Oil Industry’s Suppression of Climate Science Began in 1940s, with “Smoke and Fumes Committee” and Funding of Researchers at Institute

Oil Industry’s Suppression of Climate Science Began in 1940s, Documents Reveal

A trove of newly uncovered documents shows that fossil fuel companies were explicitly warned of the risks of climate change decades earlier than previously suspected.  And while it’s no secret—anymore—that the companies knew about those dangers long ago, the documents, published by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), reveal even more about the broader industry effort to suppress climate science and foment public doubt about global warming.

Industry executives met in Los Angeles in 1946 to discuss growing public concern about air pollution. That meeting led to the formation of a panel—suitably named the Smoke and Fumes Committee—to conduct research into air pollution issues.  

But the research was not meant to be a public service; rather, it was used by the committee to “promote public skepticism of environmental science and environmental regulations the industry considered hasty, costly, and potentially unnecessary,” CIEL writes.

The group continues:

In the decades that followed, the Smoke and Fumes Committee funded massive levels of research into an array of air pollution issues, often conducted by institutes fostered and governed by the oil companies themselves. By the mid-1950s at the very latest, climate change was one of those issues.

The documents also show how Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) scientists actively engaged on climate science in the company’s name beginning in the 1950s, even as they actively funded and published research into alternate theories of global warming.

Among the documents is a report by the Stanford Research Institute presented to the American Petroleum Institute (API) in 1968 warning of the potential consequences of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  That report states:

Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climate change. If the Earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis. [….]

[T]here seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.

“We begin with three simple, related questions,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “What did they know? When did they know it? And what did they do about it?”  “What we found is they knew a great deal,” Muffett said, “and they knew it much earlier and with greater certainty than anyone has recognized or that the industry has admitted.”  Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said of the release, “It’s increasingly clear that the fossil fuel industry knew a lot more about the causes of climate change—and its effects—much earlier than anyone else. It pains me to think how much better shape the planet and vulnerable communities could be in if the fossil fuel industry had taken positive action based on this knowledge instead of trying to profit from it.”  The industry’s coverup of climate science was exposed last July by the Union of Concerned Scientists and through reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times.

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2827790-1954-Vance-Jenkins-Smoke-and-Fumes-Committee-of.html – purpose of paper is to describe the actions the petroleum industry has taken over the last 30 years to reduce pollution

Scientific American: Tobacco and Oil Industries Used Same Researchers to Sway Public


Organizations worried about climate change have long drawn comparisons between the petroleum and tobacco industries, arguing that each has minimized public health damages of its products to operate unchecked.

Some have urged federal regulators to prosecute oil companies under racketeering charges, as the Department of Justice did in 1999 in a case against Philip Morris and other major tobacco brands.  Oil companies bristle at the comparison. But overlap between both industries existed as early as the 1950s, new research details.

Both industries hired public relations company Hill & Knowlton Inc., an influential New York firm, for outreach as early as 1956.

And Theodor Sterling, a mathematics professor known for research on smoking that was favorable to the tobacco industry—Philip Morris paid more than $200,000 in the 1990s for his work—also studied lead in gasoline for Ethyl Corp. in 1962. Ethyl was a joint venture between General Motors Corp. and Standard Oil.

“From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and same research institutes, but many of the same researchers,” CIEL President Carroll Muffett said in a statement.

“Again and again we found both the PR firms and the researchers worked first for oil, then for tobacco,” he said. “It was a pedigree the tobacco companies recognized and sought out.”


Another connection between oil and tobacco companies, according to CIEL, is the Stanford Research Institute, now known as SRI International after splitting with Stanford University in 1970.  Founded in 1946, SRI studied smog and pollution generally and received funding from tobacco and oil companies.

SRI scientists also generated climate change research for the American Petroleum Institute in the 1960s and ‘70s.  In a 1968 report prepared for API in New York City, SRI scientists Elmer Robinson and R.C. Robbins acknowledged some uncertainty concerning the relation between carbon emissions and rising temperatures, yet said carbon dioxide was the most likely cause of the “greenhouse effect.”  “If the earth’s temperatures increase significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis,” they wrote.

Robinson followed up in an API-commissioned study dated 1971. “If there were a long term and significant increase in the pollutant content of the atmosphere either of particles or of carbon dioxide, the potential damage to the global environment could be severe,” he said.  

“Even the remote possibility of such an occurrence justifies concern,” added Robinson, one of the first scientists to link the burning of fossil fuels with global warming. He died earlier this year at 91.  The documents show oil companies tested toxicity in cigarettes in the 1950s, and some, including Exxon and Shell, patented cigarette filters worldwide for decades. They also indicate that tobacco companies went to SRI for help in creating small testing kits the size of suitcases to assess smoke.


In 1946, API established its own body to study pollution from the oil industry. It was called the Smoke and Fumes Committee.  Wary of government regulation to slash pollution from refineries and other operations within their supply chain, as well as public concern about smog in cities such as Los Angeles, petroleum officials at API and member firms offered alternative theories of how smog was created.

“The worst thing that can happen, in many instances, is the hasty passage of a law or laws for the control of a given air pollution situation,” Vance Jenkins, executive secretary of the Smoke and Fumes Committee, said in a 1954 trade journal article about smog pollution.  The corporate predecessors to Chevron Corp., Exxon Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC were each involved in the Smoke and Fumes Committee through former companies and subsidiaries, often broken-off units of the Standard Oil corporate empire.

While the documents show API learned of potential climate change risks as early as 1968 and had formed committees to examine smog pollution in the 1940s, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond said in November 1996 that climate science was unsettled.  “Scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate,” Raymond said at a press conference.

The University of California, San Francisco, documents were cached there starting in 2002 after tobacco industry litigation. Hill & Knowlton references are heavily featured.  An internal Hill & Knowlton memo from 1954 describes a booklet that employees circulated to doctors nationwide on the “cigarette-lung cancer theory.” They also show company founder John Hill, as well as colleagues Bert Goss, Richard Darrow and others, sat in on meetings of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, an industry panel.  Hill also appears in meeting minutes in the 1950s for the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association Inc. And a flyer from 1963 indicates Goss, president of Hill & Knowlton at the time, hosted an event that November about the future of public relations.  An executive of Socony Mobil Oil Co. Inc., a predecessor of Mobil Oil, coordinated that talk, held at the New School in New York City.

CIEL has uncovered new evidence showing that it was the work performed for the oil industry by PR firms (particularly Hill & Knowlton) that attracted the tobacco industry to follow suit — in contrast to the prevailing narrative that Big Oil deployed the Tobacco Playbook to ward off responsibility for climate change resulting from its fossil fuel pollution.

Again and again we found both the PR firms and the researchers worked first for oil, then for tobacco,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett in a statement. “It was a pedigree the tobacco companies recognized and sought out.”

“This stunning investigation by Carroll Muffett and CIEL has pulled back the curtain of Big Oil’s plausible deniability on climate change, and the naked history is pretty ugly. Turns out they all knew about the dangers of smog and the threats of global warming several generations ago. The oil industry reaction to these challenges was to seek control of the science and policy narrative, funding counter science and suppressing public scrutiny and concern about air pollution caused by the use of their products.”

-Kert Davies, Director, Climate Investigations Center


“It’s astonishing to learn that almost fifty years ago the American Petroleum Institute and its member companies sought and received scientific advice that continued carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels posed potentially catastrophic risks to the global climate. While acknowledging scientific uncertainties of that time, the 1968 Stanford Research Institute report to API made clear that there was ‘no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe’ and that companies should ‘work toward systems in which carbon dioxide emissions would be brought under control.’ Fossil fuel companies bear particular responsibility for climate damages—damages that could and should have been averted had they acted to reduce the risks of their products.”

-Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)



ExxonMobil’s excuse in the face of #ExxonKnew has, in part, relied on the defense that oil is not the new tobacco. At the end of the day, as Muffett points out in the video below, the final result is the same, despite who was first to devise the strategies of deception and attacking inconvenient science.

The infamous “Doubt is our product” tobacco memo articulated the strategy most succinctly, but the whole package of deception, delay, and attacks on science have been shared, refined and endlessly deployed by both industries (and many others) since the 1950s.

It reminds me of that old “I learned it by watching you” anti-drug PSA.  It doesn’t matter who came first.  Watch the video for the whole story, and check out SmokeandFumes.org for the incredible cache of internal documents uncovered by the Center for International Environmental Law.

And check out the earlier videos produced by CIEL about Smoke and Fumes too:

Image credit: SmokeandFumes.org

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming 

Merchants of Doubt is a 2010 non-fiction book by American historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It identifies parallels between the global warming controversy and earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, acid rain, DDT, and the hole in the ozone layer. Oreskes and Conway write that in each case “keeping the controversy alive” by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached, was the basic strategy of those opposing action.[1]  Oreskes and Conway write that a handful of politically conservative scientists, with strong ties to particular industries, have “played a disproportionate role in debates about controversial questions”.[5] The authors write that this has resulted in “deliberate obfuscation” of the issues which has had an influence on public opinion and policy-making.[5]  In particular, they say that Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and a few other contrarian scientists joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific consensus on many contemporary issues.[2]  The George C. Marshall Institute and Fred Singer, two of the subjects, have been critical of the book. Other reviewers have been more favorable. One reviewer said that Merchants of Doubt is exhaustively researched and documented, and may be one of the most important books of 2010. Another reviewer saw the book as his choice for best science book of the year.[3] It was made into a film, Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner, released in 2014.[4] 

The book criticizes the so-called Merchants of Doubt, some predominantly American science key players, above all Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. All three are physicists: Singer was a rocket scientist, whereas Nierenberg and Seitz worked on the atomic bomb.[6] They have been active on topics like acid rain, tobacco smoking, global warming and pesticides. The book claims that these scientists have challenged and diluted the scientific consensus in the various fields, as of the dangers of smoking, the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, and the existence of anthropogenic climate change.[5] Seitz and Singer have been involved with institutions such as The Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute and George C. Marshall Institute in the United States. Funded by corporations and conservative foundations, these organizations have opposed many forms of state intervention or regulation of U.S. citizens. The book lists similar tactics in each case: “discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt”.[7]

The book states that Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and Robert Jastrow were all fiercely anti-communist and they viewed government regulation as a step towards socialism and communism. The authors argue that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, they looked for another great threat to free market capitalism and found it in environmentalism. They feared that an over-reaction to environmental problems would lead to heavy-handed government intervention in the marketplace and intrusion into people’s lives.[8] Oreskes and Conway state that the longer the delay the worse these problems get, and the more likely it is that governments will need to take the draconian measures that conservatives and market fundamentalists most fear. They say that Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg and Jastrow denied the scientific evidence, contributed to a strategy of delay, and thereby helped to bring about the situation they most dreaded.[8] The authors have a strong doubt about the ability of the media to differentiate between false truth and the actual science in question; however, they stop short of endorsing censorship in the name of science.[9] The journalistic norm of balanced reporting has helped, according to the authors, to amplify the misleading messages of the contrarians. Oreskes and Conway state: “small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power”.[7]

The main conclusion of the book is that there would have been more progress in policymaking, if not for the influence of the contrarian “experts”, which tried on ideological reasons to undermine trust in the science base for regulation.[9] Similar conclusions were already drawn, among others on Frederick Seitz and William Nierenberg in the book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (2010) by Australian academic Clive Hamilton.

Philip Kitcher in Science says that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are “two outstanding historians”.[5] He calls Merchants of Doubt a “fascinating and important study”. Kitcher says that the apparently harsh claims against Nierenberg, Seitz, and Singer are “justified through a powerful dissection of the ways in which prominent climate scientists, such as Roger Revelle and Ben Santer, were exploited or viciously attacked in the press”.[5]  In The Christian Science Monitor, Will Buchanan says that Merchants of Doubt is exhaustively researched and documented, and may be one of the most important books of 2010. Oreskes and Conway are seen to demonstrate that the doubt merchants are not “objective scientists” as the term is popularly understood. Instead, they are “science-speaking mercenaries” hired by corporations to process numbers to prove that the corporations’ products are safe and useful. Buchanan says they are salesmen, not scientists.[10]

Bud Ward published a review of the book in The Yale Forum on Climate and the Media. He wrote that Oreskes and Conway use a combination of thorough scholarly research combined with writing reminiscent of the best investigative journalism, to “unravel deep common links to past environmental and public health controversies”.[11] In terms of climate science, the authors’ leave “little doubt about their disdain for what they regard as the misuse and abuse of science by a small cabal of scientists they see as largely lacking in requisite climate science expertise”.[11]

Phil England writes in The Ecologist that the strength of the book is the rigour of the research and the detailed focus on key incidents. He said, however, that the climate change chapter is only 50 pages long, and recommends several other books for readers who want to get a broader picture of this aspect: Jim Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning and Ross Gelbspan’s The Heat is On and Boiling Point. England also said that there is little coverage about the millions of dollars which Exxon Mobil has put into funding groups actively involved in promoting climate change denial and doubt.[12]

A review in The Economist calls this a powerful book which articulates the politics involved and the degree to which scientists have sometimes manufactured and exaggerated environmental uncertainties, but opines that the authors fail to fully explain how environmental action has still often proved possible despite countervailing factors.[13]

Robert N. Proctor, who coined the term “agnotology” to describe the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, wrote in American Scientist that Merchants of Doubt is a detailed and artfully written book. He set it in the context of other books which cover the “history of manufactured ignorance”:[14] David Michaels’s Doubt is their Product (2008), Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2009), David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s Deceit and Denial (2002), and his own book Cancer Wars (1995).[14]

Robin McKie in The Guardian states that Oreskes and Conway deserve considerable praise for exposing the influence of a small group of Cold War ideologues. Their tactic of spreading doubt has confused the public about a series of key scientific issues such as global warming, even though scientists have actually become more certain about their research results. McKie says that Merchants of Doubt includes detailed notes on all sources used, is carefully paced, and is “my runaway contender for best science book of the year”.[3]

Sociologist Reiner Grundmann‘s review in BioSocieties journal, acknowledges that the book is well researched and factually based, but criticizes the book as being written in a black and white manner whereas historians should write a more nuanced description. The book depicts special interests and contrarians misleading the public as being mainly responsible for stopping action on policy. He says this shows a lack of basic understanding of the political process and the mechanisms of knowledge policy, because the authors assume that public policy would follow on from an understanding of the science. While the book provides all the (formal) hallmarks of science, Grundmann sees it less as a scholarly work than a passionate attack and thus problematic.[9]

William O’Keefe and Jeff Kueter from the George C. Marshall Institute, which was founded by Seitz,[15] say that although Merchants of Doubt has the appearance of a scholarly work, it discredits and undermines the reputations of people who in their lifetime contributed greatly to the American nation.[16]

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of History and Science Studies at Harvard University. She has degrees in geological science and a Ph.D. in Geological Research and the History of Science. Her work came to public attention in 2004 with the publication of “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” in Science, in which she wrote that there was no significant disagreement in the scientific community about the reality of global warming from human causes.[17] Erik M. Conway is the historian at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.[17]

Steve Coll: How Exxon Shaped the Climate Debate

OCTOBER 23, 2012, by JASON M. BRESLOW Frontline
Steve Coll is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 24, 2012.

In some ways, it’s kind of a no-brainer that Exxon would go after climate science on a very superficial level. It’s sort of in their self-interest to keep government away from fossil fuels, right? Is that how it began?

Well, there were a lot of corporations, including oil companies, that objected to the Kyoto accords in 1997. But most of them lobbied against the treaty on economic and fairness grounds that would cost the economy of the United States too much for the benefits promised, and also that it wasn’t fair that developing societies would be left out of the bargain.

But Exxon did something that I think was fairly radical, which was that they chose to go after the science. And I think that was more the results of the personal conviction of the chief executive, Lee Raymond, than it really was an expression of their rational business needs.

After all, ExxonMobil was an oil and gas company. Gas was not problematic under climate change regulation. Oil was not as problematic as coal. They were an enormous corporation with rich profits. They could have survived Kyoto. They could have survived a price cap on carbon. They could survive on that. But they chose not only to oppose the treaty, but to attack the science.

So they could have in a sense written a check for what Kyoto called for, and instead not only went after the treaty but every scientific basis or even thinking about climate change as a threat to the world.

Lee Raymond — who had a doctoral degree in chemical engineering and who had a personal conviction that he understood the science well enough to reach a judgment about it — decided that the science was wrong.

He believed that it was a hoax, in effect, that the earth was not warming at all. … So he not only went after the treaty bargain, but funded, often in the early years surreptitiously, campaigns to attack the science that were carried out by nonscientific groups, often by free-market ideologues, … this out of an organization, ExxonMobil, that is in fact quite dependent on scientists and science. In time, perhaps we will understand what the internal reaction among scientists within ExxonMobil was to this campaigning, because there’s some evidence that within ExxonMobil, there was study going on about how global warming could affect oil discovery, for example.

So on the one hand, the chief executive was saying there is no global warming, and on the other hand, scientific departments of ExxonMobil were looking into how, if there was global warming, ExxonMobil could profit from it. …

What sort of tools were at the disposal of Exxon to really go after the science? After all, isn’t science science?

Well, money to fund campaigns raising doubts. I mean, science is science, but science is based on doubts. Science is based on arguments. Science is based on honest dissent. There is hardly a branch of science where you can’t identify a single scientist who doesn’t have an opposing view. In fact, scientists are trained to question and doubt.

In the case of climate science in the late 1990s, the consensus was still forming around how confident scientists could be about the cause, the contribution of human industrial activity to warming, what the risks over what period of time would actually turn out to be.

Here in 2012, we have a much clearer sense of what the modeling warns us about than was available in 1997. And so ExxonMobil was able to exploit genuine divisions that were still present in a global scientific community.

Those divisions were narrowing; they were closing. They would vanish within five to seven years. But ExxonMobil drove a wedge into that debate, exploited the dissent that is an aid to science and used this to create doubts in the public mind about whether the science was legitimate.

“ExxonMobil drove a wedge into that debate, exploited the dissent that is an aid to science and used this to create doubts in the public mind about whether the science was legitimate.”

After all, this is a kind of science that is very difficult for any ordinary American to evaluate on his or her [own], and we all know that weather is uncertain. We all watch the weather forecast every night and watch the weathermen who are presumably trained meteorologists and [who] get it wrong over and over and over again.

So here comes a campaign suggesting that this very consequential weather forecast might turn out to be wrong. Well, there’s an intuitive way in which Americans are going to take that up, especially if it’s propounded in a clever way that emphasizes what’s uncertain and what’s unknown. …

And the moment they concede that uncertainty, who’s poised to take advantage of that?

Well, ExxonMobil and the rest of the fossil fuel industry can rightfully say, “Scientists themselves are uncertain about exactly how warming will unfold.” And then you can go further, as Lee Raymond did. …

Lee Raymond, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, said at a shareholders’ meeting around 2000, “I’m not convinced that the earth is warming at all.” In fact, he said publicly that he feared that an ice age was more likely than an age of catastrophic warming.

And called it a hoax?

I’m not sure that he used the word “hoax,” but he in effect said, “I don’t believe there is convincing evidence that the earth’s temperature is going up in a meaningful trend.” At that point, by the late 1990s, there was really no doubt in the scientific community that the earth was warming.

The only remaining controversy at that time in the late 1990s was how confident scientists could be that industrial activity was an important or the most important forcing mechanism in the warming that everyone agreed was occurring. But Lee Raymond didn’t even concede that the warming was occurring. …

Describe this sort of freedom-fighter group that Exxon funded that would basically take on not only the science, but also the politics of what climate science was driving.

The most radical of these groups were free-market advocates, some of them medium-sized by Washington standards, some of them quite small and almost purpose-built to campaign against climate science.

They were often led by non-scientists, economists or public policy advocates. And they were specialists in communicating to members of Congress, to opinion makers, to Republican activists and to the public about matters of public policy.

So they essentially developed a campaign, a kind of multiphase, self-conscious communications campaign to try to put across the arguments that they felt most strongly about. This included tax on the Kyoto accords treaty on economic-unfairness grounds. But they also included campaigning against the science itself.

And how much money are we talking about? What kind of resources did Exxon and others bring to the table?

Well, multimillions of dollars were spent on this. And the records suggest that much of the oil industry’s contribution to this funding was routed through the American Petroleum Institute, which is where the oil companies individually often do the lobbying that’s most likely to be controversial, because then they have the shield of an industrywide group.

Within API, ExxonMobil is by far the biggest player. Dues and in effect voting power are allocated on the basis of corporate size. And so Exxon, as the largest corporation, was the big fish. And also Lee Raymond, the chairman and chief executive, was the one who really drove this agenda. We have minutes and records of the American Petroleum Institute from this period that made clear that Exxon really took over this campaign and drove the funding and the strategy in the years after Kyoto.

In addition, there were other participants from the coal industry and from other ideological and industry groups that supported this work. But the oil industry-led work involved spending millions of dollars per year over a number of years following the enactment of the Kyoto accords, in particular in 1997.

… Did Exxon rely on scientists to make their argument in anything?

Sure. They, like the campaigners, built petitions of various kinds of scientists who agreed with this critique. Now, there was a particular petition that was circulated at this time that turned out to be highly flawed and contained the names of pop singers and other phony signatures that really didn’t have any scientific background.

But there were a handful of credited scientists at mainstream universities and other organizations, some of them qualified in the relevant fields, who expressed doubts about the conventional wisdom at that time in global warming and climate science.

And although they were a very small minority of the total number of scientists working in this area, they were prepared to be forceful in their dissent. And science, of course, has often thrived on the lonely dissenter. So ExxonMobil rallied to these individuals who were, in its mind, bravely defying the United Nations and the conventional wisdom of the liberal environmental elites and called attention and provided funding to these dissidents, and then used their messages, their scientific credentials and their arguments to campaign before the public to raise questions about the credibility of what was becoming more and more a consensus science.

Aside from this handful of dissenters, though, was the argument driven by ExxonMobil made mostly by nonscientists?

A lot of these groups were run by economists, litigators, lawyers and public policy specialists, people who specialized in getting a message out, not people who were scientists. This was a Washington campaign. This was about influencing the media. This was about creating a false controversy really in proportion to the dissent versus the majority.

The effect of the campaign was to persuade many people in the media that this was an even-sided debate; that there were people who thought global warming was going on and an equal number roughly who thought it wasn’t, and that, therefore, by the conventions of impartial journalism, every story that covered legislation or other controversies around global warming should equally quote from both sides of the debate. That was a goal, an explicit goal that was written down as part of this campaign.

Let’s create doubt; let’s create a sense of a balanced debate and make sure that these lines of skepticism and dissent become routinely a part of public discussion about climate science. And, in fact, they succeeded at that.

This group may not have been scientists, but they were really good at this sort of thing.

Well, some of them actually came out of campaigning on behalf of the tobacco industry in the 1960s, which was a campaign that over a period of 10 or 15 years managed to prolong the period in which the American public believed that there might not be much danger in smoking.

Even though the tobacco companies internally knew as long ago as the 1950s that smoking was quite dangerous to human health, it really wasn’t until the 1970s or later that the evidence that this was no longer a debatable subject became part of a political consensus in the United States.

And that delay period before lawsuits and other factors caused the tobacco industry to be held accountable for the misinformation that it had communicated to the smoking public, that was the product of a similar communications campaign. …

So replace human body with climate and carcinogen with carbon, and you pretty much have the tobacco industry debate upgraded for climate science in the 21st century?

These are complex systems. How can we be certain what factors are going on? Even observing change over time is a very complicated endeavor. And listen to the scientists themselves; they’ll tell you they don’t know the answer to every question.

Since there’s so much uncertainty, therefore, we should be very cautious about undertaking costly restrictions or regulations inhibiting human freedom and all of the rest of the arguments that go along with that. Yes, there is a similarity.

When did this success in terms of messaging become a PR problem on some level for Exxon?

Well, environmental groups, scientists and later members of Congress became aware of this campaigning, because it was right out in the open. And some of the groups that were carrying it out looked by their nature to be underqualified to be entering into a politically important debate about science and public policy.

So investigations began. Greenpeace conducted some of them; Union of Concerned Scientists conducted some of them. Other important environmental groups in Washington started looking underneath the hood. …

And gradually, these mostly nonprofit groups and some journalists were able to describe by 2003, 2004, pretty thoroughly before the public, that these groups were certainly well funded by the oil industry, if not in some respect an instrument of oil industry lobbying.

Of course, these groups all said: “Hey, we believe this on our own. We are independent libertarians or free-market groups. We will have these convictions whether ExxonMobil was providing us with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we are not.”

Maybe that’s so. But in any event, they were amplified in their messaging by the amount of resources they could tap from industry during this time.

At ExxonMobil shareholder meetings, some of these activists and dissenters started turning up to protest ExxonMobil’s funding of such groups. And initially, there was just a kind of public argument with Lee Raymond defiantly on the stage putting up his slides of scientists that agreed with him and telling shareholders: “I don’t even think the earth is warning at all. You people are wrong.”

But the more these investigations went on, the more the dissent about ExxonMobil’s fairly radical decision to attack the science began to attract really mainstream dissenters among the shareholder community as well as the environmental community. And now the people turning up at ExxonMobil shareholder meetings were a little bit less predictable.

The Rockefeller family split in half. And members of the Rockefeller family — from which ExxonMobil is descended from the Rockefeller Standard Oil Trust — they turned up at the shareholder meetings to say: “We think you are tarnishing the legacy of our great-great-great-grandfather. We think a respectable American corporation of your size, the largest corporation owned by shareholders headquartered in the United States, ought to act a little more responsively about matters of public science and public safety.” …

So that kind of dissent started to attract attention. And I think it bothered the board of ExxonMobil as the years went on. I think it bothered senior management.

I think they felt that they had been a little bit exposed by Lee Raymond’s personal convictions about this beyond where their business interests lay, because really, if the Congress in the United States in 2004 had imposed a $20-a-ton price on carbon-based fuels as one response to mitigate global warming, … that price, if it had been enacted, would have affected ExxonMobil’s business prospects hardly at all. They were a very profitable, durable oil and gas company. The price on carbon would have advantaged natural gas over coal, just as it would now. Half of ExxonMobil’s oil and gas holdings around the world are natural gas, so in a sense they could even have been winners.

Yes, it would have been a little more expensive for them to sell oil and operate some of their refineries in the United States. But none of that would have damaged ExxonMobil’s business in some existential way, … which made their actions attacking the science, in my judgment, all the more radical.

… What was their perception of the liability at the end of the day?

Well, there are different kinds of liability that I think they feared. I think the most severe liability that they feared — although it never has materialized — was comparable to the liability that ultimately bankrupted many tobacco companies, which was, there was a movement in the environmental industry to litigate against ExxonMobil for funding this campaign against climate science.

The idea was that they might be held liable for essentially undermining the available information to the public and the Congress.

Perpetuating an idea that was, number one, false, and number two, undermined public health?

That’s right. And there was a movement to try to identify victims of global warming who might try to hold ExxonMobil accountable. And of course, if such litigation were permitted to go forward, then lawyers for these victims, whoever they might be — residents of an island that was destined to come underwater if the sea levels rose, for example — they would be able to access internal records of ExxonMobil, much as happened in the tobacco industry. And perhaps that would reveal that ExxonMobil, for example, had internal scientists telling them all along global warming is real even while the corporation was campaigning against the science.

So they were very concerned about those kinds of big-ticket liability lawsuits, the kind that went after the asbestos industry, the kind that went after the tobacco industry, because when those kinds of lawsuits succeed, then an industry and a corporation can be in real peril. …

ExxonMobil’s most profitable business is at the wellhead, where they discover oil, pump it out of the ground, sell it wholesale to some user inside the corporate family or outside. That kind of activity, offshore, Nigeria, in Russia, all around the world, [was] not likely to be so affected by American greenhouse gas regulation.

Where they had some expenses that they would have to [incur] was mostly in the refinery operations, these giant factorylike plants where crude oil is converted into gasoline or precursors for the chemical industry or aviation fuel or other products.

Now, those are polluting, hot-running, very complicated industry plants that would be subject to these either prices in a cap-and-trade system or regulation if the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] declared them to be polluters.

But in truth, ExxonMobil’s profits, circa $40 billion these days, are durable against any such regulation or carbon pricing. First of all, these refining operations represent a small percentage of their profit making. In fact, they are the most difficult aspect of their business, the least profitable.

Secondly, they are, by and large, wholesalers. So even if they have to incur incremental costs in order to comply with these regulations, they’ll be able to pass those prices down to the ultimate consumer. It’s not clear that the rates of profitability are jeopardized at all.

So in a business sense, not only was it to some extent irrational to act so radically on the subject of climate science, but, you know, also as Lee Raymond’s successor, as Chief Executive Rex Tillerson later acknowledged, it actually hurt ExxonMobil, because what they want is price stability. They want a world that is consistent across 20 or 30 or 40 years, because their whole business model is based on very expensive long-term investments. What messes up their business model is volatility, things that are unexpected. And one of the sources of volatility in the future is, they don’t know how climate is going to be regulated.

So there were many other oil companies that thought it would be smarter to get ahead of this problem, create support for a stable system, even if it was a little more expensive for them, that would at least create a degree of certainty over 20 or 30 years about what kind of environment they were operating in. But ExxonMobil went a different way.

So at what point did they get out?

At the end of 2005, Lee Raymond retired, and he was succeeded by a man named Rex Tillerson, who continues to run ExxonMobil today as chairman and chief executive. Now, Tillerson has acknowledged that when he came in he wanted to change ExxonMobil’s communications strategy around climate and other controversial issues. He has acknowledged that he thought the company had a problem.

Now, when he started to change, he did two things. First, they reviewed some of these free-market groups that they had been funding, and they cut funding to the most radical among them, especially the smaller, sort of purpose-built groups that were just concentrating on attacking climate science. And then they tried to recalibrate, reposition ExxonMobil’s thinking about global warming.

Now, their lawyers, I think, were very cautious about this and didn’t want ExxonMobil to admit liability, admit that it had been doing anything wrong before. So at first, their communication strategy was: “We were never wrong; we were only misunderstood. So let us tell you what it was we always meant to say.” And in the course of that somewhat convoluted new communications campaign, they started to say: “The risks of global warming are a serious matter. We’re seized of those risks and concerns, and we want to engage in a debate about those risks.” …

Then in 2009, they went further. At that time, the Obama administration had just taken office. Congress was preparing to consider and possibly enact climate change legislation, the so-called cap-and-trade bill, which would have created a marketplace and pollution credits and in effect raised a price on carbon-based fuel through a market mechanism.

ExxonMobil saw that legislation coming. They saw that the Democrats were in charge of both houses of Congress, they saw this new Democratic president with a great deal of electoral momentum behind him, and they thought, well, we can either stay out of this and get run over by it possibly, or we can come forward and start to join the debate.

So Rex Tillerson flew to Washington in January 2009, and he made an appearance at a think tank called the Woodrow Wilson Center, and he announced that ExxonMobil for the first time supported a carbon tax. It did not support the cap-and-trade mechanism, which it believed was too bureaucratic and unwieldy. But, it said, in principle, we do support the goal of that cap and trade, which is a $20-a-ton, roughly, price on carbon-based fuels. We think it ought to just be imposed straight across the board. But we’re in the game.

Now, some people greeted this announcement with skepticism, thinking that ExxonMobil had just found a new way to oppose the main bill that was on the floor. And in truth that’s what they did. They went out, and they lobbied against cap and trade, which ultimately died for a variety of complicated reasons, mostly having to do with the recession.

But for the first time, the chairman and chief executive of the largest oil company in the United States said forthrightly that the risks of global warming were significant enough to warrant a price on carbon in order to incent[ivize] movement away from fossil fuels. So that’s at least a change from the Lee Raymond era. …

So Exxon walked away. But was damage done?

The public’s doubts about climate science suggests that the legacy of these investments and their campaign after the Kyoto accords is still with us. I can’t think of an area of science that is relevant to public policy where the gap between what most people believe and what 97 percent of qualified scientists — however you want to define that phrase — believe is as wide as in the case of climate science.

“I can’t think of an area of science that is relevant to public policy where the gap between what most people believe and what 97 percent of qualified scientists … believe is as wide as in the case of climate science.”

The truth is there really is no debate within climate science about some really important fundamentals: a, the earth is warming at a dangerous pace; b, industrial activity is a forcing mechanism and that unless it is reduced, the pace of warming will continue; and c, while we can’t be exactly certain which in a range of outcomes we will get, even in the best case, unless we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are being forced into the atmosphere, global temperatures will rise to a dangerous degree.

By dangerous, I mean they will affect global agriculture. They will raise sea levels to a point where they will threaten coastal inhabitants in settlements all around the world. And they may create even more extreme changes in climate that would affect human settlements from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa. …

The impact of these groups, when you looked into this, did it surprise you?

It surprised me that their ideas are still so alive in the public mind. I think there may be an explanation, which is that if you look at American history since the Second World War and since the birth of the environmental movement, really in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans have proved over and over again that they’re willing to tax themselves to protect living generations from pollution.

So if air pollution threatens the health of your son or daughter, if water pollution threatens the health or increases the likelihood that your granddaughter will contract cancer or some other disease in her lifetime, then you are willing to act.

Even if you are a free-market ideologist, you are willing to say, “This is what government is for, to protect us from acute threats to living generations.”

The problem with climate change is that until recently, I think to many Americans, it has seemed like a threat not to living generations but to future generations. And with that uncertainty, and with the economic climate that we are in, Americans have been unwilling to impose a tax on themselves in order to protect generations as yet unborn.

Now, elsewhere in the world, in the industrialized world, we have seen this equation change when extreme weather has caused living generations to say to themselves: “You know what? This may actually be more like air pollution or water pollution. This may be a threat to living generations. We may be looking at droughts or extreme weather events that could affect the quality of life of my grandchildren who are just 5 years old now.”

In Australia, a country that has politics as resistant to climate regulation as any of the United States, the country just enacted a price on carbon. Why? They just endured the worst drought in recorded Australian history. …

Of course, no scientist can tell you that any particular weather event is directly a result of global warming. But what they can observe is that their prediction has always been that as this process unfolds, extreme weather events will become more frequent; there will be more volatility; and some of the effects, such as the ones we’ve seen, will include drought and extreme temperatures.

So it may be that over the next 10 or 15 years, Americans will reconsider the ideas that were propounded by these campaigners funded by the oil industry in the 1990s, which is to say that there’s a lot of doubt about all of the tenets of this science, and follow a different kind of intuition, which is that this is here with us now.

Do you think down deep inside Exxon somewhere, there’s a fear that a corn farmer in the Midwest looking at a completely brown field today, because of this campaign against the science launched by Exxon, that that farmer will become a plaintiff in the future in some lawsuit related to climate change and global warming?

If I were an ExxonMobil lawyer, I’d be worried about just that scenario. I absolutely would.

ExxonMobil is a corporation with many scientists employed in the United States within its geology departments, within its exploration and engineering departments.

Scientists are all ornery, independent people on the whole, and they have been trained to question consensus thinking, question their superiors, question everything around them. It would be surprising if ExxonMobil had carried out such an anti-science campaign over eight to 10 years and had never had one of its own scientists write a memo inside the corporation that said: “What are you doing? I have a contrary view,” or, “My reading of the evidence is different than what you are funding groups to say,” or, “I’m concerned that we are creating unnecessary liability for ExxonMobil by spreading false ideas.”

Those documents, if exposed by a plaintiff in a lawsuit, whether they were a corn farmer who suffered drought or the inhabitant of some island that started to sink under rising seas, could change the liability that ExxonMobil and other corporations may ultimately face.

Now, remember the instance of the tobacco industry. First of all, those documents were written inside those companies, dissenting documents, in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t until the ’90s that they came out through lawsuits. The wheels of justice are slow.

And in fairness to ExxonMobil, whatever the debate inside the scientists within that corporation, we’re not talking about the same thing as smokers. We’re not talking about what tobacco industry scientists knew, which is that living human beings smoking cigarettes were more likely to die as a result of the withholding of this information. I mean, even in the worst case, the effects of climate change, our collective effects, they’re global effects. They’re going to unfold over a period of decades, and they’re going to unfold in an uncertain pattern. …

This is a very moralistic company. It’s a company that has inherited a very strict ethical regime from the Rockefeller days. Former managers told me as recently as the 1970s, it wasn’t unusual to go to a meeting at Exxon and sit down and pray together before the meeting began. The current chief executive is a self-described evangelical Christian, and there’s quite a lot of moralism in the way the corporation speaks to its constituents and to its employees.

So how do you square that with a campaign that I think will be judged by history as a radical and, in some important respects, dishonest campaign? I can only assume that the authors of that campaign at the corporation say to themselves: “Oh, we didn’t know. There was some uncertainty. And if we’re later proved that our doubts were misplaced, well, they were doubts honestly held at the time, because nobody knew 100 percent of where this science was going.” …

What kinds of groups are they funding now that might have anything to do with this?

… I think they have pulled most of the direct funding for the groups that were campaigning against science in the years after Kyoto, but they’ve remained part of an industry coalition that is focused on delaying any price on carbon and maintaining political resistance to efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency, efforts in the Congress or elsewhere to take any approach that would curtail industrial activity on grounds of climate regulation.

What’s the synergy, if any, between Exxon and the Heartland Institute?

The Heartland Institute was one of the nonprofits that received funding from ExxonMobil during the years that it was campaigning to challenge climate science after the Kyoto accords were enacted.

The Heartland Institute’s tax returns describe the revenue they received from ExxonMobil, and, curiously, they list on one of their returns an ExxonMobil executive who was a lobbyist in ExxonMobil’s Washington office, a gentleman who had come from ExxonMobil’s chemical company, and he’s listed at the Heartland Institute as a government adviser, suggesting that the relationship between Heartland and ExxonMobil went beyond just that of a donor and a recipient organization but that there was some kind of active consulting or advising that was also a part of the partnership. …

As I understand that, they’d say that they don’t receive direct funding from ExxonMobil anymore. And this is one of the institutions that was I think on the list that ExxonMobil made after 2006 where they decided to reduce their funding. …

What do we know about this specific review done on these advocacy groups that caused Exxon to decide to pull a plug on some of its operations?

As this transition in the chief executive’s office took place, the new chief executive ordered a group to study the investments that ExxonMobil had been making to review the communications that ExxonMobil had been putting out and to start to propose alternatives. And in the course of that review, a decision was made to end the funding for the most radical groups and also to publicize the fact that ExxonMobil had ended that funding because they wanted it to be understood that they were making a change.

And certain groups didn’t pass muster.

The smaller groups and the ones that had attracted the most controversy and attention from investigators. And the ones that were not on the main led by scientists seemed to be ideological and really more geared toward public relations and communications strategy than toward public policy research or scientific research.

But the $26 million investment that Exxon made up to that point really created the infrastructure for what today is a very successful battle being waged against candidates in the 2012 election.

Yeah, there’s no question that that movement continues and that it continues to publish, and it continues to pursue many of the same arguments that were developed in that period after the late 1990s. …

In the following article, George Monbiot argues that when government’s argue in favour of air pollution, you can be pretty sure there is corruption involved.

It’s interesting to note how readily modern conservatism degenerates into a defence of corporate malfeasance.

Governments Siding with the Worst Capitalists

By this I don’t mean a defence of corporations in general, which you might expect from a political movement aligned with the interests of wealth and power, but of the worst corporations in particular. That is not a pro-corporate position, as favouring bad practice undermines the competitive position of more responsible companies. It’s a decision to side with the worst capitalists against the better capitalists.

Because this policy appears in no one’s manifesto, and no one would seek to defend it in public, it is a classic indicator of political corruption. By this I mean operating on behalf of unrevealed and particular interests, rather than on behalf of either the constituencies that elected you or of the nation as a whole. Whenever you see the worst corporate practices championed, you know that influence is being peddled, that corporate party funding is being deployed, or that special favours are being granted through old boys’ networks and other forums of elite transaction.

On Both Sides Of The Atlantic

Often, on both sides of the Atlantic, the worst corporations win. The reason is straightforward: they are the ones spending money on politics. You don’t need to splash out on policies that align with the interests of the public; you do need to spend heavily on policies that damage the public interest; otherwise they will not pass. If a company is spending lavishly on lobbying and campaign finance, it is likely to be because it wants something that no one in their right mind would welcome. Money rules, so the bad guys tend to finish first.

The latest example is the covert lobbying by the British government to try to weaken European air pollution rules on behalf of the coal industry.

The Coal Industry

Before going any further, I should point out that the coal industry today bears little resemblance to the coal industry of the past. There is just one deep mine left in Britain, which will shut by the end of the year; all the others are opencast pits: landscape destruction on a nightmarish scale, which is opposed by most of the communities it affects.

Despite this massive environmental impact, opencasting provides a tiny number of jobs: the disproportion between impact and employment is comparable only to supertrawlers and upland sheep farming. When this government intervenes on behalf of the coal industry, it does so on behalf of those who own and run it, rather than for the tiny remaining fragment of the workforce against which the Conservative Party has battled for years.

That the lobbying was done secretly, and sought to undermine rules that had already been diluted through corporate pressure, adds to the impression that this was an intervention against the people of Britain, rather than on their behalf.

Against Human Health

The lobbying took place in the wake of a long series of new scientific findings about the impacts of air pollution on human health. If the government succeeds in undermining the common pollution rules, it is likely to be responsible for deaths that might otherwise have been prevented. These deaths will be concentrated in the country’s poorer communities.

The latest findings suggest a link between air pollution and the earlier onset of dementia. They appear in just one of many recent papers showing a strong association between high levels of pollution and cognitive decline. Others, for example, show a faster loss of brain volume among older people, reduced verbal IQ among young children and poorer performance by schoolchildren in attention and memory tests.

These studies augment a vast literature on other health impacts, such as lower birth weight, reduced lung development among children in polluted areas, asthma, heart attacks, strokes, lung and bladder cancers and higher susceptibility to both allergies and infectious diseases. Did you vote for that? I thought not.

As a government committee takes account for the first time of the impacts of nitrogen dioxide, the projected death toll in the UK is likely to be raised from 29,000 people a year to around 60,000. In London, the number of premature deaths ascribed to air pollution is 9,400 a year; which is now higher than the number of deaths attributed to smoking (8,400).

The ethical difference is self-evident. Though the issue is complicated by marketing, addiction and passive smoking, there is usually a degree of choice involved in exposing yourself to tobacco smoke. We have no choice about exposure to air pollution.

The Problem Was Solved

Why is this not a pungent political issue? Partly, I think, because of the widespread perception that the problem was solved many years ago. Take a look at these astonishing early photos of British industrial towns:

Chimneys in Widnes
Chimneys in Widnes

The smogs and fogs caused by pollution (smoke particles become the nucleii around which water vapour condenses) were regular features of urban life. Here’s how Charles Dickens describes one, in the opening pages of Bleak House:

“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. … Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. … Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards …”.

The Great London Smog of 1952, in which some 4,000 died, that helped, eventually, to produce our clean air acts, was one of many such incidents, albeit particularly severe. Its most deadly component was sulphur pollution from coal burning, which, incidentally, is what the Westminster government’s secret lobbying is now seeking to deregulate.

According to Stephen Mosley at Leeds Beckett University, bronchitis used to be known as “the British disease”. If you survived the other afflictions of urban life, you had a high chance of being finished off by the filthy air. The problem in some cities was so severe that it appears to have been partly responsible for the high level of rickets: the smoke ensured that children had insufficient exposure to sunlight. (Rickets, caused by a lack of vitamin D, that is usually supplied by other sunlight or diet, is now returning to Britain, though on a smaller scale,: one of the reasons is that some children scarcely venture outdoors.)

The dark business suit (originally known as the Manchester suit) was widely adopted because it didn’t show the dirt caused by the constant rain of smuts and soot. If you stepped out wearing bright or pale colours, it wouldn’t be long before you looked as if you had climbed out of a coal mine.

Air Pollution costs EU £1.4 Trillion A Year

There have been major improvements over the past 60 years, though they are now being partially reversed by the rising number of diesel engines.

The World Health Organisation estimates that air pollution costs Europe roughly £1.4 trillion a year, equivalent to about one tenth of the continent’s GDP. While I’m suspicious of both the principle and methodologies of translating human health and human life into money, there’s little doubt that major costs are involved, for public services, business and, above all, sufferers. Pollution damages both productivity and government finances: it is no part of the duty of a capitalist party to defend it.

The Conservative Government’s Support

Imagine what the government’s policy would look like, had it appeared in the Conservative party’s manifesto:

“We will lobby the European Union on behalf of polluting industries to reduce proposed smoke controls, endangering lives, threatening the cognitive health of both children and adults and damaging the country’s competitive position.”

Because it is inconceivable that such a policy could be publicly announced, its pursuit can be understood as an assault on democracy. It reminds us that corruption, like pollution, is not the preserve of either history or of other parts of the world; it is a potent force in Britain too. Like pollution, it seeps into our lives, invisible but pervasive.



The Six Cities Study documented the health effects of air pollution over nearly two decades in Harriman; St. Louis, Missouri; Watertown, Massachusetts; Steubenville, Ohio; Portage, Wisconsin; and Topeka, Kansas. It broke new ground by highlighting for the first time the danger from the smallest particles, no bigger than 2.5 microns in diameter—one fourth the size in the air pollution standards at the time. It linked pollution from those particles not only to ill health, as other studies had before, but directly to deaths, which were 26 percent higher in the most polluted city—Steubenville—than in the least.

The nature of those deaths was a surprise as well. The biggest cause was not respiratory disease, as seemed logical, but rather stroke, heart attack, and other coronary conditions.  Perhaps most important for federal regulatory officials, Six Cities also illustrated that some 23 years after the modern regulatory scheme was adopted in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, air pollution was still killing thousands of Americans annually.

“We were surprised by this very strong unexpected effect on mortality,” said Douglas Dockery, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health. Dockery, a faculty associate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE), joined Six Cities as a graduate student in the 1970s and later became the study’s principal investigator. “There’d been lots of papers on respiratory illness and asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung function and so forth, but it was the mortality paper that got the most attention and really galvanized the political debate.

“When you think about the routes of exposure, you expect a respiratory problem and the biggest effect to be on the lungs,” Dockery continued. “It has become apparent that the lungs and heart are so intimately connected that if air pollution is straining the lungs, it puts a strain on the heart also. The most important effects we see are cardiovascular.”

Six Cities got its start in 1974, four years after the Clean Air Act of 1970 and at a time when public pressure was building and action was already beginning to clean up skies over the U.S. That pressure resulted from a shift in the public’s attitude toward air pollution and economic development. But in the early decades of the 20th century, a different kind of pressure was on: to innovate and modernize. Ever bigger factories churned out new products resulting from wave after wave of innovation. New cars packed the roads, adding their own emissions to the air. Radios and televisions, washing machines, and a dizzying array of goods were demanded by the burgeoning consumer society. The fumes that poured from smokestacks, darkening the skies, made people cough and wheeze, but many just shrugged at their ailments, believing their sniffles were the cost of progress.

It soon became apparent, however, that progress’ price wasn’t just ill health, but potentially life itself. In 1948, an atmospheric inversion over the industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania trapped emissions from steel and zinc smelters over the town for days. Twenty people died and some 6,000—nearly half the population—had severe respiratory problems, including chest pains and shortness of breath. 

A few years later, in 1952, a December fog settled over London, the still air brewing toxic emissions into a deadly stew, causing the worst air pollution disaster on record. Some 4,000 deaths were immediately attributed to the episode and its aftermath. A 2004 analysis examined excess deaths later that winter and put the number several times higher, at about 12,000.

Even as public concern was mounting over industrial pollution in the East, another problem arose in the clear skies of Los Angeles. Though little coal was burned in L.A., residents were periodically afflicted by an eye-burning haze, first noticed in 1943. Investigations found a new kind of pollution, ozone, which was not emitted directly from smokestacks, but instead was produced in the atmosphere by the reaction of auto exhaust, industrial emissions, and sunshine, trapped and simmering in the Los Angeles basin. 

Frank Speizer, professor of environmental science at the Harvard School of Public Health, Kass distinguished professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS), and principal investigator of the Six Cities Study, worked on early air pollution studies in the 1950s in Los Angeles. He recalls being halted at a stop sign and someone banging on the window and asking when something was going to be done about the air pollution.

Though momentum toward change was slowly building, effective action was still decades away, at least in part because so little was actually known about how air pollution affected health.  As a student in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, Speizer worked on an early study of ozone pollution’s effects on lung function of patients at a veterans hospital. He spoke of the crude measures they used to gather data at the time.  “You could see the mountain or you could not see the mountain,” said Speizer, a HUCE faculty associate. “It actually turned out to be a very good measure, but that’s how qualitative it was.”

Early federal legislation included the Clean Air Act of 1963, amendments in 1966, initial restrictions on auto exhaust in 1965, additional legislation in 1967, and the Clean Air Act of 1970, which established the regulatory structures in effect today.

Despite the legislation, change was slow. Michael McElroy, Harvard’s Butler professor of environmental studies and faculty associate of HUCE, remembers growing up in Belfast in the 1940s and 1950s and how the white handkerchief he put in his pocket each morning became black by the end of the day from his repeated blowing. By the time he visited Pittsburgh in the 1960s, the problem hadn’t changed. “The problems of that time were pretty obvious. The air was dirty,” McElroy said. “That was sort of the situation in many of the industrial cities of the world. I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland and that is the environment I experienced. I visited Pittsburgh in the ’60s, and Pittsburgh was just as bad as Belfast was when I left. You sort of became used to it.”

By the early 1970s, significant action was being taken, but Speizer said that the science underpinning many of the new standards was still wanting. These were the early days of the field of epidemiology, which would provide some answers, and, though some studies pointed the way, others ran into problems of quality control and data analysis, Speizer said.  Speizer told of how carbon monoxide limits in Boston’s Sumner Tunnel were established at the time, among officials at a restaurant over dinner, with guesswork playing an uncomfortably large role in the process.
“Nobody knew what levels to set, that was the problem,” Speizer said. “We knew carbon monoxide was bad for you—there were studies done in the ’20s that showed cognitive decline and acute poisoning. But the question was what should the level be in the Sumner Tunnel for workers and drivers?”

From Steubenville to Topeka

Shortly after the 1970 Clean Air Act, Speizer and Ben Ferris, both professors at HSPH, appeared before a federal commission investigating the health impacts of burning coal. Commissioners asked how the two would go about assessing those impacts. In response, Speizer drafted a document detailing a study of sulfur dioxide and total suspended particles, which would later be refined to examine particles of different sizes. Shortly after, the two were asked to submit the proposal, which would become the Six Cities Study, for funding.

The first city to be enrolled in Six Cities was nearby Watertown in 1974. Watertown was selected because of its proximity so that the researchers could work out kinks in their procedures before the study spread to more distant locations. Harriman, Tennessee and St. Louis were enrolled in 1975. Steubenville, Ohio—the most polluted city—was enrolled in 1976, along with Portage, Wisconsin, which had the cleanest air. Topeka, Kansas, which rivaled Portage for cleanliness, was the last to join, in 1977.

The study enrolled 8,111 adults between age 25 and 74 who were followed up annually, as well as some 14,000 children in grades one through four, who were followed through high school. Researchers set up instruments in each city and gathered air quality data. After conducting initial physical examinations and detailed questionnaires, researchers returned every third year and tracked down participants, taking basic health measurements and asking about smoking habits, health history, and occupational history. In the years between, researchers sent annual post cards that served to alert researchers when a study participant died, after which researchers tracked down cause-of-death information.
“We were in Steubenville, a steelmaking community, and periodically they’d have bad air pollution episodes,” Dockery recalled. “We set up the study to monitor the kids, measure lung function, and then, when the air pollution was going to get bad, re-tested some kids. We measured lung function before, during and after air pollution events.  We could see their lung volumes dropped during these events.
“It was the first study I was involved in that directly showed the effect of air pollution with objective physiological measures,” Dockery said. “We were taking these clinical measures into the field and providing objective measures of the health of the kids. That was one of the innovations of the study.”
Another innovation was provided by John Spengler, today the Yamaguchi professor of environmental health and human habitation at HSPH, who joined Six Cities as a postdoctoral fellow shortly after it began and designed instruments to measure particles of different sizes. This allowed the study to shift from the crude measure of total suspended particles to measuring and analyzing particles of different sizes, which would be key in the landmark 1993 paper.
Called an “impactor,” the device sucked air through a nozzle and directed it around an impactor sheet and then through a filter paper. By tuning the air flow, the greater momentum of the larger, heavier particles would cause them to hit the impactor sheet, where they could be measured, while the lighter, smaller particles remained entrained in the air flow and collected on filter paper deeper inside the instrument. Developed together with an aerosol physicist from the University of Minnesota and a research team at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the instrument could be tuned by changing the size of the opening and the speed of the air flow, to separate particles of different sizes, which could then be measured and analyzed.
Particles larger than 10 microns were gathered, along with particles smaller than 10 and smaller than 2.5 microns. Once the samples were gathered, Spengler said, they could be sent to the EPA lab, where they were analyzed for metals.
“That was a big advance, because from the metals, we could tell the sources [of the emissions],” said Spengler, today a faculty associate at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. “Vanadium and nickel were from oil, sulfur and selenium were from coal, Earth crustals and iron were from steel plants.”
In addition to the hundreds of research papers spawned by the study itself, the instruments themselves have also had an enduring impact, Spengler said, and have been duplicated and used around the world. The work also launched two generations of academic careers—Spengler tallied four professorships resulting from the first generation of research, including his own, and several among the numerous fellows who worked under those faculty members’ auspices.
The study’s most far-reaching effects, however, stemmed from that 1993 mortality paper, published in December in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The results were shocking enough—even to the researchers—that Speizer, the paper’s senior author, refused to submit them for publication until they had been validated. The difference in mortality between the cleanest and most polluted cities was much larger than anticipated, equivalent to two or three years’ life expectancy, Dockery said. That’s equal to what would be anticipated nationally if all cancers were cured.
“It was totally unexpected that air pollution, and at these modest levels, was having such a dramatic effect,” Dockery said. “That really changed the whole discussion.”
The researchers looked around for datasets that they could use to validate their results and found health statistics from across the country in an enormous study of 1.2 million people gathered by the American Cancer Society. Researchers examined the mortality data from roughly 500,000 of that study’s subjects who lived in 151 cities for which there was also air pollution data.
It was only after researchers saw similar results that they submitted the Six Cities paper.
Government officials took notice, prodded by an American Lung Association lawsuit that demanded that the EPA review air pollution standards on the schedule required by law. In 1997, the EPA approved new particulate standards based on Six Cities and the American Cancer Society data. The new standards restricted levels of 2.5 micron particles in the air.
Most of these particles, it turned out, are not caused by the initial burning that leads to industrial emissions, but are rather formed in reactions in the atmosphere between chemicals released by burning—mainly sulfur dioxide but also nitrogen oxides.
Unlike larger particles that become ensnared in nose hairs and caught on the walls of the upper respiratory tract and spit out, these tiny particles—made of a variety of compounds—can be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they land on the delicate lung tissue separating air from blood and do their damage.
The result, as highlighted in Six Cities, is indeed respiratory symptoms—higher asthma rates, poor lung function, slowed lung growth among the young—but also heart attacks, strokes and death.
The new standards forced additional restrictions on industrial emissions of 2.5 micron particles—called PM (particulate matter) 2.5—and have been under assault by industry and their political allies ever since.
That assault has taken various forms. A few years after the new standards went into effect, Congress asked for a detailed review of the Six Cities and American Cancer Society studies. After examining the data, a team of U.S. and Canadian researchers led by Daniel Krewski at the McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment in Ottawa reported in 2003 that they were in “almost complete agreement” with the original study’s conclusions.
The study’s political opponents haven’t given up, however. As recently as last fall, congressional Republicans subpoenaed the Six Cities data, much of which is protected by the confidentiality restrictions that guard all human studies, in an effort to bring to light what they term “secret science” underpinning emissions standards.
Dockery, who received the subpoena, declined comment. But Spengler pointed out that the science has not only proven sound, the cleaner air has been shown to save the U.S. economy far more than it cost, with one study estimating that the economic benefits of improved health for millions of Americans—in reduced sick days and extended working lives—outweigh the cost of air pollution controls by 18 to 1.
“You’d think it’d be asked and answered,” Spengler said. “In spite of all that, the pressure’s still on.”
Though primary data collection ceased in 1991, Six Cities continues to inform. Mortality statistics are still collected, using the federal government’s National Death Index, and in 2006, HSPH Associate Professor Francine Laden was the lead author of a paper that again confirmed the association between air pollution and mortality, albeit using a happier trend. Her analysis showed that mortality fell along with levels of the 2.5 micron particles, with three percent fewer deaths for every microgram reduction in a cubic meter of air. The observed reduction equaled approximately 75,000 lives each year in the U.S., Laden said.
In 2012, an extended follow-up of Six Cities by Laden, Dockery, Johanna Lepeule, a visiting scientist at HSPH, and Joel Schwartz, HSPH professor of environmental epidemiology, confirmed the initial findings with 11 years of additional data. Specifically, they found that every 10 microgram increase of PM-2.5 per cubic meter of air was associated with a 14 percent increased risk of death from all causes, a 26 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular causes, and a 37 percent increased risk of death from lung cancer.
Though the nation’s air has gotten cleaner in the years since the new particle pollution standards were implemented in 1997, work remains to be done, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report.
“It [the particle pollution standards] saves lives, but we’re not where we need to be. Last year’s report showed we still have 140 million people who lived in areas that were unhealthy. Part of that is understanding better what unhealthy is, and that’s what studies like the Six Cities Study helped us to see,” Nolen said. “It wasn’t just [removing] the soot—the worst of the haze was invisible soot—we had to get cleaner and cleaner and cleaner…We haven’t solved the problem by any means, but it’s less burdensome on people’s health.”

An eye on Asia
In many places around the world, the lessons from Six Cities remain to be applied. Some 3.7 million people died in 2012 from outdoor air pollution—more than 80 percent in low- and middle-income countries, according to a March 2014 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), and millions more died from indoor air pollution, much of it generated by smoky indoor cookstoves. As it once was in industrialized nations, the stench from burning forests and coal-fueled plants is still thought to be the price of progress in many places, progress that national leaders are loath to curb. The result is that some 20 years after the Six Cities Study dramatically highlighted the danger, air pollution is the world’s single largest environmental health risk, according to the WHO report.
Harvard researchers are working with collaborators at universities around the world to both understand air pollution’s local dynamics and explore approaches that would help millions breathe easier.
The choking smog that wreathes China’s major cities is the focus of Harvard’s China Project, begun by Mike McElroy in the early 1990s. Despite his boyhood in industrial Belfast, McElroy recalls being nearly bowled over by the choking smells experienced during an early trip, in 1995, to Chongqing, a city of about 20 million on the Yangtze River.
“We arrived late at night. I’ve experienced air pollution in my life, but this was 95 to 100 degrees at night, people were working in the streets, pouring tar, with no shirts on,” McElroy said. “The place just smelled awful, awful, awful.”
McElroy was later escorted to one of the city’s iron and steel factories by an environmental official.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” McElroy said. “There were coal trains coming through that place continually dumping off the coal, just an astounding flow of coal. There were high smoke stacks and one in the middle, about a quarter mile back. It was like standing behind a jet plane taking off, like a supersonic blast. You could see the dirty smoke coming out of these stacks.
“I turned to my guide and asked, ‘Is this place consistent with clean air standards your ministry is imposing? He smiled and said, ‘Of course not. If this place had to meet international standards, it would have to be closed down.’”
The China Project, based in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, today provides a focus for faculty and fellows from across Harvard and partner institutions in China who are interested in China’s energy, economy, and atmospheric environment. It works to understand what is happening in China’s skies from an interdisciplinary point of view, encompassing atmospheric chemistry, economics, and human health, and suggesting viable solutions. A book published in November, Clearer Skies over China, brings together economists and natural, applied, and health scientists from the U.S. and China to examine a successful Chinese effort to regulate sulfur dioxide and explores the potential impact of a carbon tax. McElroy’s own research, meanwhile, has focused on the potential for renewable alternatives to burning dirty coal. In fact, in a 2009 study of China’s wind power potential, McElroy found that China could potentially meet all of its power needs through wind alone.
Air that is unhealthy to breathe is just half of the Asian giant’s air pollution concerns. In recent years, it surpassed the United States to become the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas largely responsible for human-caused climate change.
If there is a silver lining for China’s air pollution problems, McElroy said, it is that actions to improve air quality will also address climate change, since both have roots in burning coal for power. Despite the Chinese government’s efforts to improve air quality, McElroy said he believes that significant change may depend on breakthrough innovations pioneered in the industrialized West.

An ill wind over Singapore
One day in late September 2013, an interdisciplinary group of researchers gathered in a conference room on the third floor of Harvard’s Hoffman Laboratory. On a screen at the front of the room played a time lapse clip showing the intensity of smoke from burning forests in Sumatra blowing across the narrow Strait of Malacca toward Singapore, with darker colors representing higher aerosol concentrations. A black plume representing the worst smoke appeared, lengthened, and reached across the strait as the date crawled toward the smoke’s peak, on June 21, the day Singapore’s air quality dipped to the worst levels in its history.
“They experienced a pollution standards index of 401, which is higher than has ever been recorded in history in the region,” said Samuel Myers, a research scientist at the HSPH and HUCE faculty associate. “The episode…probably is associated with a 10 percent to 30 percent increase in all-cause mortality. There were billions of dollars lost in morbidity and mortality.”
A team led by Myers has embarked on a project to understand burning on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, its health impacts on nearby cities, and to create computer-generated scenarios to help policymakers make informed decisions on whether, where, and when to burn.
That the fires have a health impact is beyond doubt. In addition to the data from Six Cities and subsequent studies, HSPH’s Spengler was an eyewitness to the effects while attending meetings at the University of Singapore when the fires reached their peak.
Though the fires were more than a hundred miles away, Spengler said breathing in the meeting room was labored and voices gravelly.
“You would swear the building was on fire. It had that wood-burning smell, it penetrated into buildings,” Spengler said. “Even across the quad, you just saw this veil of smoke that started to obscure the buildings on the other side. And forget about seeing the city.”
Despite the smoke’s dramatic effect, the fact that Sumatra was burning was not unusual. Subsistence farmers burn forests each year to clear land for their home gardens and burn scrub on previously cleared land to make room for crops. Larger farms burn too, clearing bigger tracts for cash crops, while industrial plantations burn forests to make room for oil palm trees.
“The public health costs of those fires are staggering,” Daniel Jacob, McCoy Family professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering and HUCE faculty associate, said later. “When you look at the kind of particulate levels Singapore was exposed to in June of this year, this is a smog that takes years from your lifetime.”
Jacob is part of the Myers-led study of Sumatra’s burning. The project also involves Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry-Climate Interactions Loretta Mickley, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology Joel Schwartz, and colleagues from Ruth DeFries’ lab at Columbia University. Using satellite imagery, newly developed analytical tools, and publicly available data, this interdisciplinary group is applying the expertise from atmospheric science, public health, and ecology and environmental biology in order to understand what’s happening in Sumatra. They’re looking at everything from the economic drivers of burning practices to the health impacts on city residents downwind.
“Our goal in using these new tools is to really characterize this system so we fully understand how certain kinds of land cover are associated with certain kinds of fires and how these fires are associated with certain kinds of emissions—and how those emissions are transported in predictable ways to reach specific concentrations of pollutants at the population level,” Myers said. “Then, what we really want to do is understand how land management decisions being made today will alter exposures in the future.”
Though the project’s primary focus is improving human health, it also serves an underlying conservation cause, Myers said. It’s not a coincidence that major health effects from burning forests are being felt in a part of the world undergoing rapid deforestation. Those forests are home to a significant part of the world’s biodiversity and include many species found no place else. In part, the project is intended to help policymakers understand the hard-to-quantify costs associated with the benefits provided by intact forests—clean water, a home for wildlife, and a purer “airshed,” as Myers terms it—compared with the costs and benefits if the forests are burned and converted to other uses.
“What’s happened [since 1985] is that essentially half of Sumatra has been burned down,” Myers said. “And the predictions are that by 2100, Southeast Asia could lose three-quarters of its forests, up to 42 percent of its biodiversity, including over half the mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Oh, and over half of the mammals, amphibians and reptiles are endemic and don’t exist in other places. That’s the conservation challenge.”
Because there are few ground-based monitoring stations in the region, most of the data are coming from satellite readings, from which Jacob’s group is working to extract as much information as possible. Once they get the data, they’re plugging it into their global climate model, which they’re using in zoomed mode to examine the region more closely.
Among other things, they want to characterize the size and optical properties of particles in the smoke so they can better interpret satellite observations, Jacob said.
“To be able to interpret satellite properly in a part of the world where the interpretation is really complicated because there’s a lot of clouds and there’s an archipelago of land and ocean—all this makes it difficult to see the particles from space,” Jacob said. “So this is something we’re working on, to see what kind of information we can get from the satellite. In the end, I think this will be key to be able to monitor the problem in the future.”
An important element in their calculations is understanding how particles change during transport, Mickley said. For example, the particles attract compounds that make them more soluble in water. This affects their transport by allowing them to rain out more readily.
“When they’re first emitted, they’re not soluble in water,” said Mickley, also an HUCE faculty associate. “As different chemicals coat them, they become more soluble, more vulnerable to raining out along the way. So a chemistry model can tell you some of this information.”
Researchers are also sorting out how to handle ozone, Jacob said. Ozone is generated by the fires but may not have the same health impact as fine particles.
“It’s a toxic gas, the number one pollutant in the U.S.,” Jacob said. “It’s produced in the fire plume, but we don’t really understand the mechanism by which it is produced. We don’t have observations from the ground, so that means our models are pretty uncertain.”
Together, the researchers are seeking to develop computer models that can generate a series of different scenarios that could be used as tools for policymakers in the region. The scenarios will project the ultimate impact of a “business-as-usual” approach to the forests, of varying levels of development, and of a “green vision” where greater emphasis is placed on conservation and in which the improved health of the region’s residents is considered.
Such a prediction tool has drawn initial interest from Singapore’s government and should enable policymakers to fully evaluate the costs, including human health, versus the economic benefits of new oil palm plantations, for example. And, if policymakers let plantations move ahead, the work could help determine where they should be located to minimize human health impacts.
“If we want to plan our fires, let’s plan them in regions that don’t affect the big cities,” Mickley said. “This is a nice tool for policymakers who want to put in rice paddies or oil palms.”
Though much work remains until such a tool is in policymakers hands, the group’s preliminary work has already suggested a geographical focus for action. The peat forests of southeastern Sumatra, where a lot of burning is going on now, are the source of a lot of the smoke that hits Singapore. Indonesian government officials have made it clear they won’t curb development, but perhaps land could be cleared on the western part of the island instead, to spare Singapore. Another tack could be taken by Singapore’s government, since many of the companies operating in Sumatra are based in Singapore. Perhaps a tax would encourage the companies to clean up their act.
“We want to quantify for the first time ever, what are the public health implications of land management decisions in Southeast Asia,” Myers said. “To date those health implications have always been a vague externality: If you grow more palm oil, maybe more people will die, but we don’t know how many or where. We want to quantify that. “We want to…produce a tool to allow policymakers in the region to calculate and argue that conservation strategies will have important public health dividends, and make that case in a scientific way,” he said.
Ultimately, Myers said, such a tool could also be used elsewhere, since there are many other places around the world that, like Sumatra, are experiencing rapid deforestation and health-destroying air pollution. By providing policy-informing tools that illuminate both the value of conservation and of improved health, the researchers’ work could help more places achieve clean air goals whose roots can be traced back to findings in the Six Cities Study.

By Alvin Powell
This article originally appeared in the Environment@Harvard newsletter, Volume 6 Issue 1.