A new report exposes the many ways that Big Oil has been working to deceive the public on climate change over the past several decades. The media has fallen for many of its tactics, effectively allowing the industry to change the debate on climate science and hide the industry backing behind its front groups and campaigns.
For nearly three decades, top executives at ExxonMobil have known that fossil fuel emissions harm the climate, according to a document uncovered by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). And since then, the UCS report shows, Exxon and other major oil companies have been working to "deceive the public" about the truth on climate change.
The UCS report -- titled "The Climate Deception Dossiers: Internal Fossil Fuel Industry Memos Reveal Decades of Corporate Disinformation" -- is based on a trove of internal company and trade association documents and identifies seven tactics that oil companies have used to sow misinformation and sway public opinion in its favor. Several of these tactics involve spreading "disinformation," and the media has taken the bait. Here's how:
A key document uncovered by UCS is a 1998 memo from the American Petroleum Institute (API) that includes a draft "Global Climate Science Communications Plan." The plan's stated goal is that a "majority of the American public, including industry leadership, recognizes that significant uncertainties exist in climate science, and therefore raises questions among those (e.g. Congress) who chart the future U.S. course on global climate change." API's plan says one of its hoped-for "victories" is for media coverage to "reflect balance on climate science." And indeed, false balance is rampant in mainstream media coverage of climate science. For example, in 2014, every broadcast Sunday news show except CBS' Face the Nation aired segments that included false balance on climate science.
Another API "victory" was for media to recognize "the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current 'conventional wisdom'" on climate change. A 2013 study published in Public Understanding of Science found that conservative media frequently portray contrarians and deniers as objective experts on science. Mainstream media outlets often follow suit, such as when several major newspapers earlier this year described the fossil fuel-funded Heartland Institute as merely one of many climate "skeptics," which lent validity to the organization's criticism of Pope Francis' climate change encyclical.
UCS also discovered that API vowed to make the media "understand... uncertainties in climate science." Conservative media often push the false myth that climate science is "unsettled," and a heavy focus on "uncertainties" in climate science is an unfortunate trend in media stories: a 2013 study from Oxford University showed that nearly 80 percent of climate change stories surveyed were framed in the context of uncertainty. Meanwhile, the science behind human-caused climate change is in fact settled, with the same level of certainty as the science behind cigarettes' causing deadly disease.
UCS' report also shows how the oil industry has created fake grassroots organizations to lobby on behalf of the fuel companies. Several Media Matters reports have detailed the media's failure to disclose the funding behind many pro-industry organizations and campaigns -- most notably, Americans for Prosperity, the "grassroots" front group created by the oil billionaire Koch brothers.
Finally, UCS reveals the extensive role played by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which connects industry executives to state legislators and pushes legislation that furthers the oil industry's agenda. Again, many media outlets have failed to disclose the industry interests behind several ALEC campaigns, particularly its attempts to dismantle clean energy policies.
"Doubt is our product," a tobacco executive once said, kicking off a decades-long campaign to hide the deadly impacts of smoking from consumers. The fossil fuel industry's campaign to sow uncertainty and introduce doubt into climate change coverage shows how the industry is taking yet another page from Big Tobacco's playbook.
The conservative website Daily Caller argued that President Obama's executive action to bring solar energy to low-income communities would be costly, but to prove its point, it cited a solar energy project that will bring millions in economic benefits.
On July 7, the Obama administration announced an initiative that will make it easier for all Americans -- but those in low- and moderate-income communities in particular -- to access solar energy. In response, the Daily Caller's Michael Bastasch criticized one of the initiative's key components: a program to encourage the development of community solar programs, known as "solar gardens" -- large, centrally-located solar arrays from which community members can purchase solar energy in exchange for credits on their electric bills.
Bastasch warned that solar gardens "could increase costs and bring dubious benefits." To make his point, he cited Denver's plan to power 16 city-owned buildings with solar energy from community solar gardens. But far from being costly, the project is expected to save the city $6 million over the next 20 years.
Climate change deniers have been talking a lot about "energy poverty" to criticize Pope Francis' landmark climate change encyclical, claiming that the policies he supports would harm the poor by making energy prohibitively expensive. But media should think twice before uncritically reporting the fossil fuel industry's energy poverty campaign, which is misleading at best and flat-out wrong at worst, as multiple investigations have compared the campaign to the tactics of Big Tobacco and highlighted how both could harm poor communities.
Two major U.S. coal companies are at the center of the fossil fuel industry's energy poverty campaign: Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. In advance of the encyclical, Arch Coal blasted out a list of talking points to fight back, claiming that the encyclical does not "address the tragedy of global energy poverty." Similarly, Peabody is behind a campaign that began last year called "Advanced Energy for Life," which aims to build "awareness and support to eliminate energy poverty, increase access to low-cost electricity and improve emissions through advanced clean coal technologies."
It is true that access to modern forms of energy is essential for alleviating poverty by providing increased access to education and health services. But fossil fuels are not necessarily the answer, as many experts and reports have detailed. Energy poverty is largely a rural phenomenon, where centralized energy systems -- a precondition for expanding access to coal -- are simply not feasible. According to experts who have worked on the ground to provide energy to rural communities, off-grid energy solutions are far more economical, and renewables in particular are often more effective at bringing electricity to communities cheaply and quickly.
Moreover, the coal industry's misleading campaign to push their product in poor communities has drawn comparisons to Big Tobacco's efforts to push tobacco use worldwide.
Fossil fuel advocates are criticizing Pope Francis' recent climate encyclical, claiming his call to phase out fossil fuels will harm the poor by preventing access to electricity and keeping them in "energy poverty." But fossil fuels are not economically viable in most of the communities that suffer from a lack of electricity, and on-the-ground experts have explained that distributed renewable energy sources are often a more effective way to lift the world's impoverished -- who will be most affected by the adverse impacts of climate change -- out of energy poverty.
Toxic air pollution from power plants has been linked to serious health problems including cancer, heart attacks, and premature death, and mercury in particular is a potent neurotoxin that is especially dangerous for young children and pregnant women. But that hasn't stopped conservative media from joyfully celebrating a U.S. Supreme Court decision that jeopardizes the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) plan to rein in this harmful pollution.
Like Americans for Prosperity, the Beacon Hill Institute, and the State Policy Network before it, the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) is the latest oil industry front group to run a deceptive op-ed campaign against the EPA's climate change plan, with NBCC president Harry C. Alford alleging in newspapers across the country that the Clean Power Plan will impose "economic hardship" on blacks and Hispanics. None of these newspapers disclosed that the NBCC has received $1 million from the ExxonMobil Foundation, and the op-eds themselves rely on climate science denial and thoroughly debunked industry-linked studies in an attempt to dismiss the financial and health benefits the Clean Power Plan will provide to black and Hispanic communities.
Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change reveals his belief that there is a moral obligation to act swiftly on climate change, which disproportionately harms the world's poor. But conservative media are relentlessly attacking the pope over the encyclical, calling it "insipid" and "blasphemous," and fearmongering that the Catholic leader is a "Marxist" pushing for "a new world order," among other things.
Bloomberg has published several columns by contributor Robert Bryce that either attack renewable energy or promote oil without disclosing that he is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment, which has long received significant funding from ExxonMobil.
The Wall Street Journal's opinion page has been serving as a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry's attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which will set limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Nearly every WSJ op-ed about the proposed rule since it was released on June 2, 2014 has been written by people with ties to the energy industry -- and every single one has attacked it.
From the June 8 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Company:
Loading the player reg...
Many major media outlets reported that a new Environmental Protection Agency study found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") has had "widespread" impacts on Americans' drinking water, but did not mention the EPA's explanation for why the study doesn't necessarily indicate "a rarity of effects on drinking water resources." The EPA study identified several "limiting factors," including insufficient data, the lack of long-term studies, and inaccessible information, which it said "preclude a determination of the frequency of [drinking water] impacts with any certainty."
UPDATE (6/5/15): Following the publication of this post, The Washington Times changed its headline from "EPA: Fracking doesn't harm drinking water" to "EPA finds fracking poses no direct threat to drinking water." However, the New York Post published an article on June 5 adopting The Washington Times' original language, headlined, "Fracking doesn't harm drinking water: EPA."
Within hours of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) releasing a study on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," Newsweek and The Washington Times published online articles with headlines that falsely claimed the EPA determined fracking does not pollute drinking water. However, while the EPA said it found no evidence that fracking has led to "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States," the study also identified "specific instances" where fracking "led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells."
In its headline, Newsweek asserted: "Fracking Doesn't Pollute Drinking Water, EPA Says." The Washington Times' similar headline, "EPA: Fracking doesn't harm drinking water," was also adopted by The Drudge Report, a highly influential conservative news aggregator.
But the EPA study said none of those things. Rather, the EPA concluded (emphasis added):
From our assessment, we conclude there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources. These mechanisms include water withdrawals in times of, or in areas with, low water availability; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.
We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.
A more accurate headline about the EPA's study would have resembled that of U.S. News & World Report, which stated: "EPA: Fracking Tainted Drinking Water, but Problems Not Widespread."
Indeed, the EPA's determination that fracking has contaminated some drinking water wells was even included within the body of The Washington Times article. But a headline often shapes the way the rest of the article is perceived, and even reading the article may not be enough to correct for the headline's misinformation -- that is, if the reader gets past the headline, which most Americans do not.
In addition to mischaracterizing the EPA study, Newsweek and The Washington Times also excluded EPA's explanation of why its findings don't necessarily indicate "a rarity of effects on drinking water resources." The agency identified several "limiting factors" in its analysis, including insufficient data, the lack of long-term studies, and inaccessible information, stating that these limitations "preclude a determination of the frequency of [drinking water] impacts with any certainty." As the Environmental Defense Fund stated in a press release about the EPA study, "Better and more accessible data on activities surrounding hydraulic fracturing operations is needed."
The New York Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan has now weighed in on The Times' misleading article advancing baseless industry allegations that the EPA illegally lobbied on behalf of clean water protections. But while Sullivan recognized that the article has some significant problems, she nonetheless defended it as a "solid story" overall.
Those who fault the article for not having its "to be sure" caveats up higher may have a point. And it's possible that the front-page display suggests what [Washington, D.C. reader Ben] Somberg calls a "smoking gun" that doesn't materialize -- though plenty of front-page stories lack that element.
But despite this acknowledgement, Sullivan came to the defense of the reporters who authored the story, declaring that the article "raises important questions" and that it is "a legitimate examination of a worthwhile issue." She also quoted an email from one of the reporters, Eric Lipton, who claimed the premise of the article is justified because "in the view of certain members of Congress, and opponents of the rule, [the EPA's actions] may have violated the Anti-Lobbying Law. That is what the article said."
But there is a major flaw in Lipton's logic -- and it's one that is not addressed in Sullivan's response. Just because opponents of the EPA are claiming the agency violated the Anti-Lobbying Act, that doesn't mean that claim is worthy of a story in The New York Times if it is a completely baseless allegation. And it is a completely baseless allegation.
The New York Times devoted a front page article on May 19 to advancing baseless industry allegations that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) illegally lobbied on behalf of clean water protections. Buried deep within the article was an acknowledgment that the allegations don't hold up, but The Times ran with the story anyway.
The Times reported that "industry critics said the agency's actions might be violating federal lobbying laws," and that the EPA's efforts to build support for its proposed clean water rule "are now being cited as evidence that the E.P.A. has illegally engaged in so-called grass-roots lobbying."
Yet the very same Times article acknowledged that multiple "experts" -- including an energy industry lobbyist who worked for the EPA under the Bush administration -- "said the agency's actions did not appear to cross a legal line."
Moreover, The Times wrote that "the Justice Department, in a series of legal opinions going back nearly three decades, has told federal agencies that they should not engage in substantial 'grass-roots' lobbying." That led The Times into a discussion of a social media campaign in support of the clean water rule that the EPA conducted "in conjunction with the Sierra Club," while "grass-roots group" Organizing for America "was also pushing the rule." The Times added that "critics said environmental groups had inappropriately influenced the campaign," citing officials from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Home Builders, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who claimed that "[t]here is clear collusion between extreme environmental groups and the Obama administration" on new regulations.
It wasn't until 34 paragraphs after the initial mention of the Justice Department that The Times included this massive caveat (emphasis added):
In its previous opinions to federal agencies, the Justice Department has indicated that "grass-roots" efforts are most clearly prohibited if they are related to legislation pending in Congress and are "substantial," which it defined as costing about $100,000 in today's dollars -- a price tag that the E.P.A.'s efforts on the clean water rule almost certainly did not reach if the salaries of the agency staff members involved are not counted.
From the May 18 edition of Fox News' The Five:
Loading the player reg...