Fuelling Controversy

In the mid-1950s, the tobacco industry was facing a major crisis. With the publication of influential scientific studies, evidence of the link between smoking and cancer was becoming harder to ignore – and, more and more, the media were getting wind of it. With profit margins in danger, an advancement in scientific understanding and public health had, for tobacco companies, become an existential threat: what was later referred to by the (industry-funded) Tobacco Institute as the “1954 emergency”.

Aware that increasing public skepticism of smoking could lead to a commercial disaster, the tobacco companies embarked on a P.R. campaign of truly staggering proportions. In 1953, presidents of the leading tobacco companies met in the Plaza Hotel in New York to discuss the problem “of promoting cigarettes and protecting them from these and other attacks that may be expected in the future”, (as revealed in an internal memo from P.R. company Hill & Knowlton, which arranged the meeting). In response, industry leaders opted to “sponsor a public relations campaign which is positive in nature and is entirely ‘pro-cigarettes.’”

It was this meeting that spawned the so-called “Tobacco Institute Research Committee” (TIRC), a group formed and funded by the tobacco industry. In 1954, in a full-page ad distributed to over 400 newspapers, the group earnestly declared its intention to “cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public health” through scientific research. Another advert in 1970 from the same group professed that “the American people deserve objective, scientific answers”, and that the industry “has supported totally independent research efforts …” In particular the group continually emphasised the supposed lack of evidence for the link between smoking and lung cancer, a claim that the group disseminated as widely as possible. In 1954 alone, for instance, fully half of the budget of this “research” group went into placing adverts and hiring the services of P.R. firm Hill & Knowlton; less than 10% was spent on actual research. One 18-page booklet published by the group, “A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy”, was sent to over 200,000 people, including doctors, members of Congress and the media.

By 1988, tobacco company Philip Morris was, according to one internal document, “spending vast sums of money” to fund scientists prepared to question the dangers of second-hand smoke and “keep the controversy alive”; research would be ””filtered” by lawyers to eliminate areas of sensitivity”, and scientists vetted so that “obvious “anti-smokers” or those with “unsuitable backgrounds” are filtered out.” During the 1980s, the budget of the TIRC rose to $10 million a year.

Yet despite all this activity, the tobacco industry’s plan was not to try and win the scientific argument, something they were well aware they were in no position to do. What they could do, appropriately enough, was create a smokescreen: a manufactured controversy fostering enough doubt in the public mind that a P.R. disaster could be averted – or at least forestalled.

“Doubt is our product,” one tobacco company executive wrote in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. … Spread doubt over strong scientific evidence and the public won’t know what to believe.” Three years later, another industry insider, reviewing the success of the P.R. strategy, wrote:

”While the strategy was brilliantly conceived and executed over the years helping us win important battles, it is only fair to say that it is not – nor was it intended to be – a vehicle for victory. On the contrary, it has always been a holding strategy, consisting of—creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it …”

Denying climate change

With the benefit of hindsight, not to mention the release of thousands of internal tobacco industry documents into the public sphere, it can seem extraordinary that these groups, sometimes with such overt vested interests, should have been successful in creating a campaign of public disinformation and bogus scientific research for so many years. How can people have been immersed so easily in such an obviously fabricated controversy?

Sadly, these tactics do not stop with the cigarette companies – they are, in fact, a staple of the P.R. industry. When backed into a corner, the generation of controversy is a powerful weapon in the corporate arsenal, as Phil Lesley, the author of a corporate P.R. handbook, acknowledges in “Coping with Opposition Groups”…

“People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’. … Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary …”

Nowhere has the extraordinary potential of this strategy been better demonstrated than over the issue of climate change. The scientific consensus is as at least as strong as that on the link between cigarettes and cancer; the vested interests just as powerful; the implications of the problem far, far more worrying. In 2004, a secret report from the Pentagon assessing the national security implications of climate change predicted catastrophic consequences wordwide: Britain’s climate could be “Siberian” within twenty years; there will be massive water and energy shortages, widespread crop failure, famine, and outbreaks of large-scale conflict, even nuclear war. “Once again,” its authors conclude, “warfare would define human life.”

The level of man-made climate change has now reached crisis point. In September 2005, the Independent reported the fears of scientists monitoring the Arctic has “entered an irreversible phase of warming which will accelerate the loss of the polar sea ice that has helped to keep the climate stable for thousands of years.” As warming increases, so do so-called “environmental feedback mechanisms” – vicious cycles of warming leading to further warming, in the disappearance of ice sheets, reflective of the sun’s rays; the release of carbon from soil; the evaporation of sub-oceanic methane deposits; methane emitted from melting Siberian peat bogs; the death of forests from climate change; and other effects. Once these kick in, like a car accelerating down a hill, climate change becomes almost impossible to reverse. If the worst fears of the arctic monitoring groups are correct, climate change may already be “past the point of no return”.

But once again it is the P.R. war, not the scientific consensus, that defines the limits of the public debate on climate change, with so-called climate “skeptics” receiving an inordinate amount of attention from the media. One of the most prominent is Michael Crichton, author of the bestselling State Of Fear – a thriller postulating an elaborate conspiracy theory, in which corrupt scientists end up creating climate disasters themselves in order to perpetuate public fears. As the American magazine Mother Jones reported, in January 2005 Crichton was given a platform by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) in Washington D.C., where he attacked climate science, invoking an analogy with Nazi eugenics. “Auschwitz exists,” he told his audience, “because of politicised science.”

Perhaps more shocking than Crichton’s comparison was the irony of making such remarks in the company he was addressing. The AEI’s own slogan might appropriately be “politicising science”: since 1998 it has received $1,385,000 from the oil company ExxonMobil; Lee Raymond, vice chairman of the AEI’s board of trustees, is Exxon’s chairman and CEO. Unsurprisingly, the institute has consistently sought to disparage the science behind climate change, and forestall all efforts to prevent it. One article on its website – entitled “The Kyoto Treaty Deserved to Die” – claims that, “Although it is fairly well-established that the Earth’s atmosphere has warmed somewhat (one degree Fahrenheit) during the past century, it’s not clear why this happened. … Whatever the causes, we don’t know if future warming trends will be large or small, or whether the net environmental and economic consequences (including both beneficial and harmful effects) may be large or small.”

“The day may come,” the article concludes, “when the science of global warming has gelled to the extent that hard and contentious choices about a costly control regime must be faced. But,” it reassures us, “that day is decades away at worst, and it may not come at all.”

Such analysis is typical of groups funded by the fossil fuel lobby in general, and ExxonMobil in particular. Exxon bankrolls over forty institutions, some of them long-established ultra-conservative think-tanks such as the Cato Institute, the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Heritage Foundation, others of them front groups purporting to be devoted to independent scientific research – including the Center For The Study of Carbon Dioxide And Global Change and the Annapolis Center For Science-Based Public Policy. One, the almost satirically named “Independent Institute”, which calls itself a “non-profit, non-politicized, scholarly research and educational organization”, has received at least $40,000 from Exxon. The institute, like the tobacco industry-funded groups before it, appears to be posing as a genuine research institute while pumping out P.R. for whoever pays its bills. In 1999, according to the New York Times, the Institute was paid by Microsoft (the largest individual donor that year) to run a full-page advert protesting the company’s innocence in the face of federal antitrust charges. Needless to say, it has also taken a position favourable to its oil industry sponsors: in 2003 it published a report attacking the science and dismissing the dangers of climate change. Most recently, in November 2005, it sponsored “An Evening With Michael Crichton”.

Political influence

Unsurprisingly, with the advent of the Bush administration’s term in office the big oil lobby has made serious inroads into American political life. Much of the time it is difficult to tell where the government ends and the oil industry begins: vice-president Dick Cheney’s personal earnings at Haliburton alone were $50-60 million; Condoleeza Rice, a former director of Chevron, notoriously had an oil tanker named after her.

A number of leaks have made these blurred boundaries still more obvious – and on the issue of climate change it is clear that both the Bush administration and big oil are firmly in the same camp. In 2002, for instance, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report, which in effect signalled that the US government was for the first time acknowledging human beings’ contribution to climate change. The report warned that “continuing growth in greenhouse gas emissions is likely to lead to annual average warming over the United States that could be as much as several degrees Celsius (roughly 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) during the 21st century” and of “more frequent and intense” droughts.

White House officials seem to have gone into crisis mode. Philip Cooney, a chief of staff at the White House council on environmental quality, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, contacted Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a body which has received over $1.5 million from ExxonMobil since 1998 (along with funding from Texaco, Ford Motors, the American Petroleum Institute – a trade association of over 300 corporations associated with the petroleum industry – and Koch industries, the largest oil company in the US). “Thanks for calling us and asking for our help,” Ebell responded in an email dated 3 June 2002. ”’It seems to me that the folks at the EPA are the obvious fall guys and we would only hope that the fall guy (or gal) should be as high up as possible. … Perhaps tomorrow we will call for Whitman [Christine Whitman, head of the EPA] to be fired.” This proposal may have been building on earlier successes: a similar campaign on the part of ExxonMobil and the Bush administration, revealed by the Guardian after the leaking of a confidential ExxonMobil memo, had deposed Dr Robert Watson, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in April of the same year.

But Cooney’s work went further than this. In June 2005, the Government Accountability Project released documents revealing Cooney’s editorial revisions to US government reports on climate change. In one, “uncertainties” became “significant and fundamental”; “The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability” became not “difficult” but “extremely difficult”. Documents obtained by the Observer in September 2003 revealed just how much the insertion of qualifiers like “potentially” and “may” was resented by the EPA: “Uncertainty is inserted”, they complained, “where there is essentially none.” Cooney, who has no scientific training, previously worked for the American Petroleum Institute – after his stint at the White House, he went on to take up a position with ExxonMobil.

“They basically wanted to sow confusion into the debate,” said Jeff Symons, a former EPA climate policy adviser. “EPA staff objectives are really quite simple – to get good information out. That’s been in conflict with the spin the White House has wanted on environmental measures.”

It appears that the Republican Party itself is fully aware of the political capital to be gained by artificially extending the life of this public controversy. As a leaked memo advising Republicans on how they should present their environment policies by the Republican Frank Luntz noted, “The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general – and President Bush in particular – are most vulnerable.” However, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” Certain “perceptions will work in your favor if properly cultivated …”

Sowing confusion in the media

The growth of front groups such as these is hardly unusual. What makes them so potent – and so dangerous – is not only their political ties, but also the willingness of the media to grant them attention and credibility, particularly the efforts of outlets like the BBC to “balance” their coverage with equal representation accorded to members of the climate denial camp. The problem is sometimes attributed to the high proportion of humanities graduates who staff the media, and who tend to view scientific debates through the same lens as political disputes – an approach that plays havoc with the requirements of objectivity. In the words of Michael Mann, a senior climate scientist at Penn State University,

”While giving equal coverage to two opposing sides may seem appropriate in political discourse, it is manifestly inappropriate in discussions of science, where objective truths exist. In the case of climate change, a clear consensus exists among mainstream researchers that human influences on climate are already detectable, and that potentially far more substantial changes are likely to take place in the future if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates. There are only a handful of “contrarian” climate scientists who continue to dispute that consensus. To give these contrarians equal time or space in public discourse on climate change out of a sense of need for journalistic “balance” is as indefensible as, say, granting the Flat Earth Society an equal say with NASA in the design of a new space satellite. It’s plainly inappropriate. But it stubbornly persists nonetheless.”

This approach has also left the media wide open to the designs of corporate propagandists. The aforementioned Myron Ebell of the CEI alone was prominently cited on climate change by BBC News Online five times in 2004. Amazingly, in none of these stories is the CEI’s signficant petroleum industry funding acknowledged. If the role of oil industry-funded spokespeople is indeed to “sow confusion” – by clouding the debate rather than winning it outright – they seem to be succeeding. The question is why outlets like the BBC are assisting them. While it now seems blindingly obvious that tobacco industry-funded groups should be unreliable sources on the science of smoking-induced lung cancer, the media often seem unable to extend that principle to the position of oil industry beneficiaries on climate change.

For many, the distortion and lies of moneyed interests are simply endemic features of modern capitalism. With most of the media in the hands of wealthy proprietors, broadcasters and newspapers heavily dependent on advertising revenues to survive, independent research under-funded by the public sector and forced to rely on corporate funds, the public mind is too often putty in the hands of corporations that have anything but the public’s best interests at heart. This is no minor problem. If tobacco companies’ obfuscations and deceit have contributed to the deaths of millions, those of the oil-funded climate change deniers, by stalling any movement on the issue, may be helping to bring about the ultimate extinction of humanity. If the scientists’ worst fears are correct, and climate change has indeed reached the “point of no return”, it is possible they have done so already.

This is an original article written for UK Watch. If you find UK Watch useful, you can help by telling others about the site, writing for us, or working with us to improve the site. See our Get Involved page for more information.



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