The Evidence For How Fossil Fuel Companies Misled Us For Decades

July 8, 2015 | 9:52 am
Ken Kimmell
Former President

My parents instilled two core values in me—tell the truth and if your actions harm others, take responsibility for them. These messages were reinforced when I went to law school and practiced law for almost twenty years; honesty and responsibility are bedrock principles in the law, and significant damage awards are often imposed on those who breach them.

Today, UCS is releasing a report titled “The Climate Deception Dossiers.” This report is a sobering exposé of how major fossil fuel companies have failed to abide by these axioms. They have neither been honest about, nor taken responsibility for, the harms they have caused by extracting and putting into commerce the fossil fuels that now place our climate in grave danger. Instead, either directly or indirectly, through trade and industry groups, they have sown doubt about the science of climate change and repeatedly fought efforts to cut the emissions of dangerous heat-trapping gases.

You’ll see clear evidence that these companies knew for decades that the burning of fossil fuels causes temperature increase. As one of Mobil’s own scientists says in a 1995 memo, “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” (Emphasis added.)

You’ll see that despite this knowledge several of the companies banded together to sow doubt in the public mind. They stated in 1998, for example—even after that internal warning from their own scientists—that “victory will be achieved” when “[a]verage citizens ’understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”

You’ll see that they executed on this strategy by secretly funding contrarian, climate-denying scientists (and reserving the right to approve their work before it was released), creating faux grassroots groups to oppose policies to cut our dependence on fossil fuels, and even forging letters making it appear that well-established groups opposed policies such as the national cap-and-trade bill that was defeated a few years ago.

I have also learned, particularly during my tenure as a public official, about the importance of trust between business and government. As a government official, I was barraged by lobbyists and others who sought to persuade me to take a particular course of action, and provided information that almost always seemed credible on the surface. Who and what could I trust? That depended a lot on the track record of the messenger. So, a track record for honesty and responsibility is an important component of the “social license” that allows corporations to work constructively with government.

I believe that the conduct outlined in the UCS report puts the fossil fuel companies’ social license at risk. And once that social license is gone, it is very hard to get it back. Just look at what happened to tobacco companies after litigation finally pried open the documents that exposed decades of misinformation and deception.

Is it too late to reclaim the social license? Not yet. The world is increasingly focused on climate change, and the international climate conference in Paris at the end of the year offers a last, best chance to make a meaningful down payment on our obligation to future generations.

The fossil fuel companies could seize upon this opportunity as a way to take responsibility for their actions. Some companies have already called upon governments to adopt policies, such as carbon pricing, to cut carbon pollution. The others should follow suit. They can announce that they will not fund or participate in groups that sow doubt about climate science or oppose proven policies to remedy the problem. And they can commit to discussions about compensation, in particular to those in the developing world who have least enjoyed the benefits of fossil-fueled energy, yet ironically face the greatest dangers from runaway temperature increases and sea level rise.

I hope that the Climate Deception Dossiers and increased public pressure will remind fossil fuel company CEOs and boards of directors about these core values. It’s time to tell the truth and engage in solutions.