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  • Traci Holmer

A History of Climate Denial: How Big Oil Fooled Generations of Americans


Participant in the climate strikes of 2019 addresses climate denial in government.


What is Climate Change?

Climate change describes changes in the temperature of the Earth over time, which, in recent history, has warmed considerably. Scientists have found overwhelming evidence that global warming is linked to human activity -- primarily burning fossil fuels. They have projected devastating outcomes of climate change in the next 50 to 100 years, like massive flooding, wildfires, and extreme heat waves. Already, there have been frequent and severe natural disasters worldwide as a result of climate change. The US is one of the largest contributors to fossil fuel emissions in the world, but it has had relatively weak climate legislation compared to other industrialized countries.


What is Climate Denial?

One of the major reasons for the US’s reluctance to implement strong climate measures is climate denial, in which government officials and a large portion of the public deny the existence or severity of climate change. 46% of Americans disagree with the scientific consensus that climate change is real. 33% believe that climate change is a natural phenomenon and not caused by human activity. From these statistics, one might assume that the science of climate change is too ambigious or new to be reputable. However, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity, and some of the earliest findings of climate change were in the 1950s.


Even though the science about climate change has been nearly certain for decades, climate denial is strong throughout the US and impacts climate legislation at every level of government. In 2021, 139 members of Congress denied that climate change is caused by human activity, all of whom were Republicans. While right-wing groups and officials push climate denial, a less recognized orchestrator is the fossil fuel industry. Large oil corporations have a history of denying climate change despite being the first to discover its existence.


Climate Change Discovered

As early as 1957, ExxonMobil discovered that fossil fuel emissions were responsible for rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. To build on this evidence, scientists at large oil corporations conducted studies throughout the 1970s and found that fossil fuels would cause increased CO2, melt the ice caps, and disturb ecosystems. Scientists from oil companies around the world discussed these findings during Climate Change Task Force meetings facilitated by the American Petroleum Institute (API) between 1979 and1983. In the meetings, scientists concluded that CO2 rising in extreme measures was largely caused by burning fossil fuels. Lead experts predicted catastrophic consequences in the coming decades and recommended urgent action, including the reduction of fossil fuel consumption.


Denial from Oil Corporations: The Global Climate Coalition

Despite overwhelming research from their own experts concluding that climate change was well underway and would pose severe consequences, oil corporations developed a strategy to cast doubt on climate science. Fearing that the government would pass environmental regulations that would slow their production of oil, large corporations formed the Global Climate Coalition, an aggressive lobbying group that undermined climate research to the government and the public at large. More than 40 energy corporations participated in the coalition, including Exxon, Chevron, Shell Oil, General Motors, and Texaco. At its peak, 79 organizations had joined GCC in 1991.


The GCC attacked the IPCC’s climate scientists and extensively tracked their meetings in the lead up to the Kyoto Protocol.


Many of their efforts were spent attempting to weaken the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) through lobbying and canvassing. This tactic was successful as the GCC influenced the Bush administration to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, which provided a framework for industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse emissions. They also testified in Congress opposing climate legislation in the 1990s that would have placed emissions caps and other environmental regulations on corporations. One of their main arguments against this legislation and the Kyoto Protocol was scientific uncertainty, despite their own scientists coming to a consensus about climate change. To instill this uncertainty in the public, the GCC outright denied scientific findings from climate scientists in their publications with statements such as “there is no evidence of a warming trend that can be traced to man-made emissions.” They also promoted small groups of fringe scientists who denied climate change, though some evidence suggests they may have even funded their research.


Big Oil’s Role in Climate Denial Today

Today, large oil companies continue to spread misinformation and deny the severity of climate change. The largest oil companies spend millions of dollars annually on ad campaigns that downplay climate change and fear monger about environmental regulations. 16 companies with the largest greenhouse gas emissions have run over 1700 ads with climate misinformation on Facebook. These ads target specific population demographics to weaken support for climate legislation. ExxonMobil for instance targeted ads to New Yorkers in 2021 around the time that the state passed stronger climate legislation to spark public opposition. Oil and energy companies have also increased these ads around election time to sway voters against representatives in favor of stronger climate action.


Example of an ExxonMobil ad targeted at New Yorkers to fear monger about new climate legislation.


Consequences of Climate Denial

Climate denial is not a matter of complicated science, but rather the fossil fuel industry attempting to preserve their profits for as long as possible despite horrific costs. Big oil companies were the first to know about the severity of climate change, and they chose to hide the truth. Without their campaigns to block climate legislation and dissuade the public, the US may implemented strong climate legislation much sooner. The consequences are already upon us, with devastating natural disasters increasing around the world. In the week of this past July 4th, the world had the seven hottest days in the last 120,000 years of human history. Big oil’s historical and current efforts to push climate denial cost human lives and irreversible damage to the environment.


Solutions

Fighting climate denial is difficult because of the mistrust that corporations have sowed in the public against climate scientists. Researchers are working hard to track and expose climate misinformation on social media. In addition, grassroots climate organizations conduct public outreach campaigns that help fight misinformation. Climate Change Investigators and Inside Climate News also help by revealing the oil industry’s involvement in climate change. As for what the average person can do, talking to family and friends who deny climate change and giving them the facts is one step in the right direction.


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