The Harm-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named

The office of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has issued the following news release:

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, I rise today, as I have at least two dozen times in the past year, to say again that it is time for us to wake up to the stark reality of the climate changes carbon pollution is causing.

Elected officials bear a responsibility every once in a while to escape the grip of the polluting special interests and to act in the interests of regular Americans. We need to wake up and start talking about the negative consequences, the harms of climate change. We need to wake up and mitigate–take steps to protect ourselves–and adapt to the consequences that are already hitting our coasts and our forests, our cities and our farms, our economy and our way of life.

But, of course, the climate deniers and the polluters do not want that. The deniers want to prevent discussion of climate change altogether. In the past few years, in this body, climate science has become a taboo topic.

I watched, when my back was out in the last few days, one of the Harry Potter movies on television. Lord Voldemort was called “He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named” in those Harry Potter stories. Well, carbon pollution is the “Pollution Which Shall Not Be Named.” Climate change–the harm that is caused by that pollution–is the “Harm That Shall Not Be Named.”

The obstructionists want to squelch any discussion of the “Pollution Which Shall Not Be Named” so as to let big polluters continue dumping carbon and other greenhouse gas into our oceans and atmosphere.

Take, for instance, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, created in 2007 as a forum for confronting the economic and security challenges of our dependence on foreign fuels. When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2011, they disbanded that committee. End of discussion.

Between May 2011 and December 2012, our colleagues in the House of Representatives, Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush, who were the Democratic ranking members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power, wrote 21 letters–21 letters–to Chairmen Fred Upton and Ed Whitfield requesting hearings on climate change. To date, there has been no response, no hearings. End of discussion.

House Republicans have tried to prevent the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture from funding their climate adaptation plans–commonsense efforts to preserve our resources, protect our farmers, and save taxpayer dollars. But, no, end of discussion.

I am sad to say that it is not just the House of Representatives. In the Senate, in the Environment and Public Works Committee, Democrats have been informed that there will be opposition to any legislation that mentions climate change. It is one thing to want to oppose any legislation that does anything about climate change. This is a further step. The mere mention of climate change is enough to provoke Republican opposition. End of discussion.

The taboo is being applied elsewhere in this Chamber. Just this week a Republican Senator demanded that the following language be stricken from a noncontroversial Senate resolution. We pass resolutions here in the Senate all the time by unanimous consent. A Republican Senator said: No, I am going to withhold my consent. I am going to deny the ability of the resolution unless this offending language is removed. What was the offending language? I will quote:

“[W]omen in developing countries are disproportionately affected by changes in climate because of their need to secure water, food, and fuel for their livelihood.”

This body unanimously approved identical language in the last Congress, but today that mention of climate change in an otherwise noncontroversial resolution draws automatic Republican opposition. Again, end of discussion.

And they are not just trying to squelch the legislative branch. In the executive branch, they have tried to defund salaries for White House climate advisers and withhold U.S. funds from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Again, end of discussion.

Now, you might think that in these efforts to attack funding, at least they are motivated by a desire to cut spending. But then what would be the motivation behind House Republicans blocking a no-cost restructuring of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would have created a National Climate Service that is akin to the National Weather Service–a simple reorganization that would have centralized information about climate change, information which is in high demand by State and local governments and by the business community? Again, the purpose is obvious: try to end the discussion.

I would remind my colleagues who are trying to silence this discussion with political power that history teaches, quite plainly, that in contests between power and truth, truth always wins in the end. The Inquisition tried to silence Galileo, but the Enlightenment happened anyway, and the Earth does still spin around the Sun.

Chris McEntee, who is the executive director of the American Geophysical Union, said:

“Limiting access to this kind of climate information won’t make climate change go away.”

And shareholders and directors of corporations should consider what it will mean for the corporations that used their power to suppress the truth once that truth becomes inescapable, once it is undeniable and the denial campaign is seen as a fraud.

This Republican policy of climate change denial is alive and well at the State level too. In 2010 Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli used his powers of office to harass former University of Virginia climatologist Michael Mann and 39 other climate scientists and staff. As a UVA grad, I am proud that the university fought back against this political attack on science and on academic freedom.

Said UVA:

“[The attorney general’s] action and the potential threat of legal prosecution of scientific endeavor that has satisfied peer-review standards send a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earth’s climate and indeed to scholars in any discipline. Such actions directly threaten academic freedom and, thus, our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.”

The victim of this harassment, Professor Mann, was more blunt. He called out this witch hunt as “a coordinated assault against the scientific community by powerful vested interests who simply want to stick their heads in the sand and deny the problem of human-caused climate change, rather than engage in the good faith debate about what to do about it.”

I would note that the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Attorney General Cuccinelli’s so-called investigation groundless. But that was not enough for obstructionists in Virginia. Last year the Republican Virginia Senate struck from a joint resolution titled “Requesting the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to study strategies for adaptation to relative sea-level rise in Tidewater Virginia localities”–they struck from that title the phrase “sea-level rise” both in the title and again in the text of the resolution. News outlets reported–get this–that this was because “sea-level rise” was believed to be a “left-wing term.” Add “sea-level rise” to the “Harms Which Shall Not Be Named.”

In North Carolina, you can still say “sea-level rise,” but you cannot predict it or plan for it. That is because last year North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill requiring, as a matter of law, that North Carolina coastal policy be based on historic rates of sea-level rise rather than on what North Carolina scientists actually predict. This means that even though North Carolina scientists predict 39 inches of sea-level rise within the century, North Carolina, by its own law, is only allowed to prepare for 8. King Canute would be so proud.

Further down, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wrote a report more than a year ago on the risks climate change poses to the Palmetto State, but it was never released to the public. The State newspaper managed to obtain a copy of that study. The report calls for South Carolina to prepare for increases in wildlife disease, loss of prime hunting habitat, and the invasion of non-native species. But to Republicans, these are more “Problems Which Shall Not Be Named.”

In South Dakota, the Republican legislature, in 2010, even passed a nonbinding resolution calling for teaching in public schools that relies on a number of common and thoroughly debunked climate denier claims–in short, bringing climate denier propaganda into public high school science classes.

Who might be behind this concerted effort to make climate science and climate change taboo subjects–“Problems Which Shall Not Be Named”? Well, look at ALEC, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which peddles climate denier legislation and undermines local and national efforts to protect against climate change. Look at ALEC’s board of directors, comprised of lobbyists from ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Koch Industries. Look at the array of bogus denial organizations propped up to create doubt in this debate.

Against this tide of propaganda and nonsense stands States, including Rhode Island, that already cap and reduce carbon emissions. Nineteen States have climate adaptation plans completed or in progress. Thirty-one States have a renewable and/or alternative energy portfolio standard.

Twenty-three States require State buildings to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED standards.

The obstructionists may be well funded by the polluting special interests, but the majority of the American people–the vast majority of the American people–understand that climate change is a very real problem. They want their leaders to take action. Americans want their leaders to listen to the climate scientists. They want us to plan and to prepare, to limit, to mitigate, and to adapt to the changes that are coming.

Here in Congress it is long past time to move forward with meaningful action. That is why I am working with several colleagues to establish a fee on carbon pollution. As I said in my remarks last week, the idea is a simple one. It is basic market 101, law 101, and fairness 101. If you are creating a cost that someone else has to bear, that cost should be put back into the price of the product.

The big carbon polluters should pay a fee to the American people to cover the cost of their dumping their waste into our oceans and air. It is a cost they now happily push off onto the rest of us, allowing them an unfair and improper market advantage, in effect to cheat against rival energy sources. The deniers want to make this the problem which shall not be named. But I am here to name it, as are many others. I am here to shame them if I can, if shame is a feeling a big corporation can even have. I am here to see to it that we wake up and that we get to work.

I yield the floor.


  1. The cost of putting plant food in the atmosphere has yet to be determined. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an REX analysis on extreme weather costs on March 28th of 2012. In it, the panel stated that an increase in normalized loses due to severe weather events has yet to be detected let alone tying any hypothesized losses to human activity. They believe that such losses will occur in the future but I would think that those costs must actually be realizes before you start sending someone the bill.

  2. Nice science-free assertions. Doesn't make them true, just because you present them as facts. Quite the reverse, there is a lot of information about changes in the system including but not limited to an increase in non-extreme weather with potential to do harm (rainfall in one day of more than two inches, which has become much more common), ocean acidification, drought, winds, wildfires, changes in climate zones (longer seasons, less freezing resulting in insect proliferation), widespread pollution and ozone damage to plants and humans, the list goes on and on.

    Ordinary people, not involved in a fight to the death against facts about our planet, get it. This manipulation may give you a sense of accomplishment, but the result is almost completely negative.

    It is easier to destroy than to build.

  3. Susan, you can't call it science-free when it directly references IPCC. If we do that, where does it leave us? Of course there is some cherry-picking here, and of course this is all frustrating, but there are people whose opinions disagree with ours. I am entirely convinced they are wrong, but some of them have the same attitude toward our opinions.

    We need, at least in principle, to create a respectful sort of dialog where the truth can win. This may convert very few committed arguers but if we can't manage that, how can we be so sure that our position holds water>

    Scott S argued substantively and with no obvious disrespect. I understand your frustration but I can't agree with your approach in this case.

  4. I was addressing the obvious distortion of the report's substance and the opening phrase "putting plant food in the atmosphere" which is a giveaway on intent. I don't think people presenting this particular trope are interested in discussion. After almost a decade of dealing with confusionists on their own ground, I'm not interested any more.

    It's your site: feel free to delete this remark, it won't hurt my "feelings". I don't want to undermine you but all this verbiage gets in the way of the honest and sober truth.

  5. Part of the honest and sober truth is that some people acting in good faith don't believe it.

    I think it is necessary to demonstrate that there are good answers to their claims. We want to keep the noise off P3, but we don't intend to keep disagreement out.

    Of course "plant food" is a giveaway of some hostility. But what of it? He thinks we are delusional and intellectually sloppy at best. Of course he is hostile.

    Creating a space where it is safe to have a substantive disagreement seems to be to be a prerequisite for resolving such disagreement.

    I'm not saying Scott S. in particular is or isn't reachable. But ad hominem responses to complaints that have some appearance of legitimacy only reinforces the peculiar mental model that people (the sorts of people who think since CO2 is necessary, more CO2 is good) have of the community of climate concerned.

    If you think a comment is counterproductive, you should complain to the site editors, not to the commenter. We remove comments that are extremely rude or utterly boring. We don't remove intelligent comments that disagree with us. We are trying to create a conversation.

    As Itzhak Rabin said, you don't make a peace treaty with your friends.

  6. I still get along with Andy Revkin, sort of. But I'm not going to call a cul de sac a through way.

    There isn't all that much time to spin words. Perhaps the years have worn down my tolerance - they certainly have increased our danger. It's really not that hard to ascertain the facts of the case, and the SREX seems to me to have been one of the places one could do so. I was skirting that part of the issue since I'm tied up with yet more family difficulties, but it seems important to look it up:

  7. I lean towards Susan on this one. It's perhaps fair to pick her up on the 'science-free' wording, but the substance of her criticism seems justified. Sen. Whitehouse's statement had very little to do with extreme events and to pick this out as a counter argument, as Scott Scarborough did, simply ignores the substance of what he was saying and a lot of science that justifies Whitehouse's position. The comment was science-light at least.

  8. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, March 17, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  9. Thanks. I will certainly make an effort to avoid insulting language - it is possible to underline misconstruction without making sweeping accusations, though it entails doing one's homework (family troubles no excuse as I could have remained silent - perhaps I shall do so in future here when I don't have time to pick apart what I believe is a false argument).

    I was also keeping in mind the recent appearance of a small contingent of WUWT-style arguers here at P3. I know from hard experience that these circular arguments go on and on and lead nowhere.

    It would be lovely if people would admit what they don't know and respect knowledge - it's my personal corollary to the science of knowledge, I think the trigger was mt's and my father's appreciation of epistemology, which at the time I hadn't bothered with much, and thought belonged in religious arguments. It tied in to my experience - the best learning is often preceded by abandoning a last-ditch attempt to hold on to the appearance of knowledge rather than the substance, out of fear of somehow being exposed.

    I still think the SREX, like Dr. Annan, doesn't say what it (or he) is cited as having said in the skilled effort to create prejudice against climate and climate science reality. This is unfortunate and a distraction.

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