More than half of the carbon dioxide ever created by humans has been released into the atmosphere since 1988.
That was the year NASA climate scientist James Hansen told Congress that global warming was already under way and burning fossil fuels was the primary cause. Hansen’s testimony catapulted climate change from a low-key scientific specialty and the subject of obscure Capitol Hill committee hearings onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.
The oil, gas, and coal industries knew Hansen and his peers had the facts straight, but they responded with years of efforts to undercut carbon-cutting regulations—mostly by creating doubts about climate science, especially the link between burning fossil fuels and rising global temperatures.
So, Why Should You Care? The fruits of these campaigns to distort the scientific findings about global warming are thriving in 2015. As the stunt Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., recently pulled on the Senate floor with a snowball vividly demonstrates, the national conversation is still stuck on arguing about settled science rather than discussing and debating how the U.S. will respond.
A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, released Wednesday, backs up its charges that “many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have knowingly worked to deceive the public about the realities and risks of climate change” with decades of internal industry documentation of those campaigns.
Here are three high points from the report:
1. At least one major oil company knew the risks of climate change three decades ago but denied them in public.
Exxon was considering climate risks in its energy prospecting operations as far back as the 1980s but went on to spend tens of millions of dollars to create doubt about the reality of global warming—and succeeded in derailing strong climate policies in the United States for decades.
How we know: Thanks to an email that Lenny Bernstein, a veteran chemical engineer and onetime staff climate expert for Exxon, wrote to an academic researcher last year. Bernstein told Alyssa Bernstein of Ohio University that in the early 1980s, Exxon began to consider tapping into Southeast Asia’s biggest natural gas deposit off the coast of Indonesia.
But in 1989, Bernstein wrote, he warned the company that if it developed the gas field, the project would become the world’s single largest point source for atmospheric carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming.
“In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness,” Bernstein wrote in the email. “Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue.”
2. Years after acknowledging privately that the links between human activities and climate change were proven, major oil firms including Exxon and Mobil (premerger), Chevron, Shell, and BP continued to argue that there was “unsettled science” about this connection.
How we know: In 2009, a “primer” from a fossil energy industry trade group called the Global Climate Coalition was leaked to The New York Times.
The guide, written in 1995 for the trade group’s members, used work by its own scientists to affirm that 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.” It then went on to describe strategies for creating doubt about these facts among the public, the media, and lawmakers.
The GCC dissolved in 2002.
3. Despite the increasing severity of climate change impacts in the U.S. and around the world, industry campaigns to distort the realities around global warming and fossil fuels have not stopped.
How we know: A 2014 presentation by the Western States Petroleum Association, a powerful oil industry trade group, describes more than a dozen astroturf groups “activated” to challenge climate action policies in Western states.
With names such as Californians for Energy Independence, Fed Up at the Pump, and Kern Citizens for Energy, these groups sounded like grassroots efforts. “At least two of the front groups set up by WSPA…launched aggressive public relations campaigns in 2014, including radio ads and billboards,” reported the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Their efforts were credited with helping to convince 15 Democrats in the California Assembly to argue, in June 2014, that the policy placing transportation fuels under the state’s carbon cap should be postponed,” the group found, although the effort to exclude them ultimately failed.