People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington D.C. (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Thanks to the work of environmental activists, people from all over the world now view climate crisis as the ‘most important issue’ of our time. This public recognition, however, is barely reflected in politics. The EU goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 – which, according to the IPCC, is too late anyway – had to be abandoned due to four member states vetoing it. Under the far-right leadership of Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian government views climate change as nothing but a ‘Marxist plot’. As politicians of the world fail to acknowledge the imminent threat of a climate catastrophe, it becomes necessary to look into the origins of their climate denialism. Blaming governments’ inaction on mistrust of science distracts from the fact that climate change denial has been a deliberate corporate project for more than forty years.
It all started in 1977 with Exxon, now ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil and gas company. Jack Black, the company’s senior scientist, delivered a report stating that humanity is negatively influencing the climate through ‘carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels’. By 1983, other American oil companies such as Shell and Texaco became aware of climate change as well. Rather than making this newfound knowledge of an unprecedented existential threat a public issue, the oil industry started constructing what is now known as the ‘climate denial machine’ – a multifaceted effort to deny the reality and scale of climate change.
This machine is an intricate global network that permeates all levels of society. One of its goals is to shape public discourse on climate, for example by appointing a climate denying platform Check Your Fact as a Facebook fact checker. Check Your Fact is directly connected to Fox News, a media outlet that has led the way in spreading fake news about climate change. It comes as no surprise that Fox News has been sponsored by ExxonMobil. Disinformation is a tactic employed not only by undemocratic regimes and hate groups, but also by corporations that put profit before the environment.
In order to appear more respectable and gain in political influence, the climate denial machine has set up and funded right-wing anti-environmentalist groups. Think-tanks such as the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation have received massive donations from the oil industry to produce the kind of fake science that justifies the burning of fossil fuels. Another example is the Cooler Heads Coalition, a group of climate change denying organisations which has received millions of dollars from ExxonMobil and is now a powerful pressure group in the White House. For every scientist warning before climate catastrophe, the machine has aimed to produce a counter narrative that clouds the truth.
Still, the most powerful tool at the corporate disposal is lobbying. The largest oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m/year in lobbying to block, overturn, or weaken environmental policy. Few years ago, the Republican senator James Inhofe threw a snowball across the US Senate floor to ‘prove’ climate change is not real. This publicity stunt may have appeared comical, but the truth is that Inhofe, like so many other US politicians, is on the oil companies’ payroll. Climate change denying public figures are not acting out of ignorance but out of greed. Their denialism is being generously rewarded by the oil industry. Therefore, any effort to keep the climate denial machine out of politics is as much about fighting climate change as it is about fighting corruption.
For years, the mainstream media have tried to shift the blame for the climate crisis from the systemic to the individual. Although it is true that individual consumption in the Global North contributes to climate change enormously, it is powerful corporations that have kept us in shadows while burning the planet. In striving for climate justice, we have to find ways of breaking up corporate power and making sure it never influences environmental policy again.