After decades of controlling public narratives with disinformation, the fossil fuel industry is presiding over critical talks to limit global warming.
As we teeter on the cusp of catastrophe, a petrostate is set to host this year’s conference of the parties, and an oil CEO is the president-delegate. Taking control of COP28, is the fossil fuel industry’s crowning achievement, a surreal moment to be sure, and one that will live in infamy.
The fossil fuel industry is the cause of a wide array of environmental, social, and economic harms and as such they have no place at a climate conference. As laid out in UNFCC Article 2, emissions reduction is the central mandate of the UN-sponsored climate conferences. The fossil fuel industry generates the lion’s share of global warming-causing emissions and to add insult to injury they are the leading source of disinformation. They use their tremendous wealth to fund sophisticated campaigns of deception and spawn elaborate networks of political corruption. For decades they have successfully subverted the truth and coopted the public narrative to preserve their social license to operate.
The fossil fuel industry has a long and sordid history of disinformation. As reported by a 2022 U.S. House Oversight Committee report, the fossil fuel industry is behind a “long-running campaign” to mislead the public about its responsibility for the climate crisis. The committee found big oil actively impedes solutions and works to reinforce our dependence on hydrocarbons. Their harmful and deceptive narratives have wormed their way into public consciousness and slowed public support for climate action.
Lies that Delay Climate Action
Flagrant dishonesty is an integral part of the fossil fuel industry’s spin machine. Their subterfuge is the reason why we have failed to address the climate crisis. Big oil issues statements touting their commitment to emissions reduction while ramping up production. This is part of what some sociologists and economists have called the “discourses of delay“.
As reported by Change Oracle, big oil political consultant Richard Berman explained, the goal of the lies and disinformation is to prevent opponents from “slowing its efforts to drill in more places”. As NPR reported, disinformation has delayed climate action and as explained by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) disinformation has made climate change worse.
They seek to make it look as though we cannot live without fossil fuels while pretending that they take climate change seriously. The real purpose is to keep extracting hydrocarbons. In the service of this agenda, they spin the truth and lie. The lie is one of their most tried and true approaches to rebuffing the facts about global warming. From outright climate denial to so-called “skepticism,” their litany of lies and disinformation spans decades, so there is every reason for rational people to be suspicious about everything they say and do.
Disinformation is arguably the most pressing sustainability issue and the fossil fuel industry is on the frontlines of the disinformation wars. They have effectively influenced public opinion and muddied the waters to erode consensus and redirect the narrative. They undermine the perceived veracity of facts to slow action and keep producing hydrocarbons.
The fossil fuel industry is at war with science because rational observation is a threat to its core business activities. They control academic research and their deceitful pedagogical reach extends all the way to children’s curriculums. They have also curated networks of researchers who conduct pseudo-science with the intent of maligning and casting aspersions on good research.
The industry’s strategies and tactics have been widely exposed. There is Exxon Mobil’s much-publicized deception and as reported by the Insider, Greenpeace recently revealed that the Koch oil barons have spent at least $15 million to attack climate science. According to this reporting, between 1997 and 2018, the Koch brothers paid 90 different groups $15 million to target climate science.
This war has helped to cultivate a post-truth alternative fact narrative that fosters divisions, undermines democracy, and threatens all life on Earth. This effort to shape our perception of reality is ongoing, as explained by UCS, “the fossil fuel industry continues to block the path to climate justice”.
Anti-Science Political Corruption
The fossil fuel industry also grooms politicians to craft policies and shape public opinion. Fossil fuel-powered politics buy politicians and political outcomes by providing generous support to conservatives who in turn disseminate fake news with a pro-industry spin. If you follow the money trail in the U.S., it quickly becomes apparent that the fossil fuel industry controls many Republican lawmakers and this may explain why the GOP are leading purveyors of disinformation. The industry has control of many State Houses and it has used this influence to direct some state lawmakers to enact laws that outlaw fossil fuel protests.
We should not underestimate, what policy expert, and change activist Nafeez Ahmed described as the power of oil lobbies’ “last ditch desperate attempt to stay alive”. They know the end is coming and they are using all the weapons at their disposal to prolong their ability to extract hydrocarbons for as long as possible.
Conservative anti-science propaganda has been used to influence people all around the world. In the U.S. and Australia, fossil fuel advocates were given leadership positions in government. This includes the regulatory agencies that are intended to provide public oversight. In Australia, fossil fuel industry lobbyists known as “the greenhouse mafia” were put in control of climate policy under the Howard government.
In the U.S., the Trump administration was full of fossil fuel advocates. They were tapped to head many government departments and agencies. Former U.S. President Donald Trump picked anti-science fossil fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt proceeded to purge scientists and amass a murderous rap sheet of environmental crimes. Fossil fuel lobbyists Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt led Trump’s Department of the Interior which also declared war on science. Trump himself is infamous for his anti-science stance, and it is an indelible part of his legacy.
The process by which fossil fuel interests assume control over the levers of power is described by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as policy capture. According to the OECD it contributes to inequality, erodes democratic values, undermines trust in government, and stifles the economy.
The fossil fuel industry also pays lawmakers to protect subsidies which is antithetical to emissions reduction, and ramping up clean energy. Fossil fuels currently receive far more government support in the form of subsidies and tax breaks than renewable energy. According to an IRENA9 report, 70 percent of subsidies go to fossil fuels while only 20 percent go towards renewables.
Resisting Clean Energy
Big oil also opposes clean energy solutions. As Ahmed explained, accelerating the clean energy transformation is the “only viable pathway” for a livable future, but the fossil fuel industry is slowing the transition. They have actively campaigned against policies that would restrict fossil-fuel infrastructure, impose carbon taxes, or provide incentives for renewable energy. A new report from Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) reveals that sowing “false doubt about the reliability of green technology” is part of the fossil fuel industry’s narrative which resembles the disinformation playbook of big tobacco.
The climate crisis imposes an energy imperative that requires massive increases in clean energy like wind, solar and nuclear. While renewables are growing at a prodigious rate they are not growing anywhere near fast enough to end dependence on hydrocarbons within the window of opportunity we have to act. As quoted by The Guardian, Simon Lewis professor of global change science at University College London, indicated the ratio of clean to dirty energy investments is currently 1.5 to 1, but it needs to be 9 to 1 by 2030.
In addition to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, clean energy undercuts corruption. It also diminishes the ability of authoritarian petrostates like Russia and Iran, as well as tribal autocracies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to use energy as a weapon. Nonetheless, the fossil fuel industry can be expected to continue to slow the advance of renewables as Ahmed predicts the conflict between clean and dirty energy can be expected to intensify.
Oil Companies’ Liability
The courts are recognizing the malfeasance of the fossil fuel industry as evidenced by a number of legal challenges and rulings. Oil companies are being sued for the risks they pose to human life, defrauding investors, and racketeering. They are also being forced to take responsibility for the damage they cause including the toxic mess they create both at the point of extraction and throughout their transportation networks. Seven U.S. states and many cities are currently suing big oil companies for delaying the implementation of climate policies. The Center for Biological Diversity is among those who have successfully challenged the oil industries drilling rights in the courts.
It is widely known that the fossil fuel industry kills millions prematurely each year and the impacts of climate change will exponentially exacerbate this toll. It is in this context that a compelling legal case has been made by the Harvard Environmental Law Review. The theory of the case is supported by sufficient evidence to charge the fossil fuel industry with homicide. The industry has known about the impacts of their core activities for decades yet they covered up what they knew and launched wave after wave of disinformation to deceive the public and delay climate action. According to some legal scholars, this amounts to a ‘culpable mental state’.
Now is the Time for Climate Action
Were it not for the disinformation and corruption of the fossil fuel industry we would have begun acting in earnest decades ago and we would be living in a very different world today. This is an industry that has been linked to egregious campaigns of deception, environmental racism, and unparalleled political corruption. Over and over again the fossil fuel industry has demonstrated that it will ruthlessly protect its interests at all costs even if it jeopardizes planetary health.
Earlier this year, Adam Morton, the Guardian’s Australian climate and environment editor, wrote a piece that dispelled the illusion that the fossil fuel industry will voluntarily do what reams of research say it must. He shared what he described as the “least surprising newsflash of the year: fossil fuel companies will not, of their own volition, save us from climate breakdown.”
The craven self-interests demonstrated through decades of willful misconduct and ongoing efforts to subvert facts leave no room for oil at the negotiating table. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to act, we have no time for unconscionable tactics of delay. The fossil fuel industry’s climate culpability and treacherous track record of deception precludes the basic level of legitimacy required to be taken seriously as the host of the most important climate conference since Paris.