The pipeline of climate denial
Big Oil has understood the catastrophic consequences of its products for a very long time — you’ve almost certainly heard the sordid story of denial and disinformation campaigns, but you probably didn’t know how fundamental the Canadian oilsands have been in fuelling and even pioneering this most consequential of coverups.
Here’s a not-so-fun fact: back in 1992, the public was strongly convinced global warming was a serious threat. Gallup polls showed that 88 per cent of Americans understood it to be a serious problem. But by 1997, the number had dropped to just 42 per cent.
There’s a plausible alternate reality where the scientific warnings about climate change were taken seriously, the fossil fuel industry listened to its own in-house experts and didn’t decide to poison the public debate and we avoided our current, deadly predicament.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” writes Geoff Dembicki in his new book, The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change.” Geoff grew up in Alberta, witnessing Big Oil’s political power first-hand and is now an investigative climate reporter for The Tyee. His book traces the long and surprisingly central role a remote oil deposit in northern Alberta played in the international campaign to delay climate action.
Geoff takes us all the way back to 1959 and one of the earliest warnings to the industry. It came from Edward Teller, a household name in those days as a lead physicist on the atomic bomb project. Teller’s speech at the “Energy and Man” conference centred on “the question of contaminating the atmosphere” — not with radiation, but carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.
“It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the ice cap and submerge New York,” Teller said, speaking from a stage in that very city.
Sharing the stage on that 100th anniversary of the petroleum industry was a certain Robert Dunlop, the head of Sun Oil and a director of the American Petroleum Institute. If the name Sun Oil sounds familiar, it’s probably because you know it today as Suncor, the biggest company in the oilsands.
Another oilsands major with a starring role in Geoff’s book is Imperial Oil — the Canadian arm of Exxon, the most infamous climate denial machine alongside Koch Industries (hang tight, we’ll get to the Koch brothers soon).
Imperial scientists and policy experts produced several of the “petroleum papers” exhumed in the book, demonstrating not just the company’s clear understanding of the catastrophic consequences of burning oil, but also the policy solutions for “approximate stabilization” of climate pollution below 1990 levels.
In 1991, the company projected that a strong federal carbon price would do the trick. And, back then, public opinion was very much behind action, to the point that Canada’s Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney were rolling out a multibillion-dollar “Green Plan” and designing “taxes and emissions trading systems” for carbon dioxide.
Instead of aligning with its own experts and public sentiment, Imperial developed a “Basic Strategy/Action Plan” to undermine public support and stymie government action. The plan was executed not just in Canada but was adopted by Exxon and became the playbook “used by the Global Climate Coalition circa 1997 to apply pressure in the U.S.,” according to the Climate Investigations Center.
I promised we’d get back to the oilsands and the Koch brothers, and Geoff’s book doesn’t disappoint. Koch Industries bought into oilsands leases early on but the company was only a relatively minor player in the actual extraction of bitumen. The Kochs saw more potential in pipelines to its heavy oil refinery in the U.S. Midwest.
“Revenues from the refinery were so immense and consistent that decades later, executives at Koch Industries would still be referring to it as the company’s ‘cash cow,’” Geoff writes. And the Kochs milked it, funnelling cash to a vast network of think tanks and misinformation campaigns so ably described in books like Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
One of the Koch brothers’ most successful interventions was born from their efforts to scuttle President Barack Obama’s climate plans. The Kochs’ money founded the Tea Party movement, ensuring it would turn populist anger against cap-and-trade legislation.
It’s almost hard to imagine, but in that bygone era (not much more than a decade ago), Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich were sitting on a couch together in ads by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project assuring Americans “we can solve it.” The cap-and-trade bill was initially co-sponsored by a Republican senator.
We’re still living with the consequences today. In another alternate reality, the Tea Party was never goosed with billionaire money. Donald Trump remained a narcissistic TV personality and dubious real estate developer.
Koch Industries and Exxon are “the two most aggressive players in this space during the crucial years,” Bill McKibben told Geoff. And the oilsands “play an absolutely key role.”
The history of climate denial and delay is infuriating and the catalogue of missed opportunities can be disheartening. But after years sifting through documents, Geoff has a surprising twist on it all: “It’s hopeful because you find the problem isn’t human nature,” he said at his book launch this week. “It’s not about changing the behaviour of seven billion people like the industry often says.
“It’s about holding a few dozen people and companies accountable.”
It was “Climate Week” in and around the UN General Assembly and there’s a lot to report.
The UN secretary general kicked things off with an impassioned speech on humanity’s “rendezvous with disaster.”
“We need to hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account,” António Guterres said Tuesday morning. “That includes the banks … and other financial institutions that continue to invest and underwrite carbon pollution.” Guterres appealed for a windfall tax on profits and revenues to be directed to countries suffering from climate impacts and people struggling with rising food and energy prices.
“Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation. Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster and more time averting a planetary one.”
The head of the World Bank promptly outed himself as a climate denier in an exchange with The New York TImes. Since we’re not living in one of those Koch-free alternate realities, Donald Trump appointed David Malpass to run the World Bank. Mark Hertsgaard reports the new White House wants him out.
“If you’re in Nigeria and you want to privately finance a new solar farm, you have to pay an interest rate seven times higher than what the OECD (wealthy) countries pay. If you want to build a wind farm in Brazil, you have to pay interest three times higher than what the U.S. pays,” explains Al Gore in Hertsgaard’s report. “(That’s) the job of the World Bank, and they’re simply not doing it.”
Vanuatu became the first country calling for a treaty to restrict fossil fuels. Speaking at the UN General Assembly, President Nikenike Vurobaravu said: “Every day, we are experiencing the debilitating consequences of the climate crisis,” reports John Woodside. “Fundamental human rights are being violated, and we are measuring climate change not in degrees of Celsius or tons of carbon, but in human lives.”
Carbon Tracker launched the first global database of fossil fuel projects. Hard to believe, but there hasn’t been a publicly accessible way to see whether countries’ promises align with their fossil fuel projects. Spoiler: burning the world’s reserves would take us seven times over the remaining carbon budget for 1.5 C.
“The Global Registry will make governments and companies more accountable for their development of fossil fuels by enabling civil society to link production decisions with national climate policies,” said Mark Campanale. “Equally, it will enable banks and investors to more accurately assess the risk of particular assets becoming stranded.”
Industry-orchestrated campaigns aren’t a matter of history. Natasha Bulowski reports a “grassroots” group is running Facebook ads against the oil and gas emissions cap. Canada’s most powerful oil lobby paid for them.
Sixty-nine per cent of Canadians say “the emissions cap should ensure Canada’s oil and gas industry takes on its fair share of the climate effort,” according to a poll out this week by Abacus Data commissioned by Climate Action Network. Fifty-eight cent support the federal government’s plan to set an emissions cap on the industry, just 23 per cent are opposed.
Environmental Defence launched a lobby bot to expose the oil and gas industry’s manoeuvrings around Ottawa. It’s pretty eye-opening — at least four lobby sessions per day, by my count.
Newfoundland is offering Exxon $80 million to explore for offshore oil. But, Woodside Energy is abandoning the largest offshore oil bid in Newfoundland’s history. CBC reports the company may forfeit $200 million to the provincial government rather than proceed with its project.
The U.S. Senate approved an international climate agreement against hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). This vote almost feels like an alternate reality — the U.S. Senate is where environmental protection usually goes to die, but 69 senators, including 19 Republicans, voted to approve the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Scientists estimate eliminating HFCs could cut global warming half a degree this century.
California to ban gas furnaces and water heaters. The California Air Resources Board unanimously approved the proposal to ban sales by 2030.
Electric trucks for DHL. The Canadian arm of DHL is buying 110 electric delivery trucks over the next 12 months. The first 10 will be based at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport by the end of 2022, reports Electric Autonomy Canada.
“As part of an accelerated plan for decarbonization, DHL says it will spend a total of around $10 billion on initiatives around the world to reduce its CO2 emissions. Some of these initiatives include purchasing 12 fully-electric cargo planes, installing solar-powered mobile pop-up stores in different countries and deploying electric cargo bikes.”
My suggested long read this week is, of course, Geoff Dembicki’s book, The Petroleum Papers. There’s so much in there that I couldn’t cover. And it’s not at all a slog through confidential documents. Geoff arfully presents the human face of fossil fuel impacts, interspersing the history of predatory delay with the story of Joanna Sustento, who miraculously survived Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading Zero Carbon. Please forward it along and always feel free to write with feedback or suggestions at [email protected]
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