Documenting the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Climate Deception

Got Science? | July 2015

When internal documents revealed earlier this year that ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests were secretly funding the scientific work of the purportedly independent aerospace engineer 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 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, whose scientifically discredited papers claim the sun is responsible for global warming, produced work for at least five of these ExxonMobil-backed groups, including the 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. Among other things, they show that: Soon received his funding exclusively from fossil fuel interests, including ExxonMobil, coal utility Southern Company, and billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. He described his scientific work and congressional testimony as “deliverables” to his funders. And some of his contracts specifically dictated that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where Soon works, not disclose the names of his benefactors.

On top of what UCS had already uncovered, these internal documents indisputably establish Soon’s efforts as part of a calculated disinformation campaign.

Dossiers of deception

Willie Soon, however, is just a small part of a much bigger story, according to a new UCS report. Spending nearly a year reviewing a wide range of internal corporate and trade group documents, UCS researchers have compiled a broader tale of deceit. The report, titled The Climate Deception Dossier, draws on evidence culled from 85 documents—including Soon’s contracts—pried loose by leaks, lawsuits, and FOIA requests.

Spanning nearly three decades, the 330 pages of documents that comprise the report reveal that the world’s largest fossil fuel companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, coal giant Peabody Energy, and Royal Dutch Shell—were fully aware of the reality of climate change but continued to spend tens of millions of dollars to 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 known for at least two decades that their products are harmful and still have intentionally tried to deceive the public about the serious threat posed by climate change.

A damning paper trail

The collected documents reveal that their campaign has relied on variety of deceptive tactics, including creating front groups, secretly funding purportedly independent scientists such as Soon, and even forging letters from nonprofit advocacy groups to try to influence members of Congress.

One eye-opening document reveals that a coalition of 50 U.S. corporations and trade groups—including British Petroleum (now BP), Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Shell—that banded together in the 1990s to discredit climate science was told by its own scientific experts that heat-trapping gases were indeed causing global warming. Regardless, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) continued to bankroll a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming.

A GCC fact sheet for legislators and journalists, for instance, claimed “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood” and emphasized that “scientists differ” on the issue. But a 17-page, internal 1995 GCC primer written by the companies’ own scientists stated: “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, would later participate as a lead author of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports in 2001 and 2007.

One draft version of the primer even addressed—and dismissed—climate change contrarians’ primary arguments, including Soon’s “solar variability” explanation. “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.” That section wasn’t included in the primer’s final version.

Three years later, in 1998, 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, written by representatives from API and API members Chevron and Exxon, laid out a plan largely based on the tobacco industry’s strategy to stave off government regulation by deceiving the public about smoking hazards. Echoing that strategy, which was encapsulated in an internal tobacco industry memo that asserted “doubt is our product,” the API memo stated: “Victory will be achieved when: average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.”

What makes the secret API memo so revealing is how closely its tactics were implemented in the Willie Soon case. One of the API memo’s coauthors, Southern Company research specialist Robert Gehri, even negotiated one of Soon’s contracts with his employer, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 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 Southern Company. ExxonMobil gave $335,000. The Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation kicked in another $230,000. And API contributed more than $100,000.

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

Holding the companies accountable

The tobacco industry successfully stalled meaningful regulations for decades. Using virtually the same strategy, the fossil fuel industry thus far has been able to do the same, at least when it comes to federal legislation.

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 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, ConocoPhillips, 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 recent years. In fact, more than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released into the atmosphere since 1988, after major fossil fuel companies knew about the harm their products are doing to the climate.

So what is to be done?

There are a number of potential ways to hold large industrial carbon polluters accountable. Shareholder engagement, divestment campaigns, consumer boycotts, and state court litigation all could play an important role in forcing them to curb their emissions and end their disinformation campaign, and even require them to pay 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 these companies take responsibility for their actions and the damage they’ve done.