The decades of denial

By 1989, a year after James Hansen’s testimony before a Congressional hearing on climate change, political attacks on climate change science had begun to take shape. In the pages of the Executive Intelligence Review, a publication of conspiracy theorist Lyndon Larouche, the greenhouse effect was described as a hoax—a flagrant lie repeated by President Donald Trump almost 40 years later.

The George C. Marshall Institute was the first organisation to go on the attack. Founded in 1984, it was a conservative think tank originally set up to defend President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.  But by the late 1980s, the Institute was taking more than a passing interest in the debate over climate change.  In 1989, it issued its first report attacking climate science.  It printed and circulated a paper which was later published as a small book entitled “Global warming: What does the science tell us.”  The central claim was that the warming that Hansen and other scientists had found didn’t track the historical increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. According to the paper, a slight increase in the sun’s energy output was responsible for the climate warming that had been detected by James Hansen.

To support their claim they used Hansen’s own published data—but only the bits that could be interpreted as supporting their claim.  It was a clumsy attempt to distort the evidence–but since few policymakers or politicians were going to go back to Hansen’s original paper to check, the Marshall Institute’s article had widespread impact. The result was to cast doubt on the veracity of Hansen’s testimony and to manufacture uncertainty about the science.    

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel companies were joining forces.

The Global Climate Coalition

The Global Climate Coalition, the GCC, was founded in 1989 as a project under the auspices of the National Association of Manufacturers.  But many of its members were from the fossil fuel industries. The American Petroleum Institute and all the major oil companies were members—including BP and Shell.  American Electric Power, Edison Electric Institute, the National Coal Association together with many of the largest US utilities.  

The GCC described itself as “an organisation of trade associations established in 1989 to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate on the issues of global climate change and global warming.” [1]  The GCC was one of the most outspoken and confrontational industry groups opposing any initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases.  

GCC’s advocacy activities included lobbying government officials, grassroots lobbying through press releases and advertising, participation in international climate conferences, criticism of the processes of international climate organisations (like the IPCC), critiques of climate models, and personal attacks on scientists and environmentalists.[2]

The GCC was set up as a Non-Governmental Organisation, an NGO. This status permitted the GCC to register with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UNFCCC, and allowed GCC members to attend official UN conferences as GCC delegates.

The ICE campaign

The Edison Electric Institute, although a member of the GCC, was not standing idly by.  In 1991, the New York Times reported on leaked documents that exposed a detailed public relations campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”. Dubbed the Informed Council on the Environment or ICE, the campaign was backed by EEI, the Southern Company (a large utility), the Western Fuels Association, Peabody (a coal company), and the National Coal Association. In 1991, ICE ran a series of ads mocking global warming.

One featured a drawing of a crazed chicken frantically running away under the headline: Who told you the earth was warming….Chicken Little?

A second ad in the same year proclaimed in large typeface : The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is—it may not be true.

These ads were part of a well organised public awareness campaign coordinated by ICE which had three objectives:

  1. Demonstrate that a consumer-based media awareness program can positively change the opinions of a selected population regarding the validity of global warming
  2. Begin to develop a message and strategy for shaping public opinion on a national scale
  3. Lay the groundwork for a unified national electric industry voice on global warming.

The creative strategy was summarized as follows :

  • The radio creative will directly attack the proponents of global warming by relating irrefutable evidence to the contrary, delivered by a believable spokesperson in the radio broadcast industry.
  • The print creative will attack proponents through comparison of global warming to historical or mythical instances of gloom and doom. Each ad will invite the listener/reader to call or write for further information, thus creating a data base. [3]

Note that the ‘creative’ strategy was not only focused on undermining the validity of the science; it was also focused on directly attacking the ‘proponents of global warming’ themselves.

In 1990, the IPCC published its first assessment report—dubbed AR1. The report reiterated that the unrestricted use of fossil fuels would produce a “rate of increase of global mean temperature during the next century of about 0.3°C per decade; this is greater than that seen over the  past 10,000 years.” [4] The AR1 also specifically addressed and rejected the Marshall Institute’s argument that the sun was mostly to blame for any warming effect.

But by now the denialists were on a roll.


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Check out these sources:

[1] See the Sourcewatch website: Global Climate Coalition, //www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Global_Climate_Coalition
[2] See the Wikipedia entry for the Global Climate Coalition at //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Climate_Coalition
[3] See ClimateFiles: 1991 Information Council on the Environment test denial campaign plan and survey. Available at //www.climatefiles.com/denial-groups/ice-campaign-plan/#document/p3/a320609
[4] Quoted in the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Bloomsbury Press. 2010.

The ICE ads are shown in the excellent report published by the Energy and Policy Institute: Utilities knew: Documenting electric utilities’ early knowledge and ongoing deception on climate change from 1968 -2017. Available at //www.energyandpolicy.org/utilities-knew-about-climate-change/