Environment

Exxon's Voodoo-Science Campaign to Keep Us Hooked on Fossil Fuels

In 1988, the elegant space inhabited by principle was suddenly invaded by the indelicate demands of profit.

Photo Credit: MIke Mozart/Shutterstock

There is a constant flow of headlines these days confirming the mess we've made: "Looks Like Rain Again. And Again"; "Alaska Will Keep Melting"; "Climate Change a Worry to Central Bankers, Too"; "Warning on Climate Risk: Worst to Come."

This is far from a natural phenomenon. A handful of corporate interests are causing these catastrophes. Oil, coal, auto and a few other industrial powers have profited for decades by spewing fossil fuel contaminants into the world's atmosphere.

Some experts were speaking out about this mess nearly 40 years ago: "There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels," James Black wrote in 1978.

"Over the past several years, a clear scientific consensus has emerged," Roger Cohen said in September 1982. "There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the Earth's climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere."

The significance of these early calls to action is that they came from Exxon!

Inside Climate News revealed in an investigative series released this fall that the oil superpower (now infamous for its relentless campaign of lies to discredit climate science) was briefly a paragon of scientific integrity. From 1978 through the '80s the corporation's research headquarters was a buzzing hive of farsighted inquiry into the "greenhouse effect," as the process of climate change was then called.

But in 1988, the elegant space inhabited by principle was suddenly invaded by the indelicate demands of profit. James Hansen, NASA's renowned climate expert, testified to Congress that fossil pollution of Earth's atmosphere had already surpassed the crisis point. "Global warming has begun," Hansen concluded.

Then the United Nations' intergovernmental panel on climate change issued an authoritative study in 1990 concluding that the warming was happening and the cause was emissions from fossil fuels.

With that, Exxon dismantled and defunded its research team. Ever since, it's been the shameful, self-serving leader of a voodoo-science campaign to keep the world hooked on the fossil fuels that provide its profits.

Its strategy was to create an incessant noise machine, fueled with hundreds of millions of industry dollars, to spread the false narrative that scientists are "uncertain" about climate change. In a confidential 1998 memo, ExxonMobil's senior environmental lobbyist stated the Orwellian goal of this corporate campaign: "Victory will be achieved when... average citizens 'understand' uncertainties in climate science," and when "recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom.'"

Its many tactics included forming a lobbying combine in 1989 to sow doubt among public officials about the need for government action; placing a costly, decade-long series of essays in newspapers denigrating the very scientists it previously nurtured and the science reports that it published; and trying to get the government's chief global warming official to decry the uncertainty of climate research (then, when he refused, got the incoming Bush-Cheney regime to fire him).

Exxon also made its CEOs into hucksters of bunkum, with such lines as "the earth is cooler today than it was 20 years ago" and "it is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now" and "what if everything we do, it turns out that our (climate) models are lousy, and we don't get the (rising temperatures) we predict?"

If these denials of reality sound familiar, that's because they're exactly the same ones we're now hearing from such Einsteins as Donald Trump (who recently tweeted, "I'm in Los Angeles and it's freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax"), Ted Cruz (who claimed that climate change is a liberal plot for "massive government control of the economy ... and every aspect of our lives") and Jeb Bush (who said, "It's convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant").

The deniers are not only on the wrong side of science and history, but on the wrong side of most voters. A New York Times poll taken last January found that only 13 percent of the American people (and only 24 percent of Repubs) said they would be more likely to vote for 2016 presidential candidates who contend that climate change is a hoax and America should keep burning oil and coal. A September poll by three GOP firms found that 56 percent of Republicans agree that the climate is changing and 72 percent support accelerating the use of renewable fuels.

The real power, and our great hope, is in the people's rebellion: marches, civil disobedience, trainings, teach-ins and other actions to pressure leaders to put people and the planet over corporate profiteering, while also raising global public awareness about the crucial need to get off of fossil fuels and into renewable energy. As 350.org puts it, "Politicians aren't the only ones with power." So the coalition will be in the global streets, on the Internet, in schools, churches and all other available forums, to rally you and me to save ourselves.

Populist author and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes The Hightower Lowdown, a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America’s ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.

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