This website has produced many articles and several videos describing and analyzing the climate change disinformation campaign that has been funded by fossil fuel companies, other corporations whose economic interests are threatened by placing restrictions on fossil fuel use, industry associations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations. These analyses have concluded that these entities have engaged in morally reprehensible disinformation that should be distinguished from responsible scientific skepticism (See site index above under “disinformation campaign and climate ethics”).
For three short videos on why the climate change disinformation campaign cannot be considered responsible skepticism but must be judged as morally abhorrent disinformation see:
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) in October shows that the climate denial echo chamber organizations were funded by ExxonMobil and Koch family foundations and produced misinformation that effectively polluted mainstream media coverage of climate science and polarized the climate policy debate. The Study is: Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change, October 12, 2015.
This study’s analysis of 20 years’ worth of communication data between participants in the climate change countermovement by Yale University researcher Dr. Justin Farrell shows beyond a doubt that ExxonMobil and the Kochs have been key actors who funded the creation of climate disinformation think tanks and ensured the prolific spread of their doubt products throughout our mainstream media and public discourse about climate change.
“The contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,” Dr. Farrell told the Washington Post. “This countermovement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own,” Dr. Farrell, the author of the study said.
The PNAS’s press briefing note about the article by Dr. Farrell said:
Corporate funding likely influences the nature and content of polarizing texts pertaining to climate change, according to a study. Political polarization has become a hallmark of climate change policy discussion, with multiple groups in various sectors contributing to public discourse regarding climate and energy. To quantify the influence of corporate funding in climate change discourse, Justin Farrell analyzed more than 39 million words of text produced by 164 organizations active in the climate change counter-movement between 1993 and 2013. The author examined the ideological content of the produced texts, as well as the funding behind the organizations that produced the texts.
Organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have produced polarizing texts, the author found, with ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundation acting as influential funders (emphasis added). Further, according to the author, corporate funding may have influenced the ideological content of produced texts. The results suggest quantitative evidence of the influence of funding in the climate change debate that had previously been hypothesized, and suggests an analytical model for integrating texts with the social networks that created them, according to the author.
Two main conclusions of this study are noteworthy because they are strong evidence for the role that fossil fuel interests played in creating a false cultural understanding of climate change science in the United States. The conclusions are:
First, that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue.
Second, and more importantly, that corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time (Study abstract).
Thus this study, which was published by the very prestigious US Academy of Sciences, provides further evidence that the public deception orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry actually influenced the cultural understanding of climate change in the United States, and therefore should prove valuable to investigators examining ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies as well as other current and future efforts to hold these corporations accountable for their disinformation. The following chart from the Natural Academy study depicts how the entities comprising the denial campaign communicated with each other.
Fig. 1. Which organizations produced discourse? Nodes in this network are organizations. The color of the node indicates whether they produced a text, and whether they received corporate funding
Recently, the Attorneys General from Massachusetts and New York initiated legal proceedings to hold Exxon and other fossil fuel companies liable for fraud. The fossil fuel industry has responded to these suits by fiercely waging a campaign that claims that any legal action against the fossil fuel companies for funding organizations engaged in climate change denial activities is tantamount to a legally inappropriate suppression of free speech (See: Climate change vs. free speech: Punishing fossil fuel companies for expressing doubt).
The tactics of the fossil fuel industry cannot simply be understood as its exercise of free speech. As we have seen in previous entries on the disinformation campaign on this website the disinformation Campaigns tactics have included:
1. Lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science.
2. Cherry-picking mainstream climate science by focusing on an issue about which there may be some scientific uncertainty while ignoring a vast body of climate science which is well-settled.
3. Manufacturing non peer-reviewed climate change science claims.
4. The creating think tanks, front groups, and Astroturf groups which widely have disseminated untruthful claims about mainstream climate science and which were created to hide the real parties in interest, members of the fossil fuel industry.
5. Publishing and widely disseminating dubious manufactured climate change scientific claims that have not been subjected to peer-review.
6. Widely attacking mainstream climate scientist and journalists who have called for action on climate change.
7 Cyber-bullying mainstream climate scientists and journalists.
A few of these tactics are always ethically troublesome including creating conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, and PR campaigns whose very creation was motivated to fool people about who the real parties in interest are behind claims that attack mainstream climate science. These organizations have also manufactured bogus climate science claims, cyber-bullied climate scientists and journalists, and widely published claims about climate change science that have not been subject to peer-review.
Corporations who fund these ethically troubling tactics are particularly ethically loathsome because they are using their economic power to deceive the public and intimidate mainstream scientists and journalists in the pursuit of economic self-interest.
Certain facts about climate change make these ethically obnoxious tactics even more reprehensible. They include the fact that climate change is a problem that the longer governments wait to take action to prevent damage, the worse the problem becomes and the more difficult and more expensive it becomes to solve it. The climate change disinformation campaign has been responsible for at least 30 years of inaction and, as a result, enormous and expensive greenhouse gas reductions are now required of the entire world to prevent potentially devastating and catastrophic climate change impacts. These impacts will likely be most harshly experienced by poor countries around the world which have done very little to cause theca climate problem. In addition, those most vulnerable to the harshest climate impacts have never consented to nor been consulted about waiting until all climate science uncertainties are resolved before action is taken.
For these reasons, just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations and industry organizations, and free market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign. Just as It is morally reprehensible to call fire in a crowed theater when there is no evidence of a fire because such reckless behavior will likely cause harm to people panicking to run to safety, telling those responsible for GHG emissions that there is no evidence that human activities are causing and threatening climate induced harms will likely cause great damage because inaction guarantees that atmospheric concentrations of GHG will continue to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years and likely cause great harm and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends. In fact not only is the the deceit propagated by the fossil fuel companies and others funding the disinformation campaign unjustifiable on free speech grounds it is so harmful that it may create legal liability for those entities who have funded the disinformation campaign.
Climate change disinformation is responsible for almost a 40 year delay in reducing GHG emissions to safe levels and harsh climate change impacts are already visible in many parts of the world caused by rising seas, much more intense storms, droughts, and floods. And so some of the great harm caused by the climate change denial countermovement is already being experienced even though the most catastrophic climate change harms will be experienced in future decades.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor
Widener University Commonwealth Law School