New report: fossil fuel industry funds climate denial, knew truth since 80s

A report released Wednesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) exposes three decades of willful and deliberate sabotaging of climate change discussion and solutions by major players in the fossil fuel industry, most notably Exxon/Mobil, BP, Peabody Energy, and Shell.

The “Climate Deception Dossiers”, using leaked and accessible internal memos from fossil fuel companies, demonstrate that the leadership of many major oil companies knew about climate change more than a decade before the general public ( “from as early as 1977 representatives of fossil fuel companies…attended dozens of congressional hearings in which the contribution of carbon emissions to the greenhouse effect and other aspects of climate science were discussed”), and that their leadership fully acknowledged and understood the threat posed by their companies’ actions (In 1988, as global warming was just gaining traction with the general public, Mobil President Richard F. Tucker told the American Institute of Chemical Engineers that stopping the greenhouse effect might call for “a dramatic reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels”).

However, the most shocking revelation presented was that not only did the fossil fuel industry continue to grow unfettered and unbothered by the knowledge of climate change, but they actively funded climate change denial knowing that it had no basis in fact. The lengths that fossil fuel companies have gone to in order to sow doubt about climate change are greater than many climate activists could have ever thought. This article will present shortened versions of each of the seven dossiers presented in the report.


1. Dr. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon’s kickbacks for climate denial “research”


Dr. Soon speaking to the Heritage Foundation

Due to the overwhelming agreement among the scientific community that climate change is real, human-caused, and a threat to human society, the climate skeptics have always had a problem getting scientists on their side to defend their positions. If you know or are a climate change “skeptic”, you know that Dr. Soon is one of the go-to scientists cited to back up climate change denial. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that Dr. Soon received more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel interests such as Exxon/Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Charles Koch foundation between 2001 and 2012.

Using his connections with the Smithsonian Institute, Soon, an Astrophysicist with background in aerospace engineering (not climatology or any related field), has published many papers which state that variations in the Sun’s radiation are the primary cause of climate change.

He has faced backlash among his peers, as well as the public. The scientific community disproved and challenged so much of his work that not only did the journal Climate Research redact his 2003 paper, but several of their editors resigned, and the publisher apologized, stating that the paper should not have been published.

All of these allegations prompted the Smithsonian Institute to pursue an ethics investigation in February 2015 on Dr. Soon, which revealed that his entire research budget was funded by fossil fuel interests. Even more troubling, these funding agreements mandated that his donors reviewed his work before it was published.

Dr. Soon has since been discredited by the majority of his peers, but the pattern stretches back decades.


2. American Petroleum Institute’s “Victory Roadmap”

Dr. Soon’s funding wasn’t an isolated incident; the idea to fund scientists to sow doubt about climate change science was originally outlined in a 1998 internal memo of the American Petroleum Insitute, innocently titled “Global Climate Science Communications Plan”. The document reveals the willful subversion of plans to address climate change and the intentional misinformation aimed to “manufacture uncertainty” among the public about the validity of climate change science.

The American Petroleum Institute's "Victory Roadmap"

The American Petroleum Institute’s “Victory Roadmap”

The excerpt at the right  from the “Global Climate Science Communications Plan” outlines the endgame of the API’s efforts to mislead the public. According to the memo, “Victory will be achieved when”:

  • Average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science, regonition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom”
  • Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science
  • Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current “conventional wisdom”
  • Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.

Their “victory roadmap” reveals their plans to subvert not only a national discussion and plan to address climate change, but to subvert the goals of the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 international agreement designed to create multinational commitment to curbing emissions. The US was a signatory to the agreement, but to the chagrin of the international community, to this day we are the only one to not have finalized our agreement by ratifying it.

The API has also sought to create skeptics of the new generation, reaching out to schools in 2002 pushing an online curriculum which paints fossil fuel sources as “more reliable, affordable, and convenient to use than most renewable energy resources”. While (at the time) those words were accurate, the curriculum did not acknowledge any trade-off to those advantages in the form of environmental or health costs.


3. “Astroturfing” by the Western States Petroleum Association


“As you can see, there are all kinds of grass-roots groups who share our concerns about AB32!” Cartoon by Steve Greenberg.

Because no one will believe a fossil fuel company complaining about climate change regulation (such as California’s bill AB32, which in 2006 successfully set a statewide emissions reduction of 15% by 2020), fossil fuel lobbies like the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) turned to “astroturfing”: creating and funding groups that are designed to mimic genuine “grass-roots” efforts to rally citizens around a common cause.

A leaked 2014 WSPA presentation by Catherine Rebeis-Boyd showcased 16 “grass-roots” groups that WSPA was planning to create or give generous funding (including Fed Up at the Pump, The California Drivers Alliance, Californians Against Higher Taxes, and Oregonians for Sound Fuel Policy), many of which would be nothing more than names on TV advertisements without very much actual citizen involvement at all (For example, check out the enthusiasm and engagement of Fed Up at the Pump’s Facebook followers). These groups created the false impression of widespread citizen disapproval of the bill, potentially swaying many legislators to oppose a bill which they otherwise would have supported. When pressed about the connection between WSPA and these “grass-roots” groups, WSPA expressed their pride to be engaged in “partnerships” with the local communities.

Accompanying this effort was a nearly twofold increase in WSPA’s lobbying budget recorded with the state of California in 2014. The vast majority of this additional spending was labeled under the “other” category, freeing WSPA from detailing exactly how they were spending the money. Given the leaked presentation’s ambitious goals, UCS thinks it reasonable to assume that the money would be used for astroturfing.


4. Forged letters from non-profit minority groups to Congress opposing American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009

Bonner and Associates President Jack Bonner in Congress

Bonner and Associates President Jack Bonner in Congress

In 2009, Congress debated the American Clean Energy and Security Act, a bill designed to set federal-level emissions targets for the US to scale back our contribution to climate change. in the weeks preceding the vote, representatives whose votes were undecided received letters from several non-profit minority groups. Tom Perriello (VA) received a statement of opposition to the bill from Creciendo Juntos, a local Latino advocacy group. Others received letters of opposition to the bill from organziations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Association of University Women, the American Legion, and the Jefferson Area Board on Aging. However, these letters were forgeries, expressing opinions diametrically opposed to some of the organizations’ goals.

The organizations caught wind of the forgery, prompting a congressional investigation. The culprit was found to be a DC-based Public Relations firm, Bonner and Associates, subcontracted by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE). Bonner and Associates President Jack Bonner testified before Congress’s House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, blaming the whole incident on a single, anonymous, temporary employee who had since been fired.

The forgery was not discovered until after the votes were cast. Though the measure closely passed  (50%-49%), President of the ACCCE Steve Miller testified that he and Bonner both knew of the forgeries two days before the vote.

Bonner and Associates was dropped by ACCCE shortly thereafter, but no legal consequences came to either party.


5. Coal Industry’s “Information Council on the Environment” knowingly lies about climate change

examples of ICE's advertising campaigns

examples of ICE’s advertising campaigns against climate science

 Before the ACCCE, US coal’s climate lobby was the Information Council on the Environment (ICE). Leaked internal documents from 1991 reveal a targeted campaign designed to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)” and to “use a spokesman from the scientific community”, because the message would be better received coming from someone perceived as knowledgeable. They sought to target young women in general, because they would be “more receptive” to new information regarding climate change than their male counterparts. ICE’s advertising likened those who discussed global warming to “Chicken Little” or to those who thought the Earth was flat. Ultimately, the group was short-lived, being discovered as a front for the coal industry the same year it was established.

However, almost a decade later, the coal industry showed no remorse for having deliberately misled the public: Fred Palmer, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for Peabody Energy (a top player in US coal power), said in 1999 that “it is unfortunate that ICE did not go forward” because it brought a “dramatic turnaround in how people viewed the issue of global warming”.


6. The American Legislative Exchange Council’s continued commitment to climate deception

A 2013 protest against ALEC in Washington, D.C.

A 2013 protest against ALEC in Washington, D.C.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) stands for “limited government, free markets, and federalism”, and serves as a crucial avenue for the fossil fuel industry to misinform legislators and citizens about the realities of climate change.

ALEC’s official position on climate change terms it a “historical phenomenon”, which ignores and trivializes the vast scientific consensus that humans are a major driving force behind the threat. ALEC has been working against climate progress since the 90s and is listed on the API “victory roadmap” memo from 1998 as a “fund allocator”.

Notable speakers at their annual meetings include Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Insitute, who claimed at their 2014 meeting that “there is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change”, and called the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the foremost international authority on the subject, “not a credible source of science or economics”. Another speaker told the audience that “the scientific reality is that on virtually every claim—from A to Z—the claims of the promoters of manmade climate fears are falling short or going in the opposite direction”, a claim which flies in the face of the facts.

Today, ALEC sponsors bills to scale back or outright repeal existing renewable energy standards, increase the usage of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technology, insert climate misinformation into school textbooks, and oppose the imposition of “cap-and-trade” emissions plans. According to the UCS report, “roughly 30 fossil fuel companies and trade associations remain supporters, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Peabody Energy, and Shell…ExxonMobil donated at least $1.6 million to ALEC over the last decade.”


7. Global Climate Coalition’s 1995 “primer” shows industry’s willful subversion of climate realities

"could you kindly rephrase that in equivocal, innacurate, vague, self-serving and roundabout terms that we can all understand?"

“Could you kindly rephrase that in equivocal, inaccurate, vague, self-serving and roundabout terms that we can all understand?” Cartoon by Justin Bilicki

In 1995, the “Global Climate Coalition” (GCC), an organization with members across the major fossil fuel companies, funded a study into climate change to gauge the threat to their industry. The team, led by Mobil chemist Leonard S. Bernstein, returned with exactly the opposite of what the industry wanted to hear: “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 and cannot be denied”. The report also refuted several popular contrarian claims. These included, interestingly enough, claims that solar variability was the culprit, making the industry’s recent funding of Dr. Willie Soon all the more egregious.

In the context of the previous dossiers, this finding makes it indisputable that the major players of the fossil fuel industry were fully aware of the truth about climate change while they were funding the misleading research of Dr. Willie Soon, paying lobbying groups hand over fist to sow doubt and misinformation among legislators and citizens alike about climate change science, and sabotaging legislation designed to mitigate and address the pressing issue of humanity’s contribution to climate change.


The UCS’s recommendations in proceeding:

The UCS closes the report with recommendations for how to undo or mitigate the damage done by the past decades of misinformation. In short, the industry should:

  1. Be expected to cease spreading misinformation about climate change immediately, much in the same fashion as tobacco companies are expected to acknowledge the dangers of their product.
  2. Show support for fair, cost-effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  3. Reduce emissions from current operations, and adjust business models if necessary to prepare for future global emissions limits
  4. Pay their share of the costs of climate damages and preparedness
  5. Fully disclose the risks (financial and physical) of climate change to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to their shareholders

Now, digest that.

Several grave allegations have been made against the fossil fuel industry in the UCS report. The aim of this article is not to endorse everything that was written in the report, nor to call an angry mob to assault Exxon’s headquarters, but to outline what was written in the report in a (somewhat) quicker and easier to read format. The report comes with 16 pages of primary documents and references, should you be interested in further digging.