With over 1400 local events, the April 14 National Day of Climate Action offered a national wakeup call, with citizens in every state raising their voices. But even as we build on this powerful day to move forward, we need to talk about why it’s been so hard for Americans to recognize the climate issue’s urgency.
As recently as July 2006, the acknowledgement of the crisis by ordinary Americans lagged behind not only our counterparts in Great Britain, Germany and Japan, but also behind those polled in China, India, Argentina, Nigeria and Indonesia. U.S. citizen awareness has increased significantly in the wake of this past winter’s massive storms (even before the latest East Coast disaster) and coverage of the international scientific reports. But though between 77% and 83% of Americans now acknowledge that global warming poses a serious problem, 55% only in a January Pew poll say the issue requires immediate government action, and only 47% in the same Pew poll say that they believe it’s human caused. This means there’s still serious denial. And to dismantle the architecture of this denial means taking on the key role of ExxonMobil.
The Politics of Doubt
Those who dismiss global warming’s threat have embraced a series of arguments, retreating from one to the next as they’re trumped by reality. The planet isn’t really warming, they say. If it is, it’s due to random fluctuations or sunspots, not human-created greenhouse gases. And even if global warming is real, it will bring more benefits than problems. Wherever I go, people offer up the same rationales. Some even rattle off the names of dissenting scientists, websites, or journal articles. They dismiss the 99% unanimity of international climate scientists and scientific associations by saying those sounding the warning are all on the take and probably also personal hypocrites.
“They’re just giving the government funding agencies what they want,” a student in Colorado Springs told me two weeks ago. “If they don’t, they won’t get their grants.” It’s an odd concept of pandering, given the massive challenges faced by any elected leader who takes the scientific message seriously. But the deniers insist that a handful of contrarians whose views are refuted by every major scientific study are somehow more credible than the collective judgment of practically every climate scientist in the world.
These arguments emerge from the standard echo chamber of Hannity, Rush, and Fox News. But the spokespeople who articulate them in these venues — and others more mainstream — have been overwhelmingly sponsored by Exxon. As the Union of Concerned Scientists explores in their meticulously detailed report, Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air, and as George Monbiot examines in his powerful global warming book Heat, Exxon’s strategy of using a handful of industry-funded dissenters to cast doubt on an overwhelming scientific consensus was borrowed from the fight over tobacco regulation. In 1992, a major EPA report warned of the medical harm from second hand smoke. In response, Philip Morris hired the PR firm APCO to create a supposedly independent group, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), to promote scientists who’d dispute this harm. Enlisting enough other corporate supporters so the effort didn’t seem just a tobacco industry creation, TASSC’s mission echoed the phrase from a memo of fellow tobacco company Brown and Williamson, “Doubt is our product.”
As part of creating that doubt, APCO’s Steven Milloy founded JunkScience.com, which would later become a key website for global warming denial. Milloy also became associated with other key climate change denial organizations, like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (which has called the Kyoto accords “a power grab based on deception and fear”), and later become a columnist for Fox. Major climate denial activist Frederick Seitz also had strong tobacco industry ties, drawing $585,000 from RJ Reynolds between 1979 and 1987 before going on to the George Marshall Institute.
Exxon jumped in to support these efforts early on, as part of a more general assault on government regulation and action. As the scientific consensus around global warming began to solidify, it began funding a series of studies and spokespeople to insist that mainstream scientific opinion was sharply divided. Between 1998 and 2005 the company has invested over $16 million in challenging the overwhelming consensus among climatologists, spreading the resources among at least 43 different institutions to give the appearance of a broad chorus of dissent. Whether the Heartland Institute, the Alliance for Climate Strategies, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, or the Competitive Enterprise Institute and George Marshall Institute, they all got major Exxon support for their role in arguing that no global warming crisis existed. Until recently, the efforts to sow doubt have worked, with the help of a compliant media and the Bush presidency. And though a number of other energy companies also participated, ExxonMobil was the critical initiator and remained firmly denying the crisis even as other oil companies, like BP Amoco and Shell, acknowledged the gravity of the threat.
Many of us know Exxon’s role in climate change denial and have avoided buying their gas for that reason. Others have avoided the company because of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But we need more than individual actions. In July 2005, major environmental groups launched an international boycott. The coordinating organization, www.exposeexxon.org, has played an important role in getting the word out about the company’s role. Their petition campaign for Exxon to cease funding global warming deniers and join other oil companies in making significant investments in renewable energy has generated over a half million signatures. But their effort has mostly been a media campaign, as opposed to one focusing on grassroots organizing.
Even with this initial pressure, though, the company has seemingly begun to backtrack. This January, following strong criticism of Exxon’s actions by the British Royal Society, U.S. Senators Snowe and Rockefeller, and in the Union of Concerned Scientists report, new CEO Rex Tillerson announced that the company stopped funding “five or six” of the groups that promoted climate change skepticism. But, except for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Tillerson refused to name all the individuals and groups Exxon has given money to or specify those they’ve cut off. And he gave no reason for the shift, although an Exxon spokesman did say the adverse publicity was a distraction. Meanwhile, the company is still paying a handsome salary to former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist and Bush Council on Environmental Quality chief of staff Philip Cooney, whom Exxon hired after he resigned from the Council following media reports of how he edited the reports of climate scientists to render them innocuous. They even sponsor a website aimed at British primary school children, featuring a cute climate skeptic robot that claims the cause of global warming remains uncertain. And ExxonMobil continues to be rated lower environmentally than every other major multinational oil company. While the company’s stated shift may be hopeful, it’s by no means certain that it’s anything but greenwashing.
Solving global warming will be hard enough, even without orchestrated opposition. And off course we need to focus on where we need to go, like StepItUp’s call for an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. But if we only do that and ignore the counterattacks, our efforts will continue to get Swift Boated, and it will be far harder to build the necessary political will for them to succeed. Targeting Exxon pressures them and other corporations to stop trying to undermine the scientific consensus and to stop blocking attempts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions—as in a recent Competitive Enterprise Institute ad that proclaimed about CO2: “they call it pollution, we call it life.” It also highlights the roots of why so many Americans have resisted the reality of the crisis—how what many of us think is just our personal skepticism is product of a deliberate disinformation campaign.
Some questionable companies are hard to boycott—where do you start with Haliburton? But ExxonMobil has a presence in every city in this country. Their gas stations are accessible for rallies and picketing. Every dollar that their stations lose and every bit of adverse press coverage will create further pressure.
Imagine if enough organized effort were focused so that Exxon had to sell or close some of their stations. Or if enough Americans understood their manipulative role so that both the company and the groups they’d supported lost all media and political credibility. Think about how INFACT (now the Corporate Accountability Campaign) ran their largely successful campaigns against Nestle and GE. Or how the United Farm Workers conducted their grape boycotts. Or the successful recent campaign of Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers to get Taco Bell and McDonald’s to require their subcontractors to pay higher wages to tomato pickers. These efforts didn’t just call on individuals not to buy specific products from the problematic companies. They actively organized, in communities, in congregations, and on campuses. They convinced their fellow citizens to withhold their dollars in a way that created the maximum public attention.
Global warming solutions exist, and we need to forge the political will to enact them, building on existing programs like California’s “million solar roof” legislation and the climate change initiatives of the European nations. But even as public attitudes begin to shift, and major corporations like GE, Dupont, and BP Amoco are at least talking about taking the issue seriously, Exxon continues to impede political progress. To prevent a future of endless climate-driven disasters, we need to keep talking about Exxon’s role.