Greta Thunberg summed up 2019 in five words: “Our house is on fire.” In Australia, this is now literally the case.
Wildfires there have been raging for more than a month and now span an area larger than Switzerland. The situation bears all the hallmarks of a hot new world: lives lost, livelihoods ruined and species pushed towards extinction, accompanied by government inaction, industry PR spin, abetting rightwing echo chambers, and taxpayers footing the multibillion-dollar bill.
Insanely, the Australian government remains in denial – ignoring the science, downplaying the seriousness and subservient to coal. The fossil fuel industry, meanwhile, is busy greenwashing and gaslighting: Chevron is boasting about its $1m donation – 0.00667% of its annual earnings – to the Australian Red Cross, and Exxon Australia just wants everyone to “Stay safe and have fun”. All this is set to a backdrop of mutually reinforcing rightwing new outlets, online bots and trolls, which are distracting and misinforming the public about the science and politics of climate-catalyzed fires.
The charity of everyday people (and some celebrities) rising to meet the disaster has been inspiring and essential. Yet, tragically, it also unintentionally serves to reinforce the false narrative, perpetuated by fossil fuel propagandists, that we are all equally to blame.
In reality, today’s climate chaos is big oil’s legacy, not ours. Unlike the rest of us, the fossil fuel industry saw this climate chaos coming, then literally and figuratively added fuel to the fire, doubling down on a business model incompatible with the science of stopping global warming; buying political inaction; and building a global climate denial and delay machine that has confused the public and fomented distrust of science, media and government.
In October last year, the US Congress began to investigate this history. Before a packed audience at a congressional subcommittee hearing titled Examining the Oil Industry’s Efforts to Suppress the Truth about Climate Change, the Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned the climate scientist Dr Martin Hoffert about his collaborative research with Exxon in the 1980s.
“So in 1982,” she said, referring to a recently uncovered internal company memo containing a graph of global carbon dioxide and temperature levels rising over time, “1982 – seven years before I was even born – Exxon accurately predicted that by this year, 2019, the Earth would hit a carbon dioxide concentration of 415 parts per million and a temperature increase of 1C. Dr Hoffert, is that correct?”
“We were excellent scientists,” answered the former New York University physics professor, triggering laughter from the audience.
“Yes, you were; yes, you were,” the congresswoman agreed. “So they knew.”
This was the first time that Congress – indeed, any legislative body in the world – had heard a firsthand account – from someone who was actually involved in the work – of just how much, and how early, the fossil fuel industry knew of the potential global warming dangers of its products.
The event showed how effective such hearings can be. In the space of a couple of hours, expert witness testimony (including by one of us) and thousands of pages of documented evidence entered the congressional record. Masterful questioning helped translate a key whistleblower’s knowledge into a viral C-Span moment.
It was just one hearing, but it had the makings of the tobacco industry investigations led by Representative Henry Waxman in the 1990s. He could just as easily have been speaking about fossil fuels when he described the purpose of that congressional oversight: “To build a public record and eventually create enough momentum in Congress and among the American public for legislation.”
Our message to Congress after its first foray into investigating fossil fuels is this: keep going. Because big oil is the new big tobacco.
Investigative journalism and peer-reviewed research, including our own, clearly demonstrate that the fossil fuel regime has deliberately denied Americans and Congress their right to be accurately informed about the climate crisis, just as tobacco companies misled Americans about the harms of smoking. Fromstrategy to networks to personnel to rhetoric, the fossil fuel regime’s efforts to deny and delay come straight out of big tobacco’s playbook.
The historical record is incontrovertible. As we summarize in a recent report, the fossil fuel industry’s own internal documents reveal that it has been studying CO2 pollution for more than 60 years. As early as the 1950s, it knew its products had the potential to change the climate. By the late 1970s and early 80s, Exxon scientists were explicitly aware that burning fossil fuels could lead to what they called “catastrophic” global warming. In 1986, an internal “greenhouse effect working group” at Shell concluded: “The changes in climate … may be the greatest in recorded history.”
For all the skeletons we have already found in big oil’s closet, we are still only looking through the keyhole
But instead of taking action or warning the public, fossil fuel interests stayed quiet. Then, in the late 1980s and early 90s, when global warming finally caught the world’s attention, the carbon majors sprang to action and took the low road, spending billions of dollars over the next 30 years on advertising and lobbying challenging science, slandering scientists and attacking policies to protect their profits. In so doing, they have undermined – and continue to undermine – Americans’ chances of a just and stable future.
Today, the case for subterfuge is so strong that New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and 14 US cities and counties have variously sued ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies for fraud, damages or denial. Maui and Honolulu have recently added their intentions to file lawsuits. In Australia, there are mounting calls to make polluters, not just taxpayers, pay for wildfire relief and climate mitigation.
For all the skeletons we have already found in big oil’s closet, however, we are still only looking through the keyhole. Tracking down a few hundred documents has allowed us to uncover some key cogs in the climate denial machine. Yet it is a sprawling, well-funded, well-oiled network that stretches far beyond ExxonMobil and the Kochs: a labyrinth of people and money connecting fossil fuel companies, utilities, ancillary manufacturers, trade associations, PR firms, advertising agencies, libertarian foundations, thinktanks, legal firms and individuals, all feeding an echo chamber of pundits, astroturf groups, blogs, media and, yes, politicians. Network analysis has identified at least 4,556 individuals and 164 organizations in the global web of denial. We believe the American public deserve to know the truth – and see the receipts – of these dealings that have already led to deaths, destruction and the injustices of a collapsing climate.
This is where congressional authority to request documents and, if necessary, issue subpoenas, comes in. Key breakthroughs in tobacco control came as congressional investigations – as well as legal discovery and industry whistleblowers – exposed thousands, and ultimately millions, of damning documents. The tobacco industry was found guilty of racketeering in part because of the ways that individual companies had coordinated with each other and with third-party allies to present false information to consumers. That history is a precedent for Congress to investigate an industry network that has misled the public and policymakers in an effort to deny the dangers of its products and derail regulation.
As the congressional scholar Morton Rosenberg recently testified in the Senate: “Congress and its committees have virtually plenary power to compel production of information needed to discharge their legislative functions.”
We are not politicians or political strategists, so we do not presume to dictate how Congress exercises its investigatory powers. But as experts in the history of climate denial and global warming politics, it is our opinion that holding the fossil fuel industry accountable would be one of the most impactful ways for Congress – and governments around the world – to combat the climate crisis. Impeachment investigations understandably occupy much attention. Unfortunately, irreversible global warming and the fossil fuel regime underwriting it will be even harder to unseat than a president, and time is not on our side.
Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the co-author, with Erik M Conway, of Merchants of Doubt and The Collapse of Western Civilization
Geoffrey Supran is a research associate in the department of the history of science at Harvard University, where he investigates the tactics of fossil fuel interests. He previously co-led the fossil fuel divestment campaign at MIT, as well as the first major scientist protests against the Trump administration
Nature Vol. 577, 470-471 (2020) doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00112-6
Paris taught me how to do what is necessary to combat climate change
To the world leaders mustering in Davos: set your minds to reaching net-zero emissions, and you can forge the future we need.
As political leaders, industry executives and celebrities gather this week for their yearly networking meeting in Davos, Switzerland, top of their agenda is the need to halve global carbon emissions by 2030.
Of the many barriers to achieving this goal, the greatest is mindset. I had to learn this a decade ago when I was appointed to lead the international climate-change negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Paris agreement: ultimately, 195 nations pledged to reduce emissions and alter their economies to protect our planet. They also agreed to increase their efforts towards net-zero emissions substantially every five years. That makes 2020 a crucial year. We cannot afford for governments to let that key commitment slip.
The Paris agreement was a breakthrough after a devastating collapse in Copenhagen in 2009, when years of preparation and two weeks of excruciating around-the-clock negotiations produced only a weak, legally irrelevant accord. Copenhagen was a free-for-all of political frustration, outrage and disagreement — with the global north and global south set against each other. Last month’s United Nations climate meeting in Madrid left many of us similarly bereft. That makes the lesson of how we got from Copenhagen to Paris all the more relevant.
It started with my making a big mistake in the summer of 2010, at a press conference with 40 journalists in a windowless room at the Maritim Hotel in Bonn, Germany. When asked whether a global agreement on climate change would ever be possible, I blurted out, without thinking, what most already thought: “Not in my lifetime.” That’s how close I came to making failure a self-fulfilling prophecy.Three years to safeguard our climate
I immediately realized that, before we could consider the political, technical and legal parameters of an eventual agreement, I had to dedicate myself to changing the mood: there could be no victory without optimism. I decided to set a clear intention: even if we did not know precisely how, a global deal would emerge, simply because it was necessary. It was that contagious frame of mind that led to effective decision-making, despite the enormous complexities under which we were operating. When the Paris agreement was achieved, the optimism that people felt about the future was palpable — but, in fact, optimism had been the primary input.
Since then, science has become clearer about the threats of climate change: now, even our children know that business as usual will lead to destroyed infrastructure, devastating loss of plants and animals, and millions of people struggling in regions made uninhabitable from rising temperatures and lack of fresh water.
What is much less clear is what life will look like in those places where we do what is necessary to limit warming to 1.5 °C, as stipulated by the Paris agreement. To get to what we achieved in Paris, we moved away from confrontational blaming-and-shaming to appreciating shared opportunities. Now, we must picture, say, cities full of green spaces pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; widespread public transport; thriving wildernesses; rural economies rebooted for sustainable agriculture; and jobs in renewable-energy projects.
Optimism is about acknowledging difficulties — and losses — yet still designing a better future. An excellent example is the European Union’s proposed European Green Deal, announced in December 2019. This explicitly reframes an urgent challenge as a unique opportunity to create a “resource-efficient and competitive economy” that will generate jobs, purify air and mobilize industry, agriculture and other sectors to deliver net-zero emissions by 2050.
My own country, Costa Rica, has already launched an economy-wide plan to ‘decarbonize’ by 2050. This ambitious plan, the first of its kind when it was announced last February, will expand forests and promote electric taxis and public buses. It is based on respect for human rights and gender equity, and clearly recognizes the opportunity for decarbonization to revitalize the economy.
Most executives already understand that they need to contribute to climate stabilization just to ensure that their businesses have a future. The number of companies setting science-based targets in line with a 1.5 °C trajectory doubled between September and December last year. Similarly, the combined assets managed by the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance — a group of investors aligning their portfolios with a 1.5 °C future — had surged from US$2.4 trillion to $4 trillion within two months of its launch in September 2019. Leaders in the oil and gas industries have told me privately that shareholder and public pressure, plus questions from their own children, have prompted them to shift their practices.
Despite this, I posit that most people, including many of those attending the Davos meeting, still harbour the view that it is impossible to truly transform our economy in one decade. We cannot afford such fatalism. Swift change has happened before, and without being driven by planetary necessity: the global Internet is just 30 years old.
If we can see where we are going — a future in which humanity does what is necessary to preserve the planet as we know and love it — we will take faster, surer steps to get there. That visualization is all the more important because how we are going to get to this future will feel unfamiliar. The transition of technologies and systems in music and information makes sense only because we have seen vinyl records yield to streaming services and paper superseded by mobile multimedia. We must be ready to shape the necessary transition for energy, transport and more. And we must understand that this transition will be driven collectively.
The global economy is a huge, complex system. As I learnt during my stewardship of the Paris agreement, if you do not control the complex landscape of a challenge (and you rarely do), the most powerful thing you can do is to change how you behave in that landscape, using yourself as a catalyst for overall change.
Imagine a person who wants to run a marathon and then concentrates on the fact that they can’t yet even run a mile: they begin to close the space of possibility. But, if that person adopts a different mindset, commits to a training schedule and visualizes passing the finish line, their goal is much more likely to be achieved.
To all the people gathering in Davos, and all those watching from the outside, I urge you to move firmly into a state of stubborn optimism. The Anthropocene, the proposed geological age we now live in, does not need to go down in history as the age characterized by human-induced destruction. It can be the time when we rewrite our expected future for a better one: we still hold the pen. We must conceive of success and take immediate steps towards it.
Nature 577, 470-471 (2020)doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00112-6