobbyists, is a ridiculous concoction that will benefit those donors and the larger donor class, and harm nearly everyone else.
The donors will make out like the bandits they are. But unless Democrats fumble even more spectacularly than they normally do, the bounty they will acquire will be a nail in the coffin of their favorite political party.
McConnell and Ryan and the others did see to it that a few crumbs would go to some “middle class” taxpayers, especially those living in “red” states with low taxes, and low property values. They seem to have taken their cue from their friends in the predatory lending business: lure the suckers in with teaser rates, and then milk them for all they are worth (or more).
Did they really think that tax cuts big enough to finance a family dinner at a fast food restaurant would cause “average” people – not all of them by any means, but more than a few — not to care about deficits that put the remnants of New Deal–Great Society programs that everyone who is not filthy rich depend upon in jeopardy?
It is already obvious that Ryan and others of his ilk are salivating at the prospect of using those deficits as a pretext for doing precisely that. Could they really expect even viewers dumbed down by Fox News not to figure out that the only reason for creating those deficits is to make themselves and their donors richer still?
By now, it should be dawning even on Trump’s most gullible supporters that not only are they being played, but that their intelligence is being insulted — more blatantly even than when Hillary Clinton called them and others like them “deplorable.”
With Democrats for opponents, anything could happen. But unless the less odious of our two semi-established neoliberal parties flubs again, the tax scam Republicans rammed through can hardly fail to deliver a mortal wound to the GOP.
Surely, Republicans would want to prevent that.
Or maybe not. After all, their mind-boggling irrationality does make a kind of sense in a political universe as corrupt as ours has become.
With sufficient ingenuity, one could make a case for the Trump tax cut on ideological – specifically, libertarian – grounds. There is not much ingenuity in Republican ranks, but there probably are libertarians in the House and Senate Republican caucuses who think – reflexively — that anything that “starves the beast” is worthy of support.
There are also Republicans, many of them with libertarian leanings, who consider themselves policy wonks and who think that there actually are sound public policy justifications for the ludicrous concoction they have just pushed through.
Paul Ryan is a case in point; he seems to have been thinking along these lines since the days when, as an adolescent, he discovered thatAtlas Shrugged could be useful for more than just a stroke book.
In the final analysis, though, the Trump tax cut is not about ideology or policy or anything else that democratic theorists would claim it is or ought to be. It is about money. In American elections nowadays, money makes the world go round.
However, in the Age of Trump, this is the least of it.
The authors of our Constitution supported or at least tolerated slavery, and they packed all sorts of non- and anti-democratic features into the basic institutions of the republic they founded.
However, they also envisioned a political sphere in which enlightened representatives, assembled together to debate and collectively determine the common good, decided collectively what is to be done. In line with the most advanced political theorists of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, they sought to establish a modern version of the Roman Senate or the Athenian agora.
But, almost from Day One, their best laid plans went mightily astray. In American democracy, there has seldom been more than a pretense of rational deliberation and debate, and talk of the common good is hypocritical nonsense. The parties and factions whose malign effects the republic’s founders sought to guard against run the show; and self-interest is all.
We do have generally free and fair competitive elections, especially now that restrictions on the franchise have been relaxed enough to accord the right to vote to nearly all adult citizens, regardless of class, race or gender. But our elections are emphatically not about electing wise, disinterested rulers. They are about “special interests” selling biddable candidates to the voting public.
Or rather that was how it was before Trump’s election magnified the prevailing level of corruption many times over.
Getting reelected is now no longer all that it is cracked up to be. There isn’t as much percentage in it as there was even just a year ago.
Like Trump himself, many House and Senate Republicans have better, quicker ways to feather their own nests.
Trump has botched up so much, undermined so many norms, and delegitimized so many venerable understandings that, outside the shrinking precincts of the hopelessly benighted troglodytes who latched onto him even before his campaign got underway, he has come to be so despised that even Republicans now expect a Democratic landslide in 2018.
It is no sure thing, of course; not even with Trump stirring up fear and loathing in roughly two thirds of the population. Democrats have a knack for defeating themselves – Hillary Clinton style, though electoral incompetence, and because they too do yeoman service for the rich and heinous.
Nevertheless, they are on track for an overwhelming victory in 2018, notwithstanding the gerrymandering rampage that Republicans undertook after their electoral victories in 2010.
For many a Republican legislator, a “shellacking” (Obama’s word) equal or greater than the one that Democrats got in 2010 could actually be a blessing in disguise. Instead of spending years in Congress pretending to care about the public good while prepping to cash in eventually in the lobbying racket, they may soon be able to jump right in.
This is all the more reason for them to do all they can to stay on the donors’ good side. This holds as much for those who won’t themselves get a direct windfall from the scam as for those, like the turncoat Senator Tom Corker of Tennessee and many of his similarly shameless colleagues, who will.
Genuine fascists, or rather their twenty-first century successors and moral equivalents, expressly oppose democracy. Trump has empowered people who come perilously close to that — Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are the best-known examples.
But that is not, or not yet, his administration’s main thrust. Its effect has been not so much to underwrite opposition to democracy as to cause its level of corruption to increase – to a degree that is unprecedented in American history.
In the absence of a bona fide resistance — an organized, well-resourced countervailing force that is not and cannot be marginalized — this could be almost as bad.
ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) andPOLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor toHopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).
By José Manuel Zelaya Rosales / Socialist Project.
People of the United States:
For the past century, the owners of the fruit companies called our country “Banana Republic” and characterized our politicians as “cheaper than a mule” (as in the infamous Rolston letter).
Honduras, a dignified nation, has had the misfortune of having a ruling class lacking in ethical principles that kowtows to U.S. transnational corporations, condemning our country to backwardness and extreme poverty.
We have been subject to horrible dictatorships that have enjoyed U.S. support, under the premise that an outlaw is good for us if he serves transnational interests well. We have reached the point that today we are treated as less than a colony to which the U.S. government does not even deign to appoint an ambassador. Your government has installed a dictatorship in the person of Mr. Hernández, who acts as a provincial governor–spineless and obedient toward transnational companies, but a tyrant who uses terror tactics to oppress his own people. Certain sectors of Honduran private industry have also suffered greatly from punitive taxes and persecution.
You, the people of the United States, have been sold the idea that your government defends democracy, transparency, freedom and human rights in Honduras. But the State Department and Heide Fulton, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires who is serving as de facto Ambassador to Honduras, are supporting blatant electoral fraud favoring Mr. Hernández, who has repeatedly violated the Honduran Constitution and (as noted by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) basic human rights. He is responsible for the scandalous looting of USD $350 million from the Honduran Social Security Institute and while he lies to you shamelessly that he is fighting drug cartels, he has destroyed the rule of law by stacking the Supreme Court with justices loyal to him.
The people of the United States have the right to know that in Honduras your taxes are used to finance, train and run institutions that oppress the people, such as the armed forces and the police, both of which are well known to run death squads (like those that grew out of Plan Colombia) and which are also deeply integrated with drug cartels.
People of the United States: the immoral support of your government has been so two-faced that for eight consecutive years the U.S. Millenium Challenge Corporation has determined that the Hernandez regime does not qualify for aid because of the government’s corruption, failing in all measures of transparency. With this record, the Honduran people ask: Why is the U.S. Government willing to recognize as president a man who the Honduran people voted against, and who they wish to see leave office immediately?
People of the United States: We ask you to spread the word, to stand up to your government’s lies about supporting democracy, freedom, human rights and justice, and to demand that your elected representatives immediately end U.S. support for the scandalous electoral fraud against the people of Honduras, who have taken to the streets to demand recognition of the victory of the Alliance Against the Dictatorship and of President-Elect Salvador Alejandro César Nasralla Salúm.
We can tolerate difference and conflict, seeking peaceful solutions as a sovereign people, but your government’s intervention in favor of the dictatorship only exacerbates our differences.
The electoral fraud supported by the U.S. State Department in favor of the dictatorship has forced our people to protest massively throughout the country, despite savage government repression that has taken the lives of more than 34 young people since the election, and in which hundreds of protestors have been criminalized and imprisoned.
We stand in solidarity with the North American people; we share much more with you than the fact that the one percent has bought off the political leaders of both our nations.
As descendents of the Independence hero Morazán, we want to live in peace, with justice and in democracy.
The Honduran people want to have good relations with the United States, but with respect and reciprocity. •
Tegucigalpa, December 21, 2017
José Manuel Zelaya Rosales
Consitutionally Legitimate President of Honduras 2005-2010
Chief Coordinator, Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship
José Manuel Zelaya Rosales is the Consitutionally Legitimate President of Honduras (2005-2010), and Chief Coordinator of the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship.
President Donald Trump misleadingly inflated the benefits of the tax overhaul when he claimed it provides "$3.2 trillion ... in tax cuts for American families." It actually totals about $1.5 trillion in tax cuts for all taxpayers, including corporations.
President Trump says the new tax law "for the most part ... wiped out" the estate tax. That's misleading. While fewer people would have to pay it, estate tax revenue is expected to be cut by only a third over the next eight years. And then the changes would expire.
By James M. Dorsey / Mid-East Soccer.
Incarcerated for almost two months in a gilded cage in Riyadh’s luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel, Saudi billionaire businessman Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal appears to be putting up a fight that could challenge Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assertion that his two month-old purge of scores of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen constitutes a campaign against corruption.
Many of those detained in Prince Mohammed’s purge, dubbed by critics as a power and asset grab dressed up as an anti-corruption effort, have bought their release by agreeing to surrender significant assets. The government has said it hopes to recover up to $100 billion in allegedly illegitimately acquired funds and assets.
Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a favoured son of the late King Abdullah who was deposed as commander of the National Guard in a bid to neutralize the Saudi crown prince’s most potent rival, secured his release by agreeing to pay $1 billion and signing a document in which he confessed to charges of corruption.
In what appears to be the largest settlement demand, Prince Al-Waleed has, according to The Wall Street Journal, resisted pressure by the government to hand over $6 billion.
Instead, the prince has reportedly offered the government a significant stake in his Riyadh-listed Kingdom Holding that has invested in blue chips such as Citibank, Twitter, Four Seasons hotels, and Disney, and operates a media and entertainment empire. Kingdom Holding has lost 14 percent of its $8.7 billion market value since Prince Al-Waleed’s detention. The prince has also insisted that he retain a leadership position in his conglomerate.
With a fortune estimated by Forbes at $16.8 billion, Prince Al-Waleed reportedly believes that the cash settlement demanded by the government would put his empire at peril and amount to an admission of guilt.
That may indeed be the purpose of the exercise. A social reformer, who already years ago implemented within his own company changes of women’s status announced in recent months by Prince Mohammed, is Saudi Arabia’s most prominent entrepreneur who is continuously welcomed around the world by heads of state and government and business moguls.
The son of Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a liberal nicknamed the Red Prince, who in the 1960s and again in the first decade of the 21st century publicly criticized his family’s rule, Prince Al-Waleed is believed to have no political ambitions.
In resisting Prince Mohammed’s demands, Prince Al-Waleed is challenging an opaque and seemingly arbitrary process in which despite assertions by the government that it has conducted extensive investigations and collected substantial evidence of corruption, bribery, money laundering and extortion, there has been little, if any, discernible due process and no proof publicly presented.
Quoting sources close to Prince Al-Waleed, The Wall Street Journal reported that the businessman was demanding a proper investigation and was willing to fight it out in court. “He wants a proper investigation. It is expected that al-Waleed will give MBS a hard time,” the Journal quoted a person close to Prince Al-Waleed as saying. The person was referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.
A court battle would put the government’s assertions of due process to the test and would also shine a spotlight on the integrity of Saudi Arabia’s judicial system. The risk involved in a legal battle is that the charges levelled against Prince Al-Waleed and others were common practice in a kingdom in which there were no well-defined rules governing relationships between members of the ruling family and the government as well as ties between princes and princesses who wielded influence and businessmen.
There is little doubt that Prince Mohammed’s purge is popular among significant segments of the population, half of which is classified as low- or middle-income families, that has long resented the elite’s seemingly unbridled perks.
Prince Mohammed has so far been shielded against questions of the source of his own wealth and that of his tack of the ruling family. Several immediate relatives of Prince Mohammed were last year identified in the Panama Papers leaked from the files of a law firm in the Central American nation that handled offshore business and transactions by the world’s mega-rich.
Media reports have since suggested that the prince had spent in recent years $1.25 billion on a $500 million yacht, a $300 million mansion in France, and a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting. Prince Mohammed has denied buying the art work that was acquired by a close associate of his allegedly on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.
Shining the spotlight on the anti-corruption campaign in a legal battle with Prince Al-Waleed would come at a time that the government is unilaterally rewriting the kingdom’s social contract that involved a cradle-to-grave-welfare state in exchange for surrender of political rights and acceptance of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative and Bedouin moral codes.
The government this week paid $533 million into a newly established social welfare fund to help families offset the cost of the imminent introduction of a five-percent value-added tax on goods including food, and services, as well as subsidy cuts that would substantially raise the price of electricity and gasoline. The government was forced earlier this year to reverse a freeze on public sector wage increases and perks and slowdown its austerity program because of anger and frustration expressed on social media.
Labor and Social Development Minister Ali al-Ghafees told the state-run Saudi Press Agency that approximately three million families or 10.6 million beneficiaries had already been paid the maximum relief of 938 Saudi riyals ($250) out of the newly created fund.
The government, moreover, this month announced a $19bn stimulus package that includes subsidised loans for house buyers and developers, fee waivers for small businesses and financial support for distressed companies. It also presented its new budget involving record spending in which funding of defense outstrips that of education in a country with a 12.7 percent unemployment rate. A Bank of America Merrill Lynch report predicted last year that youth unemployment could jump from 33.5 to 42 percent by 2030.
Prince Mohammed is banking on continued public support for his economic and social reforms, and on the fact that once the dust has settled foreign investors will forget whatever misgivings they may have had about the lack of due process and absence of rule law in the anti-corruption crackdown. Foreign diplomats in the kingdom noted that the businesses of those detained or penalized continued to operate and that no foreign interests were caught up in the purge.
However, to maintain his popularity, Prince Mohammed will have to manage expectations, deliver jobs, continue to massage the pain of austerity and the introduction of a new social contract, and ensure that the public continues to perceive his purge as an anti-corruption campaign in which the high and mighty are no longer above the law.
A legal battle with Prince Al-Waleed that publicly puts to the test the government’s assertions could upset the apple cart. That may be the leverage Prince Al-Waleed hopes will work in his favour as he negotiates his settlement from the confines of the Ritz Carlton.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James isthe author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored withDr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.
By Neela Banerjee / Inside Climate News.
One of the longest and most consequential campaigns against science in modern history is becoming more extreme—and turning against its originators.
The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, launched a billboard campaign in 2012 to compare believers in global warming to "murderers and madmen" such as the Unabomber, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden. The backlash was so severe that Heartland pulled the plug within 24 hours, but it still lost major donors and political allies and faced criticism that its fight against climate science was beyond extreme.
Five years later, on June 1, 2017, the group's chief executive, Joseph Bast, was a guest of Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden as the president announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
"We are winning in the global warming war," Bast declared later in an email to supporters.
Heartland's rebound is striking. Its ascent into the Trump administration's orbit, where it now advises the Environmental Protection Agency on climate change issues, marks the most dramatic success yet in a decades-long crusade, first funded by fossil fuel money, against the mainstream scientific conclusion that human activity is warming the planet and inviting disastrous consequences.
Hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations such as ExxonMobil and wealthy individuals such as the billionaires Charles and David Koch have supported the development of a sprawling network, which includes Heartland and other think tanks, advocacy groups and political operatives. They have cast doubt on consensus science, confused public opinion and forestalled passage of laws and regulations that would address the global environmental crisis. It is one of the largest, longest and most consequential misinformation efforts mounted against mainstream science by an industry. Climate denial, thanks to the network's influence, has become a core message of the Republican Party, now in control of the White House and Congress.
"This didn't come out of nowhere. Trump was taught to say these things on climate by Heartland, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other think tanks. They maintained this denial space in public policy dialogue," said Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group. "And you can definitely credit Exxon and Koch brothers' money for giving the think tanks the megaphone to keep climate science denial in the world."
But now, just like the Republican upstarts that threaten the party establishment, Heartland is taking climate denial farther than many fossil fuel companies can support. While ExxonMobil today publicly accepts the reality of human-caused climate change and the need to address the problem, Heartland argues for the benefits of a warming world. The group is pushing the EPA to overturn its official conclusion—known as the endangerment finding—that excessive carbon dioxide is a danger to human health and welfare. The finding, affirmed by the Supreme Court, is what empowers the agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
This rift was on display at a recent meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that influences state governments to adopt conservative priorities. Heartland wanted ALEC to approve a resolution calling on the EPA to withdraw the endangerment finding. But ExxonMobil, once at the forefront of climate denial, was among several corporations and utilities that convinced ALEC to shelve a vote on the resolution.
ExxonMobil had become just another member of "the discredited and anti-energy global warming movement," complained Heartland's president, Tim Huelskamp, a former Republican congressman from Kansas. "They've put their profits and 'green' virtue signaling above sound science."
ExxonMobil is among an early group of donors that slowed or ended its funding of climate denial. But the misinformation apparatus the corporations helped create is now so independent and robust, it no longer needs—or trusts—them.
"Robespierre beheading Danton is pretty apt here," said Jerry Taylor, president of the bipartisan, pro-climate action think tank Niskanen Center, referring to French revolutionaries executing the moderates among them during the Reign of Terror. "There used to be some degree of interest in projecting an image of seriousness, of expertise and evenhandedness on climate, and there isn't anymore."
The new goal is making sure that denial is "part of the ideological catechism of the conservative base," Taylor said. "They are trying to keep the hard Right animated."
Taylor knows this universe from the inside. Once a prominent climate skeptic, he worked at ALEC as staff director for energy and environment issues early in his career. From 1991 to 2014, he was a vice president at the Cato Institute, focusing on energy and climate issues. And, his brother, James Taylor, is a senior environmental fellow at Heartland.
Whatever their differences today, corporations such as ExxonMobil were crucial to getting the denial network up and running.
According to climate watchdogs Greenpeace/ExxonSecrets, ExxonMobil led corporate donations to think tanks, giving nearly $31 million between 1998 and 2014 to 69 groups that spread climate misinformation. The Koch brothers, whose conservative ideology dovetails with their petrochemical business interests, led giving among individual magnates, donating more than $100 million since 1997 to 84 groups.
The Heartland Institute rejects suggestions that it was ever part of any group fostered by corporations. "Heartland has long supported and promoted scientists skeptical of man-caused global warming on principle," Jim Lakely, the organization's spokesman, told InsideClimate News.
Data from Greenpeace/ExxonSecrets shows the organization received $650,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2006. Heartland points out that it ramped up its work on climate after its Exxon funding ended, and that the only Koch-connected contribution it received in the past 15 years, of $25,000, supported its work on health care issues.
ExxonMobil and Koch Industries did not respond to requests for comment.
As Money Flowed, Strategies Passed Like a Baton
Social scientists are still trying to gauge the full breadth of spending on climate denial because of the large number of players involved, the growth of money from secretive sources, and the wide range of public relations tactics fossil fuel companies use to delay action, according to Robert Brulle, professor of sociology at Drexel University.
Brulle mined IRS and other public filings to show that between 2003 and 2010, 91 groups promulgating climate denial received more than a half-billion dollars from 140 foundations. Corporations such as ExxonMobil pared back their funding in that decade; most of the money came from financial vehicles such as Donors' Trust, which shields funders' identities.
As the money flowed through and nurtured the network over the decades, its misinformation strategies passed like a baton to a shifting array of coalitions and initiatives that protected fossil fuel interests in the climate debate. Some groups produced reports that cast doubt on the accumulating evidence of manmade climate change, and others amplified the alternative findings. Think tanks in the network held conferences, sponsored panels, wrote op-eds and letters, and created an echo chamber loud enough to command equal time in the mainstream media.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon's CEO from 2006 to 2016, after working his way up in the oil company. According to climate watchdogs Greenpeace/ExxonSecrets, ExxonMobil gave nearly $31 million between 1998 and 2014 to 69 groups that spread climate misinformation. Credit: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images
Still, in 2007, under pressure from its shareholders, ExxonMobil announced in its Corporate Citizenship report that it would stop funding a number of climate denial groups. The following year, the presidential nominees of both major political parties felt safe promising voters they would address the threat of climate change if elected.
Then in 2010 the equilibrium changed. The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United vs. FEC removed caps on corporate and nonprofit political donations and opened the floodgates on campaign spending. Billionaires such as the Kochs moved millions of dollars to support the rise of the Tea Party movement and ultra-conservative candidates who saw climate denial as the bedrock of party orthodoxy. Soon, few Republicans running for federal office would admit to accepting the reality of manmade climate change. After conservative populism put Donald Trump in office, the hard-right's social media ecosystem, empowered by a president eager to tweet, has accelerated the spread of false climate narratives, making them more difficult to counter, much less uproot.
"They decided that if they have to choose between an argument that is solid and serious and one that is dodgy but easily understandable by the base, they'll go with the latter," Taylor said. "Anything that moves the needle for the Fox News or Breitbart reader."
The machinery of climate misinformation has gone global and now runs itself. A false story that appeared last February in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, got pushed by right-wing outlets and social media deep into the halls of Congress. "Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data," its headline said. The story claimed that American government scientists had manipulated climate research to advance the Paris accord.
Ten days later, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, a fossil fuel champion and chair of the powerful House Committee on Science and Technology, pressed the government to release the data the scientists had allegedly misused. The story of scientific deception was fake news. A British media oversight body forced the Daily Mail to retract the story, but that was six months after it was published.
'Delay and Defeat': A Strategy Evolves
Oil companies began developing strategies to sow doubt about science that could lead to regulation long before global warming became an issue.
Biochemist Arie Haagen-Smit discovered in the early 1950s that oil was the cause of dangerous smog shrouding Los Angeles. The industry tried to discredit his findings. Credit: California Institute of Technology
Beginning in the 1940s, smog routinely choked Los Angeles, fueling a public health crisis. The city hired Arie Haagen-Smit, a biochemist from the California Institute of Technology, to investigate the cause. He quickly identified oil as the culprit, showing that nitrogen oxide emissions and uncombusted hydrocarbons from car tailpipes and refineries formed smog when exposed to sunlight.
The Smoke and Fumes committee at the American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry's main lobbyist, counter-attacked. It funded scientists who rebutted Haagen-Smit and disparaged him personally. The industry asserted that the science of smog was too uncertain to justify new laws or expensive pollution-control equipment.
By the mid-1950s, industry's own researchers confirmed Haagen-Smit's findings. And the first Clean Air Act, in 1963, soon put industry in the crosshairs of federal regulators. Oil companies began campaigns claiming smog controls would cripple the economy.
API has continued the decades-long fight against stricter smog limits, with new rules delayed along the way by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The 1970 Clean Air Act, meanwhile, has provided trillions of dollars in health and economic benefits, far exceeding the cost of regulations. One Environmental Protection Agency study calculated that the benefits of the 1990 amendments to the law would amount to $2 trillion a year by 2020.
Louis McCabe, Los Angeles's first smog regulator, summarized in 1949 what would become an enduring industry strategy: "Why have we generally failed in our efforts to control air pollution?" he asked. "We have failed because industry believed that air pollution control cost too much. Smoke and dusts were the wages of a prosperous industrial community...There were 'cooperative' programs with the dual objectives of delay and defeat."
The Corporate Pivot to Uncertainty
As the oil industry bolstered its own research into air pollution in the 1950s, some of its scientists began conducting basic research into carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, following work published by leading academics. In 1968, the industry's main pollution-control consultants warned API that it should pay close attention to carbon dioxide emissions.
By the mid-1970s, Exxon began to take carbon pollution seriously. In July 1977, James Black, a senior scientist at Exxon, told top executives that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels would warm the atmosphere and endanger human life. Company leaders knew that if fossil fuel emissions made the planet hotter, politicians would likely take steps to cut pollution. So Exxon launched its own sampling of carbon dioxide in the air and oceans and conducted rigorous climate modeling to better understand how the planet was warming, when temperatures might rise, and the effect on human life. Exxon believed that its own peer-reviewed research would give it a credible voice in policymaking if the government decided to regulate emissions. Other fossil fuel companies followed Exxon's lead.
Exxon scientists led research into carbon dioxide changes in the oceans and atmosphere in the early 1980s, but then the corporate tone shifted. Credit: Richard Werthamer
But the industry's forthright approach started to shift toward denial after landmark events in 1988. NASA's James Hansen, a leading climate expert, raised alarm bells in Congress with his testimony that the warming trend was driven by carbon dioxide emissions. The United Nations that year established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide assessments of evolving climate science. More than 300 scientists and policymakers met at a climate conference in Toronto, declaring, "it is imperative to act now." They called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent over two decades. Regulation of carbon pollution went from a distant possibility to an imminent threat to fossil fuel businesses.
In December 1988, API helped sponsor a conference on preparing for climate change. And the oil industry and utility companies began to pivot to a new narrative: There was uncertainty and, thus, no urgency to heed the emerging science. In late 1995, Leonard S. Bernstein, a scientist for Mobil Oil Corp., drafted a primer about climate science for the industry's Global Climate Coalition (GCC). In it, Bernstein wrote: "the potential for human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied." But he later added, "It is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change."
As the international community moved in 1997 to curb emissions with the Kyoto Protocol, Exxon's Chairman and CEOLee Raymond focused on amplifying scientific doubt.
"Let's agree there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond," Raymond said in a 1997 speech. "We need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time."
Doubts about climate change were echoed by think tanks that the corporations nurtured with donations starting in the 1990s. Boosted by a grant from Exxon, the Competitive Enterprise Institute organized the Cooler Heads Coalition in 1998, which over time has brought together more than 30 conservative groups into an influential echo chamber of climate denial. The group still exists.
Halting climate action has been a leading priority of this coalition and its allies, not reluctant to promote questionable information if it supports their cause.
In one instance, the Spanish economist Gabriel Calzada Alvarez published a study in 2009 that said Spain's push to develop renewable energy had hurt employment, costing 2.2 jobs for every clean energy job created. The Spanish government and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed that Calzada's methodology was flawed. But this did not stop deniers from embracing his narrative.
Calzada was a fellow at the Center for the New Europe, a free-market think tank funded in part by ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers. Koch-supported advocacy organizations spread Calzada's findings through blog posts and friendly media. Calzada delivered testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives. Three years later, Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), another conservative think tank, cited the Spanish study in House testimony against federal support of green jobs. AEI received nearly $5 million from the Kochs and ExxonMobil from 1998 to 2012.
Fossil Fuel Fingerprints on Contrarian Research
Think tanks needed support from science, which proved tricky to get, because 97 percent of peer-reviewed articles published about climate change show that it is driven by human activity. So, industry directly funded the work of contrarians within the climate science community.
Among the best known is Willie Soon, a proponent of the theory that solar cycles drive climate change. His notion has been discredited by mainstream science, which determined that the influence of solar fluctuations has been too small to account for the magnitude of modern warming. Yet deniers and politicians cite his papers as evidence that scientists are divided about what causes climate change.
In 2015, it emerged that Soon's research had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from 2003 to 2015 from API, ExxonMobil, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Southern Company, one of the country's largest coal-burning electric utilities. He called his papers "deliverables" in return for the funding.
"I have a big super-duper paper soon to be accepted on how the sun affects the climate system," Soon wrote in a 2009 email to a research specialist with Southern.
Denialist think tanks and politicians convinced many Americans that scientists such as Soon are as numerous as those whose work shows fossil fuel consumption to be the main driver of climate change. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center quantified the success of their effort. Fewer than 30 percent of Americans know that the vast majority of climate scientists and the peer-reviewed literature support the conclusion that global warming is manmade.
'The Earth Is Greening'
The Heartland Institute's rise to policy prominence marks a break from previous brokers of climate denial, because it promotes a narrative that was once rejected as too extreme and divorced from accepted climate science.
The narrative—that excessive carbon dioxide is beneficial for the Earth—is now backed by some in the EPA and the White House and is deployed as a weapon against the endangerment finding. One of Heartland's policy experts, Kathleen Hartnett White, who has called carbon dioxide "the gas of life," was nominated by the administration to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The EPA and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
In his email to supporters, dated Oct. 12, 2017, and leaked to E&E News, Heartland's CEO Bast detailed plans for how to "market" the positive narrative about excessive carbon dioxide. For instance, he suggests convincing the EPA and the courts that doubling atmospheric CO2 would increase crop yields, and suing companies for not increasing emissions.
Surveys show "we are winning the public opinion battle, since most Americans don't believe global warming is a problem that merits the attention being given to it by the media and politicians," Bast wrote. "The best messages are positive: CO2 increases crop yields, the earth is greening."
Heartland rejects claims that it "denies science." Rather, it asserts that the idea of a scientific consensus that climate change is human-caused is without merit. "The scientists we work with have looked at the data and have concluded climate change is not driven by human activity," Lakely told InsideClimate News. "And the consequences of our uncontrollable warming world are not universally bad, but have a lot of positives, according to the scientists and other experts Heartland communicates and work with."
When the Global Climate Coalition disbanded in early 2002, its members said their work was done because they had succeeded in keeping the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first global climate treaty that paved the way for the Paris Agreement. Now, a dozen years later, climate misinformation is emanating directly from the White House. The administration has orchestrated a rollback of regulatory measures on climate change adopted during the Obama years, and the exit from the Paris accord that President Trump announced with much fanfare from the Rose Garden.
"The basic parameters of the long-term threat posed by climate change were well described and known by 1979," Brulle of Drexel said, referring to a major report on climate change issued by the National Academy of Sciences. "But here we are, coming up on nearly 40 years, and there still is confusion and a lack of willingness to act. So I guess in that sense, the effort to stop climate action has won, as if this is a winning position in any sense of the term."
Read more about the Heartland Institute's outreach to educators.
In our roundup of 2016 claims, we hypothesized that SciCheckwould have no dearth of false and misleading claims to cover in 2017. That proved true. Politicians kept us busy. As 2017 comes to a close, we present the most notable claims about science from this year.