Climate disinformation leaves lasting mark as world heats #ClimateEmergency demand #ClimateAction #SDG13

In 1998, as 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 doubt into the public debate.

By DAVID KLEPPER

“Victory,” according to the American Petroleum Institute’s memo, “will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science… Unless ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue… there may be no moment when we can declare victory.”

Temperature and emissions

The memo, later leaked to The New York Times that year, went on to outline how fossil fuel companies could manipulate journalists and the broader public by muddying the evidence, by playing up “both sides” of the debate and by portraying those seeking to reduce 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.

Drought

Last week, President Joe Biden announced moves intended to expand offshore wind, though he stopped short of 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 will be up to a divided Congress to pass any meaningful limits on emissions.

Even as surveys show the public generally has become more concerned about climate change, a sizeable number of Americans have become even more distrustful of the scientific consensus.

Climate change is the most important issue now facing humanity. As global temperatures increase, floods, fires and storms are becoming both more intense and frequent. People are suffering. And yet, emissions continue to rise. This book unpacks the activities of the key actors which have organised past and present climate responses – specifically, corporations, governments, and civil society organisations. Analysing three elements of climate change – mitigation, adaptation and suffering – the authors show how exponential growth of the capitalist system has allowed the fossil fuel industry to maintain its dominance. However, this hegemonic position is now coming under threat as new and innovative social movements have emerged, including the fossil fuel divestment movement, Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and others. In exposing the inadequacies of current climate policies and pointing to the possibilities of new social and economic systems, this book highlights how the worst impacts of climate change can be avoided.

Organising Responses to Climate Change

“The tragedy of this is that all over social media, you can see tens of millions of Americans who think scientists are lying, even about things that have been proven for decades,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University who has written about the history of climate change disinformation. “They’ve been persuaded by decades of disinformation. The denial is really, really deep.”

And persistent. Just last month, even with record heat in London, raging wildfires in Alaska and historic flooding in Australia, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a pro-fossil fuel think tank, said all the scientists had it wrong.

“There is no climate crisis,” the group wrote in its newsletter. 

Years before COVID-19 set off a wave of misinformation, or former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election helped spur an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, fossil fuel companies spent big in an effort to undermine support for emissions reductions.

Merchants of Doubt has been praised―and attacked―around the world, for reasons easy to understand. This book tells, with “brutal clarity” (Huffington Post), the disquieting story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. The same individuals who claim the science of global warming is “not settled” have also denied the truth about studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it. Merchants of Doubt rolls back the rug on this dark corner of American science. Now with a new Foreword by former Vice President Al Gore, and with a new Postscript by the authors.

Merchants of Doubt

Now, even as those same companies promote investments in renewable energy, the legacy of all that climate disinformation remains.

It’s also contributed to a broader skepticism of scientists, scientific institutions and the media that report on them, a distrust reflected by doubts about vaccines or pandemic-era public health measures like 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 withholding what they knew about the risks of climate change.

The heat waves, extreme wild fires, and flooding
around the world confirmed beyond doubt that climate
disruption is now a full-blown emergency.

We have entered Churchill’s “period of consequences”, yet
governments have simply watched the disasters magnify,
while rushing ahead with new pipelines and annual trillions in
fossil fuel subsidies.

Governments simply cannot say they did not know. The
events we are seeing today have been consistently forecast
ever since the First Assessment by the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, which was signed by all
governments back in 1990, which The Lancet has described
as the best research project ever designed.

Unprecedented Crime first lays out the culpability of
governmental, political and religious bodies, corporations,
and the media through their failure to report or act on the
climate emergency. No emergency response has even been
contemplated by wealthy high-emitting national governments.
Extreme weather reporting never even hints at the need to
address climate change.

It then reports how independently of governments, scores of
proven zero-carbon game changers have been coming online
all over the world. These exciting technologies, described in
the book, are now able to power both household electricity
and energy-dense heavy industry.

We already have the technical solutions to the CO2 problem.
With these solutions we can act in time to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions to near-zero within 20 years.

These willful crimes against life itself by negligent
governments, oblivious media and an insouciant civil society
are crimes that everyday citizens can nonetheless readily
grasp – and then take to the streets and to the courts to
protest on behalf of their children and grand-children.

This thoroughly researched and highly-documented book will
show them how.

An Unprecedented Crime

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, as public awareness of climate change grew, fossil fuel companies poured millions of dollars into public relations campaigns denouncing the accumulating evidence supporting the idea of climate change. They funded supposedly independent think tanks that cherrypicked the science and promoted fringe views designed to make it look like there were two legitimate sides to the dispute. 

Since then, the approach has softened as the impact of climate change has become more apparent. Now, fossil fuel companies are more likely to play up their supposedly pro-environmental record, touting renewables like solar and wind or initiatives designed to improve energy efficiency or offset carbon emissions.

Aggressive approaches to address climate change are now dismissed not on scientific grounds but on economic ones. Fossil fuel companies talk about lost jobs or higher energy prices — without mentioning the cost of doing nothing, said Ben Franta, an attorney, author and Stanford University researcher who tracks fossil fuel disinformation. 

“We are living within an extended multi-decade campaign executed by the fossil fuel industry,” Franta said. “The debate (over climate change) was manufactured 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 public opinion surveys that show a growing gap between Republicans and other Americans when it comes to views on climate change.

While the percentage of overall Americans who say they’re concerned about climate change has risen, Republicans are increasingly skeptical. Last year, Gallup found that 32% of self-identified Republicans said they accepted the scientific consensus that pollution from humans is driving climate change, down from 52% in 2003.

By comparison, the percentage of self-identified Democrats that say they accept that human activities are leading to climate change increased from 68 to 88 over the same time period.

Fossil fuel companies deny any intent to mislead the American public and point to investments in renewable energy as evidence that they take climate change seriously.

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods told members of Congress last fall that his company “has long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change, and it has devoted significant resources to addressing those risks.” ExxonMobil’s public claims about climate change, he said, “are and have always been truthful, fact-based … and consistent” with mainstream science.

Asked about its role in spreading climate misinformation, a spokesman for the Southern Company pointed to recent expansions in renewable energy and initiatives meant to offset carbon emissions. 

The 1998 “victory memo” laying out the industry’s strategy was created by the American Petroleum Institute. In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, API spokesperson Christina Noel said the oil industry is working to reduce emissions while also ensuring access to reliable, affordable energy.

“That’s exactly what our industry has been focused on for decades,” Noel said. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

The 1998 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 ratepayers, investors or the general public.

“It’s time for these companies to answer for the harm they have caused,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California.

Republicans, however, have said Democrats want to focus on climate misinformation to distract from failed environmental policies that are driving up gas and energy costs.

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