How ExxonMobil's PR Machine Impacted The Climate Change Debate

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Our DeSmog UK epic history series continues as ExxonMobil uses its PR power to change the public’s mind on climate change.

The basic tenet of ExxonMobil’s strategy was clear: it would use PR, not to change their image, but to change the public’s mind.

Exxon’s longstanding senior environmental advisor was a large, bullish, but “brilliant”, nuclear engineer, heroically named Arthur G Randall III. He went by the name of “Randy”. 

Though Randy was nearing the end of his career, he was a powerful force within ExxonMobil’s Washington network.

The Action Plan

In April 1998, four months after BP boss Lord Browne praised the new Kyoto Protocol to limit emissions, the hardliners came together to create an “Action Plan” to combat America’s growing fondness for fighting climate change. 

The “Global Climate Science Communications Team” was led by the American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry lobby group bankrolled by Exxon and increasingly used as a political cover for their activities.

Randy was one of just a few industry representatives present; apart from this, the group was dominated by think tank representatives from the Heartland Institute, the Marshall Institute, and Frontiers for Freedom.

The group had a singular clarity of vision. The problem was that the public was sympathetic to the Kyoto Protocol. But this was alterable.

Media Outreach

The environmentalists’ Achilles heel was the public’s understanding of the science. By recruiting and training “a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach”, industry representatives would ensure that “a majority of the American public” recognise that significant uncertainties exist in climate change.

They would have a direct outreach programme to engage with colleges, the press and politicians “about uncertainties in climate science.”

Victory” for the scheme would be achieved when climate change becomes a “non-issue” and when those promoting “initiatives to thwart climate change”, such as Kyoto are out of step with public opinion.

Between their first meeting in April 1998 and the next round of Kyoto talks scheduled for November, the group planned to spend $2m on the campaign. By 2000, they expected this to rise to $7.9m.

Leaked Memo

The biggest project proposed, with a budget of $5m, would be for a science centre that would develop and implement a direct outreach programme to inform and educate members of Congress, state officials, industry leaders, and school teachers/students.

The groups who allocated funds were all libertarian think tanks, each one heavily subsidised by Koch and ExxonMobil: American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), Competitive Enterprise Institute, Frontiers of Freedom and the Marshall Institute.

The memo from their first meeting was leaked in April 1998, and the organisations involved claimed that funding for the project had not gone ahead. But nonetheless the Action Plan would prove to be a blueprint for their activities over the next four years.

 

The DeSmog UK epic history series continues with a look at what happened when environmentalists attended an ExxonMobil meeting in Dallas, Texas.

@brendanmontague

Photo: Wikimedia via Public Domain

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