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, it also continues to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),which called Paris a “bad deal”, and other anti-climate lobbying groups. And the company has yet to release a plan to align its business with the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming under 2C, 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 industry executive!
1. 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 versus trade group positions on climate action. While some major fossil fuel companies publicly support policy actions to curb carbon emissions, they also fund trade groups to fight climate mitigation efforts at every turn. ALEC proclaimed, “The Paris Climate Agreement is a bad deal for America.” The National Association of Manufacturers criticized the Clean Power Plan, citing its “failure to incorporate potential benefits associated with increased temperatures,” and the group joined the federal lawsuit opposing the plan. The American Petroleum Institute has continued to emphasize climate uncertainties, part of its long history of communicating climate science disinformation to deliberately cast doubt on the public’s understanding of climate science.
Shareholders too have noticed this lack of transparency between fossil fuel companies and their ties to other groups. In 2017 Exxon and Chevron shareholders voted in large numbers to demand that these companies disclose their direct and indirect lobbying activities and expenses. Currently companies can operate almost in the dark when it comes to their lobbying and support for third-party groups — spooky!
2. 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 recent impacts of 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.”
Also of concern: none of the major fossil fuel compan ies have a real plan to operate under a two degrees C scenario, the goal set by the Paris Agreement (which they publicly supported); they are clearly not planning for real greenhouse gas reductions or the safety of life on our planet. Worse, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Total SA even funded a report attacking the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure recommendations, which offered ways companies could better prepare and disclose on climate.
3. Scheduler to keep track of your meetings with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt:
If you’ve followed the activities of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt at all, you’ll know that fossil fuel interests have ample opportunity to meet with a new EPA head sympathetic to their needs. Pruitt’s schedule shows that his daily planner is jam-packed with industry group meetings. With his new sound-proof box, the administrator is also free to have confidential phone calls with all his industry friends. Currently, the EPA is also being stacked with other staff with direct ties to the fossil fuel industry. EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman (who recently told off the New York Times rather than provide information to the media like a public servant is charged to do) came from American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association that also brought scientist Nancy Beck to the EPA to rewrite chemical safety rules to be more industry friendly. Michael Dourson is another industry puppet who’s been nominated for a top spot at EPA and has worked extensively sowing doubt for the petrochemical industries. 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.
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.