Part 1: Climate change denial is over- let’s look at what birthed it, and the shift in focus from the 1970s to 80s.
What happened this past Fall in Paris cannot be discounted. Whatever comes of the international pledge to cap the Earth’s warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the consensus reached by 180 nations did something momentous. And that was to collectively lay a headstone on the grave of global warming denial and discredit its once voluble proponents. The burial was long overdue. “Ignorance is no longer an excuse,” said Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Organization in September of 2014 at a news conference in Geneva. “We know.”
Death Of Climate Change Denial
People took notice last year when funeral services for the lies and pseudoscience manufactured by deniers were held in the media. Over the course of several months, Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times unleashed a series of stunning revelations about a three-decade long campaign Exxon Corp. and allies orchestrated. The goal? Keep the public in the dark about the real cause of global warming and the approaching future shock of a planet in meltdown.
What emerged from the expertly documented articles by ICN and the Los Angeles Times was a portrait of the oil giant that resembled a real-life Dr. Evil—a corporate villain determined to enrich itself while overseeing the end of the world. One New Yorker magazine article by leading climate change activist Bill McKibben talked about these revelations and the implications: “Exxon knew that its main product would heat up the planet disastrously. This did not prevent the company from then spending decades helping to organize the campaigns of disinformation and denial that have slowed—perhaps fatally—the planet’s response to global warming.”
For more than three decades, Exxon, the Koch brothers, and their allies in Washington and the far-right media have used cash, disinformation, and obfuscation to counteract sensible discourse. Since 1997, Charles and David Koch have written checks, totaling more than $79 million to front groups denying climate change science, according to Greenpeace, whose website lists front groups that include the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the American Council on Science and Health.
Greenpeace sees 1997 as a “benchmark year” in terms of the coordinated backlash against the accumulating scientific evidence that points to an impending crisis. For instance, carbon dioxide has reached levels not seen in our atmosphere for 800,000 years.
The start of a new year is an appropriate time to look back at the claims and counterclaims made over the past 30 years. During this time, a fierce war was waged to claim the high ground in the debate over global warming, its causes and perils. What emerges from this retrospective is a narrative with a clear subtext: despite ongoing obfuscation and outright lies generated by big oil and its shills, the world received very clear, messages about the true cost of unchecked industrialization and carbon emissions. We were warned. These warnings were met with a barrage of attacks that included name calling, third-rail rhetoric by lawmakers, black listing of leading climate scientists, and billboards that compared environmentalists to mass murderers.
The 1970s: Early Warnings Of Overshoot And Collapse
Bad news about the future isn’t an easy sell today. That was even truer in 1972 when gas in the United States cost 55 cents a gallon. Most Americans were not attuned to emerging concerns about “overshoot” – a termed coined by the scientists who created World3, a computer model that forecast a planet in meltdown. All of this was spelled out in the book, Limits to Growth, published in 1972 and commissioned by an independent think tank that called itself the Club of Rome. Before the Paris talks began, The Guardian published this story: Limits to Growth was Right: We’re Nearing Collapse.
Limits to Growth was the brainchild of three researchers, including Donella Meadows and husband Dennis Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The third author was Jorgen Randers, a futurist and professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School. The trio warned that mankind must shrink its ecological footprint or face severe shortages by the middle of the twentieth century. They based their predictions on an ambitious computer model called World3 that looked at resources, population, and industrialization. They predicted that if the world stayed on its current course “overshoot and collapse” would occur before 2070 – what its authors called “business as usual.”
That same year, the dysfunctional relationship between economic development and environmental degradation was first placed on the international agenda at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. After the conference, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) was formed to act as a global catalyst for action to protect the environment. “Little, however, was done in the succeeding years to integrate environmental concerns into national economic planning and decision-making,” according to one UN report. “Overall, the environment continued to deteriorate, and such problems as ozone depletion, global warming and water pollution grew more serious.”
During this same decade, scientists hired by Exxon Corp. were quietly at work gathering data that would lead to a stunning conclusion: “By 1978 Exxon’s senior scientists were telling top management that climate change was real, caused by man, and would raise global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius this century, which was pretty much spot-on,” says climate activist Bill McKibben, writing for The Guardian, in an article entitled, Exxon’s Climate Lie: No Corporation Has Ever Done Anything This Big or Bad. After a brief flirtation with sharing what they had learned, Exxon Corp. took these findings and shelved them, according to InsideClimate News.
The 1980s: Global Warming Is Real
Fast forward to 1981, when New York Times science writer Walter Sullivan was listening to NASA’s James Hansen and other leading scientists talk about the same phenomenon that Exxon chose to keep quiet. The resulting article published on the front page put the public on notice about a phenomenon called global warming of an “almost unprecedented magnitude”.
The debate had begun in earnest.
Two years later, in 1983, the World Commission on Environment and Development was established. It concluded that if unsustainable growth continued, that nothing less than the future of mankind was at risk. That same year, Exxon cut funding for climate research from $900,000 per year to $150,000. Its total research budget at the time was more than $600 million, according to ICN.
In January of 1985, when the AIDS epidemic was raging, a book entitled Acceptable Risks was published. In it, writer Greg Mitchell and physician Pascal J. Imperato discussed the concept of risk management, profits, and what constitutes acceptable risks, as well as the hazards of chemical contamination, driving without a seatbelt and unsafe sex. They also included a chapter entitled The Ultimate Risk: The Greenhouse Effect, which made this dire assessment: “The very survival of the earth’s highest forms of life may be on the line.”
By the late 1980s, a consensus emerged in the scientific community that global warming was real. In the summer of 1988, an unprecedented heat wave gripped the United States. The Mississippi was so dry that barges could not pass. That same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed. And on June 28, when Hansen testified before Congress, the temperature in the nation’s’ capital was 101 degrees Fahrenheit. “The Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements,” Hansen told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “There is only a 1 percent chance of an accidental warming of this magnitude…. The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
Watch The Sierra Club episode The Day the Water Died:
After Hansen told Congress that climate change was well underway, the world’s largest oil company was determined to change the conversation and spend millions doing it. Exxon’s goals were two-fold: protect profits and keep the public in the dark about how unchecked burning of fossil fuels would lead to a global environmental meltdown—as forecast by their own senior scientists and the Club of Rome. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. A tear in its hull disgorged 11 million gallons of oil, fouling 1,000 miles of coastline and killing hundreds of thousands of animals. “Though the oil has mostly disappeared from view, many Alaskan beaches remain polluted to this day, crude oil buried just inches below the surface,” according an article, The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, 25 Years Ago Today, published on March 24, 2014 in The Atlantic.
Incidentally, HoneyColony Founder Maryam Henein helped produce a segment titled The Day The Water Died, narrated by Daryl Hannah. Exxon promised they would clean up the spill and promised that those affected would get their lives back. Seventeen years later and the people are still waiting.
Undeterred, Exxon and other fossil fuel companies went on to create the Global Climate Coalition whose mission was to obscure scientific data on the impact of fossil fuels on the climate. Its scientific backgrounders for journalists directly contradicted Hansen’s testimony, claiming that the “role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood.”
READ PART 2 HERE.
Samme Chittumis an award-winning writer who uses the power of narrative to enlighten and effect change. Her work has been published by leading national and international news outlets, including the New York Times. She specializes in writing about health, women’s issues and the environment. As an editor for the Women’s Feature Service, she directed on-site coverage for the 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
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