Drilled S1Ep4: Exploiting Scientists' Kryptonite—Certainty

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Kert Davies, founder and director of Climate Investigations Center; Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist at Texas Tech University; Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University; Morell Cohen, a former Exxon scientist; Ed Garvey, a former Exxon scientist; and Steve Milloy, who runs the climate denial website junk science.

Previously on Drilled:

Geoffrey Supran: These advertorials, which it became clear were part of a very comprehensive Exxon Global Climate Change Communication plan, whereby they took out editorials every Thursday between 1972 and the 2000s.

Amy Westervelt: We started digging into oil companies’ comprehensive media influence strategies in the last episode and we’ll continue following those strategies today. We know that they attempted to influence reporters and editors through accusations of bias, that they paid scientists to promote theories their own scientists had proven false, and that they created the op-ad, which effectively shifted coverage of climate change in the same way that oil company publicists were able to weaponize journalists’ insecurities about bias against them. They were also able to exploit certain vulnerabilities in science communication and science journalism.

Katherine Hayhoe: This isn’t what we’re good at necessarily. If you look at the characteristics of what makes a great scientist, it’s actually often diametrically opposed to what makes a good communicator.

Amy Westervelt: That’s climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a longtime leader in her field. She is a good communicator and she says between that and her gender she’s had to work twice as hard to earn credibility as a scientist. This is something I heard over and over again from scientists, that the general sense is if you’re good at communicating you’re either not good at science or you’re not focused on it.

Former Exxon scientist Morell Cohen said this too.

Morell Cohen: I mean the general attitude would feel that there would be a kind of dilution of his scientific focus. He would be taken less seriously as a scientist.

Amy Westervelt: As a company that had long employed hundreds of scientists, Exxon Mobil knew this too. They also knew another key hallmark of science communication. It’s awash in uncertainty. That’s in part because of how science works. Predictions that come true and repeatable studies and results build consensus over time. But scientists never closed the door on another possible explanation. It also has to do with how science funding works. Only someone not interested in future research grants would fail to include the phrase, “more research is needed” in their report. Knowing that scientists would be caught off guard by the notion that they must be certain about something and that corporate execs are generally better at communicating than scientists, the oil industry was able to continuously call climate modeling into question, even as companies like Exxon and Mobil were using those same models to prospect for fossil fuels. Here’s former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond giving a speech in the 90s more than a decade after his own company’s scientists have said there is consensus in the scientific community around climate change.

Lee Raymond: The scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect the global climate.

Amy Westervelt: It all played into the industry’s strategy for victory. And we know that because they wrote it down in a memo that was actually published in The New York Times in the late 1990s. In it members of the American Petroleum Institute indicate that victory will be achieved when they can successfully help people “understand” that there are uncertainties in climate science that “recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the air quotes again ‘conventional wisdom.’” Another measure of victory? “Media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current conventional wisdom.” The stated project goal in the victory memo is: “a majority of the American public including industry leadership recognizes that significant uncertainties exist in climate science and therefore raises questions among those, e.g. Congress, who chart the future U.S. course on climate change.”

Here’s our document guy Kert Davies with that.

Kert Davies: They said victory will be achieved when we get uncertainty in people’s mouths and they talk about targeting science teachers and Congress people and reporters specifically and when media is turned around that they will have achieved success. And then “if if we don’t do this now there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts.” Like they knew it was now or never in 1998, it was getting away from them.

Amy Westervelt: The key goal of the victory strategy was to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol would not be a binding one. In fact one of the bullet points in the portion of the memo that defines what victory would look like says “victory will be achieved when those promoting the Kyoto Treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.”.

Kert Davies: They have metrics on how they’re going to win how many members of Congres, number of talk show appearances, percent of media, very scientific. Multi-million dollar budgets on data centers and outreach and media and so forth and then go to evidence of the funding which go back to 1998 memo they talked about specific funding sources API, Business Roundtable, Edison Electric, Independent Petroleum Association of America and National Mining Association and their members. So they thought they would go out to these trade associations plus the membership which is all the oil companies all the coal companies, all all of business and then run that money through ALEC, CFact, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Frontiers of Freedom, Marshall Institute. So it was on the front page of The New York Times and there you have the team which includes two people who are were on the Trump transition team and multiple groups and companies Exxon, Southern Company and Chevron were in this room developing this plan. Even though it was on the front page of The New York Times they went ahead with it.

Amy Westervelt: The plan outlined in this victory memo was crafted 20 years after Exxon scientists had told executives what was happening and how bad it could be. Exxon scientist Ed Garvey had long since left the company by this point and says he watched in horror as they worked to undermine everything he and his colleagues had done.

Ed Garvey: I found it very scary. I felt kind of powerless at that point. I really think we had something at Exxon. We were going to be an energy company and we recognize this problem is so we’re going to help direct the country away from fossil fuels. And instead they just said no we just want to make money on oil and we don’t really care what happens. I mean, it upsets me, I don’t know what else I can say. It was definitely a missed opportunity to lead and I do think that if Exxon or maybe an oil company to leaned on the government in the 80s to say do this the government would come around on it.

Amy Westervelt: There were several key narratives crafted to achieve this “victory,” and let’s make no mistake the strategy was in fact victorious. Despite the fact that the memo was published in The New York Times on the cover, the strategy was nonetheless executed as laid out. And as you heard there from Kert some of the same folks working in the Trump administration today were part of drafting that memo twenty years ago. The most successful narratives included not just underscoring the supposed uncertainty of the science but also painting those concerned about climate change as liberals and hippies. Again people who were completely out of touch with reality. It was the original gaslighting; making people feel crazy for believing something that there was actually a ton of evidence for. These campaigns also pushed the idea that acting on climate change was equivalent to undoing the industrial revolution. And they highlighted the social responsibility initiatives of oil companies to counterbalance their inaction on climate.

Perhaps the most insidious narrative: instilling in the American public the idea that solving global warming is up to individuals not systems that it’s about you driving too much or eating too much meat or changing your light bulbs not any sort of broader systemic change. This is something oil companies repeat over and over again today. In presenting on the history of climate science to a judge in San Francisco earlier this year, Chevron attorney Ted Boutrous focused on the idea of oil companies simply supplying a demand. Never mind that they also created that demand and made sure that no one knew there was a downside to it. The gospel of individual responsibility always plays well with American audiences of course and this is no exception.

That idea perhaps more than any other is so pervasive, it’s the first thing most people will say when climate change comes up. Last month when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released its most recent and by far most straightforward and alarming report ever, indicating that we have roughly 12 years to act on climate, a large segment of the media devoted at least part of their coverage to the individual actions citizens can take to help: go vegetarian, go solar, drive electric cars. All good stuff. But in making individuals responsible for the solution we subtly hang the blame for the problem on them and their choices as well. The industry has also excelled in promoting mixed messages; doing just enough climate science to seem legit admitting just enough truth not to seem totally illogical or to use one of their own phrases out of touch with reality.

Here’s science historian Naomi Oreskes who’s on that strategy.

Naomi Oreskes: One of the reasons that it’s so easy for people to sow doubt about climate change or any other issue is that if confusion is your goal mixed messages are a very effective strategy. So you can say a lot of different things and some of them may well be true and you can even quote out of context the true things you have said in order to make it seem as if you are quite reasonable. As if you’re not denying climate change. As if you’re operating in good faith and that you are an entity to be trusted. But if you look at the total body of things that have been said by Exxon Mobil or any of these other groups that have been involved in climate disinformation what you see is this landscape of mixed messages in which you know there’s probably some truth mixed in with an awful lot of falsehood and misinformation.

Amy Westervelt: Nowhere was this entire media strategy more apparent than in the New York Times Magazine’s issue long feature this year about the decade from 1979 to 1989 when we almost did something about global warming and then didn’t. It’s the perfect culmination of the industry’s strategy. A journalist and an editor who want to ensure they don’t come off as biased a writer who is new to any sort of science be and completely new to climate science so fairly easily played by industry spokespeople and a clever narrative that includes just enough truth that you don’t really notice the fairy tales.

The story makes the problem of climate change global. We all failed to act apparently not just the handful of men in power the solution or lack thereof. Individual it’s “human nature”. We make short-sighted decisions and there is nothing we can do to change that. Climate scientists were almost universally critical of the story but the anti climate science lobby eat it up. I could hear Steve Milloy grinning through the phone is a longtime energy industry communications guy who runs the website Junk Science. He was also in the room and is listed as an author on the victory memo. He’s worked for Exxon in the past and now works primarily for the coal industry and he was also on the Trump administration’s transition team for the EPA an agency he has worked to dismantle since its inception.

Steve Milloy: Uh, these guys are trying to claim that you know “Exxon Knew.” I don’t know if you saw the coming issue of the New York Times Magazine has this cover. Okay so that kinda blows that whole hypothesis away because they’re saying well everybody knew in the 1980s. Okay, whatever.

Amy Westervelt: Victory will be achieved when climate denialists can cite a story in The New York Times Magazine as proof of the validity of their take on global warming.

Next time on Drilled.

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.

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 Rakesh Murthy for cover art was designed by Lukasz Lysakowski. 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.