How Big Oil Lost Control of Its Climate Misinformation Machine

One of the longest and most consequential campaigns against science in modern history is becoming more extreme—and turning against its originators.

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The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, launched a billboard campaign in 2012 to compare believers in global warming to "murderers and madmen" such as the Unabomber, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden. The backlash was so severe that Heartland pulled the plug within 24 hours, but it still lost major donors and political allies and faced criticism that its fight against climate science was beyond extreme.

Five years later, on June 1, 2017, the group's chief executive, Joseph Bast, was a guest of Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden as the president announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

"We are winning in the global warming war," Bast declared later in an email to supporters.

Heartland's rebound is striking. Its ascent into the Trump administration's orbit, where it now advises the Environmental Protection Agency on climate change issues, marks the most dramatic success yet in a decades-long crusade, first funded by fossil fuel money, against the mainstream scientific conclusion that human activity is warming the planet and inviting disastrous consequences.

Choke Hold Series

Hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations such as ExxonMobil and wealthy individuals such as the billionaires Charles and David Koch have supported the development of a sprawling network, which includes Heartland and other think tanks, advocacy groups and political operatives. They have cast doubt on consensus science, confused public opinion and forestalled passage of laws and regulations that would address the global environmental crisis. It is one of the largest, longest and most consequential misinformation efforts mounted against mainstream science by an industry. Climate denial, thanks to the network's influence, has become a core message of the Republican Party, now in control of the White House and Congress.

"This didn't come out of nowhere. Trump was taught to say these things on climate by Heartland, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other think tanks. They maintained this denial space in public policy dialogue," said Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group. "And you can definitely credit Exxon and Koch brothers' money for giving the think tanks the megaphone to keep climate science denial in the world."

But now, just like the Republican upstarts that threaten the party establishment, Heartland is taking climate denial farther than many fossil fuel companies can support. While ExxonMobil today publicly accepts the reality of human-caused climate change and the need to address the problem, Heartland argues for the benefits of a warming world. The group is pushing the EPA to overturn its official conclusion—known as the endangerment finding—that excessive carbon dioxide is a danger to human health and welfare. The finding, affirmed by the Supreme Court, is what empowers the agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Climate Denial: The Long Campaign of Misinformation

This rift was on display at a recent meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that influences state governments to adopt conservative priorities. Heartland wanted ALEC to approve a resolution calling on the EPA to withdraw the endangerment finding. But ExxonMobil, once at the forefront of climate denial, was among several corporations and utilities that convinced ALEC to shelve a vote on the resolution.

ExxonMobil had become just another member of "the discredited and anti-energy global warming movement," complained Heartland's president, Tim Huelskamp, a former Republican congressman from Kansas. "They've put their profits and 'green' virtue signaling above sound science."

ExxonMobil is among an early group of donors that slowed or ended its funding of climate denial. But the misinformation apparatus the corporations helped create is now so independent and robust, it no longer needs—or trusts—them.

Jerry Taylor bio

"Robespierre beheading Danton is pretty apt here," said Jerry Taylor, president of the bipartisan, pro-climate action think tank Niskanen Center, referring to French revolutionaries executing the moderates among them during the Reign of Terror. "There used to be some degree of interest in projecting an image of seriousness, of expertise and evenhandedness on climate, and there isn't anymore."

The new goal is making sure that denial is "part of the ideological catechism of the conservative base," Taylor said. "They are trying to keep the hard Right animated."

Taylor knows this universe from the inside. Once a prominent climate skeptic, he worked at ALEC as staff director for energy and environment issues early in his career. From 1991 to 2014, he was a vice president at the Cato Institute, focusing on energy and climate issues. And, his brother, James Taylor, is a senior environmental fellow at Heartland.

Whatever their differences today, corporations such as ExxonMobil were crucial to getting the denial network up and running. 

According to climate watchdogs Greenpeace/ExxonSecrets, ExxonMobil led corporate donations to think tanks, giving nearly $31 million between 1998 and 2014 to 69 groups that spread climate misinformation. The Koch brothers, whose conservative ideology dovetails with their petrochemical business interests, led giving among individual magnates, donating more than $100 million since 1997 to 84 groups.

The Heartland Institute rejects suggestions that it was ever part of any group fostered by corporations. "Heartland has long supported and promoted scientists skeptical of man-caused global warming on principle," Jim Lakely, the organization's spokesman, told InsideClimate News.

Data from Greenpeace/ExxonSecrets shows the organization received $650,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2006. Heartland points out that it ramped up its work on climate after its Exxon funding ended, and that the only Koch-connected contribution it received in the past 15 years, of $25,000, supported its work on health care issues.

ExxonMobil and Koch Industries did not respond to requests for comment.

As Money Flowed, Strategies Passed Like a Baton

Social scientists are still trying to gauge the full breadth of spending on climate denial because of the large number of players involved, the growth of money from secretive sources, and the wide range of public relations tactics fossil fuel companies use to delay action, according to Robert Brulle, professor of sociology at Drexel University.

Brulle mined IRS and other public filings to show that between 2003 and 2010, 91 groups promulgating climate denial received more than a half-billion dollars from 140 foundations. Corporations such as ExxonMobil pared back their funding in that decade; most of the money came from financial vehicles such as Donors' Trust, which shields funders' identities.

As the money flowed through and nurtured the network over the decades, its misinformation strategies passed like a baton to a shifting array of coalitions and initiatives that protected fossil fuel interests in the climate debate. Some groups produced reports that cast doubt on the accumulating evidence of manmade climate change, and others amplified the alternative findings. Think tanks in the network held conferences, sponsored panels, wrote op-eds and letters, and created an echo chamber loud enough to command equal time in the mainstream media.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon's CEO from 2006 to 2016, after working his way up in the oil company. Credit: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon's CEO from 2006 to 2016, after working his way up in the oil company. According to climate watchdogs Greenpeace/ExxonSecrets, ExxonMobil gave nearly $31 million between 1998 and 2014 to 69 groups that spread climate misinformation. Credit: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

Still, in 2007, under pressure from its shareholders, ExxonMobil announced in its Corporate Citizenship report that it would stop funding a number of climate denial groups. The following year, the presidential nominees of both major political parties felt safe promising voters they would address the threat of climate change if elected.

Then in 2010 the equilibrium changed. The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United vs. FEC removed caps on corporate and nonprofit political donations and opened the floodgates on campaign spending. Billionaires such as the Kochs moved millions of dollars to support the rise of the Tea Party movement and ultra-conservative candidates who saw climate denial as the bedrock of party orthodoxy. Soon, few Republicans running for federal office would admit to accepting the reality of manmade climate change. After conservative populism put Donald Trump in office, the hard-right's social media ecosystem, empowered by a president eager to tweet, has accelerated the spread of false climate narratives, making them more difficult to counter, much less uproot.

"They decided that if they have to choose between an argument that is solid and serious and one that is dodgy but easily understandable by the base, they'll go with the latter," Taylor said. "Anything that moves the needle for the Fox News or Breitbart reader."

The machinery of climate misinformation has gone global and now runs itself. A false story that appeared last February in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, got pushed by right-wing outlets and social media deep into the halls of Congress. "Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data," its headline said. The story claimed that American government scientists had manipulated climate research to advance the Paris accord.

Ten days later, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, a fossil fuel champion and chair of the powerful House Committee on Science and Technology, pressed the government to release the data the scientists had allegedly misused. The story of scientific deception was fake news. A British media oversight body forced the Daily Mail to retract the story, but that was six months after it was published.

'Delay and Defeat': A Strategy Evolves

Oil companies began developing strategies to sow doubt about science that could lead to regulation long before global warming became an issue. 

Caltech scientist Arie Haagen-Smit discovered in the early 1950s that oil was the cause of dangerous smog shrouding Los Angeles. The industry then conducted its own research to try to discredit his findings. Credit: California Institute of Technology

Biochemist Arie Haagen-Smit discovered in the early 1950s that oil was the cause of dangerous smog shrouding Los Angeles. The industry tried to discredit his findings. Credit: California Institute of Technology

Beginning in the 1940s, smog routinely choked Los Angeles, fueling a public health crisis. The city hired Arie Haagen-Smit, a biochemist from the California Institute of Technology, to investigate the cause. He quickly identified oil as the culprit, showing that nitrogen oxide emissions and uncombusted hydrocarbons from car tailpipes and refineries formed smog when exposed to sunlight.

The Smoke and Fumes committee at the American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry's main lobbyist, counter-attacked. It funded scientists who rebutted Haagen-Smit and disparaged him personally. The industry asserted that the science of smog was too uncertain to justify new laws or expensive pollution-control equipment.

By the mid-1950s, industry's own researchers confirmed Haagen-Smit's findings. And the first Clean Air Act, in 1963, soon put industry in the crosshairs of federal regulators. Oil companies began campaigns claiming smog controls would cripple the economy.

Smoggy L.A. day in 1955. Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

A smoggy day in Los Angeles in 1955. Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

API has continued the decades-long fight against stricter smog limits, with new rules delayed along the way by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The 1970 Clean Air Act, meanwhile, has provided trillions of dollars in health and economic benefits, far exceeding the cost of regulations. One Environmental Protection Agency study calculated that the benefits of the 1990 amendments to the law would amount to $2 trillion a year by 2020.

Louis McCabe, Los Angeles's first smog regulator, summarized in 1949 what would become an enduring industry strategy: "Why have we generally failed in our efforts to control air pollution?" he asked. "We have failed because industry believed that air pollution control cost too much. Smoke and dusts were the wages of a prosperous industrial community...There were 'cooperative' programs with the dual objectives of delay and defeat."

The Corporate Pivot to Uncertainty

As the oil industry bolstered its own research into air pollution in the 1950s, some of its scientists began conducting basic research into carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, following work published by leading academics. In 1968, the industry's main pollution-control consultants warned API that it should pay close attention to carbon dioxide emissions.

By the mid-1970s, Exxon began to take carbon pollution seriously. In July 1977, James Black, a senior scientist at Exxon, told top executives that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels would warm the atmosphere and endanger human life. Company leaders knew that if fossil fuel emissions made the planet hotter, politicians would likely take steps to cut pollution. So Exxon launched its own sampling of carbon dioxide in the air and oceans and conducted rigorous climate modeling to better understand how the planet was warming, when temperatures might rise, and the effect on human life. Exxon believed that its own peer-reviewed research would give it a credible voice in policymaking if the government decided to regulate emissions. Other fossil fuel companies followed Exxon's lead.

Exxon scientists measure carbon dioxide in the oceans and atmosphere from aboard the tanker Esso Atlantic. Credit: Richard Werthamer

Exxon scientists led research into carbon dioxide changes in the oceans and atmosphere in the early 1980s, but then the corporate tone shifted. Credit: Richard Werthamer

But the industry's forthright approach started to shift toward denial after landmark events in 1988. NASA's James Hansen, a leading climate expert, raised alarm bells in Congress with his testimony that the warming trend was driven by carbon dioxide emissions. The United Nations that year established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide assessments of evolving climate science. More than 300 scientists and policymakers met at a climate conference in Toronto, declaring, "it is imperative to act now." They called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent over two decades. Regulation of carbon pollution went from a distant possibility to an imminent threat to fossil fuel businesses.

In December 1988, API helped sponsor a conference on preparing for climate change. And the oil industry and utility companies began to pivot to a new narrative: There was uncertainty and, thus, no urgency to heed the emerging science. In late 1995, Leonard S. Bernstein, a scientist for Mobil Oil Corp., drafted a primer about climate science for the industry's Global Climate Coalition (GCC). In it, Bernstein wrote: "the potential for human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied." But he later added, "It is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change."

Lee Raymond bio

As the international community moved in 1997 to curb emissions with the Kyoto Protocol, Exxon's Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond focused on amplifying scientific doubt.

"Let's agree there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond," Raymond said in a 1997 speech. "We need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time."

Doubts about climate change were echoed by think tanks that the corporations nurtured with donations starting in the 1990s. Boosted by a grant from Exxon, the Competitive Enterprise Institute organized the Cooler Heads Coalition in 1998, which over time has brought together more than 30 conservative groups into an influential echo chamber of climate denial. The group still exists.

Halting climate action has been a leading priority of this coalition and its allies, not reluctant to promote questionable information if it supports their cause.

In one instance, the Spanish economist Gabriel Calzada Alvarez published a study in 2009 that said Spain's push to develop renewable energy had hurt employment, costing 2.2 jobs for every clean energy job created. The Spanish government and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed that Calzada's methodology was flawed. But this did not stop deniers from embracing his narrative.

Calzada was a fellow at the Center for the New Europe, a free-market think tank funded in part by ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers. Koch-supported advocacy organizations spread Calzada's findings through blog posts and friendly media. Calzada delivered testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives. Three years later, Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), another conservative think tank, cited the Spanish study in House testimony against federal support of green jobs. AEI received nearly $5 million from the Kochs and ExxonMobil from 1998 to 2012.

Fossil Fuel Fingerprints on Contrarian Research

Think tanks needed support from science, which proved tricky to get, because 97 percent of peer-reviewed articles published about climate change show that it is driven by human activity. So, industry directly funded the work of contrarians within the climate science community.

Among the best known is Willie Soon, a proponent of the theory that solar cycles drive climate change. His notion has been discredited by mainstream science, which determined that the influence of solar fluctuations has been too small to account for the magnitude of modern warming. Yet deniers and politicians cite his papers as evidence that scientists are divided about what causes climate change.

In 2015, it emerged that Soon's research had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from 2003 to 2015 from API, ExxonMobil, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Southern Company, one of the country's largest coal-burning electric utilities. He called his papers "deliverables" in return for the funding.

"I have a big super-duper paper soon to be accepted on how the sun affects the climate system," Soon wrote in a 2009 email to a research specialist with Southern.

Willie Soon, In His Own Words

Denialist think tanks and politicians convinced many Americans that scientists such as Soon are as numerous as those whose work shows fossil fuel consumption to be the main driver of climate change. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center quantified the success of their effort. Fewer than 30 percent of Americans know that the vast majority of climate scientists and the peer-reviewed literature support the conclusion that global warming is manmade.

'The Earth Is Greening'

The Heartland Institute's rise to policy prominence marks a break from previous brokers of climate denial, because it promotes a narrative that was once rejected as too extreme and divorced from accepted climate science.

Kathleen Hartnett White bio

The narrative—that excessive carbon dioxide is beneficial for the Earth—is now backed by some in the EPA and the White House and is deployed as a weapon against the endangerment finding. One of Heartland's policy experts, Kathleen Hartnett White, who has called carbon dioxide "the gas of life," was nominated by the administration to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The EPA and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

In his email to supporters, dated Oct. 12, 2017, and leaked to E&E News, Heartland's CEO Bast detailed plans for how to "market" the positive narrative about excessive carbon dioxide. For instance, he suggests convincing the EPA and the courts that doubling atmospheric CO2 would increase crop yields, and suing companies for not increasing emissions.

Surveys show "we are winning the public opinion battle, since most Americans don't believe global warming is a problem that merits the attention being given to it by the media and politicians," Bast wrote. "The best messages are positive: CO2 increases crop yields, the earth is greening."

Heartland rejects claims that it "denies science." Rather, it asserts that the idea of a scientific consensus that climate change is human-caused is without merit. "The scientists we work with have looked at the data and have concluded climate change is not driven by human activity," Lakely told InsideClimate News. "And the consequences of our uncontrollable warming world are not universally bad, but have a lot of positives, according to the scientists and other experts Heartland communicates and work with."

When the Global Climate Coalition disbanded in early 2002, its members said their work was done because they had succeeded in keeping the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first global climate treaty that paved the way for the Paris Agreement. Now, a dozen years later, climate misinformation is emanating directly from the White House. The administration has orchestrated a rollback of regulatory measures on climate change adopted during the Obama years, and the exit from the Paris accord that President Trump announced with much fanfare from the Rose Garden.

"The basic parameters of the long-term threat posed by climate change were well described and known by 1979," Brulle of Drexel said, referring to a major report on climate change issued by the National Academy of Sciences. "But here we are, coming up on nearly 40 years, and there still is confusion and a lack of willingness to act. So I guess in that sense, the effort to stop climate action has won, as if this is a winning position in any sense of the term."

Read more about the Heartland Institute's outreach to educators.

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