Exxon-Mobil, Bush, and global warming.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 22 2002 6:54 PM

Did Exxon Mobil Get Bush To Oust the Global Warming Chief?

Al Gore spoils Dubya's Earth Day.

Al Gore is celebrating Earth Day by accusing President Bush of jettisoning Robert Watson, head of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, at the behest of an oil company. In an April 21 New York Times op-ed, Gore wrote:

ExxonMobil has been allowed to veto the United States government's selection of who will head the prestigious scientific panel that monitors global warming. Dr. Robert Watson, the highly respected leader of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, was blackballed in a memo to the White House from the nation's largest oil company. The memo had its effect last Friday, when Dr. Watson lost his bid for re-election after the administration threw its weight behind the "let's drag our feet" candidate, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri of New Delhi, who is known for his virulent anti-American statements.

If true, this is pretty compromising. Is it true? Let's start with what's beyond dispute:

1) Watson's bid for a second term was, indeed, not supported by the Bush administration. Instead, the State Department announced on April 2 that it would support Pachauri. Two days later, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker tried, unsuccessfully, to convince reporters that this was not a slight to Watson.

2) Exxon Mobil lobbyist Randy Randol (who declined to take Chatterbox's phone call today) did indeed forward a memo to John Howard, senior policy associate at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a little more than a year before the Bushies announced their decision to ditch Watson. (The memo was made public by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which acquired it under the Freedom of Information Act.) The memo noted that Watson "was hand picked by Al Gore and served in the Clinton/Gore White House Office of Science and Technology Policy." The memo accused Watson of wanting "to get media coverage of his views before there was a chance for the process to challenge his personal agenda." (Watson denied this in an April 5 interview with Salon's Damien Cave.) Here is what followed, bold-faced and indented: "Issue: Can Watson Be Replaced Now At The Request of the U.S.?" The obvious thrust of the memo was that yes, he can and should.

3) Rajendra Pachauri, and not Robert Watson, was last week elected chairman of the IPCC.

Now let's consider what is in dispute:

1) Who wrote the memo Exxon Mobil's Randy Randol forwarded to the White House? Logically, it should be Randol, or someone who works for him. Chatterbox still thinks that's very likely. But Exxon Mobil spokesman Tom Cirigliano told the Associated Press on April 19 that no one at Exxon Mobil wrote the memo—that Randol merely passed on a memo prepared by some mystery third party. "We've never taken any kind of public or private position on the subject of Dr. Watson or the leadership of the I[P]CC," Cirigliano said. This overlooks a note from Randol on the fax cover sheet, which begins, "Attached is a brief memo outlining the issues," which certainly sounds like an endorsement of its contents, as does Randol's promise to "call to discuss the recommendations regarding the team that can better represent the Bush Administration interests until key appointments and re-assessments are made." If Randol didn't write what followed, Chatterbox is tempted to accuse him of plagiarism. Whether someone at Exxon Mobil actually wrote the memo or not, Exxon Mobil was clearly making its desires plain.

2) Did the White House can Watson because Exxon Mobil told it to? This can't be proved. An administration source tells Chatterbox that the Exxon Mobil memo was never forwarded to anyone else at the White House or in the State Department and that the White House Council on Environmental Quality has no input on who runs the IPCC. But if Exxon Mobil took the trouble to send the memo to the CEQ, it's likely that it also forwarded the memo, or at least made the same argument, to others at the White House and the State Department. (If Exxon Mobil didn't do so and instead let the matter drop after it had lobbied the wrong office, the company should immediately fire its Washington staff for incompetence.) It's also likely that other energy companies expressed similar views to the White House about Watson. No one but an energy company (or a law firm representing one) would bother to bring the matter up.

3) Is Rajendra Pachauri, as Gore writes, a "drag our feet" candidate? That's an unfair caricature. Pachauri's previous public statements show him to be strongly in favor of international action to combat global warming. It is true, though, that Pachauri, unlike Watson, is not an atmospheric scientist, and that this will likely be a serious handicap. (Pachauri has degrees in economics and engineering, which are relevant to the job but not as essential as a strong grounding in basic science.)

4) Is Pachauri, as Gore writes, "anti-American"? He is, a bit. Gore spelled out what he meant in an Earth Day speech today at Vanderbilt University:

[T]he man President Bush has just chosen as the leader of the world's most prestigious environmental body has even called for, in his words, "a worldwide movement which boycotts American goods as a source of global pollution." …[He] is also the principal opponent of President Bush's stated policy that developing countries should share in the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Pachauri's tactic is to insist that the United States and other highly developed nations make drastic reductions in their emissions of greenhouse gases before less developed nations (like his homeland of India) are forced to. That makes him hostile to market solutions in which U.S. companies upgrade inefficient plants overseas as an alternative to reducing carbon dioxide output in less-dirty plants in the United States. Which is, indeed, the approach favored by the Bush administration. The larger point, though, is that Bush would just as soon not do anything about global warming. Backing a candidate likely to embroil the IPCC in a paralyzing spat between Western and non-Western nations is a pretty good way to achieve that.

Did Exxon Mobil come up with the idea not just to ditch Watson, but to back Pachauri? If so, the company probably should fire its Washington lobbyists. Why? Because Pachauri's call for a boycott was directed specifically at none other than Exxon Mobil!

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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