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; Ed Garvey, a former Exxon scientist; Morell Cohen, a former Exxon scientist; Marty Hoffert, a former Exxon consultant, and Richard Werthamer, a former Exxon engineering executive.
Previously on Drilled:
Marty Hoffert: So I think what happened is they started to realize that this can actually affect. I was very naive I thought that if they realized that climate change was real, they would start making big investments in renewable energy. It’s a huge company. They had a huge amount of profits. Why couldn’t they sink some of their profits into a new area which was going to be new business?
In the early 1980s, Reagan replaced Carter in the White House and promptly ripped out anything solar, dismantling subsidies for alternative energy shortly after. But that did not mark the immediate end of research into either climate change or alternatives to fossil fuel. Republicans at the time were still approaching global warming as a science and innovation problem. A business opportunity more than an economic threat. Ed Garvey’s tanker project was still underway at Exxon and the company was still funding climate research. And Climate science was continuing at various government agencies, too. The nation was on track to tackle this global warming thing. Or so it seemed.
Morrel Cohen: It seems to me that the fundamental thing that underlies it is this change in what I call the political power within the corporation.
Marty Hoffert: Think what happens is they started to realize that this can actually affect our business.
Ed Garvey: It went from a really heady time to really kind of despair. The company was shrinking, oil revenues were shrinking, and the Bell Labs idea went out the window.
Amy Westervelt: I’m Amy Westervelt, and this is Drilled.
Beginning as early as the early 1980s, the various pieces of what would become one of the most complex social influence campaigns ever undertaken were already beginning to come together.
Bob Brulle: The emergence of this kind of—I guess I’m going to call it a public relations technology of political influence—really comes out of the corporate response to the 1960s and early 1970s social movements. We had a whole social movement; Ralph Nader is Unsafe at Any Speed. We had a bunch of movements. Of course the environmental movement and there is a movement against toxic waste and chemicals in response to Rachel Carson’s book and these social movements initially had a great deal of success.
Amy Westervelt: That’s environmental Sociologist Bob Brulle again. For American companies that had spent the 1940s and 1950s being mostly admired for their contributions to society, the emergence of consumer rights campaigns as part of the social movements and protests of the 60s and 70s were terrifying. They posed both a real and an existential threat to the country’s dominant industries. In addition to potential bottom line impacts these protests represented the country’s first challenge to the long standing doctrine of Manifest Destiny—the idea that resources belong to the men who colonize them, that nature has been given to us by God for man to use and that to do or even suggest doing otherwise is both ungodly and un-American. Brulle has a great example of just how threatened companies were by this shift in the story of E. Bruce Harrison, the man who invented greenwashing.
Bob Brulle: So the father of environmental public relations is a fellow named E. Bruce Harrison. E. Bruce Harrison was working at American Cyanimide when his boss comes in holding a copy of Rachel Carson’s book saying, “It’s Pearl Harbour for the chemical industry.” And what he’s told to do is to go over to DuPont who has a long term public relations campaign and knows how to deal with this kind of stuff and work with them to develop it.
Amy Westervelt: As companies were mobilizing to deal with social movements, factions within these companies began battling amongst themselves, too, with some wanting to continue the corporate innovation programs of the 1970s and others seeing those programs—aimed at research in the public interest—as anathema to everything that made American business great. Former Exxon scientist Morrel Cohen describes this as differing politics within the company. He noticed a shift as the price of oil began to drop. It hit rock bottom in 1983.
Morrel Cohen: It seems to me that the fundamental thing that underlies it is this change in what I call the political power within the corporation. They became much more conservative, and much more concerned with the core business, the traditional lines of business, and automatically much more focused on preserving them.
Amy Westervelt: Soon after that, Cohen remembers putting his postdoc assistant on a research project. He wanted him to compile an inventory of extreme weather events alongside climate change data. It was the sort of project that would have been totally normal a couple of years earlier but now things had changed.
Morrel Cohen: So another week later I saw him and I said, ‘Well have you made any progress?’ He said “that’s not the kind of project to do here at Exxon.” He was already sensing that there was a response in the atmosphere of the research laboratory probably in response to what was going on in the larger company.
Amy Westervelt: It wasn’t long before major cuts to research funding began. Richard Werthamer had been an executive at the Exxon engineering and research company overseeing various projects. One was the tanker project, which was gathering important data on the absorption of CO2 in the oceans and what happens with emissions at the equator. By 83 Werthamer had been transferred to the head office and was in on the budget cutting discussions.
Richard Werthamer: Management desperately wanted to keep earnings up. So what do we dump overboard? Research Is always the easiest to dump overboard in any financial crunch. I mean it isn’t as though Exxon was going to go broke but they really didn’t want to cut earnings, show earnings losses. So. By this time I was in New York and my boss came up to me and said “Do you really think we should continue to fund the tanker project?” It was costing about half a million dollars a year. In retrospect I should have said very important that you keep the tanker project! But My boss is pressing me and it’s clear what answer he wants. He wants to go upstairs and say we can cut the tanker project along with a lot of other things.
Amy Westervelt: Garvey was one of the scientists on that project. He had been working on a design for a new lab for it at Exxon’s planned Clinton New Jersey research campus. But that all went out the window.
Ed Garvey: They sold off their different research divisions or transferred the technology to other firms. It started in 1982, I think, and one of the first divisions to go was the solar division. I remember the scientists leaving there really sad about it and that all got squashed because all that investment that was being done under Ed David all got squashed when the bottom fell out of the oil market and Exxon said we’re done here. Yeah we can’t spend money like this anymore. It went from a really heady time to kind of despair where the company was shrinking, oil revenue was shrinking, and the Bell Labs idea went out the window.
Amy Westervelt: The company began laying off all the scientists it had hired just five years earlier and dozens more began leaving of their own accord as it became clear that the Bell Labs of energy idea was no longer of interest to management. In just five years Exxon had gone from a place of great innovation—truly an energy company—to a fairly standard, conservative oil company.
If they had stopped there, it would have been a shame but we probably wouldn’t still be talking about it thirty years later.
As Exxon and the rest of the oil industry was turning away from innovation, doubling down on being oilmen, the science continued on without them. And then came the summer of 1988. And a catastrophic fire in Yellowstone that seems downright commonplace today. As the news documented the hottest summer on record, a young atmospheric scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies dropped a bomb on Congress.
James Hansen: The greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate. Now.
Amy Westervelt: James Hansen told regulators and the world that climate change was upon us. It was no longer a question of when is this going to happen, how bad is it going to be? It was here, and it was going to get worse if we didn’t do something. And he was not some fringe lefty tree hugger. At this point Republicans and Democrats were still united in the sense that something needed to be done about global warming and that it was a science and technology problem. One that American innovation could solve. Here’s George Bush senior on the campaign trail in 1988.
George Bush: Some say these problems are too big that it’s impossible for an individual, or even a nation as great as ours, to solve the problem of global warming or the loss of forests or the deterioration of our oceans. My response is simple. It can be done. And we must do it. Let’s not forget all that we’ve accomplished; all that we’ve accomplished since America first concentrated its attention on preserving the environment, under a Republican administration. Back in 1970.
Amy Westervelt: This was the moment Exon had been planning for in the late 70s and early 80s. But by 1988 that planning had been scrapped along with the leaders who had conceived of it. The research was gone. The alternative energy programs were gone too. Now regulation was hurtling toward the oil industry and oil execs had lost their seat at the table.
Richard Werthamer: By shutting down the experiment before it was finished. Or. Could be finished. Exxon did lose a place at the table.
Amy Westervelt: Something had to be done. Oil companies couldn’t just rely on the same old tactics: lobbying, advertising, the occasional op ed. They had to ensure that regulation would not happen. And to do that they needed to hit not just media and government but science schools and the culture at large. They needed to stamp out the ideals that had driven those protests in the 1960s and 1970s to make people think those protests were a threat to the very idea of America that the idea of regulating emissions was tantamount to stopping progress. And that was just a thing real Americans did not do. And so, as it was cutting funding for climate science research, Exxon began to wage an informational war on climate science.
Marty Hoffert: And even though we were writing all these papers which were basically supporting the idea that climate change from CO2 emissions was going to change the climate of the earth according to our best scientific understanding. The front office, which was concerned with promoting the products of the company, was also supporting people that we called climate change deniers. And so they were supported at the same time they were giving me money to be a consultant—not that much, but still nice— they were giving millions of dollars to other entities to support the idea that the CO2 Greenhouse was a hoax.
Amy Westervelt: In addition to funding various scientists working on so-called contrarian theories of climate change, and supporting think tanks that would fund more of the same, Exxon began shifting the entire industry via the American Petroleum Institute or the API.
Richard Werthamer: The key is the American Petroleum Institute. Exxon had a huge influence and rightly so in the API and I think the API changed its tune and probably other majors went along with that. So I suspect that’s how it all happened.
Amy Westervelt: Then the oil industry banded together with other industries that might also be impacted by the regulation of carbon emissions: utilities, car manufacturers, manufacturers in general, even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. By the early 1990s they were drafting comprehensive social influence campaigns. Campaigns that go way beyond garden variety lobbying and PR. They aim to shift the entire trajectory of society by targeting specific people or groups of people with messages crafted precisely for them. It’s showing up at obscure city council meetings and planting the right people at the right dinner parties; more spycraft lobbying or PR. It’s the sort of thing E. Bruce Harrison had begun working on a decade earlier. Here’s our document guy Kert Davies again.
Kert Davies: This is early 1991 to set the context. The IPCC has been born. We’re talking about the Rio Earth Summit coming in 1992. The issue is on people’s minds. The summer of 1988 and Jim Hansen’s testimony and the burning planet on the cover of Time magazine. It’s becoming an issue and the Edison Electric Institute which is all of the utilities, an organization still in existence still a heavy hitter in Washington, they’re the trade association for electric power companies across the country. They team up with the Western Fuels Association and form a campaign that they call the Information Council on the environment.
Amy Westervelt: That document emerged in the mid 90s featured journalist Ross Gelbspan and the environmental group, Ozone Action.
Kert Davies: The “strategies” include “repositioning global warming as a theory (not fact), targeting print and radio media for maximum effectiveness, achieving broad participation across the entire electric utility industry. So they have a very exact plan to go national by the fall of 1991 with a media program in the final strategy is to use spokesmen from the scientific community. And In Arizona they did, for example, telephone interviews with 500 adults in Flagstaff Arizona. And the data indicates quote 89 percent say they have heard of global warming. Eighty two percent claim some familiarity with global warming 80 percent claim the problem is somewhat serious while forty five percent claim it is very serious and thirty nine percent back federal legislation without any quantification of cost. And only 22 percent of those consider themselves green consumers. So it’s penetrated; a vast majority have heard of the issue, think it’s serious. And the campaign is to reverse that, is to change that. So they’ve hired an outside firm to design this campaign and as part of the focus group testing of these messages that they’re inserting which are basically it’s not that bad. And it could be a non problem. But they they talk about specifically the target audiences of this test round that they’re going to do to see if their theory works that they can move people. And it says people who respond favorably to such statements are “older less educated males from larger households who are not typically active information seekers and are not likely to be green consumers.”
Amy Westervelt: “Older men who are not active information seekers.” If you were living in America during the 2016 presidential campaign that demographic might sound familiar. And to put some of those data points from the ICE poll into perspective, here’s a more recent stat: In 2017, fifty two percent of Americans believed the threat of climate change has been exaggerated. That’s despite the fact that we have more scientific evidence now and more extreme weather events showing us it’s a problem every year. In other words, these influence campaigns have been remarkably effective. And they’re still in play today. That’s not due to any one campaign, of course, or even one type of influence. For decades, climate change has been the issue on which various industry groups and their PR firms test out tactics. Remember when I called the creation of climate denial patient zero in the modern U.S. propaganda war? That wasn’t an overstatement. We’re going to spend the next few episodes unpacking what exactly that means. Basically? Putin’s got nothing on America’s captains of industry.
Amy Westervelt: Drilled is produced and distributed by critical frequency. The series was reported by me, Amy Westervelt. Our producer and composer is David Whited. Richard Wiles is our executive producer. Our story and concept development consultant is Rekha Murthy. Lukasz Lysakowski designed our cover art. Katie Ross, Michaelanne Petrella, and Julia Ritchie provided additional editing. Drilled Is supported in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. You can find Drilled wherever you get your podcasts. Please remember to read and review the Drilled podcast. It helps us find listeners. Thanks for listening.