Last Wednesday, more than 50 people gathered outside of WGBH — Boston’s public television station and the largest producer of national PBS television content — with 119,000 petition signatures calling on the station to drop David Koch from its board. Even Elmo was there (well, a local climate activist dressed up as Elmo), to say that a man who has spent millions spreading lies about climate change doesn’t belong on the board of an institution that seeks to enrich “people’s lives through programs and services that educate […]” WGBH spokespeople were quick to respond that as a board member, Koch has no impact on their programming. This may well be true, but it misses the point of the campaign, and misunderstands the nature of our country’s ongoing struggle against climate change denial.
The WGBH campaign comes on the heels of a scandal at New York’s WNET, where Koch’s presence on the board clearly did have an influence on programming, leading WNET staff to give the cold shoulder to a documentary called Citizen Koch, which then led documentary funder ITVS to pull their support for the film. WGBH’s response to this controversy has been that such a thing could never happen at WGBH. Maybe they are right (though I am sure WNET would have said the same thing before this year). But the issue of Koch being on the board is not what he does to WGBH and its programming, but what they are doing for him. Giving Koch a seat on their board legitimizes who Koch is, and what he does, as being within the frame of reasonable political debate. And when it comes to climate change denial, that should no longer acceptable, not in a country where more than half of the counties were declared drought disaster areas in 2012, where rebuilding from Superstorm Sandy will take years, and where our wildfire season is now two months longer than just four decades ago.
It’s pretty easy to see this process of legitimizing Koch in action. In response to the campaign, board chair Amos Hostetter said that GBH has “no political litmus test” for its board members, and that “Diversity is something we highly value.” But climate change is not something that reasonable people can disagree about, and climate change denial is not just another “diverse” political viewpoint. It’s a systematic effort to lie to the American people about a scientific fact. And for the Kochs, those lies are directly supporting their bottom line. By allowing Koch on their board, by accepting his largesse, WGBH is saying to Koch and the world—we’re ok that you are willfully trying to convince Americans that the single greatest threat to our lives and livelihoods doesn’t even exist, as long as you keep your donations coming.
It’s useful here to think about some analogies where this equation would never compute. If Koch was known to be a major funder of “research” to show that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer, WGBH would not take his money. Likewise, if Koch were engaged in a massive, well-funded campaign to deny that HIV leads to AIDS, his support would also be unwelcome. Why? Because it’s widely recognized that the promotion of these scientific conspiracy theories aren’t just wrong, but are also deeply injurious to people around the world. Why should we look at climate change any differently?
Climate change has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands through increasingly extreme weather, and its expected to claim 100 million lives by 2030. No one will be exempt from the wreckage. By 2050, WGBH’s home city of Boston could be under as much as 10 feet of water from storm surge caused by a hurricane. At some point, we as a society must band together and say that those who deny the existence of climate change are denying the very humanity of those lives it will destroy. We must agree that their cynical misinformation campaign is not an acceptable contribution to the political debate, and that any institution that understands the reality of climate change will cut ties with those who deny it. Members of Forecast the Facts, many of whom are also WGBH members are donors, are encouraging WGBH to see that that time is now.
We are well aware that this is a high stakes decision. Koch has given millions to programs like Nova. So it’s no surprise that people like Nova film producer Miles O’Brien have been skeptical of our campaign, tweeting “Methinks protestors at #WGBHshould watch the #nova film I produced on climate change b4 acting like silly muppets.” But people like Miles O’Brien, and the WGBH board, should be the ones most eager to cut ties with Koch. Because they know how serious climate change is. They understand how far our society is from accepting and acting on that reality. And they know the central role that Koch has played in fostering that uncertainty. It’s not just that his money is tainted. It’s that taking his money actually helps Koch’s climate denial be effective. Because by definition, if WGBH will accept Koch’s donations and give him a seat on their board, then his massive contributions to the climate denial machine can’t be that bad.
One of the speakers at last week’s rally, Reverend Fred Small, put the question in appropriately moral terms, saying, “David Koch may not have broken a single law, but he is a criminal. He is a criminal because climate change is a crime against humanity and the earth. Global warming is theft. It steals from our own children and from the most vulnerable people on the planet, most of them poor and of color.”
WGBH has done as much as any institution to educate Americans about the reality of climate change. Now they have the chance to do something even more important — refuse to lend their good name and sterling reputation to the climate change denial of David Koch.