Catalyst Summer 2015

Documenting Fossil Fuel Companies’ Climate Deception

Climate denier dossiers Leaked internal memos reveal a coordinated, decades-long disinformation campaign.

by Elliott Negin

When internal documents revealed earlier this year that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests were secretly funding scientifically discredited studies authored by climate contrarian Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, the news didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Back in 2007, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report identified Soon—an aerospace engineer with little formal training in climatology—as one of a dozen scientists affiliated with more than 40 ExxonMobil-funded think tanks that then constituted the backbone of the climate change–denier PR machine. Soon, who erroneously claims the sun is largely responsible for global warming, produced work for at least five of these ExxonMobil-backed groups, including the now infamous Heartland Institute.

But the latest cache of documents, obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, lays bare a wealth of detail that was not available eight years ago. For example, they show that Soon received his funding exclusively from fossil fuel interests, including ExxonMobil, utility giant Southern Company, and Charles Koch. He described his scientific work and congressional testimony as “deliverables” to his funders. And some of his contracts specifically dictate that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where Soon works, not disclose the names of his funders. These internal documents, on top of what UCS had already uncovered, indisputably establish Soon’s efforts as part of a calculated climate deception campaign.

Dossiers of Deception

Willie Soon, however, is just a small part of a much bigger story, according to a new UCS report, The Climate Deception Dossiers. After spending nearly a year reviewing and analyzing a wide range of internal corporate and trade group documents, a team of UCS researchers has, for the first time, compiled a broader tale of climate deception. The Climate Deception Dossiers draws upon evidence culled from 85 documents that were pried loose by leaks, lawsuits, and FOIA requests.

Spanning nearly three decades, these documents reveal that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, coal giant Peabody Energy, and Shell—were fully aware of the reality of climate change but continued to spend tens of millions of dollars to sow doubt and promote contrarian arguments they knew to be wrong. Taken together, the documents show that these six companies, in conjunction with the American Petroleum Institute (API)—the oil and gas industry’s premier trade association—and a host of front groups, have colluded to intentionally deceive the public; their corporate officials have known for at least two decades that their products are harmful; and their disinformation campaign continues today—despite the fact that most of the companies now publicly acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change.

A team convened in 1998 by the American Petroleum Institute—the country’s largest oil trade association whose member companies include BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell Oil—outlined a road map for climate deception including a plan to cultivate purportedly independent scientists as climate misinformers. The campaign would achieve “victory,” according to the memo, when “average citizens” believed that the realities of climate science were uncertain.

The collected documents reveal a variety of deceitful tactics, including creating front groups, secretly funding purportedly independent scientists such as Soon, and even forging letters from nonprofit groups to try to influence members of Congress. But you don’t have to rely on UCS’s interpretation. All 340 pages of the documents in seven “deception dossiers” are available online, so you can read them and reach your own conclusions.

A Damning Paper Trail

The 340 pages include not only Soon’s contracts, but also a 1998 API disinformation road map memo as well as a 2014 Western States Petroleum Association memo on creating phony grassroots consumer groups to challenge California’s climate policies.

One eye-opening, formerly secret document reveals that scientific experts commissioned by the Global Climate Coalition (GCC)—a coalition of 50 U.S. corporations and trade groups including British Petroleum (now BP), Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Mobil, and Shell—warned that heat-trapping gases were indeed causing global warming. Regardless, the GCC continued to conduct a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming.

One of the GCC’s “backgrounders” for legislators and journalists, for example, claimed “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood” and emphasized that “scientists differ” on the issue. But the 17-page, internal 1995 GCC primer written by the companies’ own scientists states: “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied [emphasis added].” The primer’s lead author, Leonard S. Bernstein, a staff scientist at Mobil Oil, would later participate as a lead author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports in 2001 and 2007.

One draft version of the primer even addressed and dismissed the major arguments made by climate change contrarians, such as the “solar variability” argument touted by Soon. “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes,” the draft stated, “but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.” This section was deleted from the primer’s final version.

Three years later, the API set up what it called the Global Climate Science Communications Team to try to derail the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international agreement signed by 192 countries—but not the United States—to meet binding carbon emissions reduction targets. A leaked 1998 campaign memo from this team, cowritten by representatives of the API and API members Chevron and Exxon, laid out a road map for climate deception largely based on the tobacco industry’s strategy to stave off government regulation by deceiving the public about smoking hazards.

Echoing that strategy—encapsulated in the notorious internal tobacco industry memo claiming “Doubt is our product”—the API memo states: “Victory will be achieved when: average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.” The API team planned to emphasize “uncertainties” in climate science at least partly by identifying, recruiting, and funding previously unaffiliated scientists. After all, the memo notes, such scientists would have more credibility with reporters and the public than those already known to be working with the fossil fuel industry.

What makes the secret API memo so revealing is how closely its instructions seem to have been carried out in the Soon case. One of the API memo’s contributors, Robert Gehri, even negotiated one of Soon’s contracts on behalf of his industry backers. All told, Soon received more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel interests over the last decade and failed to disclose that conflict of interest in most of the scientific papers that money underwrote. More than $400,000 came from a subsidiary of the Southern Company, a large utility holding company with a fleet of coal-fired power plants. ExxonMobil gave Soon $335,000. The Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation kicked in another $230,000. The API, meanwhile, contributed more than $100,000.

What did they get for their money? The papers conclude that solar activity is the main cause of global warming and that carbon emissions have had little or no impact. Despite the speciousness of Soon’s findings, members of Congress—notably Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe—routinely cite his work to argue that climate science is a hoax.

Although the Industrial Revolution began more than 250 years ago, more than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released since 1988—after major fossil fuel companies knew about the harm their products were causing.

Holding the Perpetrators Accountable

The tobacco industry successfully stalled meaningful regulations for decades. The fossil fuel industry has been using virtually the same strategy, at least when it comes to federal legislation. Meanwhile, as the fossil fuel companies’ deception campaign has continued, we’ve taken a heavy toll in rising temperatures and a host of climate impacts.

As the new UCS report notes, recent research has documented that 90 state- and privately owned corporations alone have produced and marketed the fossil fuels and cement responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world’s industrial heat-trapping carbon emissions over the past two and a half centuries. Of these, 50 are investor-owned coal, oil, and natural gas companies, including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Peabody, and Shell. Furthermore, nearly 30 percent of all industrial emissions can be traced to just 20 investor- and state-owned companies.

What’s more, the rate of carbon emissions has increased dramatically in our rapidly industrializing world. As a result, more than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released into the atmosphere since 1988—after major fossil fuel companies indisputably knew about the harm their products are doing to the climate.

What Is to Be Done?

There are a number of potential ways to hold large industrial polluters accountable for their actions. Shareholder engagement, divestment campaigns, and state court litigation could all play an important role in forcing them to take responsibility for their emissions, ending their disinformation campaigns, and even requiring them to pay reparations to cover the cost of climate damages, preparedness, and mitigation. The most effective tactics remain a subject for debate. But, as the picture of the fossil fuel companies’ efforts to deceive the public becomes clearer, it is high time to hold these companies accountable for their actions and the damage they’ve done.