Manufacturing doubt: the denial industry
What if doubt on climate change is being deliberately promoted by the polluting companies with most to lose? One claim made by some who deny climate change is an issue is that it is some kind of money-spinning conspiracy on the part of the environmental movement. This seems to ignore which side most of the money is still on. Three of the top four earning companies in the world are oil companies, part of the sector with most to lose by curbs on climate emissions. ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP earn about US$1.3 trillion between them a year, about 10 times the entire New Zealand GDP. If ExxonMobil were a country, its GDP would put it in the top third of nations worldwide. That sort of money generates a lot of momentum and power. In comparison, WWF, recognised as one of the largest environmental charities in the world, received US$600 million in 2011. The top three oil companies match that about every four hours. Given the enormous stakes, the resources at their fingertips, and the legal obligations for their top executives to protect their shareholders’ assets and interests, it would be surprising if the oil companies didn’t do something to combat this serious threat to their existence. To follow their influence, it seems logical to follow their money. For example, in 2007 a prominent US organisation that denies the threat of climate change, The Heartland Institute, gave US$25,000 (NZ$32,000) to the NZ Climate Science Coalition, and US$45,000 (NZ$59,000) to the International Climate Science Coalition, both staunch climate change deniers. The Heartland Institute acknowledges that it received regular funding from ExxonMobil from 1998-2006. Heartland also acknowledges that a public relations advisor for ExxonMobil, Walter Buchholtz, served on Heartland’s board of directors while still working for the oil firm. ExxonMobil appeared in a report released just last month among many large US companies supporting organisations continuing to undermine climate change science, often in contradiction of their own public environmental policies. But how does this affect us? Well, most of the recipients of this corporate largesse are essentially public relations companies that do no scientific research of their own: their job is to get selective information into the public domain to sway public opinion on behalf of those who pay their bills. So misleading information distributed by them appears on many websites, and even in the mouths of pundits who deny climate change is an issue on radio and television. This does not mean everybody who denies climate change has been paid to do so, that would be ridiculous and impossible. But it does mean that those who do hold these views for whatever reason have been provided with more information and a much larger platform than the strength of their arguments would otherwise warrant. And the key is that for their efforts to succeed it is not necessary for people to believe everything they say. It is only necessary that enough manufactured doubt remains to provide an excuse not to take the concerted action that is urgently needed, and would so seriously affect the fossil fuel industry. This is not the first time this has happened. There is now ample evidence that similar strategies were employed by big businesses to attempt to ward off regulations on cigarette sales in the 1960s and the ban on lead in petrol in the mid-1990s, long after their damaging effects were well understood. The Heartland Institute, for one, still campaigns on the smoking issue. It accepted years of donations from cigarette companies and a former board member, Roy Marden, worked for the cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris/Altria during some of his time on Heartland’s board. So it comes down to this: who do you really want to believe?
WWF, one of the largest environmental charities in the world, received US$600 million in 2011. The top three oil companies match that every four hours.