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Marketing and Comms
Fossil Fuel Industry Long Deceiving the Public on Climate Change

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report this week documenting the deception tactics used by fossil fuel companies in spreading misinformation about climate change. The Climate Deception Dossiers contains 85 internal memos showing a variety of efforts to manufacture uncertainty about climate science.

Fossil fuel companies have long been aware of the harmful impacts of their products and have intentionally deceived the public to deny this harm, the report argues. The authors present a small history lesson evidencing the extent of companies’ dishonesty.

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1977, representatives from major fossil fuel companies attended congressional hearings during which the contribution of carbon emissions to the greenhouse effect was discussed. An email from an Exxon employee in 1981 shows the company was already factoring climate change into decisions about fossil fuel extraction.

By 1988, climate change was a mainstream, national issue. James Hansen, a leading NASA climate scientist, testified before Congress confirming that industrial activities were causing climate change. The UN International Panel on Climate Change was also formed in this year, and the US National Energy Policy Act began efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

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In the 1990s, internal memos show scientists within major companies warning unequivocally that burning fossil fuels is causing climate change. The report also shows companies’ forged letters to Congress, covert funding distributed to supposedly independent scientists, and the creation of phony grassroots organizations as deception tactics.

Despite these early developments, more than half of all industrial carbon emissions have been released since 1988, and comprehensive federal policy on climate change is lacking.

“As the picture of the fossil fuel companies’ efforts to deceive the public comes into clear view, the time is ripe to hold these companies accountable for their actions and responsible for the harm they have caused,” says the report’s conclusion.

As a solution, the report identifies minimum standards that society should hold fossil fuel companies to in the future, and calls on them to:

  • Stop disseminating misinformation about climate change.

  • Support fair and cost-effective policies to reduce global-warming emissions.

  • Reduce emissions from current operations and update their business models to prepare for future global limits on emissions.

  • Pay for their share of the costs of climate damages and preparedness.

  • Fully disclose the financial and physical risks of climate change to their business operations.

This report adds to the rising tide of public calls for business to act on climate change. In recent years, many companies are heeding the call to modify their risk models and factor in climate change vulnerabilities. While fossil fuel companies may be behind and regulation is lacking, major consumer brands such as H&M, Unilever and Nestlé have committed to disclose climate change data as a matter of fiduciary duty. And in April, institutional investors representing nearly $2 trillion in assets called for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to push for better disclosure by oil and gas companies of critical climate change-related business risks.

Globally, emissions continue to rise. But according to the most recent Climate Change Performance Index, “promising shifts” in industries related to climate change are ahead.