Janine Jackson: One hundred and seventy-four countries and the European Union signed a multilateral deal on climate change recently at UN headquarters in New York. We’re told that’s the largest number of first-day signatures ever to an international agreement. The Paris Agreement set several long-term climate goals, including holding average temperatures below a two-degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels.
At the same time, David Powell of the New Economics Foundation notes that BP’s annual energy outlook confidently predicts fossil fuels will account for 80 percent of global energy usage in 2035. Powell’s conclusion is that given the speed and depth of the shift required, political will on climate is a prerequisite, and the fossil-fuel industry is banking on politicians not having the chutzpah to do what it takes to keep it in the ground.
A test of the public’s power to constrain an industry whose profit depends on endangering public health is playing out right now, as media process evidence showing that Exxon knew, at least in 1977 and probably much earlier, that carbon dioxide pollution from the burning of fossil fuels posed a global threat. Not only did they shunt aside their own research, but they and others engaged in a dogged and multifaceted campaign to undermine scientific understanding and mislead the public.
Well, that work has been carried forward by Neela Banerjee and others at InsideClimate News, at the Los Angeles Times working with Columbia School of Journalism; it’s building on work from the Center for International Environmental Law and the Union of Concerned Scientists—years, really, of effort coming together now for this major story, including work by our next guest. Brendan DeMelle is executive director and managing editor of DeSmog Blog. He joins us now by phone from Seattle, Washington. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Brendan DeMelle.
Brendan DeMelle: Thank you very much for having me, Janine.
JJ: One of the most recent pieces on DeSmog Blog is headed with a quote, “There Is No Doubt.” So let’s leap right in with the documents that you have just gone through, and how they fit with what we are learning about what Exxon knew when about climate change.
BDM: That’s right. A team of DeSmog researchers went to an archive in Calgary to discover these documents that are sitting in an Imperial Oil—which is Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary—archive at a museum there. And we first learned of the existence of that archive in the Los Angeles Times reporting that you mentioned earlier by the Columbia Journalism School students.
So we found these documents after digging. They had been there as well, the LA Times team, and hadn’t seen these particular documents that we found, which actually set the clock back another decade in terms of when Exxon knew that CO2 pollution was a threat to the environment, and particularly to the atmosphere — the buildup of CO2 pollution was causing shifts in the climate.
And we found two documents in particular that we found to be pretty darning evidence. You referenced the one in particular that says “there is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel usage,” it goes on to say, “are aggravating the potential problem of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.” And that’s a pretty definitive acknowledgement by this Imperial Oil engineer, who was writing and distributing this information to executives throughout Exxon’s global operations, including in London and throughout its US and Canadian operations. They certainly knew, with a far greater degree of certainty than they are currently telling the press and the public, that this was a problem. And this was a report from 1980. And, again, you referenced 1977. That was an important date that came up in previous reporting by InsideClimate News.
The second document that we found is from 1970, and talks about evidence from the late ’60s that shows — again, this is an Imperial Oil internal report called “Pollution Is Everybody’s Business.” And it focused on air pollution, and it referenced CO2 sourced from combustion as a key pollutant of concern to the business. And that report cited a 1969 scientific study that connected the burning of fossil fuels and the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and the potential effects it would have on weather patterns and global temperatures. So here we are, this is far earlier than even we had known. So the crux of our story on DeSmog is they knew earlier, they knew with certainty and they knew globally.
JJ: Well, we know that it’s not just Exxon, or Imperial in Canada. We know that other oil companies did research. But there’s a reason to focus on Exxon because they were kind of an industry leader. It wasn’t just that they did some research, they really did ambitious research.
BDM: That’s absolutely right. And what these documents are revealing to us is, you know, imagine where the world would be if Exxon had continued to pursue that research and embrace its own scientific understanding of climate change decades ago. But as we know, rather than doing that, they pivoted antagonistically against the science and started funding decades of denial and deception, individuals in think tanks that they were pumping money into to confuse the public and policymakers about the importance of addressing climate change.
JJ: And here’s where the documents couldn’t have them more exposed. Exxon, of course, was a founding member of what was called the Global Climate Coalition, created in 1989. And the Global Climate Coalition, at the same time as they’re giving a backgrounder to politicians and the media that says “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” at the same time they have an internal memo saying “the scientific basis for the greenhouse effect…is well-established and cannot be denied.”
So I guess what that kind of moves me on to is the power of uncertainty when it comes to making regulations. I mean, of course we can see that the industry is trying to sow uncertainty, but what about the part of regulators; why were they so convinced by it?
BDM: Well, yeah. I mean, you referenced the amount of misinformation that started to percolate out of groups like the Global Climate Coalition, and that particular inside memo you mentioned was written by a Mobil executive. So you definitely show the beginnings, and that was the late ’80s. It carried forward until the present, decades of groups like the Global Climate Coalition that have attempted to look like third-party experts or credible sources of information, that were in fact knowingly spreading misinformation and creating doubt.
And that, again, goes in parallel with the tactics of the tobacco industry in evading accountability for its own deadly product and knowledge of cancer and other health effects from its products, which was to sow doubt. They knew that they could evade accountability, or at least delay regulatory and public scrutiny, by suggesting that there was doubt about the science. So they created their own institutes that sounded credible, they created their own science that undermined what was known in the peer-reviewed literature in the health community about the impacts.
And the oil companies followed that playbook to a T, and used the same sort of tactics to suggest that, oh, well, we’re not sure yet. You know, let’s study this further, let’s take time before regulatory action addresses this problem. So it was essentially the exact same tactic, and regulators and certainly policymakers bought it, unfortunately, and that’s led us to the situation we’re in where climate change is having very real impacts now, we’re seeing them presently, and the delay that was caused by this deceptive campaign by Exxon and the Global Climate Coalition and other major oil companies is the real reason why we haven’t addressed this aggressively.
JJ: Right. And it is depressing, the degree to which government deferred to industry. But it’s also explicable, to the extent that governments often rely on industry for the science that they use to determine regulations. You referred to kind of the standard line, and if folks have been reading any reporting on this, they will know that it really doesn’t matter who the industry spokesperson is. In every news story, you will read, really, an almost identical, kind of almost Stepford-like line, which will be to say, it’s “not credible” or it’s “preposterous” to suggest that Exxon “reached definitive conclusions decades before the world’s experts and while climate science was in an early stage of development,” and then went out of their way to hide those conclusions from the public. It’s funny that they say, oh, golly, we’re not experts. How could we have figured it out before the world’s experts? When in fact they were really doing the kind of science that you would need to come to conclusions about this.
BDM: It was incredible science, it really was. I mean, their monitoring equipment, their modeling, it was spectacular. And it actually was—some of it was passed on to government agencies, who then picked up what they could, given their limited budgets. But Exxon was light years ahead on this issue, for sure. And so it is telling, now, that their media spokespeople, they have a two-pronged strategy. No. 1 is to suggest that there was uncertainty and we didn’t know, and No. 2 is to attack the messenger.
Any journalist that writes a story about this is immediately attacked, harassed; their editors are harassed. I was frankly shocked at the antagonistic and hostile response that I received in doing due diligence, reaching out to Exxon for comment on these documents and the story. Alan Jeffers, their media spokesperson, immediately attacked me and my outlet and suggested we’re not credible and, you know, this is outrageous, how can you do this reporting.
So they’re very aggressive, and we’ve seen that over decades. You know, Exxon’s always been among the more prickly when it comes to media covering their activities. And so I think that’s an important sort of lesson for other journalists looking at this.
JJ: OK, a company or an industry intentionally sowing doubt about a potentially catastrophic threat when they in fact know that there is little or no doubt. And then, as the timeline shows us, as the reality, as the science becomes clearer, their denial gets bigger and bigger and bigger. That implies maybe sociopathy. I mean, maybe moral turpitude. It’s a reason, certainly, that many people want to support a death penalty for corporations.
But what’s the criminal violation here, besides misleading advertising? What is the grounds that people are using to go after Exxon here?
BDM: That’s a wonderful question. It’s obviously reached the level of interest. New York and California led the way with their attorneys general announcing investigations into Exxon’s knowledge and what that might mean in terms of accountability for misleading the public and lawmakers. And then, now there are 17 other states that have announced that they’re looking into it, and the US Virgin Islands has announced actions against at least two of the sort of front groups or operative organizations that were spreading misinformation.
So we are now in a situation where accountability work is being done. I’m not an expert in the legal background on that, but I know that those attorneys general and others are looking into sort of similar fraud and other actions that were taken against the tobacco companies for similar deception and applying those legal structures to the oil industry to see whether or not there could be some point at which Exxon and others’ knowledge of this problem and subsequent deception was fraudulent and led us to this disastrous climate situation we’re in.
JJ: It sort of speaks to the weakness of our legal apparatus that we have to go through kind of FTC fraud charges to talk about willfully withholding from the public information that could prevent catastrophe. And one of the things that your work has brought up is that there were then, as there are no doubt now, people inside industry saying the same thing. You referred to the chemical engineer from Imperial Oil years ago. That was H.R. Holland, who was talking about harms, and who also said, you know, this has to be regulated. Industry isn’t going to do this voluntarily. Part of the tragedy is all the folks, even within the industry, who tried to change its course and who were just unsuccessful in doing so.
BDM: Exactly. What is interesting, as well, is that the company itself in one of the memos referred to its CO2 pollution as “anti-social behavior.” And this was decades ago. I mean, they knew, the engineers knew, that this was a problem. And not only was it directly threatening their bottom line, the ability to continue to sell oil and to continue with their business model — which has been extremely oil-centric, as opposed to energy-centric, which might be a solution to this problem — they knew it was a big deal; they knew that pollution was bad.
That same memo that I referenced earlier, that “There Is No Doubt” memo, it says, “Technology exists to remove CO2 from stack gases,” and this was, again, 1980, “but removal of only 50 percent of the CO2 would double the cost of power generation.” And that was just talking about CO2 pollution from power plants. But, again, you see their immediate concern is, this is going to cost us money. We don’t want to spend the money to do this right, we just want to delay accountability and continue to do what we’re doing. And that was what led them to the idea of deception instead of owning the science and doing the right thing.
JJ: Today the story is coming out, and it’s very much a documented story. It’s not about opinions, it’s about information and evidence that folks can look up, and often look at the original documents themselves.
I want to reference a comment that was made by a youth representative from UNICEF, a 16-year-old Tanzanian radio reporter, Getrude Clement, who was at this big signing at the UN. And she said, “We expect action, action on a big scale, and we expert action today, not tomorrow.” I really feel as though there’s a failure, broadly, in journalism, even as we talk about climate change and report it, to really grasp the immediacy of it, making it a conversation about the future and what we should do if we’re concerned about the future. This is a story now about what Exxon knew then, but it’s very much a story about the present.
BDM: Absolutely. And we just saw that UN signing of the Paris Agreement, and that in itself was a historic achievement. I was in Paris, frankly, amazed that it happened, and that’s good. But we’re way late, you know. The stark reality is that this problem should have been aggressively dealt with back when Exxon and others knew that the science was certain, and that we needed to act to ratchet down emissions. And so we are very much behind the eightball, addressing this problem in 2016, when it should have been aggressively dealt with from the 1980s forward.
So I sympathize with that youth voice, and I couldn’t agree more. And I would even say it should have happened yesterday, you know, a long time ago. That’s why we need strong leadership from both the public and the private sector to address this issue. And we’re starting to see that coalesce with things like the Paris Agreement and others who have commitments to address this problem. But we are definitely late.
JJ: And given how late we are and how urgent it is, are media really reacting appropriately, do you think, to these revelations?
BDM: It’s been discouraging to see the media, you know, other fellow journalists, who are saying, oh yeah, didn’t we know that story? Even when the InsideClimate stuff came out, which was explosive, incredible work, the first reactions among a lot of the mainstream journalists was, oh yeah, we knew that already. We’re not going to cover that.
Well, no, you didn’t. This was a lot of hard work and gumshoe journalism to dig up these documents and show definitely, using the industry’s own words, what was known. And so, again, here we are, DeSmog, we put this story up this week. Sure we’re seeing great traffic from it, but what I really want to see is everybody else jump on. There is a lot of work to be done here, there are more documents to be found, there’s more hard questions to be asked. Imperial Oil ignored us, they didn’t respond to my due diligence questions. So there’s plenty of meat on this bone for other journalists to pick, and I certainly hope that editors worldwide will figure that out and get more people on the job.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Brendan DeMelle. He’s executive director and managing editor of DeSmog Blog, online at DeSmogBlog.com. Brendan DeMelle, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
BDM: Thanks for having me, Janine.