Home Energy and Environment Sen. Mark Warner’s Tolerance of Climate Disinformation

Sen. Mark Warner’s Tolerance of Climate Disinformation


by Seth Heald, cross posted from Power for the People VA

Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator Mark Warner cast a vote this week that will come back to haunt him in coming years. It will also haunt our commonwealth and nation in future decades and centuries. Warner voted to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to be Secretary of State.

Tillerson, sad to say, may not be the most extreme or unqualified of President Trump’s cabinet nominees. One can hope that Senator Warner will vote against some of the worst of the worst, such as climate-science denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has pledged to unravel bedrock environmental protections like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

But opposing one or two other Trump nominees won’t excuse Senator Warner’s vote to make Rex Tillerson Secretary of State.

Tillerson’s former company has spent millions of dollars over recent decades to promote climate-science denial, to the detriment of many millions of vulnerable people all over the world, including many here in Virginia. ExxonMobil’s climate-denial promotion has been documented in academic studies, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is investigating ExxonMobil’s role in promoting climate-science disinformation.

To his credit, Virginia’s junior U.S. Senator, Tim Kaine, brought out Tillerson’s connection to climate-science denial at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. Tillerson dodged Kaine’s questions. Following the hearing Kaine tweeted: “It’s shameful Tillerson refused to answer my questions on his company’s role in funding phony climate science.” Kaine voted against confirming Tillerson.

By all accounts Tillerson has personal virtues. He’s an Eagle Scout who long supported and recently headed the Boy Scouts of America. He was once a good juror in a criminal case, as one of his fellow jurors recently explained in The Dallas Morning News. In many respects Tillerson is an upstanding Christian who contributes to mission work to help others.

But his former company’s longtime, immoral promotion of climate-science disinformation will harm exponentially far more people than his personal good deeds have helped.

There’s a term to explain how people like Tillerson can be good Boy Scouts, jurors, and churchgoers while also doing great harm that will cause great suffering to others. It’s called “moral disengagement.” The concept is explained in detail in a recent book by emeritus Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura, titled Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves. Bandura describes several mechanisms by which corporate polluters try to distance themselves from the harm they cause. They use front groups to do their dirty work with politicians. ExxonMobil and other fossil-fuel companies do that through groups like the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes science misinformation to state legislators.

And Bandura notes that corporate polluters themselves promote scientific disinformation as a mechanism of moral disengagement. That is precisely what ExxonMobil has been doing for years, as Senator Kaine noted at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. These lies and half-truths have real consequences for real people, here in Virginia and around the world.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann (formerly of UVA) has said that history will judge harshly those who promote climate-science denial. But, Mann added, “history will be too late.”

Senator Warner hasn’t himself promoted climate-science denial, but he just voted to make someone who has our nation’s Secretary of State.

History, and (one can hope) Virginia voters as well, will judge Mark Warner harshly for that.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive a Master of Science degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May, 2017. His article on climate change and moral disengagement was published in the May-June, 2016 issue of Environment: The Journal of Sustainable Development.

  • David Dickinson

    Applying one’s climate change dis/belief as a litmus test for the EPA chief makes sense, but why apply the litmus test to the Secretary of State? If more politicians and appointees concentrated on the specifics of their job duties instead of broader policies that have little or nothing to do with their actual job, we would likely have a federal government that was more successful and more people would have faith in government’s ability to fix problems. Our foreign policy is a mess. The Sec. of State needs to focus on America’s standing amongst the comity of nations.

    • Climate change is an enormous foreign policy issue, no question that it’s in the bailiwick of the Secretary of State…

      • David Dickinson

        Well, I’m questioning it and, apparently, Sen. Warner questioned it too since he didn’t think it was an important enough issue to vote against him.
        For what other cabinet positions should climate change be a litmus test?
        1. State
        2. ???
        3. etc.

        • I’d say that climate should be an important issue for most agencies, given the pervasiveness of the challenge and the opportunities. For instance, Housing and Urban Development play an enormous role in our energy use and carbon emissions patterns. Transportation obviously does. The Department of Interior is very important, for obvious reasons (e.g., leasing federal lands – or not – for fossil fuel development or, alternatively, for clean energy development). Agriculture plays a huge role in climate change. The military, of course, has been a leading proponent of switching to clean energy for a variety of reasons. etc, etc.

    • Seth Heald

      Climate change has everything to do with the Secretary of State’s job. There’s the Paris Climate Agreement, which the Secretary of State will be deeply involved with. There’s also the matter of the world refugee crisis, which again is something the State Department and its secretary necessarily deal with. Climate change is and will be creating more and more refugees. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/15/world/africa/agadez-climate-change.html?action=click&contentCollection=Times%20Insider&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

      A Secretary of State with a history of promoting climate-science denial harms America’s standing among nations.

      • Exactly. Climate change is a massive, global threat (and opportunity to do something about it, with international cooperation) that requires a massive, global response. That’s the realm of the U.S. Dept. of State, big time!

  • God b watching U

    With respect,

    the writer provides no evidence that their point of view changes the dynamics of climate change.

    Should we reduce carbon emissions? CERTAINLY. They are pollutants. We should pollute minimally.

    Should we reduce dependency on fossil fuels? CERTAINLY. They are increasingly costly to extract, and we see that entire communities and regions of human and natural life are disrupted and not benefited, and many habitats of various living creatures are destroyed (and we must include the human habitats in that reckoning, which many Democrats have devalued much to their shame … and lost votes!.)

    BEING RIGHT on an issue is not the reason for the Democratic Party: winning votes to win elected offices, to make progress on Democratic values IS the reason for the Democratic Party … or are we wrong? Of course we need good information that we can reliably trust to make our voting decisions.

    Should we reward frank liars? CERTAINLY NOT. But there are – as famously quoted from Mark Twain – ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’ – and we are sure that both fossil fuel extraction industries AND stop climate change advocacy industries BOTH use statistics to their advantage. Is Tillerson a ‘liar’, and ‘damn liar’, or using ‘statistics’? That is the key question, isn’t it? And the people in the protest must quickly tell us who supported their sit in? and what facts did they summon for their cause? Are they ‘liars’, ‘damn liars’, or using ‘statistics’?