It’s one thing to point at The Oil Companies and say they’re bashing climate change to continue being able to sell fossil fuel products and thereby keep up dividend payments to their shareholders. But it’s necessary to have proof – and the Union of Concerned Scientists just delivered some documentation that the Oil Companies paid scientists to push falsified positions, collaborated behind closed doors on manipulating the public discourse, and more. Basically, the UCS-USA report is seven smoking guns held by oil company hands documenting their attacks on climate change that we expected was planned and executed by the Oil Industry.
Before we get to the details of the attacks on climate change documented by the UCS, let’s revisit climate change facts. There’s a solid understanding among the vast majority of climate scientists that the climate is rapidly worsening, and that unless serious changes are made the coming decades will be very bad.
The UCS report has a section about “Undeniable Climate Impacts” talking about
- Sea level is rapidly rising – thanks to glaciers melting – thanks to rising temperatures around the world
- Wildfire seasons are longer-lasting and more damaging
- Growing costly health impacts
- Heavier precipitation and more extreme storms and more serious flooding – in some places
- More frequent and hotter heat waves
These issues (and others) are the cost of inaction, if the anti-climate-change campaign is successful in preventing action on climate change. It’s thought that the economic and societal cost of inaction will be severe.
Cue the fossil fuel industry.
Wei-Hock Soon’s research is strongly highlighted by Sen. Inhofe, a vociferous climate change denier in Congress, as “proof” against climate change. Soon is not a climate scientist but has a background in aerospace engineering. His climate related work has to do with “solar variability” and purports to show that the sun is naturally varying its output, and therefore is the cause of all the warming we’re seeing. The UCS report says that point of view has been discredited, and indeed climate scientists have found that increasing solar radiation cannot account for the rising temperature (see my links above).
Dr. Soon’s funding came entirely from fossil fuel interests including ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the Charles Koch Foundation, and Southern Company. The secret contracts — which were released via a FOIA request – included provisions where his research papers were delivered to fossil fuel companies before they were published.
A memo titled “Global Climate Science Communications Plan,” written by a team convened by the American Petroleum Institute (API), with the direct involvement of fossil fuel companies including ExxonMobil (then Exxon) and Chevron, details a plan for dealing with climate change that explicitly aimed to confuse and misinform the public.
According to the memo, “victory” would be achieved for the campaign when “average citizens” and the media were convinced of “uncertainties” in climate science. The UCS likens the oil company strategy to the tobacco company strategy to sow doubt and misinformation about the negative health effects of smoking tobacco.
In both cases we have corporations with the motive to sway public opinion – because both industries sell products whose consumption cause massive negative effects with massive cost to society. Just as the tobacco industry colluded in obfuscating that fact to continue selling tobacco, the UCS claims the oil industry is doing the same.
Leaked slides from a presentation by the Western States Petroleum Association (a group that’s strongly fighting climate change efforts in California’s government) says WSPA has set up a couple dozen front groups to fight climate change. Among these astroturf coalitions were groups with names such as Fed Up at the Pump, the California Drivers Alliance, Californians Against Higher Taxes, and Oregonians for Sound Fuel Policy. These sound like authentic grass-roots groups, but act as channels for oil industry propaganda.
In 2009, Congress was debating the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which proposed to institute a federal carbon emissions reduction plan. Just before critical votes, several members of congress received forged letters that supposedly came from their constituents saying things like “We ask you to use your important position to help protect minorities and other consumers in your district from higher electricity bills. Please don’t vote to force cost increases on us, especially in this volatile economy.”
The problem is these letters were complete forgeries. An investigation by the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming showed the fraud was perpetrated by Bonner and Associates, a lobbying firm subcontracted by a front group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), composed of and funded primarily by coal industry representatives (Center for Media and Democracy 2014a).
Before the previous episode, the Coal industry set up a front group named the Information Council on the Environment (ICE) with the express purpose of deceiving the public about climate science. Internal documents leaked in the 90’s show their plan was to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)” and to “use a spokesman from the scientific community,” because “technical sources receive the highest overall credibility ratings”.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an anti-democracy group where Industry writes legislation, giving it to Legislators to push through state Legislatures, or through Congress, trying to get Industry positions accepted into law. Among the industry groups are many major fossil fuel companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Shell.
Meetings between ALEC and Legislators frequently include climate change misinformation. Some of the legislation created by ALEC oppose EPA carbon emissions standards and attempt to roll back successful renewable energy standards and multi-state climate initiatives, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeastern United States.
In 1995 an oil industry scientist working for Mobil Corporation (now ExxonMobil) wrote a paper, “Predicting Future Climate Change: A Primer,” showing that at least Mobil knew very well facts about the scientific understanding of climate change. At the same time, the fossil fuel industry has tried to sow doubt and misinformation in the public.
Again, the parallels with the tobacco industry is poignant. A key finding turning the tide against tobacco companies was discovery of industry documents showing the industry knew about negative health effects of smoking, while in public the industry sowed doubt and misinformation.
The 17-page primer assessed what was known about climate science and unequivocally stated that “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 paper even included a section discussing and debunking existing contrarian anti-climate-change theories.
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