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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fossil Fuel Deception

Air Date: Week of

Starting in the 1980s, Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies began an aggressive misinformation campaign designed to discredit climate science. (Photo: Thomas Hawk, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The fossil fuel industry has known its products would cause dangerous warming for decades but chose to deceive the public to stall climate progress around the globe, says Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard. She joined Host Steve Curwood to describe the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long disinformation campaign and what can be done to turn the climate conversation back towards the truth.


DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering

BELTRAN: And I’m Paloma Beltran.

The burning of fossil fuels is the primary source of climate-warming greenhouse gases worldwide. And the science tells us that if we don't drastically reduce those emissions as soon as possible, we’re headed for even more catastrophic climate disruption. But by 2030 the UN reports that global fossil fuel production is set to be more than double the level consistent with meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The dominance of the fossil fuel industry even as we face the climate emergency isn’t all that surprising, says Naomi Oreskes. She’s a professor of the history of science at Harvard and says the fossil fuel industry has stalled climate progress around the globe for decades. Professor Oreskes recently joined Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood to describe the industry’s campaign of disinformation.

CURWOOD: So how far back did big oil companies know about the potentially catastrophic effects their products could have on the climate and the planet?

Naomi Oreskes is a Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. (Photo: Jonathan Sachs)

ORESKES: We know from our research and the research of others that as early as the 1960s, the oil industry was quite well aware that burning fossil fuels put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And those gases were almost certain to warm the planet. And they also knew that the effects would likely be very serious. We begin to see really serious sustained work on the issue in the 1970s. And by the mid to late 70s, some companies like ExxonMobil actually had their own in-house scientists doing this research. And so we've shown, in our work, we've gone back and we've looked at those reports, we've looked at the scientific papers that were published, either by industry scientists or co-authored by them with academics. And they show very clearly that by the late 70s, early 80s, the oil industry had a very clear picture of what this problem was, understood that it was serious, that it would have large social, economic and political consequences, that it could include very substantive sea level rise, and that it might make their product unsellable.

CURWOOD: Go back to the very beginning. What was the first sort of shot across the bow, so to speak, inside industry? Who spoke up and said, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, we really could have a problem here.

ORESKES: Well, there's a few different shots across the bow. One of my favorite early examples is the physicist Gilbert Plass, who worked for Ford Motor Company. So we have reports from the 50s and 60s where the car industry is beginning to recognize that this could have significance for their long term business model. But also, Plass worked for Ford Aerospace. And they were interested in heat seeking missiles, and the impact of CO2 heat absorption on heat seeking missiles. So Plass did some of the most important early work that proved that climate change would result from increased CO2 in the atmosphere. So that was in the mid 1950s. We also know that in the early 60s, there were a number of studies and reports done, including one by Edward Teller, the famous physicist who spoke to the American Petroleum Institute about this issue. We have a number of reports that my students actually tracked down of air pollution conferences in the early to mid 1960s, where scientists were talking about CO2 as a form of air pollution. And we know that auto industry executives, oil industry executives, chemical industry executives, were present at these meetings and heard these conversations and in some cases participated in them.

The fossil fuel industry was aware of the potential effects of their product as early as the 1960s, according to Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes. (Photo: Geoff Hansen, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: So what did big oil companies do with that information?

ORESKES: Well, at first, they didn't actually do much of anything. And one of the things that's been interesting to us and the research we've done on the 1960s, is that in the 1960s, there's this conversation going on, that the oil industry doesn't seem to be particularly worried about. And my interpretation of that is that so long as climate change seemed far off in the future, they didn't really think it was something that they had to worry about terribly much. Now, a couple of companies did, and ExxonMobil is the most famous because they actually created a research group to better understand the problem. And they did that in the 1970s. So we know that they were taking it seriously. And we know that their own scientists wrote a number of reports that said, yes, this actually is significant. It is something that companies should be paying attention to. But even then, most scientists in the 1970s still thought that change was pretty far away. And a lot of the reports don't actually specify when they think discernable effects would occur. But when they do use a number, they sometimes use the year 2000. And sometimes when scientists talked about the issue, they talked to the year 2100. So you can imagine if you were a corporate executive in 1975, and someone comes along talking about climate change as something that would happen in the year 2100, you might reasonably think, hmm, that's not something I really need to worry about. But what we've seen in our work is that it begins to change very dramatically. And in a very specific year: 1989. 1989 is when we first begin to see climate change denial begin to be a thing. So we begin to see reports, advertisements, OpEds, to say, well, hold on, slow down, we don't really know, we're not really sure. And so one obvious question is why then? And I think we know the answer, because 1988 is the year that Jim Hansen testifies for the first time in the US Congress, that manmade climate change is underway. And he testifies to the effect that he and his team at NASA are 99% sure that this is the case. And you know, as well as I do, scientists hardly ever say they're 99% sure about anything. So it's this very strong, very clear, quite unequivocated statement. And 1988 is also the year that the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is created. So you have these two big things happening to say, okay, we've been talking about this as something that's far off in the future but actually, this is happening faster than we thought and if Hansen is right, it's actually already happening now. And I think that scares the pants off the oil industry. And I think that helps to explain why we then see this big pivot.

Scientist James Hansen testified in Congress in 1988, saying his NASA team was 99% certain manmade climate change was already underway. He’s pictured here in 2017. (Photo: MIT Media Lab, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

CURWOOD: Yeah, I mean, what did they do with that information, that climate change is here and now, as of 1988?

ORESKES: Well, a few things. One thing we know is that Exxon Mobil disbanded its climate research program. So they had a whole group that was doing CO2 climate modeling. And they also had a group that was actually measuring carbon dioxide at sea. And we know that that whole group was disbanded. So they stopped doing the research that would potentially contribute to a better understanding of what was really happening. And instead, they shifted away from science and towards an anti-scientific position, towards disinformation. And so they begin to fund a whole series of opinion pieces. They're really advertisements, but they're formatted to look like opinion pieces, which they publish in the New York Times. And they also begin to form groups, lobbying groups, to begin to work against climate action.

CURWOOD: Specifically, talk to me about the strategies that these companies used to mislead consumers and the public about the dangers of fossil fuel. What was the message that was put out there about this, to support this approach?

Many fossil fuel companies claimed that climate science was too uncertain to cause alarm and conclusively link to climate driven events such as wildfires. (Photo: Project LM, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

ORESKES: There was a wide diversity of messaging that was used. But my Research Associate, Geoffrey Supran, and I have identified four big themes that we see repeated over and over again, and we summarize them as follows. It's not real, it's not us, it will wreck the economy, it's too expensive to fix. So the first one, it's not real, was a strategy to deny that climate change was even happening, to say the science was too unsettled, there were too many uncertainties, to blame it on natural variability, to say the climate has always changed, to blame it on volcanoes. So basically, to deny the scientific evidence. Second one, it's not us, which is a variation on the theme of the first. Well, maybe there is warming, but it's not caused by our activities. So it's actually just natural variability, it's actually caused by CO2 from volcanoes. Two B is, it's not us, it's China. So deflect attention from what we, here in the United States, or what we, ExxonMobil, have done to try to deflect the blame and put it on someone else. Then the second two, the third and fourth, were about the economy. So to claim that if we were to stop using fossil fuels, it would completely wreck the economy, the economy cannot survive without fossil fuels. This is an argument that we're seeing revived again, even as we speak today. And then the fourth is that it would be too expensive to fix. So yeah, we could do solar, we could do wind, but they're too expensive. And also, they're too intermittent, right? I call this the, "renewables are for sissies" argument, that renewables aren't tough enough, they're not reliable enough, that only oil, gas and coal are reliable. So there's this sort of gender laden element about, you know, real men drill for coal. And so we've seen all four of these arguments being used at different times in different ways. I always like to say, some people think that the industry doesn't believe in recycling, but they do, they recycle their refuted arguments.

CURWOOD: From your perspective, what were some of their most effective techniques of disinformation?

ORESKES: I think they were very smart about something that, you know, social media has exploited in recent years, but they already knew this 40 or 50 years ago, which was targeted messaging. And so in a place like Kentucky, they would push a message about losing jobs. If coal is wiped out, you'll lose your jobs. In a place like, I don't know, California, they would have a message about government overreach or increases to your taxes. They also had different arguments or different messages for male and female audiences. So the incredibly effective thing they did was to recognize that there wasn't one thing, and to do a whole lot of different things, also different media: radio, television, print media, and then now we're seeing tremendous amounts of growth of disinformation on social media.

Fossil fuel companies have also argued that renewables are less reliable than fossil energy sources. (Photo: Land Rover Our Planet, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: Naomi, I understand that there was some really ridiculous, maybe even outlandish advertisements back in the 1960s in magazines. Could you describe one of those spreads for me, please?

ORESKES: There's a very famous advertisement that was put out by Humble Oil, which was part of this Standard Oil, The John D. Rockefeller network, where they showed a giant glacier and they talked about how much energy it would take to melt the glaciers if that were a good thing. And I think that's a very nice telling example for us of how our mentalities have changed. Right around the time that scientists were starting to understand how climate change could melt glaciers, and that would be a bad thing, we have people advertising that being able to melt a glacier was a good thing. So part of this story is that it has required us to rethink how we think about nature, the environment, living on earth. And so the difficulty of this story is, it's not just about disinformation from the fossil fuel industry, but the way in which that disinformation has worked in conjunction with our own fears, anxieties, beliefs, attitudes, to get us to this place where we are today.

CURWOOD: So, this may seem obvious, but what convinces you that this whole process of misinformation was deliberate? That these weren't sort of people who mistakenly didn't quite get what was going on?

ORESKES: Well, that's an easy question to answer, because they said so. I mean, as a historian, I work with documentary evidence. We've spent a lot of time in the archives, we've visited archives in I don't know, at least 20 states, I think, as well as looked at lots of documentary material that is available online. And we see how this was planned. We see how it was organized, we see the documents that say, you know, we're going to say there's no consensus on climate change, we're going to design this advertising campaign, and we're going to run it in these places. And we came across documents that even had focus group studies. They did market research to try to figure out what kinds of messaging would be most effective in persuading the American people not to support meaningful climate action. So we don't have to interpret, we don't have to read between the lines. This is all things that they said, they wrote down. And of course, the other big piece of this puzzle, and this is the work that Eric Conway and I did in our book, "Merchants of Doubt," some of the key players in climate change disinformation came out of the tobacco story. So we showed in our book how two of the original four Merchants of Doubt had worked directly with the tobacco industry, had worked on these strategies for tobacco, and then carried those strategies and tactics into the climate space.

Other advertisements have claimed that global warming was due to natural variability, not human activity. (Photo: Chris Yarzab, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: So talk to me about how these disinformation strategies have changed over time. You mentioned that climate disinformation has moved to social media. So what does the fossil fuel climate denial marketing campaign look like today?

ORESKES: Well, it's a little hard to answer that question, because one of the things about social media is that it's so segmented, but one message we are definitely seeing today is a revival of the anti government message, to say that this is all a liberal conspiracy to take away your rights, to take away your hamburgers to take away your right to drive a big car. And this particularly came up in the recent debates about gas indoors. So in New York State, when the state proposed a regulation that would not allow gas in new homes, the fossil fuel industry saturated the state with a set of advertisements saying that this was government overreach, this was government control. If you allow the government to regulate gas stoves, it's only a matter of time before they regulate everything. And this is an argument we have seen repeatedly used throughout this whole history. And so now we're seeing it, again, being used to defend gas stoves.

CURWOOD: Naomi, how can environmental advocates, scientists, citizens, push back against these very expensive and sophisticated climate denial marketing campaigns?

ORESKES: It's not easy, because as you just said, they are sophisticated, and they're extremely well funded. But the good news is, there are more of us than there are of them. So I think this is why it's so important for everyone to be mobilized on this issue. If we just rely on a few scientists, we will not win. But if we all become organized, if we speak in our communities, in our churches, in our synagogues, in our mosques, in our schools, at our places of work, if we have the conversation about what's happening, and particularly the conversation about disinformation, which is an awkward conversation to have, but an essential one, because one of the things that I found is that you can't really counter disinformation with information because now people just don't know who to believe. But if you expose it as disinformation, well, nobody wants to be at the losing end of a con. So having that conversation, talking about the disinformation, as we have been doing here today, is extremely important. And then, as much as possible, mobilizing everyone to be engaged in this conversation to the extent that they are able to be.

DOERING: That’s Harvard Professor of the History of Science, Naomi Oreskes, speaking with Living on Earth Host and Executive Producer Steve Curwood. They’ll talk next time about the political history of climate disinformation.



The Guardian | “The Forgotten Oil Ads That Told Us Climate Change Was Nothing.”

Climate Investigations Center’s collection of ExxonMobil and ExxonMobil ads

Humble Oil ad in “Life” Magazine

“Rhetoric and Frame Analysis of ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications” by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes

“Accessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977-2014) by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes

ExxonMobil’s statement in response to Oreskes and Supran study

Award-Winning 9-Part series on Exxon Mobil from our partner Inside Climate News

Read ExxonMobil’s response to Inside Climate News’ Report (included in this article)

ExxonMobil v Healey 2019

People of NY v. ExxonMobil 2017

ExxonMobil’s response to NY Attorney General

The New York Times | “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.”


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