In 1998, when nations around the world agreed to cut carbon emissions through the Kyoto Protocol, America’s fossil fuel companies plotted their response, including an aggressive strategy, to inject skepticism into the public debate.
According to the American Petroleum Institute memo, “victory” will be achieved when the average citizen ‘understands’ the uncertainties in climate science.
The memo, leaked to The New York Times later that year, went on to underline how fossil fuel companies were scoffing at the evidence, playing “both sides” of the debate, and by portraying those seeking to undermine journalists. and can manipulate the wider public. Emissions as “out of touch with reality”.
Nearly 25 years later, the reality of a changing climate is now clear to most Americans, as heatwaves and wildfires, rising sea levels and extreme storms become more common.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced moves intended to expand offshore wind, though he held off on declaring a national climate emergency. A Supreme Court ruling last month limited the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, meaning it would be up to a divided Congress to pass any meaningful limits on emissions.
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Even as polls show that the public in general has become more concerned about climate change, a greater number of Americans have become even more distrustful of the scientific consensus.
Naomi Oreskes, historian of science at Harvard University, said, “The tragedy of this is that all over social media, you can see millions of Americans who think scientists are lying, even about the things they do. Even in what has been proven over the decades.” Wrote about the history of climate change propaganda. “He has been persuaded by decades of propaganda. The denial is really, really deep.”
and continuously. Just last month, with record heat in London, raging wildfires in Alaska and historic flooding in Australia, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a fossil fuel thank-you tank, said all scientists got it wrong.
“There is no climate crisis,” the group wrote in its newsletter.
As COVID-19 set off a wave of misinformation, or lies about former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election helped fuel a revolt in the US Capitol, fossil fuel companies called for emissions reductions. Spent a lot of effort trying to curtail support.
Now, even though the same companies promote investment in renewable energy, the legacy of all climate-related information remains.
It has also contributed to widespread skepticism of scientists, scientific institutions and the media reporting on them, a distrust reflected by skepticism about vaccines or pandemic-era public health measures such as masks and quarantines.
“It was the opening of a Pandora’s Box of Disinformation that has proven hard to control,” said Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute, an organization that has criticized oil and coal companies for what they do about climate change risks. know.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as public awareness of climate change grew, fossil fuel companies poured millions of dollars into public relations campaigns condemning the accumulated evidence supporting the idea of climate change. He allegedly funded independent think tanks that cherry-picked the science and promoted fringe ideas designed to see if there were two legitimate sides to the controversy.
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Since then, the outlook has softened as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. Now, fossil fuel companies are more likely to run their supposedly pro-environmental record, citing renewable energy such as solar and wind or initiatives designed to improve energy efficiency or offset carbon emissions.
Aggressive approaches to addressing climate change are no longer dismissed on scientific grounds but on economic grounds. Ben Franta, an attorney, author and Stanford University researcher, said fossil fuel companies talk about lost jobs or high energy prices — without mentioning the cost of doing anything.
“We are living within an extended multi-decade campaign executed by the fossil fuel industry,” Franta said. “The debate[on climate change]was created by the fossil fuel industry in the 1990s, and we are living with that history right now.”
The impact of that history is reflected in opinion polls that show a growing gap between Republicans and other Americans when it comes to views on climate change.
While the percentage of Americans overall who say they are concerned about climate change has risen, Republicans are increasingly skeptical. Last year, Gallup found that 32 percent of self-identified Republicans said they accepted the scientific consensus that pollution from humans is driving climate change, down from 52 percent in 2003.
By comparison, the percentage of self-identified Democrats who say they accept that human activities are causing climate change has increased from 68 to 88 over the same time period.
Fossil fuel companies deny any intention to mislead the American public and point to investments in renewable energy that they take climate change seriously.
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods told members of Congress at last that his company has “long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks.” ExxonMobil’s public claims about climate change, he said, have “always been true, fact-based … and consistent” with mainstream science.
Asked about its role in spreading climate misinformation, a spokesperson for the Southern company pointed to the recent expansion in renewable energy and initiatives to offset carbon emissions.
The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. The trade group was behind the 1998 “Memorandum of Victory” that laid out the industry’s strategy for responding to concerns about climate change.
The memo is one of several documents cited by climate activists and some Democratic lawmakers who say they could be used to hold them legally responsible for misleading raters, investors or the general public.
“The time has come for these companies to answer for the damages they have caused,” said Rep. Ro Khanna of D-California.
However, Republicans have said that Democrats want to focus on climate misinformation to deflect attention from failed environmental policies that are driving up gas and energy costs.