The Manipulation of Science

In the spring of 1998, a remarkable document surfaced. The eight-page "action plan" detailed plans by the American energy industry -- notably oil companies and a large electricity producer -- to derail the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark treaty aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. At the time, then-President Bill Clinton and his deputies were pushing to get the United States, the top generator of heat-trapping atmospheric pollution, to ratify the pact.

Unveiled by The New York Times in a front page story, the document laid bare a sophisticated multimillion dollar scheme to influence the discourse on global warming over a span of years. The key? Tapping scientists to express skepticism about climate change and developing a media and public outreach campaign to get that message out to the public.

The Plan

The action plan memo describes a strategy that had been used effectively by the tobacco industry in earlier years: attack the science. "Because the science underpinning the global climate change theory has not been challenged effectively in the media or through other vehicles reaching the American public, there is widespread ignorance, which works in favor of the Kyoto treaty and against the best interests of the United States," states the memo, which was developed by officials from Exxon, Chevron, an industry trade group called the American Petroleum Institute, several conservative think tanks, and Southern Company, a major electricity generator.

The coalition sought to recruit five scientists to speak to the media; distribute research papers undercutting conventional scientific wisdom; funnel a steady stream of information to science writers at newspapers and magazines; produce opinion pieces; and convince journalists to re-examine the theory of global warming. Scuttling Kyoto and making climate change a "non-issue" were the stated goals of all this work. (See CIR's web exclusive report: "Hot Air: Shaping the Media Message")

In the years following the development of this action plan, at least one oil company made good on the document's goals. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, from 1998 to 2005 ExxonMobil spent nearly $16 million funding "advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science." Large amounts of funding from Exxon went to some of the same groups who helped develop the "action plan" memo.

Many of these organizations in turn funded scientists who dispute the reality of global warming or who argue that warming temperatures will be a positive force. Several of these scientists became regulars on talk shows and news programs about the global warming debate.

A Major Turnaround

In the past two years, as agreement on global warming among climatologists has solidified, members of the oil industry lobby have one by one begun to soften their public message about climate change and global warming.

ExxonMobil was one of the last holdouts, and as recently as 2005 gave large grants to various organizations mentioned in the "action plan" memo. For example, Exxon gave $241,500 to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works in part to fight state initiatives that address climate change, according to Exxonsecrets.org. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) got $270,000.

But in early 2007, ExxonMobil began to announce a major reversal, saying publicly that it would stop funding some of the groups that question global warming science and even claiming that Exxon’s past position had been "misunderstood." An ExxonMobil website says: "ExxonMobil's position on climate change continues to be misunderstood by some individuals and groups."

And Exxon’s top official is now willing to admit that climate change is, in fact, real. "We know our climate is changing, the average temperature of the earth is rising, and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing," said ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson at a recent energy conference. Tillerson is now encouraging the oil business to grapple with global warming: "Our industry has a responsibility to contribute to policy discussions on these important issues -- and to take concrete actions ourselves to reduce emissions."

The Role of Government

In the past five years, even as energy industry groups were changing their public position about climate change, the federal government was acting to influence scientific discussion in controversial ways. Since President Bush took office, government climate change experts at a range of federal agencies have complained about being effectively muzzled, saying administration officials have attempted to bar them from bringing grim news about rising temperatures, increased potential storm activity, and other data to the public.

The alleged tactics have prompted one senior scientist, Rick Piltz, senior associate at the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, the body that integrates climate research by 13 different government agencies, to resign in protest. Piltz, who has testified before Congress, now heads a nonprofit group dedicated to "setting the record straight on the relationship between science and politics in the federal climate science program."

And even as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report removes what little scientific doubt remained about global warming, President Bush and Vice President Cheney remain unconvinced. At a press conference last year, the president told a reporter that the "fundamental debate" was whether climate change was "manmade or natural." Cheney echoed that view in a recent interview with an Australian correspondent for ABC News.

LINKS AND RESOURCES:

Industrial Group Plans to Battle Climate Treaty
New York Times | April 26, 1998
The original article revealing the "action plan" memo.

While Washington Slept
Vanity Fair | May 2006
Mark Hertsgaard, an editorial consultant to FRONTLINE's Hot Politics documentary, writes about the global warming disinformation campaign.

Exxon Cuts Ties to Global Warming Skeptics
MSNBC | January 12, 2007

ExxonMobil Warming Up To Global Climate Issue
Washington Post | February 10, 2007
ExxonMobil changes course in the debate over climate change.

Read the complete eight-page "action plan" memo.

Read the IPCC's report: Climate Change 2007

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