Drilled S1Ep3: Weaponizing False Equivalence

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Kert Davies, founder and director of Climate Investigations Center; Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University, and her research partner, Geoffrey Supran; Bryan McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, UT

Previously on Drilled.

Ed Garvey: The issue was not were we going to have problem. The issue was simply how soon and how fast and how bad is it going to be. Not if. Nobody at Exxon when I was there was discussing that, it was just okay how fast is it gonna come, can we do something about it, how bad is it going to be and when is it gonna get here. Not if.

Amy Westervelt: When we left off, Exxon had sent most of its scientists packing and seemed determined to spend millions not conducting climate science but undermining it.

Bryan McInerney: When I first started doing this and I would talk about climate change, it was like any other subject, like geology hydrology meteorology. And it was well received. And then at some point it got politicized and then it got more difficult to convey the science.

Marty Hoffert: Exxon as a company was putting ads in the newspaper that were contrary to the research that they were paying us to be doing.

Kert Davies: So this is an experiment in shifting public opinion away from urgency. Because they know by 1991 we’re on the verge of a call to arms. There is legislation being proposed There’s hearings in Congress there’s gonna be an international meeting about this, and a national body has been formed study it. The world is waking up.

Amy Westervelt: A key element to this new approach was media manipulation, but not just the sort of garden variety PR we’d seen before. This was more like psychological warfare that targeted journalists. They may not have created false equivalence—that thing the media does where it gives equal coverage to both sides of a story, even when those two sides are not at all equally valid. But oil companies and the consultants they hired certainly weaponized it. Science historian Naomi Oreskes has traced this for years.

Naomi Oreskes: When journalists ask me about this problem of balance, or what I prefer to call false equivalence, honestly I get a pit in my stomach because this has been going on for so long and it’s so distressing and it’s so hard to fix. Many journalists think that being objective means giving equal time to quote both sides of an issue. But in the case of scientific work where scientists have worked on a problem, examined the evidence, and come to a conclusion there really isn’t an equal and opposite side. Sometimes I make an analogy or a metaphor with sports reporting: If the Yankees beat the Red Sox last night 6 to 1 journalists would report that. They would not feel compelled to find someone to claim that the score was actually 6-4 or that in fact the Red Sox had won 6 to 1. That would be seen as completely preposterous as in fact it is. But for me as a scientist and a science historian the kind of false equivalence that goes on in science journalism is as preposterous as if we were looking at both sides of a baseball game. And I think the fact that journalists don’t get that is part of the problem. We all understand baseball, we know that the game is played by certain kinds of rules and at the end of the game is a score. Most journalists don’t understand that while science is not a game, it is played by certain kinds of rules. Scientists follow those rules and when they come to a conclusion, then unless you have new evidence there really isn’t another side.

Amy Westervelt: If a journalist wanted to “both sides” a climate story they’d be looking for a climate scientist with conservative projections on warming and one who’s more of an alarmist, not one who still claims that climate change either isn’t happening at all, isn’t that bad, or isn’t exacerbated by humans. Part of the issue is the media’s tendency to overcorrect in the face of accusations over bias. I myself have had editors remove mentions of climate science from a story about worsening wildfires because they don’t want to “make the story political.” That framing was entirely manufactured by the industry. Here’s researcher Kert Davies again.

Kert Davies: What they did well was … politicized it is the wrong word but it gets close. They made it a contentious science issue to the point where everybody had that feeling, and it was very deliberate.

Amy Westervelt: But oil companies didn’t just manipulate the media and exploit their tendency toward false equivalency. That was just one part of a multipronged strategy.

Industry also had to create a whole new batch of experts to drown out the legitimate science Exxon had previously funded. These so-called contrarian scientists had a variety of other explanations for what was causing climate change: The sun, volcanoes, normal shifts in climate. Willie Soon is a longtime industry favorite. He’s best known for pushing the solar radiation theory, the idea that sunspots and natural solar cycles are what’s actually responsible for climate change. It’s a theory that’s been debunked over and over again including by the industry’s own scientists. The most recent flaw pointed out in Soon’s work is that if solar cycles were what controlled climate, we’d be cooling now not warming. He’s also fond of saying polar bears actually need less ice. And he still gets cited regularly by politicians.

Willie Soon: First of all, I’d like to know how many of you really believe that this gas called CO2—some people call it Satanic gas—can be really dangerous for the climate and for the whole planet Earth? How many of you? Zero? Well, y’all can go home now! Anyway, first disclaimer is that I truly speak here on my own behalf but I am a scientist. I’ve been working in this subject I would say day in and day out, you can ask my wife, for some twenty seven plus years and I really am very serious. All I’m concerned about is actually the truth, you know. Any of you know what is CO2 gas. [blows] Right here. CO2 is gas of life. So if they want to tell you that CO2 is dangerous, you tell them to stop breathing, right? [laughter]

Amy Westervelt: Although he always claims to work only for himself (a popular line amongst industry-funded scientists is that they only ever accept money for travel) at various points Soon has had to disclose who his funders are: ExxonMobil, Southern Company, Peabody Coal, the American Petroleum Institute or the API, and Koch Industries.

It’s worth pointing out that oil companies knew full well that theories like Soon’s didn’t hold water. In 1995 a primer on climate change was developed by the Global Climate Coalition, a trade group that included manufacturing, oil and gas companies, and utilities. The primer was intended for public release and underscored the uncertainty of climate science and provided talking points for those who wished to combat what denialists at the time referred to as “climate alarmism.” In an early draft of the primer circulated amongst the group in 1996, scientists from member companies debunked the contrarian theories of the day, which are still being pushed today. Here’s our document guy Kert Davies again with that.

Kert Davies: To set the stage here, in 1996 the Global Climate Coalition which was the allied forces of everything from the oil industry to the autos to mining to metals, heavy manufacturing all of them in one group allied against the U.N. FCCC. Basically their aim was to slow down international policy. So they’re monitoring everything they’re sending people to the meetings and they’re doing a variety of publications that they’re handing out at these meetings. So IPCC is supposed to do these reports every five years. The second one comes out in 95 and they’re doing this this book that will respond to that and give industry’s opinion. So it’s a whole draft and they go through all these different ways that you can still say that it’s uncertain in the face of this phonebook-thick IPCC report. Part of this draft is a discussion in the again only in the draft form of the question as it’s stated here “Are there alternative explanations for the climate change which has occurred over the last 120 years?” And they go on to say “several arguments have been put forward attempting to challenge the conventional view of greenhouse gas induced climate change. These are generally referred to as ‘contrarian theories.’ This section summarizes these theories and the counter arguments presented against them and one by one in this draft solar variability, the role of water vapor, differences in the temperature record between the satellite record and the surface record. That’s the John Christy argument and the various various arguments. Pat Michaels argument on whether or not models line up naming the scientists Dick Linzen, Pat Michaels, Jastrow as the authors of these various theories and then they give the counterargument. The solar variability argument which of course carries through to Willy Soon’s work some 15 years later funded by Exxon funded by American Petroleum Institute funded by the Koch brothers started with this guy Robert Jastrow at Mount Wilson Observatory and they published various papers showing that they felt there was a correlation between sunspot cycles and differences in solar intensity that matches up with the temperature record better than anything to do with carbon dioxide. This approval draft says that argument is sufficient to account for no more than 0.1 degrees C of temperature change. So they say it may be a factor solar radiation may be a factor but “if solar variability has accounted for point one degree temperature increase over the past last 20 years it is an interesting finding. But it does not allay concerns about future warming which could result from greenhouse gas emissions.” So this draft written by a Mobil oil scientist knocks down the variety of arguments that we still hear today.

Amy Westervelt: That chapter was never published. The primary was printed and distributed without it. And member companies went on to fund scientists who promoted these theories despite the fact that they had already disproven them. Climate scientists have continued to debunk them ever since. But it’s hard for them to compete with the viral videos and full court press of the industry backed contrarians.

In addition to weaponizing the media’s myth of its own objectivity and propping up science they knew to be flawed, oil company PR teams created a whole new tool for influencing the public particularly influencers and media. They invented the Op-Ad, an advertorial published in the op ed section that feels and looks like a regular op ed. Mobil, and then Exxon, and then ExxonMobil placed these in papers throughout the country. These weren’t always or even often obvious pleas against regulation or outright denials of climate science. Instead they focused on making oil companies look like good corporate citizens. This was a key part of the work Bruce Harrison had begun when he was working with American Cyanamid and DuPont to combat any harm done to the chemicals industry by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. A mix of greenwashing and corporate social responsibility, this PR strategy held that to avoid owners regulations or damage to reputation companies needed to at least appear like good global citizens. From 1972 to the 2000s, Exxon ran advertorials regularly in the New York Times editorial pages. Naomi Oreskes and her research partner Geoffrey Supran studied these as part of a recent study of all of Exxon’s public facing communications efforts around climate science. Here’s Supran on the scale of this advertorial effort, and how it dwarved the minimal amount of climate science the company continued to do in the 1990s.

Geoffrey Supran: These advertorials, which it became clear were part of a very comprehensive ExxonMobil climate change communication plan whereby they took out editorials every Thursday between 1972 and know the 2000s. And they paid about thirty one thousand dollars per advertorial. They got a discounted rate from the New York Times. And so it was such a sort of orchestrated comprehensive effort to reach literally millions of people in the general public versus one guy conducting you know genuinely decent peer reviewed science on average read by a few tens of people in the academic world. So that the discrepancy in scale is sort of on both ends of that equation.

Amy Westervelt: A recently discovered and not yet published early 80s internal mobile memo reveals just how valuable this advertorial program was.

In it the Mobil communications team focuses not on how many readers they’re reaching but on the way these pieces have helped to influence how these issues get covered in general. Here’s Kert again with that.

Kert Davies: This is an evaluation inside Mobil Oil of their op ed program and they talk about the impact on opinion leaders: “Since Mobil began its various expanded public affairs programs in 1970, the views of the majority of the American people on certain basic issues have shifted. In helping change these perceptions, Mobil can claim to have played a significant role. Our op ed program and our support for the Masterpiece Theater, in particular, have enabled the company to become part of the “collective unconscious” of the nation as the changed views of opinion leaders have gradually molded general public opinion.

Amy Westervelt: They go on to congratulate themselves on the fact that The New York Times in particular has “even changed to positions similar to mobiles on at least seven key energy issues.

Kert Davies: In another section of the document they talk about having influenced The New York Times editorial viewpoints. The Document says “Our analysis shows that the Times has altered or significantly softened its viewpoints on: Conservation—moving from a total reliance on conservation to advocating increased production incentives to solve the supply shortage; on monopoly and divestitures, moving from approving the breakup of the oil companies to opposing divestiture; on something called decontrol—moving from opposing decontrol to urging phased deregulation; on natural gas, moving from urging price controls to endorsing a speedup of deregulation and decontrol of new gas prices; and coal, moving from advocating strict environmental safeguards to suggesting more relaxed controls; on offshore drilling—moving from valuing environmental concerns at the expense of exploration and development to urging accelerated offshore drilling; and on gasoho, which is another name for ethanol, moving for from increased subsidies for gas production from grain to arguing against such subsidies so they tallying how they have affected the viewpoints of the New York Times on conservation monopoly and divestiture decontrol natural gas coal offshore drilling and gas all all things that they had written op-eds on.

Amy Westervelt: A decade or so later. Mobil was still taking out advertorial every week and in the lead up to Kyoto in the 1990s it placed a fairly aggressive ad in both the New York Times and The Washington Post. The ad read “let’s face it the science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil. Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase by how much and where changes will occur. In fact scientists predictions of climate change were remarkably accurate including Exxon’s, whose experts in the 1970s accurately predicted CO2 concentrations by 2010 and the resultant warming. But oil companies weren’t about to let facts get in the way of a good story.

Next time on Drilled.

Bryan McInerney: I was on a radio show. Two hours. They called said can you come in and talk about climate change. Sure. It was K-Talk radio Six thirtya.m. and I still remember this 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 are they so angry?

Amy Westervelt: Drilled is produced and distributed by Critical Frequency reporting for this series was done by me, Amy Westervelt our producer and composer is David Whited, our executive producer is Richard Wiles, our story and concept consultant was Rekha Murthy, our cover art was designed by Lukasz Lysakowski. Drilled is sponsored in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. 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.