The "Smoke and Mirrors" of the Fossil Fuel Industry
Alex "Solar Girl" Steele
If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember back when there used to be commercials emphasizing the “benefits” of smoking cigarettes. Big tobacco would make wild claims about their products - from marketing cigarettes as “soothing for the throat” to spinning them as a weight loss aid, for decades they used deceptive advertising techniques to trick consumers into thinking their products were not only safe, but actually healthy! After decades of blatant dishonesty from big tobacco, eventually federal regulation got involved and forced them to stop the most explicit lies, but this didn’t stop the industry from lobbying policy makers to open up loopholes for them to avoid penalties and continue their shady practices. As recently as 2017, tobacco lobbyists paid $21.8 million to federal candidates and political committees. It can be rather disheartening to acknowledge the corruption between big tobacco and our lawmakers, but unfortunately the tobacco industry is not the only sector in the pockets of our nation’s leaders.
As longtime supporters of clean energy, we’ve been disappointed to see the fossil fuel industry take notes from big tobacco’s corruption playbook, time after time. In this edition of the Solar Wolf blog, we wanted to scratch the surface on the shady practices of the fossil fuel industry over the years. There’s no way we can fit all their lies and misinformation into one article, but we want to start to paint a picture that illustrates just how badly the entire world has been misled by oil and gas corporations, for generations.
These findings are not new - over 10 years ago, in 2007, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report detailing the correlation between big tobacco’s “manufactured uncertainty” campaigns and the tactics used by the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt on findings that linked oil and gas consumption to climate change. This report, titled Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science lists a number of eerie similarities between the way the world’s second largest public energy company has denied the reality of scientific research which confirms the impact burning fossil fuels has on our planet, and the callous dismissal of research which proved smoking causes cancer perpetuated by big tobacco.
The top five deceptive schemes highlighted by the UCS report include manufacturing uncertainty, laundering information, paying off spokespeople with scientific credentials to promote their lies, shifting focus away from plans to take action on climate change, and leveraging political influence to block federal policies aimed at addressing pollution and global warming. We’ll go into detail on each tactic below.
Manufacturing Uncertainty: Raising Doubts About Sound Science
This tactic has been utilized by opponents of environmental and public health regulations for decades, and despite the relatively small amount of funding it takes to execute uncertainty campaigns, they have been surprisingly effective. Originally formulated by tobacco manufacturer Brown & Williamson, this plan relied on disputing findings and spreading doubts about scientific research, to confuse and misguide the public. Their philosophy was simple:
“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
Essentially, this strategy poked holes in the declarations of scientists by responding to their findings with “...But how do we know for sure? How do we know we can trust the science?” Big tobacco manufactured uncertainty to discourage the public from believing health professionals about the risks of cancer and other diseases caused by cigarettes, and big oil has masterfully replicated their practice to discourage the public from believing that fossil fuels contribute to climate change.
In the late 1990’s the scientific community had settled it: all of the peer-reviewed research confirmed that human-produced emissions were responsible for global warming, and governments from the world’s leading developed nations came together to begin planning emission reduction action. In response to this, ExxonMobil assisted in the formation of the Global Climate Science Team, which was staffed by petroleum industry representatives and even a former member of tobacco giant Phillip Morris’ “Advancement of Sound Science Coalition”, created in the early 90’s to cast doubt on the medical research that illustrated the risks of secondhand smoke. This task force went on to set up a number of organizations that would publish already-discredited research, platform only those scientists who promoted “findings” that would conflict with the prevailing scientific paradigm, and cherry-picking statistics to match their pre-selected conclusions, instead of letting research speak for itself. By creating so many shadow organizations to parrot their anti-science propaganda, ExxonMobil wove an intricate web to make their lies appear legitimate and supported by a diverse range of independent interests.
Information Laundering: Promoting Lies while Bashing Truth
In order to construct an air of credibility while spreading their misinformation, fossil fuel giants passed money through hundreds of nonprofit organizations around the world, in exchange for them putting climate science denial on their agenda. Through this tactic, ExxonMobil was able to build a support group that would disseminate their propaganda and give more weight to their claims. Between 1996 and 2005, the corporation donated approximately $16 million to various nonprofits that explicitly promoted anti-science disinformation about climate change. Some of the organizations that profited off upholding ExxonMobil’s lies include the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, American Council for Capital Formation Center for Policy Research, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, the International Policy Network, and hundreds more.
Promoting “Scientific” Spokespeople to Corroborate Dishonest Claims
In order to convince a substantial portion of the population that the assertions of unbiased, objectively correct climate scientists shouldn’t be trusted, ExxonMobil carefully cultivated a team of scientists who could be swayed to promote research which conflicted with the prevailing paradigm. Some of these scientists, including Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, were astrophysicists who studied solar variation. They were paid to write articles suggesting that fluctuations in solar activity were actually responsible for global warming, not fossil fuel emissions.
By platforming scientists who were experts in fields such as astrophysics, but had no background in climate science, ExxonMobil was able to dilute the discourse on legitimate findings related to anthropogenic climate change, and encourage people to trust the speculation of scientists who were completely unfamiliar with the information that confirmed the reality of anthropogenic climate change.
Shifting Focus: Distracting from Plans to Take Action
As part of a last-ditch effort to slow or stop the rollout of policy that would seek to curtail fossil fuel emissions and mitigate climate change, ExxonMobil constantly demanded more “sound science” around climate research. This was always a red herring, as the science confirming the seriousness of anthropogenic actions exacerbating global warming has long been settled. However, just like big tobacco made it their business to distract from medical warnings about the risks of smoking as much as possible, the fossil fuel industry followed in their footsteps. As it became more and more challenging to directly dispute the replicable experiments proving that fossil fuel emissions worsen climate change, ExxonMobil changed their tune, and instead started suggesting that maybe “scientists don’t know enough about global warming yet” to justify establishing policy that would regulate emissions.
In 2005, 11 international scientific academies issued a joint statement on having established a strong body of evidence to encourage global leaders to take action on reducing carbon emissions. They stated:
“The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action. It is vital that all nations identify cost-effective steps that they can take now to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions.”
In response to that, ExxonMobil posted the following statement on their website:
“While assessments such as those of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] have expressed growing confidence that recent warming can be attributed to increases in greenhouse gases, these conclusions rely on expert judgment rather than objective, reproducible statistical methods. Taken together, gaps in the scientific basis for theoretical
climate models and the interplay of significant natural variability make it very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate changes might be the result of human actions.”
As you can see, despite repeated confirmation that fossil fuel emissions absolutely contribute to climate change, oil and gas giants do everything in their power to loudly dispute replicated research and sound assertions of hypotheses. Even when they have absolutely no evidence in their favor, simply planting seeds of skepticism and doubt is incredibly effective when it’s coming from a massive corporation with trillions of dollars to pay scientists, nonprofits, and “independent advocacy groups” to agree with them.
Leveraging Political Influence: Lining the Pockets of Our Leaders
When spreading lies and vocally disputing established science just didn’t cut it anymore, fossil fuel companies’ ace in the hole was dumping as much money as they could into the pockets of politicians and governmental agencies to win preferential treatment. As we stated in the introduction, tobacco lobbyists shelled out an impressive $21.8 million in 2017 to federal candidates and political committees. This figure pales in comparison to how much fossil fuel lobbyists spent in the 2020 midterm elections - an unbelievable $359 million during the 2020 midterms alone! Billions more than that have been funnelled into our government by big oil and gas over the years, and this money has always been spent in a calculated fashion. In exchange for their massive donations, the fossil fuel industry receives generous tax breaks, protection from investigations and lawsuits, and promises that mandates surrounding the regulation of fossil fuel emissions will be postponed or cut out of bills entirely.
The incestuous relationships that fossil fuel lobbyists from corporations like ExxonMobil have forged with government officials has allowed them to prevent more aggressive climate change action from becoming a primary agenda item for decades. In fact, Paula Dobrianksy, who was the undersecretary for global affairs in the State Department under the Bush Administration, stated that President George W. Bush refused to honor commitments made during the 2001 Kyoto Protocol negotiations in Buenos Aires and Montreal in part due to input from ExxonMobil and associated organization lobbyists. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, it was revealed that she thanked ExxonMobil lobbyist Randy Randol and his colleagues for input on global warming policy strategy. She stated, “POTUS [the President of the United States] rejected Kyoto, in part, based on input from you.”
Don’t believe for a moment, that when you hear a politician disperse doubt about climate change, that they’re objectively informed and genuinely want to contribute to free and fair discourse. Whether they know it or not, they have likely been influenced in some way by the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda and disinformation!
This summary barely encompasses the depths of corruption and deceit levelled by massively powerful fossil fuel corporations, but it does start to reveal some of their shady tactics. Next time you read an article that casts doubt on well-established scientific knowledge, or hear a public servant promote a claim about climate science that has already been dismissed as false, consider doing a little bit of research on the source of that information. Is the news source you’re reading from sponsored by an “independent research institution” with ties to big oil? Has the politician you’re listening to been receiving donations from a fossil fuel PAC? Unfortunately, in order to stay profitable and relevant, large oil and gas corporations are using all of the resources at their disposal to keep people confused and ignorant about the facts we’ve learned from scientific research on climate. Always do your due diligence, and maintain a skeptic’s curiosity!