Deconstructing Climate Disinformation
Episode 2 HOT POLITICS – Deconstructing Climate Disinformation
David McKie: This is Hot Politics, I’m David McKie.
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Welcome to episode 2 – Deconstructing Climate Disinformation
Today I have a guest who has been following the disinformation in climate changes for many years. She looks at the tweets, the ads, videos, and blogs created to make you think climate change isn’t all that serious. We are going to deconstruct that a little.
Amy Westervelt, an award-winning independent investigative journalist who has been reporting on climate issues for more than 20 years. She has written for The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Popular Science. Her work is cited as among the earliest accountability reporting on climate change.
She founded a podcast network called Clinical Frequency – which has more than 12 podcasts. She hosts one of those podcasts called Drilled – which she describes as a “true crime podcast about climate change”. It was awarded an Excellence in Audio Storytelling in 2019 by the Online News Association. And has more than a million downloads.
Amy joins me from her home in Costa Rica. Welcome to Hot Politics.
Amy Westervelt: Thank you. Thanks for having me. That's right.
David McKie: it's good to have you. I want to start by asking you to define climate disinformation. So how does that differ from climate misinformation?
Amy Westervelt: [It's really just a matter of intention. So, if someone is very strategically trying to get people to think a certain thing about climate, that is disinformation, if they are just getting it wrong and maybe accidentally spreading things that they think are true but are not true, that is misinformation.
David: Which kind should we be more concerned about, misinformation or disinformation, or does it matter?
Amy: So, yeah. I think disinformation because it usually spawns the misinformation piece. The vast majority of people who are amplifying the messages of the dis informers, I would call them, perpetrating more misinformation because they believe this thing to be true and they're not intentionally trying to mislead people. So, I think if you take out the dis informers, you sort of solve the misinformation problem more or less. There's always going to be people who, you know, spout off about things without really knowing what they're talking about. But I think, yeah, the disinformation piece would go a long way.
David: Now you've been reporting on climate issues and delays and climate action for years. So what kinds of disinformation tactics does the fossil fuel industry use?
Amy: Well, it's really interesting. So, I think there's been a real focus in the last ten, 15 years on climate science denial and the idea of injecting doubt into the science and, you know, just being able to create enough of a kernel of doubt in people's minds that they are unwilling to make big changes or to be inconvenienced in any way because they're not totally sure that this thing is happening.
David: Here’s a twitter ad put out by the American Petroleum Institute.
American Petroleum Assoc: We hear the noise. The energy debate, the pundits, the chatter, its constant. It can feel overwhelming but the millions of problem solvers working in natural gas reduced emission rates by 60 per cent in the largest producing regions. We are taking real actions, working to create real solutions. And thanks to natural gas the U.S. is lead the way in reducing emissions. We hear the noise, but we’re focused on action.
Amy: Right. So that's a very effective thing. I also think that if you look back at sort of the 100 years that that predates anyone starting to talk about climate change, you really see this foundation being laid by the fossil fuel industry for quite a long time, kind of defining how we think about the economy, how we think about the environment, how what types of solutions we're allowed to consider to environmental problems, how we think about the government and regulation and all of that stuff. They're very involved.
David: Here’s a TV ad by Exxon Mobil about oil and gas as the engine of the economy.
Exxon Mobil TV ad: Who keep the economy going? The people behind the vehicles that connect the world. And those who produce the fuel they rely on. At Exxon Mobil we are working to ensure a stable supply of energy and advancing innovation like biofuels made from wood waste and renewable diesel made from plants, which could one day reduce emissions by 85 per cent so the world can keep moving toward a net zero future.
Amy: I also think If you look back at even the late 1800s, they're already starting to lay this groundwork of, you know, here's how we want people to think about the government's role in industry and here's how we want people to think about the environment as this thing over there. So, I think like without that early history, climate denial wouldn't have worked so well. You know, yes, it's an appealing message to tell people that nothing needs to change. But I don't think it would have been as effective as quickly without a century of kind of indoctrinating people into thinking the way that the fossil fuel industry wants them to think prior to that. So, you know, in those years, the industry was really pushing the idea of a divide between humans and the environment and of the economy as being the most important thing to consider. And the environment is being totally divorced from that, bizarre because, of course, the economy requires quite a few natural resources to work, right. So, yeah, I think I think all of those kinds of things really sort of set us up for it being pretty easy to block climate action once that became something that people were talking about.
David: That's a ways back. Holy cow. It really is.
Amy: Oh yeah, they were one of they were one of the first industries to use PR. They actually helped to create polling and market research, the fossil fuel industry, like they were the beta testers of that way back in the early 1900s. They were they were doing that Standard Oil of New Jersey, which is today, Exxon Mobil. I mean, they there's documentation of them doing extensive market research and polling and like 1919, trying to figure out what messages will work, you know, with which audiences and who they should be talking to about what they started investing in universities in the early 1940s, not with the intention of looking for engineers or people who would be good managers of oil refining facilities or things like that, but with the intention of shaping how elite, educated people view the economy. It was very much like we need everyone to think of this particular type of economy that works for us as being the one that's preferable for everyone.
David McKie: And so how did they how did they get this message out?
Amy: So yeah. University research was a big one. Standard Oil of New Jersey was one of the first private companies to heavily invest in universities. There was in the US. There was a tax code change in the twenties and again in the thirties. It sort of made donations to universities a write off. So, you started to see a little bit more private money going into university funding. But Standard Oil really saw this as a golden opportunity. And so, they funded economics programs, research centers, public policy research centers. That was a big one because they saw it as like, look, this is the feeder to policy, right? This is if we can control all the white papers that are being written and all the research that's being done, then when the policymakers go to look at the evidence base for policies that are discussing, our hands are all over that.
David: So, they were able to insinuate themselves into research, trusted research at institutions like universities.
Amy: That's right. Yeah. That's right. And they purposely went after the most prestigious universities. So, it's Harvard, it's MIT. It's like any university that has a good reputation because they know OC government officials are going to be looking at those institutions for the information that they need to. They also were very involved in in setting up legal law schools and legal research centers to, again, very much injecting this idea of the types of laws that they wanted to see and not see around regulating business. So, like, it's really that's the thing that I think people don't necessarily realize is just. And also, by the way, not just universities, elementary schools, there are programs that like ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Chevron actually had the longest running school curricula program in the western United States when they were Standard Oil of California. They had a whole music and arts and culture curriculum that they piped into schools in the Western United States through like through the radio. It was it was tens of thousands of kids. And they're all learning about history. But it's like the history that Chevron wants them to learn, right?
David: Here’s one of those radio lessons from 1971.
Chevron school lesson: Convenience is a great thing. The automobile is an incredible convenience to the average American in his everyday life. For parents, getting to work, running down to the store, picking up the kids and for the kids themselves. Going on vacation trips, going on dates. Almost everything Americans do involves the automobile in some way. Don’t forget that most of us took a ride in a car on our way to being born.
Amy: There's a lot of interesting examples of sort of how they describe the US economy and how kids are learning about this stuff in this seemingly very innocuous way. But it's really indoctrinating people into a particular mindset.
David: That is absolutely fascinating. I didn't realize that the roots were that deep when you think about it. Universities, schools, the legal system.
Amy: Comic books
David: Oh, my goodness. Comic books. All. My goodness. Wow.
Amy: Comic books, movies. There was a movie that Standard Oil of New Jersey commissioned in the forties that won an Academy Award. It's called The Louisiana Story. And it's all about know. And it's all in service of, you know, making this industry seem completely like you cannot separate, you know, the country from the industry or the economy from the industry or, you know, it's just very it's just sort of like underpinning everything. I mean, it's brilliant. It's so it's so smart. But they were doing so much and spending so much money and showing up in so many places for so long before anyone else started doing that stuff.
David: So fast forward to present day. You've got climate activists who are calling out fossil fuel companies. You've got former politicians like our former environment minister Catherine McKenna, who, without naming them, is calling them out. And you've got a succession of COP meetings where they're being called out, but they're also present as lobbyists. So, I'm wondering over the years now with the evolution of social media, how has that message, how has that tactic changed?
Amy: Yeah, social media has kind of given them an even bigger megaphone. It's, you know, it's easier to get a message out to even more people and to really bombard people with it. And you see that like in the if you look at who's advertising on Twitter and on Facebook and all of these places, it's like especially around inflection points, like the COP meetings or like a big election in the US or Canada or Europe, you will see this massive increase in ad spend and it's like, oh, wow, you know, Exxon is spending more than anyone else on Facebook ads by like, you know, by a long shot. So, they're definitely very present there. The other thing that that they do is they're very, very good at media. Right? So, they’ll really get out in front of a story and set the framework before anyone else has had time to kind of figure out what's going on. You see, the best example recently of this is the Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You had spokespeople for the oil and gas industry talking, I mean, six, seven months before Putin invaded about how, you know, gas prices were going to increase because of climate policy. At that time, there was no climate policy. I mean, I was like, I wish I wish this was a problem. But, you know, the journalists weren't really looking at gas prices yet, so nobody had done their homework to see what was actually raising gas prices or what was going on in in Russia and Ukraine and how that might impact things. So then by the time that invasion happened and then subsequently gas prices did start to raise that message, had already been out there for six or seven months, unquestioned, completely unquestioned. And then, unfortunately, a lot of journalists don't know how gas pricing works in general. So, when they did start to go up, it was like, oh, no, you know, this is all being this is being caused by the war, but also these climate policies. There's been a little bit of kind of clawing that back with as the oil companies continue to post record profits, I think it becomes harder and harder for them to push that story. But still, because they were out in front with it, it gave them you know, it gave them basically a year of being able to cash in on those profits without anybody really saying much, which is very, very clever. So that's the thing, too. It's sort of like very, very prepared for any eventuality. If something stops working, they go back to something else. So, you're seeing this in respect to the COP 27 things, right? In the very early days of COP, the big story of the fossil fuel industry was telling was these global South countries, they're just they just have their hands out there trying to get all our money, blah, blah, blah. Right. It's unfair that they should have to they shouldn't have the same emissions reductions requirements that we do now. It's unfair for you, elitist climate people to not let Global South countries emit more for longer. We don't need to be paying these people. We need to be gifted. Seeing them with our amazing energy. It's compelling. I think it's even within the climate movement. I think that people have had a hard time responding to the idea that. Quote unquote, cheap fossil fuel is a pathway out of poverty, even though literally no evidence supports that narrative.
David: It's interesting that you talk about the narratives, because in our first podcast, I had two fairly well-known climate activists in this country, and I asked them whether or not their message is failing, whether the fossil fuel industry has the upper hand. And I'm wondering what your assessment is of that. When we talk about this narrative that the industry is is promoting, so are the activists failing to counter that narrative in this age of social media?
Amy: There's some interesting there's some interesting stuff around that. A few years ago, I think I want to say 2020, someone leaked to me some internal documents from BP. This were right when Bernard Looney was taking over. They were rebranding into their, you know, were like, we're just a net zero company now. BP, you know. And they were doing all these workshops. And so, it was really interesting because I got to see sort of how they were talking about this stuff internally, what the goals of the marketing were and where they thought they had challenges in achieving those goals. And at that time, the thing that they were the most worried about was the youth climate movement. This is pre COVID. They're like, these guys are like, they're believable, they're authentic, and we're looking like chumps. This is a big problem. How do we deal with this? Covid took a huge bite out of the youth climate movement. People couldn't get out in the streets and protests together. People lost jobs. Young people you know were very isolated. And I think that in some ways, social media has been almost a problem for the youth climate movement. There's a significant amount of efforts to sort of try to convince youth climate leaders to become influencers on social media rather than organizers in the real world. Right. And that has been a little bit problematic, I think, because you can look at, oh, wow, this person now has a million followers on Instagram and they're going to all of these like amazing events and whatever. But it's like, okay, but. Where's the ground game? What's happening? You know, like, what do those numbers mean? And I, I, you know, have seen that be somewhat of a detrimental to the activists as well. So I think right now. Everyone is sort of catching their breath and getting back out there and, you know, retrenching and looking at like, okay, what can we do?
Amy: I know that there's been a lot of discourse about the tomato soup protest and whether or not that's effective. And, you know, people are starting to think through what are the most effective strategies. I think I'm seeing a little bit more of an interest in being quite a bit more disruptive out in the world in general.
David McKie: [00:22:32] Throwing paint at throwing, throwing, throwing things at paintings and so on.
Amy Westervelt: [00:22:36] Right. Throwing things at paintings and gluing, gluing your hand to things and stuff like that. And I you know, I think there's a lot of we can debate how effective these things are. But I think the big message that we're hearing from young people is like we're we feel like we're out of all of the options that we were told would work and now we're having to come up with something else.
David: Amy, in your podcast, you've been really focusing on the history of the fossil fuel power industry.
Amy: In the course of researching this 100-year history of fossil fuel PR. I found this one guy who was mentioned by a lot of the of the big PR people for oil in sort of like reverential terms, like he was a legend amongst them. But he was one of these guys who kept himself really out of the press and out of the limelight, just kind of behind the scenes. And his name was Earl Newsom, and he worked for Standard Oil of New Jersey for 20 odd years. And I found this incredible strategy that he wrote
David: And in this particular clip that we're going to play and get you to respond to, you introduce us to Earl Newsom of Standard Oil. So, let's have a listen and then we'll pick up the conversation afterwards.
Earl Newsom: The kind of personal freedom that creates the incentive for individual achievement. Incentives that inspire free men to action, that fire the spirit of great accomplishments, that enable all of us to put our whole hearts into hard work because of the personal satisfactions and benefits that we know will be our reward. In America our free, privately owned competitive enterprise system never stops with rewards for just a few people. The freedom, the opportunities, the rewards for achievement have directly enabled all of us to live on a scale undreamed of in any other country of the world.
Amy: I think it's just really interesting to see how much these guys were thinking about national identity and the economy and how things would work for their clients. So, in this particular case, you know, Earl Newsome is I mean, he's like I think of him as a total genius. You know, he's looking at it's like six months before the war has ended. And he's like, ok, there's a couple of things that the government has been doing during the war that we're all okay with, but we need to remind people that we're not going to be okay with it as soon as the war is over. We need to move on from that and we're not going to be obvious about it. We're going to like just subtly remind people about all of the amazing things that free market capitalism gives to them, like jobs and good wages and innovation and all of these things so that there's no threat of slipping into some kind of socialism or communism post World War two. The worst possible thing in these in these executives’ minds, the worst possible thing for the fossil fuel industry would have been the erosion of free market capitalism, in part because remember, oil companies are always worried about being nationalized because they're profiting from a public resource. Right. They're profiting from a resource that really belongs to the country. So, they're always thinking about like, oh, boy, how do we make sure no one ever comes close to thinking about that as a possibility?
David: Okay. And now. So, what are we to take from that?
Amy: honestly, I think the biggest lesson is just to interrogate everything that you think is objectively true, there’s a really high chance that you just think that way because a very powerful industry spent a lot of money to convince you to think that way. You know, I still I see people all the time in the climate movement repeating things that I know came from like Earl Newsome, you know, like about well, you know, we have to think about the impact that this or that is going to have on the economy or. Well, you can't you know, you don't want to come off as though you're prioritizing some sort of utopian, pristine view of nature. And I'm like, literally no environmentalist has ever actually done that. It's just what they've been accused of doing for like 100 years, you know? And yeah, so yeah, question all of it.
David: So, who is winning at this point? Who is winning the disinformation war?
Amy Westervelt: [00:32:50]. Oh, the fossil fuel industry. Hands down. Yeah, they're. I mean, they're record profits. They're expanding right now at a time when they are supposed to be winding down. They've just I know in the US, at least, the Russia Ukraine situation has been a giant boon to the gas industry. I mean, they're building out new terminals right and left for and saying, oh, this is this is for Europe. We're going to solve the gas pricing in Europe. And I'm like, okay, but it takes like five years to build one of these things. So yeah, but they've signed all these deals where they're locked into producing a certain amount for the next ten years and they're there's a mad rush afoot amongst all of the oil companies to get as much oil out of the ground as they can in the next ten years because they know that the jig is going to be up soon.
David: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. I know that I've learned a lot. And I think that that's important as we start to think about climate change and where we go with all of this. So, if people want to learn more about your podcast if they should listen to Drilled. Amy Westervelt, thank you very, very much for joining me today. It's been a fascinating conversation. I didn't hear any noise. And if people want to learn more, they should listen to your podcast drilled, Amy. Westervelt Thank you very much for an amazing conversation.
Amy Westervelt: Thank you so much. It was so great to be here.
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Hot Politics is produced by Canada’s National Observer. Our Managing Producer for podcasts is Sandra Bartlett. The Associate producer is Zahra Khozema. The Executive Editor of Canada’s National Observer is Karen Pugliese. Our publisher is Linda Solomon Wood. I’m David McKie. Next Tuesday it’s Maxed Out with Max Fawcett. See you in two weeks.
How far back does disinformation go? You'll be surprised to learn the fossil fuel industry began its efforts to control the way people think about them more than a hundred years ago. We talk to Amy Westervelt, an award-winning independent investigative journalist who has been reporting on climate issues for more than 20 years. She delves into the history of climate disinformation and the PR tactics used by oil and gas lobbyists before social media.
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