ExxonMobil takes charge

ExxonMobil arguably developed and carried out the most sophisticated disinformation campaign among all the fossil fuel and utility companies working to undermine the science and to create doubt and uncertainty about global warming and climate change in the minds of the public. The company had almost unlimited financial resources, and some of the smartest engineers and media savvy people already on the payroll.

The Kyoto Protocol

By 1997, mainstream scientific acceptance of the view that global warming would lead to climate change and that this was being caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from man’s activities was well established.  This international recognition and concern eventually led to the formulation of the Kyoto Protocol–a treaty that was negotiated in December 1997 at the city of Kyoto, Japan, and which came into force in 2005. The protocol is a legally binding agreement under which industrialized countries will reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% compared to the year 1990.[1] 

The majority of the world’s industrialized nations signed up to the protocol and committed to begin reducing their carbon dioxide emissions according to the agreed timetable. Several oil companies including BP, Shell, and Texaco accepted the scientific consensus and, to their credit, withdrew from the Global Climate Coalition advocacy group.  But not Exxon.  

Tag team time

In 1998, Exxon helped establish a small task force called the Global Climate Science Team: the GCST.  The group set to work to explicitly create uncertainty on the issue of global warming and by extension climate change. A memo which surfaced a few years ago sets out what the GCST calls a “Draft Global Science Climate Communications plan”.

The Action Plan defined the project goal as : “A majority of the American public, including industry leadership, recognizes that significant uncertainties exist in climate science, and therefore raises questions among those (e.g. Congress) who chart the future U.S. course on global warming.”

In text that has now become infamous, the Action Plan then explained that “Victory will be achieved” when:  

  • Average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom”
  • Media “understands” (recognizes) uncertainties in climate science
  • Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of view points that challenge the current “conventional wisdom”
  • Industry senior leadership understands uncertainties in climate science, making them stronger ambassadors to those who shape climate policy
  • Those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extent (sic) science appear to be out of touch with reality.” [2]

The final outcome of the GCST plan was therefore intended to be twofold: first to inculcate the belief among the general public and industry leaders that there were substantial uncertainties in climate science to the point where this became mainstream thinking; and secondly, to undermine and finally nullify the Kyoto Protocol.

How were these objectives to be achieved?  There were essentially three complementary strategic elements to the plan:

  1. A National Media Relations Program would identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach. The team was to consist of “new faces” who were to add their voices to those recognized scientists who already were vocal.
  2. A Global Climate Science Information Source would inject credible science and scientific accountability into the global climate debate thereby raising questions about and undercutting the “prevailing scientific wisdom”.
  3. A National Direct Outreach and Education program was to inform and educate members of Congress, state officials, industry leadership, and school teachers/students. This included informing teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science so as to “begin to erect a barrier against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future”.

This last element of the program is especially alarming. The plan was to work with the National Science Teachers Association to develop school materials that presented what the GCST considered to be a “credible, balanced picture of climate science for use in the classrooms nationwide.” These ‘educational materials’ were to be distributed directly to schools through “grassroots organizations of climate science partners.”[3]   

Actions speak louder

It was a detailed action plan—and Exxon (now ExxonMobil) faithfully carried it out. In the years that followed, the company executed the strategy as planned: underwriting a wide array of front organisations to publish in-house articles by contrarian scientists and individuals who denied the science and who constantly raised objections about legitimate research that presented evidence and results that were widely accepted by the scientific community as factual.  The network that ExxonMobil created masqueraded as genuine scientific institutions, but they were fronts—publishing now-discredited studies that presented distorted data, contrarian arguments, and false conclusions.

The amount of money involved is astonishing. Data from several sources shows that The Heartland Institute received $650,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2006. But that was just a small fraction of the total amount of cash the company spent keeping these climate denial front organisations up and running. In total between 1998 and 2014, ExxonMobil channelled nearly $31 million to 69 groups that spread climate disinformation out to the American public. Even so, the oil company was outpaced by the financial support provided by the Koch Brothers.  These petrochemical industry tycoons have donated more than $100 million to 84 groups over the last 20 years. [4]  


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For more background see the following:

[1] For the Kyoto Protocol check out: //kyotoprotocol.com
[2]  Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil uses big tobacco’s tactics to manufacture uncertainty on climate science. The Union of Concerned Scientists, 2007. The Global Science Team memo is appended to this report, which is available at //www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf
3] Ibid.
4] Inside Climate News. How big oil lost control of its climate misinformation machine. Accessed at : //insideclimatenews.org/news/22122017/big-oil-heartland-climate-science-misinformation-campaign-koch-api-trump-infographic/