How Exxon Shaped the Climate Debate

Discussion in 'Politics' started by futurecurrents, Mar 3, 2013.

  1. In some ways, it’s kind of a no-brainer that Exxon would go after climate science on a very superficial level. It’s sort of in their self-interest to keep government away from fossil fuels, right? Is that how it began?

    Well, there were a lot of corporations, including oil companies, that objected to the Kyoto accords in 1997. But most of them lobbied against the treaty on economic and fairness grounds that would cost the economy of the United States too much for the benefits promised, and also that it wasn’t fair that developing societies would be left out of the bargain.

    But Exxon did something that I think was fairly radical, which was that they chose to go after the science. And I think that was more the results of the personal conviction of the chief executive, Lee Raymond, than it really was an expression of their rational business needs.

    After all, ExxonMobil was an oil and gas company. Gas was not problematic under climate change regulation. Oil was not as problematic as coal. They were an enormous corporation with rich profits. They could have survived Kyoto. They could have survived a price cap on carbon. They could survive on that. But they chose not only to oppose the treaty, but to attack the science.

    So they could have in a sense written a check for what Kyoto called for, and instead not only went after the treaty but every scientific basis or even thinking about climate change as a threat to the world.

    Lee Raymond — who had a doctoral degree in chemical engineering and who had a personal conviction that he understood the science well enough to reach a judgment about it — decided that the science was wrong.

    He believed that it was a hoax, in effect, that the earth was not warming at all. … So he not only went after the treaty bargain, but funded, often in the early years surreptitiously, campaigns to attack the science that were carried out by nonscientific groups, often by free-market ideologues, … this out of an organization, ExxonMobil, that is in fact quite dependent on scientists and science. In time, perhaps we will understand what the internal reaction among scientists within ExxonMobil was to this campaigning, because there’s some evidence that within ExxonMobil, there was study going on about how global warming could affect oil discovery, for example.

    So on the one hand, the chief executive was saying there is no global warming, and on the other hand, scientific departments of ExxonMobil were looking into how, if there was global warming, ExxonMobil could profit from it. …

    What sort of tools were at the disposal of Exxon to really go after the science? After all, isn’t science science?

    Well, money to fund campaigns raising doubts. I mean, science is science, but science is based on doubts. Science is based on arguments. Science is based on honest dissent. There is hardly a branch of science where you can’t identify a single scientist who doesn’t have an opposing view. In fact, scientists are trained to question and doubt.

    In the case of climate science in the late 1990s, the consensus was still forming around how confident scientists could be about the cause, the contribution of human industrial activity to warming, what the risks over what period of time would actually turn out to be.

    Here in 2012, we have a much clearer sense of what the modeling warns us about than was available in 1997. And so ExxonMobil was able to exploit genuine divisions that were still present in a global scientific community.

    Those divisions were narrowing; they were closing. They would vanish within five to seven years. But ExxonMobil drove a wedge into that debate, exploited the dissent that is an aid to science and used this to create doubts in the public mind about whether the science was legitimate.

    “ExxonMobil drove a wedge into that debate, exploited the dissent that is an aid to science and used this to create doubts in the public mind about whether the science was legitimate.”
    After all, this is a kind of science that is very difficult for any ordinary American to evaluate on his or her [own], and we all know that weather is uncertain. We all watch the weather forecast every night and watch the weathermen who are presumably trained meteorologists and [who] get it wrong over and over and over again.

    So here comes a campaign suggesting that this very consequential weather forecast might turn out to be wrong. Well, there’s an intuitive way in which Americans are going to take that up, especially if it’s propounded in a clever way that emphasizes what’s uncertain and what’s unknown. …

    So here comes a campaign suggesting that this very consequential weather forecast might turn out to be wrong. Well, there’s an intuitive way in which Americans are going to take that up, especially if it’s propounded in a clever way that emphasizes what’s uncertain and what’s unknown.
  2. And how much money are we talking about? What kind of resources did Exxon and others bring to the table?

    Well, multimillions of dollars were spent on this. And the records suggest that much of the oil industry’s contribution to this funding was routed through the American Petroleum Institute, which is where the oil companies individually often do the lobbying that’s most likely to be controversial, because then they have the shield of an industrywide group.

    Within API, ExxonMobil is by far the biggest player. Dues and in effect voting power are allocated on the basis of corporate size. And so Exxon, as the largest corporation, was the big fish. And also Lee Raymond, the chairman and chief executive, was the one who really drove this agenda. We have minutes and records of the American Petroleum Institute from this period that made clear that Exxon really took over this campaign and drove the funding and the strategy in the years after Kyoto.

    In addition, there were other participants from the coal industry and from other ideological and industry groups that supported this work. But the oil industry-led work involved spending millions of dollars per year over a number of years following the enactment of the Kyoto accords, in particular in 1997.

    … Did Exxon rely on scientists to make their argument in anything?

    Sure. They, like the campaigners, built petitions of various kinds of scientists who agreed with this critique. Now, there was a particular petition that was circulated at this time that turned out to be highly flawed and contained the names of pop singers and other phony signatures that really didn’t have any scientific background.

    But there were a handful of credited scientists at mainstream universities and other organizations, some of them qualified in the relevant fields, who expressed doubts about the conventional wisdom at that time in global warming and climate science.

    And although they were a very small minority of the total number of scientists working in this area, they were prepared to be forceful in their dissent. And science, of course, has often thrived on the lonely dissenter. So ExxonMobil rallied to these individuals who were, in its mind, bravely defying the United Nations and the conventional wisdom of the liberal environmental elites and called attention and provided funding to these dissidents, and then used their messages, their scientific credentials and their arguments to campaign before the public to raise questions about the credibility of what was becoming more and more a consensus science.

    Aside from this handful of dissenters, though, was the argument driven by ExxonMobil made mostly by nonscientists?

    A lot of these groups were run by economists, litigators, lawyers and public policy specialists, people who specialized in getting a message out, not people who were scientists. This was a Washington campaign. This was about influencing the media. This was about creating a false controversy really in proportion to the dissent versus the majority.

    The effect of the campaign was to persuade many people in the media that this was an even-sided debate; that there were people who thought global warming was going on and an equal number roughly who thought it wasn’t, and that, therefore, by the conventions of impartial journalism, every story that covered legislation or other controversies around global warming should equally quote from both sides of the debate. That was a goal, an explicit goal that was written down as part of this campaign.

    Let’s create doubt; let’s create a sense of a balanced debate and make sure that these lines of skepticism and dissent become routinely a part of public discussion about climate science. And, in fact, they succeeded at that.

    This group may not have been scientists, but they were really good at this sort of thing.

    Well, some of them actually came out of campaigning on behalf of the tobacco industry in the 1960s, which was a campaign that over a period of 10 or 15 years managed to prolong the period in which the American public believed that there might not be much danger in smoking.

    Even though the tobacco companies internally knew as long ago as the 1950s that smoking was quite dangerous to human health, it really wasn’t until the 1970s or later that the evidence that this was no longer a debatable subject became part of a political consensus in the United States.

    And that delay period before lawsuits and other factors caused the tobacco industry to be held accountable for the misinformation that it had communicated to the smoking public, that was the product of a similar communications campaign. …

    So replace human body with climate and carcinogen with carbon, and you pretty much have the tobacco industry debate upgraded for climate science in the 21st century?
  3. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in their expose titled: Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air - How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco's Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science (2007) show how ExxonMobil waged the most successful and sophisticated global warming denial campaign since that of Big Tobacco's campaign against the dangers of smoking. In their 64 page document, they show that ExxonMobil:

    Manufactured uncertainty about climate change by raising doubts about even the most certain science.
    Used a tactic known as information laundering by using seemingly independent front groups that pretended to be doing science but were instead just waging public relations for the company. Virtually all of these front groups publicize the work of the same people and these people typically serve as board members or scientific advisors for each of these groups. This tactic creates the illusion that there are many organizations and many people with doubts about global warming.
    Funneled about $16 million to these front groups to manufacture this uncertainty.
    Paid guilt-less scientists to cherry-pick data and misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific evidence whereby these scientists then used this misinformation to persuade the general public and the media that there was still no scientific consensus.
    Shifted the focus away from global warming action by questioning if the data was "sound science".
    Used its extraordinary access to the Bush Administration to block regulation and to shape governmental communications about global warming.