The Long Con: Denying Climate Change for Fun and Profit
“Corporations are people, my friend.” – Mitt Romney, Republican stooge
Big, modern companies have been a fact of American life since about the 1880s, which is when the Supreme Court declared that, yes, for legal purposes, corporations are people (kinda sorta). This has been a mixed blessing.
On the Yay! side of the ledger, the last 140 years have seen revolutionary improvements in the way ordinary people live. Big companies have brought us light bulbs, kickass televisions, and toilets that are difficult to clog no matter what you ate last night. And, of course, we have ginormous corporations to thank for the energy needed to run all of those fine products.
On the Boo! side of the ledger are the staggering – often deadly – side effects. These include straightforward things like coal miners with black lung, rivers so polluted that they’re choked by dead fish, and forests that aren’t there anymore. But they also include costs that aren’t so simple to trace. This is where corporate denialism comes into play.
Let’s say Company A makes boatloads of cash by selling Product X. If it is later pointed out that Product X is killing workers, or making customers sick, or turning children orange, Company A is going to respond in a very specific and predictable way.
The first thing they’ll do is simply refuse to believe it. They’ll handwave by pointing to other potential causes, fund research that backs them up, and pay for advertising that casts them and Product X as victims of ideological smear campaigns orchestrated by smelly hippies and evil communists. Those slovenly workers ignored our safety regulations; those unlucky customers would’ve gotten sick anyway; and maybe those kids like being orange, did you ever think of that?
As damning evidence mounts in the form of rivers on fire, grotesque birth defects, and other undeniable facts, the tactics shift to costs and jobs. They’ll produce studies that show how much economic benefit there is from their operations. They’ll talk about all the charitable work paid for by their products. They’ll do anything they and their well paid PR staff can think of to minimize the original problem and distract people to other topics.
Eventually, the only experts left pushing the corporate line are the ones cashing checks from the guilty parties. With enough money, they can always find a few people with PhDs to write reputable looking op-ed articles and go on 60 Minutes to scoff at well established science. But at some point the verdict is in and no neutral observers believe them anymore.
Finally, at long last, when they are forced to actually reform, they will drag their feet. Implementation can be fought in hundreds of subtle ways, from declaring something impossible to slow walking replacements or retrofits. And, hey, if Product X can find a new market overseas, well then, the cycle can start all over again.
At every stage and opportunity, lawyers and lobbyists will throw sand in the gears. This includes harassing public officials, greasing palms with campaign donations, and calling any allegations of corruption vicious slander on the good character of Company A and their hired expert, Dr. Soandso. In extreme cases, where truly mountainous piles of money are involved, this reliable playbook of denial, distraction, and delay can go on for decades as people get hurt and profits accrue. Sadly, there are many examples of this.
Way back in the 1920s, General Motors and its partner DuPont chemicals decided to add lead to gasoline. They didn’t do this because they’re inherently evil or anything, they did it to make bigger, more powerful engines.* But they had a problem: lead was poisonous and, worse, people knew it. Workers in lead gas facilities in New Jersey and Ohio had been carted to the hospital in straight jackets, screaming about insects that were entirely in their minds. Several of them died shortly afterward, and the newspapers blared this and other inconvenient truths to the public.
(*And because they could patent it, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.)
In response, many cities and towns preemptively banned leaded gasoline. GM and its partners had to briefly withdraw lead gas from the market, and the whole thing looked like it might go sideways on them. But titans of industry are not easily deterred. They unleashed a wave of advertising, touting the safety of ‘white lead’ and positioning themselves as heralds of a bright, prosperous future where everyone owned a really great car.
With millions of dollars and no scruples whatsoever, they won a war of attrition. Money got two different government departments to give them a clean bill of health, allowed them to smear or ignore critics, and let them bully anyone who stood in their way. Their efforts paid off, literally, in the form of billions of dollars in profits and decades of continued business until lead gas was finally banned in the 1970s. (Conveniently enough, this occurred shortly after GM sold off its interest in it.)
Asbestos went through a similar life cycle. It was hailed as a miracle material when it was first created because it’s a great insulator, it’s fire resistant, and it’s cheap. Unfortunately, the men who worked in the asbestos factories developed a bad habit of dying from lung problems, often at very young ages. More unfortunately (from industry’s perspective), doctors kept pointing this out.
Starting in the 1910s and continuing through the 1980s, asbestos manufacturers, including still familiar companies like Exxon and Dow, were well aware that they were killing their workers. They even knew that the families of their workers were being harmed and killed (tiny asbestos particles would cling to clothes and come home with Mom or Dad). Following the old playbook, they denied this loudly and publicly. But their internal documents, exposed after decades of litigation, tell the truth. One, from Dow in 1981, simply concluded, “We are in trouble and would be more so if we had an investigation.”
More famous than even lead and asbestos is the story of tobacco, which followed the exact same pattern. In 1953, a study in mice strongly suggested that the tar in cigarettes could cause cancer. Ten years later, the Surgeon General issued a report that, yes, cigarettes did indeed cause cancer. The handful of companies that made up Big Tobacco understood and accepted this science – in private.
In public, they dumped millions of dollars into research that raised other possible cancer causes. They founded “institutes” and other authoritative sounding front companies to make it look like legitimate science. And they spent unknowably gargantuan sums on advertising, lobbying, and political contributions to give their otherwise flimsy excuses the force of law. One infamous 1969 internal memo stated simply: “Doubt is our product”.
Their masquerade was doomed from the start, there was simply too much evidence, plain and scientific; but it wasn’t a failure. A measly few million bucks spent planting the seeds of doubt in the 1950s and 60s allowed them to reap hundreds of billions* of dollars in the decades since. Whether in the lead, asbestos, or tobacco industry, the lesson was clear: denial pays. And it pays well.
(*Yes, with a ‘B’.)
Those decades of lying caused damage across whole generations. Childhood lead exposure makes people dumber and more impulsive, and the addition of lead to gasoline was a big reason for the enormous spike in violent crime from the 1960s to the 1990s. Asbestos not only causes countless millions of people to die prematurely, but its inclusion in many old buildings makes them too dangerous to use and too hideously expensive to tear down. Cigarettes kill millions of people prematurely and disable even more. The overall toll of these and other denial campaigns is literally uncountable.
Stripped of all the politics, of all the corruption, and of all the bullshit, the companies at fault spent decades making money by doing things they knew were killing and maiming their fellow human beings. Plainly stated, these companies were run by assholes.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to deal with their messes. Governments at all levels, insurance companies of various kinds, and ordinary people of every description have had to spend trillions* of dollars to deal with accumulated decades of damage. Most importantly, there’s the piled up suffering of millions of people who paid years of their lives so that already wealthy people could get marginally wealthier.
(*Yes, with a ‘T’. The asshole tab remains far from paid even a hundred years after the lying began.)
Climate science and the reaction to it has now passed through all the stages of lead science, asbestos science, and tobacco science. Complicated scientific data (Keeling’s Curve) has matched up with common sense observations (bigger storms, higher tides), and the only experts and officials left who deny the tremendous threat or suggest delaying the solutions are directly in the pay of the industry.
But ‘the industry’ isn’t some clanking automaton placed on Earth by jerkwad space aliens. Despite what the law and Mitt Romney believe, corporations are not people. Rather, they are composed of people, and some of them, especially the stockholders and the executives, are world historic dickheads who are knowingly piling up a body count to put the lead, asbestos, and tobacco lies to shame.
Mo Money Mo Problems
“America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.” – Jackie, hitman and political analyst
Nobody thinks they’re the villain. When the Mongols conquered most of the world and killed cities full of people, they thought they were doing God’s will. Confederate Southerners were utterly sure of their righteousness when they committed mass treason in defense of slavery. Even the Nazis and their pals in Imperial Japan thought they were the good guys, and they shot, gassed, and starved something like a hundred million people.
There is no known maximum depth for human self deception, and that doesn’t just go for the genocidal war crowd. Everyone can be flattered; everyone can be lied to; and everyone can get stubborn. Even when there’s decades of evidence, people will convince themselves that they’re right and the world is wrong (and/or against them).
Fans of the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns think things will turnaround someday. Grammy voters think they’re helping music. The leaders of the anti-vax movement think they’re cutting edge thinkers instead of recycled conspiracy nuts. Deep down, most of us rely to some form of the OJ Defense about at least some part of our lives: if you can’t be 100% sure about something, you can’t be sure of anything.
In ordinary people, this is mostly harmless. It can lead to dickish behavior and nobody wanting to talk to you at family reunions, but very few of us have any real sway over anything or anyone. As you gaze up the income ladder, however, otherwise harmless bullies and assholes become powerful bullies and assholes. And when they gaze back down, a lot of them see numbers, not fellow human beings.
This was the case with the lead men, the asbestos men, and the tobacco men. They convinced themselves that a certain amount of money was worth poisoning people and knowing that they were doing it. Now it is the case with the oil men, the coal men, and the natural gas men.* Some of them are traditionalists, some of them are greedy, and some of them are just following orders.
(*As a bit of foreshadowing, consider what an incredible euphemism ‘natural gas’ is, a perfect example of the deep pervasiveness of paid horseshit. It takes miles of steel pipe and refineries the size of small towns to make that gas ‘natural’ enough to use.)
The real sin here, though, is gluttony. These are people whose concept of the word ‘enough’ was flushed down a bar toilet six months into business school and forgotten completely halfway up the greased pole that is corporate management. Their self justifications for their ever expanding appetites stack up like compound interest: you get to fly for free, you want to fly business class; you get to fly business class, you want to timeshare a small jet; and once you’ve timeshared a jet, shit, you definitely want your own jet.
This is what happened to former Exxon CEO Cliff Garvin. In 1977, he paid for research that concluded his business was dooming his grandchildren and reacted by gutting the science budget and burying the report. By all accounts he was an otherwise decent guy, with two degrees from Virginia Tech (he was a chemist) and one wife of seventy-two years. He died in 2016 and left behind ten grandkids and thirteen great-grandkids. But when it came time to cost his company money or preserve the atmosphere for his offspring, he picked the company.
This is also what happened to Garvin’s successor, Lawrence Rawl, who was in charge when global warming became serious in 1988 and decided the best thing to do was continue suppressing Exxon’s own research and found the ‘Global Climate Coalition’. That was a cleverly named front group whose attacks on climate science and legislation were so transparently false that the whole thing had to be dissolved in 2002. An engineer from the University of Oklahoma, he died in 2005, survived by twelve grandchildren who are spending their lives in a dangerously warmer climate because grampa loved quarterly reports more than them.
Rawl’s successor, Lee Raymond, is still alive. He’s got chemistry degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota and ran Exxon when the American Petroleum Institute (another industry front group) concluded in 1998 that (emphasis added):
“Unless “climate change” becomes a non-issue, meaning that the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts.”
That part came shortly after wanting to get ‘Average citizens’ to recognize ‘uncertainties in climate science’. Like the tobacco companies, doubt is their product.
Each of these men started his career in normal work. Each of them ended up fabulously wealthy. And each of them made conscious decisions to place their company ahead of their families.
It would be one thing if these fellas had disagreed with the initial research but honestly respected it. All three of them earned technical degrees, they understood the chemistry and they knew how science is supposed to work: publish the original data, collaborate as widely as possible, and earnestly seek solutions. But that’s not what they did. They lied about it, and they paid others (often under the table) to lie even more about it.
To be fair to them, there isn’t a spreadsheet somewhere at Exxon headquarters with columns for ‘Lives Ruined’ and ‘Extra Profits From Climate Denial’.* But they were well aware that meaningful action on climate wouldn’t just cost them money in some distant future. It would cost them money right now: staggering, incomprehensible, tectonic plates of cash.
(*I mean, there probably isn’t. Right?)
Exxon’s stock price, like that of all other fossil fuel companies, is a delicate balancing act. At a normal company, if you sell one of your product, you can make/grow/build another. But Exxon cannot produce oil, only find more of it. Once a barrel of oil is sold, its value to Exxon is gone forever, which means that if they sell more than they find, the company’s overall value actually decreases with every sale.
This is why they constantly have teams of people scouring the world for more oil. Every barrel sold must be balanced by a new one found or the company would enter a slow but unstoppable death spiral of decreasing value. The new deposits they find are called ‘proved reserves’, an artful term that balances the asset ledgers by assigning real value to carbon that is sitting undisturbed in the ground.
As of 2019, Exxon’s proved reserves were 24 billion barrels, which is enough to sustain its production at current levels for roughly the next twenty years. Their trillion dollar conundrum is that if all those proved reserves are actually pulled out of the ground, sold off, and burned for energy, the carbon pollution produced would lock us into a Mad Max scenario that would destroy the global economy and civilization as we know it.
That paradox – fossil fuel companies banking monetary value from carbon that cannot be sold – is called the ‘carbon bubble’. From the perspective of Exxon, Chevron, and their brethren, it is the ultimate Catch-22: selling the oil will destroy everything, but admitting that the oil cannot be sold will destroy the fossil fuel industry.
Either way they’re going to be destroyed, but lying and keeping up the pretense that they can sell their reserves pays extremely well in the short term. Keeping the carbon bubble inflated avoids fossil industry losses so gigantic that they can only be estimated in trillions.
That’s enough money to tempt even the saintliest among us. But it does not change the fact that these men and other people like them are the bad guys. Whether or not they admit it or secretly feel guilty about it, they are running a decades long con job at the expense of everyone else.
As vile as they are, however, there really aren’t all that many of them.* The landslide majority of people who don’t accept climate change aren’t conning anyone. They’re the marks of the con, and they stand to lose plenty.
(*If you happen to be the grandson/granddaughter/niece/nephew/distant cousin of an oil/coal/gas executive or stockholder, please make their Thanksgivings and other family occasions as awkward and unpleasant as possible. Thank you in advance.)
A Few Million Words From Our Sponsors
“Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?” – Ellen Ripley, underpaid pilot
Advertising is a hell of a drug, and most people are susceptible to it. That wasn’t always the case. The earliest professional ads were clumsy and random, hoping to snare someone’s attention for a few seconds during a radio broadcast or on an old fashioned tabloid backpage. After World War II, the advertising industry ramped up and started investing in psychological research. That was sixty years ago. Today, big money marketing is no longer slick pitches and good salesmanship, it is a series of calculated mental assaults.
Are you what magazines would call ‘a mom’? Then you will see a numbing string of ads about babies, kids, adolescents, and what you can buy for all of them to keep from being a ‘bad mom’.
Young and single? Ads for cologne, perfume, and dating sites will follow you across phone, television, and computer, tickling your insecurities the whole way.
Did you or someone you’re sleeping with search for ‘morning nausea’ and suddenly find yourself hip deep in pregnancy ads? Welcome us into your mind at one of the most emotional moments of your life.
Retired? Elderly? Enjoy these well honed scams for retail gold and reverse mortgages, courtesy of faded celebrities from your youth who agreed to take our money.
No matter who you are, you will see ads featuring people like you with problems like yours, people who improved their lives and solved those problems with a new purchase. It’s a powerfully simple formula: create anxiety, then offer to soothe it for money.
The climate denial campaign takes demographically and individually targeted advertising like that and tweaks it ever so slightly. Instead of making you feel bad to get you to buy something, they want you to relax so you don’t feel anxious about any of the stuff you already buy. It’s an incredibly seductive pitch.
Ads for Exxon, Chevron, and other oil majors are mainstays on television, radio, and the internet. However, these ads often don’t even bother to hawk a product. Instead, they’re filled with pristine white backgrounds, upright and perfectly multi-cultural oil workers, and lots of jargon about the wonderful things energy brings you and how hard these companies are working on clean alternatives. They don’t show a single drop of oil or puff of smoke. Instead, they’re designed to make you feel warm and fuzzy about the people who work to keep your home comfy and your car running.
These paid messages of gentle denial constitute the overwhelming majority of what most people see and hear about global warming. In 2016, the four major television networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC) broadcast over a thousand hours of news. Coincidentally with all those oil ads, less than one full hour (fifty minutes, to be precise) of that time was dedicated to climate. For decades, The New York Times and The Washington Post have been running sponsored content for the fossil industry right alongside their regular reporting, and the only way you can tell is a tiny little disclaimer (and sometimes not even that). Fossil companies will even ramp up their ad budgets in the wake of major climate news; so, for example, after the 2015 Paris Accords were announced, viewers of CNN actually saw more ads for oil companies than reported stories about global warming.
But their forever campaign goes way beyond regular advertising. If you search “climate hoax” or “climate scam” or “global warming bullshit”, you’ll get websites and seemingly independent organizations that may well have mugs or t-shirts for sale, but that make their real money straight from oil, gas, and their corporate friends. The fossil companies pay people to attend closed door fundraisers with state and county level political candidates. They have people go golfing with local bigshots like car dealers, housing developers, and plant managers. They pass money to radio hosts (local and national) and get people to write books and do publicity on college campuses. They drop fat checks on economists and unscrupulous academics to produce seemingly authoritative reports that just happen to agree with their taglines.*
(*Note: This is explained in greater detail in Appendix A: Wingnut Welfare and the Ecosystem of Climate Denial.)
This isn’t a conspiracy. Hell, it isn’t even illegal. It’s just a way for the fossil industry to spread some cash around while padding the bottom lines of news organizations that always struggle with profitability. Those messages, in all their many forms, are then echoed back to people, from their employers, their politicians, even their families. Given how pervasive these efforts are, is it any wonder that ninety million Americans doubt that climate change is a serious problem? Under this kind of bombardment, it’s a small miracle that anyone other than climate researchers and their mothers accept the science at all.
Think of it this way: when a major Hollywood movie comes out – something with famous stars, lots of special effects, and myriad product tie-ins – the saturation marketing effort costs a few hundred million dollars. Exxon alone made forty times that much in 2017, and it’s only a small fraction of the oil sector. The overall fossil industry can afford to run a perpetual blockbuster movie campaign with their equivalent of coins they find in the couch, and that’s exactly what they do.
On average, the five major public oil firms (Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, and Total) spend $1,400,000,000 (that’s $1.4 billion) every year on advertising and political lobbying. Four hundred million ($400,000,000) of that is specifically directed at climate misinformation: touting clean energy programs too small to matter, besmirching actual global warming solutions, and lying about how much you will have to pay if they ever have to clean up their act. These campaigns operate in every space that takes advertising: television, radio, magazines, newspaper, social media, internet search, highway billboards, the sides of buses, and as product placement inside films and TV shows.*
(*I recently saw an SUV ad inside a fortune cookie.)
There is climate denial tailored to evangelical Christians. There is climate denial made especially for small business owners with libertarian instincts. There is climate denial for women, minorities, and everyone in the LGBTQIA community.* Shell alone has 800 full time employees dedicated to making people think happy thoughts about oil companies, and that doesn’t even count the outside advertising and PR firms they hire. If you live in the United States, you cannot escape their influence.
(*Exxon, for example, loves to tout the diversity of its workforce. And nevermind that the board of directors is 70% white guys while senior management is 100% white guys.)
So there’s no justification for heaping blame or scorn on the Cousin Tonys and Aunt Pats of the world who think global warming and its solutions are naive liberal foolishness. They’ve been subjected to decades of intensely refined propaganda that’s designed to trigger every impulse and personal identity they have.
Of course, unless you’re directly getting paid to produce this crap, it’s not helping you in the least. Staunchly conservative farmers in the Great Plains may chuckle at elite scientists and their models, but Exxon isn’t going to bail them out when county sized hailstorms shred their crops. Rifle toting ranchers all over the West who pride themselves on knowing the value of a dollar aren’t going to see one red cent from Chevron when record droughts leave their grazing lands cracked and barren. McMansion owners on the Gulf coast who nod along to right wing radio aren’t going to get checks from BP when king tides flood their yards and hurricanes blast apart their solariums.
Deep down, all but the truest of true deniers already know this. The undeniable reality of consistently unusual weather is a force too powerful for even modern marketing to overcome, which means the fossil industry has reached the asbestos/lead/tobacco stage where nobody believes their outright denials anymore. Right on cue, they’ve moved on to the next part of the script: switching tactics to distract people from the severity of the problem while denigrating the alternatives and wailing about the cost of it all.
What can no longer be denied is that, from this point on, anyone who isn’t already part of the private jet crowd stands to lose a lot of money from global warming. Those perennial billions spent on advertising are intended to make you forget that (or not realize it in the first place). Unfortunately, the national media still mostly plays along with this trash ass message, but there’s hope, even for them.
Tune in next chapter as we look at the many ways American journalism has failed the public on global warming. Some of them are funny, some are infuriating, and some are pathetic to the point of being undignified, which is also funny. Continue to Part II – Myths, Lies, and Advertising
Endnotes for Chapter 4:
[1 – Unequal Protection: How Corporations Become “People” – And How You Can Fight Back by Thom Hartmann, Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010, p14-48]
[2 – Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children by Gerald Markowitz & David Rosner, University of California Press, 2013, p20-24]
[3 – Markowitz & Rosner, p 65-68]
[4 – https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/secret-history-lead/]
[5 – Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos Is Killing America by Michael Bowker, Touchstone, 2003, p87-109]
[6 – https://www.ewg.org/research/asbestos-think-again/industry-hid-dangers-decades]
[7 – Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Bloomsbury, p19-32]
[8 – Oreskes & Conway, p34]
[9 – https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2016/04/development-garvin.html]
[11 – http://www.referenceforbusiness.com/biography/M-R/Raymond-Lee-R-1938.html]
[13 – Oreskes & Conway, p178-197]
[15 – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0182-1.epdf
[17 – https://www.thenation.com/article/big-oil-pr-fossil-fuel-lobby-herb-schmertz/
[18 – https://www.mediamatters.org/washington-post/study-cnn-viewers-see-far-more-fossil-fuel-advertising-climate-change-reporting?redirect_source=/research/2016/04/25/study-cnn-viewers-see-far-more-fossil-fuel-advertising-climate-change-reporting/209985]
[19 – https://www.marketwatch.com/investing/stock/xom/financials]
[23 – http://corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/company/about-us/management]