Catalyst Summer 2015


Let’s Hold Fossil Fuel Companies Accountable

Historian of science Naomi Oreskes reviews the decades-long campaign to deceive the public about climate change—and what it will take to end it.


Photo of Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University. She is the coauthor of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming and The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, both with Erik M. Conway. The documentary film version of Merchants of Doubt, produced by Participant Media, was released in 2015.


The new UCS report The Climate Deception Dossiers highlights internal memos from fossil fuel companies that suggest a coordinated campaign of deception. How strong is the evidence, in your view, for such a campaign?

N.O.: I think it’s demonstrated. Full stop. The documentary evidence is clear. The only thing we could argue about is the word “deception.” My coauthor Erik Conway and I coined the phrase “merchants of doubt” because the goal of the groups and individuals we studied was to create doubt, as the tobacco industry had done before them. Based on the tobacco case, they knew that creating doubt was an effective means to undercut the momentum for action.


The tobacco industry created doubt about the link between smoking and lung cancer. Did you find a connection between these efforts and the campaign against climate science?

N.O.: Just as the evidence of the fossil fuel companies’ deception campaign is clear, so too is the evidence of this campaign’s connection to the tobacco industry. We showed that the overall strategy was essentially the same, and that many of the specific tactics were the same too. We also showed that this was not mere coincidence—that many of the same individuals and organizations were involved in both.


As you’ve noted, these industries understood that what you call “merchandizing doubt” can be an effective strategy for blocking science-based political action. Why does this seem to work so well?

N.O.: It works because it is rational. If we really didn’t know whether or not smoking was harmful, then it would not make sense to try to discourage people from smoking. And if we didn’t really know that increased global warming emissions were driving climate change, we wouldn’t have a case for a carbon tax.


The United States still has not passed legislation to cap heat-trapping carbon emissions or place a price on carbon, and elected officials continue to deny industry's role in global warming. Do you see this as evidence that the fossil fuel industry’s campaign has worked?

N.O.: Absolutely. We can’t prove that the doubt mongering has led to inaction, but we can say that the goal of the doubt mongering was to prevent action, and inaction has in fact occurred. Many factors have contributed to denial and delay, but I think it is reasonable to conclude this is one of them, especially when we see politicians using slogans and memes that originated in doubt-mongering campaigns.


You have been involved in work showing that just 90 entities—including some of the largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies—are responsible for almost two-thirds of the world’s industrial carbon emissions over the past two and a half centuries. To what extent do you believe these companies should be held accountable for the consequences of climate change?

N.O.: They should be held accountable for their full share of carbon emissions, after the point at which the scientific evidence of the harms of [human-caused] global warming became clear. I would say that is certainly no later than 1992, when the United States signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Arguably it is no later than 1988, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created, when Congress held hearings on the threat posed by global warming, and when the story was on the front page of the New York Times. And there might be a case to be made that it is even earlier than that.


What do you think are the most important steps we need to take to break the current political logjam? What role can—or should—we expect from the major fossil fuel companies?

N.O.: I think we can expect the major companies to continue business as usual until they see the writing on the wall that this is not going to be acceptable very much longer. They will change when they have to change, either because of laws or because of social pressure. I used to work in the mining industry, for a good company, and we obeyed the law. Most companies do. But, with rare exceptions, they don’t go beyond that to do what is right, until they are required to do so by law or forced to by social pressure. This means that the key factors now are social and political: to create the needed pressure.

This is one reason I support the divest/reinvest movement. We have to send a strong signal that we will not continue to invest in the development of still more fossil fuels. No, let me correct that: it is not just about sending a signal—we have to stop investing in fossil fuel capacity. That won’t happen overnight, but we have to begin the process now if we are going to get where we need to be in the next few decades. To put it in a slightly counterintuitive way: we have to start the process of stopping.