“There is general scientific agreement that … mankind is influencing the global climate … through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels. … There are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. … Man has a time window of five to ten years before … hard decisions regarding … energy strategies might become critical. … Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
You might be forgiven for assuming those prophetic words were spoken by Al Gore. Instead, they were the words of fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil’s own experts in recently unearthed internal documents from the 1970s (Banerjee et al. 2015). In subsequent decades, instead of heeding the warnings of its own scientists, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel interests waged a public relations campaign contesting the scientific evidence and blocking policies aimed at curbing planet-warming carbon pollution.
As a result, our planet has now warmed into the danger zone, and we are not yet taking the measures necessary to avert a crisis. We are in a war—and we must first understand the mind of the enemy, their evolving tactics, and how to combat them.
Our story takes us back decades to when the playbook of science denial was written. The tobacco industry sought to discredit the link between cigarettes and lung cancer even as its own internal research dating back to the 1950s demonstrated the deadly and addictive nature of its product (Oreskes and Conway 2010). Joined by billionaire plutocrats such as the Koch brothers, Mercers, and Scaifes, fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil have for decades funded a billions-of-dollars tobacco-industry-like campaign of science denial, working to discredit the science behind human-caused climate change and its link to fossil fuel burning.
Today, the impacts are no longer subtle. We see them playing out in the daily news cycle, on our television screens, in our newspaper headlines, and in our social media feeds. Coastal inundation, withering heat waves and droughts, devastating floods, unprecedented wildfires: this is the face of dangerous climate change. It’s a face that Americans increasingly recognize.
So the forces of denial and delay—fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats, “dark money” outfits, and fossil fueled petrostates—can no longer insist nothing is happening. They have instead shifted to a softer form of denialism, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on distraction, deception, and delay—what I call the “New Climate War.”
They have masterfully executed a “deflection campaign” aimed at shifting responsibility from corporations to individuals. Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are increasingly touted as the primary solution to the climate crisis. Though these actions are worth taking, a fixation on voluntary action alone takes the pressure off the push for governmental policies to hold corporate polluters accountable (Hagmann et al. 2019).
The deflection campaign provides an opportunity for the enemy to employ a “wedge” strategy, dividing the climate community by exploiting a preexisting rift between climate advocates focused on individual action versus policy action. Other preexisting rifts involve issues of gender, race, and matters of social justice.
Using online bots and trolls, manipulating social media and internet search engines, the enemy has deployed the sort of cyber-weaponry honed during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, preying on hatred, jealousy, fear, rage, bigotry—all the most base, reptilian brain impulses. They seek to sow discord, dissent, and division within the climate movement while generating outrage on the the part of their “base”—the disaffected right.
Meanwhile, they have effectively blocked policy action by: 1) opposing measures to regulate or price carbon emissions; 2) attacking viable alternatives (i.e., renewable energy); and 3) promoting false solutions (e.g., coal with carbon capture or unproven and potentially dangerous “geoengineering” schemes). Hypothetical future “innovations,” the argument goes, will somehow save us, so there’s no need for any current policy intervention.
With climate progress sidelined by the dismantling of climate-friendly EPA policies, rolling back of regulations on pollutants, greenlighting of oil and gas pipelines, direct handouts to aid a struggling coal industry, and cheap leases to drill on public lands, the fossil fuel industry is enjoying free reign to expand their polluting enterprise.
They have meanwhile promoted the narrative that climate change impacts will be mild, innocuous, and easily adapted to undermine any sense of urgency, while at the same time promoting the inevitability of climate change to dampen any sense of agency. This latter effort has been aided and abetted by individuals who are ostensibly climate champions but have portrayed catastrophe as a fait accompli, either by overstating the damage to which we are already committed, dismissing the possibility of mobilizing the action necessary to avert disaster, or setting the standard so high (say, the very overthrow of market economics itself) that action is almost doomed to failure. The enemy has been more than happy to amplify such arguments.
But all is not lost if we learn to recognize the tactics that are being used—the forces of inaction—and how to combat them. Here is my four-point battle plan:
- Disregard the Doomsayers. We must reject the overt doom and gloom that we increasingly encounter in today’s climate discourse. The truth is motivation enough for action. We cannot be distracted by false prophecies of unavoidable doom. We must remain focused on forging ahead and solving the problem.
- A Child Shall Lead Them. The youngest generation is fighting tooth and nail to save their planet, and there is great moral authority and clarity in their message. But the Eye of Sauron is focused upon them. The head of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) referred to the youth climate movement as the “greatest threat” the fossil fuel industry faces (Watts 2019). We must have their backs as they expose themselves to attack on the front lines of the new climate war. They are our future.
- Educate. Most hardcore climate change deniers are unmoveable. They view climate change through the prism of right-wing ideology and are impervious to facts. Don’t waste your time and effort trying to convince them. But there are many honest, confused individuals who are caught up in the crossfire, victims of the climate change disinformation campaign. We must disabuse them of the myths, introduce them to the facts, and provide them with lasting resources they can continue to rely upon.
- Systemic Change. The fossil fuel disinformation machine wants to make it about the car you choose to drive, the food you eat, and the lifestyle you live rather than the larger system and incentives. But to solve this problem we need massive, systemic change, with our governments and corporations taking responsibility in solving the problem. We need policies to shift us toward clean energy and politicians who will do our bidding instead of the bidding of powerful polluters. So we must bring pressure to bear, using the power of our voice and our vote.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge ahead of us. Change is always hard, and we are being asked to make a journey into an unfamiliar future. It is unsurprising that anxiety and fear abound when it comes to the climate crisis and our efforts to deal with it. We must understand, though, that the forces of denial and delay are feeding on our anxiety and fear and using it against us to build a fortress of resistance. So we must be brave and find the strength to fight on, channeling that fear and anxiety into motivation and action. The stakes are simply too great.
As we continue to explore the cosmos, we have still not encountered any evidence of life elsewhere in our solar system, our galaxy, or indeed the entire universe. Life appears to be very rare indeed. Complex life even more so. And as for intelligent life … we may, at least for all intents and purposes, be alone. Just us drifting aboard this “Spaceship Earth.” No other place to dock, no alternative ports at which to sojourn with air to breath, water to drink, and food to consume.
We’ve been given a goldilocks planet, with just the right atmospheric composition, just the right distance from its star (the Sun), yielding just the right temperature range for life, with liquid water oceans and oxygen-rich air. Every person we will ever know, every animal or plant we will ever encounter, is reliant on conditions remaining just this way.
To continue to knowingly alter those conditions simply so a few very large corporations can continue to make record profits constitutes a crime against our planet and all known life. We cannot be passive bystanders as pollutors work toward making that eventuality come to pass. We still have a chance to ensure this not be our legacy.
- Banerjee, Neela, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer. 2015. Exxon’s own research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming decades ago. Top executives were warned of possible catastrophe from greenhouse effect, then led efforts to block solutions. Inside Climate News (September 16). Available online at https://insideclimatenews.org/news/15092015/Exxons-own-research-confirmed-fossil-fuels-role-in-global-warming.
- Hagmann, David, Emily H. Ho, and George Loewenstein. 2019. Nudging out support for a carbon tax. Nature Climate Change 9: 484–489.
- Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. London: Bloomsbury Press, 6.
- Watts, Jonathan. 2019. ‘Biggest compliment yet’: Greta Thunberg welcomes oil chief’s ‘greatest threat’ label. The Guardian (July 5). Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/05/biggest-compliment-yet-greta-thunberg-welcomes-oil-chiefs-greatest-threat-label.