Sunday, April 26, 2009

Our Broken System

Most of the public understands that the legalized bribery known euphemistically as lobbying has to a great extent made our government unresponsive to actual citizens - except, of course, when we demand that members of Congress grandstand against AIG bonuses without actually doing anything substantive. Obama ran against this acceptable corruption in large part, and this line of attack certainly resonated with a sizable segment of the electorate (whether reality matches the rhetoric is another matter entirely). Indeed, we wouldn't need change we can believe in if we didn't think the system was rotten, with inside-dealing and kickbacks being the rule.

Given this, the recent report in the New York Times that a consortium of some of the country's largest companies lobbied Congress against taking action to mitigate global warming despite their own scientists' reports that human activity had unequivocally contributed to global warming should not be shocking. As the Times reports:
For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.

Throughout the 1990s, when the coalition conducted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign challenging the merits of an international agreement, policy makers and pundits were fiercely debating whether humans could dangerously warm the planet.
I am shocked, shocked that oil and automobile companies would misrepresent the science of global warming! And yet on some level this latest revelation is somewhat surprising. This is not cigarette companies lying about smoking causing cancer. This is worse. Much worse. Smoking (mostly) only effects smokers; global warming will effect everyone. That such short-sighted business interests so effectively controlled government policy brings to mind Mancur Olson's theory about how great nations decline: economic interests capture the government, maximizing their own interests at the expense of the common good. This eventually leads to economic stagnation. Is this how a great nation ends? Not with a bang but with a bailout - and tax breaks?

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