Smoke & Fumes: the PR and Consumer Psychology behind Climate-change Denial

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This is a story about how the world’s most powerful industry used science, communications, and consumer psychology to shape the public debate over climate change. And it begins earlier—decades earlier—than anyone suspected. Explore our documents and discover what they knew, when they knew it, and how they collaborated to confuse the public, promote scientific theories that contradicted their own best information, and block action on the most important challenge of our time.

WHAT THEY KNEW AND WHEN

When do we hold someone responsible for a harm? What if the harm is climate change?
In determining responsibility for a harm, courts are likely to ask: Did they have the capacity to foresee the harm? And, did they have the opportunity to avoid or reduce it? For example, by warning others.
Growing public evidence demonstrates that Exxon and other oil companies understood climate risks by the 1980s, yet spent millions to sow uncertainty and misinformation about climate science.
The documents that follow—industry histories, scientific articles, oral testimonies, patents—span more than half a century of industry research and industry action. They offer compelling evidence that oil executives were actively debating climate science in the 1950s, and were explicitly warned about climate risks a decade later. Just as importantly, they offer glimpses into why the industry undertook this research, and how it used the results to sow scientific uncertainty and public skepticism.

1968

“THE ROBINSON REPORT”

In 1968, scientists with the Stanford Research Institute reported to the American Petroleum Institute about their research on atmospheric pollutants of interest to the industry. Summarizing the available science, the scientists saved their starkest warnings for carbon dioxide (CO2). They cautioned that rising levels of CO2 would likely result in rising global temperatures and warned that, if temperatures increased significantly, the result could be melting ice caps, rising sea levels, warming oceans, and serious environmental damage on a global scale.
They also acknowledged that fossil fuel burning provided the best explanation for rising CO2. They further recognized that existing science was “detailed” and seemed “to adequately explain the present state of CO2 in the atmosphere.” And they concluded that the most important research need was technologies and “systems in which CO2 emissions would be brought under control.”

1946

THE SMOKE AND FUMES COMMITTEE

From the very beginning of the American Petroleum Institute (API) in 1919, the oil industry recognized pollution issues, and the regulatory and liability risks they created, as an area of common concern and common interest. By the 1930s, API had focused particular attention to issues of air pollution. These issues came into sharp focus in the 1940s, as a rapidly growing Los Angeles grappled with the debilitating impacts of smog.
In late 1946, as public concern and media scrutiny mounted, executives from the Western Oil and Gas Association met in Los Angeles to consider a response. They emerged with a plan—and a Committee. Comprised of executives from leading oil companies (including Union Oil, Standard Oil of California (both now part of Chevron), Esso (now ExxonMobil), and Shell), the newly-created Smoke and Fumes Committee would fund scientific research into smog and other air pollution issues and, significantly, use that research to inform and shape public opinion about environmental issues. The express goal of their collaboration was to use science and public skepticism to prevent environmental regulations they deemed hasty, costly, and unnecessary.
Recognizing that the air pollution issues in Los Angeles could foreshadow the emergence of similar risks across the country, the Smoke and Fumes Committee was reorganized with a national mandate in 1952 within the American Petroleum Institute. It continued to operate, under a succession of names—but many of the same people—for the ensuing two decades. The Jones report documents that by 1958 at the latest, the Committee was funding research into the role of fossil fuels in rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

1947

STANFORD RESEARCH INSTITUTE

The Smoke and Fumes Committee funded research at a number of institutes, including the Armour Research Foundation, the Franklin Institute, and Truesdail Laboratories. But the Committee’s earliest and most sustained partnership was with the newly-created Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Originally part of Stanford University, SRI maintained close ties to the oil industry from its beginning. It was established in 1946 at the urging of a Standard Oil executive and with the promise of oil industry contracts; oil and refining companies were well represented on the SRI board; and the oil industry accounted for a significant portion of SRI contracts and revenues in its early years.
Much of the Smoke and Fumes Committee’s air pollution research was carried out at SRI. As experience with smog would demonstrate, the resulting scientific reports became an important and recurring tool in the oil industry’s campaign to cast doubt on both the science and the scientists that disagreed with them. And, as recounted by researcher Harold Johnston, hires and fires at SRI could be dictated by the Smoke and Fumes Committee and influenced by researchers’ opinions of the science in question.

AN EMERGING SCIENCE

In 1886, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius developed an equation for chemical reaction rates that would make his name commonplace in fossil fuel combustion science—and oil companies. Ten years later, in 1896, he would become the first scientist to quantify the impact of carbon dioxide on the temperature of the global atmosphere. His later hypothesis that fossil fuel combustion might increase global temperature featured in both popular and academic texts throughout the early 20th century, including geology texts that would have been required reading for aspiring geologists.
The concept of climate change gained new relevance in the late 1930s, when Guy Callendar documented a decades-long increase in global temperatures and correlated that increase with rising fossil fuel use. Over the ensuing decade, scientific interest in the climate question continued to grow. During much of this period, however, it was widely assumed that the oceans covering 70% of the planet’s surface would absorb the excess CO2 released by human activity, and mute any impact on the atmosphere.
In 1955, Scripps Institute scientist Hans Suess demonstrated that naturally occurring carbon-14 in the atmosphere was being “diluted” by depleted carbon-12 derived from fossil fuels. Suess’ 1955 paper provided the first clear proof that, as hypothesized by Arrhenius and theorized by Callendar, carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels was accumulating in the atmosphere. With this work, the era of intensive of climate science began. During the same period, oil industry scientists—led by Humble Oil’s (now ExxonMobil) H.R. Brannon—were actively engaged in carbon-14 research, and uniquely equipped to understand and shape the climate science revolution that evolved rapidly over the next few years.

1957

BRANNON: EXXONMOBIL ON NOTICE

Even as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations rose and climate science expanded, during the first half of the 20th century, many researchers assumed that most excess CO2 would be absorbed by the ocean, minimizing impacts on atmospheric temperature. In 1957, a landmark paper by Roger Revelle and Hans Suess of the Scripps Institute upturned that conventional wisdom, demonstrating that far more CO2 would remain in the atmosphere than previously assumed, potentially accelerating the impact of global climate change.
Two months after the Revelle and Suess paper was published, Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) scientists led by H.R. Brannon submitted their own study for publication on the same question. Building on the team’s earlier work on radiocarbon dating, and submitting under the company’s name, the Brannon paper provides the earliest indisputable evidence we have yet found of oil company knowledge of climate science and climate risk. Significantly, the Brannon report acknowledges not only rising levels of atmospheric CO2, but also the evident contribution of fossil fuels to that increase. In acknowledged disagreement with Revelle, however, the Brannon paper suggests that CO2 would be retained in the oceans much longer before returning to the atmosphere, which would delay by decades or centuries the impact of fossil fuel emissions.

1968

ROBINSON REPORT, REPRISE

Robinson and Robbins’ 1968 report represents a turning point, separating a “before” and “after.”
Not only does the report acknowledge the link between rising atmospheric CO2, the risk of climate change, and that fossil fuels are the most likely culprit, it affirms that the underlying science is sound, and that the most important research needs were in technologies to reduce CO2 emissions. We know the Robinson report was seen by industry leaders. In 1971, Robinson delivered the major findings of the study to industry experts gathered at the World Petroleum Congress. A 1972 industry report authored by a steering committee of high-level executives was submitted to the Department of Interior on air pollution issues. It relied on Robinson’s report and publicly referred to “their careful study” by “eminent scientists” as an authoritative source on atmospheric pollution. Significantly, both the 1971 speech and the 1972 report placed a far greater emphasis on scientific uncertainties than Robinson himself did, and relied on those uncertainties to support a “wait and see” approach to climate action.
How could the industry explain ignoring the climate findings of its own scientific report even as it embraced that report on other pollution issues? In 1969, API hastily commissioned a “Supplemental” report from Robinson that took a more skeptical, more equivocal approach to climate science. API relied on that Supplemental report in its subsequent questioning of climate science, and industry and climate skeptics continued to cite it for years afterward. We will share that latter report soon.
The oil industry, in its report to the Department of Interior, acknowledged the Robinson report from 1968. In its comments on carbon dioxide, however, the industry relied heavily on a synthesis of the American Academy of Science’s 1965 Air Conservation report. Among the contributors to the report were Jerry McAfee, Vice President of the Gulf Oil Corporation (now Chevron) and Executive Secretary of the Smoke and Fumes Technical Advisory Committee. The four-page section on carbon dioxide—reproduced almost entirely in Environmental Conservation—was considerably more equivocal than Robinson’s 1968 assessment, and failed to mention Revelle’s landmark paper from 1957 and several other leading assessments.

SEEKING ALTERNATIVES TO ACTION

In addition to the 1957 paper from Brannon et al suggesting that oceans could slow CO2 rise for longer than Revelle and Suess’ findings, the oil industry continued studying carbon dioxide and its behavior in the atmosphere. In the ensuing decades, the industry continued to fund scientific research into other sources of accelerating CO2 emissions, alternative theories to explain rising global temperatures, and potential sinks that could absorb CO2 without the need for reduced emissions—all the while building an unparalleled understanding of climate science and the carbon cycle. Examples include investigations into the ratio of fossil carbon to natural carbon in woods; the ability of marine plankton to absorb CO2; and research into theories of climate change based on sunspots in the 1960s that have remained a go-to argument for climate skeptics. At the same time, ongoing and more commercially oriented research, for example into the use of increased CO2 concentrations to spur plant growth in greenhouses, bear striking similarities to later arguments by industry-funded skeptics that increased greenhouse gas emissions, by spurring plant growth, would actually benefit agriculture and the planet.

PATENTS

In addition to sponsoring research on the environmental characteristics of carbon dioxide, the oil industry also undertook ongoing research and development into how to manage the waste streams of their products. From the 1940s onward, oil companies developed and refined techniques for removing carbon dioxide from gas streams. While many of the applicable patents were designed to produce “pure” CO2 for commercial purposes, or to produce purified feeds of other gases by removing CO2, the technology to separate from CO2 from other gases was robust, well-established, and constantly diversifying. In the 1960s and 1970s, patent filings for CO2 removal accelerated further. The significance of these technologies is drawn into focus in a 1980 document, revealed by Desmog Blog, in which Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil not only recognizes climate change, but also acknowledges that existing technologies could cut CO2 emissions by 50% – an opportunity the company dismisses by noting that it would unacceptably increase the cost of burning oil.
Patent filings also reveal the oil companies’ technological capacity in related areas, including the development and continual refinement of fuel cells and other technologies to use fossil fuels more efficiently and decrease CO2 emissions. When Congress proposed new government funding for research into electric vehicles in the 1960s, the oil industry actively opposed the new funding on the grounds that the needed research was always underway. This raises the important question of whether and how oil companies actually worked to develop their patents and bring them to market after the early promise of electric cars had been quashed.

HURRICANES

As demand for oil grew in the twentieth century, oil companies turned to offshore sources of petroleum. By the 1940s, they were building platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, and quickly discovered that hurricanes posed a substantial physical and financial threat to their operations. Almost immediately, individual oil companies alongside the American Petroleum Institute began extensive oceanographic and meteorological research projects. They investigated the causes and impacts of hurricanes, developed techniques to forecast them, and patented new oil rigs designed to withstand them. Because oil platforms are costly, long-term investments, the industry sought not simply to forecast hurricanes better in the short-term, but to understand the maximum wave heights and wind intensities that could impact a site over 100-year time horizons. In a story first reported in the New York Times in 1989, and cast in new light by recent disclosures, Shell Oil raised the height of a North Sea oil platform by six feet to improve its chances of withstanding climate-driven sea level rise over the ensuing decades.
By the 1960s, oil companies were sponsoring research at the forefront of atmospheric science and using high-powered electric computers to develop complex climate models for use in storm forecasting. Because an increase in storm frequency and severity is one of the predicted consequences of climate change, understanding how storms form, and being able to predict them, is fundamental to climate science and understanding climate change.

WEATHER MODIFICATION

Beyond studying hurricanes in their natural state, the oil industry also sponsored research into weather modification techniques. This research took an array of forms – from covering large areas of the earth with asphalt to increase rainfall, to burning fossil fuels to break up fog or smog, to spraying carbon dust into the atmosphere or spreading oil on the ocean surface to weaken or shift hurricanes. Interest in intentional weather modification is as old as climate science itself, and the oil industry was not alone in exploring it. At the same time, the overlaps between the industry’s research – and personnel – on weather modification, pollution control, and climate science are striking.
Research and patents on the use of asphalt to create massive “temperature mountains” to spur rainfall, published by James F. Black of Esso/Exxon’s Production Research Division demonstrate the company’s sophisticated capacity for modeling local and regional impacts of climate changes and its interest in deploying weather modification techniques on a very large scale. As revealed by Inside Climate News, Black would later tell Exxon’s Management Committee that “emerging science showed that carbon dioxide levels were rising, likely driven by fossil fuel use, and such increases would boost global temperatures, leading to widespread damage.”
The scale and diversity of the oil industry’s weather modification dreams is reflected in a series of joint publications by William M. Gray and industry-sponsored coauthors Myron Corrin and CA Stokes. Gray and his co-authors focus on a variety of potential weather modification uses for carbon dust, also known as “carbon black” produced by the burning of petroleum products. Even as they acknowledged economic or technical challenges to Black’s proposals and to stratagems to melt snowfields by coating them in carbon black, Gray and his co-authors explored and actively promoted the use of petroleum-based carbon black to modify weather under an array of other circumstances, including altering rainfall patterns, shifting winds, blowing away smog, and potentially shaping the course of hurricanes. Myron Corrin, a respected academic, was not only a consultant to Phillips petroleum, but an inventor (for Phillips) of carbon black production techniques. Well regarded for his work on hurricanes, William Gray would in later years be a noted and vigorous climate skeptic.
Finally, the linkages between weather modification efforts and the oil industry’s decades long focus on reaching and exploiting the (warming) Arctic cannot be ignored. Soon after SRI’s Elmer Robinson published research on “Ice Fog” as an air pollution problem in the Arctic, meteorologist Harry Wexler drew on Robinson’s work to explain how human-made ice clouds (produced by petroleum combustion) could be used to melt the Arctic ocean. Indeed, petroleum products feature repeatedly in scientific discussions on the prospects for permanently melting the Arctic sea ice – over large areas or across the Arctic Ocean as a whole – whether intentionally, by spreading carbon dust from cargo planes, or inadvertently, through the impacts of Arctic oil spills. The oil industry’s own role in these discussions remains uncertain, though its awareness of them is clear.

ARCTIC

Whether, how, and, on what time scale, oil companies expected the Arctic to melt remains unknown. When interest in the vast, untapped potential of the Arctic oil province first developed in the early 1940s, the Arctic was in the midst of a multi-decade and much-discussed period of warming and sea ice retreat. Arctic sea ice experienced another, and steeper decline in the 1950s, coincident with the onset of serious research and experimentation by both government and corporate researchers into weather modification techniques described above, and amidst growing scientific and corporate awareness of potential climate change.
The oil industry knew of the enormous potential opportunity presented by a melting Arctic. Vast oil reserves lie trapped beneath Arctic ice. Whether by natural melting, climate change, or deliberate intervention, oil companies were (and still are) eagerly looking forward to future Arctic drilling. To prepare they started developing special platforms, which could be deployed to the Arctic. These platforms were powerful and designed to withstand barrages of Arctic sea ice. Some were mobile and able to be nimbly moved from location to location as conditions changed. Others designed with sloped bases that would force the ice upward, and away from the base.
The industry also developed special ships and tankers to move into and through the icy waters. In a widely promoted 1969 expedition, Esso (now Exxon) subsidiary Humble Oil converted a thousand foot oil tanker into a first of its kind ice-breaker designed to crush a channel through the sea ice of the fabled Northwest Passage and demonstrate a viable sea-route to the emerging oil fields of the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. The voyage of the SS Manhattan, described in detail in Ross Coen’s Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil, was tied to the rapid expansion of the coastal oil resources of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay; and Esso envisioned a fleet of similar vessels plying Arctic waters. Yet the simultaneous patenting of offshore Arctic technologies by many companies suggests the industry was already looking beyond the shoreline, to potentially massive reserves beneath the Arctic ice.

PALEOCLIMATES & SEA LEVEL RISE

As the major oil companies looked to the oceans for new petroleum reserves, they needed to know where to look. From the early decades of the 20th century, the oil industry recognized the link between shallow seas and oil deposits. The perpetual quest for new oilfields led the industry to pioneering science in the relationship between CO2 levels, global temperatures, and sea level rise. Among the most important of these projects was “American Petroleum Institute Project 51” housed at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Roger Revelle and Hans Suess, who published their landmark paper on the oceans’ ability to absorb and hold carbon in 1957, were both working for Scripps at the time. Concurrently, Project 51 ran at Scripps from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s.
Among the results of these studies was the explicit mapping of periods of rising sea level onto periods of warming. This gave the industry unique insight into one of the most significant consequences of climate change—sea level rise driven by rising global temperatures.
Perhaps not surprisingly, by the 1980s—even as they continued to publicly question climate science—oil companies were investing millions to construct taller offshore oil rigs to protect their costly, long-lived investments from sea level rise.

TODAY

More than a decade ago, researchers began to document—and, more importantly, bring to light—oil industry efforts to fund the science and propaganda of climate denial. A growing body of evidence uncovered in the last year has revealed that, even as they funded climate denial campaigns, Exxon and other oil companies had a sophisticated command of climate science by the 1980s, at the latest. More importantly, that evidence suggests that oil companies used climate science to inform and shape their own business decisions even as they promoted scientific uncertainty and climate skepticism among consumers, regulators and the broader public. This emerging evidence has spurred growing calls for investigations and accountability by the public, legislators, and authorities at every level of government.
In the United States alone, four state Attorneys General have already launched investigations, with more expected to follow. At the federal level, requests for investigation into Exxon’s activities have been referred to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the Philippines, the national Commission on Human Rights has taken up a petition by organizations and Typhoon Haiyan survivors demanding accountability from the oil companies that violated their human rights.
If oil companies misrepresented or concealed material facts about their products from the consumers, investors, and the public in the name of profit, they committed fraud. If the oil industry had notice of the risks of its products to the global environment and to this and future generations around the world, they had a duty to warn consumers—and the public—of those risks. If the oil industry not only failed to do so, but also actively worked to conceal the risks for decades, they must be held accountable.

Explore the database of documents:

www.smokeandfumes.org/documents

Source: Smoke & Fumes

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