The Heat is on Fossil Fuel Companies for Decades of Climate Deception

July 11, 2016 | 4:09 pm
Peter Frumhoff
Former Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

As I pointed out in a recent blog, my colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists have been researching and calling attention to climate disinformation by leading fossil fuel companies for nearly a decade.

A more detailed timeline of our work is available on our website.

We and our collaborators have just published sobering new evidence of the damages that climate change is already causing, and are advancing our campaign to hold these companies accountable for their contributions to the problem.

Global warming is a cause of premature heat-related deaths

The death tolls from recent heat-waves in the U.S. Southwest and South Asia grimly remind us that extreme heat can kill.

And it is well-established that climate change from the burning of fossil fuels is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme heat waves.

Last week, the journal Environmental Research Letters published the first paper to characterize  the number of premature deaths during an extreme heat-wave that can be robustly attributed to human-caused climate change.

I’m a co-author on the study, which was led by Dann Mitchell at the University of Oxford.

Specifically, we looked at the massive European heat-wave of 2003 and found that hundreds of heat-related deaths in Paris and London that summer were due to the exacerbating  impacts of climate change on extreme heat, including more than two-thirds of the ~735 deaths in Paris alone.

The findings were generated by putting the results of high-resolution regional climate model simulations of the 2003 heatwave into a health impact assessment model of local heat-related mortality.

I invite you to read our paper, as well as an excellent discussion of it by Kendra Pierre-Louis published in InsideClimateNews.

This work establishes an approach that can be applied to quantify the climate change-exacerbated damages from other extreme events and inform “loss and damage” initiatives to hold governments and polluting industry accountable for their contributions to the problem.

At the same time, new evidence showing the inner workings of the fossil industry-funded climate denial machine deepens our understanding of the extent of recent investments in disinformation and sharpens our focus on companies’ climate responsibilities.

Last month, the Peabody Energy bankruptcy filings released a treasure trove of documents that reveal the company’s extensive financial support for climate-denying lobbying groups. Among them are groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, that ExxonMobil has also backed for many years.

Growing scrutiny of leading fossil fuel companies

Evidence that we, and many others, have uncovered has prompted increasing public, political, investor and legal scrutiny into the fossil fuel industry’s conduct.

In May, UCS staff attended ExxonMobil and Chevron shareholder meetings, accompanied by climate scientists Michael MacCracken and Ben Santer to challenge the companies to align their business models with a climate constrained world and stop funding climate disinformation. In June, my colleague Kathy Mulvey spoke at a panel held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus to examine fossil fuel industry deception on climate change.

Today, members of Congress introduced in both chambers resolutions (House resolution; Senate resolution) that call out industry-sponsored  denial activities that have obscured the truth on tobacco, lead, and climate.

Not surprisingly, fossil fuel interests and their political allies are hitting back. Rep. Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Committee on Science,  Space and  Technology continues to abuse his power and use intimidation tactics to slow down investigations led by state attorneys general into whether ExxonMobil violated any laws by misleading investors and the public about climate risks.

How far we have come

We’ve come a long way since UCS began this work – even further since investigative journalist Ross Gelbspan first brought attention to the climate deception campaign by fossil fuel companies in his 1997 book The Heat is On.

We  are getting essential traction – and will continue to keep the heat on the fossil fuel companies who for so long have sought to deny, disparage  and downplay the scientific evidence of the risks of their products in order to thwart sensible climate policies.