‘Truth Has Nothing to Do With Who Wins the Argument’: New Details on Big Oil’s Campaign to Defeat Climate Action
It was the 1990s, and scientific understanding of how burning fossil fuels would change the Earth’s climate was mounting.
So, too, was a chorus of voices telling a different story.
In op-eds, speeches and on TV, a small group of scientists spread a message of doubt. There was no reason to take “precipitous” and “expensive” action while the science was so uncertain, they argued. Some even claimed that rising carbon dioxide could be beneficial for the planet.
They seemed to be independent scientists, engaged in a legitimate scientific debate. But as the above excerpt from the first episode of FRONTLINE’s three-part documentary series The Power of Big Oil shows, some were receiving funding and amplification from the fossil fuel industry, in its efforts to engineer a shift in policymakers’ and the public’s understanding of climate change.
Through new documents and exclusive, on-camera interviews, Denial, the first episode of The Power of Big Oil, reveals the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to forestall action on climate change and to sow seeds of doubt. Among those efforts was the media campaign spearheaded by the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an industry group comprising major fossil fuel companies, trade associations and corporate consumers of fossil fuels.
In the early 1990s, the GCC put out a bid for a PR firm to provide communications services. The account was won by E. Bruce Harrison Company, a boutique firm specializing in environmental issues.
The contribution of public relations firms to the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long efforts to block and delay action on climate change is only beginning to come into focus. In the above excerpt from the documentary, two former E. Bruce Harrison Company employees, Terry Yosie and Don Rheem, speak out for the first time on camera about their roles working for the GCC.
Yosie, a senior vice president from 1992 to 1997 at E. Bruce Harrison Company, reads from the company’s communications proposal, a never-before-reported internal document from August 1993 that offers important new evidence of how the company, and the GCC, envisioned its strategy: “It is important for GCC to continue to emphasize the scientific uncertainty surrounding climate change. … Scientists, economists, academics, and other noted experts carry greater credibility with the media and general public than industry representatives. … The communication efforts should be directed toward expanding the platform for third party spokespersons. …”
Yosie explains that “the idea behind a third party is that you form a relationship with somebody who already has some stature or standing around a particular topic, in this case climate change, and you recruit that person, you pay that person, to give a speech or write an op-ed. The Global Climate Coalition would do the background work of placing that op-ed or maybe editing it.”
Don Rheem — account manager for the GCC at E. Bruce Harrison Company, where he worked from 1993 to 1997 — identified scientists who could put forward arguments of uncertainty and inaction in the media.
“I met some really brilliant climatologists and meteorologists,” he says.
Among them was Professor Patrick Michaels, a self-described “climate lukewarmer” who was recruited to the GCC’s Scientific Advisory Board.
In the 1990s, Michaels received funding from a variety of fossil fuel interests. He told FRONTLINE the funding did not impact his view that climate change would not be nearly as catastrophic as scientists and environmentalists argued it would be.
“No, I was using them,” he told FRONTLINE when asked if he felt manipulated by the industry. “Can you imagine somebody giving you a little bit of money to say, ‘Write whatever you want every two weeks’? We had a blast doing that. We weren’t doing what we were told; we were doing what we wanted.”
Rheem, meanwhile, was writing “backgrounders” for journalists whom he says were “struggling with the complexity of the issue,” presenting the GCC’s position that the science was fraught with uncertainty.
“Was there truth in all the materials? Yes, there was,” Rheem tells FRONTLINE in the above clip. “There was a lot we didn’t know at the time. And part of my role was to highlight what we didn’t know. It wasn’t just that we — that is, the Global Climate Coalition — needed to come up with contrarian voices. The media needed them to have balance.”
While the GCC was “seeding doubt” and “fogging the air,” environmentalists had no idea what was hitting them, says John Passacantando, then executive director of Ozone Action.
“You wanna make an assumption that it’s a meritocracy: A good argument will prevail, and it will displace a bad argument,” he says. “But what the geniuses of the PR firms who work for these big, big fossil fuel companies know is that truth has nothing to do with who wins the argument.”
Passacantando adds, “If you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it.”
For the full story, watch The Power of Big Oil, Part One: Denial, above. The three-part series from FRONTLINE examines the fossil fuel industry’s history of casting doubt and delaying action on climate change and premieres Tuesdays, April 19, April 26 and May 3, 2022, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings). Each episode of the series will also be available to stream at pbs.org/frontline, in the PBS Video App and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel.
The Power of Big Oil is a FRONTLINE Production with Mongoose Pictures in association with BBC and Arte. The series producer is Dan Edge. The producer and director of episode 1 is Jane McMullen. The producer and director of episode 2 is Gesbeen Mohammad. The producer and director of episode 3 is Robin Barnwell. The editorial consultant is Russell Gold. The senior producers are James Jacoby and Eamonn Matthews. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.