Oil companies knew they were destroying the planet. They decided to tackle the problem by building a huge web of disinformation and by funding politicians who would deny scientific truths

Nir Hasson Aug. 11, 2021

A severe report pointing to the close relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming was submitted to the president of the United States. “We estimate the most probable warming for a doubling of CO2 to be near 3°C with a probable error of 1.5°C,” the report said. The Democratic president took the report seriously and ordered a series of moves to reduce emissions; he also asked to examine the option of taxing carbon emissions and even of symbolically installing solar panels on the roof of the White House.

That U.S. president was not Joe Biden nor was the serious report the one published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Monday. The report was published in July 1979 and the president was Jimmy Carter. Only months after Carter made several decisions to confront the problem, Ronald Reagan won the presidency and the report, written by a team led by Jule G. Charney of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was shelved. The Charney Report was a scientific breakthrough in our understanding of climate and how humanity influences it. The assessments it made have since been confirmed by tens of thousands of studies and observations.

In truth, there wasn’t a great deal new in the IPCC report that appeared this week. The fact that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could warm the atmosphere has been known since the 19th century. The fact that they are doing so has been known with very high certainty for 40 years. The ways to deal with the problem – by taxing emissions, replacing our energy sources and protecting nature – have been very well known since at least the 1990s, and nevertheless, emissions continue.

In fact, the decisive majority of greenhouse gas emissions that have changed the Earth’s climate took place after the Charney Report: More than half of the fuel humanity has burned since the industrial revolution has been burned since 1990. It’s no coincidence or error that despite the scientific announcements and knowledge that we were about to hit a wall, we were flooring the gas pedal. There were those who took care to curb the efforts to slow down or turn the car around, and they did so in a systematic manner, out of pure greed.

By the late 1970s, oil companies realized, from studies they themselves had conducted, that their product posed a danger to humanity. One of the oil giants, ExxonMobil, wrote in 1981 that global warming after 2030 could be catastrophic for a significant portion of the planet’s population. The boards and owners of these companies decided to tackle the problem by building a huge system of disinformation and by funding politicians who would deny scientific truths; it was one of the most dramatic decisions made in the history of mankind in the modern age.

A photograph shows the wildfire moving towards the village of Gouves on Evia (Euboea) island, second largest Greek island, last week.
A photograph shows the wildfire moving towards the village of Gouves on Evia (Euboea) island, second largest Greek island, last week.Credit: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS – AFP

The foundation for the operation was laid by the tobacco industry. When tobacco company executives realized that the link between their product and lung cancer could no longer be denied, they launched a sophisticated campaign to discredit the science. Through pseudo-research, advertising and investment in lobbying, tobacco companies succeeded in delaying legislation to restrict smoking for many years.

But the denying and delaying tactics of the oil companies were even more sophisticated and succeeded in putting off dealing with the climate crisis for decades; they also changed the political map in the United States and in the process laid the blame on us, the majority of humanity. Books, studies and investigative journalists have exposed this operation and today it can no longer be denied, just as the crisis itself cannot be denied.

The two most important players in this process were American oil giant ExxonMobil and oil tycoons Charles and David Koch. Together they funded dozens of organizations, including front organizations masquerading as legitimate groups, think tanks, task forces and more. These organizations employed a handful of enlisted experts who went from studio to studio to exploit to the hilt the journalistic desire to bring both sides of the debate to the screen, even if one expert was a climate scientist with the backing of the entire scientific community and the other was an “expert” in marketing or public policy funded by the oil companies.

The oil companies also funded lobbyists, publicists, journalists and politicians. The cost of this assault is estimated at more than $2 billion over the past 20 years. A large portion of that, by the way, was taxpayer money, because the companies managed to get tax exemptions for this activity.

It’s difficult to describe the complexity of this system of denial, but its main objective was to cast doubt. Like the tobacco companies, the oil companies did not even try to offer a scientific model that could compete with the model of global warming, but that was not their goal. The goal was to postpone decisions that would put them at a disadvantage for as long as possible. For decades, oil company spokespeople have asked to wait for more definitive results, further research and new observations, and to not make any dramatic decisions in the meantime.

The tactic of procrastinating action by casting doubt has evolved over the years. After every meteorological station in the world showed results that no longer made it possible to question the warming, company spokespeople tried to cast doubt on humans’ responsibility for the situation. After this approach was also perceived as not credible enough, the companies started talking about the need to postpone action for other reasons. For example, to wait for new technologies, like those to remove carbon from the air. Efforts were also made to divert the discussion toward further investments in nuclear energy. After all, building a system of nuclear reactors would take decades; meanwhile, humanity could continue to burn oil, coal and natural gas.

Along with questioning science and diverting public debate, various bizarre conspiracy theories were circulated. These ranged from the watermelon theory, which claimed that the environmental movement was green on the outside but red on the inside – that is, a subtle attempt at a communist takeover – through the claim that environmental activists and scientists had something to gain from the crisis, to U.S. President Donald Trump’s famous response whenever he was asked about the climate crisis: “It’s a hoax.”

Submerged cars and other vehicles are seen on the federal highway in Erftstadt, western Germany, after heavy rains hit parts of the country, causing widespread flooding and major damage, last month.
Submerged cars and other vehicles are seen on the federal highway in Erftstadt, western Germany, after heavy rains hit parts of the country, causing widespread flooding and major damage, last month.Credit: SEBASTIEN BOZON – AFP

Another way for companies to divert discussion was to distance themselves from responsibility and turn the issue into a problem of individuals. Under this approach, the climate crisis is not the result of their rapacious greed but because you – the rest of the human race – eat meat or drive a car to work or choose to have another child. Change, therefore, must be on the individual level; there is no need for legislation or regulation but for humanity to mobilize voluntarily.

This method also enabled the fuel companies to cast environmentalists as villains, divide them and disrupt their work. Thus, for example, the oil companies’ denial operation managed to divert discussion of Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” to the question of the electricity bill at Gore’s estate. Climate scientists were attacked for flying too often and we all felt guilty about eating hamburgers. The British oil giant BP went so far as to post a calculator on its website that could help us, the little people, calculate our personal carbon footprint.

This enormous flurry of activity remade the Republican Party in the United States. Many surveys showed the close link between political affiliation and the degree of concern about climate change, with liberals taking it seriously while conservatives thinking it’s nonsense. It wasn’t always so. Right-wing President Richard Nixon is considered to this day to have been one of America’s “greenest” presidents, pushing through and signing the Clean Air Act in 1970. The elder President George Bush apparently thought he could win votes by promising to confront the climate crisis (“Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about the ‘White House effect,’” he said on the campaign trail in 1988).

But then the oil companies shifted into high gear. In addition to generously funding politicians who denied there was a climate crisis, they played on the religious feelings of right-wing voters, claiming it couldn’t be that people could change the climate that God created, and on their fears of government regulation of the economy, since obviously the crisis couldn’t be overcome without taxes, regulation and enforcement.

It worked well; climate-crisis denial has spread through the Republican Party in recent decades and anyone who dared entertain the notion that the crisis could be real found himself booted out of positions of influence. The decisive victory was achieved during Trump’s term in the White House, when Rex Tillerson, president and CEO of ExxonMobil, was named Secretary of State, while Andrew Wheeler, a coal industry lobbyist, was named director of the Environmental Protection Agency.

There isn’t enough space to describe all the deceptive and forceful methods of the oil companies’ denial operation, which included curricula for schools, scholarships for students and researchers, greenwashing through negligible activities in the realm of renewable energy, issuing climate change denial reports designed to mimic government reports, lobbying in favor of private cars and against public transportation and clean air laws, and a lot more. Today, when the crisis has emerged from the reports and is influencing the lives of each and every one of us, it’s more important than ever to remember to where the indictment should be addressed.