How the fossil fuel industry got the media to think climate change was debatable
Washington Post, by Amy Westervelt, January 10, 2019. Documents uncovered by journalists and activists over the past decade lay out a clear strategy: First, target media outlets to get them to report more on the “uncertainties” in climate science, and position industry-backed contrarian scientists as expert sources for media. Second, target conservatives with the message that climate change is a liberal hoax, and paint anyone who takes the issue seriously as “out of touch with reality.” In the 1990s, oil companies, fossil fuel industry trade groups and their respective PR firms began positioning contrarian scientists such as Willie Soon, William Happer and David Legates as experts whose opinions on climate change should be considered equal and opposite to that of climate scientists. The Heartland Institute, which hosts an annual International Conference on Climate Change known as the leading climate skeptics conference, for example, routinely calls out media outlets (including The Washington Post) for showing “bias” in covering climate change when they either decline to quote a skeptic or question a skeptic’s credibility.
The following information and was developed by the law firm Sher Edling LLP as “Exhibit A” in each of three lawsuits filed by the firm on July 17th, 2017 for San Mateo County, Marin County and the city of Imperial Beach against 37 oil, coal and gas companies. The litigation is an effort by these jurisdictions to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the mounting costs of adapting to sea level rise. This is the opening salvo asserting that fossil fuel companies have major liability for climate damage but it won’t be the last.
MAJOR FOSSIL FUEL COMPANIES have known the truth for nearly 50 years: their oil, gas, and coal products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate. They’ve known for decades that the consequences could be catastrophic and that only a narrow window of time existed to take action before the damage might not be reversible. They have nevertheless engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and contradict their own knowledge of these threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the general public about the reality and consequences of climate change.
This timeline highlights information, alleged in the three complaints that comes from original key industry documents and other sources. It illustrates what the industry knew, when they knew it, and what they did and didn’t do to prevent the impacts that are now imposing real costs on people and communities around the country. These are very informative exhibits. While the early warnings from the industry’s own scientists and experts often acknowledged the uncertainties in their projections, those uncertainties were about the timing and magnitude of the climate change impacts – not about whether those impacts would occur or whether the oil, gas, and coal were the primary cause. On those latter points, as these documents show, they were quite certain.
President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee finds that “[P]ollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air” and “[M]an is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” by burning fossil fuels that are injecting CO2 into the atmosphere. The committee concludes that by the year 2000, we could see “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.”
The American Petroleum Institute commissions a report finding that:
• “[A]lthough there are other possible sources for the additional CO2 now being observed in the atmosphere, none seems to fit the presently observed situation as well as the fossil fuel emanation theory.”
• “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes.”
• “There seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”
• “What is lacking, however, is an application of these CO2 data to air pollution technology and work toward systems in which CO2 emissions would be brought under control.”
Exxon Science Advisor James Black tells the company’s Management Committee that “[T]here is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels” and that “[M]an has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategy might become critical.”
Exxon scientist Henry Shaw proposes that the company initiate a comprehensive research program “to assess the possible impact of the greenhouse effect on Exxon business.” He argues that the company needs “a credible scientific team that can critically evaluate the information generated on the subject and be able to carry bad news, if any, to the corporation.”
• “The present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.”
• “[R]ecognizing the uncertainty, there is a possibility that an atmospheric CO2 buildup will cause adverse environmental effects in enough areas of the world to consider limiting the future use of fossil fuels as major energy sources.”
Dr. J. Laurman tells API’s Climate Task Force that “there is a scientific consensus on the potential for large future climatic response to increased CO2 levels” and that “remedial actions will take a long time to become effective.”
An internal “Review of Environmental Protection Activities for 1978-1979” by Imperial Oil, which was distributed widely to Exxon/Esso Corporate Managers, finds that “[T]echnology exists to remove CO2 from stack gases but removal of only 50% of the CO2 would double the cost of power generation.”
Exxon Strategic Planning Manager Roger Cohen comments on an internal assessment of CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect that is prepared at the request of Senior VP and Director Morey O’Loughlin:
• “[I]t is very likely that we will unambiguously recognize the threat by the year 2000 because of advances in climate modeling and the beginning of real experimental confirmation of the CO2 effect.”
• “Whereas I can agree with the statement that our best guess is that observable effects in the year 2030 will be ‘well short of catastrophic’, it is distinctly possible that the [Planning Division’s] scenario will later produce effects that will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
April 1, 1982
“CO2 ‘GREENHOUSE’ EFFECT” An internally distributed summary by Exxon Manager, M.B. Glaser of a technical review prepared by Exxon Research and Engineering Company’s Coordination and Planning Division
An internal Exxon “CO2 ‘Greenhouse Effect’ Summary” finds that “[T]here is concern among some scientific groups that once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible and little could be done to correct the situation in the short term” and that “[M]itigation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ could require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
In a speech, E. E. David Jr., President of Exxon Research and Engineering Company, states: “It is ironic that the biggest uncertainties about the CO2 buildup are not in predicting what the climate will do, but in predicting what people will do. . .[It] appears we still have time to generate the wealth and knowledge we will need to invent the transition to a stable energy system.”
The summer of 1988 sees a flurry of activity around climate change policy:
• Dr. James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, tells Congress that the Institute’s greenhouse effect research shows “the global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship with the greenhouse effect.”
• At least four bipartisan bills are introduced in Congress, three championed by Republicans, to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite declaring the Greenhouse Effect “one of the most significant environmental issues for the 1990s,” Carlson writes that Exxon’s position should be to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse Effect.”
Vice President George H.W. Bush, in a speech while running for President, says “[T]hose who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the ‘White House effect’; as President, I intend to do something about it.”
The IPCC is formed in December 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
A New York Times article reports: “In what is considered the first major project that takes account of the changes the greenhouse effect is expected to bring, [Shell] engineers are designing a huge platform that anticipates rising water in the North Sea by raising the platform from the standard 30 meters – the height now thought necessary to stay above the waves that come in a once-a-century storm – to 31 or 32 meters.”
Shell releases a 30-minute educational video warning of climate change’s negative consequences ranging from sea level rise and wetland destruction to “greenhouse refugees.” It concludes: “Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that the wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.”
The Information Council for the Environment (ICE), formed by the coal industry, launches a national climate change science denial campaign with data collection, full-page newspaper ads, radio commercials, a PR tour, and mailers.
“PREDICTING FUTURE CLIMATE CHANGE: A PRIMER” Global Climate Coalition’s (GCC) internal primer draft, prepared by GCC’s Science Technical Advisory Committee V. Their publicly distributed backgrounder, “Science and Global Climate Change: What Do We Know? What are the Uncertainties?”
The Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a fossil fuel industry group, drafts an internal primer analyzing “contrarian theories” and concluding that they do not “offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.” However, a publicly distributed version excluded this section while focusing on scientific disagreement and uncertainty by citing some of those same contrarian scientists.
An eight-page Exxon publication questions the negative impact the greenhouse effect might have and plays up the uncertainty. The introductory statement by Lee Raymond, Exxon’s chairman and CEO, claims that “[S]cientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect global climate.”
The American Petroleum Institute develops a multi-million dollar communications and outreach plan to ensure that “climate change becomes a non-issue.” It maintains that “[V]ictory will be achieved when . . . uncertainties in climate science [become] part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”
A senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Lloyd Keigwin, sends a letter to Exxon’s Peter Altman, summarizing their email and phone conversations regarding Exxon’s misleading use of Keigwin’s study results. “The sad thing is that a company with the resources of ExxonMobil is exploiting the data for political purposes when they could actually get much better press by supporting research into the role of the ocean in climate change.”
Michael MacCracken, the former director of the National Assessment Coordination Office of the US Global Change Research Program, writes to Exxon CEO Lee Raymond in response to ExxonMobil’s criticism of a US climate change assessment: “In my earlier experience, arguing for study of adaptation had been a position of industry, but now when this was attempted, ExxonMobil argued this was premature. Roughly, this is equivalent to turning your back on the future and putting your head in the sand—with this position, it is no wonder ExxonMobil is the target of environmental and shareholder critics . . . Certainly, there are uncertainties, but decisions are made under uncertainty all the time–that is what executives are well paid to do. In this case, ExxonMobil is on the wrong side of the international scientific community, the wrong side of the findings of all the world’s leading academies of science, and the wrong side of virtually all of the world’s countries as expressed, without dissent, in the IPCC reports . . . To call ExxonMobil’s position out of the mainstream is thus a gross understatement. There can be all kinds of perspectives about what one might or might not do to start to limit the extent of the change, but to be in opposition to the key scientific findings is rather appalling for such an established and scientific organization.”
Philip Cooney, Chief of Staff for the White House Council of Environmental Quality and a former lawyer and lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute with no scientific credentials, edits a Draft Strategic Plan for the US Climate Change Science Program to introduce uncertainty about global warming and its impacts. In 2005, Cooney resigns after being accused of doctoring scientific reports and is hired by Exxon. A Union of Concerned Scientists report published samples of Cooney’s edits (p.56).
The American Petroleum Institute’s CEO, Jack Gerard, emails API’s membership promising “up front resource” and encouraging turnout for “Energy Citizen” rallies in about 20 states. Gerard says they are “collaborating closely with the allied oil and natural gas associations” in order to “aim a loud message at those states’ U.S. Senators to avoid the mistakes embodied in the House climate bill.”
Rick Heede, co-founder and director of the Climate Accountability Institute, authors a peer-reviewed study revealing that 90 producers of oil, natural gas, coal, and cement – the “carbon majors” – are responsible for 63 percent of cumulative industrial CO2 and methane emissions worldwide between 1751 and 2010. Just 28 companies are responsible for 25 percent of all emissions since 1965.
The Western States Petroleum Association, a top lobbying and trade association for the oil industry, describes in a presentation the “campaigns and coalitions [it has] activated that have contributed to WSPA’s advocacy goals and continue to respond to aggressive anti-oil initiatives in the West,” including investment “in several coalitions that are best suited to drive consumer and grassroots messages to regulators and policymakers.”
The City of Imperial Beach, California, releases a report that assesses the city’s vulnerability to sea level rise and identifies adaptation strategies, along with estimated costs, to address those impacts.
The State of California, along with San Mateo and Marin Counties, release separate report that assess the impacts of sea level rise on their communities, detailing the substantial monetary losses, infrastructure and property damage, and decrease in quality of life residents will face.
A new peer-reviewed study confirms that the rate of sea level rise is accelerating and concludes that, for coastal communities, it “highlights the importance and urgency of mitigating climate change and formulating coastal adaptation plans to mitigate the impacts of ongoing sea level rise.”
1. Cracks in the Fossil Fuel Wall: There are reasons to begin to think that the fossil fuel companies’ stonewalling of action on climate is beginning to crack. According to Ed Crooks of the Financial Times in an article entitled Exxon and Chevron join industry climate change group, published in September 2018, ExxonMobil and Chevron have “joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a group of companies supporting curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.” This is entirely a result of the pressure being applied to the industry by investors, by mounting litigation from states, cities and individuals and by the public as a result of great reporting by groups like InsideClimateNews to stop denying what the industry has known for decades and to starting working to address the real threat of global warming. Apparently both “Exxon and Chevron declined to join the initiative when it started but both companies have since changed their chief executives. Darren Woods replaced Rex Tillerson at the head of Exxon at the start of 2017 and Michael Wirth replaced John Watson at Chevron in February.” You can read more about this change of heart by two of the worst corporate climate deniers at the FT article here.
2. Evidence that Carbon from Fossil Fuels is the Culprit: In an article called “Climate Change Fingerprints,” posted by the team from Skeptical Science, we have learned that there is actual evidence now that the effects of increasing accumulations of carbon and climate change is the result of burning fossil fuels, rather than from some unknown natural variation.
There are subtle differences to how the world will warm due to greenhouse gases compared with other potential sources (such as an increase in the warmth of the sun). Most importantly, scientists know that greenhouse gases would cause the upper atmosphere to cool rather than warm.
We also know that the source of the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to burning fossil fuels. The carbon in fossil fuels differs from atmospheric carbon because it has less of the isotope known as 13C (Carbon-13), a heavier-than-normal version of carbon. Plants generally prefer the lighter and more common 12C (Carbon-12) for photosynthesis, so fossil fuels, which are produced from decayed plant matter, are deficient in 13C. As a result, when we burn fossil fuels we cause the percentage of 13C in the atmosphere to drop, and this change has been detected.