Issue #3

Paying for Inaction

A Brief History of Fossil Fuel PR and Global Warming

By Nathan Albright

Exxon’s offshore oil platform “Troll,” the world’s largest freestanding concrete structure (pictured above), was specially designed to withstand extreme weather. At the time of its construction, Exxon was funneling millions of dollars into campaigns to deny global warming. Image courtesy of creative commons.

In October of 2018, major media outlets ran apocalyptic headlines including “Planet Has Only Until 2030 to Stem Catastrophic Climate Change,” “We Have 12 Years to Limit Climate Change Catastrophe, Warns UN,”and “Terrifying Climate Change Warning: We Only Have 12 Years Until We’re Doomed.” The articles (from CNN, The Guardian, and Fox News, respectively) refer to the latest special report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) looking at the disastrous effects of a 1.5 degree C increase in global temperature from pre-industrial levels, a threshold that it predicts we could cross as early as 2030. The report calls for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to avert global warming which poses “an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.”

While I read a section of the report that says current carbon emissions guarantee warming that “will persist for centuries to millennia,” my sister called from Los Angeles to tell me about the cloud of ashes that had descended on the city after some of the largest wildfires in California’s history and how landscaping crews were traveling around with leaf-blowers to push ash off driveways. I read that the report’s most optimistic predictions for the ocean’s future involved near-total loss of the earth’s coral reef ecosystems, and later talked to my parents in St. Petersburg, Florida who told me about the hundreds of thousands of dead fish that had been washing up on the beach for several months in a particularly bad red tide. For much of my life, global warming seemed like an important concern that remained mostly abstract, but in the course of only a few years it’s morphed into what seems like a slow-moving apocalypse unfolding in real time. The evolving crisis is overwhelming and raises a number of urgent questions. As someone who has only really begun to grasp this situation in the past 5 years or so, one that stands out is: how were so many of us caught off guard?

The lack of public awareness has not been due to a lack of information. In 1990, the year I was born, the IPCC published its first Assessment Report. This first report contains much of the same information as the most recent reports, warning that “Increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases may lead to irreversible change in the climate which could be detectable by the end of this century.” It goes on to urge that “The potentially serious consequences of climate change on the global environment give sufficient reasons to begin by adopting response strategies that can be justified immediately even in the face of significant uncertainties.” And the IPCC was not the first group of researchers to express these concerns; over a decade earlier scientists working for Exxon were issuing similar warnings.

As Inside Climate News detailed in a series of articles published in 2015 after obtaining internal documents and memos, Exxon was at the forefront of global warming research in the 1970’s. The oil and gas giant, which in the decades since has netted some of the largest profits of any corporation in history, commissioned a team of researchers to look into the the effects of carbon emissions on the earth’s climate, providing the team with its own tanker ship outfitted with cutting edge research equipment dubbed the Esso Atlantic. The conclusions reached by that first team of Exxon researchers are largely the same that continue to be restated and refined by the IPCC today, and “the company’s early modeling projections still hold up more than 30 years later,” having predicted many of the climate developments that would take shape over the next decades including the “rapid warming of the Arctic” and “extreme vulnerability of Antacrtica’s ice sheets.” By 1978, Exxon scientists like James Black were warning that “man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” In an internal document to Exxon executives, Marvin B. Glaser, the former Environmental Affairs Manager for the company, laid out the situation based on the findings of the research team. He explained the “potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” and warned that “once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.” The message could not have been any clearer: carbon emissions needed to be drastically reduced over a relatively short period of time to avoid a global environmental crisis.

Instead, Exxon did three things. First, it fired most of the original team of scientists. Second, it heeded their warnings about rising oceans and thawing permafrost by investing in new and fortified oil drilling infrastructure that could withstand extreme weather conditions. And finally, along with many others in the fossil fuel industry, it orchestrated one of the most well funded PR campaigns in history to spread misinformation, emphasize uncertainty, and sow confusion on the existence of climate change.

Investigative journalists Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber write about the oil and gas industry’s tactics in “Global Warming Is Good For You” an essay they co-wrote as part of a book examining the PR industry. Quoting from a leading PR textbook, they offer insight into Exxon’s strategy:

“People generally do not favor action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. … The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible.”

Recognizing this need for alternatives to the established science, fossil fuel executives moved quickly to form dozens of PR front groups with names like the Global Climate Information Project (GCIP), The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (ASSC), and most notably the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), intentionally named to be easily confused with legitimate research bodies like the IPCC. Corporations and other entities that funded these groups along with Exxon include BP, Elf, DuPont, BMW, Boeing, Ford, Chrysler, GM, Chevron, Toyota, Unilever, and “hundreds of other oil and gas companies, auto dealers, and parts stores.” These pseudo-scientific industry front groups hired a “tiny group of dissenting scientists” who despite little to no legitimate connection to climate change research were invited to speak at congressional hearings and were subsequently quoted in nearly all mass media coverage of global warming for over a decade.

Rampton and Stauber offer the example of a paper titled “Environmental Effects of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide” published by Arthur B. Robinson, “a biochemist with no published research in the field of climatology,” and co-authored by a number of under-qualified individuals including his 22-year old home-schooled son. The paper was dressed to look like it had been published in a peer-reviewed journal and then essentially sent around as a chain e-mail. Rather than claiming uncertainty about a warming planet, Robinson argued that carbon emissions would actually promote ecosystem health and offer unforeseen benefits:

“As coal, oil, and natural gas are used to feed and lift from poverty vast numbers of people across the globe, more CO2 will be released into the atmosphere….This will help to maintain and improve the health, longevity, prosperity, and productivity of all people. Human activities are believed to be responsible for the rise in CO2 level of the atmosphere. Mankind is moving the carbon in coal, oil, and natural gas from below ground to the atmosphere and surface, where it is available for conversion into living things. We are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals as a result of the CO2 increase. Our children will enjoy an Earth with far more plant and animal life than that with which we are now blessed. This is a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution.”

This paper was ultimately referenced as a scientific source in major publications including Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post among others. It was mass media outlets like these — the vast majority of news sources used by the vast majority of people — that gave a platform to the criminal misinformation campaigns of fossil fuel funded PR firms. Not only by running paid advertisements formatted to look like news articles (“Climate Change: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us,” and “Climate Change: A Degree of Uncertainty”), but also by attempting to offer “balanced” coverage of climate change by telling “both sides” of the issue, despite a virtual consensus among climate scientists. Even reputedly progressive, independent media outlets frequently reported on “both sides” or framed accepted facts about climate change as questions. In 2007, the NPR talk show Intelligence Squared, hosted a debate titled “Global Warming Is Not A Crisis,” in which climate scientists were asked to refute the claim while climate change deniers were given equal time to present their opinions. As recently as January of this year, a New York Times article about our current “Age of Weather Extremes,” describes unprecedented California wildfires, perpetual Australian drought, and a cold front bringing record low, “antarctic temperatures” to Chicago, but still asks “Is it climate change?” and answers “not all of these extreme events can be attributed to climate change.” Climate scientists have been reminding us for years now that this is true not because we are uncertain about climate change but because by definition no single weather event can ever be directly said to be caused by climate, and continually raising the question in these terms has led the public to doubt the established facts of global warming.

Why do these media practices persist? It may be useful to look back at Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent in which they suggest a number of reasons for mass media bias including the relatively small number of corporations controlling a majority of media outlets. When they were writing about media consolidation in the 1980’s, roughly 50 companies owned 90% of major print and television outlets in the United States. Now, by some estimates, just four companies own that same 90%. Meanwhile, the influx of new digital media sources via the Internet that many had hoped would offer an alternative to corporate control is now suffused with easily produced fake news stories that a general public has found difficult to sort out from fact. As a recent Stanford study on media literacy among generations that grew up with the Internet concluded: “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

All this has set the stage for the crisis we now face. Scientists fear that we have entered a “sixth mass extinction” as we approach the 1.5 degree mark. At 2 degrees of warming, the stated goal of the Paris Climate Accord, authors of the IPCC study predict that, “in some parts of the world, national borders will become irrelevant,” due to the abundance of climate refugees: “you can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000 and one million people, but not 10 million.” And others have pointed out that “if you add up all the national pledges made in Paris to curb emissions, they would put the world on track to warm around 3 degrees Celsius or more.” Let me plainly state this again because it is not said often enough: fossil fuel companies like Exxon were warned over 40 years ago about this looming crisis and engaged in a deliberate and systematic campaign to suppress any information that could lead to meaningful action while the crisis has bloomed into a global catastrophe that now threatens all life on earth. The depth of this crime is inconceivable.

So what now? Rampton and Stauber offer some insight into what tactics oil companies may turn to next. Paraphrasing political theorist Goran Therborn, they lay out the three most common PR strategies for delaying meaningful action:

“There are three basic ways to keep people apathetic about a problem: (1) argue that it doesn’t exist; (2) argue that it’s actually a good thing rather than a problem; or (3) argue that even if it is a problem, there’s nothing they can do about it anyway.”

As the frequency of extreme weather events continues to climb, and global warming becomes harder to deny, we will hear more and more of this third argument. We need to be ready and waste no time entertaining it. It’s true that scientists have said we don’t know what is possible when it comes to reversing warming trends, but we do know that every additional ton of carbon emitted guarantees a more difficult path, pushes more species to the brink of extinction, and guarantees more catastrophic effects for the most vulnerable populations of the world.

Because of the misinformation and doubt spread by fossil fuel companies, many people remain unaware of how dire the consequences of inaction threaten to be, and we cannot count on mass media to deliver the message. In reflecting on the way that mass media has led us here, we need to recognize that mass communication is no substitute for interpersonal communication.

The same digital devices that connect us to mass media are manufactured through the environmentally destructive extraction of rare-earth metals, contribute to a massive amount of waste through constant upgrades, have proven to be some of the most powerful tools of social control, and have pulled us away from our daily interactions with the world around us. Our growing dependence on these tools of mass communication has allowed us to neglect and even forget our surrounding environments, the source of all life that we remain intimately bound up with and dependent upon no matter how detached we may have become. We do not need more social media campaigns, we need flesh and blood communities to act.

Those who will have to see global warming play out in their own lifetimes, youth all around the world, have shown us what this can look like. From the sixteen year old Swedish activist Greta Thurnburg who has led an international school strike against government inaction, to kids working with the Sunrise Movement who have staged sit-ins and confronted legislators on Capitol Hill, to Indigenous youth who have provided the life-blood of movements to blockade and shut down environmentally destructive industrial projects around the planet. We must follow their lead and act not only because we hope for certain outcomes in the future but because we demand environmental justice now, because we should have been caring for the health of our planet all along.

We must refuse to comply with the destruction of our world in whatever way possible. To refuse to pay taxes that fund the US military — the single greatest emitter of carbon. To organize direct actions to halt any and all fossil fuel harvesting projects that threaten faltering ecosystems and pump more carbon into the atmosphere. To seize a means of subsistence not based on environmental degradation, by reclaiming agricultural commons and reforming community bonds that allow us to break with destructive supply chains and a fossil fuel driven economy. And above all we must rekindle an abiding love for life itself, for the non-human world, for plants and animals, for each other, for all that is glorious and endangered and in need of defending. We must be inspired to love so deeply that to not act would be impossible.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2019 issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper.

Nathan Albright is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.