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When does a consistent pattern of inevitable disasters point to a deep-seated crisis that is not only environmental but profoundly social?
Throughout my career, I have been impressed with the importance of integrity – whether it was growing up as a Boy Scout, working in one of my first jobs as a university janitor, or being a leader in a Fortune 500 company
The story of Exon, and their program of denial
Extract, lightly edited
The fossil-fuel industry’s contribution to the code of denial has been by far the most damaging. Alex Steffen, an environmental writer, coined the term “predatory delay” to describe “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.” The behavior of the oil companies, which have pulled off perhaps the most consequential deception in mankind’s history, is a prime example.
As journalists at InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times have revealed, Exxon, the world’s largest oil company, understood that its product was contributing to climate change a decade before James Hansen testified to Congress. In July, 1977, James F. Black, one of Exxon’s senior scientists, addressed many of the company’s top leaders in New York, explaining the earliest research on the greenhouse effect. “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon-dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” he said, according to a written version of the speech which was later recorded, and which was obtained by InsideClimate News. In 1978, speaking to the company’s executives, Black estimated that a doubling of the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by between two and three degrees Celsius, and as much as ten degrees Celsius at the poles.
Exxon spent millions of dollars researching the problem. It outfitted an oil tanker, the Esso Atlantic, with CO2 detectors to measure how fast the oceans could absorb excess carbon, and hired mathematicians to build sophisticated climate models. By 1982, they had concluded that even the company’s earlier estimates were probably too low. In a private corporate primer, they wrote that heading off global warming and “potentially catastrophic events” would “require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
An investigation by the LA Times revealed that Exxon executives took these warnings seriously. Ken Croasdale, a senior researcher for the company’s Canadian subsidiary, led a team that investigated the positive and negative effects of warming on Exxon’s Arctic operations. In 1991, he found that greenhouse gases were rising due to the burning of fossil fuels. “Nobody disputes this fact,” he said. The following year, he wrote that “global warming can only help lower exploration and development costs” in the Beaufort Sea. Drilling season in the Arctic, he correctly predicted, would increase from two months to as many as five months. At the same time, he said, the rise in the sea level could threaten onshore infrastructure and create bigger waves that would damage offshore drilling structures. Thawing permafrost could make the earth buckle and slide under buildings and pipelines. As a result of these findings, Exxon and other major oil companies began laying plans to move into the Arctic, and started to build their new drilling platforms with higher decks, to compensate for the anticipated rises in sea level.
The implications of the exposés were startling. Not only did Exxon and other companies know that scientists like Hansen were right; they used his NASA climate models to figure out how low their drilling costs in the Arctic would eventually fall. Had Exxon and its peers passed on what they knew to the public, geological history would look very different today. The problem of climate change would not be solved, but the crisis would, most likely, now be receding. In 1989, an international ban on chlorine-containing man-made chemicals that had been eroding the earth’s ozone layer went into effect. Last month, researchers reported that the ozone layer was on track to fully heal by 2060. But that was a relatively easy fight, because the chemicals in question were not central to the world’s economy, and the manufacturers had readily available substitutes to sell. In the case of global warming, the culprit is fossil fuel, the most lucrative commodity on earth, and the companies responsible took a different tack.
A document uncovered by the LA Times showed that, a month after Hansen’s testimony, in 1988, an unnamed Exxon “public affairs manager” issued an internal memo recommending that the company “emphasize the uncertainty” in the scientific data about climate change. Within a few years, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Amoco, and others had joined the Global Climate Coalition, “to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate” on global warming. The GCC coördinated with the National Coal Association and the American Petroleum Institute on a campaign, via letters and telephone calls, to prevent a tax on fossil fuels, and produced a video in which the agency insisted that more carbon dioxide would “end world hunger” by promoting plant growth. With such efforts, it gunned up opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, the first global initiative to address climate change.
In October, 1997, two months before Kyoto, Lee Raymond, Exxon’s president and CEO, who had overseen the science department that in the nineteen-eighties produced the findings about climate change, gave a speech in Beijing to the World Petroleum Congress, in which he maintained that the earth was actually cooling. The idea that cutting fossil-fuel emissions could have an effect on the climate, he said, defied common sense. “It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be affected whether policies are enacted now, or twenty years from now,” he went on. Exxon’s own scientists had already shown each of these premises to be wrong.
On a December morning in 1997 at the Kyoto Convention Center, after a long night of negotiation, the developed nations reached a tentative accord on climate change. Exhausted delegates lay slumped on couches in the corridor, or on the floor in their suits, but most of them were grinning. Imperfect and limited though the agreement was, it seemed that momentum had gathered behind fighting climate change. But as I watched the delegates cheering and clapping, an American lobbyist, who had been coördinating much of the opposition to the accord, turned to me and said, “I can’t wait to get back to Washington, where we’ve got this under control. I hope this visit from your king has brightened your outlook on things.”
He was right. On January 29, 2001, nine days after George W. Bush was inaugurated, Lee Raymond visited his old friend Vice-President Dick Cheney, who had just stepped down as the CEO of the oil-drilling giant Halliburton. Cheney helped persuade Bush to abandon his campaign promise to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Within the year, Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant for Bush, had produced an internal memo that made a doctrine of the strategy that “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”
The strategy of muddling the public’s impression of climate science has proved highly effective. In 2017, polls found that almost ninety per cent of Americans did not know that there was a scientific consensus on global warming. Raymond retired in 2006, after the company posted the biggest corporate profits in history, and his final annual salary was four hundred million dollars. His successor, Rex Tillerson, signed a five-hundred-billion-dollar deal to explore for oil in the rapidly thawing Russian Arctic, and in 2012 was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship. In 2016, Tillerson, at his last shareholder meeting before he briefly joined the Trump Administration as Secretary of State, said, “The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not.”
It’s by no means clear whether Exxon’s deception and obfuscation are illegal. The company has long maintained that it “has tracked the scientific consensus on climate change, and its research on the issue has been published in publicly available peer-reviewed journals.” The First Amendment preserves one’s right to lie, although, in October, New York State Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood filed suit against Exxon for lying to investors, which is a crime. What is certain is that the industry’s campaign cost us the efforts of the human generation that might have made the crucial difference in the climate fight.
Exxon’s behaviour is shocking, but not entirely surprising. Philip Morris lied about the effects of cigarette smoking before the government stood up to Big Tobacco. The mystery that historians will have to unravel is what went so wrong in our governance and our culture that we have done nothing to stand up to the fossil-fuel industry.
There are undoubtedly myriad intellectual, psychological, and political sources for our inaction, but I cannot help thinking that the influence of Ayn Rand, the Russian émigré novelist, may have played a role. Rand’s disquisitions on the “virtue of selfishness” and unbridled capitalism are admired by many American politicians and economists—Paul Ryan, Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, Andrew Puzder, and Donald Trump, among them. Trump, who has called “The Fountainhead” his favorite book, said that the novel “relates to business and beauty and life and inner emotions. That book relates to . . . everything.” Long after Rand’s death, in 1982, the libertarian gospel of the novel continues to sway our politics: Government is bad. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes are theft. The Koch brothers, whose enormous fortune derives in large part from the mining and refining of oil and gas, have peddled a similar message, broadening the efforts that Exxon-funded groups like the Global Climate Coalition spearheaded in the late nineteen-eighties.
Fossil-fuel companies and electric utilities, often led by Koch-linked groups, have put up fierce resistance to change. In Kansas, Koch allies helped turn mandated targets for renewable energy into voluntary commitments. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s administration prohibited state land officials from talking about climate change. In North Carolina, the state legislature, in conjunction with real-estate interests, effectively banned policymakers from using scientific estimates of sea-level rise in the coastal-planning process. Earlier this year, Americans for Prosperity, the most important Koch front group, waged a campaign against new bus routes and light-rail service in Tennessee, invoking human liberty. “If someone has the freedom to go where they want, do what they want, they’re not going to choose public transit,” a spokeswoman for the group explained. In Florida, an anti-renewable-subsidy ballot measure invoked the “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.”
Such efforts help explain why, in 2017, the growth of American residential solar installations came to a halt even before March, 2018, when President Trump imposed a thirty-per-cent tariff on solar panels, and why the number of solar jobs fell in the US for the first time since the industry’s great expansion began, a decade earlier. In February, at the Department of Energy, Rick Perry—who once skipped his own arraignment on two felony charges, which were eventually dismissed, in order to attend a Koch brothers event—issued a new projection in which he announced that the US would go on emitting carbon at current levels through 2050; this means that our nation would use up all the planet’s remaining carbon budget if we plan on meeting the 1.5-degree target. Skepticism about the scientific consensus, Perry told the media in 2017, is a sign of a “wise, intellectually engaged person.”
Of all the environmental reversals made by the Trump Administration, the most devastating was its decision, last year, to withdraw from the Paris accords, making the US, the largest single historical source of carbon, the only nation not engaged in international efforts to control it. As the Washington Post reported, the withdrawal was the result of a collaborative venture. Among the anti-government ideologues and fossil-fuel lobbyists responsible was Myron Ebell, who was at Trump’s side in the Rose Garden during the withdrawal announcement, and who, at Frontiers of Freedom, had helped run a “complex influence campaign” in support of the tobacco industry. Ebell is a director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which was founded in 1984 to advance “the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty,” and which funds the Cooler Heads Coalition, “an informal and ad-hoc group focused on dispelling the myths of global warming,” of which Ebell is the chairman. Also instrumental were the Heartland Institute and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. After Trump’s election, these groups sent a letter reminding him of his campaign pledge to pull America out. The CEI ran a TV spot: “Mr. President, don’t listen to the swamp. Keep your promise.” And, despite the objections of most of his advisers, he did. The coalition had used its power to slow us down precisely at the moment when we needed to speed up. As a result, the particular politics of one country for one half-century will have changed the geological history of the earth.
We are on a path to self-destruction, and yet there is nothing inevitable about our fate. Solar panels and wind turbines are now among the least expensive ways to produce energy. Storage batteries are cheaper and more efficient than ever. We could move quickly if we chose to, but we’d need to opt for solidarity and coördination on a global scale. The chances of that look slim. In Russia, the second-largest petrostate after the US, Vladimir Putin believes that “climate change could be tied to some global cycles on Earth or even of planetary significance.” Saudi Arabia, the third-largest petrostate, tried to water down the recent IPCC report. Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected President of Brazil, has vowed to institute policies that would dramatically accelerate the deforestation of the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest. Importantly, a carbon tax would, at this late stage, have little impact on the outcome.
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