The battle of the conspiracy theories

I came across this graphic at the Facebook group I fucking love science. Even though it’s not explicit, I’m assuming that it’s about the climate change issue.

I originally planned using it for a short introduction to the subject of politicized climate science. But as I studied it, I grew increasingly fascinated, above all by what it doesn’t tell us. Above all, what does it mean? It illustrates two different conspiracy theories and asks us what is more likely, in other words, which of the two theories is more plausible.

Does this mean that these are somehow competing hypotheses about the same phenomenon? That’s far from obvious. One appears to be an attempt to explain why many people believe in anthropogenic global warming. The other seems intended to explain why many people don’t.

In principle, both could be true. Maybe global warming is a hoax and Big Oil is paying “anyone they can” to debunk it? I don’t believe that, but it’s by no means a logical impossibility. On the other hand, perhaps they’re both just fantasy. Perhaps something else entirely is going on.


The graphic seems to imply two thinking habits that are common among conspiracy theorists.

  • One, it ignores the complexity of the issue and the complexity of human motivation. There are more players in the climate game than are depicted here (politicians are the most obvious example), and there is no reason to assume that their motivations are less diverse than in any other political and scientific controversy.
  • Two, it ignores the need for evidence. Hypothetical plausibility is not enough. (Science is about evidence, and this Facebook group is about science. You might be forgiven for thinking they would care.) There are many conspiracy theories that are perfectly plausible in principle, but not necessarily true. Some of them are even about the oil companies.

A typical suppressed invention story is that of the incredibly efficient automobile carburetor, whose inventor was supposedly killed or hounded into obscurity by petroleum companies desirous to protect their business from an engine that would make their product obsolete.

The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? alleged that electric car technology has been largely suppressed by big oil and gas firms.

Assuming that Big Oil has the means and the will to succeed in this kind of conspiracy, these seem entirely plausible. However, plausible does not equal true.

Conspiracy theory 1: It’s all a hoax

The “hoax” theory starts out with: Regional environmental groups and community activists. As if there were no global ones.

But of course, global environmental organizations exist. And they control substantial funds. Take the WWF. Since what counts in this context is money spent, a particularly relevant figure is the WWF’s program expenses, at $226 million in 2013.

Owen Paterson makes clear the difference between local conservationists and the global green lobby:

I leave the post with great misgivings about the power and irresponsibility of – to coin a phrase – the Green Blob.

By this I mean the mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups, renewable energy companies and some public officials who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape. This tangled triangle of unelected busybodies claims to have the interests of the planet and the countryside at heart, but it is increasingly clear that it is focusing on the wrong issues and doing real harm while profiting handsomely.

Local conservationists on the ground do wonderful work to protect and improve wild landscapes, as do farmers, rural businesses and ordinary people. They are a world away from the highly paid globe-trotters of the Green Blob who besieged me with their self-serving demands, many of which would have harmed the natural environment.

I soon realised that the greens and their industrial and bureaucratic allies are used to getting things their own way. I received more death threats in a few months at Defra than I ever did as secretary of state for Northern Ireland. My home address was circulated worldwide with an incitement to trash it; I was burnt in effigy by Greenpeace as I was recovering from an operation to save my eyesight.

The next part of this conspiracy theory is the idea that these “regional” environmental groups are in a “massive conspiracy with 90% of the global scientific community”. For some reason, environmentalist are portrayed as “regional” while scientists are “global”. To make it seem unlikely that the environmentalists could influence the scientists, perhaps?

Finally, we get to the purpose of the particular conspiracy: “to create a hoax and ruin the economy”. In other words, scientists and environmentalists would consider it an end in itself to create a hoax or ruin the economy. There are environmentalists who think that the system has to collapse in order for something new to emerge, but it doesn’t seem terribly plausible that all of them would want that.

There are more plausible motivations for this alleged “massive conspiracy”. Even the idea that climate policy is just an excuse for creating a communist world government seems more likely.  But since I don’t believe there is a massive conspiracy, I won’t go into that.

Conspiracy theory 2: Big Oil protecting their obscene profits

Now for the other conspiracy theory. Ignoring the rhetorical slant implied by “obscene”, Big Oil certainly has much more money than the environmental organizations. But the question is not the total size of their profits, but how large a part of those profits are spent on lobbying related to this particular subject matter. The question is how much money, and how exactly it’s being spent. They have other things to invest in, like finding more oil and gas. What they are actually doing is an empirical question.

From what I’ve read elsewhere, I can assume that the idea is that they are paying “anyone they can” to try to convince people that human-caused climate change is not a problem. That’s the usual story. But if we take it literally, it’s not specified whom they are bribing to do what, and there is more than one possible answer. Look at it this way: environmentalists are potentially a threat to the industry. The global environmental organizations may be able to harm specific companies (presumably the ones they like the least) by urging boycotts for instance.

Now assuming that Big Oil want to bribe someone to avoid trouble, the question is whom to bribe. They can pay someone to fight the environmental movement tooth and nail, or they can bribe the environmentalists themselves, hoping they will go easier on them. The latter option might seem easier, to the extent that environmentalists are willing to take their money. Failing that, they might want to support whatever cause or activity would make them seem environmentally friendly.

This is also the less risky option. Covert funding of activists that are seen as anti-environmental is potentially a risk to their reputation. Funding environmentalists, on the other hand, carries no such risk. They pay what they pay up front, and the risk that it comes back to haunt them is slim. Balance your bugdet today and stop worrying about tomorrow.

All of this is speculation. It’s just a hypothesis. Does the data support it? Searching for “oil” at Donna LaFramboise’s blog gives us at least some answers. The WWF got money from Big Oil, including BP and Shell, for four decades, only beginning to phase it out in in the year 2000. Others, such as the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and Rajendra Pachauri’s sustainability conference, have been supported by fossil fuel money later.

On the scientific side, BP and ExxonMobil put substantial funds into research on subjects such as “ways to meet growing energy needs without worsening global warming”. The sponsors for the 2013 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) included BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron. The AGU’s position statement on climate change calls for “urgent action” on “human-induced climate change”. Precisely the kind of thing that these companies are allegedly bribing “anyone they can” to deny.

If Big Oil was committed to fighting the environmental movement and the idea of human-caused climate change, wouldn’t they at the very least avoid supporting them actively?

Of course, there is a different possible explanation for the Big Oil’s apparently enthusiastic support for environmentalism. They may simply believe that the environmentalists are doing good and that their reputation will be enhanced by supporting allegedly eco-friendly activities. In addition, there’s a bonus: they are protecting their investments in green energy, which realistically may be more at risk than profits from oil and gas.

The right-hand conspiracy theory also claims that Big Oil want to “limit any future liability that their pollution might cause.” Except it’s not their pollution. They are not the polluters, we are. Assuming that this is about CO2,the vast majority of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels is not caused by the oil companies, but by the rest of us using it to run cars, generate power, and so on. Big Oil is not responsible for any negative consequences of that unless they’ve deceived us about those consequences. Therefore, legal liability is an excellent reason for them to avoid engaging in disinformation campaigns. The tobacco companies ran such campaigns and kept inconvenient research results hidden. The long-term consequences were disastrous. Is it likely that the oil companies are eager to emulate that particular debacle? No matter who might be wrong or right, staying within the mainstream is the safe option. They can always plead good faith later unless you’ve they’ve been hiding something important.

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1 Response

  1. April 24, 2020

    […] At this point, Big Oil has several different reasons to support environmentalism, mainstream climate science and climate policy rather than undermine it. Perhaps the most important ones did not occur to me until I wrote my first post on this blog, The battle of the conspiracy theories. […]

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