Drilled S1Ep5: Aggressive Think Tanks, Shouty Pundits, and a New Religious Argument

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Bob Brulle, environmental sociology researcher at Brown University; Kert Davies, founder and director of Climate Investigations Center; Bryan McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, UTCarnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology.

Previously on Drilled:

Bryan McInerney: I was on a radio show two hours. They called and said ‘Can you come in and talk about climate change?’ Sure. There was talk radio Six thirtya.m. and I still remember it so well it was two hours of live TV and they broke the call record and everybody they called in was antagonistic toward me. Nasty. It was all, “Let me talk to that tree hugging do gooder kind of guy and that’s how the whole interview went. And I got done and I was like Why? Why are they so angry?

Amy Westervelt: We learned in the last two episodes about the ways in which oil companies influenced the media.

But they were spending tens of millions of dollars a year with PR companies and that money wasn’t just being used on ads and influencing editors. It was also fueling a broader social influence campaign. For the media strategy to work, fossil fuel companies also had to shift how people think.

They did that by seeding an anti science attitude amongst conservatives and continually pushing the idea that you can’t have innovation or progress without oil.

And also shifting how people thought about the connection between religion and the environment.

Kert Davies: That’s not a scientific argument, that’s almost … That’s a theological argument or you know religious I don’t know what you do with it.

Katharine Hayhoe: Those who have the most to lose on climate legislation sat and said this war we have to do everything we can to stop this thing.

Bob Brulle: The idea is that fossil fuels become parcel of progress good life economic gain in jobs.

Amy Westervelt: Remeber the The I.C.E. campaigns we covered previously? That social influence campaign began in the early 1990s and it aimed to, as Kert Davies put it, move people away from a sense of urgency around climate. One way to do that was to discredit climate science. The most extreme promoters of climate denial claim that climate science shouldn’t even be called a science. Here’s Steve Milloy a drafter of the victory memo and founder of the website Junk Science saying exactly that to me.

Steve Milloy: Climate science pretty quickly—climate “science,” quotes around science—pretty quickly revealed itself to be also not a science. . And you know,the agendas were clear from the beginning.

Amy Westervelt: A great ally to oil companies in pushing this message were the dozens of conservative talk shows that sprang up in the 1990s. That happened because conservatives and industry trade groups pushed the FCC to get rid of the Fairness Doctrine. It was sort of the net neutrality debate of the 80s. In 1985, pushed by industry lobbyists and various conservative groups, The Federal Communications Commission revoked the Fairness Doctrine.

It was a policy that had been in place since the late 1940s. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcast licence holders to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest equitable and balanced at least in the FCC view.

It was the original fair and balanced news. It wasn’t perfect policy of course. It was fairly arbitrary and almost impossible to enforce. Still, as soon as it was revoked we saw the rise of AM talk radio dominated by far right conservatives like Rush Limbaugh. Rush’s show was a favorite outlet for social influence campaigns. In fact it’s in the ICE a campaign plan to advertise regularly in his show. Rush would rile people up about liberal hoaxers trying to use this made up global warming stuff to stop American business. And then get them to sign up for an information packet to learn more. At which point the various oil companies and coal companies funding the ICE or other types of campaigns would send out essentially propaganda to these listeners.

Rush Limbaugh Show: Now this message from the EIB department of protection from environmentalists. Enough Of this bad press EIB is getting for what misguided commie libs are calling our anti-species position. Even now ladies and gentlemen our scientists are in the field studying the mating habits of a rare species because we care about preservation. This rare species is the Arkansas broadbean. Get Ready! Shh sh listen to theirmating calls you can hear them now. As you have plainly heard ladies andgentleman, environmentalists of the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies have unearthed this amazing discovery, the mating habits of the Arkansas baby It happens every four years, it roughly corresponds to that period from the day after the Democratic convention to the evening before Election Day. As a public service on the EIB department of protection from environmentalists. By the way the sound that we’ve used to identify the Arkansas broadbeem ladies and gentelemen is…. the laughter of Hillary Clinton.

Amy Westervelt: Hear that misguided commie libs bid at the beginning there? If that sounds a lot like the part in the victory memo where fossil fuel industry groups and oil companies wrote that their goal was to make people who believe we need to act on climate change seem quote out of touch with reality. That’s no coincidence. It was a key talking point for oil company-funded campaigns.

A key target of the ICE campaigns played into this too. Their strategy documents cite older less educated men as a choice demographic for anti climate science campaigns. That target turned out to be right on. This group ate up the messaging around climate denial and were easily mobilized by conspiracy theories. To this day the vast majority of climate deniers fit this demographic.

Katharine Hayhoe: There is a lot of research that has actually showed there is a strong gender component to rejecting climate science. The vast majority are men.

Amy Westervelt: That’s climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe again noting that the vast majority of climate deniers are men. That’s not just from the anecdotal evidence of who tends to harass her. It’s also backed by multiple studies. One from Michigan State University sociologist Erin McRight and Oklahoma State University sociologist Riley Dunlap looked at public opinion polls from 2001 to 2011 and found that white conservative men in particular are far more likely to be climate deniers than any other type of American and those who identify as having a great understanding of climate science are even more likely is that perfect mix of denialism with just enough actual science that the oil companies perfected in the 1990s. Campaigns got people fired up and fed into a desire to avoid the complexities of dealing with climate change cycle of outrage and the linking of conservative identity to it carried into the creation of Fox News in the mid 1990s which brought more of the same.

It seems normal to us now but just listen to the difference between this, Walter Cronkite in the 80s.

Walter Cronkite: There’s another warning today about the greenhouse effect that buildup of carbon dioxide scientists fear it could create a global warm up. Energy Department consultants say future coal used by the United States, China, and the Soviet Union could create an impact beyond human experience creating average surface temperatures likely to be warmer than at any time during the last hundred thousand years. Because some regions would benefit from the greenhouse effect the report warns climate changes could put nation against nation and group against group. The report calls for continuing study of the greenhouse effect.

Amy Westervelt: This Rush Limbaugh, just a few years later.

Rush Limbaugh: This is not the first kind of a story we’ve had. We’ve had numerous stories in recent years about expeditions to Antarctica to study climate change and global warming getting stuck in ice so thick that icebreakers couldn’t even reach them. And they were shocked and they were stunned. They believe their own nonsense that the ice at the north and south poles is melting when it’s not. It’s getting bigger.

Amy Westervelt: By the early 2000s not believing in climate change was a key part of the conservative identity. After more than a decade of social influence campaigns a large number of people had been convinced that climate science was really just an ideology that you either believe in or not. Never mind that the same people funding those campaigns had acknowledged the scientific consensus on global warming several years earlier. But keeping people outraged about science is no easy feat. And so climate scientists and environmental groups became targets. Here’s environmental sociologist Bob Brulle again.

Bob Brulle: It’s a matter of trying to, what they called have interactions, fruitful interactions and partnerships with environmental organizations, bringing the environmental groups inside of the tent making them feel as if they have power and in the process they become compromised, lower their expectations of demands and become tame. On the other hand, those organizations that can’t be brought into the tent and co-opted are subjected to harassment campaigns. So there are public relations companies that specialize in going through the trash cans of environmental groups, engaging in harassing activities of environmental groups.

Amy Westervelt: These smear campaigns reached their peak around the global climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says efforts ramped up around Copenhagen. In fact she cites it as an inflection point similar to James Hansen’s testimony in 1988 and the pushback around Kyoto in the late 1990s.

Katherine Hayhoe: Starting in 1988 they had already mobilized—the fossil fuel industry, the Koch brothers, so all of those think tanks and dark money-funded organizations—mobilized to the extend that when Kyoto came along, they knew what to do. It wsa dead in the water before it came home. But then with Copenhagen they had Obama so they’re like uhoh this guy could actually make something happen, we don’t have a Republican president. So they had to really pull out the stops. And when I say that it was not just the US I mean the e-mails that were hacked from the scientists you know that whole kind of Climategate thing? That was directly in preparation for Copenhagen. And it likely came from the Russians. I mean there’s no definitive answer yet, but it’s more than likely, if you had to pick a country it’d be the Russians.

Amy Westervelt: The Climate Gate scandal involved the hacking of several scientists’ emails pieces of which were then released and linked together to make normal back and forth between scientists sound like some sort of nefarious plot to mislead the public. It kicked off a wave of harassment and scientists with no experience with the limelight had their personal lives mined exploited and upended all in an effort to discredit their field.

Like the industry backed media strategies, these cultural campaigns focused on influencing the influencers. In addition to pushing anti regulation or climate to nihilists rhetoric these campaigns also relied heavily on pro oil propaganda. Here’s Bob Brulle on that.

Bob Brulle: Literally since after World War 2 the fossil fuel companies have actively engaged in public relations campaigns to sell the automobile and fossil fuels as the American way of life. And as the good life and the idea is that fossil fuels become part and parcel of progress, the good life, economic gain and jobs. And I have an unpublished report from Mobil that talks about how they seeded the collective unconsciousness with these ideas.

Amy Westervelt: While the pro oil propaganda had been going on since Standard Oil first worked on cleaning up its reputation in the early nineteen hundreds the 80s and 90s brought with them a new context. Reagan was the conservative answer to the 1960s social justice movements and the backlash he brought with him was no accident. Conservatives had begun mobilizing on the war of ideas amid the 1960s protests. So by the time Reagan was elected in 1980 they were in a prime position to capitalize on a Republican government. New conservative think tanks. many of them funded by fossil fuel interests including Exxon, Koch Industries and Peabody Coal, emerged in the early 1980s and they behaved very differently than the mainstream think tanks most of which were started by progressives in the early 20th century. In the same way that the new conservative media was bloated and angry where its predecessors had been straightforward and calm, this new breed of think tank was aggressive and opinionated where the established think tanks had tended to be more scholarly and measured.

I recently interviewed Ken Caldeira a longtime software programmer turned atmospheric scientist and one of the first guys to get into geoengineering a while back. When it comes to science he says he likes to be the first at the party and the first to leave. But he’s been thinking a lot about whether and how science contributes to social change.

Ken Caldeira: You know, I don’t understand how social change happens when it challenges the interests of a well entrenched and powerful minority and I mean it seems to me that that’s the central question of how that happens and it’s not climate science it’s it’s political strategy.

Amy Westervelt: If you want to understand how to drive rapid social change looking at the conservative movement from the 1960s to today is a great place to start. And a big part of that movement has been to quash environmental initiatives. One of its biggest successes has been to stop any real action on climate change.

In addition to the think tanks and various messaging efforts, an increased push was made to tie conservative policies to religion during this time frame too. And climate change was a perfect issue for this strategy.

While early conservative environmentalists had used religion and a biblical calling to be stewards of the planet as a reason to protect the environment, in the 80s and 90s the religious argument changed. In keeping with the whole manifest destiny idea, the prevailing argument in conservative circles became that God had given us oil and coal and that we’re meant to use it.

Here’s our document guy Kert Davies on that.

Kert Davies: The most outlandish quote on this is Fred Palmer who was at Peabody Coal eventually but was part of the ice campaign. He was one of the key one of the chair of the ice campaign. He’s recorded in the late 90s by a television crew from Europe and he says when you step on the accelerator you’re doing the work of the Lord. This is God’s plan to put the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and basically that he says that today he’s at Heartland Institute now and there are a number of them that believe it or not this is not deception. This is not like the paid tobacco scientists. They believe that oil and coal were put here in the United States by God for us to use and I don’t know how you, that’s not a scientific argument. That’s almost, that’s a theological argument or you know religious. I don’t know what you do with that.

Amy Westervelt: And here’s that documentary he mentioned.

Fred Palmer: You’re doing God’s work every time you turn your car on and you burn fossil fuels and you put CO2 in the air. You’re doing the work the Lord. Absolutely. That’s the system that’s the ecological system we live in.

Amy Westervelt: Really solidifying this ideology in people’s minds would require not just media and cultural influence though. Exxon, The American Petroleum Institute the Koch brothers and their ilk would also need to get at the research and regulatory institutions with power. The lengths they’ve gone to are pretty shocking. And we’ve got some never before published information on how entrenched these companies are from even county level politics on up to the nation’s most prestigious universities. More on that in the next episode.

Next time on drilled find just the right person who goes to the judge’s Country Club. Someone who knows his brother they wait until the right period of time and then they make the approach.

Drilled is produced and distributed by critical frequency reporting for this series was done by me Amy Westervelt producer and composer is David Whited our executive producer is Richard Wiles. Our story and concept consultant was Rekha Murthy. Her cover art was designed by Lucas Lizza Koski. You can find drilled wherever you listen to podcasts. Please remember to rate and review the Drilled podcast. It helps us find new listeners. Thanks for listening. See you next time.