SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 198 May 2016

Big Oil’s climate cover-up

Oil companies were fully aware of the science behind fossil-fuel-driven climate change at least 50 years ago. In fact, they funded much of the research. Not only that. From very early on, Big Oil was using that research to sow doubt about the science in people’s minds and to block environmental legislation. Those are the inescapable conclusions from hundreds of documents recently released by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

Carroll Muffett, CIEL president, said that the oil companies "knew a great deal, and they knew it much earlier and with greater certainty than anyone has recognised or that the industry has admitted". He added: "CIEL’s findings add to the growing body of evidence that the oil industry worked to actively undermine public confidence in climate science and in the need for climate action even as its own knowledge of climate risks was growing". (How We Learned ‘What They Knew’, 13 April)

The initial concern of Big Oil was not climate change, however, but air pollution – and its potential cost through regulation and liability. It became a huge issue in Los Angeles in the 1940s, where the sky turned yellow and residents became nauseous, complaining of burning eyes. Children had to play indoors. Crops failed. The causes were nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons from motor vehicle exhausts and refineries, which formed smog in sunlight, choking the city’s streets and people.

In 1946, the Western Oil and Gas Association met in LA to discuss how to respond. It set up the Smoke and Fumes Committee (SFC), made up of executives from Union Oil and Standard Oil of California (both now part of Chevron), Humble Oil and Esso (together more widely known as ExxonMobil), and Shell. The committee began to fund research in order to provide ammunition to the industry for the battles against what it routinely claims is overzealous regulation based on flawed science. It was, in reality, a smoke and mirrors committee.

The SFC became a national body in 1952 and continued to operate, in different guises, for 20 years. By 1958 – at the latest – it was funding research into the link between fossil fuel emissions and rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The SFC funded several bodies, including the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), founded in 1946 with the backing of Big Oil. Originally part of Stanford University, it maintained close ties with the oil industry, which had representatives on the SRI board. CIEL reports that the SFC had a big influence on who was hired (and fired) by the SRI – often based on the researchers’ opinions of the science in question.

In 1955, Hans Suess, a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, linked to the University of California, provided proof that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – was building up in the atmosphere. In 1957, Suess and Roger Revelle, director of Scripps, demonstrated that far more CO2 would remain in the atmosphere than previously assumed, potentially accelerating climate change.

As the CIEL revelations show, just two months later, HR Brannon’s team at Humble Oil published its own report. This also acknowledged rising levels of atmospheric CO2. It recognised the apparent contribution of fossils fuels to that increase. However, it suggested that CO2 would be held in the oceans, delaying by decades or even centuries the impact of fossil fuel emissions. It was an attempt to muddy the waters – the model for global warming sceptics to this day.

In November 1965, Revelle and four other scientists wrote a paper for president Lyndon B Johnson’s science advisory committee. It said that the increase in CO2 "may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate". It explained: "Within a few short centuries, we are returning to the air a significant part of the carbon that was slowly extracted by plants and buried in the sediments during half a billion years... We can conclude with fair assurance that, at the present time, fossil fuels are the only source of CO2 being added to the ocean-atmosphere-biosphere system". (Dana Nuccitelli, Guardian, 5 November 2015)

This all goes to show that, more than 50 years ago, knowledge of fossil-fuel driven climate change was widespread in scientific, governmental and industrial circles. Yet Big Oil would continue to fund research into other sources of CO2, alternative theories for rising global temperatures, and ways to avoid reducing emissions. This was not a genuine attempt at objective scientific investigation. It was a deliberate diversion away from the scale of the problem and the industries in the eye of the storm. The claims around climate change based on sunspots were developed at that time – and continue to be a mainstay for climate sceptics.

The message was that fossil fuels should burn on unhindered. That was not only driving global warming, of course. It also drove Big Oil/Big Auto’s profits. The corporations found willing partners among the political establishment – all in it together, representing the ruling capitalist class. They were aided and abetted by state-backed infrastructure, including university research facilities, paid for by the taxes of working-class people – who live in areas most affected by pollution and the effects of global warming.

Along the way, the oil companies engaged in cutting-edge climate science. The problem was, to ensure they safeguarded their own short-term interests – profits – they have withheld that information, which is vital for the long-term health of the world’s people and the planet itself. This includes the American Petroleum Institute’s Project 51, based at the Scripps Institution in the 1950s and early 1960s. This studied periods of rising sea level and periods of warming – linked to the intensified search for oil reserves in shallow seas. And research into hurricanes – prevalent in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico – the severity and frequency of which are expected to increase with higher global temperatures.

A remarkably blunt report was sent to the API in 1968, by SRI scientists Elmer Robinson and RC Robbins. It acknowledged the link between rising atmospheric CO2 and the risk of climate change. It stated that fossil fuels were the most likely cause and that research should be focused on ways to reduce emissions. In 1969, however, the API commissioned Robinson to write a ‘Supplemental’ report. It was much more equivocal and, when Robinson gave a speech at the World Petroleum Congress in Moscow in June 1971, he again stressed uncertainties in the science and called for a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. It is impossible to ignore the suspicion that he had been reined in by the oil companies paying his wages.

Robinson and Robbins had estimated that CO2 in the atmosphere could reach 400 parts per million (ppm) by 2000. That level was actually reached last year – 402.6ppm, as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. Carbon dioxide levels in the air have increased by more than 40% since 1880 – and global temperatures by over 1°C above pre-industrial levels. The last time there was such a sustained CO2 rise was between 11,000 and 17,000 years ago, when it jumped by 80ppm. Today’s rate is 200 times faster, according to Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US federal science agency. (Guardian, 10 March)

This existential threat to life on earth is being driven by fossil-fuel use. The short-term profit-driven system is hard-wired into it. The industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries were based on it. The immensely rich and powerful oil, gas, coal and vehicle industries run on it. And, as the papers published by the CIEL show, over decades Big Oil has developed a massive campaign to keep it going – regardless of the long-term cost to the world. It is a systemic fault, proving that the capitalist system has failed, that it cannot take society forward. The only way to develop human and natural resources sustainably is through open, democratic socialist planning – sharing scientific research and working in solidarity to safeguard the planet for future generations.

Manny Thain

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