Spin War Looms on Eve of Senate Climate Debate

May 28, 2008

The battle to control news media and public perceptions of the climate change issue will heat up this week as the Senate prepares to start debate on the first major US legislation to address the problem of global climate change.

The Senate is tentatively scheduled to take up June 2, 2008, a version of the "cap and trade" climate bill sponsored by Sens. John Warner (R-VA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). While the bill may pass the Senate, its chances of ultimate enactment in the current Congress are considered dim '' but better in the next. The Senate debate itself will offer a "bully pulpit" to most of the contending interest groups pushing to pass, stop, or shape climate legislation. With all three major presidential contenders supporting some version of the bill, it is likely to make news.


Another spin match is happening May 28, 2008, at the shareholders' meeting of the ExxonMobil Corp. A shareholders' rebellion spearheaded by members of the Rockefeller family, descendants of the company's founder John D. Rockefeller, will propose resolutions directing the company to reverse its course on global warming.

A series of four resolutions would urge the company to invest more in alternative energy and reduce its emissions. Key among the four is one that would strip CEO Rex W. Tillerson of his position as chairman and put control of climate policy in other hands. While similar resolutions have failed in previous years, they may have real impact this year. The company's profits are at record highs '' and a growing number of big institutional investors are backing the rebellion.

Meanwhile, a conservative fossil-industry advocate group will propose a counter-resolution banning shareholder activism altogether. Steven Milloy, who runs a Web site devoted to "junk science," has charged the Rockefeller descendants are not legitimate investors in the company that began as Standard Oil.

Exxon tried to blunt the rebellion by announcing that it had cut funding in 2008 for several groups who have long resisted the scientific consensus that human activities are hastening global warming and opposed emissions-reductions efforts to address it. That came as a surprise to those who believed a January 2007 announcement from Exxon that it was cutting funding for climate skeptics. Exxon had left national media and the public under the impression that there was no further climate-skeptic funding left to cut.

Exxon's announcement this time fell short of a categorical declaration that it was no longer funding any climate-skeptic groups.

The claim comes at a time when major climate skeptics are refusing to disclose their funding, and when some conservative private foundations are stepping up funding to oppose climate change science and legislation.

Meanwhile, editorial campaigns against the greenhouse bill cranked up in newspapers owned by conservative billionaires Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife. Editorials and opinion pieces appeared on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, here and here.


Almost simultaneously, the US Climate Change Science Program released a report painting a grim picture of how climate change will impact agriculture, land and water resources, and biodiversity. The report was done by a broad scientific team led by the US Department of Agriculture.

That was one of several reports that may be released this week in response to an Aug. 21, 2007, court order. A federal district judge ruled that the Bush administration had violated a 1990 law by not updating the "National Assessment" of climate change impacts on the US and set a May 31 deadline for it to do so. The administration is expected to claim that this week's reports meet the court order.

Science integrity groups were watching closely to see whether the White House had edited the conclusions of the report in final review. Earlier drafts had been posted before the document went to the White House. In the past, the White House had released such reports with very little fanfare. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, however, is helping make the report's authors available to reporters for direct comment.

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