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The Promiscuous Politics of the Energy Industry

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Have you noticed the rise in the use of political graphs of late? You know, those smart charts that now appear regularly on political news shows like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show. The well-honed visual graphics aid viewers' understanding of wide-ranging topics such as job growth, income inequality, health reform and climate change. Maddow often credits chart enthusiast Ezra Klein (WonkBlog) for his well-conceived diagrams that supplement her own research and targeted discussion of issues.

Perhaps it's the linear nature of graphs that is so appealing or, maybe, it's the fact that good graphs leave little room for ambiguity. In talking recently with climate expert, author, and Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Michael E. Mann, I realized that our conversation was nothing short of a roundabout tour of sorts and that the route we traveled was, indeed, a perfect circle. Though not linear, I could see that circles diagram trends quite well, too. So, I invite you to join me as I recreate the path Mann and I embarked on in an effort to identify just how the well-funded climate denial machine has become a Catch-22 phenomenon and how its orbital path continues to gain momentum, despite the growing evidence that climate change is rapidly redefining and reorganizing our world.

As we begin, Mann emphasizes the connection between the huge profits of the fossil fuel industry, the slick advertising campaigns that they fund and an overall corporate strategy that involves distracting consumers from the many negative consequences of mining, extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels.

"As the science of climate change becomes increasingly clear and better understood, the climate science denial machine has become nastier and dirtier in its misinformation campaign," Mann explains. "It's a battle -- so they shout louder and louder -- and they will never retreat quietly. Their scorched Earth tactics insure they will fight to the end and whether science and reason wins out before the effects of climate change are fully felt is the real question."

As we move on the curve past record-breaking profits and costly ad buys, Mann points to the cultural myths that are perpetrated by the industry's PR departments. "You've seen the colorful TV spots that feature picturesque towns, comfortable homes, hard-working engineers and committed teachers... what they want you to believe is that by supporting their products, we are somehow preserving the planet," he said. These idyllic scenes seduce viewers and keep them addicted, Mann says, "to an energy complex that is fraught with devastating social costs."

Have the fossil fuel tycoons become experts at "glamorizing" energy? Mann thinks that they have. "It's mind-numbing. Despite what the ads portray, fossil fuel companies are, in many cases, not your good neighbors, they haven't restored the Gulf, and there are open questions about the safety of practices such as fracking for natural gas. What they hope that you'll never see are the environmental impacts, the loss of polar ice and the monumental decrease in biological diversity." So, in glamorizing the use of fossil fuels, these international conglomerates are betting that we'll remain indifferent to the price we pay for a carbon-intensive lifestyle -- so indifferent, in fact, that we will come to accept a degraded planet as a 'natural' part of our modern lifestyle. "Make no mistake," Mann emphasizes, "the culture of acceptance and acquiescence that the ads promote is wholly intentional on their part.

As we continue, we arrive at the public's embrace of the status quo. "So, this is where they want you," Mann asserts. "Their blinding profits finance alluring ads that hold your attention." Hundreds of million dollars more finance well-heeled pundits and political surrogates whose job it is to cast doubt on the mere existence of climate change. "Through polished and repetitive messaging, they persuade viewers that climate change science is suspect. Combined, the pundits and the ads are a powerful propaganda punch."

The oil industry is behaving badly. They dismiss the work of well-respected scientists. Like schoolyard bullies, they want to control everyone and everything. They tease the smart kids, grab their homework and amidst taunting and ridicule, they toss it back and forth between themselves before throwing it up into the air or across the fence. The smart guys have been out-maneuvered by a determined, relentless gang of intimidators.

This dysfunctional behavior has many consequences. One, of course, is that the public ends up concluding that foreign wars fought over oil are a better investment than building a sustainable, low-carbon economy at home. It has been estimated that the four trillion dollars or more, spent on a decade's worth of war abroad (Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan), could have instead funded the rebuilding of our nation's power Grid, the construction of thousands of on- and off-shore wind farms, high efficiency solar installations and tidal power technology. For example, World Energy Review editor-in-chief Richard Loomis estimated that just $1.6 trillion could have funded the installation of a 6 kilowatt solar system on every home in the U.S. Combined, these panels could have supplied 63 percent of the U.S.'s electrical power needs and each home owner would have benefited from a nearly $2,000/year reduction in energy costs for the next 20 years.

Million-dollar ad buys and well-rehearsed lobbyists challenge our will and our thinking. "The culture of anti-science becomes anti reality," Mann states. "We find ourselves content to debate which fossil fuel source we should move forward with, while China, India and parts of South America retool their economies to embrace an entirely new clean energy infrastructure."

Arriving back at the place we began, we recognize that we are trapped in a Catch-22. Pricey commercials are wining viewers' trust and newer, greener technologies are successfully dismissed as 'unproven' or simply 'different.' "What is happening here is a form of cognitive dissidence," Mann says. "Fossil fuel executives may think that they are doing what is best for the economy, but their business models have skewed the economic scale for decades." Mann is referring to both the long-standing subsidies that have unnecessarily buoyed the industry's record profits and the absence of a carbon bill. Such a bill would assign a dollar value to carbon emissions, thus enabling cleaner energy sources to compete fairly for market share. But the fossil fuel industry happily remains a market freeloader. It plunders the planet's resources at no charge and uses the profits to purchase our politicians and the airwaves. "This corporate behavior is really anti-social and benefits only a small group of vested interests," Mann insists.

So when will the circle be broken? How do we make building windmills and solar panels more appealing than drilling oil and gas wells? How do we properly juxtapose the poisonous fallout of mountain top coal removal to the clean elegance of renewables?

Maybe the resistance to acknowledging the very real risks posed by the fossil fuel industry is not unlike the reluctance to acknowledge a failing relationship. Nonetheless, if a relationship becomes untenable, most people reorganize their lives. So, what about the energy status quo should make us all want reassess our priorities? How about the recent suggestion, by Midwest farmer Don Duvall (as reported in the New York Times on July 4th) that the anomalous three-digit heat across the U.S. may foretell a 21st century dustbowl? When you consider the implications of this happening, change doesn't seem so bad. It's no wonder that the fossil fuel industry spends so much money to beautify their products. If you could remove the curtain, there would be images of oil slicks, contaminated drinking water, dying oceans, flammable tap water, drought-ravaged crops, mass extinctions and a continent melting. This is the lover you want to leave.

"If their billion-dollar profits finance the commercials that ensnare people into thinking that fossil fuel companies are looking out for their best interests, this would, in fact, be the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the public, not climate change," Mann laughs, as we land back home. "If we let them get away with this, we will lose."

Maybe the time has come to move beyond this self-destructive equation and explore a new kind of partnership. Renewable energy doesn't need a pricy billboard, spokesman or trailer because its low-carbon power is undeniably fitter, smarter and sexier. It's energy without all the baggage and it's energy that will support the healthy and rewarding lifestyle we all seek.

Parting, we agreed that a livable world and a sustainable economy are not radical ideas. Though the fossil fuel industry spends embarrassing sums to construct what Mann calls "the echo chamber of misinformation," clean air and water, a habitable environment and a friendly economy is within reach. All we have to do is stand up and demand it.

Dr. Mann is famous for his 2001 "hockey stick' graph, which reveals the marked rise in atmospheric temperatures since the onset of the industrial revolution. His climate research has been incorporated into international reports, and he served as a lead author for the 2001 3rd assessment report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2007 he shared the Nobel Prize with other IPCC scientists and Al Gore. Mann received his undergraduate degrees in Physics and Applied Math from the University of California at Berkeley, an M.S. degree in Physics from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in Geology & Geophysics from Yale University. His research involves the use of theoretical models and observational data to better understand Earth's climate system. He is currently the Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book is The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. Contact him at: mann@psu.edu.

Stacy Clark is an environmental geologist, writer and teacher whose first energy book for children, When the Wind Blows, will be published by Holiday House. Contact her at: stacy@dallaswriter.com.

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