How the fossil fuels industry and the Bush administration each sought to suppress and confuse the science on global warming.
In the spring of 1998, The New York Times uncovered an eight-page "action plan" (PDF file) detailing plans by parties within the American energy industry to derail the Kyoto Protocol. At the time, then-President Bill Clinton and his deputies were pushing to get the United States, the top generator of heat-trapping atmospheric pollution, to ratify the landmark treaty. Citing concern about the economic costs of meeting Kyoto's required greenhouse gas reductions, representatives from Exxon, Chevron, a key oil industry trade group called the American Petroleum Institute, major electricity generator Southern Company and several conservative think tanks developed the memo.
Unveiled by the Times in a front-page story, the document laid bare a sophisticated multi-million dollar scheme to influence the discourse on global warming over a span of years. The key? Tapping scientists to express skepticism about climate change and developing a sophisticated media and public outreach campaign to get that message out to the public.
Investing In Uncertainty
The action plan memo describes a strategy that had been used effectively by the tobacco industry in earlier years: attack the science. "Because the science underpinning the global climate change theory has not been challenged effectively in the media or through other vehicles reaching the American public," states the memo. "[T]here is widespread ignorance, which works in favor of the Kyoto treaty and against the best interests of the United States."
The coalition sought to recruit five scientists to speak to the media, distribute research papers undercutting conventional scientific wisdom, funnel a steady stream of information to science writers at newspapers and magazines, produce opinion pieces authored by scientists, and convince journalists to re-examine the theory of global warming. Scuttling Kyoto and making climate change a "non-issue" were the stated goals of all this work.
In the years following the plan's development, at least one oil company made good on the document's goals. According to a 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists report (PDF file), Exxon, which since merged with Mobil to form ExxonMobil, "has funneled about $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of ideological and advocacy organizations that manufacture uncertainty on the issue." Large amounts of funding from ExxonMobil went to some of the same groups who helped develop the "action plan" memo.
Many of these organizations, in turn, funded scientists who dispute the reality of global warming or who argue that warming temperatures will be a positive force. In the past seven years, these scientists became regulars on talk shows and news programs about the global warming debate.
A Major Turnaround
In the past two years, as agreement on global warming has cemented among climatologists, members of the oil industry lobby have begun to soften their public message about climate change and global warming.
ExxonMobil was one of the last holdouts and as recently as 2005 gave large grants to various organizations mentioned in the memo. According to the UCS Report, $241,500 went to the American Legislative Exchange Council (AELC), which works to fight state and local initiatives to combat global warming. Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) got $270,000.
But in early 2007, ExxonMobil announced a major reversal, saying publicly that they would stop funding some of the groups that question global warming science. A ExxonMobil Europe Web site says: "ExxonMobil's position on climate change continues to be misunderstood by some individuals and groups."
"We know our climate is changing, the average temperature of the earth is rising, and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing," said ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson "Our industry has a responsibility to contribute to policy debates and to take concrete steps to reduce emissions."
In the past five years, even as energy industry groups were changing their public position about climate change, the federal government was acting to influence scientific discussion in controversial ways. Since President Bush took office, government climate change experts at a range of federal agencies have complained that administration officials have attempted to bar them from bringing grim news about rising temperatures, increased potential storm activity and other data to the public.
The alleged tactics have prompted at least one science official, Rick Piltz to resign in protest. Piltz was a Senior Associate at the Climate Change Science Program, the body that oversees climate research by 13 different government agencies. Since quitting he has testified repeatedly before Congress, and he now heads a nonprofit group dedicated to "setting the record straight on the relationship between science and politics in the federal climate science program."
And even as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 report removes what little scientific doubt remained, the U.S. President and Vice President remain unconvinced. At a press conference last year the president told a reporter that the "fundamental debate" was whether climate change was "manmade or natural." Vice President Dick Cheney echoed that view in a recent interview with ABC News.