Down with Denial

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How Big Oil promotes ‘denial’ and other ‘D-words’ to convince the world that climate change is not a real threat.


 

On 9 June 9 1971, Cleveland, Ohio, hosted the annual conference for the electrical industry of the country. An MIT professor, Caroll Wilson, addressed a group of engineers and businessmen highlighting the imminent dangers of climate change. His speech was as accurate as possible for that decade, and, although he did mention that the phenomenon was not yet a scientific reality, he was clear that it needed serious consideration. The conference organiser, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), was so moved by the speech that it decided to invest in the best climate research for the time, even at the expense of its business. Just two decades later, the scenario had quizzically flipped.

Not a single electric utility supplier, not even its most enthusiastic lobbyist, the EEI, or its &D associate, the Electric Power Research Institute, showed any interest in trying to understand climate change, let alone stop it. In fact, in 1992, an article by the EEI even claimed that the climate has always changed historically and that this change would be good for the Earth, bringing in cooler days, warmer nights and better vegetables.

It was not just the electricity manufacturers who were in such a convenience-wrapped denial. Sadly, despite wanting wholeheartedly to give the rest of the business world the benefit of the doubt, the knee-jerk reaction to climate change for almost every industry globally was dismissal.

Take the oil industry for example. Some of the biggest creators of greenhouse gases, the largest oil manufacturers of the world had understood the devastating effects of climate change at least a few decades ahead of the rest of the world. They could have spoken out against it; they could have stayed quiet about it. But, they chose to do much worse. Launching an expensive, covert campaign all through the 1990s and 2000s, they worked to cast doubt on the science of the issue at hand and downplay the dangers.

US researchers who dug deep into the reasons why the country took this long to accept climate change have found that these mega industries had big agendas in bringing the situation to this drastic point. So thorough and well-planned was their devious endeavour, that even long after the scientists of the world had agreed upon the reality of climate change and accepted it to be dangerous, the utilities employed their top scientific names to sell the policymakers and the citizens half-truths, transforming it into a bipartisan issue and keeping it that way for a long time. Even if George W Bush called for action on the issue in his campaign trail of 1988, identifying it as a global challenge that American technology could potentially address, the industry and its allies pushed back strongly against the empirical evidence of climate change, attracting many conservatives to their cause in the process.

If the most informationally advanced nation in the world were to be fooled, the game plan would have to be nothing short of brilliant. Turns out, it was. The documents uncovered by journalists and environmental activists over the years lay it out as a step-by-step strategy. First, the media outlets were targeted to report on the foggier research of climate science and position them against industry-backed experts who could argue them down. The next step was to target the already sceptical conservatives that climate change was nothing but a liberalist hoax and ridicule anyone who chose to believe in the mounting research. In the 1990s, the industry leaders of the oil and utilities industry made ‘experts’ out of contrarian scientists whose opinions, they stressed, should be regarded as equally important, although quite obviously the opposite in views, to the climate scientists; the simple fallacy of false equivalence.

While data on the effectiveness of the plan is hard to measure or find, the success story of the rigmarole is difficult to deny. It can be seen in the way people perceived the issue of climate change over the years. In its fledgling years of research, and until the 1990s, the world viewed climate change as a problem that warranted concern and action. By 2008, the opinions were quite visibly divided, with almost the same number of naysayers as believers. In 2010, the belief systems of American citizens, largely viewed as a microcosm of the world, barring Europe, had shifted drastically; only 48% believed in the reality of climate change, despite there being a decided increase in research, climate models and more accurate predictions on the problem.

According to Michael Mann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis, the graph that shows the heat-up rate of the earth resembles a hockey stick. In his widely popular theory, the ‘hockey stick curve’, he talks about the steeply rising temperatures of the earth after a whole millennium of steady levels and the reasons behind it.

In an interview with Today, Explained, Mann minced no words to point at the perpetrators behind the denialist propaganda and was also transparent about the reason behind the agenda. Fossil fuels such as coal propel the massive utility-electricity industry and oil companies use crude oil as raw material to produce finished, refined oil. Powerful fossil fuel companies such as the Koch Brothers and conservative donors such as the Scaife Foundations had vested interests in discrediting the rock-solid science (and the scientists) behind the then-still-murky issue of climate change and downplaying the not-so-apparent effects of climate change. It was simply, to continue cashing in on the cheaper fossil fuel to run their industries for as long as they could.

Decades down the line, the Penn State professor says that while the strategy may have changed, the agenda has not. He feels that as the effects of climate about the reason behind the agenda. Fossil fuels such as coal propel the massive utility-electricity industry and oil companies use crude oil as raw material to produce finished, refined oil. Powerful fossil fuel companies such as the Koch Brothers and conservative donors such as the Scaife Foundations had vested interests in discrediting the rock-solid science (and the scientists) behind the then-still-murky issue of climate change and downplaying the not-so-apparent effects of climate change. It was simply, to continue cashing in on the cheaper fossil fuel to run their industries for as long as they could.

Decades down the line, the Penn State professor says that while the strategy may have changed, the agenda has not. He feels that as the effects of climate change stare us right in the face, with unprecedented extreme weather events such as coastal inundation, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires and floods, fewer and fewer numbers of people are climate-dismissive. Therefore, it is high time the terminology changed from just ‘denial’ since ‘deny’, they no longer can.


In its fledgling years of research, and until the 1990s, the world viewed climate change as a problem that warranted concern and action. By 2008, the opinions were quite visibly divided, with almost the same number of naysayers as believers.


There are other ‘D-words’. There’s delay; there’s division. Mann feels that by pitting scientists against one another, fossil fuel industries and their affiliates can easily divide the scientific world and conquer it. They delay clamping down on fossil fuel usage by claiming to have the technology to fix the problem sometime in the future, in order to continue its use now. Mann explains, “They want people disengaged on the sidelines rather than on the front lines. We see these tactics literally playing out today.”

Another, softer denialism tactic at play, perhaps, is downplaying the problem. An article in the Wall Street Journal mentioned how Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil accepted climate change as real. He didn’t shy away from calling the spade a spade, but perhaps, called it a smaller, less dangerous spade than what scientists were making it out to be. This, in itself, is a dangerous game, and one that has the potential to pull down much of the progress science has made, to contain the problem through prevention. The internal documents of ExxonMobil reveal significant efforts by the company to downplay the effects of the crisis and a number of attempts to waylay the public by talking about far-fetched theories like using geoengineering or displacing the carbon from the atmosphere into the sea beds for algae production as ways to offset the warming.

There is only one catch here, and it is one that deniers never talk about – the huge expenses that will be incurred to go for any of these mitigation efforts and the sheer trouble that will have to be taken to ensure any success of the same. Not to mention, of course, that none of these theories have been put into practice, so they remain just that – untested theories.

When the beverage industry had tried to prevent the passage of bottle bills to avoid a hit to their bottom lines, the leaders had turned to the people, to advertise the sheer lack of necessity for the bill. A similar, underhanded tactic, seems to be at play here, where carbon polluting industries are turning their attention away from the policymakers to the general public to deflect them. “Reduce your carbon footprint,” they say. “Take matters into your own hands,” they whisper. The very first individual carbon footprint calculator of the world, heavily publicised in the 2000s, told people how lifestyle changes such as becoming vegan, having fewer kids and travelling less can help the environment. The calculator was created by the British Petroleum.

Sadly, many individuals jumped on the bandwagon, believing whatever was fed to them by the industrialists to keep them from seeing the bigger picture that clearly depicts the uselessness of individuals in putting a price on carbon or blocking the construction of the new fossil fuel infrastructure, simply by tweaking their lifestyles.

Where deflection doesn’t work, there is dawdling. A study published in the Environmental Research Letters revealed that it took the electric utility industry almost half a century, from making a show to pull out all the stops for true and honest research on climate change, to leading the world on a false trail, to finally, and quite reluctantly, agreeing to decarbonise their own grids in the 2010s.

As a tactic to defy all tactics, there is doomism. Paid actors around the world are parroting en masse, “You’ve tried it all and you’ve failed! So why bother at all?” Hopelessness is easier to sell than hope, and in this case, it seems as if doomism even has some of the more informed environmentalists fooled.

The history of dawdling, denial and doubt cast by the utilities industry of the United States of America continues to wreak havoc today. The decisions taken by the industry leaders decades ago have many of the country’s factories operating from environmentally damaging coal plants, effectively holding back any efforts at combating climate change. To the general populace, optimistic scientists say that we still have time until we hit the point of no return. Until then, our only hope is to push for those policies.

To the industrial world, scientists and researchers have but one plea – stop selling the idea that the effects of fossil fuel can be reversed. It is easier to keep the genie in the bottle, rather than trying to shoehorn it back in, once out.

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