The biggest story of the decade was orchestrated climate denial
A tribute to fossil fuel accountability reporting.
don’t want a lot for Christmas.
Theeeere is just one thing I need.
I don’t care about impeachment.
Or Russia’s economyyyy.
I just want it to be known
Climate change is here, full-blown.
(Seriously. Look at Australia.)
What can we all do?
Make the front page story:
They knewwww, baby!
Credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr
As we approach the end of the decade, I wanted to reflect on what I think is the most important climate story of the last 10 years: The quiet, concerted effort by fossil fuel interests to conceal and deny climate science, for the purposes of preventing climate action.
This effort has been ongoing for the last three decades. But we didn’t really know about it until this last one. Indeed, for 25 years—until the middle of this last decade—the majority of the public truly believed there was a legitimate scientific debate to be had over whether global warming was real and human-caused.
The existence of this debate allowed the public to take their minds off the problem. If they weren’t sure climate change was real; if they weren’t sure it was dangerous; if they weren’t sure it was human-caused; then they weren’t sure anything needed to be done. Better to let the experts hash it out, and focus on other things.
But the 2010s have revealed that the climate debate was never legitimate. In fact, it was manufactured by moneyed interests who knew the science was certain. They knew that fossil fuels were causing dangerous warming of the planet. They just didn’t want to be made to do anything about it, because doing something would mean sacrificing short-term profit.
We have journalists to thank for exposing this campaign—most notably, InsideClimate News reporters Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer. In 2015, they released the results of an eight-month investigation into ExxonMobil, titled Exxon: The Road Not Taken. Their series, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was the first to document in great detail how an oil company discovered that their products were helping cause dangerous warming of the planet—and how instead of changing its business model to prevent such warming, the company decided to spend millions promoting misinformation about it.
This reporting sparked a sea change in climate journalism, and in public understanding of the climate crisis. I love the letter InsideClimate News publisher David Sassoon wrote to the Pulitzer judges in 2016 explaining the impact of their series. It cites widespread news coverage, multiple fraud investigations launched into Exxon, and even a Doonesbury comic strip. (I encourage you to click the above link and read it in full. Also, look at the comic).
Sassoon’s 2016 letter, however, also noted that Exxon was mounting a campaign to push back against InsideClimate’s reporting. “Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s chairman and CEO, went on Fox News to deny our stories,” the letter read. “Company executives visited newspaper editorial boards across the country, and used the company’s blog and social media to claim, without specifics, that our reports were false and inaccurate.”
However, the letter also added, “Exxon has not asked us to make a single correction, nor has it questioned the authenticity of the documents we published.” And since InsideClimate’s reporting, over a dozen lawsuits have been filed against Exxon, most seeking compensation for climate damages. (Exxon recently won a fraud case in New York, which you can read about in this NPR article).
But Exxon wasn’t alone in its effort to conceal science and delay action. Indeed, this last decade has provided a wealth of journalism holding powerful institutions accountable for trying to delay action on the climate crisis.
Later in 2015, for example, InsideClimate published another story revealing that The American Petroleum Institute—the trade association for America’s oil companies—
“ran a task force to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983, indicating that the oil industry, not just Exxon alone, was aware of its possible impact on the world's climate far earlier than previously known.” Companies implicated included “Amoco, Phillips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio as well as Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil, the predecessors to Chevron.”
The coal industry was aware it was causing dangerous warming too, a 2019 HuffPost investigation revealed. Its knowledge dated all the way back to 1966.
Fossil fuel companies have also had tons of help spreading disinformation about the dire nature of the climate crisis from political figures, media companies, and fossil fuel-adjacent industries. In 2019, journalist Christopher Leonard published a book called Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, which showed how the Koch Brothers in particular facilitated the effort.
The climate information campaign launched over the last decade has been powerful. It’s helped most of the American public realize that there is no legitimate scientific debate over whether climate change is real and human-caused. We are now sure that it’s happening; sure that it’s dangerous; and millions across the world are demanding climate action like never before.
But that doesn’t mean the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaign has been defeated—or that other entities aren’t still helping climate disinformation spread.
Just look at what happens, for example, when you type “Exxon Knew story” into Google. The first result is an Exxon ad. The second result is an opinion article defending Exxon from an energy industry engineer. The third is the Exxon propaganda David Sassoon cited in his letter to the Pulitzer board, which attempts to discredit InsideClimate News journalists.
Today, oil companies like Exxon and Chevron and Shell spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on ads in places like Google, Facebook, and our most trusted media institutions, trying to convince the public that they’ve never lied and that they shouldn’t have to pay. They advertise their commitment to climate action and environmental responsibility, while funding trade groups and conservative think tanks that promote climate inaction at all costs. They insist they’re good-faith actors, while matter-of-factly predicting future carbon emissions that would sentence millions of humans and animals to suffer and die.
The last time fossil fuel companies mounted a disinformation campaign like this, it look us 25 years to realize what was happening. Hopefully, the 2020s will prove that we can learn from our mistakes.
OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!
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See you next year.
Thanks for the update, Emily--Happy Hanukkah (if appropriate) or Merry Christmas (if appropriate), and Happy New Year!
Thanks for keeping the light on the big oil companies. Someday, I hope that they face criminal sanctions for their actions.
Have a great holiday, keep warm, and be safe! :)