In 1977, scientist James Black delivered a presentation to Exxon executives called ‘the greenhouse effect’. In it he gave evidence that the carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet. This warming, he revealed, will eventually pose a grave risk to the survival of humanity. Black suggested that humans had between five and ten years to change the way they use fossil fuels before the situation becomes critical. Exxon took this very seriously initially, spending millions on climate science. Early climate science thus was conducted by fossil fuel companies both in an effort to understand their impact on the world, but also to find new drilling opportunities. By 1982 it was very clear the negative impact that the burning of fossil fuels was having on the earth. These early reports recognised the likely emergence of ‘catastrophic events’ like the melting of icecaps, and rising sea levels.
Fossil fuel companies realised that drastic measures were needed to prevent this and also realised that this would be detrimental to their business – so, they shut down their research and adopted a different strategy for dealing with the problem: obfuscation and denial of the climate science. In the same ways that cigarette companies manufactured lies in the face of evidence of their harmful health effects, the fossil fuel companies sought to manipulate the public through misinformation. In 1989, climate scientist James Hansen testified in the US senate that climate change was occurring. In response, the fossil fuel companies initiated advertising campaigns and formed seemingly independent groups (but were funded by the fossil fuel companies) who advocate against the climate science message. Through spreading misinformation, they sought to create confusion and uncertainty around the mounting scientific evidence.
At the turn of the millennium, British Petroleum hired a marketing company and began to popularise the idea of the ‘carbon footprint’. The carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon an individual is producing over the course of a year. In doing this, BP sought to move responsibility from themselves and put it onto the consumer. When people spoke out against climate change, they were subject to character assassinations and accusations of hypocrisy. The narrative around climate change has sought to portray it as a problem we are all responsible for, rather than being seen as the result of a corrupt system that values profit over people and planet.
Twenty companies are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Their exploitation of coal, gas and oil reserves has damaged the environment and communities around the world. Fossil fuel propaganda has resulted in a delayed response to this crisis, as we have lost decades where we could have been taking action. Those who had a large hand in creating this problem are the ones least effected by it, while those, particularly in the global south, who are least responsible are paying the largest price in terms of the climate chaos that has already arrived at their door.
Fossil fuel companies have known about climate change for decades but chose not to inform the public about it. Even more, they buried the science showing that the burning of fossil fuels was causing global warming and pushed the spotlight away from themselves and onto the public. It is a cover up that is still not widely recognised.