Some leading U.S. corporations have been striving to reduce their carbon emissions, only to run up against obstacles posed by an economy that still depends heavily on fossil fuels. Now it appears they have gained a new weapon in the fight, one that could enable them to rally more public pressure in support of dramatic federal action on climate change.
Public awareness about climate science is growing, but translating public opinion into federal policy remains a challenge. The political divide has intensified even further this year as Republican legislators focus on base issues fraught with emotion, including transgender rights, COVID-19 response, diversity training and women’s reproductive health, among others.
Nevertheless, Democrats do hold a slim majority in Congress, and they have just launched a public relations campaign aimed at forcing the hand of legislators who oppose climate action.
It started last week, when the Democrat-controlled Oversight and Reform Committee in the House of Representatives issued a press release and public documents that detail how fossil fuel stakeholders have waged a decades-long climate change disinformation campaign. Cosigned with the House Subcommittee on the Environment, the press release also makes the case for a widespread, rapid shift to sustainable energy throughout the U.S. economy.
The release describes letters sent by the Committee to executives at the U.S. arms of ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade association for the oil and gas industry. The letters call the executives to testify before the Committee on the “reported role of the fossil fuel industry in a long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming.”
The testimony is scheduled for October 28. The Committee expects the oil companies, along with the Chamber of Commerce and API, to turn over documents and communications “related to their organization’s role in supporting disinformation and misleading the public to prevent action on the climate crisis” by September 30.
Ahead of the testimony and release of documents, the Oversight Committee has already laid the groundwork for a public relations campaign of its own.
The announcement appears deliberately designed to influence public opinion well in advance of the October 28 hearing. It pulls attention away from oil companies’ recent investments in clean technology to focus on the overwhelming weight of their past and current practices.
“We are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and ravaging the natural world,” the Oversight Committee stated. “We are also concerned that to protect those profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change.”
To further cement its case in the court of public opinion, the Oversight Committee’s press release included links to the individual letters sent to each of the companies, and to the Chamber of Commerce and API. Each letter provides a detailed, footnoted record of how the recipient's actions were reportedly linked to climate change disinformation.
The letter to ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, for example, cites reports going back to 1977 describing how the company was warned about the link between fossil fuels and climate change. By the 1980s, the American Petroleum Institute and several of its members were discussing pathways to reduce emissions. However, by the end of the 1990s, the industry position shifted into an aggressively defensive stance.
“A 1998 memorandum developed with input from representatives of Chevon, ExxonMobil, API, and other industry-funded front groups detailed plans for a coordinated disinformation campaign targeting the media, the public, and policymakers,” the Committee wrote to Mr. Woods.
“In discussing actions around climate policy, the memorandum declared, ‘victory will be achieved…when ‘recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom,’” the Oversight Committee added.
The Oversight Committee also provided evidence that links intensive lobbying by oil companies and their allies with the decision to pull the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2001, along with other climate disinformation actions leading up to the present day.
The letter concludes by emphasizing that Congress is considering “wide-ranging climate-change legislation” in support of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which would propel the U.S. more swiftly into a decarbonized future.
In effect, the Oversight Committee has put the climate action ball in play for U.S. business leaders to pick up.
Significant corporate support for the American Jobs Plan has yet to materialize, but corporate leaders have already voiced their support for climate action.
Last spring, for example, the We Mean Business Coalition and the green investor group Ceres issued an open letter on climate action to President Biden. The letter calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, as a stepping stone to zero emissions by 2050.
In addition to several pension funds and other powerful investors, those signing on include some of the most well known names in U.S. business. Topping the list are Ford Motor Co., General Motors, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Siemens, Coca-Cola, Hershey, Kellogg Co., Mars, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Unilever, Best Buy, Gap Inc., Ikea, Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, Target and many others.
So far those efforts have fallen flat, as U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and a small number of other Democratic legislators have joined a solid wall of Republican opposition to climate action.
Now the Oversight Committee has just handed fresh ammunition to corporate climate leaders on a silver platter. Whether they use it to help influence voters or not, the choice is theirs.
Image credit: Melissa Bradley/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.