Over the holidays too many years ago, when I was little more than a toddler, I was caught in a baldfaced lie after having exhausted the freshly baked treasures of a kitchen cookie jar. I denied “the truth and the whole truth” by claiming maybe to have only eaten one or two cookies, and not wanting any more than that. That was my version of “alternative facts,” what, left unchecked, we now politely call “disinformation.”
With cookie crumbs dropping from my lips, my old-fashioned mother wasted no time telling me that she wished that I would tell her the truth, that lies smother the truth and that being truthful is important toward “becoming a good person in a good country.” She knew how to get my attention with repetition. But to make certain, as a memory aid, she washed my mouth out with soap. I remember later hearing somebody tell family friends about her at a school board meeting. Apparently, she stood up and threatened to wash somebody’s mouth out there, too. Everybody laughed at the story, but not me.
As we kick off the new year, I’ve thought about her ways of wisdom in the face of the ongoing threat of so many half-truths packaged with untruths, that have become part of the public propaganda of everyday life. I’ve always been grateful for my mother’s admonitions.
These days an epidemic of public propaganda has brought America to a low place. It has created a broken society in which the American people are constantly abused, gaslit and conned. All of us deserve much better. The examples that I know best involve scientific knowledge where great harm to society is well documented.
The tobacco industry would have been a good target for my mother, a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer. Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company was famously discredited by the linkage between cigarettes and lung cancer even as its own internal research dating back to the 1960s demonstrated the deadly addictive nature of its product. Then, with other companies, there was the pesticide revelations and the full-on demonization of science prior to DDT being banned. And later there was the industry-fed attack on the science-based discovery of the coal-fired, power-plant, sulfur dioxide origins of acid rain.
Today it seems that the degree of sophistication of lying rises to the challenge of the quality of the science. With so many experts warning us that we have less than a decade to get global emissions under control, the playing field for lying about climate change has become an industry of its own. There has not been enough specific analysis of greenhouse gases (GHGs), for example, methane, which pose severe environmental and health issues by trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.
That’s why so many Americans have the impression that global warming is something that scientists have only lately realized is important. Exxon’s internal documents show that oil executives were told by their own scientists as much in the 1970s. Exxon employed scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built climate models. Its senior scientist James Black warned Exxon’s management committee that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees — a number that’s consistent with the scientific consensus today. But Exxon decided to ignore science, canceled research projects and invested in the newer science of “spin.” With various at-the-ready PR firms, the marketing industry’s equivalent of think tanks, the priority became image bolstering, reputation management and consumer conversion.
The successes are noteworthy. They’ve helped to create industry-funded impressive-sounding front organizations (shadow nonprofits) to challenge the basic science of climate change through newspaper op-eds, public debates, fake scientific articles and any other means available.
At first, climate science and the integrity of climate scientists were attacked. These days the effort is greenwashing to distract the public from the harm their products cause to people and the planet. Recently an Exxon lobbyists was caught on tape saying that the company’s support for a carbon tax was merely a talking point and a public relations scheme. Similarly, Exxon has focused attention on experimental algae biofuels that one day could reduce transport emissions, while the company has no net-zero target and its 2025 emission reduction targets ignore the vast majority of emissions caused by its products. In 2019, these were 730 million tons of GHGs, roughly equivalent to Canada’s entire emissions.
But there’s no reason to pick on Exxon alone. Chevron claims it is “part of the solution” to climate change, relying on the unproven innovation known as carbon containment and storage (CCS) to reduce GHG emissions by nearly 4 million tons per year, a fraction of what it puts out.
These kinds of numbers don’t permit accompanying language about “working hard to lead the transition,” or celebrations of “our reduced carbon footprint.” It almost goes without saying that companies that are still pushing fossil fuel production and exploration cannot call themselves “sustainable.” Greenwashing.com has kept track of this propaganda.
I do not want to imply that the oil and gas industry aims to pollute the environment or to poison people. The aim is simply to maximize profits by creating, protecting and expanding markets, regardless of the toxic consequences. But, to separate the aims from the consequences is to retreat into fantasy.
The truth is that we should have a national New Year’s Resolution that there is no more hiding, no more denying climate change. Half-truths and untruths? Let’s be more honest. No more lying. Global heating is supercharging extreme weather at an astonishing speed. All over the planet people are losing their lives and livelihoods due more frequent heat waves, floods, wildfires and droughts triggered by the climate crisis. And the truth is that fossil fuel emissions are the cause.
T. Nelson Thompson (email@example.com) recently retired as the Maritime Environmental and Energy Technical Adviser at the U.S. Department of Transportation.