HomeTechnologyClimate misinformation leaves a lasting mark as the world warms

Climate misinformation leaves a lasting mark as the world warms

By DAVID KLEPPER Associated Press

In 1998, when nations around the world agreed to reduce carbon emissions through the Kyoto Protocol, US fossil fuel companies planned their response, including an aggressive strategy to sow doubt in public debate.

“Victory,” according to the American Petroleum Institute memo, “will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) the uncertainties in climate science… Unless ‘climate change’ ceases to be an issue …there may be no time when we can declare victory.”

The memo, which was later leaked to The New York Times that year, described how fossil fuel companies could manipulate journalists and the general public by muddying the evidence, playing “both sides” of the debate, and portraying those seeking reduce emissions as “out of touch with reality”.

Nearly 35 years later, the reality of a changing climate is now clear to most Americans, as heat waves and wildfires, sea level rise, and extreme storms become more common.

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Last week, President Joe Biden announced measures aimed at expanding offshore wind power, though he stopped short of declaring a national climate emergency. A Supreme Court ruling last month limited the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, meaning it will be up to a divided Congress to pass meaningful caps on emissions.

Despite polls showing that the general public has become more concerned about climate change, a sizeable number of Americans have become even more distrustful of the scientific consensus.

“The tragedy of this is that all over social media you can see tens of millions of Americans who think scientists are lying, even about things that have been proven for decades,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at the University of Harvard who has written about the history of climate change misinformation. “They have been persuaded by decades of misinformation. The denial is very, very deep.”

And persistent. Just last month, even with record heat in London, wildfires in Alaska and record flooding in Australia, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a pro-fossil fuel tank of thanks, said all the scientists were wrong.

“There is no climate crisis,” the group wrote in its newsletter.

Years before COVID-19 triggered a wave of misinformation, or before former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election helped spark an insurrection on the US Capitol, fossil fuel companies spent heavily in an effort to undermine support for emission reductions.

Now, even as those same companies promote investments in renewable energy, the legacy of all that climate misinformation remains.

It also contributed to broader skepticism from scientists, scientific institutions and the media that report on them, a mistrust reflected in doubts about vaccines or pandemic-era public health measures such as masks and the quarantines.

“It was the opening of a Pandora’s Box of disinformation that has proven difficult to control,” said Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute, an organization that has criticized oil and coal companies for hiding what they knew about the risks of change. climate.

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, as public awareness of climate change grew, fossil fuel companies spent millions of dollars on public relations campaigns decrying the mounting evidence supporting the idea of ​​climate change. They funded supposedly independent think tanks that curated science and promoted fringe viewpoints designed to make it appear that there were two legitimate sides to the dispute.

Since then, the focus has softened as the impact of climate change has become more apparent. Fossil fuel companies are now more likely to take advantage of their supposedly pro-environmental track record, promoting renewable energy such as solar and wind or initiatives designed to improve energy efficiency or offset carbon emissions.

Aggressive approaches to tackling climate change are now ruled out not for scientific but for economic reasons. Fossil fuel companies talk about lost jobs or higher energy prices, without mentioning the cost of doing nothing, said Ben Franta, a lawyer, author and researcher at Stanford University who tracks fossil fuel misinformation.

“We live within a multi-decade extended campaign run by the fossil fuel industry,” Franta said. “The (climate change) debate was manufactured by the fossil fuel industry in the 1990s, and we’re living with that story right now. .”

The impact of that history is reflected in public opinion polls that show a widening gap between Republicans and other Americans when it comes to views on climate change.

While the percentage of Americans in general who say they are concerned about climate change has increased, Republicans are increasingly skeptical. Last year, Gallup found that 32% of self-identified Republicans said they accept the scientific consensus that human pollution is driving climate change, up from 52% in 2003.

By comparison, the percentage of self-identified Democrats who say they accept that human activities are causing climate change increased from 68 to 88 during the same period.

Fossil fuel companies deny any attempt to mislead the American public and point to investments in renewable energy as proof that they are serious about climate change.

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods told members of Congress last fall that his company “has long recognized the reality and risks of climate change, and has dedicated significant resources to address those risks.” ExxonMobil’s public claims about climate change, he said, “are and always have been true, factual … and consistent” with conventional science.

When asked about its role in spreading climate misinformation, a Southern Company spokesperson pointed to recent expansions in renewable energy and initiatives aimed at offsetting carbon emissions.

The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. The trade group was behind the 1998 “victory memorandum” that laid out the industry’s strategy for responding to climate change concerns.

That memo is one of several documents cited by climate activists and some Democratic lawmakers who say they could be used to hold them legally accountable for misleading taxpayers, investors or the general public.

“It’s time for these companies to answer for the damage they’ve caused,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat.

Republicans, however, have said Democrats want to focus on climate misinformation to distract from failed environmental policies that are driving up gasoline and energy costs.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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