Global Policy Forum

"Energy Companies Try the 'Tobacco Approach' to Evidence of Global Warming": The Greenhouse Spin


David Helvarg

The Nation magazine (New York)
November, 1996

David Helvarg is the author of The War Against the Greens (Sierra Club Books)

With a handily won re-election and his party still controlling Capitol Hill, Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski remains confident he can contain the Clinton Administration's recent shift toward climate activism. "The scientific jury's still out," the walrus-sized politician and longtime advocate of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge claimed when he opened an Energy Committee hearing on global warming in September (stacking it with global warming "skeptics"). On July 8 President Clinton had received a letter signed by executives of ninety-eight oil, steel, auto, mining and utilities corporations urging him not to negotiate any "premature agreements" aimed at meeting "an arbitrary deadline" for reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. But just a week later, at a climate conference in Geneva, the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, Tim Wirth, called for a binding international accord to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases being pumped into our atmosphere.

The U.S. decision was based in large measure on a startling scientific report published last year by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The l.P.C.C. is made up of more than 2,000 of the world's leading climate scientists from more than 100 nations. Their December 1995 report concludes that the earth is entering or may already have entered a period of climatic instability and warming likely to cause widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation over the next century. Increased emission of greenhouse gases from industrial activities, the document says, could lead to regional droughts, superhurricanes, the spread of new and dangerous tropical diseases and rising sea levels that could inundate island nations and heavily populated coastal plains.

The U.N. panel found that the burning of fossil fuels contributed to a 1 degree increase in world temperature over the past century; it predicted that without drastic corrective action, temperatures around the world will rise another 1.8 to 6.3 degrees over the next century.

Despite this compelling evidence, a stealth campaign led by energy corporations in the United States (in cooperation with a bipartisan group of oil- and coal-state politicians including Murkowski and West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd) has managed to convince the public that there is still significant "debate" on global warming. Among the leading advocates for what's been called "the Tobacco Institute strategy" of alleging scientific uncertainty are a number of Beltway think tanks, publications and public relations outfits. These include: the George C. Marshall Institute (a conservative think tank—and longtime Star Wars promoter—funded by Scaife, Bradley and other right-wing foundations); the million-dollar-a-year Global Climate Coalition (founded in 1989 by several dozen corporations to counter "the myth of global warming"); the American Energy Alliance (made up of the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute and Edison Electric Institute); the Climate Council (run by a member of the oil-client-heavy law firm of Patton Boggs, of which the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was a partner); the Science and Environmental Policy Project (founded as an affiliate of a Moonie think tank); and the "World Climate Report," a newsletter funded by the Western Fuels Association.

With this array of talent for hire, the fossil-fuel industry has beep able to lay a heavy smog of suspicion over the light of science. Even before release of the I.P.C.C. report, Frederick Seitz, chairman of the Marshall Institute, wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Wall Street Journal headlined "A Major Deception on Global Warming." Echoing a Global Climate Coalition report published three weeks earlier, Seitz insisted that the final version of the l.P.C.C. report was not the version approved by contributing scientists, that it was in fact a "corruption of the peer-review process" that censored greenhouse skeptics.

The l.P.C.C. chairman and others involved in the review strongly -- and credibly --denied Seitz's charges (which didn't stop The New York Times from running a story on the "controversy" or pro-oil politicians from demanding that Congress hold hearings on the l.P.C.C. Benjamin Santer, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the highest-ranking U.S. scientist involved in the report's preparation,wrote a letter to the Journal that read in part, "[Seitz's] actions reflect an apparent attempt to divert attention away from the scientific evidence of a human effect on global climate by attacking the scientists concerned with investigating the issue."

If the Op-Ed was part of an industry attempt to slander and discredit the bearers of bad news, it wasn't the first such attempt. As early as 1991 an organization called the Information Council on the Environment (I.C.E.) was formed to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)." Run by a Washington-based P.R. firm, Bracy Williams & Co., I.C.E. was financed by the coal-mining and utility companies that make up the Western Fuels Association. Its science advisory panel consisted of Dr. Robert Balling, Dr. Sherwood Idso and Dr. Patrick Michaels, three leading "climate skeptics" who, by their own account, have received close to a million dollars of coal- and oil-industry funding (including a publishing grant from the government of Kuwait) for their efforts to refute the scientific consensus on global warming. I.C.E.'s media strategy, revealed in internal documents, was to move people from advocating "extreme positions on global warming," meaning legislation, to "less extreme positions," i.e., further study.

"'Some members of the media scare the public about global warming to increase their audience and their influence.' People who respond most favorably to such statements are older, less-educated males...who are not typically active informationseekers," l.C.E.'s pollsters reported. "They are good targets for radio advertisements." The council then developed a series of radio spots to be delivered by Dr. Balling and talk-radio heavyweight Rush Limbaugh. ("Get real! Stop panicking! I'm here to tell you that the facts simply don't jibe.... Minneapolis has actually gotten colder," Limbaugh incorrectly claims in one of the spots.) The l.C.E. campaign lasted six months, and then was terminated by the Western Fuels Association. "The issue was too complicated and the ads were a little simple, more of a sledgehammer than a subtle effect," says Ivan Brandon, the P.R. executive who oversaw the project. "We decided to focus more on what our contrarian scientists were saying."

After dumping l.C.E., the association has gone on to fund "World Climate Report," a biweekly "science" publication, edited by Patrick Michaels (who's also a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute), that attacks mainstream theories on global warming. In addition, Western Fuels funded a $250,000 video titled The Greening of Planet Earth, which was distributed by the Global Climate Coalition to more than 1,000 U.S. journalists, the White House and various oil states in the Middle East. The video claims that industrial carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere acts as a kind of airborne nutrient that aids plant growth and therefore, by increasing crop yields, could be the solution to world hunger.

In their new book, Betrayal of Science and Reason, Stanford biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich predict that as scientific proof of global warming mounts, industry advocates will "simply switch their emphasis from 'global warming is a hoax' to 'global warming is real, but not to worry, keep doing business as usual: Its effects will be minor and may even be good for us."' Confirming their thesis, the August 19 issue of "World Climate Report" (published halfway through this year's devastating hurricane season) insisted that "if global warming occurs, the many benefits will offset these drawbacks. People like warm climates. Heating bills are lower. Clothing costs are reduced. Transportation is less troubled. And death rates are lower."

For several years the White House has taken a typically vacillating approach to global warming. On the eve of Earth Day 1993, President Clinton announced his intention to sign an international treaty on global warming that George Bush had initially refused to support when he and other heads of state came together for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. During his speech in the U.S. Botanical Gardens, Clinton committed the United States "to reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000." The Administration's plan to accomplish this included a deficit-reducing energy tax and increased gasoline taxes of up to 25 cents a gallon.

Then a computer-driven "grass roots" letter and phone-in campaign orchestrated by the American Energy Alliance, along with an oil-funded push by P.R. giant Burson-Marsteller, helped undermine support for the energy tax. The Administration abandoned the tax in the Senate after House Democrats, braving the wrath of industry, had passed it. Relations between the White House and Congressional Democrats soured quickly after that. Congress also voted to keep the gas tax below 5 cents, guaranteeing that with the lowest fuel prices in the developed world, alternative energy sources would remain noncompetitive.

In October 1993 the Administration announced its final "Climate Change Action Plan" to reduce greenhouse emissions. This turned out to be a voluntary effort consisting of redirected federal dollars and depending on the good will of industry. An economist with the Environmental Defense Fund (E.D.F.), a group that generally favors "market based" solutions to pollution, compared this regulation-free plan to walking a tightrope without a safety net.

By early 1996 the Administration was forced by treaty obligations to admit that its Climate Change plan was off-track, that the United States was not going to meet its goal and Rio promise of stabilizing output at 1990 levels. At the climate conference in Geneva, Britain's Minister of the Environment John Gummer voiced widespread international frustration with the United States when he said that "most of us are not prepared to hear serious countries seriously saying they cannot achieve by the year 2000 what they signed to do." Having abrogated leadership on the climate issue, the Administration, although not happy that this meeting was taking place before the presidential elections, committed itself to some kind of targeted reduction of greenhouse gases.

The Geneva talks highlighted some of the unusual alliances now forming around global climate change. While insurance industry representatives (worried about the skyrocketing costs of weather-related claims) strategized with small-island-nation delegates and Greenpeace observers, OPEC countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, went into a private session—where they were instructed on what to do and say by Washington, D.C., attorney Donald Pearlman of the Climate Council.

Not satisfied with just bird-dogging the diplomatic talks in Geneva, industry lobbyists and oil-company attorneys have also attended all twelve of the I.P.C.C.'s science meetings. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, on at least one occasion the Kuwaiti delegation submitted proposed changes to I.P.C.C. texts, written in Pearlman's handwriting. At the I.P.C.C.'s most recent session in Mexico City on September 11-13, representatives from industry's Climate Council, Global Climate Coalition, Edison Electric Institute, World Coal Institute and IPIECA (another oil group) were buttonholing scientists, trying to weaken report language and pressing for restrictions on new research.

Despite this pressure the I.P.C.C. scientific consensus stands: Just to stabilize global warming—and reduce the most severe climate impacts—would require a 60 to 80 percent reduction of industrial carbon dioxide emissions as of today.

And so as the United States begins to move toward a belated search for solutions, the fossil-fuel industry's friends on Capitol Hill are accusing the White House of caving in to "environmental extremists." "On the one hand, they're saying don't do anything until you're absolutely sure of what it is you should do and on the other hand they're cutting the research programs that could let us be more sure of what we should do. You can't have it both ways," charges Under Secretary of State Wirth.

Although Wirth has shown admirable willingness to admit the urgency of the problem, his solutions remain industry-friendly. In Geneva, Wirth's talking points were provided by the E.D.F., the militantly moderate green group. Many other environmental groups (including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Ozone Action), committed to establishing binding goals by the next climate conference in Kyoto in December 1997, worry that the Administration will propose achieving these goals through a limited "pollution trading" scheme for carbon dioxide similar to one already established in the United States (uinder the 1990 Clean Air Act) for sulfur dioxide, the major cause of acid rain.

Under this system, big industrial facilities that are able to reduce their pollution output below a set requirement can sell their "surplus pollution" to other companies that have failed to meet the standard. This added cost is supposed to create an economic incentive for cleaning up. In practice the price "per ton" of pollution has remained low, encouraging dirtier plants (generally located in poorer communities and regions) to purchase pollution credits rather than invest in source reduction and cleanup technology. "We think that being able to do the kind of permit trading we did on the Clean Air Act is what ultimately is going to be the most economically efficient way of [reducing greenhouse gases]," says Wirth.

"Given the pressure from industry, the range of debate has really thinned out," counters Kalee Kreider, director of the Climate Campaign at Greenpeace USA. "We're not looking at what is needed but at what is politically feasible, which is not how I'd define strong leadership."

The Clinton Administration is unlikely to take the political risks necessary to begin a full-scale transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies. As we go to press, the Administration is under heavy pressure from industry to delay or weaken tougher E.P.A. air-pollution standards, due out the end of November. But as the heavy-weather "footprint" of global warming becomes clearer to the average citizen, a post-Clinton Administration after 2000 might be willing to confront the need for a clean-energy revolution (and make concessionary transfers of renewable-energy technologies to China, India and other developing nations).

Still, today's transnational oil and coal corporations seem unlikely to go along with this revolution just to keep Bangladesh, Indonesia or New Orleans from drowning. In Nigeria, where drilling flare-offs account for up to 1 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions, Royal Dutch/Shell props up a dictatorship that executes its environmental critics. In Colombia, BP recently paid for its own army battalion. In the United States, big oil is conducting a successful multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign on global warming. To consider what the greenhouse backlash, funded by the most powerful industrial combine in human history, might be willing to do next is not a calming thought.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.