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

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.

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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.

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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:

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