How climate change skepticism was fuelled by big oil companies

We've known about the devastating implications of climate change for decades now. Louis Mendee investigates the history of corporations in denying these urgent political realities.

December 14, 2017
13 min read

Scientists travelled across the world for it. The 1979 World Climate Conference would be the first of its kind — an opportunity for a thorough discussion about the unusual and complex phenomenon called ‘climate change’. Though the idea of climate being susceptible to human influence wasn’t new, a lack of definitive scientific research had quelled any reason to panic. Things would remain business as usual. But the scientists who congregated in Geneva from the 12–23 February 1979 planned to change that; experts from a myriad of disciplines would present a series of papers commissioned by the World Meteorological Organization, which would provide a clearer picture about what on earth was going on.

And it is the consensus that these scientists reached, almost 40 years ago, which makes the following story all the more devastating. Because they not only clearly identified human activity as a significant contributor to detrimental change in climate, but they predicted the worse-case scenarios if the issue was ignored. They specified, in detail, what the millennium would look like without radical changes and created a blueprint to do just that.

The chair of the conference, Robert M. White, said this in his opening speech:

‘In little more than twenty years, we will celebrate the year 2000. This millennium may very well represent the ending of one era in the relation of humanity to the planet and the beginning of another. The millennium may mark a fundamental change in the ability of the planet to sustain its people or at least in the ways in which this will be done. There are many who will disagree with the timing of this fundamental change but few who will disagree with its likelihood. By any criteria, whether relating to population, food, energy, or the state of the global environment, we are likely to pass to a new world condition around the year 2000. This transition will also signal a new level of importance of climate to society.’

Ominous, isn’t it? In 1979, we knew. Not only the science behind global warming, but how significant a conference like this was. It marked another crux around which our future hinged, and the language used throughout the two-week event supports this; it was almost utopic with optimism: ‘We can contribute to a bright future for mankind by national and international actions … to improve the economic and environmental welfare of people everywhere and to mitigate destructive impacts of climate,’ said White. ‘This conference can be the beginning of that process,’ he finished.

An unfortunate coincidence

Of course, 1979 wouldn’t be the turning point which White would have liked. But it was a turning point nevertheless; in May that year, Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government won a landslide victory in the UK, and her premiership was utterly transformative. Thatcher ushered in a new era of economic policy that would take off globally and become known as neoliberalism, a modification of free-market capitalism that enshrined corporate freedoms and crippled state power, destroying any post-war spirit of collectivism. Community was out, and the individual was in. Gone was society—and with it was any hope of averting catastrophic climate change.

While the scientists in Geneva agonized over how they would advance scientific research while convincing governments of the threat, they had no idea of the rumblings in the political sphere which would undermine their goals. Ignorant of this, the tone of the conference was one of self-criticism; the scientists believed that the limiting factor in avoiding climate change would, essentially, be them:

‘what we do about climate issues depends upon the state of our scientific knowledge. Only to the extent that we have understanding can we help our governments. Governments wish to know where to focus effort and resources. The international resources that can be made available to deal with climatic problems are limited … because the number of scientists capable of working effectively on these problems is limited.’

If White could have known then what we know now—that these same governments would become more interested in private interests than planetary ones—I doubt that his words would have been so sympathetic to those in power. ‘Although the problem itself is extremely difficult, there seem no grounds for pessimism. Science has always managed to find solutions to such urgent problems for mankind,’ he continued.  What alluded him, though, was that ‘finding the solutions’ would be the first and smallest battle.

The scientists were forward-thinking visionaries at the cutting-edge of a scientific revolution of sorts, and yet they were always two steps behind the new capitalist agenda that was moving in parallel… Indeed, fossil fuel companies had been aware of the damage they were causing since 1977, two years before the conference was even convened…

Exxon had the foresight to conduct its own scientific research into climate change before the issue became mainstream. This ingenious move of pragmatism gave the company years to build their defences and prepare a strategy to deal with the fight-back that would ensue once the science became certified public knowledge. In July 1977, a leading scientist at Exxon, James Black, told the management committee that ‘…man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.’ And from this point on the mission was clear; to do everything possible to ensure that a climate movement would not, or could not, prevent the company from continuing its carbon-intensive pursuit of profit.

And they were remarkably successful. You only need to look at who sits in the white house (and who his Secretary of State is) to see that the culture and consensus that the energy giants helped to create, paid for in cold hard cash, was worth every penny. But how did they do it? Well, thanks to a few leaked documents and an exposed trail of capital, we can develop an idea of the scale of the cynical, wildly-efficient campaign that was driven by corporations to sabotage a blossoming climate movement.

Indeed, climate-denialism wasn’t so much a rational scepticism to bold new science as it was an engineered attempt by a rich elite to secure assets and cling onto the status quo. In 1989, Exxon would help launch the Global Climate Coalition. This lobbying operation, made up of the biggest players in the game – including Shell, BP and Texaco—spearheaded climate scepticism and waged war against measures that would limit greenhouse gas emissions. Undoubtedly, preventing the USA’s participation in the landmark Kyoto Protocol was the GCC’s biggest victory; and one which cost them $13million in advertising; however, advertising was but one part of a multiple-pronged strategy designed by the carbon oligarchs to protect themselves from regulation.

In 1999, the American Petroleum Institute created a ‘Global Climate Science Communications Plan’ that makes for some pretty jaw-dropping reading. What is so fascinating about this document is how brazen it is; the plan is so sincere in its malevolence, so honest, that you can imagine it being drafted by a cartoon villain, tucked away in a remote fortress laughing manically. A memo, for instance, involves a 5-point description of what ultimate victory is, and it reads as follows: [victory will be achieved when:]

  • Average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom”
  • Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science
  • Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current “conventional wisdom”
  • Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy
  • Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extent science appears to be out of touch with reality.

A side-note of this reads: ‘Unless ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts.’

Mind-blowingly impudent, right? And yet they clearly had grounds to be confident, because the API did achieve, to varying degrees, every one of the above facets of ‘victory’. And they did it with the help of (you guessed it) Exxon, who had direct involvement in drafting the plan.

The roadmap for victory was layered. Firstly, the API intended to ‘identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach.’ But it was not only adults who the carbon corporations needed to influence; they were thinking long-term, and this involved targeting the next generation of children who would be most at risk by a warming planet. Anti-scientific materials like the following began to find their way into schools – and make no mistake, this problem still persists today.

What if it weren’t easy to fuel a car? Or what if it were more expensive?… If airplanes and trucks couldn’t be fuelled easily or it was more expensive to fuel them, how would that affect products you and your parents buy in stores?….Did you know that CD players, DVDs, ink, some clothing, computers, containers, telephones, and toothpaste are also petroleum products?… What would your life be like without these?’

They didn’t stop there. Some industry groups stooped so low as to forge letters, using the name of marginal non-profit organizations – including the NAACP – to sway members of congress to vote against key clean energy measures. Others resorted to outright bribery and forked out millions to US senators and representatives to ensure their loyalty. The chokehold of these corporations over political democracy in the West is astounding; over 100 million dollars of fossil fuel money was given to Republican presidential candidates in 2015, one-third of all money donated to the party, and one-fifth of all money donated, in total, during the election.

For the scientists involved in the first ever world climate conference, the birth of neoliberalism and the advancement of corporate power was an unfortunate coincidence. But perhaps not a completely surprising one; experts in the conference did get a change to discuss political and economic issues and some excerpts presented display a shrewd political awareness. E.K. Fedorov, for example, wrote a paper that highlighted the work of several economists including the socialist economist, Jan Tinbergen. He writes, ‘A large group headed by another economist, Tinbergen recommends the creation of a new world order, namely, a system of co-operation among countries on a global scale including control of national economic and other activity by a supranational authority to which each state would transfer part of its sovereign rights.’

He goes on to say, ‘In capitalist countries the notion of a goal is absent; there are only desires for further development, and these vary among different organizations and public groups. Not surprisingly, there are no clear goals established, nor ways to achieve them, in the case of mankind as a whole. Laszlo [a Hungarian economist] calls for the development, adoption and pursuit of some rational objectives for all mankind, which he calls “a revolution of goals.’

So indeed, although the scientists were coming into this war at a remarkable disadvantage—they were not completely naive to the political landscape. They, like the fossil fuel companies, were looking to the future: ‘By the millennium, the world energy situation will be no less ominous. Estimates are that by the year 2000 the desire of the world for oil will have far surpassed world oil production, even with a 50 per cent increase in oil prices. In seeking to meet our energy needs we may pose a threat to global climate with formidable consequences for world society’. White was right about this, and lived to an age where much what he predicted at conference would come into fruition. When he died in 2010, the climate problem was dire. After decades of failed protocols, missed targets, and relentless extractivism, the turn of the century into ‘decade zero’ (as it would be known by defeated climate scientists – understandably cynical at this point) was as “ominous” as promised, and the signs of ecological meltdown were starting to present themselves in violent and unpredictable ways.  

This is excerpt from Going To War With Planet.

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