How the oil industry made us doubt climate change

By Phoebe Keane
BBC News

As climate change becomes a focus of the US election, energy companies stand accused of trying to downplay their contribution to global warming. In June, Minnesota’s Attorney General sued ExxonMobil, among others, for launching a “campaign of deception” which deliberately tried to undermine the science supporting global warming. So what’s behind these claims? And what links them to how the tobacco industry tried to dismiss the harms of smoking decades earlier?

To understand what’s happening today, we need to go back nearly 40 years.

Marty Hoffert leaned closer to his computer screen. He couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. It was 1981, and he was working in an area of science considered niche.

“We were just a group of geeks with some great computers,” he says now, recalling that moment.

But his findings were alarming.

“I created a model that showed the Earth would be warming very significantly. And the warming would introduce climatic changes that would be unprecedented in human history. That blew my mind.”

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA climate change protester outside the New York State Supreme Court during the ExxonMobil trial in October, 2019

Marty Hoffert was one of the first scientists to create a model which predicted the effects of man-made climate change. And he did so while working for Exxon, one of the world’s largest oil companies, which would later merge with another, Mobil.

At the time Exxon was spending millions of dollars on ground-breaking research. It wanted to lead the charge as scientists grappled with the emerging understanding that the warming planet could cause the climate to change in ways that could make life pretty difficult for humans.

Hoffert shared his predictions with his managers, showing them what might happen if we continued burning fossil fuels in our cars, trucks and planes.

image copyrightCourtesy of New York University
image captionMartin Hoffert

But he noticed a clash between Exxon’s own findings, and public statements made by company bosses, such as the then chief executive Lee Raymond, who said that “currently, the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate”.

“They were saying things that were contradicting their own world-class research groups,” said Hoffert.

Angry, he left Exxon, and went on to become a leading academic in the field.

“What they did was immoral. They spread doubt about the dangers of climate change when their own researchers were confirming how serious a threat it was.”

So what changed? The record-breaking hot summer of 1988 was key. Big news in America, it gave extra weight to warnings from Nasa scientist Dr Jim Hansen that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and is changing our climate now”.

Political leaders took notice. Then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher acknowledged the great new global threat: “The environmental challenge which confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world.”

In 1989, Exxon’s strategy chief Duane Levine drew up a confidential presentation for the company’s board, one of thousands of documents in the company’s archive which were later donated to The University of Texas at Austin.

Levine’s presentation is an important document, often cited by researchers investigating Exxon’s record on climate change science.

“We’re starting to hear the inevitable call for action,” it said, which risked what it called “irreversible and costly draconian steps”.

“More rational responses will require efforts to extend the science and increase emphasis on costs and political realities.”

How they made us doubt everything investigates how some of the world’s most powerful interests made us doubt the connection between smoking and cancer, and how the same tactics were used to make us doubt climate change.
Listen to the podcast from BBC Radio 4 here

Kert Davies has scoured through Exxon’s archive. He used to work as a research director at the environmental pressure group Greenpeace, where he looked into corporate opposition to climate change. This inspired him to set up The Climate Investigations Centre. He explains why this Exxon presentation mattered:

“They are worried the public will take this on, and enact radical changes in the way we use energy and affect their business, that’s the bottom line.”

He says this fear can also be seen in another document from the archive that sets out the so-called “Exxon position”, which was to “emphasise the uncertainty” regarding climate change.

Researchers argue this was just the start of a decades-long campaign to shape public opinion and to spread doubt about climate change.

In June 2020, the General Attorney of Minnesota Keith Ellison sued ExxonMobil, the American…

Read More: How the oil industry made us doubt climate change

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Get more stuff like this
in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.