Mother Jones‘s Blue Marble environmentalism blog goes a bit over the top with the claim that the U.S. House of Representatives “probes ExxonMobil’s ongoing funding of global warming denial.”
Like many big corporations, ExxonMobil has a grant program that funds all sorts of lobbying and research groups. Some get money because ExxonMobil wants to be seen giving to them — $5,000 for the Shakespeare Theater (PDF) in Washington, say, or $50,000 to the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (PDF) at Johns Hopkins — some because they do things ExxonMobil likes, including, apparently express skepticism about climate change.
Greenpeace understandably doesn’t like many of the organizations on the latter list (the news peg is that Greenpeace tallies ExxonMobil’s donations to climate-change skeptics at $2.1 million US in 2006), and neither, it seems, does Mother Jones:
There’s a term for this genre of lies: pseudoskepticism. It’s the same strategy that the tobacco industry used for decades to cast doubt over the dangers of smoking. And now the government is intervening, just as it finally did with tobacco in the mid-1990s.
The news source linked is this CNN Money story, saying one congressman wants ExxonMobil “to release its plans for contributions during the current year.” That’s a long way from a probe.
The list of Exxon grant recipients definitely includes some loathsome groups. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, for instance produced those funny-if-they-weren’t-so-horrifying pro-carbon-dioxide ads declaring, “They call it pollution. We call it life.”
But with other outfits, it’s not nearly as clear-cut. The Cato Institute is an important voice for libertarianism in American public debate; the Fraser Institute does significantly worthwhile social-science research in Canada, if from a distinctly right-wing perspective. Neither is likely to endear them to the left, environmental or otherwise, but they’re legitimate organizations advancing legitimate points of view. They’re not anti-environmentalist fronts, or astroturf (phoney grassroots) organizations set up deliberately to add bogus voices to public discussions.
Astroturf groups are a perversion of democratic discourse and while they ought to be allowed, anybody who knowingly consorts with astroturfers ought to be discredited and ignored. Dissent offered in good faith, however, strengthens the public understanding of the truth even when the grounds for dissent turn out to be wrong.
When such dissent turns out to be correct, even in part, it’s a courageous service to the public good.
The version of Greenpeace’s report filtered through Mother Jones‘s lens is uncomfortably close to a blacklist — if you promote a position Mother Jones disapproves of, no matter what else you do, you ought to be an untouchable.