Quantcast

Internal Documents Expose Fossil Fuel Industry's Decades of Deception on Climate Change

Politics

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse created a stir recently when he speculated that fossil fuel companies may be violating federal racketeering law by colluding to defraud the public about the threat posed by carbon pollution.

A new report reveals that some of the top carbon polluters were fully aware of the reality of climate change but continued to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote contrarian arguments they knew to be wrong. Photo credit: Greenpeace

Whitehouse likened their actions to those of the tobacco companies that conspired to manufacture doubt about the link between smoking and disease when they were all too aware of it. In 2006, a federal district court ruled that the tobacco industry's deceptive campaign to maximize its profits by hoodwinking the public amounted to a racketeering enterprise.

Whitehouse may be among the first to suggest that the fossil fuel industry is flouting the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), but he's not the first to point out the parallels between the tobacco industry's fraudulent campaign and the fossil fuel industry's efforts to quash government action on climate change.

Back in 2007, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report revealed that ExxonMobil—then the world's largest publicly traded oil and gas company—had spent $16 million between 1998 and 2005 on a network of more than 40 front groups to try to discredit mainstream climate science. Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, meanwhile, were outed by a 2010 Greenpeace report revealing they spent significantly more than ExxonMobil between 2005 and 2008 on virtually the same groups. Many of those groups and the scientists affiliated with them had previously shilled for the tobacco industry.

Despite their outsized role, ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers are just a part of a much bigger story, according to a new UCS report, "The Climate Deception Dossiers." After spending nearly a year reviewing a wide range of internal corporate and trade association documents pried loose by leaks, lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, UCS researchers have compiled a broader tale of deceit.

Drawing on evidence culled from 85 documents, the report reveals that ExxonMobil and five other top carbon polluters—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, coal giant Peabody Energy and Royal Dutch Shell—were fully aware of the reality of climate change but continued to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote contrarian arguments they knew to be wrong. Taken together, the documents show that these six companies—in conjunction with the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry's premier trade association, and a host of front groups—have known for at least two decades that their products are harmful and have intentionally deceived the public about the climate change threat.

Exxon Recognized Carbon Emissions Problem 34 Years Ago

The collected documents reveal the fossil fuel industry campaign has relied on a variety of deceptive practices, including creating phony grassroots groups, secretly funding purportedly independent scientists, and even forging letters from nonprofit advocacy groups to lobby members of Congress.

Read page 1

ExxonMobil's duplicity is perhaps the most remarkable. Internal documents and public statements stretching back decades show that ExxonMobil's corporate forerunners Exxon and Mobil, which merged in 1999, acknowledged the threat posed by global warming as far back as the early 1980s.

UCS discovered one eye-opening document just last week, unfortunately too late to include in its new report. It's an email former Exxon and Mobil chemical engineer Leonard S. Bernstein sent last October in reply to a request for comment by an Ohio University ethics professor about how corporations often fail to account for "externalities" such as pollution. Bernstein stated in his email that Exxon was factoring climate change into its resource development decisions more than 30 years ago.

"Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna [natural] gas field off Indonesia." Bernstein wrote. "... [P]rojections were that if Natuna were developed and its [carbon dioxide] vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about one percent of projected global CO2 emissions." The company ultimately abandoned the project.

"In the 1980s," Bernstein explained, "Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue."

It may have taken Mobil seven more years to wake up to the reality of global warming, but it was much more vocal than Exxon about it. In November 1988, five months after NASA scientist James Hansen rang the alarm bell before Congress, Mobil President Richard F. Tucker cited the "greenhouse effect" in a list of serious environmental challenges during a speech at an American Institute of Chemical Engineers national conference.

"Our strategy must be to reduce pollution before it is ever generated—to prevent problems at the source," he said. "That will involve working at the edge of scientific knowledge and developing new technology at every scale on the engineering spectrum ... Prevention on a global scale may even require a dramatic reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels—and a shift toward solar, hydrogen and safe nuclear power. It may be possible—just possible—that the energy industry will transform itself so completely that observers will declare it a new industry."

Fossil Fuel Companies Disregard Their Own Scientists

Tucker's warning went unheeded even by his own company. A year later, in 1989, 50 U.S. corporations and trade groups created the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to discredit climate science. Its founding members included API, British Petroleum (now BP), Chevron, Exxon, Shell, Texaco and ... Mobil.

Until it disbanded in 2002, GCC conducted a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming. One of its fact sheets for legislators and journalists, for example, claimed "the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood" and emphasized that "scientists differ" on the issue.

An internal 1995 GCC primer included in the UCS report, however, indicates that the coalition's own scientific and technical experts were telling its members that greenhouse gases were indeed causing global warming.

"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," the 17-page document stated, "and cannot be denied." The primer's lead author was none other than Leonard S. Bernstein, who at the time was Mobil's manager for corporate environmental, health and safety issues. After retiring from Mobil in 1999, Bernstein was a lead chapter author for U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports in 2001 and 2007.

Read page 1

 

One draft version of the primer even addressed—and dismissed—major arguments made by climate change contrarians. "The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes," the draft stated, "but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change." That section wasn't included in the primer's final version.

Bernstein referenced his role with the coalition in his October 2014 email. "I was involved in GCC for a while," he wrote, "unsuccessfully trying to get them to recognize scientific reality."

Exxon definitely was not interested in scientific reality. In 1998—a year before it merged with Mobil—the company embarked on its contrarian network spending spree and placed one of its lobbyists, Arthur G. "Randy" Randol III, on API's newly created Global Climate Science Communications Team. The team's goal was to derail the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement signed by 192 countries—but not the U.S.—to meet binding carbon emissions reduction targets.

The new UCS report includes a leaked API communications team campaign memo—co-written by Randol and representatives from API, Chevron, Southern Company and a handful of fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks—which lays out a plan largely based on the tobacco industry's deception strategy famously encapsulated in an internal memo that asserted "doubt is our product." Echoing that sentiment, the API memo stated: "Victory will be achieved when: average citizens 'understand' (recognize) uncertainties in climate science."

Case Study: Covertly Underwriting a Contrarian Scientist

What makes the secret API memo so revealing is how closely its tactics were implemented in the case of Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, an aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Last February, internal documents made public for the first time revealed that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests have been secretly funding Soon's scientific work for years.

This revelation didn't come as a total surprise. The 2007 UCS report on the ExxonMobil contrarian network identified Soon as one of a dozen scientists affiliated with more than 40 ExxonMobil-funded think tanks that then constituted the backbone of the climate change-denier PR machine. Soon produced work for at least five of these ExxonMobil-backed groups, including the Heartland Institute.

But the latest cache of documents, obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center through an FOIA request, lays bare a wealth of detail that was not available before, partly because a number of Soon's contracts with the astrophysics lab dictated that the names of his benefactors remain confidential.

It turns out that Soon received more than $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry over the last decade and failed to disclose that conflict of interest in most of the scientific papers that money underwrote. Southern Company contributed more than $400,000, ExxonMobil donated $335,000, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation kicked in $230,000 and API gave more than $100,000. Except for Charles Koch's foundation, all of the funders participated in API's Global Climate Science Communications Team, and one of the co-authors of the team's 1998 memo, Southern Company research specialist Robert Gehri, personally negotiated a $60,000 grant to the astrophysics lab in 2008 to pay for Soon's research.

So what did API, ExxonMobil, Koch and Southern Company get for their money?

Soon's papers and congressional testimony, which he called "deliverables" in his correspondence with his funders, conclude that solar activity is the main cause of global warming and carbon emissions have had little or no impact. Scientifically indefensible, no doubt. But they have served their purpose. Soon's discredited findings are routinely cited by members of Congress—notably Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe—to argue that climate science is a hoax.

Holding the Companies Accountable

The tobacco industry successfully stalled meaningful regulations for decades. Using virtually the same strategy and tactics, the fossil fuel industry thus far has been able to do the same, at least when it comes to federal legislation.

As the new UCS report notes, recent research has documented that 90 state- and privately owned corporations alone have produced and marketed the fossil fuels and cement responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world's industrial carbon emissions over the past two and a half centuries. Of these, 50 are investor-owned coal, oil and natural gas companies, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Peabody and Shell. Even more startling, nearly 30 percent of all industrial emissions can be traced to just 20 investor- and state-owned companies.

Scientists have been warning about the looming threat for decades, but governments have only begun to take climate change seriously. Meanwhile, the rate of carbon emissions has increased dramatically in recent years. In fact, more than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released into the atmosphere since 1988, after major fossil fuel companies knew about the harm their products are doing to the climate.

So what is to be done?

There are a number of potential ways to hold large industrial carbon polluters accountable. It remains to be seen whether Sen. Whitehouse's call for prosecuting them under RICO holds promise. But shareholder engagement, divestment campaigns, consumer boycotts and state court litigation all can play an important role in forcing them to curb their emissions, end their disinformation campaigns and even pay the cost of climate damages, preparedness and mitigation. The most effective tactics remain a subject for debate. But, as the picture of the fossil fuel companies' efforts to deceive the public becomes clearer, it is high time these companies take responsibility for their actions and the damage they've done.

Watch Union of Concerned Scientists' video explaining how internal industry documents reveal decades of disinformation:

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

10 Reasons Bernie Sanders Is ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’

Nationwide Protests Call for Immediate Ban on Oil Bomb Trains

Teens Continue Fight to Make State Take Action on Climate Change

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Hedges, 2019 © Hugh Hayden. All photos courtesy of Lisson Gallery

By Patrick Rogers

"I'm really into trees," said the sculptor Hugh Hayden. "I'm drawn to plants."

Read More Show Less
BruceBlock / iStock / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Thanks to their high concentration of powerful plant compounds, foods with a natural purple hue offer a wide array of health benefits.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Environmental Investigation Agency

By Genevieve Belmaker

Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

Read More Show Less
Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

Pixabay

By Manuella Libardi

Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY / THE OCEAN AGENCY

Hope may be on the horizon for the world's depleted coral reefs thanks to scientists who successfully reproduced endangered corals in a laboratory setting for the first time, according to Reuters.

Read More Show Less

Last week we received positive news on the border wall's imminent construction in an Arizona wildlife refuge. The Trump administration delayed construction of the wall through about 60 miles of federal wildlife preserves.

Read More Show Less
PhotoAlto / Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

Drinking water treated with fluoride during pregnancy may lead to lower IQs in children, a controversial new study has found.

Read More Show Less