‘What we know now…they lied’: How the big oil companies betrayed us all | Documentary

Jhere’s a moment in PBS Frontline’s eye-opening docuseries The Power of Big Oil, about the industry’s long campaign to block action on the climate crisis, in which former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel reflects on his role in US ratification of the Kyoto climate treaty.

In 1997, Hagel joined Democratic Senator Robert Byrd in promoting a resolution opposing the international agreement to limit greenhouse gases, on the grounds that it was unfair to Americans. The measure passed the US Senate without a single dissenting vote, after a vigorous campaign by big oil companies to falsely label the Kyoto Protocol a threat to jobs and the economy while falsely claiming that the China and India could continue to pollute as they please.

The resolution has effectively blocked US ratification of any climate treaty since then.

A quarter of a century later, Hagel acknowledges the vote was wrong and blames the oil industry for maliciously claiming the science of climate change was unproven when companies like Exxon and Shell already knew the otherwise through their own research.

“What we know now about some of the positions of these big oil companies…they lied. And yes, I was wrong. Others were misled when they had evidence in their own institutions that contradicted what they said publicly. I mean, they lied,” he told the documentary makers.

When asked if the planet would be in a better position to confront the climate crisis if the oil industry had been honest about the damage caused by fossil fuels, Hagel didn’t flinch.

“Oh, absolutely. It would have created a whole different climate, a whole different political environment. I think it would have changed everything,” he said.

But Hagel apparently didn’t ask why. he was so willing to be influenced by big oil companies when there was no shortage of scientists, including prominent NASA researchers, telling the truth to him and other political leaders.

The power of big oil companies has the answer. The makers of the documentary unearthed a parade of former oil company scientists, lobbyists and public relations strategists who laid bare how America’s largest oil company, Exxon, and then the oil industry at large, are gone from trying to understand the causes of global warming to a concerted campaign to hide the fabrication of an environmental catastrophe.

Over three episodes – titled Denial, Doubt, Delay – the series traces the corporate manipulation of science, public opinion and politicians that mirrors the conduct of other industries, from big tobacco to the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Some of those interviewed shamefully admit their role in the decades-long campaign to hide evidence of climate change, discredit scientists and delay actions that threatened big oil companies’ profits. Others almost brag about how easy it was to fool the American public and politicians, with consequences not just for the United States but for every country on the planet.

What emerges is a picture of a political system so compromised by corporate money that even when it finally appears that the truth will prevail, reality is quickly snuffed out.

Former Senator Timothy Wirth tells documentary filmmakers how, in 1988, he organized landmark hearings in which a prominent NASA scientist, James Hansen, testified that greenhouse gases were changing the climate.

“It was kind of a magic phrase,” Wirth said. “It was not environmental groups. It was not a green cabal. It is probably the chief climatologist of the federal government who made this declaration.

The New York Times reported the testimony on the front page. This seemed like a turning point for Wirth and Hansen. Now the country had to face reality. Instead, the hearing served as a warning to the oil industry to step up its campaign of Holocaust denial.

“There were quite a few moments when people interested in climate change felt like everything was about to change,” Dan Edge, the producer of the Power of Big Oil series, told the Guardian. “There’s a moment in Episode 1 where Senator Wirth laughs and says, ‘I really felt like we were going somewhere. It was so exciting.’ It was 30 years ago. Then you hear some of Obama’s speeches and the real hope that something could be done about climate change in 2009. It was palpable and it was destroyed so quickly.

As documentarians chart the evolution of the fossil fuel industry’s success in warding off climate legislation, it becomes clear that oil companies have quickly adapted their strategies to changing circumstances.

A view of the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge. Photograph: Kathleen Flynn/Reuters

Jane McMullen, the director of the series’ first episode, said the research revealed how, as it became harder to deny the overwhelming evidence of global warming, the industry shifted gears.

“They realized they were losing the scientific case, especially after the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report came out in ’95, which claimed there was a noticeable human influence. So they turned to the economy,” she said.

Frontline shows that the key to this change was a little-known company in the 1990s, Koch Industries, which specialized in refining and distributing some of the heaviest and dirtiest oils. The company was run by brothers Charles and David Koch. Charles also founded a libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute in Washington.

The Kochs saw a threat to their business in the Clinton administration’s plan for a carbon tax. They mobilized Cato and a Koch-funded front group posing as a grassroots organization, Citizens for a Sound Economy, to oppose it. The Kochs have attracted lobbying organizations, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Global Climate Coalition, a group of companies opposed to climate science.

“We would meet in various places in Washington with over 100 people in the room. It was a real war room,” Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, told the program.

Jeff Nesbit, communications director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, told documentarians that the decision was made to target an Oklahoma senator, David Boren, who chaired Clinton’s budget committee and therefore the tax. carbon.

“They basically said, if we can rock David Boren, we win. So they said, we’re going to do whatever it takes,” he said.

The industry ran ads claiming the tax would cost the average Oklahoma household $500 a year and mobilized supporters to call Boren to complain that people would effectively pay a carbon tax every time they take shower or drive their car.

Years later, Nesbit admitted that the supposed public reaction was an illusion fabricated by the Koch brothers.

“Maybe there were a handful of people thinking, oh my God, I should call my senator and register my complaint. But they didn’t have such a base army. It was funded and fueled by corporate interests,” he said.

Still, it worked. Boren gave in and killed the carbon tax. The oil industry has taken note.
“He went to bed right away,” Nesbit said. “It’s like, wow, this can really work. We can choose our targets strategically and win, even when we are not in political power.

McMullen said research for the documentary showed this strategy repeated many times over the years.

“It has become almost accepted that tackling climate change will cost the economy, when look at the cost of damage we face today,” she said.

The result, she said, is that administration after administration since Clinton has found reason to delay action because they didn’t want to be accused of impoverishing Americans.

“It has been a problem throughout these 40 years of history. There’s this very strong push for politicians to say, we’re just going to wait, we don’t need to do it now. But obviously there is no time. And the longer you delay, the steeper the hill you have to climb to deal with it,” she said.

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