Documents Show How Polluting Industries Mobilized to Block Climate Action

Since its inception, the IPCC itself has been the target of corporate obstructionism.

The Marathon Anacortes Refinery in Anacortes, Washington, U.S., on Monday, March 7, 2022. Oil had its biggest daily swing ever, with Brent surging to nearly $140 after the U.S. said it was considering a ban on Russian petroleum imports.. Photographer: David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., on March 7, 2022. Photo: David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Of the primary reports that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes every four to six years, the mitigation report, focused on what can be done and what’s holding climate action back, only gets more important with every cycle. While the latest mitigation report states clearly that politics and corporate power are the only real impediments to action — not a lack of scientific evidence, technological or policy options, or even money — IPCC authors declined to engage with this problem both in the press conference for the report and in the report’s summary for policymakers. Now, a week after the report’s release, here comes a paper revealing that the IPCC itself has been the target of U.S. vested interests since its inception.

In 1988, climate scientist James Hansen gave a stark warning to the U.S. Senate, testifying, “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” Later that year, the IPCC was formed to bring the world’s climate scientists together to help inform governments, the media, and the public about climate change. Just one year before all this action on the “greenhouse effect,” global leaders had effectively joined forces to address the hole in the ozone layer, adopting the Montreal Protocol and agreeing to a mandatory phaseout of the chemicals associated with ozone depletion. Greenhouse gas-emitting industries were very concerned that they would be targeted next. Almost immediately, what environmental sociologists call the “climate countermovement” began to form in response.

One key entity in that movement was the Global Climate Coalition, which emerged in 1989 as a project of the National Association of Manufacturers, with founding members from the coal, electric utility, oil and gas, automotive, and rail sectors. Many scholars have noted the influential role the GCC played in obstructing climate policy in the 1990s, but the first peer-reviewed paper on the group, published this week, reveals that the original and lasting intention of the GCC was to push for voluntary efforts only and torpedo international momentum toward setting mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Casting doubt on the science was part of that strategy from the beginning — the paper points to a 1994 communications strategy, for example, that suggested industry spokespeople downplay IPCC findings with following talking point: “The IPCC reports no evidence that directly links manmade GHG emissions to changes in global average temperatures.” Also common, though, were the delay tactics we still see today, particularly the economic argument against acting on the climate crisis and the jingoistic argument that America shouldn’t allow the rest of the world to tell it what to do.

“People have been very stuck on this idea that the industry strategy went from climate denial to delay,” said the paper’s author, Brown University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle. “That’s historically inaccurate. It was always about delay, and the PR guys viewed casting doubt on climate science as one of their key talking points, but not the only one and not the central one.”

Leaning on economic and cultural arguments came naturally for the public relations teams working on climate. Those arguments were first developed to help companies like Standard Oil and American Tobacco stave off regulation at the turn of the 20th century and have been deployed consistently, and effectively, ever since.

“People have been very stuck on this idea that the industry strategy went from climate denial to delay. That’s historically inaccurate. It was always about delay.”

Brulle points to the GCC’s involvement in the passage of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC — the framework underpinning the annual Conference of the Parties meetings of global leaders to discuss international climate commitments — as a prime example of how industries have suggested voluntary action as a way to preempt government regulation. “They supported that because it was toothless. It was all about the need to further study the problem and for corporations and governments to take voluntary action.”

Melissa Aronczyk, a media studies scholar at Rutgers University, also documented the influence that the GCC and its primary PR person, E. Bruce Harrison, had on the UNFCCC process in “A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism,” a new book written with Maria Espinoza. “Harrison was invited as communications counsel to the CEOs who were participating at that Earth Summit in Rio [de Janeiro] in 1992,” Aronczyk explained. That was the summit at which global leaders drafted and adopted the UNFCCC. Notably, the U.N.-appointed organizer of that conference was Maurice Strong, a former oilman who believed that no effective climate treaty could be passed without buy-in from corporate interests.

“Because business communities had been invited to the conference and because they knew that their buy-in was so important, they planned extensively in the lead-up to the conference to be able to present what they call their own sustainable development charter. It was a nonbinding, nonlegal document that proposed a voluntary, self-regulating approach,” Aronczyk said. “And as you can imagine, this charter did not contain anything that would have really transformed how companies did business. … But it paid a lot of lip service to the idea of going green, and because they got out in front of the actual conference, they were really able to put that document forward and stave off other kinds of more binding legislation.”

The GCC worked to steer the Conference of the Parties and the IPCC in this direction as well. Many of the source documents Brulle cites in his paper, including Harrison’s 1994-1995 communications plan for the GCC, show this strategy explicitly. “The economic consequences of future actions by the COP are likely to attract more attention than statements about scientific uncertainties,” Harrison’s plan reads. “Especially if the economic stakes can be made apparent to ‘people on Main Street.’” It goes on to lay out specific messages that GCC members should emphasize to the press, politicians, and the public, including: “Voluntary programs for reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions are allowing industry to balance economics and environmental performance without impairing competitiveness.”

What’s also painfully obvious in these documents is just how close the international process came to forcing action on climate in the 1990s — the decade in which it would have had the most impact. The 1994-95 GCC communications plan shows that the group and the industries it represented were losing the fight and that momentum was building for a binding international treaty that would mandate emissions reductions. “Dozens of U.N. agencies, international organizations and special interest groups are driving events — regardless of economic costs and remaining scientific uncertainties — toward a conclusion inimical to the interests of the GCC and the U.S. economy,” the plan reads.

What’s painfully obvious in these documents is just how close the international process came to forcing action on climate in the 1990s.

A few pages later it notes, “The window for influencing U.S. decisions on future U.N. actions is relatively narrow. During the next 18-24 months there will be a number of critical decision points as the Parties to the FCCC advance toward the COP’s 1997 deadline for elaborating new policies and measures.”

The 1997 Conference of the Parties was, of course, when the Kyoto Protocol was introduced; the international agreement mandated emissions reductions for certain countries, something the Clinton administration had already indicated it supported. It was a make-or-break moment for industries concerned about the impact that mandatory emissions reductions would have on their bottom line, and the GCC redoubled its efforts.

First it targeted key U.S. politicians. Working with Sens. Chuck Hagel and Robert Byrd, Brulle writes, the group rounded up support for an amendment to set strict criteria for any international climate accord. “This effort contributed to the passage of the Byrd-Hagel Amendment in July 1997,” Brulle writes. “This amendment required that any climate accord would have to include [emissions] reductions by developing countries and could not result in serious harm to the U.S. economy. These provisions damaged the credibility of the U.S. because it showed a lack of consensus among the different branches of government about an international climate accord.”

That argument stands in stark contrast to the fossil fuel industry’s narrative today, which holds that out-of-touch climate elitists are trying to force emissions reductions on countries that deserve to use fossil fuels to develop. Passage of the Byrd-Hagel amendment was the GCC’s first big victory after its success in shaping the UNFCCC. In the wake of that victory, GCC members poured $13 million into a PR campaign centered on the argument that the international accord would raise gasoline prices and harm the economy. The tag line of the anti-Kyoto campaign was “It’s not global and it won’t work.

“They get a map of the globe and they start cutting out the countries that don’t have to comply,” Brulle said. “And then they hold up this map with all of these holes in it, and they said, ‘This is unfair. It won’t work and it’s not fair.’ And that’s what they ran on. And guess what? It works! It was very effective. And you still hear that today when folks argue against climate policy by saying, ‘What about China? What about India?’”

The group also commissioned third-party economists and policy analysts to bolster its argument that mandatory emissions cuts would spell death for the American economy. “It was very much, play up the economic impact, play up the threat to the ‘American way of life,’” Brulle said. “When you can attack the science, do that, but always, always play up the economics.”

That’s particularly interesting in the context of recent research in which some of the same economists the GCC hired have admitted that their models were deeply flawed. The paper “Weaponizing Economics,” published last year by Stanford University researcher Ben Franta, shows that the economists working for the GCC and other anti-climate policy groups in the 1990s were using models that inflated the cost of climate policy while ignoring entirely the economic benefit of avoiding climate impacts.

Franta found that the same small group of economists was being routinely commissioned not only by the GCC but also the American Petroleum Institute (a founding GCC member) and various conservative think tanks; every time a policy was proposed that would limit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions, this same model would get trotted out, and industry spokespeople and politicians would warn that acting on climate change would put companies out of business and cost the average American family thousands of dollars.

“Eventually their analyses became conventional wisdom,” Franta said. “The scientific merchants of doubt ultimately failed; their power waned. But this, the economics part, their power did not really wane in the same way. And you know, the implications are larger. I mean, it’s a fraudulent economic product. And now we have economists who worked on those models saying, by their own admission, that this analysis that showed it would be too expensive to act on climate is not true. And this has been going on for decades. So now the question is, what do we do about this?”

Brulle’s recent findings make it that much more concerning that the IPCC allowed mentions of obstructionism and vested interests to be scrubbed from its summary for policymakers. “That document was like Star Wars without Darth Vader,” he said. “This research gives us a history of what actually happened. It puts Darth Vader back in the story.”

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