Nothing about the 2020 presidential campaign is typical and the debates are no different. Diane talks with Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, about how they are planning in the middle of a pandemic.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
“The earth has warmed and we did it” — this is the headline of a large print ad that appeared earlier this week in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. The sponsor of that ad, The Partnership for Responsible Growth, is hoping to get a message through to readers of the Wall Street Journal whose opinion writers regularly introduce uncertainty into the question as to whether the climate is warming and how much human activity has to do with it. For those hoping for strong action to counter the risks of climate change, the last eight years have been dispiriting: Despite the mounting scientific evidence, fewer people are persuaded. For this month’s Environmental Outlook: join us to talk about what people believe about climate change and why.
- Paul Farhi Staff writer, The Washington Post
- Neela Banerjee Reporter, Inside Climate News
- Matthew Nisbet Associate professor, communication studies and affiliate associate professor of public policy and urban affairs, Northeastern University
- John Schwartz Science reporter, The New York Times
- George Frampton Co-founder, The Partnership for Responsible Growth
MR. TOM GJELTENHello. Thanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in today for Diane Rehm. In 2008, when Senator John McCain was running against then Senator Barack Obama, the Republican and Democratic party platforms both endorsed the need for action to deal with climate change. Now, eight years later, getting a bipartisan consensus on the issue seems just about impossible. Joining me here in the studio to talk about how the debate over global warming has become so polarized, our Paul Farhi of The Washington Post and Neela Banerjee of Inside Climate News.
MR. TOM GJELTENAnd from a studio at WGBH in Boston, we have Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University. Hello, Matt.
MR. MATTHEW NISBETHi, there. Great to be here.
GJELTENYeah. And hello to you, Paula and Neela.
MR. PAUL FARHIGood morning.
MS. NEELA BANERJEEMorning.
GJELTENWe're talking about what people think and whether they care about climate change so it's especially important today to get a range of comments and questions. Please give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at drshow.org or share your thoughts with us via Facebook or Twitter. So Matt and Paul and Neela, can you hang on just for a couple minutes because first, I want to talk about this ad yesterday in The Wall Street Journal and right now, we have George Frampton on the line.
GJELTENHe is the cofounder of the Partnership For Responsible Growth, the group that sponsored this ad. And George, thanks for joining us. You're in Ottawa, I believe, is that correct?
MR. GEORGE FRAMPTONI am, Tom. Delighted to be with you.
GJELTENSo tell us the story behind running this ad, why you specifically wanted to run it in The Wall Street Journal and even more specifically on the op-ed page.
FRAMPTONWell, our organization is running a series of 12 quarter-page ads over six weeks on the Journal's editorial page on climate science and climate solutions. And why are we doing this? We think there's a growing consensus that climate change is real. It needs to be aggressively confronted and the way to do this is to put a price on carbon to stop letting people pollute for free and to use price signals by pricing greenhouse gas emissions. Let the market drive the kind of transformation we need to a lower carbon, more competitive economy starting with the U.S.
FRAMPTONWhen I say consensus, that includes increasing numbers of business leaders, particularly in Europe, some in the U.S., heads of state, including Mexico and Canada, our neighbors and biggest trading partners, most prominent conservative economists, the CEOs of all the major European oil companies, the head of the IMF, the head of the World Bank, the secretary general of the UN, but you would not get any inkling of this from reading the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.
FRAMPTONAnd if we're going to move forward towards some economically sound pro-growth, bipartisan approach to climate change in the United States, it's going to require the engagement of the business, U.S. business community, business leaders here in the United States. And if The Wall Street Journal won't cover this, we set out to do it ourselves.
GJELTENAnd you point that out in your ad. You say it's not surprising the planet keeps getting warmer, given what we know about the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, although you may not have seen this fact on this page. So you were really challenging the Wall Street Journal editorial writers directly with this ad.
FRAMPTONWell, we're not trying necessarily to pick a fight with The Wall Street Journal. We'd love them to begin to cover the facts and cover the fact that there are some potential economically sound progrowth policies to address climate change that the business community should be strongly supporting. Whether they will be affected by this or not, we don't know. But we're trying, really, to begin a debate among business leaders in the U.S. about how to go forward and break through this horrible ten-year polarization around the question of whether climate change is serious and whether we can really do anything about it that doesn't wreck the economy.
GJELTENAnd what do you intend...
FRAMPTONThat's a false debate and we're trying to begin to start a serious discussion and we think there would be a window for Congress to address these issues beginning in January on a bipartisan basis.
GJELTENA false debate, you say. And what are your next steps? What do you plan to do next, now that the -- you've taken on The Wall Street Journal?
FRAMPTONWell, I think we're reaching out, obviously, to the business community. We've been in the process over the last year and a half of engaging both corporations and environmental groups. We are -- the point we are trying to make is that if you put a fee on carbon fuels, you have the opportunity, upstream when they're introduced into the economy, you have an opportunity to generate roughly $2 trillion over the next ten years. That's money that can pay for tax reform. It can pay for infrastructure.
FRAMPTONIt can pay to compensate low and middle income families for slightly additional energy costs. It's progrowth. It creates jobs. It makes U.S. companies more competitive. It reduces regulation. You're a climate denier, you should be for that program as a fiscal program. There are ways to make the U.S. more competitive that increase economic growth and get far more emissions reductions than the path we're on. That should be a very bipartisan business-supported program. There hasn't been a robust debate about that over the last couple of years. There needs to be.
GJELTENOkay. George Frampton is cofounder of the Partnership For Responsible Growth and that group is running a series of ads, as he has just pointed out including one that ran yesterday on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. George, thanks for joining out conversation.
GJELTENPaul Farhi, you found this -- the placement of this ad interesting enough that you wrote a story about it.
FARHIYes, for several reasons. One is The Wall Street Journal's editorial page may be the white hot center of climate change skepticism, climate change denial and so George's organization went straight at, you know, the center of the debate, the place where you can reliably find editorials, guest columns, what have you, saying the science is not settle, that we are not necessarily in a global warming at the moment. In fact, the science goes absolutely the other way.
FARHIThe other thing that's interesting about this is that George's organization had to pay a premium to place its first ad, which attacked the Journal's editorial stance on this issue. They paid about $9,000 extra for this first ad, which went after the Journal's editorial page.
GJELTENMore than somebody else might have paid for an ad in that same place?
FARHIThat's right. They had proposed these ads about a month ago. The Journal supposedly, the story goes from George's organization, accepted it, set a price. Then, when they discovered that the first editorial -- excuse me, the first ad would take on the journal itself, they said wait a second. We're going to reject this. They came back and negotiated further and they said, we'll take it, but there's a tax on you, so to speak.
GJELTENAnd you talked to a Journal spokesman. You asked a Journal spokesman why that was.
FARHIAnd, well, first of all, I should say that the Journal denies that they rejected it, then they cited a standing policy which says any ad that challenges anything in the Journal ends up paying this premium price.
GJELTENMatt Nisbet, what is going on here in terms of this debate? Is there still a debate over the science around climate change or is the debate sort of happening, you know, sort of in a different sphere or on a different level?
NISBETWell, on the fundamentals of climate science, there is absolutely no debates. The overwhelming majority of scientists doing research in the field along with our leading scientific organizations, the U.S. National Academies, the American Association For Advancement of Science, all strongly agree that climate change is happening, that it's real and it's manmade , that it's human caused and that it's an urgent problem . You know, there is -- among experts working in the field, there is some disagreement on the pace of climate change, the severity, its specific impacts.
NISBETSomething that we might be able to talk about a little bit, though none of us here are scientists, but the real -- the important thing here to is to understand how the media has portrayed this, the fundamentals of climate science over time. Through the late 1990s, early 2000s, there's now oft cited paper by Max Boykoff and Jules Boykoff, faculty at University of Colorado and UC Santa Cruz, that found that even among the leading national newspapers, USA Today, the New York Times, that uncovering the fundamentals of climate science, about 50 percent of stories falsely balanced mainstream science with dissenting viewpoints.
NISBETAnd that was through the early 2000s. Al Gore prominently featured that study in "Inconvenient Truth."
GJELTENSo then why...
NISBETWhat's not often talked about is that since those years, the mainstream media has strongly corrected itself thought a number of studies, including analysis that I did looking at coverage in and around the debate over cap and trade at the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico. Even in the news reporting of The Wall Street Journal, 80 to 90 percent of news stories and also opinion pieces at those outlets with the exception of The Wall Street Journal reflected the consensus view.
NISBETThe real problem is that the opinion pages at The Wall Street Journal -- and this is why this advertising effort is so important, of the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, only 30 percent of the opinion articles appearing at the opinion pages reflected the consensus view on climate change.
NISBETAnd there's other aspects of the media environment that are also problematic, which starts with Fox News.
GJELTENWell, in spite of the fact that reporting of climate change and the science around climate change has solidified in recent years, we do see that there is even more polarization around the issue and disagreement around it than there was before. We're going to pick up this conversation after we take a short break. I’m Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today, and we're talking about climate change and specifically why people think in the ways they do about climate change and what affects, what explains their thinking. Is it science? It is something else? My guests are Paul Farhi, who is a staff writer for The Washington Post, Neela Banerjee, who is a reporter for Inside Climate News, from a studio at WGBH in New York we also have Matthew Nisbet, who is an associate professor of communication studies, and he in his research has focused a lot on writing about the coverage of the climate change debate.
GJELTENAnd very quickly, Matt, just to finish up the conversation you started right before the break, there have been some studies that have come out recently that suggest that more scientific literacy on the part of the American public, more knowledge, more understanding of the science behind climate change doesn't seem to make a difference, that people come up with their opinions about climate change on the basis of other -- in response to other factors. Can you elaborate on that?
NISBETRight, we consistently see this in studies and also polling, not just on climate change but other issues like evolution or earlier in the debate over stem cell research, where there's a complex scientific topic where Americans are hearing diverging frames of reference and arguments from political leaders that they trust. Where we see the greatest different in perceptions are among more cognitively sophisticated Americans. So the more education you have, the more basic scientific literacy and numeracy you have, the better you are at knowing what to believe, aligning your perceptions of one of these controversial topics, politically controversial topics, with your social and political identity, knowing what other people like you believe and also what your respect political leaders or trusted media sources are saying.
NISBETAnd so the more you hear about an issue, psychologists call it a process of motivated reasoning, the more reinforced your opinions become. So we see over time, as polarization has increased around climate change, we see the difference between college-educated Democrats and college-educated Republicans, or in other studies scientifically literate conservatives and scientifically literate liberals, that difference actually increasing rather than becoming -- rather than their views becoming more similar in how they view the science, and that's the real bind.
GJELTENSo the level of literacy...
NISBETThat's the real paradox that is difficult to overcome from a communications standpoint.
GJELTENBecause the level of literacy here may not be as important as the sort of cultural or political affiliation that people feel, it seems.
NISBETWell, for conservatives, who tend to value individualism about what researchers call a more hierarchical view of the world and that they value the status quo, they're skeptical of strong efforts at social -- social change, they tend to intuitively view the implications of climate science as meaning stronger regulation of the economy and infringement on personal freedoms. And this is not just unique to American conservatives. I tweeted out earlier some findings from Pew that you see this left-right divide on the seriousness of climate change and policy action, you see it in Canada, you see it in the UK, you see it in Germany, you see it in Australia.
NISBETBut in the United States, on top of that, those intuitive ideological differences, you have this supercharged, polarized political and media environment that really puts those ideological differences on steroids. And as I mentioned earlier, and we have other research that Pew has done, about 50 percent of consistent conservatives, strong conservatives, say that Fox News is their number one source of news and information. And we know from other studies that at Fox News that portrayal of climate science is strongly dismissive, that climate change is not real, it's not happening, it's not a serious problem, which is a very different view of the problem at outlets like the New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, which about 50 percent of strong liberals are their number one sources of news.
NISBETThere you see the consensus, the scientific consensus, the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, portrayed in news stories and segments, 70, 80, 90 percent of the time.
GJELTENOkay, Neela Banerjee, finally we get to you. Thanks for being so patient. We're talking here about some of the factors that influence or may influence, be brought to bear, on this debate over whether climate change is serious and real and what should be done about it. What about the role of some of the active players behind the scenes, for example the oil industry? What have you found out in exploring what the oil industry's influence on this debate has been?
BANERJEEWe did a series last year that looked at what the oil industry knew about climate science and climate change and when they knew it and what they ended up doing with that information. And what we discovered that Exxon, as the largest publicly traded oil company in the world, had a very ambitious research effort in-house in the late 1970s because their scientists were following the literature at the time, and they understood that carbon dioxide concentrations were rising in the atmosphere, that combustion of fossil fuels was driving it, and this could post an existential threat to the company.
BANERJEEAt that time Exxon's approach to dealing with this threat was to do really good, rigorous research that was peer-reviewed, that won accolades from both industry and government and academics, and they wanted to have a seat at the table in making policy because they thought there was going to be a policy response. This went on through the '80s, and then sometime in the late '80s it changed.
BANERJEESince then what we've seen is, and this has been documented not just by Inside Climate News but by others, is the creation of an infrastructure of doubt. Now what Matthew's saying is absolutely accurate, that people will -- will gather information from news -- from media who reinforce their own beliefs. I think this sort of motivated reasoning definitely exists. But you actually have to have, you know, studies and experts and people who look like a counterbalance to the actual scientists out there.
BANERJEEAnd so what the fossil fuel, led largely by the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, the Koch brothers and others, what they've done is created this entire echo chamber, they funded them to the tune of millions and millions of dollars, who provided the fodder for people on the Hill, people in Fox News, people online, to say that, look, we have experts on our side, and they say that the science is too uncertain to act.
BANERJEEAnd how this ties to your notions of identity, how environmentalism became, you know, a political divide is so interesting when you think about the fact that the EPA, the Clean Air Act, all of that was introduced by Republican presidents. And I think one of the big -- one of the big factors is in fact this infrastructure of doubt. The narrative that comes across is that, look, you know, we're not idiots, we don't deny the science, it's just that the science is uncertain. And before we take big steps to address climate change, we have to be certain of the science.
BANERJEEThen they went and talked about how these steps would affect personal freedom and business. So all of a sudden if you're a conservative, you really don't want to act on climate change because it affects -- it would damage things that you hold dear.
GJELTENAnd you mentioned Exxon, and your reporting and other reporting underscored, there was a sort of an internal inconsistency at Exxon where their own internal research sort of reinforced some of the thinking about climate change, and yet their external presentation contradicted that. And as a result of that split, there is now an investigation of Exxon's record in that regard. John Schwartz is a reporter for the New York Times who has been following this investigation, and John, you're on the line with us now. Tell us about this investigation of Exxon's record in dealing with climate change that is underway there in New York by the attorney general Eric Schneiderman.
MR. JOHN SCHWARTZWell, thanks for having me on. In November, Attorney General Schneiderman announced that his office was looking into the kind of things that Neela and Inside Climate News have been looking into. What did ExxonMobil know about climate change, what did its research show, and how did that compare to what they were saying in op-ed articles and in speeches and what were they funding in terms of denial for these outside organizations?
MR. JOHN SCHWARTZAnd once Schneiderman was in, others have come in, as well. Attorney General Harris in California appears to be involved as well, and a few other AGs have actively joined in, Claude Walker of the Virgin Islands, Maura Healey in Massachusetts. In March there was a press conference with Al Gore in which several other attorneys general said we're in, and we're investigating ExxonMobil, as well. So this thing is rolling. Exxon is fighting back. The question is what are they going to find in the documents that they have subpoenaed, and is it going to be enough to support any kind of charge?
MR. JOHN SCHWARTZAt this point, you know, people refer to this as the Exxon trial or the Exxon case. In fact it's an investigation at this point. No charges have been filed. It's all subpoenas and demands for documents.
GJELTENWell if there were charges, what would be those charges? Is the question here whether putting out misleading information is actually a crime? You know, what's at stake in this investigation?
SCHWARTZThe question is fraud. The thing that Schneiderman comes back to and these other folks come back to again and again is if your public statements and your private knowledge are at odds with each other, if you're lying to the public, especially in terms of New York securities law, if you're lying to shareholders, if you're lying to consumers, that various laws come into play. You know, proving something like this in court is always iffy, even if you have terrific documents. But one of the models that people look to is the tobacco industry, and fraud was found in cases there.
SCHWARTZSo the question is -- the question is fraud, and as Schneiderman says every time you get a chance to talk to him, the First Amendment doesn't protect fraud. The First Amendment protects your ability to say things but not to commit fraud.
GJELTENNeela, have you, in your own reporting, encountered sort of similar things with other companies that could conceivably rise to this level of what John says is actually lying about their information?
BANERJEEWell, I'm not a lawyer, so I can't really -- I mean, I couldn't comment on that. I mean, one of the things that we do know, there are a few things we know. Exxon wasn't the only one to be following the climate science closely, that the American Petroleum Institute had a climate and energy task force, and we've spoken to the staff member who was at that task force, and he said, you know, look, they were all following this, it was important to them.
BANERJEEOther companies, such as Texaco, had their own internal climate modeling units. You know, it was smaller and less ambitious than Exxon. And then since, you know, since we did that story, we've done a more recent story that shows that as far back as 1968, the American Petroleum Institute was warned by its top outside consultants that climate change from the burning of fossil fuels was -- posed a threat to the planet and to industry.
BANERJEESo, you know, the oil industry has some of the best scientists that American universities produce, and they -- and they're going to be following these issues. They also follow these issues because it affects things like hurricanes, as they went offshore. So this was not news to them. What they did with it and whether they violated the law is something that, you know, the attorneys general will have to determine.
GJELTENNeela Banerjee is a reporter for Inside Climate News, which has broken a lot of the story about what's going on or what has gone on inside Exxon. I'm Tom Gjelten, and this is the Diane Rehm Show. John Schwartz, before we move on to another subject, Congressman Lamar Smith, who is a Republican from Texas, has said that this investigation in New York by Attorney General Schneiderman is an abuse of prosecutorial discretion. What's his explanation there? What's his defense, or what's his argument?
SCHWARTZWell, his argument is that this is prosecutorial bullying and that these AGs are out of their lane. It's interesting that Representative Smith himself has subpoenaed the internal communications of NOAA and other government scientists who have been looking into climate change themselves. So it's -- the threat to the First Amendment is apparently a question of perspective with him. But he says that these companies are being abused by prosecutors who are out on a mission that is, as Exxon itself has said, outside of the political sphere, outside of the legal sphere and more a political and policy question.
GJELTENPaul, let's get back to the journalistic issues involved here. Matt Nisbet earlier in the program said that in the last few years he has seen that journalists are a lot less concerned with presenting sort of on the one hand, on the other hand kind of reporting about this, giving in a sense equal weight to sort of the skeptics and the believers when it comes to climate change. But this is hard for reporters, isn't it? I mean, this is -- I mean, here you've got, you've got people like Congressman Smith, you've got Senator Inhofe in Oklahoma, you've got Donald Trump saying that, you know, some of this is a hoax. I mean, it's hard for us as reporters to just sort of say you're wrong.
FARHIThat's absolutely right because there are quote-unquote responsible people who deny the fact that there is climate change going on, and it is not false equivalency to quote them within the body of a story. But as Matthew has pointed out, that has changed in the last 10 or 15 years, that we don't say on the one hand, on the other hand. We might reflect the fact that Lamar Smith is denying the science, but it's not going to be prominent in the article, it's going to be a lesser aspect of it.
FARHII think among mainstream journalists, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, Fox News perhaps excepted, among mainstream journalists there isn't really any scientific debate. It is an accepted notion that the planet is warming, and, you know, manmade causes have contributed to it. So that -- the stories now are much more strongly stating affirmatively that this is a settled issue.
GJELTENIs it harder to do that in an election year, when, you know, they -- when climate change comes up as a political issue and what to do about it is a political issue?
FARHIYou know, there are facts, and then there are facts. It is a fact that Donald Trump, the Republican presumptive nominee, denies climate change. And that fact needs to be reported and stated so that people have a fair understanding about Donald Trump.
GJELTENNeela, what is your reporting agenda going forward? I mean, you focus, your organization focuses, on climate news exclusively, right? So where are you going from here?
BANERJEEWell we, you know, we continue to try to fill out the picture, and we are, you know, talking to people who are, you know, who can do that for us. I mean, you know, we're an investigative unit, so I can't really tell you much more than that, but, you know, it's -- there's a lot that we don't know.
FARHIOh do tell.
BANERJEEThere's a lot that we don't know about, you know, why -- you know, why Exxon and the industry accepted climate change and did this pivot. I mean, that's what we don't know, and maybe that's what the AGs are trying to get at.
GJELTENNeela Banerjee is a reporter for Inside Climate News. We're talking about the sort of the dilemmas for journalists in covering the climate change debate and what are some of the factors that influence how people think about this debate. And of course that's especially challenging in an election year, when it's so vigorously debated. We're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we're going to go to your calls, 1-800-433-8850 is our phone number. Please join our conversation. I'm Tom Gjelten, stay tuned.
GJELTENHello, again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And we are discussing the climate change debate from a -- sort of a communications point of view, a journalistic point of view. How do you cover it? What influences people's thinking on this?
GJELTENMy guests here in the studio are Paul Farhi, who covers the media for the Washington Post, Neela Banerjee, reporter for Inside Climate News. And on the line from distant studios, Matt Nisbet, who's an associate professor of communication studies and an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. Also, John Schwartz, who's a science reporter at the New York Times.
GJELTENSo we have a lot of voices here. Neela, I have to ask you -- we have -- we gotta a tweet from someone who is asking you to disclose who are the funders behind your own media organization, Inside Climate News, and whether they might also be funding the Exxon Knew campaign.
BANERJEEOur funders are on our website. They include the Ford Foundation, I think, the Rockefeller brothers. I mean, frankly, I'm not on the business side. So I don't really look at that. But, you know, we have a lot of different funders. Some of them do fund environmental groups. I couldn't tell you very much about the overlap. But, please, our website is free. You don't have to register. You can go on there and check out the funders. It's InsideClimateNews.org.
BANERJEEAnd, you know, we're, you know, we're very open about who are funders are. Our funders do not know anything about what we're working on. They don't dictate what we're working on. So I think people have to understand that. It's, you know, we are not an industry group. Right? We don't do somebody's bidding.
GJELTENOkay. But, Paul, this is important, isn't it, that, you know, in reporting on this from whatever point of view, it's important to, quote, follow the money, like we've always said before. And that goes for those who oppose action on climate change, as well.
FARHIWell, yes. And I can tell you that The Washington Post is funded by Macy's and other retailers. So whether they have a stake in it, I don't know. I'm always leery of thinking about who is funding an organization because -- and people don't appreciate this or accept this -- the news part of any news organization is separate from the business part of the organization if they have any self-respect whatsoever. And what goes on in a newsroom has nothing to do with who's buying ads in our paper.
GJELTENOkay. Matt Nisbet, I want to go back to you. And we said at the beginning of the program that there seemed to be a stronger consensus and more public support for action to combat climate change eight years ago. How do you explain that the -- sort of the public concern about climate change seems to have dissipated in these years, even as the reporting has gotten more solid and the science has become more persuasive?
NISBETSure. Just before I answer that question, just real quick on Donald Trump. I think there is an opportunity in the wake of his candidacy for journalists to take a much stronger accountability approach to how they report on political leaders who deny climate change. And, you know, I think increasingly because of Trump and who he is as a candidate and the concerns about some of his statements, you know, I think we're throwing into the same frame of reference that it's as outrageous for Donald Trump, or any political leader, to deny climate change as it is for Trump to question the birth status of President Obama or to suggest a ban on Muslims entering into the country.
NISBETAnd so I think the types of challenging accountability journalism that journalists are doing in interviews of Trump on questions like a Muslim ban. The same type of follow-up questions and skepticism should be applied to his statements about climate change.
NISBETOn public opinion, you know, what we saw in 2006 and 2007 was a record high in public belief and concern with climate change. And there have been a number of studies to try to understand what happened in the subsequent years as public concern and belief declined. And one of the strongest factors was simply the economic recession. In the week -- in the wake of this financial tsunami, there was such a sense of insecurity that it just, much like the War on Terror earlier in the 2000s, it just swamped public concern.
NISBETThere was a limited pool of worry, as psychologists call. And the public didn't want to think about other threats. But, of course, after Obama was elected in 2009, there was this major consolidated effort, in part driven by the fossil fuel industry and (unintelligible) conservative groups, the rise of the Tea Party movement, and then strategic planning among Republicans in Congress to offer up a strongly coherent message about climate change.
NISBETYou no longer had senators like John McCain co-sponsoring on the Republican side, legislation. And so for those very sophisticated Republicans, strong partisans, who were following issues like climate change, they could easily connect it to the debate over healthcare and other polarized issues. And their doubts were magnified. But what we're seeing over the last couple of years, as the economy as righted itself, we're seeing now public opinion returning to the level that it was in 2006 and 2007.
NISBETAnd that's good news, I think, on the public opinion side. I think on the political activist side, on the election side I think there's a lot of momentum in favor moving forward, in terms of a portfolio of actions on climate change. And it'll be interesting to see what happens after this election in November.
GJELTENWell, John Schwartz, you know, you mentioned earlier that the sort of one model for this investigation into Exxon was the investigation into what tobacco companies are saying about the effect of smoking. And, you know, we have now seen -- there's virtually no debate anymore anywhere about the deleterious effects of smoking. Do you see any indication that this investigation into what energy companies have said about climate change might lead to a similar result, like a change in public opinion?
SCHWARTZWell, that all comes down to the documents that you find. You know, in 1994 some of the more powerful tobacco documents came out. And they had things like Addison Yeaman, the general council for one of the bigger tobacco companies, saying we are therefore in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug. Now, with one memo like that you've undercut everything the companies have done for decades.
SCHWARTZAnd that was not the only powerful document that came out in those investigations. So powerful documents tend to help investigations. They lead to Congressional hearings. They change public opinion. It's, you know, so we'll see what happens with this. But, you know, this is why people like Schneiderman call for documents in the first place. You go see what you can get.
GJELTENOkay. Let's go now to the call -- to the phones. Marty is on the line from St. Louis, Mo. Hello, Marty, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTYYes, you're welcome. One way to get everybody to believe that climate change exists is that their air conditioner -- central air could go out and be like me and then you really get a full blast of climate change. But…
GJELTENDid your air conditioning go out?
GJELTENYou're having a heat wave there in Missouri, I understand.
MARTYTell me about it. But my issue is with the climate change issue, every time it comes up it's denied and everything because of the money involved in it. And I think that a lot of big companies would have to change or they feel they would have to change and it would cost them a lot of money to do so. And even in the political scene, when Hillary Clinton brought up -- I forgot what state it was that depends on coal…
MARTY…the change and to go to solar energy and stuff and she was gonna bring new jobs and everything like that. If you can control the fear of the people, which those people were scared to death because they didn't feel that that would hold up and anything and they would rather just keep on mining the coal, and really just keep working that way, regardless of what the climate change is. And I think that people have to really realize and understand that because it costs so much to change everything, climate change is always put on the back burner.
MARTYAnd just like when Hillary brought it up, Donald Trump brought it -- when right to that same place and told them that they're gonna keep, you know, try to keep the coal mines and stuff open. Which we gonna wind up doing like Krypton and nobody won't believe anything, nobody won't believe the scientists until the world is getting ready to blow up.
GJELTENOkay. Marty, good point.
BANERJEEExcept we don't have a planet B, right? Like where, you know…
GJELTENWe don't have anywhere to go to.
BANERJEEWe don't have a cornfield to land in. So…
GJELTENBut Marty's point is that, you know, you're talking about big change. People get frightened. Right, Paul?
FARHISure. Yeah, if your job is threatened, if you have a vested interest, certainly you're going to want to get into the echo chamber that tells you this is not happening, despite all the scientific evidence. It's easy to ignore experts. We're seeing that now with a completely unrelated issue in Brexit. You know, the experts tell us one thing. We prefer to believe another thing entirely.
BANERJEEBut, you know, the interesting point that Marty makes is that our research -- when we were -- when we got a view of Exxon's documents -- our project was based on internal documents. What you got was this rare opportunity to look back at what could have been. Right? Exxon scientists were talking about the fact that the global community and industry had to make a decision within 5 or 10 years about what kind of energy sources we would rely on, because fossil fuels were contributing to a warmer atmosphere or would contribute to a warmer atmosphere.
BANERJEESo there was a period when Exxon was thinking about becoming an energy company, a broader energy company, as opposed to just an oil and gas company. And, you know, there was a period when you couldn't -- when that shift could have started to occur, when the landing could have been softer, when people whose -- who have to put food on the table and pay their mortgages by working in fossil fuels, might have had a chance to make that transition.
BANERJEEAnd for a variety of reasons, you know, that decision was not made by the fossil fuel industry. And so now you're facing, you know, some really significant risks for people and really, you know, who need to make ends meet now, and really significant risks for the planet.
GJELTENNeela Banerjee is a reporter for Inside Climate News. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Shelley, who's on the line from St. Louis, Mo. I believe another call from Missouri. Shelley, Marty said it's really hot there today. Is that right?
SHELLEYNeeds to get warmer, but I'm from Wisconsin and there's hardly any snow in the winter anymore. I don't know if that isn't climate change. It must be. Isn't it?
GJELTENWell, it's weather change, if nothing else.
SHELLEYIt's a weather change. Well, anyway, I think that this is the number issue. And I'm so glad that -- I learn so much from NPR about this through the weeks. But I think that because the cigarette company -- look at how many years they still made money because they were willing to get the lawyers in there and lie. It was total fraud. I have lost two uncles and a cousin who was 37, she was a smoker. My other uncles that are much older that didn't smoke are still alive.
SHELLEYSo I think what we need to do is look at these energy companies. It's where the money is. There must be a whistleblower out there that knows more information that can help. Also, Hillary Clinton will help with this. Obama has tried. You know who's not helping. The senators and congressmen, those Republicans that also vote down anything with guns, I mean, the last two weeks are incredible. But after Sandy Hook I sort of gave up hope that they're -- they're bought out by the NRA and they're not gonna do anything.
SHELLEYAnd I feel the same way. And I used to be a Republican. I was out at the polls helping the Republicans get in there. But I will no longer do that.
SHELLEYI voted for President Obama last time because he will do something about this issue.
GJELTENWell, Shelley, let's not give up on the Republicans just yet. I recall a mayor from, Neela, is it Miami, Miami Beach, who is very concerned about rising sea levels. And he's a Republican. And he wants his fellow Republicans to start talking seriously about climate change and the threat that it represents to people living in coastal areas. Right?
BANERJEEI think you're finding on the local level and state levels Republicans who are very pragmatic about what they're experiencing. Who are listening to their scientists and who are trying to affect change. And also national polling, as Matthew mentioned, is showing that majorities of all Americans accept that climate change is happening and it's being driven by human activity. The only subgroup that doesn't are conservative Republicans. Moderate to liberal Republican are more like moderate to conservative Democrats on this.
BANERJEESo on the grassroots this is happening. The reason it's not happening in Congress is because people are afraid of getting primaried on the right. Right? There are vested interests, thanks to Citizens United, that can push forward their ideological and business agendas without having to answer -- with -- to, you know, to the public.
BANERJEEThere's no transparency. And, you know, from talking to people on the Hill, I know that there are a few true believers, you know, Senator Inhofe is one of them, Senator Cruz, who really don't accept the science. Most Republicans do, but they're scared of losing their jobs. And that's what they're weighing, losing their jobs or doing something about climate change.
GJELTENWell, there's some influential thinkers on the conservative side, like George Will, who is also -- who doesn't really have any stake in this financially, and yet he is very much a skeptic. Paul, what do you think?
FARHIYes. But let's point out something very obvious about this that we have not said, which is the ability to live in a bubble is easier than ever. You have blogs that will feed your ideas. You'll have social media that feeds your ideas. You have talk radio that feeds your ideas. Fox News, Wall Street Journal. You can surround yourself with the kind of information that you want and exclude the information that challenges you. It's easier than ever to do so.
BANERJEEI think the challenge is for Republicans and conservatives, is to decouple their identity as a conservative with acceptance or denial of climate change. Like, you know, need to have people who can show you that you can be a conservative and accept climate change and that conservative ideas that are driven by the markets and so on could actually be an important part of this conversation. And there are people who are trying to do that. But it's not reached a critical mass yet.
GJELTENAnd Matt Nisbet…
SCHWARTZIf I can break in on this for a second.
SCHWARTZIt's John. Yeah, you know, I've talked to plenty of local officeholders, local conservative and Republican officeholders around the country and they don't deny climate change because they have to deal with it on the ground. Their streets are flooding, their having more inundations than they've had in the past.
SCHWARTZThe more people deal with climate change, the more they tend to accept it. These people are on the coast, but they're also in the interior of the country. They're all over the place. And they're coming around to it because they have to deal with it personally. This is what's happening with their constituents, too. They're seeing the effects. They want action.
GJELTENA final thought from you, Matt Nisbet. We've heard a lot here about how identity politics and sort of even a tribalism is influencing this debate.
NISBETThat's right. I mean, I think the, you know, there's been a lot of investment and a lot of effort to bring opinion leaders out of office who are conservatives and business leaders, who can talk about why acting on climate change reflect conservative principles and to propose policies that align with those principles. And I've been optimistic about those efforts for years. But increasingly, I, you know, I -- my observation -- and I'm convinced that, you know, there still needs to be fundamental transformative change within the Republican Party itself that breaks up this alliance between strong ideological and conservatives, the fossil fuel industry and conservative groups.
NISBETI don't know where that comes from, but potentially what we're seeing now is that Donald Trump is an existentially threatening candidate as a president, not only on climate change but on other issues if elected. But at the same time, potentially historically weak president. And out of this election, along with a lot of other issues, if Trump loses let's hope that there is some soul-searching among the conservative movement, among Republicans about how they can become modern and more pragmatic on the business of governing and solving the really threatening problems that we face, like climate change.
GJELTENWell, we'll add climate change to the list of issues that are going to be prominent in this debate. Thank you, Matt Nisbet from Northeastern University, also John Schwartz from The New York Times, Paul Farhi from The Washington Post, Neela Banerjee from Inside Climate News. We were joined earlier in the program by George Frampton from the Partnership for Responsible Growth. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for listening.
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