The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A dark tale of money corrupting politics — and destroying the climate

A gas flare from a Shell Chemicals petroleum refinery illuminates the sky on Aug. 21, 2019, in Norco, La. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
7 min

In November 1959 Edward Teller, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” told a group of oil company executives and scientists gathered at Columbia University that continued burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet, potentially melting the ice caps and submerging New York and other coastal cities — posing a threat to civilization comparable to a global nuclear war.

Teller’s remarkably prescient words are quoted in investigative journalist Geoff Dembicki’s new book “The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change.” But it turns out that the renowned physicist was not the only one to know about climate change well before awareness of the issue became widespread. We learn that Exxon, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, quietly studied climate science as a top priority during the 1970s, transforming one of its supertankers into a floating lab to measure carbon dioxide levels at sea. James Black, a company scientist, briefed executives about the immense danger to humankind from the unrestricted combustion of fossil fuels, advising them to act quickly.

Likewise, a working group at Shell warned that, if we waited for global warming to be easily detectable before we acted, “it could be too late.” In the 1990s, British Petroleum produced a series of documentaries that predicted “devastating consequences” from rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, including sea level rise that would render low-lying countries like Bangladesh defenseless against floods.

Fossil fuel companies didn’t limit themselves to studying the mayhem that their products were poised to unleash. They also investigated potential solutions. A carbon tax and emissions trading scheme could be effective in helping to stabilize climate change, Imperial Oil (a subsidiary of Exxon) concluded in a 1991 report.

The companies knew that “stopping climate change was not only possible, but economically feasible,” Dembicki concludes. Nevertheless, they did everything in their power to make sure that “this climate solution never happened.”

In a classical Greek tragedy, the world is brought to ruin by a character’s moral flaw. The moral flaw that has brought the planet to the brink of climate chaos, according to the author, is unbridled greed compounded by hubris — a bloated sense of corporate entitlement. It led the fossil fuel industry to fight a decades-long war against the science of global warming — a science, ironically, that it had been instrumental in creating.

It was not, of course, a war that it could expect to win. Victory, in this case, did not mean winning the argument: The science has been beyond dispute for more than half a century. It was enough to plant sufficient doubt and uncertainty in the public mind to prevent effective climate policies from being implemented.

Big Oil pursued this goal through anonymous front groups with virtuous-sounding names like the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a “one-stop shop for any corporate backer looking to dismiss scientific findings that were bad for their business model.” This shadowy confederation of fake grass-roots groups and far-right think tanks was financed most notably by the industrialist Koch brothers, and by leading fossil fuel companies (which frequently funneled their largesse through middlemen such as the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers to hide their hand.)

The agenda evolved over time. When the effort to discredit the science was no longer deemed credible, companies turned to greenwashing — employing the language of sustainability and environmental responsibility — at the same time that they lobbied against emissions-limiting policies they claimed would cost jobs and violate the sanctity of the free market. Equally damaging, Dembicki says, is how Big Oil pushed for the development of vast, untapped sources of fossil fuels called “carbon bombs” that, if unleashed, would make even the most modest global emissions targets unattainable.

The author, a Canadian freelance reporter, pays special attention to the tar sands, a vast tract of boreal forest in northern Alberta that contains the third-largest petroleum reserve on the planet. Scientists warned that the prodigious energy needed to process the gritty mixture, combined with transporting the oil hundreds of miles from the remote region by pipeline, would make it the most expensive and ecologically destructive oil on Earth.

The industry, bent on expansion, turned a deaf ear to these warnings. Companies said, moreover, they were not to blame for warming the planet. Consumers who use oil for transportation, heating and the production of their food, they asserted, are responsible, not the companies that dig it out of the ground.

That might seem a reasonable argument if it were not for the decades-long corporate effort to deceive the public. This pernicious campaign, the author says, effectively blocked the development of greener alternatives — ensuring that the world would be unable to put the brake on climate change in time. It is an argument that is now being heard in courtrooms as scores of states and municipalities sue Big Oil companies for damages to their communities.

What makes the current state of affairs doubly tragic is that there was a time when America seemed poised to act. The author writes almost wistfully of a 2008 TV advertisement in which Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi jointly called for action on climate change. (Gingrich later reversed himself, calling the ad “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.”)

The era of bipartisan support for climate action did not last long. In 1992, 88 percent of Americans believed that global warming was a serious problem. By 1997, only 42 percent agreed with that statement. Dembicki blames what might well be the best-financed disinformation campaign in history for this startling turnaround. But the impact on American politics didn’t end there. He goes on to implicate Koch and fossil-fuel company money in the rise of the tea party movement, as well as the election of Donald Trump.

It is a dark tale of money corrupting politics and paralyzing the public will. Still, not everyone we read about in these pages is a climate villain. There are also heroes like Seattle lawyer Steve Berman, who led the way in suing Big Oil companies for damages. There is also Enrique Rosero, an idealistic young Exxon engineer who called the corporation out for its role in the climate coverup during a town hall meeting for employees and was forced from his job as a result. Local activist Lucy Molina organized against a refinery in Colorado that was causing spikes in asthma and cancer in her Denver suburb.

Most poignantly, we meet Joanna Sustento, a young Filipina who lived through Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. Her heart-wrenching account of watching virtually her entire family drown that day is strung out episodically throughout the book, portraying the human cost of the corporate coverup of global warming.

The unrelenting volley of facts in “The Petroleum Papers” can be dry at times, and some of the portraits of key figures can seem less than fully fleshed out. But for those who want a no-frills account of how we ended up on the climate precipice, this is an essential read.

The Petroleum Papers

Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change

By Geoff Dembicki

Greystone. 256pp. $27.95.

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