How Trump Ally Myron Ebell Spread Misinformation for Big Tobacco and Big Oil

The former head of President Trump's EPA transition team played a central role in the corporate-led attack on public perceptions about smoking and climate change.

Myron Ebell at Bloggers Briefing, Feb. 8, 2011
Photo Credit: Don Irvine/Flickr

“Frontiers will [change] the debate from one about teenage smoking and industry practices to one about massive tax increases, bigger government and loss of individual freedom.” —Frontiers of Freedom funding proposal to Philip Morris

When Phillip Morris didn’t like new FDA regulations that targeted cigarette sales to children and teens, Myron Ebell—who recently served as the head of President Trump's EPA transition team—was there to "change the debate" to fit the tobacco giant's agenda.

The FDA's proposed regulations included prohibiting outdoor advertising of any tobacco products near schools or playgrounds, strictly regulating labeling and prohibiting tobacco company sponsorships of public events. To fight the new restrictions, tobacco industry-funded Frontiers for Freedom started a campaign to cast doubt on the validity of the new regulations.

Frontiers, a conservative "educational foundation," hired Ebell as policy director to help run the campaign, even using his name to raise money for the project. In a fundraising letter to Philip Morris in 1998, Frontiers highlighted Ebell as an example of why more funding was needed to run an organized push to make regulating the tobacco industry "politically unpalatable."

The Frontiers campaign was pure spin. The tobacco companies' First Amendment rights were being trampled on, it claimed—more big government overreach. From pushing the dubious claim that rules infringed on smokers' and tobacco companies' rights to blaming smokers themselves, Ebell oversaw Frontier's tobacco-industry-funded drive to fight regulation. It took a 14-year battle for Congress to pass the regulations and make them stick. In the end, the tobacco advertising regulations made significant progress in curbing teen smoking, no thanks to Ebell and Frontiers for Freedom.

In April 1998, Ebell and a handful of other marketing experts sat around a table with some of the largest U.S. fossil fuel companies to discuss a plan for a similar attack on climate science. Representatives from Exxon, Chevron, utility giant Southern Company and the American Petroleum Institute worked with operatives from established conservative think tanks and public relations wonks to draft a program designed to attack public and political perceptions about climate change. They dubbed it the "Global Climate Science Communications Plan."

The plan's strategy was similar to Frontier's anti-regulation tobacco campaign. This time the goal was to make climate change-related regulation politically unpalatable. The foundation of the plan was to sow doubt about the scientific validity of action on climate change, even though in 1998 the science was already solid. Of the 96 papers published on global warming that year, just one disagreed about human activities driving warming. That truth about the state of the science was replaced with a push to convince "a majority of the American public" that "significant uncertainties exist in climate science.”

The seven-page directive boldly stated that "victory will be achieved" when the uncertainties about climate science are part of "common knowledge," when media recognizes and covers those uncertainties and when those promoting action on climate science appear out of touch.

Strategies and tactics of the plan included:

  • Recruit and train a team of scientists for media outreach
  • Produce a steady stream of op-eds written by these scientists
  • Organize and teach conservative grassroots groups
  • Become a one-stop-shop for members of Congress, state leaders and teachers looking for information about climate change
  • Distribute materials directly to schools and convince a national TV journalist to produce a TV program outlining the supposed uncertainties 

It worked. In 2007, television journalist John Stossel did a bang-up job promoting climate confusion with his special, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity," for a special edition of "20/20." By 2016, a Pew poll found only 9 percent of conservative Republicans believed that climate research reflects the best available evidence, while 57 percent of that same group felt that climate research is influenced not by valid science, but by scientists' desire to advance their careers.

In 1999, Ebell moved to Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank funded by many of the same oil companies he'd sat around the table with the year before to hatch the plan to misinform the American public. From 1998 to 2005, ExxonMobil provided CEI with over $2 million of funding. As director of CEI's Center for Energy and Environment, Ebell put the plan to work.

Impacting the voice of elected officials was another key aspect of "victory” named in the 1998 disinformation plan. By that measure success was swift in coming. Just two years after the plan was hatched, CEI joined with conservative Senator James Inhofe as co-plaintiff in a lawsuit over the National Assessment, a federal report on climate change's impacts on the United State.

The lawsuit was designed to suppress publication and distribution of recent climate science findings. In 2003, CEI sued the U.S. government directly, demanding the National Assessment not be disseminated. In 2005, Senator Inhofe joined with Ebell and other climate science deniers for a CEI panel to discuss the Future of International and U.S. Climate Policy. By 2012, Ebell was bragging on his blog about Inhofe's legislation to block EPA regulations. It was a victory: Climate-change-related regulation had become politically unpalatable.

Opposition to the validity of climate science skyrocketed among conservative politicians after 1998. Fighting all government action on global warming is now a bullet point on the GOP’s purity test. Over that same period, oil industry financial support for political campaigns and lobbying efforts have overwhelmingly gone to Republicans.

The election of Donald Trump was icing on the climate science denial cake. Ebell was tapped to head Trump's EPA transition team. Eighteen years of work deceiving the public finally paid off for Ebell. His dream of drastically reducing the power of the EPA is being realized. He oversaw the writing of a policy paper—not available to the public—that will steer fellow climate science denier and EPA antagonist-turned-EPA head Scott Pruitt. Under Pruitt's leadership, climate change-related regulations will be rolled back and the EPA's budget will be cut by 24 percent.

Ebell has no background in science. He studied philosophy and has a master’s degree in political theory. His understanding of modern climate science sounds like this:

The models say that much of the warming will occur in the upper latitudes and in the winter. At the risk of further ridicule in kooky blogs in England, where global warming alarmism is now a religion, that sounds pretty good to me. Fewer people will die from the cold.

Fossil fuel industries got what they wanted. Conservative politicians got what they wanted. CEI got what it wanted. Ebell got what he wanted. All at the expense of the environment, public health and the stability of future generations.

Watch a reporter shred Myron Ebell:

Hope Forpeace is a short film producer with AK Productions. She spoke before the EPA's Scientific Advisory in 2015 and coordinated the effort to have EPA's fracking study include known cases of water contamination. She has traveled across the country for several years investigating cases of fracking-related pollution.


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