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RP Siegel headshot

Fossil Fuel Climate Deception Spans Three Decades

Words by RP Siegel

It’s not surprising to read about the deliberate actions of fossil fuel companies to spread doubt on the direct linkage between carbon emissions and climate change. Much has been written on this, and there is even a movie about it.

But recent disclosures shed further light on the full extent of this conspiracy. The fact is that it’s been going on for decades, and, as some members of Congress suggest, it could actually amount to criminal activity.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), pointed out in a recent editorial that a federal judge found tobacco companies guilty of racketeering for their deliberate attempts to obscure the truth about the linkage between cigarette smoking and cancer. The playbook for fossil fuel companies in their efforts to postpone climate legislation was much the same, even going so far as to use many of the same PR firms to craft the message.

Now, a new report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on materials obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, reveals the full extent of this deception, which extends back as far as three decades.

The report reveals that at least one company (Exxon) acknowledged climate change risks in its own supply chain as early as 1981 -- seven years before the issue hit the national stage. A veritable treasure-trove of information, these 85 documents formed the seven climate deception dossiers shown here:

  1. Dr. Wei-Hock Soon’s Smithsonian Contracts

  2. American Petroleum Institute’s “Roadmap” Memo

  3. Western States Petroleum Association’s Deception Campaign

  4. Forged Letters from the Coal Industry to Members of Congress

  5. Coal’s “Information Council on the Environment” Sham

  6. Deception by the American Legislative Exchange Council

  7. The Global Climate Coalition’s 1995 Primer on Climate Change Science

A few highlights from the dossiers are worth mentioning.

  • We’ve all heard about Wei-Hock Soon’s research that was secretly supported by fossil fuel interests. We now know that it amounted to some $1.2 million.

  • A leaked 1998 memo from the American Petroleum Institute that said, “Victory will be achieved when average Americans ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.” The group also targeted media with the same intention, and set a goal for, ”those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science [to] appear to be out of touch with reality.”

  • Forged letters to Congress appearing to come from minority organizations concerned about increases in the price of electricity if action is taken against coal.

Keep in mind that while they were deceiving the public, and the government and anyone else who might be interested, these companies (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, coal giant Peabody Energy and Royal Dutch Shell) continued to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks, according to the report.

There is a name for people who do this sort of thing: liars. Liars are not good people. Now, the question that really needs to be considered is whether or not these liars committed crimes. I’m not a lawyer, but I am a writer. So, I’ll go to my source, the dictionary, to see what a crime is:

  1. an act or the commission of an act that is forbidden or the omission of a duty that is commanded by a public law and that makes the offender liable to punishment by that law; especially : a gross violation of law

  2. a grave offense especially against morality

  3. criminal activity

  4. something reprehensible, foolish, or disgraceful (e.g. it's a crime to waste good food).

Considering the damage done, and that yet to come, and the fact that fully half of all carbon emissions in our atmosphere today have been put there since the time the energy companies knew about this and did nothing, there can be no doubt that No. 2 and No. 4 apply. Unfortunately, we’ll have to leave it to the legal system to decide about No. 1 and No. 3.

Whether or not they end up going to jail or paying fines, they certainly should, at a minimum, be required to do the following, as UCS suggests:

  • Stop disseminating misinformation about climate change.

  • Support fair and cost-effective policies to reduce global warming emissions.

  • Reduce emissions from current operations and update their business models to prepare for future global limits on emissions.

  • Pay for their share of the costs of climate damages and preparedness.

  • Fully disclose the financial and physical risks of climate change to their business operations.

Our system has done much to encourage people, particularly businesses, to ignore the impact of their operations on the system as a whole, in the pursuit of self-interest, which has left a destructive legacy. Now that we better understand the interconnectedness of the many facets of human activity, it’s clear that we need a shared vision of mutual well-being. Can we get there? Probably not without a major transformation that involves all of us, including the energy companies, working together.

Image credit: Wes Thomas: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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