Environment

Google's Climate Change Scientists Question Company Morals

inhofe

In a letter to the company’s CEO and Chairman, Google’s climate scientists have spoken out against the company’s financial support for Senator James Inhofe.

Inhofe is known for declaring climate change “a hoax on the American people”. Such comments have led Google’s climate scientists to question the company’s motivation for backing the Senator.

Google has supported environmental science research since the formation of its Google Science Communication Fellows group in 2011. Google’s scientists are involved in climate change research and discussions with other scientific bodies, the US government and private sector.

17 Fellows signed the letter to Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt and CEO Larry Page on August 1,2013 asking them to “display moral leadership and carefully evaluate their political bedfellows.”

Google announced their support for Senator Inhofe in on July 11, 2013. A public petition was signed by over 150,000 people using the mantra “Don’t Fund Evil” – a play on the company’s tagline “Don’t Be Evil.”

Despite the petition and internal letter, the fundraiser went ahead as planned. As well as receiving donations from Google, Inhofe has received strong political backing from oil and gas corporations in the past.

Google management maintains that although it disagrees with Inhofe on climate policy, they nonetheless share interests in Oklahoma that have led to Google’s support of the Senator.

The letter from Google’s scientists shows the effect of big money on business and politics in America. The American democratic system is defined by a one man one vote system but is increasingly in a position where only the rich and elite can afford to run for power and corporate interests hold more sway than environmental and individual needs.

You can read the full letter below:

The 17 signatories of the following letter were all Google Climate Science Communication Fellows in 2011:

Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman) and Larry Page (CEO)

Google Inc.

1600 Amphitheatre Parkway

Mountain View, CA 94043 USA

August 1, 2013

Dear Dr. Schmidt and Mr. Page,

Google has earned its reputation as one of America’s most innovative and forward-thinking companies, and has shown climate leadership by improving its own environmental performance and investing in clean energy technologies.  That’s why it was deeply troubling for us, as Google Science Communication Fellows, to learn about Google’s July 11, 2013 fundraiser supporting Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe’s 2014 re-election campaign.

Among his most notorious statements, Senator Inhofe has outrageously claimed that climate change is "a hoax on the American people" and, in the absence of a shred of factual evidence, accused climate scientists of being "criminals."

The reality that human activities are causing major disruptions to our global climate and that these disruptions pose serious risks to society is accepted by virtually every climate scientist and by the world’s leading scientific organizations.  Yet for more than a decade, Senator Inhofe has attacked and demeaned the very scientists who have worked tirelessly to better understand the threat and to warn us of the risks posed to the environment, our communities, and our children.

In the face of intensifying heat, rising seas and extreme weather, corporate leadership and private sector innovation will be essential to developing clean energy technologies and implementing more sustainable business practices.  So too will be political dialogue, bipartisanship, and cooperation. That’s why we’re strongly supportive of the outreach efforts of former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, who today leads the Conservative Climate Coalition.

Yet sadly, over the past decade, the polarization and gridlock that has derailed efforts to address climate change owes much to Senator Inhofe, who by relentlessly attacking the scientific community has undermined efforts at cooperation and consensus building.

Given Google’s commitment to educating the public about climate change, why would the company align its political efforts with Inhofe? In responding to criticism, a Google spokesperson acknowledged “while we disagree on climate change policy, we share an interest with Senator Inhofe in the employees and data center we have in Oklahoma.”

But Inhofe's assault on the scientific community is not a difference in climate policy; it's a strategy designed to promote dysfunction and paralysis; to destroy the reputation of scientists and the legitimacy of their institutions; and to undermine our ability to find common ground.

Such a strategy conflicts with the data-driven, problem solving culture that has enabled Google’s business success and is arguably contrary to its corporate philosophy of “Don’t Be Evil.”

In 2011, as participants in Google’s science communication fellows program, we witnessed first hand the company’s unique culture.  At its Mountain View headquarters, we were introduced to new communication technologies and strategies for effectively translating climate science to a broad audience.

At the time, we were proud to be part of Google’s investment in science education; inspired by the creative, talented, and passionate people we met; and eager to apply new tools and strategies in our public outreach activities.  But Google’s recent support for Senator Inhofe forces us to question the company’s commitment to science communication and to addressing climate change.

Nearly every large company must – and should – work with policymakers on both sides of the aisle. We also recognize the difficulty that corporations sometimes face in reconciling their core principles with their short-term business priorities.

But in the face of urgent threats like climate change, there are times where companies like Google must display moral leadership and carefully evaluate their political bedfellows. Google’s support of Senator James Inhofe’s re-election campaign is one of those moments.

The Signatories were all Google Climate Science Communication Fellows in 2011:

  • Brendan Bohannan, Professor, Environmental Studies and Biology, University of Oregon
  • Julia Cole, Professor, Geosciences and Atmospheric Sciences, The University of Arizona
  • Eugene Cordero, Professor, Department of Meteorology and Climate Science, San Jose State University
  • Frank Davis, Professor, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Andrew Dessler, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University
  • Simon Donner, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia
  • Nicole Heller, Visiting Assistant Professor, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
  • Brian Helmuth, Professor, Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences and School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University
  • Jonathan Koomey, Research Fellow, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University
  • David Lea, Professor, Dept. of Earth Science, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
  • Kelly Levin, Senior Associate, World Resources Institute
  • David Lobell, Associate Professor of Environmental Earth System Science, Stanford University
  • Ed Maurer, Associate Professor & Robert W. Peters Professor, Civil Engineering Dept., Santa Clara University
  • Suzanne C. Moser, Director, Susanne Moser Research & Consulting and Social Science Research Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University
  • Matthew C. Nisbet, Associate Professor, School of Communication, American University, Washington D.C.
  • Whendee L. Silver, Professor of Ecosystem Ecology, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
  • Alan Townsend, Professor, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado Boulder

Note:  Affiliations are for identification purposes only and do not imply endorsement by an individual’s institution or organization.

It’s Our Fracking Future

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My generation, those who were born in the mid to late 80’s and early 90’s have had their births coincide with a rise in debate around climate change and our ever dwindling fossil fuel resources.  We have seen recycling shift from something that was still vaguely outlandish, to a regular household occurrence. We have witnessed oil crises, fuel price hikes, ever more inventive means of energy extraction in the face of limited resources and we have seen climate change and fossil fuels become central topics in electoral and international politics. These creeping changes have been a constant background noise in the day-to-day lives of many since the 80’s, when scientists first showed concerns about global warming and our limited fossil fuel supplies. We have heard evidence form scientists prophesising the dangers of a global temperature rise of just a few centigrade, including severe weather systems, draughts, crop failure and disease and we have also heard from climate change deniers, those who argue that climate change is a natural event that mankind holds no responsibility for.

 In the midst of this public discourse, Britain has tuned to hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, a means of fossil fuel gas extraction in an attempt to decrease the rising cost of fuel. Frack works by pumping high volumes of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break shale rock apart and release methane gas. Fracking has been underway in the US for a decade now and has been highly effective in dropping the spiking price of natural gas and currently accounts for 25% of the countries gas supply.  Those in favour of bringing fracking to Britain argue it will make way for a new era of cheaper energy and is far less visually intrusive than wind farms or above ground fuel mines.

However, these benefits come at a cost. Fracking has been condemned by environmentalists for continuing our reliance on fossil fuels and for the risks involved in extraction. In Wyoming and Pennsylvania, where shale mining is wide spread, there have been examples of aquifers being ruptured by the below ground explosions involved. Drinking water was found to contain radioactive isotopes, benzene, toluene, ethylenzene and xylene – known carcinogens and acidifiers. There is also evidence also suggests airborne carcinogens are emitted in the nearby area.  Despite these concerns, communities have found themselves powerless to speak out against the arrivisme of the large corporations responsible. Further compounding the communities worries, the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency warned that water supplies contaminated by fracking are “typically too expensive to remediate or restore”. The backlash against these discoveries was understandably immense and has caught public and media attention. Mat Damon is set to star in a film against fracking and the documentary, Gasland, highlighting the pollution caused by fracking in Pennsylvania was nominated for an Oscar. But still the highly lucrative shale mining industry continues.

The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, who are responsible for the introduction of fracking to the UK, have stated that there is little chance of such a catastrophe in Britain - but then similar assurances were made in Wyoming and Pennsylvania a decade ago. The DECC’s mollifications are of little solace to those in Lancashire, where fracking is already underway and fears of ruptured aquifers run high among the community. The UK had its own warning of the dangers inherent in fracking, when a well just outside of Blackpool caused earthquakes measuring 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter scale. The Department of Energy and Climate Change issued a further report arguing that there is scant danger from these ‘controlled’ detonations and that they are a routine part of the fracking process. But is there really such a thing as a controlled earthquake? Reports from members of nearby communities describe new cracks appearing in houses and doors that no longer shut as a result of these quakes.

The biggest problem with fracking though, is not the obvious dangers present in carrying out a process that is not yet fully understood or researched. Studies made thus far have found that fracking does indeed cause above and below ground pollution - but at a level not much higher than more conventional oil and gas operations. The real problem with fracking is that it reeks of desperation. The act of drilling as far as 3km underground, before drilling horizontally into shale rock and pumping the ground full of water, sand and chemical lubricants to release methane gas is ingenious. But it is ingenuity pointed in the wrong direction. We are truly scraping the barrel of the earth’s fossil fuel reserves and the resourcefulness involved could be put to better use in the renewable energy industry.

When David Cameron was elected, he promised his Conservative government would be the ‘greenest government ever’. The introduction of fracking, rather than increasing investment in renewable energy sources, appears to suggest the contrary. In the recent Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) Event, Cameron acknowledged that rising gas prices, rather than green policies, are the leading cause of the energy bill hikes recently faced by British consumers. This ran counter to previous claims that green energy investment was sending the monthly price of household energy soaring and goes a long way towards explaining the decision to follow the US and introduce shale mines to the UK.

However, the CEM was attended by ministers from 23 different countries and was an ideal opportunity to show British commitment to renewable energy and a move away from fossil fuel dependency. The UK is uniquely situated in a position to invest heavily in environmental energy; the North Sea holds potentially limitless opportunities as a wind farm and as a source of marine energy. With these resources, Britain could pave the way in renewable, home sourced energy for the future but instead, our ministers continue to flirt with short sighted, slipshod energy fixes such as shale mining and fossil fuel investment, overlooking the long-term environmental, consumer and economic gains to be reaped from investing early in renewable energy.

Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency warns that “under current policies we estimate energy use and CO2 emissions will increase by a third by 2020, and almost double by 2050. This would probably send global temperatures at least 6C higher within this century” a warning that is in stark contrast to the Climate Change Act that commits the UK to reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 – which even if achieved only lessens and does not prevent the chances of the global climate increasing by 2C this century.  Introducing Fracking to the UK further undermines such cavalier preventative measures; shale mining is deeply inconsistent with the aim of tackling climate change and diverts investment from renewable energy sources.

Admittedly, renewable energy technology needs to become more affordable but this could easily be accomplished. As it stands, the government continues to indirectly subsidise fossil fuel in the UK through the use of VAT breaks that amounted to around £3.36bn in 2010. These tax breaks only increase the price gap between fossil and renewable energy sources. A change of policy to cease these breaks would be a significant step in the right direction. Our government is understandably in a difficult position, having to avoid fuel hikes and create green energy opportunities, but they appear to have concluded that it is better to be seen to be acting through rhetoric and CEM events, rather than to act decisively and reallocate subsidies. The ridiculousness of such a system seems obvious to those not invested but inescapable to those who are.

Sadly, our government appears to suffer from severe myopia and the introduction of fracking to the UK continues. Despite the obvious long-term benefits of green energy investment, despite surveys suggesting that over 67% of the UK are against further mines and despite the fact that France and Bulgaria have already made the process illegal. Tara Choudhury , an eleven year old school girl from Lancashire, gained attention on both sides of the Atlantic when she made a video illustrating the dangers of hydraulic fracturing and won the opportunity to speak to MEP’s as a part of a ‘Have your Say on Sustainability’ competition. To counteract such negative press in the US, the shale mine industry has once again shown its ingenious and clandestine nature by creating a colouring book issued in schools. Calgary’s Talisman Energy concocted their own mascot – a  ‘Fracosaurus’ who introduces himself to children, perhaps rather mendaciously with the words; “Hello, my name is Talisman Terry, your friendly Fracosaurus. I am here to teach you about a clean energy source called Natural Gas, found right here in the Twin Tiers!” – The irony of having a dinosaur as a fossil fuel mascot is not to be overlooked.

We have been told that water shortages to become more and more common in the future.  It is completely incomprehensible, therefore, that this announcement by the Department of Energy and Climate Change should coincide with their go-ahead for hydraulic fracturing that uses on average 7-11 million litres of water per well, rendering this water highly toxic. In the short term these wells may bring a sharp decline in gas prices, making the average consumer better off, but the long-term outlook is not as rosy. Like so many admonitions, the danger is that the risks involved in shale mining and fossil fuel dependency will float just under the pubic awareness, buried by more topical and salient issues. But shale mining and other fossil fuel extraction measures are an insidious and latent danger that we and future generations will have to face. It is better, cheaper and far more effective to act now. The problem is, as environmentalist Paul Gilding recently pointed out at TED, that we only tend to decisively act after a crisis. This human trait can be seen in how decisively America acted after the attack of Pearl Harbour – taking only four days to ban car production and redirect the auto-industry, or how when a person is told that they have a serious illness, lifestyle changes that were previously impossible suddenly seem effortless. It is easy to argue that the environmental crises are already upon us. This past decade we have seen an influx in severe weather patterns, draughts, food shortages and agricultural collapse. We have had the hottest decade on record for the third decade in a row and we have had endless warnings that our oil and gas reserves will run out in the next forty years. Now is not the time to point our ingenuity towards rinsing the earth of fossil fuel supplies, now is the time to invest in our future through renewable energy sources. We are currently on a course that will bring about the end of fossil fuel. Sadly, this isn’t by choice, but by utter depletion of resources. Before we get there, we are set to see just how bad our reliance on fossil fuel will be for the environment and ourselves in the coming years.

It is perhaps too late to completely stop the damage done, but it is not too late to lessen the blow. We can make a difference by voicing our concerns wherever possible, by being more environmentally aware and by taking a long-term and abstemious view to our use of fossil energy. In the modern world, the individual can often find themselves feeling insignificant and powerless – but it only takes a brief look at history to see that this is not the case. Time and time again, individuals have been the motivators of great change. It’s time that we acted to say no to fracking, no to further fossil fuel investment and no to the immoderate use of natural resources. There is no economic of technological boundary in the way, only the refocusing of our ingenuity.