George Mason: Climate Denial U.?


    Cross-posted at Daily Kos

    Northern Virginians have lots of reasons to take pride in George Mason University, as a rapidly growing academic community named the #1 national university to watch in the 2009 rankings of US News & World Report, with Nobel Prize winning faculty and an occasionally great basketball team.

    Unfortunately, GMU is also known as a “magnet for right wing money” which takes millions in corporate cash to run a network of centers to gin up and legitimate the latest ultraconservative talking points.

    Now let me be clear: I strongly favor an academic environment that is open to debate and opinions from all across the political spectrum.  But there is a difference between principled, reason-based academic stands and corporate-funded attempts to skew debate and provide a fig leaf to cover naked profit-based self-interest.  

    This brings me to the unfortunate role that our local university is playing in the political war over climate change. A lot of NOVA residents may not realize that GMU gives funding, support and – most importantly – academic legitimacy to some of the best known and most persistent deniers of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change – notably Patrick Michaels and S. Fred Singer.  In doing so, GMU perpetuates the myth that there is widespread academic disagreement about the facts and causes of climate change when in fact there is not.  

    Notable among the funders to GMU are the notorious Koch brothers, about which Greenpeace recently released a damning report, “Koch Industries Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine.”  Koch, the second-largest privately-held company in the US, supports its interests in the oil industry by funding dozens of think-tanks, websites, and PACs to create an echo-chamber that endlessly repeats the latest bogus climate denial claims to convince the media, politicians, and citizens that climate change is just a hoax concocted by corrupt scientists, enviros and the nefarious Al Gore.

    Koch and other right-wing donors give their money to support a web of GMU-affiliated organizations with names like the Mercatus Center, Institute for Humane Studies, and the Science and Environmental Policy Project.  Through these centers, GMU and their donors support such climate denial luminaries as Professor Patrick Michaels.

    As Mother Jones noted a couple months ago:

    Patrick Michaels has more credibility than your average climate skeptic. Unlike some of the kookier characters that populate the small world of climate denialists-like Lord Christopher Monckton, a sometime adviser to Margaret Thatcher who claims that “We are a carbon-starved planet,” or H. Leighton Steward, a retired oil executive and author of a best-selling diet book who argues that carbon dioxide is “green”-Michaels is actually a bona fide climate scientist. As such, he’s often quoted by reporters as a reasonable expert who argues that global warming has been overhyped. But what Michaels doesn’t mention in his frequent media appearances is his history of receiving money from big polluters.

    Oh, yeah, about that corporate money, it includes:

    a $63,000 grant in the early 1990s for “research on global climatic change.” He also received $25,000 from the Edison Electric Institute, an association of electric utilities, from 1992-95 for “literature review of climate change and updates.” And a 2006 leaked industry memo revealed that he received $100,000 in funding from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association to fund climate denial campaigning around the time of the release of An Inconvenient Truth. Reporter Ross Gelbspan wrote in his 1998 book The Heat is On, one of the earliest works documenting industry funding for climate change skepticism, that Michaels also received $49,000 from the German Coal Mining Association and $40,000 from the western mining company Cyprus Minerals.

    Michaels and his supporters boast of his credentials – including his position as Senior Fellow in the School of Public Policy at GMU.  Curiously, however, if you search on Michaels’ name on George Mason’s website, you don’t find much – unlike other professors, who generally have their own web pages detailing their research and activities.  Might GMU be trying to downplay his presence on their faculty?

    You won’t have much luck finding S. Fred Singer on GMU’s website either, although he is the other big climate denial fish being fed by the university.  You have to go to the website of the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) – one of the centers GMU keeps at arms length, conveniently, to attract corporate money to support conservative causes while keeping the university’s hands clean.

    Singer, according to Source Watch, set up the precursor to SEPP with funding from the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.  He’s had even more luck with other funders from the fossil fuel industries:

    In a September 24, 1993, sworn affidavit, Dr. Singer stated that he had two meetings with Robert Balling in Pheonix for which his expenses were re-imbursed. Singer believed the the funding, which he received from Balling, originated from the Western Fuels Association.  Singer also admitted to working as a consultant on approximately half a dozen occasions for the Global Climate Coalition and that payments to him came either from the firm of John Shlaes, the coalition’s director or the PR firm, E. Bruce Harrison, which worked for the coalition.  He also stated that he had undertaken consulting work on “perhaps a dozen or so” energy companies. This included work on behalf of oil companies, such as Exxon, Texaco, Arco, Shell, Sun, Unocal, the Electric Power Research Institute, Florida Power and the American Gas Association.

    (He also, incidentally, has in the past attacked the scientific finding that secondhand smoke can cause cancer, in a collaboration with a tobacco industry lobbyist.  This is one of the many connections between the corporate funded campaigns against regulation of tobacco and greenhouse gas emissions – apparently it’s a small world among academics up for sale to the highest bidder!)

    There are many other corporate-funded attack dogs against climate science and environmental regulation hiding in the GMU bushes, like:

    Susan Dudley, Director of the Mercatus Center – which has received some $10 million dollars from Koch to rail against government regulation – and a Bush appointee to OMB, where she not surprisingly did all she could to stop environmental and other regulations.

    – Brian Mannix, Dudley’s hubby, another Mercatus henchman and a Bush appointee to the EPA, where he reviewed EPA regulations before sending them to his wife at OMB to be killed.

    – Walter E. Williams, GMU Economics professor, who begins one article with the scholarly observation: “Most of what the radical environmentalists preach is wrong or exaggerated, and sometimes are simply outright lies.”  

    All of these folks have a fondness for spreading their views through non-peer-reviewed publications, articles and web postings that don’t adhere to the minimum requirements of the scientific method.  But they still benefit from being able to claim sponsorship by a reputable, accredited university.

    So fellow NOVA residents, I’m not asking you to turn your backs on GMU – no, better that we turn our attention to what this university is up to and raise our voices when its good name is used to promote junk science and corrupt causes.  We deserve a great university – not a corporate shill – in our midst, and we should fight to ensure that is what GMU becomes.

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