The following is an excerpt from the new book The Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Men Who Are Destroying the Planet—and How They Explain Themselves to Their Own Children by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Dick Russell (Hot Books, May 2017), available for purchase from Amazon, IndieBound, and Hot Books:
Early in October 2015, Rex Wayne Tillerson—62-year-old father of four, recent national president of the Boy Scouts of America—took the stage at the 36th annual Oil and Money Conference in London. As the then-CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson had just been named Petroleum Executive of the Year. His topic was “Unleashing Innovation to Meet Our Energy and Environmental Needs.”
Tillerson’s half-hour-long speech did not ignore the subject of a rapidly changing global climate. He spoke of the challenge of “reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy use.” He said “the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action,” including his corporation’s research into alternative technologies and support of a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax. However, Tillerson added, “The world will need to pursue all energy sources, wherever they are economically competitive . . . importantly, we will need coal, oil, and natural gas.”
The highest paid executive of the richest fossil fuel corporation on the planet went on to point out: “From the very beginning of concern on this issue, ExxonMobil scientists and engineers have been involved in discussions and analysis of climate change. These efforts started internally as early as the 1970s.”
What Tillerson failed to mention was this: only the month before, an investigation of internal Exxon documents had revealed that those very scientists had repeatedly warned, almost forty years ago, of a potentially “catastrophic” warming of the planet that “endangered humanity.” But instead of responding to this red alert from their own experts by starting to shift the energy giant toward renewable resources, Exxon’s top executives, including Tillerson, had shut down the company’s own research—and embarked instead on a massive disinformation campaign aimed at debunking climate change as a myth.
The corporation was a ringleader in setting up the Global Climate Coalition, a massive disinformation machine bringing together the world’s leading fossil fuel companies in an all-out effort to prevent governments from curbing their emissions. Tillerson’s company, the second largest emitter of CO2 in the world (after Chevron), dispersed millions to muddy any scientific understanding and delay any real action.
Tillerson, his predecessor Lee Raymond, and their cronies knew the truth about the fate of the planet. And yet they lied, and they paid others to lie. They lied as global temperatures began rising at record rates. They lied as droughts and wildfires swept across the American West, and as California started running out of water. They lied as tornadoes and hurricanes and snowfall levels intensified in unprecedented ways. They lied as thousands died in European heat waves, and thousands more perished in Asian floods. They lied as Greenland’s ice turned liquid, and sea levels began to rise two-and-a-half times faster than anyone thought possible, and the oceans became increasingly acidic and filled with disease-causing bacteria. They lied and sacrificed future generations for their short-term profits.
During his visit to America in December 2015, Pope Francis issued a warning about climate change, “a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. . . . I can say to you ‘now or never.’ Every year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”
Six months earlier, in the pope’s encyclical on the situation, he had asked: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” And he had raised another question: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”
The president of the World Bank, Jim Kim, has spoken out along similar lines: “My son will live through a 2, 3 or maybe even 4 degree Celsius warming. We cannot keep apologizing to our children for our lack of action. We must change course now.”
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, while some three billion people watched, the opening ceremony featured a video of ever-escalating global carbon pollution and simultaneously drastic rise in sea levels.
These are the facts behind the pleas of the Pope, the World Bank leader, and the Olympic Games leadership:
• Sixteen of the seventeen warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. For the third consecutive year, it was announced in January, the earth set a heat record. Across vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean, temperatures in the fall of 2016 reached an astonishing 20 to 30 degrees above normal.
• As billions of tons of ice melt or slide into the sea, satellite data shows that oceans around the world are rising by five millimeters a year, a rate not seen since the close of the last Ice Age.
• “Much of the carbon we are putting in the air from fossil fuels will stay there for thousands of years—and some of it will be there for more than 100,000 years.”—Oregon State University paleoclimatologist Peter Clark, lead author of a new study in Nature Climate Change, February 2016.
• “Given currently available records, the present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years.” —Nature Geoscience, March 2016.
Several years earlier, in September 2013, UNICEF published the results of a five-year study about how a changing global climate affects today’s children. “Climate change has too often been discussed and debated in abstract terms, negating the human costs and placing little attention on its intergenerational impact,” the report said. However, “more severe and more frequent natural disasters, food crises and changing rainfall patterns are all threatening children’s lives and their basic rights to education, health, clean water, and the right food.”
These drastic changes in our planet’s ecosystem will have the most severe consequences, of course, on future generations. Climate change is all too often discussed in “abstract terms,” the 2013 UNICEF report noted. But the environmental upheaval associated with climate change is already having a massive impact on “children’s lives and their basic rights to education, health, and [proper] food.” UNICEF has estimated that, by 2030, 25 million more children will suffer malnourishment, with another 100 million facing food insecurity due to scarcity, and between 150 and 200 million more being displaced from their homes. “We are hurtling towards a future where the gains being made for the world’s children are threatened, and their health, wellbeing, livelihoods and survival are compromised . . . despite being the least responsible for the causes,” said David Bull, executive director of UNICEF in the United Kingdom.
The UNICEF report noted that “children and young people in developed countries are acutely aware of climate change, and are passionate and vocal about the need for action by governments to tackle the problem.” Polling in the UK indicated that nearly three-quarters of those between ages 11 and 16 in Britain worried about the planet’s environmental future. More than seven in ten wanted their government to do more, and nearly two-thirds voiced particular concern about their counterparts in developing nations. In the US, similar polling found almost three-quarters of young voters saying they were less likely to vote for a candidate who opposed President Obama’s climate change plan. “We need to listen to what children are saying,” the study concluded.
The goal of the entrenched interests, however, is to drown out those voices—all the way to the classroom. In Wyoming, when the Park County School District was to vote on whether to purchase new textbooks and reading materials in 2015, one board member responded, “I will not authorize any of the $300,000 allocated for this purchase to include supplemental booklets about ‘global whining’. . . . Our Wyoming schools are largely funded by coal, oil, natural gas, mining, ranching, etc. This junk science is against community and state standards.”
Jeff Turrentine, who wrote about this for OnEarth Magazine’s web site, added, “For thousands of years, going back to Aristotle, humanity’s greatest minds have sought to safeguard the precepts of the scientific method by keeping them away from the corrupting influence of political culture. Defending the integrity of science from powerful people is what got Galileo imprisoned. And yet, 400 years later, here we are: watching a public official tasked with guiding the educational trajectories of his community’s children rail against the accepted science on climate change—because its conclusions threaten to undermine the local political culture. . . . Anyone who would deliberately misinform children about the gravity of the problem that awaits them when they grow up doesn’t deserve to be in charge of their education.”
The campaign to “misinform children” is particularly aggressive in the American West, stronghold of the oil and coal industries, including in Utah, where a coalition of parents decrying “Education Without Representation” has intimidated the state’s Office of Education into watering down education on climate change. Even in “left-coast” California, where the Democratic Party has a lock on state government, a 2015 analysis of science textbooks used in the sixth-grade classrooms revealed that the language and writing techniques “more closely match the public discourse of doubt about climate change rather than the scientific discourse.” The study, which was conducted by Southern Methodist University, speculated that conservative media like Fox News had contributed to “a shift in public discourse, which eventually influences textbook language by creating competing interests within the textbook market.” A follow-up survey published in the journal Science in 2016 found that, while three-quarters of science teachers nationwide devote time to climate change instruction, 30 percent tell students that it’s “likely due to natural causes” and another 31 percent claim that the matter is unsettled. That’s opposed to the 97 percent of active climate scientists who contend that human activity is a primary cause. Bills have now been introduced in state legislatures of four states that promote climate change denial as part of academic freedom.
Even in 2016, as the world weathered another year of record-setting temperature rise, America’s presidential campaign was dominated by Republican candidate Donald Trump, who dismissed the global crisis as a “hoax”—allegedly manufactured by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing “non-competitive” and by Democrats to justify higher taxes. Meanwhile, Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, while acknowledging climate change as an urgent problem, amassed a huge campaign war chest from donors and lobbyists connected to the oil, gas and coal industry, while her allies headed off an attempt by Senator Bernie Sanders to hammer an anti-fracking plank into the 2016 party platform.
Despite all the calamitous news from the environmental front lines, the energy industry still wields extensive influence over the climate change debate, from the classroom to the presidential campaign trail.
Excerpted from the new book The Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Men Who Are Destroying the Planet—and How They Explain Themselves to Their Own Children by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Dick Russell (Hot Books, May 2017), available for purchase from Amazon, IndieBound, and Hot Books.