Welcome to the Climate 101 series! If this article seems confusing, I have five other articles that can help you understand the climate crisis: What is Climate, What is Climate Change, The Lowdown on Carbon, Who is Affected by the Climate Crisis, and Let’s Talk Climate. Let’s dig in!
What is climate denialism?
Climate denialism is the dismissal and unwarranted doubt of the climate crisis, the unanimous scientific consensus behind it, and the fact that it is human-caused.
Climate denialism is the result of a concerted, strategic disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry over the past 50 years. It is arguably the largest, most comprehensive production of propaganda of our time.
How did it start?
ExxonMobil knew about climate change half a century ago when their own scientists told them that the combustion of fossil fuels would raise global temperatures. The following timeline is meant to expand on Exxon’s deceit, but if TL;DR: instead of using this information to revolutionize energy, Exxon purposefully orchestrated a campaign to cloud public understanding of science that set back action on climate by decades.
There is a great deal of evidence behind this. Since this article is meant to be a short-form explainer, I recommend the Drilled podcast which does a fantastic job of explaining in a narrative, true-crime fashion—available wherever you listen to podcasts—and exxonknew.org for even more.
A very brief timeline:
1957: Scientists at Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) publish a paper on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ocean, citing the combustion of fossil fuels as a major driver.
1970s: An internal briefing paper called “The Greenhouse Effect” is written by James Black in 1977, making abundantly clear to Exxon’s management committee that human-caused emissions will raise global temperatures and spell disastrous consequences worldwide. At this point, climate change is not a debate and Exxon’s research team explores answers to big climate questions and energy innovation in nuclear, solar, and batteries.
1980s: Rachel Carson publishes A Silent Spring, illuminating the effects of corporate pollution. Nationwide outcry divides business into those invested in public interest, and those in the bottom line.
Exxon management cuts funding for climate research and fires lead scientists working on the tanker project, a project to measure CO2 in the oceans. Exxon hires public relations firms that worked with Big Tobacco when it attempted to hide the risks of addiction and cancer.
Exxon and other fossil fuel companies create the Global Climate Coalition to oppose mandatory restrictions on carbon emissions and blur scientific understanding of fossil fuels’ impact on the climate.
1990s: Scientists from different organizations (funded by Exxon) argue against carbon emission reductions due to “scientific uncertainty.” Lee Raymond becomes CEO of Exxon and publicly denies the scientific consensus on climate change and the role of fossil fuels in it.
The Exxon-funded think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute, co-publishes a petition challenging the scientific consensus on climate change—signatories include fictional characters from the TV show M.A.S.H. and Spice Girl “Dr.” Geri Halliwell.
Exxon publishes an Op-Ad series in the New York Times highlighting scientific uncertainty, claiming climate action would needlessly endanger the economy, and painting Exxon as a key solution.
2000s: By 2006, Exxon is funding at least 39 organizations with misinformation on climate change on their website.
The Global Climate Coalition disbands as it “has served its purpose by contributing to a new national approach to global warming.” The Bush administration reveals “new technologies” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are the “clean coal” program and hydrogen fuel cell research initiative. Rex Tillerson becomes CEO.
Between 2007 and 2014, Exxon donates $1.87 million to climate deniers in Congress. Environmental and citizen action groups begin to expose Exxon.
By now, the disinformation campaign has done numbers—public opinion on science is divided by party lines, major media outlets invite climate deniers on talk shows, the blame for pollution has shifted from corporations to individuals, and environmentalists are considered out of touch with reality.
How did they do this?
The fossil fuel industry used multiple tactics to confuse the public. These are just a few:
False Equivalency: Utilizing journalists’ fear of bias, fossil fuel interest groups pressure media outlets to give equal time to ‘both sides’—in reality, both sides would be a scientist with conservative projections and a climate alarmist, not a scientist and denialist.
Invoking Religion: “You’re doing God’s work every time you turn your car on and you burn fossil fuels and you put CO2 in the air. You’re doing the work of the Lord. Absolutely. That’s the system, that’s the ecological system we live in.” – Fred Palmer, Peabody Coal. Fossil fuel companies specifically target “older, less educated males” who are “not active information seekers” (their words, not mine).
Blaming the Individual: Fossil fuel companies state that it is not their responsibility that we, as consumers, choose to use their products. Yet we are embedded in a system that depends on fossil fuels—from the gas in public and private transportation to the plastics encasing food. By shifting the blame from corporations to individuals, the fossil fuel industry absolves itself of responsibility.
What has it led to?
Exxon’s successful propaganda campaign is why it’s so hard to have a reasonable conversation over climate. It’s behind deadlock in government when it comes to consistent, impactful climate action. And its why we’ve lost decades worth of climate action.
All of this doesn’t mean we are powerless. In fact, we have a great deal of power. At the time of this article’s release, there are multiple fronts suing ExxonMobil and demanding the company take responsibility.
There is so much we can do to fight the climate crisis. And we can start today.
If you found this helpful, feel free to buy me a coffee to fuel the next blog. Venmo: @Mary_Meade
I drew from a heavy number of articles, memos, and exposés to write this article. Sources below: