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How decades of disinformation about fossil fuels halted U.S. climate policy

An Exxon Mobil refinery is seen in the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
An Exxon Mobil refinery is seen in the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

In April, President Biden unveiled the United States' most ambitious plan ever to cut emissions that drive climate change, and he urged other nations to follow. Now, days before Biden prepares for a pivotal climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the White House's keystone legislative plan to tackle climate disruption appears to be dead, sunk by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

It's the most recent in a string of defeats to aggressive climate action that stretches back more than 25 years.

The U.S. has contributed more heat-trapping pollution than any country over time and has been the prime driver of global climate change. The national debate about how to address the problem has raged for decades, but progress toward a solution has been slow. Whenever presidents or Congress have introduced measures to slash emissions to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, they've been repeatedly derailed.

In 1997, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution opposing the first international treaty to cut greenhouse gases. A sweeping 2009 bill to reduce emissions never came to a vote in the Senate because it did not have enough support and was doomed to fail. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord, the only country to reject the agreement.

The same headwinds have stopped nearly every effort, including Biden's, to make systemic cuts to emissions: a powerful fossil fuel lobby that has spent vast sums of money to influence lawmakers while simultaneously sowing public doubt about the science of climate change.

On Thursday, House Democrats will look into what they describe as the oil industry's decades of disinformation and misrepresentation to delay climate action. They have called executives from Exxon Mobil, BP America, Chevron Corp. and Shell Oil to testify. The meeting, Democrats say, is modeled on a historic hearing more than 25 years ago that held the tobacco industry to account for misleading the public about the harmful effects of smoking.

Two names likely to come up at the hearing are Charles and David Koch, the conservative petrochemical magnates. They have poured millions of dollars into efforts to discredit the science of climate change. The brothers have given over $145 million to climate-change-denying think tanks and advocacy groups between 1997 and 2018. The Kochs were joined in their efforts by Exxon, which has given nearly $37 million over the same time to spread climate misinformation.

A senior Exxon lobbyist in Washington was caught on tape in June describing the company's campaign to cloud the science. "Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes," said Keith McCoy in a sting operation by Greenpeace U.K. "Did we hide our science? Absolutely not. Did we join some of these 'shadow groups' to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that's true. But there's nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders."

Exxon Mobil disavowed McCoy's comments. "We were shocked by these interviews and stand by our commitments to working on finding solutions to climate change," Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Darren Woods said in a statement.

U.S. greenhouse gases have fallen in the last 15 years, but not to the levels that climate scientists say are needed. The industry's coordinated efforts over the previous three decades to stall or stop climate action in the U.S. has worked, thwarting global momentum to cut greenhouse gases.

"We lost decades of opportunity," says Michael Mann, a geophysicist who heads up Pennsylvania State University's Earth System Science Center. "We could have prevented much of the damage that we are now seeing play out."

A traditional opponent to climate action has shifted

The American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry lobby whose opposition to climate change initiatives goes back decades, says its position has "evolved."

"The industry has been responsive, especially in more recent years," says Aaron Padilla, API's director of climate, adding that its latest position "mirrors a consensus that we've seen in the scientific community to drive a sense of urgency and focus and mobilizing the private sector to engage constructively on climate."

But it has taken a long time to publicly acknowledge climate change.

Starting in the 1980s, the international community, including leading oil companies, realized the planet would get hotter because of increasing carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The emissions came mostly from burning fossil fuels.

By 1992, global leaders agreed to adopt measures to stabilize the climate at a United Nations meeting in Rio de Janeiro. Around the same time, many of the largest corporations in the U.S., led by the oil industry, formed the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to push back against efforts to reduce emissions.

The GCC amplified uncertainty about the link between fossil fuels and climate change, even as climate research fleshed out the relationship with increasing certainty. Individual members, such as Exxon, spent millions of dollars to support think tanks that denied mainstream climate science. In the early 1990s, a "very small group of scientists" emerged "that appeared to have been given a megaphone by industry," says Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and Environment at Princeton University.

"All of a sudden there was a group of scientists and pseudo-scientists who were forwarding counterarguments, which were by and large scientifically invalid," Oppenheimer says, "and they got a lot of airplay because the media sort of wasn't awake to the fact that there weren't really two sides of the science."

The oil industry focused its PR campaign on the treaty

The focus of the GCC and companies like Exxon was making sure the U.S. didn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty drafted in the mid-1990s with strict goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (Exxon merged with Mobil in 1998 to form Exxon Mobil.)

The treaty required only developed countries like the U.S. to meet specific targets for reducing emissions. Big polluters in the developing world — namely China and India — had no such requirement.

Vice President Al Gore who became a Nobel Prize-winning climate activist, speaks in Kyoto, Japan, where an international greenhouse-gas treaty was created in 1997. However, the U.S. Senate had preempted the Clinton administration from signing it.
Thierry Orban / Sygma via Getty Images
Then-Vice President Al Gore, who became a Nobel Prize-winning climate activist, speaks in Kyoto, Japan, where an international greenhouse-gas treaty was created in 1997. However, the U.S. Senate had preempted the Clinton administration from signing it.

For opponents of Kyoto, that omission proved a central sticking point and a winning argument for their side. Around the time of Kyoto and in the years that followed, Exxon actively called climate science into question with full-page advertisements in major newspapers, such as The New York Times. Headlines such as "Climate Change: a degree of uncertainty" and "Uncertain Science" made the fossil fuel industry's case that climate research was too shaky to justify the cuts to fossil fuel use that the Kyoto Protocol demanded.

At the same time, Exxon's own researchers and engineers were "quietly incorporating climate-change projections into the company's planning and closely studying how to adapt the company's Arctic operations to a warming planet," according to a Los Angeles Times investigation published in 2015.

Before the treaty was completed, the Senate passed a resolution saying it would not ratify any agreement that did not include mandates requiring developing countries such as China and India to limit emissions. As a result, "Kyoto was sort of dead on arrival," says Rafe Pomerance, an environmentalist and former deputy assistant secretary of state. "We decided not to fight it because it was a done deal."

Exxon Mobil did not respond to multiple queries for comment.

Obama made the next climate push

In 2009, 12 years after the Clinton administration failed to get the Kyoto Protocol ratified by the Senate, Democrats had control of the White House and Congress, and they crafted an economywide bill to reduce greenhouse gases.

If passed, the bill's strength would have come from a concept called cap and trade, limiting greenhouse gas emissions and giving polluting energy companies "allowances" to buy and sell the right to produce the carbon pollution. The trading was meant to give companies room to navigate pollution limits and reduce emissions, as the national limits on carbon get stricter over time. It was a strategy that had been used successfully decades before to tackle acid rain.

In 2009, the American Petroleum Institute lobbied against clean-energy co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
In 2009, the American Petroleum Institute lobbied against cap and trade legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

At the time, Democrats were under lots of pressure: The country was in the middle of a historically deep recession, and Congress was working to pass President Barack Obama's highly-controversial Affordable Care Act.

The cap-and-trade bill narrowly passed in the House. Democratic Sen. John Kerry, independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham worked on a similar bill for months in the Senate. But the opposition grew stiffer over time.

The American Petroleum Institute called for rejecting cap-and-trade, citing think tanks its members bankrolled. The oil industry had powerful allies, such as the country's biggest farm lobby, that also decried the bill and organized its members to demand Congress vote it down.

Think tanks that had thrived thanks to millions of dollars in grants from the oil industry labeled the climate bill "cap-and-tax." Conservative media picked up the idea that the legislation was a tax and amplified it. The Senate leadership understood over time that the bill would fail. In the end, it didn't even make it to a vote on the Senate floor.

Last chance for bipartisan climate policy

Ultimately, the Obama administration's legacy of cutting carbon pollution stems from the regulations it passed, which led to some decline in emissions. But regulations lack the staying power of laws.

"In many, many cases, [EPA regulations] can be reversed by the next administration, as Trump did to a lot of the good Obama initiatives," says Kert Davies, who runs the watchdog group the Climate Investigations Center.

And while the Trump administration took steps to pull out of the Paris Agreement, his team also worked tirelessly to undo countless Obama-era environmental regulations. "So, they're not permanent solutions," Davies says. "What makes it permanent is when you get the companies to invest."

That idea — incentivizing companies to invest rather than imposing a tax — is at the heart of the Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP, Biden's main climate plan. The program calls for $150 billion to pay utilities to produce clean, carbon-free electricity and penalize those that don't. One study by the think tank Energy Innovation found that a third of the emissions reductions in the originally proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill would come from the CEPP.

Opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has likely sounded a death knell for the Biden administration's ambitious plan to cut emissions that drive climate change.
Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images
Opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has likely sounded a death knell for the Biden administration's ambitious plan to cut emissions that drive climate change.

But despite months of negotiation with the White House, Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, a coal and natural gas state, said he was against the program. Manchin told CNN recently that energy companies already invested in clean energy and asked why the federal government should be the one paying for it.

Utilities, in fact, are making the transition to carbon-free energy, but far too slowly to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The CEPP's carrot-and-stick approach is aimed at hastening the transition so that emissions levels get closer to what climate science says we need right now.

The coal industry has been shrinking in West Virginia for decades. But Manchin himself made nearly $500,000 last year from investments in the state's coal sector. He also raised $400,000 in campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies in the third quarter of this year, as he questioned the need for the CEPP. Manchin is the top recipient in Congress of donations from the oil and gas industry.

Manchin's office did not respond to requests for comment on his decision and his industry ties.

Where does this leave us now?

Stripping away the CEPP means a large chunk of the emissions cuts that a House climate bill banked on are now gone, according to an analysis from Princeton's ZERO lab. The lab also found that if Congress failed at passing any measure at all, the president would fall far short of meeting his 2030 climate commitment.

Some climate activists and scientists say many climate initiatives in the infrastructure bill may live on. There are dozens of measures that, in a patchwork way, could lead to emissions cuts, such as building more charging stations for electric cars. Or funding for low-income solar projects and aid to rural areas adopt cleaner energy.

One proposal still left would impose a fee on leaks of methane from oil and gas fields and facilities. This could be especially significant because methane is a greenhouse gas about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate that meaningful global action to curtail methane emissions would have a fast effect on reining in warming. Yet in the last few days, Manchin has indicated that he would like to weaken or remove the methane provision, too.

Editor's note: Exxon Mobil is among NPR's financial supporters.

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