Selling Climate Denial
For decades, fossil fuel companies have known about the catastrophic impacts of their products and have spent billions of dollars in that time to delay climate action and continue business as usual. In an investigative deep-dive published in the Guardian, journalists Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes trace the trajectory of misinformation and communications strategy that protected the industry’s entrenched interests.
Why This Matters
In a world in desperate need of decarbonization, the fossil fuel industry holds immense power to reduce emissions and "fuel" the clean energy revolution. Whether it's capable of such a role has yet to be seen.
Consider an undercover investigation by Unearthed in July, when an Exxon lobbyist was recorded stating that the company "historically funded anti-climate campaigns through dark money groups" and was "a decisive player in the effort to keep the biggest climate measures out of a bipartisan 60 vote package on infrastructure," even suggesting the company endorsed a carbon tax because they knew it wouldn't pass.
In October, though ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell testified before Congress about alleged efforts to mislead the public about human-caused climate change -- all four oil giants declined to provide the internal documents an oversight Committee requested.
Further reading on what path the fossil fuel industry might take: Big Oil Talks Sustainability, But is it All Smoke?
From Dis to Misinformation
Big Oil works hard to shape the public narrative. The industry has extensive resources for scientific research and an equally extensive history of campaigning against sound science using a distorted lens. An early, sadly prescient, and ironic example from 1962: at the same time that oil giants were beginning to study climate change and consider the gathering threat, an ad from Humble Oil (later to become ExxonMobil) boasted that its energy supply is capable of melting "7 million tons of glaciers." Years later, glacial ice melt is a reality and a problem. And today, while the fossil fuel industry emphasizes its renewable energy projects in its public relations campaigns, it keeps an overwhelming majority of its investments in oil and gas.
Once disinformation (false and intentional deception) is unleashed on the public, it spreads organically and becomes a whole new beast: misinformation. So, as oil and gas companies have historically pushed false climate narratives, many more spiral online -- especially through social media. A recent BBC "Reality Check" article sets its aim on debunking some of the most-shared claims, such as "global warming is good" and that a "grand solar minimum" isn't going to halt global warming. As Richard Stengel, disinformation expert and former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, writes: "Ultimately, disinformation about climate change is a form of pollution that contaminates our information ecosystem."
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part I, March 6, 2018.
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part II, March 7, 2018.
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part III, March 8, 2018.
The YEARS Project: Big Oil Knew Part IV, March 9, 2018.