In 1998, as nations around the world agreed to cut carbon emissions through the Kyoto Protocol, America’s fossil fuel companies plotted their response, including an aggressive strategy to inject doubt into the public debate.
“Victory,” according to the American Petroleum Institute’s memo, “will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science… Unless ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue… there may be no moment when we can declare victory.”
The memo, later leaked to The New York Times that year, went on to outline how fossil fuel companies could manipulate journalists and the broader public by muddying the evidence, by playing up “both sides” of the debate and by portraying those seeking to reduce emissions as “out of touch with reality.”
Nearly 25 years later, the reality of a changing climate is now clear to most Americans, as heatwaves and wildfires, rising sea levels and extreme storms become more common.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced moves intended to expand offshore wind, though he stopped short of declaring a national climate emergency. Last month’s Supreme Court decision restricted the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power stations. This means that it will fall to Congress to adopt any limits.
Despite surveys showing that the general public is more concerned about climate change ,, a large number of Americans are distrusting the scientific consensus.
” The tragedy is that this all happens on social media. You can find tens to millions of Americans believing scientists lie, even though they have proven it for years,” Naomi Oreskes (a Harvard University historian of science) said. “They’ve been persuaded by decades of disinformation. The denial is really, really deep.”
And persistent. Just last month, even with record heat in London, raging wildfires in Alaska and historic flooding in Australia, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a pro-fossil fuel thank tank, said all the scientists had it wrong.
” “There is no climate emergency,” said the group in its newsletter.
Years before COVID-19 set off a wave of misinformation, or former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election helped spur an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, fossil fuel companies spent big in an effort to undermine support for emissions reductions. Even though these same companies are now encouraging investments in renewable energy the climate disinformation legacy is still there. It’s contributed to a wider skepticism among scientists, scientific institutions, and media reporting on them. This distrust is reflected in doubts regarding vaccines or public health measures such as quarantines and masks that were used during pandemics.
“It was the opening of a Pandora’s Box of disinformation that has proven hard to control,” said Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute, an organization that has criticized oil and coal companies for withholding what they knew about the risks of climate change.
Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, as public awareness of climate change grew, fossil fuel companies poured millions of dollars into public relations campaigns denouncing the accumulating evidence supporting the idea of climate change. They funded supposedly independent think tanks that cherrypicked the science and promoted fringe views designed to make it look like there were two legitimate sides to the dispute.
Since then, the approach has softened as the impact of climate change has become more apparent. Today, fossil fuel corporations are more inclined to tout their pro-environmental records, promoting renewables such as solar and wind, or other initiatives that improve energy efficiency, or reduce carbon emissions.
Aggressive approaches to address climate change are now dismissed not on scientific grounds but on economic ones. Fossil fuel companies talk about lost jobs or higher energy prices — without mentioning the cost of doing nothing, said Ben Franta, an attorney, author and Stanford University researcher who tracks fossil fuel disinformation. We live in a multi-decade long campaign by the fossil fuel sector,” Franta stated. “The debate (over climate change) was manufactured by the fossil fuel industry in the 1990s, and we are living with that history right now.”
The impact of that history is reflected in public opinion surveys that show a growing gap between Republicans and other Americans when it comes to views on climate change.
While the percentage of overall Americans who say they’re concerned about climate change has risen, Republicans are increasingly skeptical. Last year, Gallup found that 32% of self-identified Republicans said they accepted the scientific consensus that pollution from humans is driving climate change, down from 52% in 2003.
By comparison, the percentage of self-identified Democrats that say they accept that human activities are leading to climate change increased from 68 to 88 over the same time period.
Fossil fuel companies deny any intent to mislead the American public and point to investments in renewable energy as evidence that they take climate change seriously.
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods told members of Congress last fall that his company “has long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and it has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks.” ExxonMobil’s public claims about climate change, he said, “are and have always been truthful, fact-based … and consistent” with mainstream science.
Asked about its role in spreading climate misinformation, a spokesman for the Southern Company pointed to recent expansions in renewable energy and initiatives meant to offset carbon emissions.
The American Petroleum Institute didn’t respond to requests for comment. The trade group was behind the 1998 “victory memo” that laid out the industry’s strategy to respond to concerns about climate change.
That memo is one of several documents cited by climate activists and some Democratic lawmakers who say they could be used to hold them legally responsible for misleading ratepayers, investors or the general public.
“It’s time for these companies to answer for the harm they have caused,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California.
Republicans, however, have said Democrats want to focus on climate misinformation to distract from failed environmental policies that are driving up gas and energy costs.
The post Climate disinformation leaves lasting mark as world heats appeared first on Associated Press.