Google's Climate Change Scientists Question Company Morals


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.

How a visco-elastic-polymer can teach you to seize the day

pitch drop

The longest running science experiment of all time is on going in Australia - you can see it live here.

It might not seem like much but believe it or not there are hundreds of people around the world watching this live stream and waiting. Waiting for the chance to see something that no human being one earth has ever seen before.

In 1927 physics professor, Thomas Parnel, teaching in Queensland Australia wanted to show his students that physics can be deceiving. To demonstrate he used a substance called pitch.

Pitch looks and acts like rock. It’s heavy, solid looking and you can break it with a hammer. But pitch isn’t a rock -  it’s a ‘visco-elastic-polymer’ - which means that over many years it moves like a liquid.

Heated up, pitch melts. In 1929 Thomas Parnel heats his pitch up and pours it into a glass funnel and lets it cool, he snips the bottom of the funnel and waits for the pitch to form a drip and eventually, to drop.

This happens very slowly. 1930 goes by. 1931 goes by, ‘32, ’33 and ‘34 until finally in 1935, eight years after the experiment began the pitch drops. But no one sees it.

Cut to 1961. John Mainstone, another Physics professor from Australia makes it his life’s work to see the pitch drop. Cut to 2013. He’s been waiting 52 years – during which time the pitch has fallen 7 times, unwitnessed.

In 1962 Mainstone misses a drop. 8 years later he misses another. 9 years later it’s looking like it will drop on a Friday afternoon. He goes home for the weekend but decides to check on it Saturday evening – no drop. He comes back Monday morning and it’s fallen.

Even worse, in 1988 he goes to get a cup of coffee, comes back 15 minutes later and it’s dropped.

In 2000 he sets a camera up to record the event but the camera fails and he misses it again.

9 drops have occurred since 1927 and still no one has witnessed the event. Now, in 2013 we’re due a 9th. There are 3 webcams filming 24/7 with people all across the world tuning in to see the event. And it could literally happen any. Minute. Now.

So why bother with this experiment? Scientifically it’s interesting to see how the pitch drops. Mainstone is interested to see from a mechanical point of view how it becomes imperative that the pitch should drop. What pushes it over the edge?

But as well as the scientific value of this experiment, there is a much profound philosophical element. This singular event can teach us to be present in our lives. To seize the day.

In today’s world if you want something – you can get it. If you want to see a film, you can go to the cinema, buy the DVD or (shock-horror!) download it. If we want to see how a band sound live, you don’t need to wait for them to come to our town – you can just go on youtube. If you want to hear an album – you can get it straight to your phone, wherever you are, almost immediately. We have forgotten how to wait.

The Pitch experiment is different. People have been waiting decades for this event. And when the pitch does drop, it will drop in a 10th of a second.

Less than a minute later, the pitch drop will be on youtube for all to see. But the magic won’t be there. Decades of time stretch out before the drop will be witnessed and decades will stretch out after where anyone can see it. But it won’t be the same as having been in the moment.

This is one of those things that you cannot buy. It simply doesn’t conform to modern societies tendency to want it all and to want it now. And that’s beautiful.

So much of our lives is spent recording what we do. We go to shows and hold our phones above our heads to snap a low-grade image or record a low quality film with terrible sound. We tweet about where we are, what we’re doing and who with. We flick through facebook while we’re at the pub or the park with friends to see what everyone else is doing. We get in lifts and pull out our phones like anti-awkwardness devices.

When we do these things, whether intentionally or not we are divorcing ourselves from the present. We do them either because it doesn’t suit us to be there (as in the lift) or because we want to hold onto the moment forever (as at the show). Both are impossible desires.

The past is nothing but shared memories, culture and reconstruction. The future is unknowable and unknown. We are and always will be in the present. The pitch reminds us of this and it reminds us to live.