The MUD strategy

As global warming and climate change has gradually become a problem  of international importance and concern, the links between the emission of greenhouse gases and the consumption of fossil fuels have increasingly come into focus. The major oil companies and the coal conglomerates realised early on that if governments were convinced that they needed to reduce emissions of carbon gases, they were very likely going to reorient national energy policies towards renewable sources of energy and to gradually curtail the consumption of fossil fuels—starting with coal-fired electricity generation.  Measures to reduce the consumption of gasoline and diesel in the transport sector were almost certain to follow.  This was not the vision of the future that the coal and petroleum companies had in mind.

The companies envisioned a scenario which was not just business as usual, but where coal, oil and natural gas increasingly dominated global energy supply through to the end of the century.  There was no solar energy or wind power in this scenario—only coal, oil  and natural gas.

Since modern science will eventually explain geophysical phenomena which may at first appear inexplicable, the fossil fuel companies knew that they could not continue to deny the facts about global warming. Even their own scientists knew what was happening: the emission of carbon dioxide from the combustion of coal and hydrocarbon fuels was causing the global climate to slowly warm.

So began a long, insidious, and surprisingly effective covert program, funded and orchestrated  by some of the largest fossil fuel companies, to undermine and contradict the scientific basis for global warming, and to convince the world that climate science was defective, riddled with errors, and highly uncertain; and that the leading climate scientists had manipulated the data, fudged the numbers, and couldn’t be trusted..

Manufacturing doubt

Oil companies are huge.  Coal companies not much smaller.  They have billions of dollars invested in coal mines, drilling rigs, supertankers, refineries, gas processing plants, and pipeline networks. As countries increasingly transition to renewable sources of energy, many of these investments are now under serious threat of becoming stranded assets.

The fossil fuel companies have fought long and hard, and not always fairly, to protect their global investments and substantial revenues. The first defensive line was to claim that global warming simply wasn’t happening. When this line of argument started to lose credibility, the companies switched to asserting that even if the planet was warming, this was due to natural causes: long-term cycles of varying solar radiation, sun spots, changes in the Earth’s orbit, and other factors unrelated to carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.  When this argument was increasingly challenged by climate scientists and shown to be false, the fossil fuel companies searched for another way to protect their position.

They hit upon a brilliant strategy. Their greatest fear was that government legislators, in an effort to slow and reverse global warming and climate change, would impose regulations that would rein in the operations of the fossil fuel companies and limit their production of petroleum and coal—businesses that are still hugely profitable. Since the science was becoming increasingly convincing and persuasive, the strategy devised by the companies was not to argue that the science was wrong (which was becoming more and more difficult)—but to argue that the science was uncertain, a concept much easier to defend and disseminate.

This was a clever move.  It’s not difficult to persuade people that scientists are not completely certain about the causes of climate change—particularly when you bring in your own scientists who distort the data, cherry pick trend lines, and publish apparently counterfactual studies in journals financially dependent on funding from the fossil fuel companies and the petrochemical firms that are closely tied to them.

The transparent procedures of science and scientific analysis helped the subterfuge. Scientists publish their results in peer-reviewed journals, and these results can be challenged by other scientists who may question the data and methodology, spot errors and omissions, or propose alternative explanations for observed phenomena. This is how science works: new ideas and data are published and the scientific community has the opportunity to examine the data, the methodology, and the analyses, and either concur, disagree, or call for more study.  If you then mix into this procedure false data masquerading as good science, the final result is disagreement, contentious debate, uncertainty about the data, and doubt about the results. Under these circumstances, policymakers are unlikely to act to control emissions of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil-fuels if they believe that the scientific basis for such a decision is doubtful and uncertain—even if in fact it isn’t.

It’s called manufacturing uncertainty and doubt—MUD. And several fossil fuel companies have become experts in the field. But the fossil-fuel companies were not the first to develop, finance, and promote this strategy.  They had borrowed it from someone else’s playbook: the tobacco companies—which for years have mounted a very successful campaign of disinformation to convince the world that smoking isn’t bad for your health.   

Detection and concern

The global warming story unfolds essentially in the USA—where in 1956, a young scientist called Charles Keeling, working out of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, had started to systematically measure atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. His meticulously compiled results showed that atmospheric levels of the gas were slowly increasing.

Keeling’s measurements were intriguing and several scientists understood their implications.  It was known that carbon dioxide absorbed long-wave thermal radiation—the radiation emitted by the Earth.  It was therefore possible that the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would eventually lead to a warming trend in the global climate.  No-one really knew what to expect if that happened.

Even before Keeling’s work was published, the first warnings about the emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of coal and oil had come from a Canadian physicist—Gilbert Plass. In 1953, Time magazine wrote a story about Plass, then working at John Hopkins university, and his claim that the spreading envelope of carbon dioxide around the Earth would serve as “a great greenhouse”.  [1] Plass had published his ideas, at this point considered to be only a theory, in 1953 in a paper entitled: The carbon dioxide theory of climate change. [2]

The theory was reviewed and examined by scientists over the next decade, and although not all scientists at first agreed, the effects of rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide–clearly evident from Keeling’s measurements, increasingly became the focus of a substantial body of research. In 1965, the American scientist Roger Revelle (who had hired Keeling at Scripps) was asked to write a summary for the President’s Science Advisory Committee (under President Lyndon Johnson) of the potential impacts of carbon dioxide-induced warming. Revelle focused his report on sea level rise, but he also made a startling prediction: “By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more CO2 in our atmosphere than at present and this will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate..could occur.[3]

President Johnson took the report seriously. He cited the work in a Special Message to Congress in 1965, saying “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”  [4]

By 1968, the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association of investor-owned utilities, was certainly well aware of the issue.  The EEI was addressed by Donald Hornig, a science advisor to Johnson, who stated bluntly: “ The President’s Science Advisory Committeeestimated that at the anticipated levels of fuel consumption by the year 2000, the carbon dioxide level in the entire earth’s atmosphere will be increased by 25 percent, and carbon dioxide is an absolutely unavoidable product of the combustion of fossil fuels”.  He went to say: “Carbon dioxide is not toxic, but it is the chief heat-absorbing component of the atmosphere. Such a change in the carbon dioxide level might, therefore, produce major consequences in the climate—possibly even triggering catastrophic effects such as have occurred from time to time in the past.”  [5]

Hornig’s warning to the electric power utilities (who were mostly generating electricity by burning coal) came during the same year that scientists at the Stanford Research Institute delivered a report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute that sounded more alarm bells for the fossil fuel industry. Titled: Sources, abundance, and fate of atmospheric pollutants, the report warned that rising CO2 levels would result in increases in temperature at the earth’s surface, and that significant temperature increase could lead to melting ice caps, rising seas, and potentially serious environmental damage worldwide.[6]

There was now a considerable amount of research being conducted in the US both by scientists seeking  to understand more about global warming and the role of carbon dioxide, and by the electric power  companies whose main focus was on researching ways to remove carbon dioxide from the flue gases of coal-fired power plants. The Electric Power Research Institute, EPRI, was formed to coordinate the research.

The story of denial, deceit and deception continues > here


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For more information check out these sources:

[1] Time Magazine. Science: Invisible Blanket. 25 May 1953. Accessed at:  //content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,890597,00.html?
[2] Plass, G.N. The carbon dioxide theory of climate change, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 34:80. 1953
[3] Revelle. R. et.al. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, in President’s Science Advisory Committee, Panel on Environmental Pollution, Restoring the quality of our environment: report of the panel on environmental pollution (Washington DC, The White House). 1965.
[4] Quoted in the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway: Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press, 2010. Much of the material in this chapter is based on this really excellent book.
[5] See the report from 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/
[6] The report from the Stanford Research Institute is only partially available.  See //www.smokeandfumes.org/documents/document16