The Greatest Scam in HistoryRoundup
tags: climate change, environmental history, oil, business history
Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. She is coauthor, with Erik Conway, of Merchants of Doubt. Her latest book is Why Trust Science?
It’s a tale for all time. What might be the greatest scam in history or, at least, the one that threatens to take history down with it. Think of it as the climate-change scam that beat science, big time.
Scientists have been seriously investigating the subject of human-made climate change since the late 1950s and political leaders have been discussing it for nearly as long. In 1961, Alvin Weinberg, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, called carbon dioxide one of the “big problems” of the world “on whose solution the entire future of the human race depends.” Fast-forward nearly 30 years and, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), promising “concrete action to protect the planet.”
Much focus has been put on ExxonMobil’s history of disseminating disinformation, partly because of the documented discrepancies between what that company said in public about climate change and what its officials said (and funded) in private. Recently, a trial began in New York City accusing the company of misleading its investors, while Massachusetts is prosecuting ExxonMobil for misleading consumers as well.
If only it had just been that one company, but for more than 30 years, the fossil-fuel industry and its allies have denied the truth about anthropogenic global warming. They have systematically misled the American people and so purposely contributed to endless delays in dealing with the issue by, among other things, discounting and disparaging climate science, mispresenting scientific findings, and attempting to discredit climate scientists. These activities are documented in great detail in How Americans Were Deliberately Misled about Climate Change, a report I recently co-authored, as well as in my 2010 book and 2014 film, Merchants of Doubt.
A key aspect of the fossil-fuel industry’s disinformation campaign was the mobilization of “third-party allies”: organizations and groups with which it would collaborate and that, in some cases, it would be responsible for creating.
In the 1990s, these allied outfits included the Global Climate Coalition, the Cooler Heads Coalition, Informed Citizens for the Environment, and the Greening Earth Society. Like ExxonMobil, such groups endlessly promoted a public message of denial and doubt: that we weren’t really sure if climate change was happening; that the science wasn’t settled; that humanity could, in any case, readily adapt at a later date to any changes that did occur; and that addressing climate change directly would wreck the American economy. Two of these groups -- Informed Citizens for the Environment and the Greening Earth Society -- were, in fact, AstroTurf organizations, created and funded by a coal industry trade association but dressed up to look like grass-roots citizens’ action organizations.
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