Back in 2002 Exxon-Mobil knew that it had a problem. Climate change had entered the public forum, and popular opinion seemed to accept that the world would soon be facing severe problems caused by fossil fuel emissions. As one of the companies whose revenues depended upon fossil fuels, Exxon-Mobil recognized that it had to change this opinion or it would be a fossil in its own right.
In 2002 the President of Exxon-Mobil candidly set out the public relations strategy that it had adopted to prevent this from happening. Simply make the point that climate change science was unsettled. To get that message out would not be easy, as the majority of scientists accepted that scientific opinion was sufficiently definite on the subject.
Exxon-Mobil and the other fossil fuel industry giants gave generous financial support to organizations (“fronts”) that would publicize the views of scientists that denied or were sceptical of the majority opinion. And they succeeded.
Looking back it was an obvious choice, but that does not diminish the inspired nature of the strategy. Exxon-Mobil recognized the weakness of scientific opinion as a tool to form public opinion. Scientists are committed to scepticism, and always are ready (or ought to be ready) to re-examine conclusions in the face of further data or analysis. Numerous scientists came forward with their criticism of the majority opinion, questioning the validity of this opinion.
In a few years the public was swayed by the scepticism and no longer by the majority consensus opinion. So what if the campaign exploited denial strategies that people adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information.
Climategate helped the fossil fuel industry achieve its goal. Climategate involved hacking into the emails of scientists employed at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the UK. The emails revealed that these scientists wanted to put forward the best possible case for global warming, and minimize the possibility of scepticism towards their findings.
Although a blue ribbon panel investigating Climategate cleared the authors of these emails of wrong-doing, public opinion continues to be distrustful of any statements by scientists about global warming. The oft-repeated explanation that climate scientists are out to please the governments who support climate research is a well-established “false fact.”
And Climategate still helps undermining the resolution to fight climate change. A further round of East Anglia emails were released in time for the Durban Conference on Climate Change. And while there is no issue in these new emails that was not present in the previous batch, the timing was impeccable. The credibility of the science that supports the interventionist position at Durban is once again on trial. Another coup for the fossil fuel industry.
Meanwhile, GHG emissions will go on increasing, diminishing the possibility of significant reduction of the disasters that global warming will bring.