How did fossil fuel companies get away with deceiving the public for so long about climate change, and how their products contribute to it?
In this episode
Katy explains how
- major fossil fuel companies got so good at deceiving us about climate change and how their products contribute to it
- they escaped accountability for so long
- they used the tobacco industry playbook to sow doubt on climate science
Series: Katy Love
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Additional editing: Omari Spears and Colleen MacDonald
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: We recently produced a four-part series, which aired over four episodes, on what led up to the current slew of lawsuits that have been filed against fossil fuel companies in an effort to hold them accountable for damages due to climate change. It’s a compelling story that the podcast team thought you might like to hear in its entirety, so we’ve stitched it all together for you in this bonus episode. Here’s part one: Part 1
Colleen: Pop quiz! What do Baltimore, Boulder, Charleston, Hoboken, Honolulu, New York City, Oakland, San Francisco—and the entire states of Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts—have in common?
If you guessed that they’ve all filed lawsuits against fossil fuel companies—some as recently as September 2020—you are correct!
But how does that work? How does a city or state just sue a company like ExxonMobil? And why? What proof do they have that oil and gas companies are responsible for climate change affecting their local environments? Does the Union of Concerned Scientists have anything to do with this?
I can give a quick answer to that last question: yes, we do! But for the rest, it’s kind of a long story… and we’re going to tell it to you.
I’m excited to announce that we’re doing something a little different for the next several episodes. In addition to our guest expert interviews… we’re bringing you a nifty four-part series on how rigorous science and solid sleuthing can provide grounds to make polluters pay.
Here’s Katy Love with Part One.
Katy: Thanks, Colleen.
Before I get into climate change, ExxonMobil, or the science that can show how many inches of sea level rise are attributable to which oil and gas companies… I want to talk about cigarettes. Yes, cigarettes.
I’m old enough to remember family restaurants with smoking and non-smoking sections, being handed an ashtray along with a menu at bars, and leaving certain venues with my hair smelling of so much cigarette smoke to the point that, if I didn’t wash my hair before going to bed the smell would soak into my pillow.
And I’m not that old.
In the US, the shift from indoor smoking being common and accepted to… just not being a thing anymore… happened, in my opinion, decades late. After all, the link between lung cancer and smoking cigarettes was established and publicized in the early 1950s. But instead of changing their business… cigarette companies paid for extensive PR and lobbying campaigns to sow doubt about the link between lung cancer and smoking. They even paid scientists to lie that the science wasn’t completely settled.
40 years later, statewide indoor smoking bans and other lifesaving policies gained traction as it became clearer and clearer that tobacco use was so harmful, governments had to act to protect people. And a lot of that clarity came through Congressional investigations and court cases.
Smokers, former smokers, and their family members had been suing cigarette companies for years, for compensation for the health effects of smoking. But the companies argued that smokers made personal choices, so they shouldn’t be liable. This argument won suit after suit.
Until… documents leaked that showed cigarette companies knew their products were addictive and harmful. And that they’d promoted those disinformation campaigns to create doubt and confusion about the actual risks. That is not legal, it turns out.
In 1998, tobacco companies like RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris settled with more than 40 state attorneys general in lawsuits over consumer protection and antitrust laws. They committed to stop targeting kids with their advertising. They agreed to compensate states for the health care costs related to smoking—promising to pay more than $200 billion over 25 years. And they agreed to dissolve three of their biggest and most influential industry organizations—also known as trade associations, many of which funded front groups for tobacco lobbying.
A few years later, the US Department of Justice won a racketeering suit against several major tobacco companies for misleading and defrauding the public. These court cases might be a huge part of the reason why you aren’t bombarded by tobacco ads... and why you can no longer smoke in bars and restaurants in 38 states these days.
Rich and powerful companies and executives who claim the negative effects of their products should be the responsibility of individual consumers… companies that quietly fund front groups to advance their special interests… and that spread disinformation and confusion about whether their products are actually harmful or not. It turns out that Big Tobacco has a lot in common with oil and gas companies.
Fossil fuel companies operate in one of the world’s largest and most profitable industries. Most of them make billions of dollars extracting and selling oil, gas, and coal. Burning these fuels produces carbon dioxide and methane, the main drivers of climate change. And that means these companies profit enormously from contributing to climate change.
But… we haven’t always known about climate change, one might argue. How could a company be expected to pay damages if no one knew their products weren’t good for us? None of us even knew climate change was quote-unquote real until very recently.
Welllll… that’s the thing. You’d think that once you realized your product was fatally dangerous to the continued existence of the planet—or people’s lives—that you’d stop making it. But just like Big Tobacco, Big Oil doubled down. Instead of doing the right thing, they knowingly deceived the public and policymakers about the harm their products cause, FOR DECADES, in an effort to block action. In fact, one of the reasons why many, many people in the US didn’t believe climate change was real until a few years ago (and some still don’t)… is because fossil fuel companies paid millions of dollars to intentionally mislead us. For decadesFOR DECADES!.
Colleen: Katy now continues with part two, focusing on the long paper trail exposing what fossil fuel companies knew about climate change, and when they knew it..
Katy: I want to start by playing you a 30-second commercial from 1988. The video shows a fox running away from a predator and ending up safe in an artificial burrow.
…I promise this is relevant. [play clip] And the last screen displays a Chevron logo. Yes, the massive fossil fuel company Chevron. Who cares that they’ve contributed to making our planet uninhabitable? They love cute little foxes! Unfortunately, this one ad is nowhere near the worst of what fossil fuel companies have done to prop up their industry and lie to people about the harm they’ve caused. If I sound mad in this segment, it’s because I am. It’s impossible not to be mad about being lied to. It’s impossible not to be mad about powerful people deliberately squandering our chances to stop climate change. “Hey Katy, chill out!” you might say. “How do we know that fossil fuel companies knew about climate change, and lied about what they knew?” Well… we have receipts. There are decades of memos and emails and strategy documents from fossil fuel companies and their trade associations. These documents have become public because they’ve been leaked, revealed through lawsuits, or disclosed using the Freedom of Information Act.
In fact, there’s so much evidence that I don’t have time to tell you about all of it. Here are some highlights:
The first time most oil company executives heard of global warming was at a symposium co-organized by the American Petroleum Institute… a trade association whose members include ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron. A top physicist warned of the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide emissions released by burning fossil fuels. He calculated that global temperatures would rise. He speculated that this could cause Arctic ice to melt and submerge major cities. The year was 1959. In the late 1970s, Exxon staff scientists concluded that continuing to burn fossil fuels would dangerously warm the planet.
In 1982, Exxon management were given a document highlighting the need for, quote, “major reductions in fossil fuel combustion,” end quote, without which, quote, “some potentially catastrophic events must be considered,” end quote. A report from the fossil fuel company Shell in 1988 warns, quote, “by the time global warming becomes detectable, it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects,” end quote. Let’s stay in 1988, when the front page of the New York Times read “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.” It seems to me like this year could have been a turning point. The science was settled. These companies knew about the harm they were causing. They could have invested their millions into renewable energy. They could have changed the world for the better.
Instead, they lied.
They wasted our time with cute commercials. They purposefully created doubt about whether science was right about global warming. They schemed to secretly pay scientists at prestigious institutions to conduct bogus research on climate change. They funded front groups to pressure politicians into voting against clean energy policies.
The evidence for this is also overwhelming, so here’s another highlight reel.
Returning to 1988: a memo circulated at Exxon, clarifying that its position on climate change would be to, quote, “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect,” end quote. Ten years later, the American Petroleum Institute circulated a memo laying out their plan to promote, quote unquote, “uncertainties” in climate science among the media, the public, and policymakers. The memo says, quote, “victory will be achieved when average citizens understand uncertainties in climate science,” end quote.
If you’ve ever had to fight over the dinner table about whether climate change is real, you can thank the fossil fuel industry for using its millions of dollars to run one of the most successful PR campaigns of all time. And they’re still up to the same tricks today.
ExxonMobil, for example, publicly supports a federal carbon tax, while continuing to fund climate-science denying groups. It’s also contributed to the campaigns of climate science-denying politicians still in office in 2020. I keep coming back to 1988. The year that more people became aware of the science behind climate change—including the folks at giant fossil fuel companies. While they distracted us with lies and cute little foxes… the damage kept accumulating. More than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released since 1988.
So yeah, I’m mad. And I’m ready to talk about science. Specifically, how science can prove that fossil fuel companies are responsible for climate change. I’ll be back in two weeks with Part Three. PART 3 Colleen: On to part 3, in which Katy brings the science.
Katy: For tobacco companies, it was hard to hide the causal link between smoking cigarettes and developing lung cancer and other deadly illnesses. Study after study of smokers proved that using tobacco greatly increases the risks for disease and disability.
For fossil fuel companies, it’s been a little easier to go unnoticed. Our planet is large, with different climates, and there are many sources of carbon emissions, including natural ones.
But science is awesome. And scientists, including some of my colleagues at UCS, have now figured out how much the fossil fuel industry has contributed to certain climate change impacts. Today it’s possible to trace temperature increases, sea level rise, and ocean acidification to specific fossil fuel companies.
For the full breakdown of this research, you’re welcome to check out the scientific journals Climatic Change and Environmental Research Letters. I’ll provide more of an overview than a detailed explanation.
In 2014, a scientist named Rick Heede published peer-reviewed research quantifying carbon dioxide and methane emissions from burning the products of the 90 largest carbon producers. Carbon producers can be publicly traded gas and oil companies like ExxonMobil or Chevron, state-owned monopolies like Gazprom in Russia… or cement companies, which are big sources of heat-trapping emissions.
Since Heede published his research, UCS and other scientists have incorporated that data into simple climate models to determine the effects of those emissions, tying them to those carbon producers. And here’s what they’ve been able to calculate:
Emissions traced to the largest 88 carbon producers contributed around 60 percent of the increase in atmospheric CO2... about half of the rise in average global temperatures... and about a third of global sea level rise between 1880 and 2015.
Over the same time frame, more than half the increase in the acidity of the world’s oceans is tied to emissions from these 88 producers.
And between 1965 and 2015—years during which fossil fuel companies knew their products were causing global warming—just 48 investor-owned companies contributed around sixteen percent of global average temperature increase, and about twelve percent of sea level rise.
I probably don’t need to tell you why global temperature increases, aka warming, and sea level rise are bad. Ocean acidification isn’t discussed as much when we talk about climate change, but it’s also bad news… and a serious threat to global food chains, as marine life dies off in acidic waters.
Also bad news are the extreme events that keep happening with more frequency as climate change intensifies… like wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and heat waves. Scientists have previously warned that we can’t tie climate change to such events—but like I said, science is awesome. And we now can prove that climate change makes such events more likely.
For example, scientists have estimated that, of the record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 that cost around 90 billion dollars in damage to Texas homes and businesses... about 30 to 67 billion dollars of that is attributable to human influence on climate change.
So… when these consequences of climate change affect where we live, causing flooding, extreme heat, hurting animal and marine populations, and endangering our lives and livelihoods, who’s responsible? Who should pay for the damages?
At UCS, we think that Big Oil should pay its fair share. And according to a 2019 Yale University poll, a majority of the US public agrees.
PART 4 Colleen: And now we conclude with our final installment focusing on the lawsuits currently underway against fossil fuel companies. And justice.
Katy: So now that we know that climate change costs communities billions of dollars in damages… for example, after a destructive storm made worse or more likely by warming…
and we know it costs billions more to cover preventative and adaptive measures… such as seawalls to prevent flooding…
and we know it costs lives, like when people die during heat waves…
and we know that the effects of climate change hurt communities of color and low-income communities the most…
Is it fair that communities have to keep covering these costs?
Is it fair that companies selling products that they know contribute to climate change… have lied about the harm they’ve done?
Is it fair that these companies have billions of dollars, and outsized political influence, but have pinned the responsibility for climate change on us?
Of course not!
Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to rely on fossil fuel companies, or our government, to do what’s fair. Under these circumstances, what recourse is there for justice?
One way can be through the justice system.
That’s why this summer Connecticut, Delaware, and Minnesota joined about 20 other US cities, counties, and states in filing climate change lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. Many of these cases seek to hold companies liable for damages caused by climate change impacts. Some of them allege that specific companies violated consumer protection and common laws by defrauding residents with false advertising and misrepresentation. Many of these lawsuits include details in their filings about how the impacts of climate change hit heaviest on those who can least afford it.
For example, the city of Charleston, South Carolina noted that people of color and those living in poverty are more vulnerable to extreme heat events, which are projected to increase in the decades ahead. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey, pointed to the inequitable impacts of Hurricane Sandy, which trapped residents living in low-income housing as the streets flooded around them. Delaware’s filing mentions urban heat islands, which worsen the health impacts of extreme heat on communities of color and low-income communities.
Climate lawsuits can be a means to advance racial and economic justice for those who are disproportionately affected. And they’re not limited to the United States.
Over the past five years, the Philippines Commission on Human Rights conducted an investigation into the responsibility of the world’s biggest polluters… for human rights violations resulting from climate change. The commission found that major fossil fuel companies could be found legally and morally liable for climate-related human rights harms to Filipinos… but has not yet released its final report. It’s expected by the end of this year… and it could help inform other countries’ consideration of corporate climate accountability.
I mentioned a study by Yale University in the last episode. That study found that a majority of Americans surveyed in 2019… think that fossil fuel companies are at least partly responsible for climate change impacts… and that they should pay for at least some of the damages to communities. Public opinion on this topic is shifting, as the consequences of climate change become harder to ignore, and the science linking these impacts to specific companies develops.
The lawsuits I described represent the beginning of a battle in courts worldwide over accountability and liability for climate change. In addition to cases that aim to hold corporations accountable for their contributions to climate change, climate litigation also targets governments at all levels… seeking to compel them to protect the rights of people, future generations, and the environment from disruptive climate change.
I invite you to visit the UCS Science Hub for Climate Litigation to learn more about the science behind making polluters pay… it’s on our site, http://act.ucsusa.org/science-hub. And stay tuned to our blog for updates on these legal cases.
Thank you for joining me for this series! I’m Katy Love, and we’re wrapping it up here.
Colleen: Thank you, Katy, and thanks for tuning into this bonus edition of the Got Science Podcast. Got Science is brought to you by the Union of Concerned Scientists.