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Friday, August 2, 2013

Google\'s Science Fellows Challenge the Company\'s Fund-Raising for Senator Inhofe

Ten years ago this week, Senator James M. Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma, used a two-hour floor speech to launch his campaign on the credibility of climate science pointing to dangers from the unabated release of greenhouse gases. There was a a touch of lawyerly nuance in that speech â€" with Inhofe specifying he was asserting that “catastrophic” man-made global warming was a hoax.

It's one thing to have a political debate about the level of danger posed by the building greenhouse effect. “How much is too much” is in fact a societal choice more than a question answerable by science. But it's another to spend a decade, as Inhofe has since, making ever more caricatured attacks on climate scientists in the name of preserving the country's dependence on fossil fuels.

By 2010, digging through the cache of climate scientists' e-mail exchanges revealed in the incident that became best known as Climategate, Inhofe was using Senate committee time and resources to probe the actions of 17 climate scientists who Inhofe said should be investigated as potential criminals.*

That's why so many scientists and others (me included) were irked last month to learn that Google, a company that in recent years gained a green reputation by investing aggressively in renewable energy projects, was hosting a July 11 fund-raising luncheon for Inhofe.

Big companies have many, and sometimes conflicting, interests, as a spokesperson for Google tried to explain to the environmental blogger Brian Merchant this way: “[W]hile we disagree on climate change policy, we share an interest with Senator Inhofe in the employees and data center we have in Oklahoma.”

Now the Web giant is facing fresh criticism, this time in an open letter from 17 scientists and policy researchers who were invited to Google's Silicon Valley headquarters back in 2011 to explore ways to improve climate science communication (I was also invited and gave a talk).

Below you can read an essay by the four lead authors of the letter, which was sent yesterday to Google's executive leadership. The letter is posted here and at Climate Science Watch:

Google's Troubling Alliance with Senator James Inhofe

The company betrays core principles and risks its own business success

Matthew Nisbet, Alan Townsend, Jonathan Koomey, and Julia Cole

Climate change is a grave moral challenge that cannot be addressed without smart government policy, corporate innovation, and public participation.  Leaders and citizens must collaborate in ways that transcend differences, and call out those who impede progress by denying the reality of the problem.

Recently, Google Inc. failed in this duty by hosting a July 11, 2013 fund-raiser in support of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe's re-election campaign.  The political gridlock that has derailed efforts to address climate change in the US owes much to Senator Inhofe.  His denial of the problem and fact-free assaults on the scientific community are designed to promote political dysfunction, to destroy the reputation of scientists, and to undermine our ability to find common ground.

Such strategies conflict with Google's successful evidence-based, problem-solving culture, and are arguably contrary to its corporate philosophy of “Don't Be Evil.”

In 2011, as participants in Google's science communication fellows program, we were inspired by the company's unique culture and investment in climate change education.  We left the Mountain View headquarters eager to apply the new tools we learned to our public outreach activities.

But Google's recent support for Senator Inhofe forces us to seriously question the company's commitment to climate change leadership.  This week, joined by 13 other distinguished fellows, we released an open letter to Google calling on the company to reconsider its fund-raising efforts on behalf of Senator Inhofe's re-election.

Not only does supporting Senator Inhofe go against Google's core principles, the company also risks its reputation.  Increasingly, consumers expect their most admired companies to “walk the walk” on climate issues.  According to a recent survey, about a quarter of Americans say that they have used their purchasing power to either reward or punish companies for their climate change track record.  An equivalent number say they have discussed what they see as a company's irresponsible environmental behavior with friends or family.

Google's support for Senator Inhofe has already angered consumers and looks especially bad in comparison to the recent actions of a major competitor.  In 2009, Apple quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the group's opposition to limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.  “We would prefer that the Chamber take a more progressive stance on this critical issue and play a constructive role in addressing the climate crisis,” the company wrote in a letter announcing its resignation.

Earlier this year, Apple hired former Environmental Protection Administrator Lisa Jackson to expand the company's environmental and energy initiatives.  As Apple CEO Tim Cook declared in a statement, Jackson would make Apple the “top environmental leader in the tech sector,” using its influence to “push electric utilities and governments to provide the clean energy that both Apple and America need right now.”

Apart from the possible damage to its reputation, Google's support for Senator Inhofe matters in other ways as well. To power its operations, Google has invested heavily in energy efficiency strategies and renewable energy projects.  These investments are predicated on the idea that climate change creates business risks, and among the best actions for managing those risks is to reduce emissions.

Yet absent the proposed climate policies that Senator Inhofe and his allies have so effectively blocked, these technologies will remain more costly than they otherwise would be, limiting Google's return on investment.  Political paralysis also muddles the ability of Google and other companies to engage in long-term planning, creating further financial risk.

The lack of international cooperation on meaningful actions to address climate change poses an even greater threat to global companies like Google, since their profits are closely tied to the performance of the world economy.  Each year we delay acting, the more vulnerable our economies become to potentially catastrophic climate change impacts and the more costly it becomes to transform our global energy system.

Large companies must â€" and should â€" work with political leaders on both sides of the aisle.  Moreover, vigorous debate over policy options and technological trade-offs will be needed if we are going to identify effective paths forward and build broad support for action.

But when political leaders like Senator Inhofe deny the problem of climate change, they do not make the problem disappear-instead, they compound it by blocking constructive solutions.  And when corporations like Google support these same political leaders, they endanger our ability to manage the climate crisis before it exacts even greater costs.

In the face of overwhelming evidence and the growing number of groups working together to address the problem, the politics of climate change are shifting.  For both economic and moral reasons, Google needs to stand on the right side of history and stop supporting those who are best known for attacking scientists, denying reality and obstructing government action.

Responsibility, however, also rests with scientists, civil society leaders, and the public.  Indeed, this may be the enduring lesson of Google's mistake.  By speaking out when our admired companies and political leaders let us down, we are the only ones who can create the conditions where the morally right thing to do is also good for politics and business.

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at American University, Washington D.C.; Alan Townsend is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder; Jonathan Koomey is Research Fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University; and Julia Cole is Professor of Geosciences and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of Arizona.

Updated at asterisk above, 1:43 p.m. |
Thanks, A.L. Hern, for catching the “whom / who” grammar glitch that my grandmother was always eager to point out.