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Dear EarthTalk: Did Exxon/Mobil really pay scientists and economists to write articles trying to de-bunk global warming? -- Rosemary R., via e-mail

A February 2007 report in the British newspaper, The Guardian, fell like a ton of bricks on efforts by ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most profitable oil company, to repair its damaged environmental reputation. According to the report, the Exxon-financed American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington, D.C. “think tank,” offered scientists and economists $10,000 each, plus expenses, to write articles undercutting the dire findings of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the extent and impacts of human-caused global warming.

The ties between ExxonMobil, American Enterprise Institute, and the highest levels of government go way back. AEI has received more than $1.6 million from ExxonMobil over the years, and more than 20 of its staffers have worked as consultants for the Bush administration. Former Exxon head Lee Raymond is still an AEI board member.

A month before the Guardian report, the Boston-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its own report documenting ExxonMobil’s $16 million in donations since 1998 to 43 organizations working to discredit the science of human-induced climate change. UCS joins a growing chorus of voices asking the company to turn the corner on global warming and start embracing a transition away from fossil fuels.

“ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer,” says Alden Meyer, Union of Concerned Scientists’s Director of Strategy & Policy. “A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years.”

In September 2006, Britain’s leading scientific academy, the Royal Society, asked the company to stop supporting groups that “misrepresented the science of climate change.” In response, ExxonMobil said that it funded groups that research “significant policy issues and promote informed discussion on issues of direct relevance to the company” but that such groups do not speak for the company.

No doubt feeling some heat, ExxonMobil issued a statement recently in response to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change update: “There is increasing evidence that the Earth’s climate has warmed on average about 0.6 C in the last century. Many global ecosystems, especially the polar areas, are showing signs of warming. CO2 emissions have increased during this same time period—and emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes are one source of these emissions.” The statement also acknowledged that “the risks to society and ecosystems could prove to be significant…it is prudent now to develop and implement strategies that address the risks…”

Whether the company is really ready to aggressively develop alternative energy sources—like its competitors Shell and BP—is yet to be seen. But environmental leaders share a guarded optimism that the tide is turning in their favor and that ExxonMobil will back up its words with action—eventually.

CONTACTS: The Guardian (link); UCS Report (link); ExxonMobil (link).

Dear EarthTalk: I see so much waste in packaging every day--from water in self-serve bottles to all the foil and cardboard you have to break through to get to a new print cartridge. What is being done to make packaging more “green friendly,” including cutting out as much of it as possible? -- Jeanne L., Canton, CT

Thanks to forward-thinking action by the European Union (EU), people around the world are beginning to recognize that wasteful packaging puts unnecessary stress on the environment. In 1994 the EU issued a “Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste,” putting the responsibility of waste reduction and reclamation on manufacturers instead of on retailers, consumers and local governments.

The program, popularly known as “Producer Pays” or “Extended Producer Responsibility,” requires product makers to either take back their packaging (consumers can leave it behind in the store or send it back in the mail at the producers’ expense), or pay a fee to an organization called “Green Dot” that will handle it for them. “Green Dot” is now the standard take-back program in two-dozen European countries.

According to Bette Fishbein of INFORM, Inc., a nonprofit environmental research organization based in the U.S., the concept has “spread like wildfire” and has been adopted by many industrialized nations—including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Japan, Korea and Taiwan—but not yet by the United States, which could certainly benefit. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annual generation of municipal solid waste in the U.S. increased from 88 million tons in 1960 to 229 million tons in 2001, with containers and packaging making up almost a third of the weight.

Maine has followed the European model and initiated its own “Producer Pays” program; the first in the U.S. Maine requires electronics makers to fund consolidation centers where used TV and computer monitors are sent. According to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, “Maine’s electronic waste recycling law…is a national model, as it protects our environment, saves taxpayers money and puts costs where they belong to encourage safe design and recycling of electronic wastes.”

Some U.S. companies are also taking initiative. Microsoft worked with Packaging 2.0, a packaging solutions company that recycles used materials into new packaging, to develop an environmentally responsible and reusable package for its line of GPS consumer electronics products. And a number of other companies, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods, Microsoft and Nike, have come together under the umbrella of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of the non-profit GreenBlue, and released a guide for designers and developers to assist them in designing sustainable packaging.

In February 2008 Wal-Mart will implement a “packaging scorecard” to measure and evaluate its entire supply chain. Goals include using less packaging and using more sustainable materials in packaging. According to Wal-Mart, the company is already beginning to make headway. “By reducing the packaging on one of our patio sets,” says the company website, “we were able to use 400 fewer shipping containers to deliver them. We created less trash, and saved our customers a bundle while doing it.”

CONTACTS: Green Dot (link); INFORM (link); Sustainable Packaging Coalition (link).

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at:www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 70 - September 0174
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