On October 28, Big Oil executives will testify before Congress on their decades-long campaign to spread climate misinformation. The regular appearance of their longtime shill Steve Milloy on right-wing outlets shows that the industry’s propaganda campaign continues.
When Big Oil launched its campaign almost 40 years ago to deceive the public and cast doubt about the existence of global warming, it created a climate denial industry of think-tanks, front groups, strategists, and media spokesperson -- the remnants of which are still keeping climate denial and misinformation alive today.
Among the alumni of Big Oil’s deception campaign is Steve Milloy, who still regularly appears across right-wing media to downplay the effects of global warming and spread climate disinformation -- illustrating that even while industry leaders like Exxon have publicly moved from outright climate denial to more subtle forms of climate delay, their legacy remains, and their initial strategy is, at least in part, still in play:
First, target media outlets to get them to report more on the “uncertainties” in climate science and position industry-backed contrarian scientists as expert sources for media. Second, target conservatives with the message that climate change is a liberal hoax and paint anyone who takes the issue seriously as “out of touch with reality."
Big Oil’s legacy of climate denial is proliferating on right-wing media networks
Having mostly lost the climate denial battle in mainstream media, career deniers like Steve Milloy are still fully entrenched in the right-wing media where they hold sway over conservative audiences.
Milloy, who regularly appears on far-right news outlets to comment on issues related to climate change and energy, is not a climate scientist. He is a “former cigarette and coal lobbyist who denies that air pollution kills people.” His history of working with Big Oil goes back decades: In 1998, Milloy was a member of the team that helped craft a memo from the oil industry lobby group American Petroleum Institute, which “laid out plans for a multi-year, multi-million dollar campaign to sow doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change.” In fact, Milloy has been one of the central figures -- funded by Big Oil -- to misinform the public about climate science.
The Daily Kos sums up his general career trajectory (including a stint with Fox News) succinctly:
When one considers Milloy’s career, it’s easy to see why he would put private industry profits ahead of public well-being: he’s been paid to do this all along. Before a stint as a coal executive at Murray Energy (owned by Trump pal Bob Murray), Milloy was the face of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). This was a front group created in 1993 by a PR firm, using tobacco industry money (specifically from Phillip Morris) to advance pro-smoking propaganda. From this workstream, Milloy’s junkscience website got its start.
One of Milloy’s greatest PR successes was his stint writing for FoxNews.com, where he published a variety of pro-polluter pieces, without disclosing he was under contract from Phillip Morris and that TASSC was funded by a variety of industries. When news broke in 2006 that Milloy was using Fox to execute a pro-smoking public relations strategy, Milloy’s credibility took a major hit.
Although his column with FoxNews.com ended, he has still been a staple of Fox News’ climate denial for over a decade. More recently, he appeared on The Ingraham Angle on July 6 to claim that the U.S government is going to “start rationing electricity” and controlling people’s air conditioners; he also appeared on the April 22 edition of Ingraham’s show to falsely claim that green jobs are a fantasy that will benefit only China.
In addition to Fox News, Milloy has a large presence on Twitter, where he often says outlandish things like obsessively referring to climate change believers as “bedwetters” and “climate communists.” He’s called climate activists Nazis and referred to activist Greta Thunberg as “Greta the Climate Puppet.”
Since the beginning of 2021, Milloy has begun appearing regularly on far-right outlets One America News Network and Newsmax to continue his brand of grotesque climate denial. Since January, he’s appeared on these two networks at least 20 times to discuss climate issues (and in some cases, vaccine skepticism and defunding the police.) And as always, his appearances have been some horrific examples of climate denial. Some of the more recent ones include:
- On the October 8 edition of OAN’s The Tipping Point (his most recent appearance), Milloy proudly claimed, “I’m a pretty prominent climate denier, as they say.” Later in the segment, during a discussion on Google and YouTube’s recent decision to demonetize climate denial content, he boasted, “We have been 30 years into climate hysteria now. ... People like me are winning.”
- On the September 28 edition of The Tipping Point, Milloy stated, “There's a real undercurrent of mental illness going through the climate movement right now.” (This is not the first time he’s accused climate activists of being mentally ill).
- On the September 2 edition of Newsmax’s Cortes & Pellegrino, Milloy appeared in a segment about the Biden administration “using weather to push climate agenda.” He stated, “These storms have always happened, and they're always going to happen. There's no amount of money -- there's nothing that can be said, there's no amount of money or nothing that can be done to change the weather.” (The climate science community is clear in stating that reducing emissions sooner rather than later will lessen the destructive impacts of future extreme weather events).
- On the August 2 edition of The Tipping Point, Milloy stated that “the green agenda is about controlling our lives. … Every aspect of our lives these people want to control. They’re trying to design a utopian society for themselves, not for the rest of us.” Later in the segment, he denied the link between rising carbon emissions and hotter weather, stating, “July 2021 had the same average global temperature as July 2010, which was, you know, a lot of CO2 emissions ago. … The June 2021 temperature was actually below the 40-year average. … There’s just so much bad information going on around, and you just got to be careful with climate alarmists.” (According to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, July 2021 “was more likely than not the warmest month on record for the globe since 1880,” while June 2021 was the fifth-warmest June on record. In fact, the warmest six years on record have all been since 2015, and each decade since the 1980s has been warmer than the last).
- On the July 21 edition of Newsmax’s Rob Schmitt Tonight, Milloy downplayed a severe western megadrought as “naturally caused” and maybe just “a few years old”; referred to the horrific Pacific Northwest heat wave as “not unusual heat,” adding that “there's no evidence this is climate change” and “there's no trend in hot days in Pacific Northwest.” (Actual climate experts have determined that the West’s drought is perhaps the worst in the last 1,200 years and that carbon emissions have played a role in worsening it. Additionally, the Pacific Northwest heat wave was “estimated to be about a 1 in 1000 year event in today’s climate,” and it would’ve been “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.”)
- On two separate occasions on Newsmax programs -- during the February 17 edition of National Report and the March 8 edition of American Agenda -- Milloy discussed the extreme cold weather in Texas and resulting power outages. On National Report, he compared a tweet by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on the Green New Deal to Mao Zedong’s second five-year plan, the Great Leap Forward, in China, and then claimed that Texas officials had been “bought off by the green power industry.” On American Agenda, he claimed that “the windmills failed first and most” in Texas and ultimately blamed the episode on “an overreliance on politically correct energy.” (Milloy is wrong here on both counts. The oil and gas industry has given millions of dollars to top Texas Republican officials, while the problem with Texas’ power outages were a failure primarily of natural gas. The state’s grid operator found that “the majority of outages were caused by gas supply constraints corresponding to a major spike in demand.” One Texas energy expert noted that “Texas is a gas state” and that “gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.”
Big Oil needs to be held to account for the climate denial machine it set in motion
Later this month, the top oil giants will testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on claims that they ran a decades-long campaign to sow doubt on the existence of global warming -- despite knowing full well that their products were heating the planet.
This announcement came at the heels of a June sting operation conducted by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism outlet. Posing as headhunters, an Unearthed reporter was able to coax a senior Exxon lobbyist, Keith McCoy, into divulging that the company still lobbies Congress in order to delay climate action. One of Exxon’s new strategies is to publicly support a carbon tax because it is unlikely to pass. while “undermining confidence that a transition to clean energy and transport is possible over the next decade, according to McCoy.”
This idea that Exxon has shifted in its tactics from outright climate denial to more subtle forms of climate delay has been studied in detail, most notably by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University. In a recent interview, Surpan noted:
The takeaway message across all of our work is that over and over, ExxonMobil has misled the public about climate change by telling the public one thing and then saying and doing the opposite behind closed doors. Our latest work shows that while their tactics have evolved from outright, blatant climate denial to more subtle forms of lobbying and propaganda, their end goal remains the same. And that’s to stop action on climate change.
Despite these revelations, Big Oil representatives will most certainly push back during the congressional hearings on claims that they helped aid and abet years of climate denial, and they’ll point to their current efforts at renewable energy investment or carbon reductions as evidence that they are committed to fighting climate change. But the continued presence of former lackey Steve Milloy pushing climate denial on far-right outlets is at least one indicator that the strategy to thwart action through climate denial -- that Big Oil set in motion decades ago -- is still active. And the fact that Milloy is a recurring guest of some of the worst right-wing platforms shows just how insidious Big Oil’s propaganda campaign has really been.