It takes a lot to defy common sense on a global scale, all to benefit one industry. But for decades, fossil fuel interests have done just that, running a sophisticated and sprawling network of well-funded think tanks and front groups with one goal: Stop any real climate action, no matter the cost to billions.
In 1964, US Surgeon General Luther Terry released a landmark report that would drastically change American society. Having reviewed over 7,000 articles on smoking and disease, he confidently concluded that cigarettes were indeed causing a lung cancer epidemic that was impossible to ignore.
This reality may have dismayed tobacco industry executives, but it definitely didn’t stop them from carrying on business as usual.
In fact, in a radical effort to protect their product, cigarette companies launched a massive misinformation campaign that successfully shrouded the truth for years. These companies used their soaring budgets to create industrial-grade doubt, suppressing life-saving science in the process.
The craziest part of that story? That today the exact same scenario is unfolding before our eyes. Fossil fuel interests are using the same strategies (and even strategists!) that the cigarette industry once used to deceive the public and protect their profits.
The difference? This time around, it’s not just smokers’ lives in danger. It’s everyone’s – and the stakes could not be higher. Just as this past June and July were recorded as the hottest ever, the climate denial machine continues to churn out junk-science, protecting what should be a fossilized dirty-energy industry.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DENIAL MACHINE
If that was a surprise, now might be a good time to grab your seat. The shocking truth is that this denial machine has been shaping public and political opinion on climate change since the 1970s.
It all began with Exxon Mobil.
Decades ago, the company’s own scientists confirmed that carbon emissions were indeed warming our planet. As an internal report produced by Exxon researcher James Black from 1978 states, “A doubling of carbon dioxide is estimated to be capable of increasing the average global temperature by from 1° to 3°C, with a 10°C rise predicted at the poles.”
Realizing that their product was on the line, Exxon Mobil began pushing forward a multimillion-dollar misinformation campaign to cast doubt on well-established science. So well-established in fact, even all those decades ago, that the company was using the same climate models it publicly attacked to plan future operations in the Arctic — a region they knew would become cheaper to drill as temperatures rose and sea ice rapidly melted.
Exxon might have been a pioneering denier, but they were not alone. As the 1980s and 1990s carried on, a slew of other corporations joined this war against science.
Notably, at a 1980 American Petroleum Institute meeting, representatives from companies including Exxon, Texaco, and Shell concluded that as a “likely impact,” by 2005 we would see 1 degree Celsius of warming. They also concluded that by 2038 we would see 2.5 degrees of warming causing “major economic consequences,” and that by 2067 we would face a 5 degree rise with “globally catastrophic effects.”
In spite of knowing that, for every action the world took to address the crisis, the fossil fuel industry presented an equal and opposite reaction – constantly finding new ways to cloud the truth. Ultimately, these efforts produced the deeply-rooted denial machine we face today.
HOW IT ALL WORKS
It’s not easy to shape public opinion when the facts are against you. So, the industry began attacking the facts, creating an alternate universe where decades of rising CO2 and rising temperatures had nothing to do with each other and scientists who claimed that we had to act were alarmists not to be trusted.
Getting enough people to join them in that universe, well, that took some work.
Their effort ultimately produced a full-on denial machine: a huge, sprawling network of talking heads, front groups, and faux-research built to persuade people that we have nothing to worry about.
To understand how it all comes together, it’s worth looking at the four key parts.
(1) The Fuel: Fossil Fuel Industry Funding
In order to run, any machine needs fuel. In the case of this denial machine, that fuel is money – and lots of it. The source? A fossil fuel industry that desperately wants to prolong our dependence on its product.
Given that so many of the world’s most profitable companies produce oil, coal, or natural gas, it should be no surprise that these companies have plenty of “fuel” to keep the denial machine running.
To be exact, a 2019 Influence Map report found that “the five largest publicly-traded oil and gas majors (ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, and Total) have invested over $1Bn of shareholder funds in the three years following the Paris Agreement on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying.”
It’s clear that this climate denial machine isn’t running out of funds soon – that is, unless we do something about it.
(2) The Story: Right-Wing Think Tanks
It’s all but a truism these days that if you really want to change someone’s mind in a big way, you don’t give them a single fact or point to a contradiction in an argument. You tell them a story that gives them a new worldview.
That’s exactly what the fossil fuel industry tried to do. Only it had to look respectable. If the industry wanted to discredit real science that said troubling things about its product, it had to create an alternative worldview with something that looked like science.
Something that said: burning fossil fuels isn’t the cause of rising temperatures, and even if it is, it really isn’t that bad.
Creating this worldview came down to the faux-research and white papers of right-wing anti-environmental regulation think tanks. Groups like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Heartland Institute, which are funded and often even created by fossil fuel companies, produce the “science” the machine shows the world to rationalize its actions.
As Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center noted, “you can definitely credit Exxon and Koch brothers’ money for giving the think tanks the megaphone to keep climate science denial in the world.”
Without fake research to frame denial, how else could the industry even pretend to fight real science? Knowing the reason why these think tanks exist, it’s not surprising that “90% of skeptical or denialist climate change papers in the United States originate from right-wing think tanks.” The sole purpose behind many of these groups is, after all, producing that skepticism.
(3) The Veneer of Respectability: Climate Denier Scientists
The fossil fuel industry didn’t stop with think tanks. It even directly funded scientists who deny climate change.
As a Washington Post article explains, “in the 1990s, oil companies, fossil fuel industry trade groups and their respective PR firms began positioning contrarian scientists such as Willie Soon, William Happer and David Legates as experts whose opinions on climate change should be considered equal and opposite to that of climate scientists.”
A vital part of the denial machine really was, and continues to be, these contrarian climate scientists. Vital, because it works. After all, for most people with busy lives who don’t spend every minute focused on climate, seeing a name or face in the news with “Scientist” or “PhD” attached is enough to give their opinion a veneer of respectability.
The contrarian voice of these funded-skeptics hides the fact that basically the entire scientific community agrees the crisis is real and caused by humans, promoting the myth of disagreement.
(4) The Illusion of Support: Front Groups and Astroturf Organizations
Once the fossil fuel industry has built a foundation of fraud-science on which to stand, it proceeds to spread that misinformation as far and wide as possible. The problem it faces, however, is that it must do so discreetly and away from the eyes of the public.
That’s where front groups and astroturfing enters the picture.
In order to appear uninvolved with the spread of climate-change denial, the machine deploys groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to lobby and petition on its behalf. Using the fake science that right-wing think tanks produce, these third-party groups push pro-fossil fuel policies on government officials at every level, all across the US.
Astroturf groups use a similar strategy, but instead their main purpose is to simulate public disdain. This tactic gives the false illusion that far more people oppose climate solutions like wind and carbon pricing than actually do.
Regardless of their different approaches, both of these groups serve one purpose: to push forward the agenda of the fossil fuel interests that fund them. They may be who we see opposing climate action, but Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Gas are the ones pulling the strings.
THE MACHINE IN MOTION
So, with this knowledge, what are some examples of the climate denial machine acting in our world?
The Koch-funded think tank Heartland Institute is a prime example. One stunning step it’s taken is creating the NIPCC: a denier-scientist spinoff of the world-renowned IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). It’s got the official-looking acronym that could easily fool someone into thinking it’s a legitimate organization speaking for the scientific community. Only problem is – as The Government Accountability Project notes – it has no real legitimacy or science:
“The discredited Heartland Institute is attempting to present its new NIPCC report, Climate Change Reconsidered, as a legitimate alternative authority to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the NIPCC report is not a credible scientific undertaking, and the Heartland Institute has no credibility, scientific or otherwise.”
We really couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Observing another Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity, also shows the climate denial machine in action. This organization, which carries out textbook “astroturfing” (pretending to be a people-driven grassroots movement), is a front for its funders and creators — the oil and gas industry.
The New York Times describes how “Koch controls a ‘boots on the ground’ army in the form of Americans for Prosperity, a network of employees and volunteers who knock on doors, attend rallies to protest climate change legislation, and visit the offices of any lawmakers who seem likely to cross Koch Industries.”
These organizations, which disguise themselves as advocates for the rights of average people, are just extensions of the fossil-fuel industry’s recklessly anti-regulation agenda.
If groups like the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity really were built by people and for people, they wouldn’t support trading the hospitable climate we all depend on to prolong a lucrative business climate for so few.
Funding groups like these is ultimately how Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Gas continue obstructing urgently-needed emissions reductions – all while remaining hidden behind the scenes.