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A brief history of fossil-fuelled climate denial

Posted on 21 June 2016 by John Cook

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

The fossil fuel industry has spent many millions of dollars on confusing the public about climate change. But the role of vested interests in climate science denial is only half the picture.

Interest in this topic has spiked with the latest revelation regarding coalmining company Peabody Energy. After Peabody filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, documentation became available revealing the scope of Peabody’s funding to third parties. The list of funding recipients includes trade associations, lobby groups and climate-contrarian scientists.

This latest revelation is significant because in recent years, fossil fuel companies have become more careful to cover their tracks. An analysis by Robert Brulle found that from 2003 to 2010, organisations promoting climate misinformation received more than US$900 million of corporate funding per year.

However, Brulle found that from 2008, open funding dropped while funding through untraceable donor networks such as Donors Trust (otherwise known as the “dark money ATM”) increased. This allowed corporations to fund climate science denial while hiding their support.

The decrease in open funding of climate misinformation coincided with efforts to draw public attention to the corporate funding of climate science denial. A prominent example is Bob Ward, formerly of the UK Royal Society, who in 2006 challenged Exxon-Mobil to stop funding denialist organisations.

John Cook interviews Bob Ward at COP21, Paris.

The veils of secrecy have been temporarily lifted by the Peabody bankruptcy proceedings, revealing the extent of the company’s third-party payments, some of which went to fund climate misinformation. However, this is not the first revelation of fossil fuel funding of climate misinformation – nor is it the first case involving Peabody.

In 2015, Ben Stewart of Greenpeace posed as a consultant to fossil fuel companies and approached prominent climate denialists, offering to pay for reports promoting the benefits of fossil fuels. The denialists readily agreed to write fossil-fuel-friendly reports while hiding the funding source. One disclosed that he had been paid by Peabody to write contrarian research. He had also appeared as an expert witness and written newspaper op-eds.

John Cook interviews Ben Stewart, Greenpeace at COP21, Paris.

The bigger picture of fossil-fuelled denial

Peabody’s funding of climate change information and misinformation is one episode in a much larger history of fossil-fuel-funded misinformation. An analysis of more than 40,000 texts by contrarian sources found that organisations who received corporate funding published more climate misinformation, a trend that increased over time.

The following figure shows the use of the claim that “CO? is good” (a favourite argument of Peabody Energy) has increased dramatically among corporate-funded sources compared with unfunded ones.

Prevalence of denialist claim from corporate funded and non-funded sources. Farrell (2015)

In 1991, Western Fuels Association combined with other groups representing fossil fuel interests to produce a series of misinformation campaigns. This included a video promoting the positive benefits of carbon dioxide, with hundreds of free copies sent to journalists and university libraries. The goal of the campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”, attempting to portray the impression of an active scientific debate about human-caused global warming. has been tracking fossil-fuel-funded misinformation campaigns for more than two decades – documenting more than A$30 million of funding from Exxon alone to denialist think tanks from 1998 to 2014.

Exxon’s funding of climate science denial over this period is particularly egregious considering that it knew full well the risks from human-caused climate change. David Sassoon, founder of Pulitzer Prize-winning news organisation Inside Climate News led an investigation into Exxon’s internal research, discovering that its own scientists had warned the company of the harmful impacts of fossil fuel burning as long ago as the 1970s.

John Cook interviews David Sassoon from Inside Climate News.

Even Inside Climate News’s revelation of industry’s knowledge of the harmful effects of climate change before engaging in misinformation campaigns has precedence. In 2009, an internal report for the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing fossil fuel industry interests, was leaked to the press.

It showed that the coalition’s own scientific experts had advised it in 1995 that “[t]he scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO? on climate is well established and cannot be denied”. Nevertheless, the organisation proceeded to deny climate science and promote the benefits of fossil fuel emissions.

Ideology: the other half of an “unholy alliance”

However, to focus solely on industry’s role in climate science denial misses half the picture. The other significant player is political ideology. At an individual level, numerous surveys (such as here, here and and here) have found that political ideology is the biggest predictor of climate science denial.

People who fear the solutions to climate change, such as increased regulation of industry, are more likely to deny that there is a problem in the first place – what psychologists call “motivated disbelief”.

Consequently, groups promoting political ideology that opposes market regulation have been prolific sources of misinformation about climate change. This productivity has been enabled by the many millions of dollars flowing from the fossil fuel industry. Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, refers to this partnership between vested interests and ideological groups as an “unholy alliance”.

Reducing the influence

To reduce the influence of climate science denial, we need to understand it. This requires awareness of both the role of political ideology and the support that ideological groups have received from vested interests.

Without this understanding, it’s possible to make potentially inaccurate accusations such as climate denial being purely motivated by money, or that it is intentionally deceptive. Psychological research tells us that ideologically driven confirmation bias (misinformation) is almost indistinguishable from intentional deception (disinformation).

Video from free online course Making Sense of Climate Science Denial (launches August 9).

The fossil fuel industry has played a hugely damaging role in promoting misinformation about climate change. But without the broader picture including the role of political ideology, one can build an incomplete picture of climate science denial, leading to potentially counterproductive responses.

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Comments 1 to 19:

  1. This is the earliest example of climate change denial I am aware of.  i suppose at this early date it could qualify as genuine skepticism rather than denial, but it does come from the petroleum industry so...  Also, the arguments may sound familiar as they are still in use 80 years later.  Enjoy.

    Science - Supplement July 30, 1937

    Even though man has released into the atmosphere
    some 180,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide gas by the
    burning of mined fuel during the last half century, the
    plants of the world each year return this carbon dioxide
    a thousand fold through their decay or combustion.
    Dr. Robert E. Wilson, president of the Pan American
    Petroleum and Transport Company, who reports this result
    in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, also notes
    that the fears of those people who shudder at the
    " greatly " increased carbon dioxide content of the air
    which is produced by modern industrial activity, are unfounded.
    If all the carbon dioxide dumped into the
    atmosphere in the last 50 years had not been removed by
    returning the elements involved to the earth in some form
    or other, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere
    would have increased only two-thousandths of one per
    cent. in that time; from 0.03 to 0.032 per cent.

    The controlling factor which determines how much carbon
    dioxide there is in the air is the water of the earth 's
    oceans. Available data indicate there is some 30 to 40
    times as much carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean as is
    present in the atmosphere. The average partial vapor
    pressure of this carbon dioxide is probably largely what
    determines the average carbon dioxide content of the air,
    so that well over 90 per cent. of any excess carbon dioxide
    introduced into the atmosphere eventually finds its way
    into the ocean, leaving the composition of the former
    virtually unaffected.
    The combined result of all our mining and chemical
    activity to date has made but an infinitesimal alteration
    in the composition of the earth 's crust or sea water.
    And this, despite the fact that in the past half century
    some 50,000,000,000 tons of carbon have been obtained as
    either coal, lignite, crude petroleum or natural gas

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  2. A few weeks ago I finished reading "This Changes Everything" by Naomi Klein. I have not been able to fault the book on accuracy; I do wish it were to show less political bias (altho Ms Klein tried valiantly to minimize this). Nonetheless, the book did make me think. Particularly about how and why intelligent, rational, well-meaning folks don't "get it" on the need for massive and immediate action (the less immediate the action, the more massive it must be).

         Political people tend to ignore the "hair-on-fire" urgency of climate action because (a) they can ignore it and get away with it; and (b) their action paradigm does not see the utter nonnegotiability of Nature. Negotiation and compromise are core to a proper political action paradigm, but are immiscible with the science paradigm.

         Unfortunately, this has consequences every bit as bad as the misunderstanding spawned by denialism.

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  3. Another factor is that climate denial has effectively been turned into a "shibboleth".

    People like belonging to a group, whether religous, political, idiological, or otherwise, and for many people people the group the feel affinity for is conservatism. A shiboleth something that people use to identify themselves as part of a particular group, and climate denial has been turned (intentionally, IMHO) into a way for people to identify themselves as a member of the conservative group.

    The big difficulty with this is that trying to argue with those folks by presenting evidence and facts about climate change simply reinforces to them that you are "not one of them", an outsider, and therefore possibly not to be trusted. Studies have shown this is often the case, presenting more evidence about climate change to people can actually make them even more certain that their original view is the valid one.

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  4. rocketeer @1, in 1937 scientists did not know the rate at which CO2 dissolved into the ocean, and more importantly, how rapidly it mixed with the deep ocean.  They did not know this until nuclear testing increased the production of C14, giving them a marker with which to trace this in the 1950s.  Nor did they know the rate at which CO2 was released by volcanoes (which I believe was not estimated until the 1990s) and hence did not know the rate of natural weathering.  Most importantly, they had no clear data showing an increase in the atmospheric CO2 levels (not obtained until Keeling set up the Mauna Loa observatory until the late 1950s).  In short, until the late 1950s, they did not have evidence that refuted that hypothesis.

     It follows that that is not an example of climate change denial, but only of a scientist being wrong in the absence of relevant data.  Scientists do that all the time.  It is what drives them to find the relevant data to test alternate theories.  Of course, presented today when we do have all that data, or indeed, anytime after the mid 1960s, that theory is denial because it flies in the face of some conclusive evidence.

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  5. I agree with Tom. In terms of the history of the science, this question was not understood till the 50's and the piece was reporting the scientific view of the time.

    However it is still an example of some PR from the petroleum industry. At that time perhaps not unreasonable, it is how an industry responds as the science develops that is the key issue.

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  6. John Cook, the claim that “People who fear the solutions to climate change, such as increased regulation of industry, are more likely to deny that there is a problem in the first place – what psychologists call “motivated disbelief” ” seems a little uncharitable, if not an invalid argument. Some, at least, of those people might actually sincerely disbelieve a climate change problem exists, leading them to assert that no ‘solutions to climate change’ are needed.

    As much as I disagree with Karl Popper on some things, I applaud him for giving others the benefit of the doubt, & trying to strengthen their arguments (before tearing them down, when needed). Would it be possible to adjust the claim about “motivated disbelief” to follow Popper’s example to us all?

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  7. amhartley @6

    You have a point.  My hypothesis until now has been that deniers can be divided into three groups, but perhaps I should make that four.  My three groups are as follows:

    Firstly, there are the psychopaths.  You'll find them in the fossil-fuel industry.  They know that climate change is a threat but would rather maintain their wealth and power in the short term in expectation that global warming will only become serious in the long term.  They are the people behind the climate-science disinformation campaign.

    Secondly, there are the suckers.  These are the ordinary people who have fallen victim of the disinformation campaign.  My assumption is that such people would accept the fact of climate change if they were exposed both to the evidence of climate change and the evidence of the fossil-fuel industry's deceit.

    Thirdly, there are the psychotics.  These are the flat-earthers whose irrational world-view has no place for the evidence of climate change.  Of course they "sincerely disbelieve a climate-change problem exists".

    However, I now see the possibility of a fourth group.  These are the fanatics who compare the evidence for climate change with the proposed solutions to the problem and conclude that the latter is worse for them than the former.  Or can this group be lumped in with the psychopaths?

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  8. rocketeer@1,

    I agree with your point about the 1937 report being an early example of deliberate climate change denial, or more correctly a deliberate attempt to diminish or dismiss the implications of burning fossil fuels.

    The following part is the basis for declaring it to be disinformation messaging like we see today.

    "...would have increased only two-thousandths of one per
    cent. in that time; from 0.03 to 0.032 per cent."

    That statement does not say the increase is 6.67 percent. It deliberately says the increase is only 0.002 percent. That is a deliberetae diminishing of the impact by a scale of 3333.3 times.

    So in addition to being an early piece of disinformation marketing, it is a whopper.

    And the closing statement including the word "infinitesimal" hopes to be reinforced by the ealier 3333 times diminishment of the amount of CO2 impact by that early date.

    Clearly it is a deliberately thought out bit of disinformation marketing created by people who actually do 'know better' like we see today.

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  9. OPOF @8, from the text quoted @1, over 50 years prior to the article, 50 GtC was released to the atmosphere.  That represents an atmospheric increase of 23.5 ppmv if all of it was retained in the atmosphere.  Based on the science of the time, the claim is made that "well over 90 per cent. of any excess carbon dioxide introduced into the atmosphere eventually finds its way into the ocean".  A 90% figure for such a low cumulative emissions is consistent with modern carbon models.  What differs is modern models, based on emperical evidence not available in the 1930s, show that it takes several hundred years for that draw down, not the couple of years assumed by the text.  Based in the science of the time, however, an estimate of 10% of 23.5 ppmv, or 2.35 ppmv increase is reasonable.

    As it happens, they significantly understate their case, instead claiming 20 ppmv increase (from 300 to 320 ppmv).  Presumably they have not factored in the ocean draw down, in line with the claim the conditional, "If all the carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere in the last 50 years had not been removed by returning the elements involved to the earth in some form or other".

    Finally, that the case is presented persuasively does not make it denial.  Richard Alley, Michael Mann and many others on the pro-action side try to present the science persuasively.  That does not make their writings (or their popular writtings) anti-scientific.  It is only when you misrepresent the science to achieve greater persuasive power that you become antiscientific, and consequently (if you oppose action) a denier.

    This attempt to turn "denier" into a word that merely indicates disagreement, without regard to the merits of the science at the time of writing, turns it into nothing but a tribal insult - a means of indicating that the person in question disagrees with you, and that you intend to insult them for that alone.  It evacuates the word of useful meaning.  

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  10. AMHartley: "Some, at least, of those people might actually sincerely disbelieve a climate change problem exists, leading them to assert that no ‘solutions to climate change’ are needed."

    IMO, anyone who "sincerely disbelieves a climate change problem exists" is sincerely in denial. Mere ignorance doesn't explain their position:  a genuine skeptic who was merely uninformed would reserve judgement while seeking reliable information. A genuine skeptic would also want to be able to recognize who the credible sources of scientific information are, rather than swallowing whatever he or she sees on FoxNews or reads on WUWT.

    In the Internet Age, it's just as easy to find reliable sources of information (for example, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, or the Royal Society of the U.K.) as it is to find unreliable sources.  Therefore, forming an opinion that  ‘no solutions to climate change are needed because no climate change problem exists' is a matter of choosing to believe untrustworthy information sources over trustworthy ones.  That is, it's a matter of denial.

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  11. Scorgie @7

    Right; I don’t see your Groups 1 & 4 as differing much. In any case, though, based on the Denial101x course, the important distinction seems to be between the active deniers & the passive uninformed. Making any headway with the deniers is quite difficult due to the ‘backfire effect’ & various vested interests (“a man convinced against his will…is of the same opinion still”); however, one can hope to have an effect on the uninformed.

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  12. Tom Curtis@9

    Your point is well presented, however my point was about the "...deliberate attempt to diminish or dismiss the implications of burning fossil fuels." which I am quite confident is the major motivation behind similar disinformation claim making we see today.

    So your point does not diminish the relevance of the point I made, however its tenor (and the fact that it is prefaced as a response to my point), seem to imply it is a refutation of my point.

    I will add, however, that unlike you I would consider 'the presentation of a legitimate worst case scenario to raise awareness of an issue of concern regarding the future of humanity that some people may prefer to ignore' to be more acceptable than 'deliberate attempts by people wanting to maximize their personal benefit and profit by making an issue appear less serious in the hopes of garnering popular support from people who are inclined to want to ignore or diminish the seriousness of the issue for their own personal reasons and interests'.

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  13. OPOF @12, my post @9 was indeed intended to be a response to that precise point.  I apologise for not spelling it out sufficiently.  Essentially, there are two conventions for specifying the change of concentration of a gas as a percentage.  You can specify it as a percentage change relative to its initial value, or you can specify the change as a percentage of the total atmosphere.  Normally in doing the later, we use units of parts per million, or part per billion for gases with low concentrations.  That however, is only a matter of convenience to eliminate the number of non-significant figures that must be printed.  A part per million is no different in principle to a part per hundred, ie, a per centum, or a percent.  With that technical issue aside, there is no obvious reason why we should use one convention rather than another, that, for example, we should say CO2 concentrations have increased by 43% since the preindustrial rather than say thay have increased from 280 to 400 ppmv.  To the extent that there is a reason to prefer one of the other, the later is preferable because it gives more information.

    With that in mind, it was quite appropriate in your quoted text for the author to express the change as a percentage of the entire atmosphere.  It contains no different information than if he had indicated a change from 300 to 320 ppmv; which given the data available and presented is a reasonable estimate.

    If you had a point, therefore, it should not be that the author deemphasized the percentage change (he did not, given that he presented the initial and final values); but that by choosing units of "percent" rather than "per million" he emphasized the low concentration of CO2 as a whole in the atmosphere.  I would still consider that an unjust criticism because, firstly, it is not clear that expressing the value as percent rather than a part per million has that effect (and it certainly doesn't to those familiar with arithmatic); and secondly, the author does not in the quoted section present the spurious argument that CO2 can have no impact because of its low absolute concentration.

    Beyond that I refer you again to the last two paragraphs of my preceding post.

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  14. Tom Curtis@13,

    Thank you for the clarification. My return clarification is that the article was a piece of marketing, not a scientific presentation. The choice of referring to percent increase combined with the term infinitesimal was almost certainly deliberately chosen to diminish the concern regarding the burning of fossil fuels.

    Many readers then and today would be likely to interpret 'percentage increase' as referring to a ratio of change. That is what a deliberately misleading marketer would do, then and today. Which ties to the end of my comment @12.

    This will be my final clarification regarding this point.

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  15. I thought one of the intersting aspects of the article I posted was the defensive tone of the author.  Whe he states that "the fears of those people who shudder at the " greatly " increased carbon dioxide content of the air which is produced by modern industrial activity, are unfounded"  it is news to me that anyone of that era was shuddering wiht fear about the increase in CO2.  Arrhenius in 1906 and Callendar in 1938 both advocated that the climatic changes form CO2 would be a good thing because it would forestall "the return of the deadly glaciers" and improve agriculture in northern regions. 

    Does anyone have any information on what concerns scientists might have had about global warming in the 1930s?  My impression was that very few people (other than Guy Callendar) were even paying attention to Arrhenius' theory at that time and I wasn't aware that anyone considered it a problem.

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  16. rocketeer @15, using SkS's interactive history of climate science, I found only one paper in the decade prior to 1937 explicitly discussing the greenhouse effect in any detail, E. O. Hulburt's "The Temperature of the Lower Atmosphere of the Earth".  It is interesting because it models the lower atomsphere as being the surface temperature at the altitude of effective radiation to space plus effective altitude of radiation to space times lapse rate.  It is that model which rebuts the notion that the greenhouse effect is saturated.  Previously I had thought it to be the invention of Manabe and Wetherald, 1967, but it now turns out the "CO2 is saturated" argument has been obsolete since 1931.

    Of more interest to this discussion, while Hulburt found high climate sensitivity (4 to 7 C), and did posit changes in CO2 concentration as a possible cause of changes between glacial and interglacial temperatures, he nowhere discusses any potential impact from anthropogenic emissions.  Even Callendar (1938) only projects an increase of CO2 to equivalent of modern values by 2200, with an increase in temperature of 0.57 C as a result.  He found only a 6% increase in CO2 relative to preindustrial times in 1936.  These figures are not appropriately described as "the fears of those people who shudder at the " greatly " increased carbon dioxide content of the air". 

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  17. I can no longer find the "Fossil Fuel Files" website. I used to find it with a simple google search, but no more. Was it taken off for copyright violations? It was a great resource; I wanted to place its content on Youtube. 

    I have one June 6, 1978 document written by J.F. Black, Scientific Advisor, Products Research Division, Exxon.  "The Greenhouse Effect."

    Does anyone here know what became of the website?

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  18. Eddie:

    Is there anything useful at

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  19. Yep, that's it! It's been so long that I could not remember; now, how do I find someone to appreciate this vast store of fossil fuel deception documents? [Shortened link]

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