Andersen: Local climate scientist feels the heat
December 25, 2016
Rick Heede lives on a hilltop at Gateway in a rammed-earth home he designed and built himself. His windows reveal the snowcapped peaks of the Elk Range, but his view from the top of the world is disturbing as storm clouds gather.
Heede sees the atmosphere the way few of us do. As a scientist, he measures atmospheric carbon in metric tons, assigning accountability to industrial producers of fossil fuels who contribute enormously — and profitably — to climate change.
Foremost among them is ExxonMobil, which Heede has been analyzing for 12 years, assessing carbon output from the products it sells. Heede's work is groundbreaking, but he has learned that holding the world's largest publicly traded petroleum and petrochemical company accountable for climate change entails personal risk.
In July, Heede was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, chaired by Congressman Lamar Smith, a known climate-change denier. According to Wikipedia, the Republican congressman from Texas has received more than $600,000 in campaign donations from the fossil-fuel industry during his 30 years in Congress.
The committee is pressuring Heede because his research is attached to legal actions waged by several state attorneys general who are suggesting that ExxonMobil has misled investors on climate change.
Heede dismisses the subpoena as a bullying tactic and has refused to cooperate. A U.S. District Court last week put the subpoena on hold. Otherwise, Heede could face a contempt of Congress charge.
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The committee is effectively intimidating a number of climate science advocates. Similar leverage is being used by the Trump transition team by targeting U.S. Energy Department staff with a questionnaire on climate change and an echo of McCarthyism: Do you now or have you ever attended climate-change meetings?
The committee is concerned that Heede's research could implicate ExxonMobil for potentially costly damages from climate-change impacts. That responsibility could spill over to ExxonMobil shareholders who, in turn, could claim they have been victims of corporate fraud.
"The company made a choice in the early 1990s," Heede claims, "to invest in climate obfuscation and denial, which it did very successfully with massive public confusion about climate science and the election of climate deniers to Congress. The campaign succeeds to this day."
ExxonMobil counters that "a coordinated public relations campaign … is misleading the public by accusing us of hiding what we knew about climate change and working against climate science. We unequivocally reject (these) allegations … (and) have informed shareholders and investors on our perception of the business risks associated with climate change."
No wonder energy magnates are nervous. When legal actions were taken against Big Tobacco and the asbestos industry, liability extended to companies and executives for selling products known to cause harm. ExxonMobil could face legal responsibility for climate change damages as it did for cleanup from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
The energy sector hopes to dodge responsibility, just as have gun manufacturers and liquor companies, for damages caused by their products. Heede and his associates are pushing back with scientific evidence to force the energy sector into responsible actions through product accountability and a shift to alternative energy.
This is implausible given Trump's support for fossil fuels and his denial of their impacts. With ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson tapped for secretary of state, powerful energy interests are being entrenched on Capitol Hill.
Heede and an impressive group of climate activists are justifiably on guard in a business-dominated world where independent scientists are hectored for challenging fossil-fuel companies with science that rightfully assigns culpability to their operations and profits.
Eventually, Heede's research will be vindicated. ExxonMobil and other energy producers are culpable, and the American consumer has been an unwitting accomplice whose energy extravagances and investment decisions reflect a culture of moral ambivalence.
"Exxon will not be vanquished," Heede said. "It will, however, be brought to responsible action — possibly before it is too late for our children."
The view from the panoramic windows in Heede's hilltop home is beautiful. Look through the Windows on Heede's computer screens, however, and the world is a dangerous place for scientists speaking truth to power against the highest levels of corporate power and political complicity.
Paul Andersen's column appear on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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