Renowned climate scientist Michael E. Mann’s recent book, The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet, warns forcefully that powerful fossil fuel industry interest groups continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars a year into covertly influencing debates on greenhouse gas emissions, conservation and climate action. Only the strategies have changed: from outright lies and denial to more subtle forms of disinformation and deception. And we all fall for it again and again.
Ecocentrist Fred Hageneder gives an annotated summary of Mann’s extremely important message.
Since the late 1970s, the fossil fuel industry has known that uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions would heat up the atmosphere and cause massive disruptions to the planet’s climate and life-support systems. But rather than go public with the alarming findings of their own scientists, the big oil companies preferred to conceal these findings for decades, knowing full well that within a human lifetime global climate disruption would lead to the retreat of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels, the disappearance of entire ecosystems, habitat destruction and ecocide, increasing problems with food and freshwater availability in many parts of the world, and inevitable mass migrations. *(1)
Fig. 1: Exxon internal briefing document from 1982, from The Guardian *(2)
The calculations shown in the graph predicted the rise in global average temperature fairly accurately
Because they also knew that regulating global fossil fuel production and consumption would jeopardise their core business.
Between 2015 and 2018, a series of leaks as well as thorough investigative journalism ended the era of Big Oil’s climate disruption denial. *(3) And the climate movement of 2019 helped bring these revelations directly to the public. This led to an unprecedented wave of legal actions that seeks to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for the destruction of nature caused by fossil fuels. US states like New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Delaware and Connecticut, as well as many cities and towns, are suing big oil companies for fraud, failure to warn consumers about a dangerous product, deceptive trade practices and false advertising claims. *(4) And shareholder associations are suing Big Oil for using shareholder funds for disinformation campaigns promoting climate change denial.
The first successes have begun to emerge: In May 2021, a court in The Hague ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. *(5) And in January this year, a US federal judge annulled the leasing of more than 80 million hectares of oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. *(6) Even major investors are beginning to develop an aversion to fossil fuels – a divestment movement has begun in the banking and finance industries. Economists had been expecting long before the current energy crisis erupted that the fossil fuel bubble will burst within the decade. And governments and politicians around the world are aware of the looming crisis and are paying lip service to climate action (although most of the time, they are still doing next to nothing, see below).
But Mann also warns us that we have some massive hurdles to overcome. For now, fossil fuels continue to flow, oil and gas exploration continues unabated, and global subsidies have reached unprecedented levels.*(7) With its back against the wall, Big Oil is investing more than ever in the climate illusion; estimates put it at $500 million a year, *(8) hence Mann calls it “the best-funded, best-organised PR campaign in history.” *(9) However, “PR campaign” is rather an understatement; it is a full-blown information war. *(10)
With the beginnings of climate collapse now visible to everyone, Big Oil can no longer get away with mere denial. The “new climate war” being waged by the fossil fuel industry has shifted gears. The new strategies are:
- Disinformation and Deception
- Distraction and Deflection
- Doomism and Despair
With neatly referenced details, Mann’s book exposes the covert programmes. And he suggests various countermeasures so that we do not remain subject to this brainwashing and manipulation. So whatever you read about protecting the climate and nature, about fossil fuels and the energy sector, free markets vs. government regulation, economic growth vs. downsizing (Degrowth), billionaires and globalism: Pay attention to the strategies mentioned above.
Disinformation and Deception
The power of disinformation is perhaps best explained in an internal fossil fuel lobby paper, the infamous 2002 “Luntz Memo”: “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues have been settled, their views on global warming will change accordingly.” In other words, don’t let it get around that there is a scientific consensus on man-made global warming and its dangers! Make the public believe that climate science is controversial and contested! The memo also suggested downplaying global warming as a mere “theory.” And it advised its addressees, the fossil fuel lobbyists and Republican politicians, to use the least threatening terms possible, such as preferring the innocuous-sounding “climate change” to “global warming.”
Indeed, misleading people begins with language, with the choice of words. And the implications of the Luntz memo are long-lasting. For example, for two decades we had also lost the term and thus the awareness of “greenhouse gases” by one-sidedly steering climate discussions towards carbon dioxide. Even today, most people do not even know that CO2 accounts for only about two-thirds of greenhouse gases. The second substance of concern is methane, which is 86 times more harmful to the climate than the same amount of CO2, and of which the fossil fuel industry emits huge amounts. Methane has only entered the public debate with the climate conference in Glasgow (COP26) in November 2021 (more about this in Part 4).
Most climate change deniers in recent decades have relied on obfuscating the science. Big Oil always finds fringe scientists willing to dispute the consensus of climate science in return for extremely generous “donations.” Then the headlines scream, “Scientists doubt climate change.”
This strategy is actually old, as it was used by the tobacco industry more than half a century ago. The industry’s own scientists had already identified the health hazards of smoking in 1950. But instead of warning people, Big Tobacco spread contrary messages with falsified studies and big-budget advertising (for which nine tobacco companies were eventually found guilty of large-scale fraud by a federal judge in 2006). *(11) An internal memo from 1969 states: “Doubt is our product.”
Next, in the 1960s, pesticide manufacturers copied the tobacco industry’s playbook to disperse concerns that pesticides have harmful effects. Then came the sugar industry, which was particularly ruthless in attacking and denouncing scientists who warned of the unhealthy effects of sugar consumption. Now it is Big Oil which engages in exactly the same kind of tactics: “covering up, denying the problem, funding scientists who question the science. The same pattern. And some of the same lawyers represent both tobacco and Big Oil,” says prosecutor Sharon Eubanks. *(11) This unholy marriage between Big Tobacco and Big Oil also appears again in the trio with Big Pharma (more about this in Part 8).
Today, a great number of reality-twisting efforts are targeting the Green New Deal (GND). At its core, the GND is about combining two very important priorities: switching from fossil to renewable energy and improving social justice across the board. This means not only ensuring that low-income households do not bear the brunt of the costs of the energy transition, but also eliminating the social injustice that has existed for too long anyway. If it looks quite the opposite in the 2022 energy crisis, it shows how much the “libertarian” far-right network of the 0.01% has a grip on Western societies (more about this in Part 6).
The American proposal for a Green New Deal (February 2019; yes, it predates the concept of Building Back Better after the corona crisis!) is a framework for modernising infrastructure, industry and transport systems to massively reduce natural pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the US economy and to combine this with economic security and prosperity. *(12) In its original wording, the GND is intended to “guarantee all people in the United States a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate time off for family and medical reasons, paid leave, and a secure retirement.” (H.Res. 109; p. 12, H) *(13)
Despite these clear statements, disinformation campaigns deliberately overlook the social aspect of the Green New Deal, stoking people’s fears that energy prices would rise prohibitively and that climate action is just a money machine for “the rich” on the backs of the poorer classes. The post-Covid-19 energy crisis, controlled by Big Oil, now seems to confirm this, and plays mightily into the hands of the fossil fuel industry (more about this in Part 8).
The coverage of the yellow vests movement in France (gilet jaunes) was misused for this purpose. The movement was born out of widespread frustration about economic injustice in the country, to which the increase in fuel tax only added the crowning touch. However, the pro-oil right-wing media emphasised the fuel element and fanned public fears that national moves for greener energy could only lead to injustices for ordinary people. *(14) (More on grassroots movement hijacking in Part 8.)
Another type of disinformation campaign propagates the contradictory message that the social element of the Green New Deal is a hidden socialist/communist agenda to destroy America and Western society. At least this is the view one would expect from the ultra-conservative right-wing donors who sponsor these campaigns. And movements like that of the yellow vests have again been abused to send the message to politicians: “See how dangerous climate action is? Don’t go there! The left mob will rise up and you will sink in the polls! ” President Trump also trumpeted this bogus argument. *(15)
A third wedge to turn voters away from the Green New Deal is the myth of “energy poverty.” Here, industrialists suddenly shed crocodile tears for the poorer nations in the global south who supposedly need the continuation of the fossil fuel era to stay afloat. The latest proponent of the “energy poverty myth” is Bill Gates. *(16) The “energy poverty” narrative has the great potential to enable the fossil front to claim that fossil fuel divestment is racist and ignorant of the problems in poor countries. – How destructive and colonialist the oil industry really is is a different matter altogether (more about this in Part 4).
After all, it is precisely the global south that is suffering the most from the effects of climate disruption. Even the World Bank warns that “unchecked climate change will push 132 million people into poverty over the next 10 years.” *(17) As for the rich north: yes, the energy transition would cost a lot of money, but much less than dealing with the unfolding climate chaos. And the energy transition can easily be paid for out of the $5.9 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies (in 2020) that the fossil fuel industry receives annually. *(7)
In our time (post-Covid-19, post-COP26), perhaps the most dangerous deception is “Net Zero by 2050.” All climate sinners – Big Oil and obedient governments – have quickly adopted this as their new slogan, but neither “net zero” nor “by 2050” is realistic. We do not have the luxury of three decades (by 2050). And the vaunted technology of carbon sequestration on which the “net” in “net zero” is inevitably based does not exist. The term “Net Zero 2050” only works in favour of the fossil fuel industry because it encourages further delay of real climate action. It needs to be changed to “Zero 2035” (more about this in Part 3).
Read on in Part 2 about diversionary manoeuvres and other manipulation strategies. This part looks at the other shocking strategies used to weaken conservation action: Distraction and Deflection, Delay, Diversion and Despair.
The fight to take back our planet
Part 2 of this article covers the other mind-bending strategies which are employed to weaken environmental action: Distraction and Deflection, Delay, Doomism and Despair.
Part 3: An urgent warning about “Net Zero 2050”
Part 4: Dirty Oil: It’s not just about carbon!
Part 5: Fossil giants, free trade, and war
Part 6: How the Far Right network rules (not just) the climate debate
Part 7: The shocking extent of the Far Right influence network
Part 8: Climate crisis, corona and conspiracy theories
Part 9: How conspiracy theories only serve one master
Part 10: The “Great Reset” and totalitarianism vs the real green revolution
- See also https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/162144/Presentation%20Geoffrey%20Supran.pdf
- See also https://www.law.nyu.edu/centers/state-impact/issues/climate-action/suits-against-oil-companies https://insideclimatenews.org/news/04042018/climate-change-fossil-fuel-company-lawsuits-timeline-exxon-children-california-cities-attorney-general
- See also https://e360.yale.edu/digest/fossil-fuels-received-5-9-trillion-in-subsidies-in-2020-report-finds
Fred Hageneder is author of the book “Healthy Planet – Global Meltdown or Global Healing.” https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/earth-spirit-healthy-planet