Paul Loeb: Target Global Warming, Target EXXON


By Paul
Rogat Loeb

With over 1400 local events, theApril 14 National Day of Climate Action,, offered a national wakeup call, with citizens in every state raising their voice. 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, only 55% 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 its architecture means taking on the key role of ExxonMobil.

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, 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, they 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, Alliance for Climate Strategies,
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.

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