Yesterday, the state of New York faced off with ExxonMobil for oral arguments in the trial alleging that the company misled investors by providing false assurances that the company was adequately costing climate-related risks. But win or lose, that doesn’t mean an end to deliberate misinformation campaigns. Here’s what we should all know about how to resist those efforts by Exxon and other big corporate actors.
Scientists have known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change. There is so much evidence that at least 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. It’s as settled as the link between smoking and cancer.
The fossil fuel industry has known about the role of its products in global warming for 60 years. Exxon’s own scientists warned their managers 40 years ago of “potentially catastrophic events”. Yet rather than alerting the public or taking action, these companies have spent the past few decades pouring millions of dollars into disinformation campaigns designed to delay action. All the while, the science is clear that climate-catalyzed damages have worsened, storms have intensified, and droughts and heatwaves have become more frequent and severe, while forests have been damaged and wildfires have burned through the country.
By polluting the information landscape, these companies misrepresented the safety of their product and denied the public their right to be accurately informed.
Big oil is not the only industry to do so. Big tobacco is a famous case, but asbestos and lead industries have done it too. These days, campaigns by soda companies to contest sugar science and by the NFL to distort the science on concussions use similar tactics. The campaigns all run a similar playbook: they cite fake experts, place impossible demands on the science, cherry-pick data, impugn the integrity of individual scientists and the scientific process, and appeal to conspiracy theories. They leave the public with the perpetual impression that there are lots of unresolved questions, and that scientists are not to be trusted.
Research has confirmed that disinformation works, which is, of course, why special interests fund it. So it is crucial to expose disinformation for what it is, so that the public doesn’t fall prey to the next industrial-scale propaganda effort.
In our report America Misled: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Deliberately Misled Americans About Climate Change, we document how the fossil fuel industry has misled the American public (and the world). We expose the most common myths about climate change generated by big oil and the misleading techniques used by Exxon.
For example, cold weather is often used to argue that global warming isn’t happening. This favorite talking point of President Trump is an extreme form of cherry picking: ignoring what’s happening to our planet by focusing on local weather conditions. Just because the planet is heating up rapidly doesn’t mean cold weather in North Dakota will cease to exist overnight. But if we look at the overall picture, it’s hot and getting hotter. Our planet is accumulating heat at a rate of over four atomic bombs per second, and the four hottest years on record are the last four years.
Exxon also misled us through arguments that appear convincing but contain logical fallacies. One is the argument that climate has changed naturally in the past, so today’s climate change must be natural, also. But just because something happened naturally in the past doesn’t mean it has to be natural now; the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. It’s like arguing that people have died naturally from cancer in the past, therefore smoking can’t cause cancer today.
And then there’s the classic tactic of citing fake experts to cast doubt on the expert consensus on human-caused global warming. The most prominent example is an internet petition of 31,000 dissenting “experts” who think humans aren’t disrupting the climate. However, over 99% of the signatories have no expertise in climate research – it’s populated with graduates of programs in computer science, veterinary science, and mechanical engineering, as well as dead people and pop stars, but very few with climate expertise. In actual fact, 97% or more of domain experts agree on the fundamental fact that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet.
Exposing and explaining the techniques of denial are crucial steps in neutralizing disinformation, not just from the fossil fuel industry but from any source. Once people know the ways they can be deceived, disinformation no longer has power over them. As Edward Everett once said: “Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.” But it’s not enough to offer information – we also have to expose disinformation, so that people understand what we have been up against.