mixed greens

Cui bono?

Posted 4/10/24

We’ve all heard the casual, often repeated arguments against climate action: “It will destroy the economy” or “It’s too late” or “You can’t change …

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mixed greens

Cui bono?


We’ve all heard the casual, often repeated arguments against climate action: “It will destroy the economy” or “It’s too late” or “You can’t change people’s way of life.” 

Online resources remind us that these arguments are part of a highly organized effort dating back to (some say, inspired by) the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, and draw upon disinformation techniques developed over the past century. By most accounts, the current effort started in 1989 when the National Association of Manufacturers formed the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) under the auspices of the trade organization’s ironically titled “Air Quality Task Force.”

The GCC’s work was conceived as a countermovement to thwart climate action—first by casting doubt on climate science and the integrity of climate scientists through industry-funded “contrarian science.” Economic studies were designed to exaggerate the cost of climate action while downplaying the cost of climate consequences, and an intensive public relations effort commandeered the language of environmental responsibility and social good, reframing climate science as a radical cultural and political movement.  

In turn, these efforts have bolstered a systematic, aggressive and well-funded lobbying campaign aimed at politicians and policy leaders.

One of the top purveyors of this counteroffensive was E. Bruce Harrison, a prodigious public relations expert who developed strategies to defend the chemical industry against proposed regulation of pesticides prompted by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Graduating to the bigger fight against all environmental regulation and action on climate change, Harrison pioneered the use of economic alarmism to counter climate science, and developed the rosy PR vision of a rich and abundant lifestyle made possible by the fossil fuel industry. 

That “good life” argument may have reached an apex in April 2001, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney memorably claimed excess as an American birthright, derided efforts to reduce energy consumption as virtue signaling and argued for unbridled oil and gas development, a message paraphrased by The Guardian as “conservation is for wimps and that they can go on guzzling the world’s energy resources as if there were no tomorrow.” Al Gore is reported to have called Harrison’s work for the GCC “the worst moral crime since the world wars.” 

Harrison died in 2021, but the seductive “good life” argument survives in endless variations.

Online resources at Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab provide an antidote.  A student-faculty think tank that focuses on the purveyors and strategies of climate obstruction, the CDL project has compiled a number of databases and research studies that identify donor organizations that fund climate disinformation—especially on college and university campuses. It tracks the origins and patterns of arguments used in campaigns against renewable energy projects and climate initiatives, and documents the potential political and industry affiliations of individuals serving on Public Utility Commissions in all 50 states. 

The latest effort is a searchable dataset on state-level lobbying around climate change. The database tracks 25 years of lobbying both for and against climate action. Researchers can identify organizations, their policy positions, the bills they have supported or opposed, and the individuals and groups they are allied with. The project features data from the 17 states that practice some level of transparency around lobbying efforts, since many states provide little to no access to such information. 

Influence Map, another data-driven think tank, analyzes climate policy and lobbying efforts on a global scale. Their Carbon Majors database builds on work first released by Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute, and tracks historic production data from 122 of the world’s largest oil, gas, coal and cement producers. The April 2024 Carbon Majors report reveals that 80 percent of global CO2 emissions produced since the Paris Agreement (2016-2022) can be traced to a small group of just 57 corporate and state entities, high emitters which are failing to slow production.  

These polluters have the money to finance elaborate public relations and lobbying efforts because they have externalized all of the costs of the damage they do—the environmental, health and climate damages the rest of us are paying for, one way or another. They are using their billions to subvert work that seeks to reduce or prevent that damage, or even allow information to be publicly available, and they benefit from the comfortable secrecy that they have bought with our well-being. 

climate action, Global climate coalition, air quality task force


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