Debunking Oreskes part 6: Is it all about the money?

← Part 1: A wall of vagueness

← Part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists” 

← Part 3: The “tobacco strategy” 

← Part 4: Disinformation or debate? 

 Part 5: Irrelevance to the current climate change debate

Was industry money the driving force behind the events described in Merchants of Doubt? This is another one of those ideas that seem to be implied and widely believed but never explicitly stated in the book itself. Supposedly, (nowadays at least) there is a “Koch-funded denial machine” that makes people deny the evidence for catastrophic human-caused climate change in spite of overwhelming evidence. The idea is that vast resources make up for a lack of scientific substance.

But is that true? As I just said, Oreskes and Conway never make this explicit. The very concept of “merchants of doubt” hints at a profit motive, but could perhaps be dismissed as metaphorical. In the review I quoted earlier, though, it’s clear: “It’s not about evidence, in other words; it’s about satisfying corporate America’s lust for profits.”
There is surprisingly little mention of funding in Merchants of Doubt. The passages I quoted earlier are suggestive, though.

The stories we’ve told so far in this book involve the creation of doubt and the spread of disinformation by individuals and groups attempting to prevent regulation of tobacco, CFCs, pollution from coal-fired power plants, and greenhouse gases.

As we’ve seen throughout this book, some “sides” represent deliberate disinformation spread by well-organized and well-funded interests, or ideologically-driven denial of facts.

Here they imply a the specific motive of preventing regulation. As I’ve noted before, there is a lack of specific evidence about motives. And since there may be other reasons (beside corporate profit) to want to prevent regulation, they are still an inch short of being clear that money is the overriding concern.

That said, there are a few specifics on money and climate change. Oreskes and Conway devote about two pages to Exxon Mobil’s alleged “support for doubt-mongering and disinformation”. All of this appears to be gleaned from Chris Mooney; they have no independent or orginal revelations. The actual sums mentioned ($8 million plus a few smaller ones) are small in the context of climate change and it’s not clear how much of it was actually used for climate-related activities. (For comparison, Jo Nova informs us that “the Australian Government put $13.9 million into just one quick advertising campaign.”)

All in all, given the magnitude of the funds devoted to climate research, climate mitigation, climate information and carbon trading, money given by Big Oil to climate skeptics is clearly insignificant in comparison.

Nor is there any evidence that Big Oil has been more generous to climate skeptics than to the opposite camp. As Donna LaFramboise has amply demonstrated, environmentalists have been accepting oil money with apparent enthusiasm.

Those are the hard facts. But how does the book still manage to give the impression that climate skepticism is funded by oil money? One reason may be that the “lust for profits” theory seems plausible. This may be natural. If a company has an interest in supporting certain groups, or certain information, even disinformation, shouldn’t we expect them to do so? And shouldn’t we expect them to ignore ethical considerations in the process? The answer to the last question depends on whether you believe large corporations are generally evil. What we do know, though, is that lobbying is a normal and common activity.

Since “lust for profits” (or rather, fear that profits would fail) was the motivation behind the tobacco companies’ fraudulent tactics, why should the others be any different? If the tobacco industry spent huge sums to mislead the public and protect their profits, why shouldn’t other industrial interests do the same?

As a general concept, this is perfectly plausible. But plausible in general does not mean plausible in a specific situation. It surely happens from time to time, but only if there is actually something to be gained from it. And that is not always the case. Thus we arrive at the question that’s missing from most discussions of this issue: is Big Oil really interested in attacking the climate science consensus position?

Business decision making tends to be based on rational short-term self-interest. If profits are failing right now, that tends to be overwhelmingly important. When the tobacco companies decided to actively deceive the public, they were facing an imminent threat to their profits. Or at least, according to Merchants of Doubt, they believed they were.

The tobacco industry was thrown into panic. One industry memo noted that their salesmen were “frantically alarmed.” So industry executives made a fateful decision, one that would later become the basis on which a federal judge would find the industry guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud—a massive and ongoing fraud to deceive the American public about the health effects of smoking.

And what they did, ethics aside, probably did serve their short-term self-interest. They had to pay the price later, since these tactics were later uncovered and used to prove negligence. They took a risk, and probably knew it, but companies in crisis will do that. Like individuals, they tend to act desperately when desperate.

On the other hand, if profits are not failing now, but might fail some years down the road, that’s just normal business. The competitors are always out to take your market share, and that could kill you—in a few years or decades. This is the situation for Big Oil. There is no crisis, no short-term risk that demand for fossil fuels will fail. More likely, demand will continue to grow as the demand for energy increases.

Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing by 2.5 percent per year. However, fossil fuels continue to supply almost 80 percent of world energy use through 2040. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel in the outlook. Global natural gas consumption increases by 1.7 percent per year. Increasing supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane support growth in projected worldwide natural gas use. Coal use grows faster than petroleum and other liquid fuel use until after 2030, mostly because of increases in China’s consumption of coal and tepid growth in liquids demand attributed to slow growth in the OECD regions and high sustained oil prices.

The only real threat is that fossil fuels will be superseded by other energy sources. Presumably, that will happen eventually, with or without climate mitigation policies. But right now, “green energy” seems to be in more trouble than fossil fuels. If anyone has an incentive to disinform, it’s more likely to be the so-called green capitalists.

But if there is a possible threat in a few decades, how will Big Oil deal with it? They will want to do what businesses usually do long-term: adapt. Invest in whatever energy sources they think may replace current ones. And this is exactly what energy companies are doing.

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.

The theory presented claims that the fossil fuel companies would “bribe anyone they can” “to protect their profits and  limit any future liability that their pollution might cause”. One question this raises is whom to bribe. The best bet might be to bribe the environmental organizations, hoping to keep them from sabotaging the oil companies’ activities. And judging from the numbers, this might well be what they doing.

The second issue from the consipracy theory post is future liability. As I said:

…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.

All of this adds up to a long list of reasons why Big Oil should not try to run a “denial machine” and instead support the current mainstream:

  • It helps sell “green” products.
  • It can also be a selling point for oil and even more so for gas, since these generate less CO2 per unit of energy than coal.
  • Supporting wind power helps sell gas, since gas can be a useful adjunct to wind.
  • It builds their reputation as environmental heroes or at least not villians.
  • It gives Big Green a reason to not bother them too much.
  • Policies that limit supply but not demand cause prices to increase.
  • Disinformation can potentially lead to legal liability, as happened with Big Tobacco. It’s probably always safe to stay with the mainstream.

All of this indicates that Big Oil is likely to be comfortable with a moderate climate policy as practiced in most countries today.

Furthermore, if Big Oil wants to influence climate policy, it will be rational to use a more direct approach than supporting “disinformation” to the public about climate science. They will be more inclined to lobby policy-makers directly instead of indirectly via public opinion, and they will preferably argue climate policy as such rather than science. “This policy is too expensive and will be unpopular among voters” is easier to sell to politicians than “climate sensitivity is lower than claimed by the IPCC”.

Again, this is very different from the situation that Big Tobacco was facing. The public was making decisions (like quitting smoking) that directly hurt the industry, so targeting the public was logical. And those decisions were based on the fact that the harm from smoking had been established scientifically. Therefore, advancing scientifically-based claims that downplayed the dangers of tobacco made perfect sense. None of this applies to Big Oil.

In summary, all the evidence indicates that the fossil fuel industry is not providing climate skeptics with support that has any substantial impact. Most likely, it has a strong motivation to avoid doing so.

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