Environment Committee: How Climate-Change Denial Is Being Funded

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

Climate-change denial by our politicians is causing the public to refrain from taking the drastic action that is needed to prevent it. The fossil fuel industry is funding this denial to protect their profits. ExxonMobil’s role in this was described last year in the New York Review of Books.

Background on Exxon

John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, Exxon’s precursor, in 1870, and for much of the 20th century, Exxon was the biggest company on the planet. Ironically, it is the Rockefeller Family Fund that has been behind the research that exposes Exxon’s climate-change denial efforts.

In 1977, Exxon’s James Black made a presentation showing the rise of carbon dioxide since 1957, when Exxon began its records. A year later he said we only had a window of 5 to 10 years before changes in our energy strategies would become critical. In 1979, senior Exxon scientist Henry Shaw warned management of global warming predictions by the National Academy of Science, and in 1981 Roger Cohen wrote an internal memo stating cumulative carbon emissions could be catastrophic by 2030. 

Using the Cigarette Lobby’s Tactics

While understanding that greenhouse gases are byproducts of fossil-fuel combustion, and despite the consensus of peer-reviewed studies that climate change is occurring and human activity is contributing, Exxon began to emphasize “uncertainty” in scientific conclusions. In the 1980s, the company hired some of the same “scientists” who had supported doubt about the connection between cigarettes and lung cancer. It took four decades to curtail smoking, enabling the industry to continue making profits. The fossil-fuel industry has copied this strategy, urging more research to postpone action. 

Exxon’s Political Influence

Exxon has used other means to defuse climate-change concerns. In 1998, Exxon participated in a $6 million lobbying campaign that successfully prevented the United States from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases. Since 1999, Exxon has spent $240 million on lobbying. It was the oil industry’s biggest spender in the 2016 election. Is it any wonder our present administration reflects climate-change denial? Consider: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO; Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who asked Department of Energy employees their positions on climate change; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who built his career as Oklahoma attorney general suing the EPA; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montana politician and coal-industry booster who is pushing oil exploration in formerly protected public lands. 

However, because of the Rockefeller Family Fund’s research on Exxon’s knowledge of the catastrophic damage of climate change while funding climate deniers, Exxon is being investigated. Attorneys general from New York, Massachusetts, California and elsewhere are examining Exxon’s failure to disclose risks to shareholders as instances of consumer fraud. But it is hard to compete with Exxon’s legal resources, and the company has already begun legal actions against states in response to their investigations.

The Koch Brothers

No discussion of climate-change denial would be complete without David and Charles Koch, who have spent more than $88 million supporting groups and research that attack climate change. The Koch brothers have shell corporations through which they funnel money to protect their fossil-fuel empire, supporting organizations with names such as Competitive Enterprise Institute, Free Enterprise Institute and Americans for Prosperity, as well as better known groups such as the Cato Institute and Heartland Institute. 

I once heard an environmentalist say that electric cars are more toxic than gas cars. Unbeknownst to him, he was repeating propaganda from the “Fueling US Forward” campaign, indirectly financed by the Koches to discourage consumers from buying electric cars.

Dire Warnings

“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” David Wallace-Wells begins his July 9 New York magazine article, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

An introduction like that certainly gets your attention. You might think such terror would cause people to panic and not take action.

However, as Farhad Manjoo notes in the New York Times, focusing on the worst case scenario might be the only way to get people to change. At the turn of the century, $580 billion was spent preparing for Y2K. It proved to be valuable during the crisis of 9/11. Y2K proved the importance of the “precautionary principle,” suggesting it’s better to be safe than sorry.

We are being lulled into complicity by those in power. We can’t wait for our leaders to take action. By the time they do, it may be too late.

Futher Reading