Plastics, coal, oil and gas are all economically important but environmentally damaging. Fossil fuel producers have generated public relations strategies to distract and misinform the public about the link between their pollutants and global warming. We all know how dependent we have been on these products — perhaps that is why we looked the other way for so many decades. Not all companies use disinformation, but it is far too widespread.
A 2019 list of top global polluters identifies the 20 companies responsible for 35% of fossil fuel emissions since 1965. The top six polluters were Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom, Exxon, BP and Shell. Disinformation was a key ingredient of oil industry success and profitability across the past six decades. How is disinformation deployed?
“Dark Money” by Jane Mayer is a book that traces a trail of billions of dollars spent by the Koch brothers’ network, revealing a conglomeration of think tanks, academic institutions, media groups, courthouses and governments that have fallen under their sphere of influence to mislead the public. The story tells how money can make disinformation come out of a corrupted ally’s mouth.
The most recent revelation of misleading the public features the plastics industry. Renewables now compete with gas, oil, and coal as sources of energy, but plastic remains a central product for fossil fuel companies.
We like plastic because it is so useful; therefore, we readily agree to recycle. NPR reports that, “Used plastic is not valuable, and it never has been. And what is more, the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.”
In “Blowout” by Rachel Maddow, she tells how fracking leads to earthquakes — more than 100 measuring a magnitude of 3.0 or higher in the state of Oklahoma — in February 2016 alone.
She also describes how the oil and gas industry has weakened democracies in developed and developing countries, fouled oceans and rivers and propped up authoritarians like Vladimir Putin. The jacket cover says, “Blowout is a call to stop subsidizing the wealthiest businesses on earth, to fight for transparency, and to check the influence of the world’s most destructive industry and its enablers.”
Diversions: Hey, look over here! Nearly all the fossil fuel companies are now investing in new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Yes, we want to believe CCS will work. It sounds wonderful but CCS is an expensive and immature technology. It will take decades to become scalable, longer than the time available for us to reverse course on climate disruption. According to the New Republic’s reporting, the public is influenced to conclude that investments in CCS by fossil fuel producers represent a change of direction, when in reality, it is meant to direct attention away from profit-taking at a time when the public is becoming more concerned about causes of climatic tragedies.
Discriminating good from bad behaviorThe following are recommended indicators of good behavior that should be adopted by the fossil fuel industry in dealing with the climate crisis: (a) publicly renounce disinformation on climate science; (b) develop business models that limit global warming from rising above pre-industrial temperature more than 2°C (3.6°F); (c) support climate policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases; (d) fully disclose to shareholders climate-related risks faced by their business; and (e) pay their fair share of the costs for climate-related damage and adaptation.
Red flagsWhat you need to guard against: The disinformation playbook undermines science by manufacturing doubt and creating uncertainty, which can be used to block regulations or minimize corporate liability. The Union of Concerned Scientists outlines some methodologies:
- Using counterfeit science — planting articles in journals or commissioning scientific studies that use methods designed to find “the right results.”
- Defunding research, interfering with promotions, transferring staff to other positions, tarnishing reputations, muting scientists with nondisclosure agreements or litigating.
- Fronting alleged independent trade associations to undermine science, influence public opinion, and indirectly influence policymakers.
- Buying credibility through alliances with academia or professional societies, using this screen to influence research and spread misinformation that serves corporate interests.
- Lobbying to help enact legislation favorable to company interests; using connections to reach top officials.
People are busy so we need to ensure they can be accurately informed. We need to support both education and journalism. A proper education combined with verified, trusted information are the antidotes to disinformation and misinformation.