Jul 26 2022

Industry of Doubt

It should come as a surprise to no one that the fossil fuel industry has been financing a vast public relations campaign over the last three decades to sow confusion and doubt about human-caused climate change. This is already well established. One Harvard study, for example, focusing on ExxonMobil, found:

That analysis showed that ExxonMobil misled the public about basic climate science and its implications. They did so by contributing quietly to climate science, and loudly to promoting doubt about that science.

Now, the BBC reports on two people who worked with a PR firm specifically to deny the science of climate change who are now telling their story, adding some more details and focus to the tale. Don Rheem and Terry Yosie worked for E Bruce Harrison, an industry PR guru, who, starting in 1992, landed the campaign to work for the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an industry group comprised of oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries. What do all these industries have in common? They all contribute significantly to green house gas emissions. And why 1992? Because that is the year of the election that would replace an oil-friendly president with one more friendly to environmental causes, and with a vice president who was a climate change activist. The handwriting was on the wall.

And Harrison had a vision – he had honed his tactics fighting auto industry regulations and spreading doubts about the harms of smoking for the tobacco industry. He recruited a team and made climate change denial his primary focus. The tactics his firm used for the GCC were largely the same – they put out constant opinion pieces, background pieces for journalists, and paid advertising emphasizing doubt about climate science. For example, in a 1994 booklet they claimed:

The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon produced by naturally occurring atmospheric gases. To date, there is no evidence to demonstrate the climate has changed as a result of any “enhancement” to this natural phenomenon by man-made greenhouse gases.

They made great headway with this strategy, because journalists did not understand the complexities of climate science and welcomed the “help” provided by GCC. Then Harrison figured that they could be even more successful if they recruited the help of scientists and academics, whose voices would carry more weight. So they sought out the minority of climate change doubters in the community and paid them well to speak, significantly magnifying their voices. This strategy worked, and much of the public became convinced that there was uncertainty and disagreement among scientists about climate change. Journalists were also complicit, because it fit their narrative to find contrary voices and then present them as equal to the mainstream.

This strategy worked so well that it has taken on a life of its own. First, the propaganda of the GCC essentially became the platform of the Republican party. It became tied to a political and ideological group. With the rise of social media it also became easy for people who identify with this ideological group, or who were just convinced by the GCC propaganda, to further magnify climate change denial. They repeat industry talking points cooked up a couple decades earlier by a PR firm without necessarily realizing it. I have found that it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference sometimes between a paid industry shill and someone who believes what they are saying. This causes havoc beyond climate science, as it erodes confidence in experts and allows anyone to play the “shill gambit” to dismiss opinions they don’t like, and to dismiss calling out actual shills as doing the same. It hopelessly muddies the water.

We have experienced all of this on this very blog, and I am sure we will be treated to further industry talking points in the comments below. Obviously, the most important thing is to understand the underlying science, and to be able to discern what the general consensus of scientific expert opinion is. But part of that is now also understanding that public communication is not always organic and intellectually honest. PR firms have learned the lessons of Harrison and other industry PR campaigns – you can dramatically influence the public conversation on a topic by putting out well-crafted talking points that appeal to one side. The public is easy to confuse by magnifying the voices of outlier experts who hold opinions that happen to align with industry. The media is happily complicit, because they already like to magnify contrary views and frame everything as a controversy. It’s also easy to catch the scientific community with their pants down (which is what happened to climate scientists in the 1990s), because being a scientist does not come with the skill set to counter and deal with expert and well-funded industry sponsored campaigns of disinformation.

With respect to climate change, the effect was essentially to delay any significant action to reduce greenhouse gases for 30 years (and counting). There were clearly other factors involved, including politics, legitimate trade-offs, international relations, and others. But the GCC put a very fat thumb on the scale, and it worked.

It is critical that we learn the lessons from this experience. What this means is a few things. Journalists need to do a better job in the aggregate – they need to learn how to report science in general, controversial science in particular, and how not to become the lap dogs of industry propaganda. Scientists and academics also need to develop their knowledge and skills in dealing with the public understand of science and other complex topics, and to make it a much higher academic priority. Skeptical science communicators, in my opinion, have largely filled the gap left by journalists and academics, but we also need to do a better job – of educating ourselves, engaging with the media and academics, and jumping on topics earlier in the disinformation cycle. At present we are mostly a hodge-podge of individual uncoordinated outlets. How we can improve the situation is a conversation for another day.


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