This post is a revamp of a 2017 post here. It is (sadly) more applicable today.
Halloween is here, and we have a lot to be spooked about when it comes to the future role of science in this country. In addition to the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on science, companies are now enjoying greater access to decisionmakers than they’ve ever had. And no industry has capitalized on inappropriate access to decisionmakers more than the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, with very little accountability, the industry has deceived the public and policymakers, and enjoyed friendly policies from decisionmakers with clear conflicts of interest.
To recap, this isn’t only a Trump-era phenomenon. Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their products contribute to global warming, while they’ve led and funded disinformation campaigns to squash sensible climate policies. Nowadays, though, the tactics are often more elaborate than simple climate denial. These days, some fossil fuel companies are acknowledging climate change—and even their role in it—on the surface, while carrying on business as usual behind closed doors.
For instance, while ExxonMobil publicly urged the US to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, the company is currently on trial in New York state, charged with lying to its investors about climate risks. And ExxonMobil has just been sued by the Massachusetts attorney general for allegedly misleading investors and engaging in deceptive advertising to consumers.
Meanwhile, the company has yet to release a plan to align its business with the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming well below 2C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C, despite demands from its own shareholders and the public. It’s the same old tactics we’ve always seen, only this time with a mask over it.
The Disinformation Playbook is the Fossil Fuel Industry Playbook
To help unpack the many ways that companies undermine the use of science in decisionmaking on climate policy and beyond, this week the Union of Concerned Scientists released the Disinformation Playbook. The playbook showcases five plays that industry runs, and the fossil fuel industry in particular has been complicit in all of them:
- The Fake– Conduct counterfeit science and try to pass it off as legitimate research
- The Blitz– Harass scientists who share results inconvenient to industry
- The Diversion– Manufacture uncertainty about science where little exists
- The Screen– Buy credibility by building alliances with academic institutions or scientific societies
- The Fix– Manipulate government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy
A Deceptive Halloween: The Fossil Fuel Industry Executive
To help you scare all your friends this Halloween, we put together everything you’ll need for the spookiest costume of the season: fossil fuel company executive!
Briefcase full of money
This prop is to pay trade groups, front groups, and political candidates to do your bidding against climate science and policy. Such arrangements are very convenient for you as you can dissociate your company’s brand from all the anti-climate lobbying you are doing.
To show just how effective this strategy can be, let’s look at company statements versus actions on climate policy. While BP has long claimed to support a price on carbon, last year the company pumped $13 million into a successful campaign against a community-oriented, solutions-driven proposal to put a price on carbon in Washington state. The campaign, which employed misleading messaging, was almost entirely funded by the oil and gas industry and sponsored by the Western States Petroleum Association, whose leadership includes BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil.
Shareholders too have noticed this lack of transparency between fossil fuel companies and their ties to other groups. Last month, 200 US institutional investors with a combined total of more than $6.5 trillion in assets under management urged publicly-traded corporations to align their climate lobbying with the goals of the Paris climate agreement. This statement built on similar expectations issued by European investors last year, and were followed by an open letter on corporate climate lobbying from UCS and ten other organizations that engage with business on environmental issues.
So far, about a dozen companies have committed to reviewing the climate policy positions taken by their trade associations, but companies can still operate almost in the dark when it comes to their lobbying and support for third-party groups — spooky!
Smug disregard for the wellbeing of the planet and its people
Fossil fuel companies have made it clear, especially in recent times, just how little they care about protecting people from the threats of climate change. In fact, they often don’t even appear to be protecting themselves from climate impacts or preparing for future changes in climate.
For starters, oil companies often fail to disclose details about the climate-related risks they face. The impacts of powerful storms like Hurricane Harvey show us what is at risk when it comes to oil and gas infrastructure and extreme storms and flooding. Several facilities around Houston sustained serious damage that adversely affected surrounding communities and first responders. At an Exxon refinery in Beaumont, Harvey damaged a sulfur thermal oxidizer, releasing 1,312.84 pounds of sulfur dioxide—far exceeding the company’s permit allowance.
The company’s response? “No impact to the community has been reported.” (This hypocrisy was recently highlighted in a by a US House subcommittee “Examining the Oil Industry’s Efforts to Suppress the Truth about Climate Change.”)
A notebook of greenwashing talking points that claim fossil fuel companies are investing in renewables when really we aren’t
Corporations have been perfecting greenwashing tactics for decades. The fossil fuel industry not only shares a disinformation playbook with the tobacco industry, but has also funded some of the same thinktanks and front groups. ExxonMobil’s greenwashing—including its the company’s claims that some of its products reduce harmful emissions, and that the company is playing a leadership role to solve climate change and develop clean energy alternative—is at the center of the lawsuit filed on behalf of Massachusetts consumers by attorney general Maura Healey.
Scheduler to keep track of your meetings with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler:
If you’ve followed the activities of EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler at all, you’ll know that fossil fuel interests have ample opportunity to meet with a new EPA head sympathetic to their needs.
Wheeler’s schedule shows that with his long-time coal industry connections, the administrator can call his old industry buddies with ease. The EPA has also been stacked with other staff with direct ties to the petrochemical industry.
Scientist Nancy Beck came to the EPA from American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association with a shoddy record on science policy, to rewrite chemical safety rules to be more industry friendly. David Dunlap came to EPA from Koch Industries and is now refusing to recuse himself from working on chemicals in which his former employer has a stake.
This slate of characters is now in charge of an agency they spent years trying to dismantle. I’m afraid now they are free to act like unsupervised children in front of a “please take one” bowl of candy. They are slowly taking the agency down from the inside, and ensuring that fossil fuel companies aren’t hit with any pesky climate-friendly regulations.
One of the latest examples of the agency pandering to fossil fuel industry interests is the current effort to roll back EPA oversight of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Read more here, and take action here.
But let’s not stay spooked
While much of this is our unfortunate reality, there is much we can and must do to fight back against the deception and inappropriate influence that the fossil fuel industry has over our decisionmakers. We must remember that public servants and elected officials work for us, the public, not the fossil fuel industry. We must demand accountability, transparency, and policies that protect people not profits. But in the meantime, have a happy Halloween, however you choose to be spooked.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.