Big Oil v the World is a series of documentary films first shown on BBC 2 (currently on iPlayer). They show how the fossil fuel industry has misled the world over the impact of greenhouse gases on global warming and the severity of the potential consequences, for nearly half a century.
Denial, doubt, delay
The films are arranged chronologically.
Part one – Denial – takes us from the early 1980s to the late 1990s and reveals that Exxon, a major oil company, had scientists modelling the impact of carbon dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere and drawing stark conclusions about what would happen if levels continued to increase. This research was all but buried.
Part two – Doubt – shows how the industry used paid lobbyists to influence both public and political opinion against science.
Part three – Delay – reveals that this tactic was repeated when fracking for shale gas began, resulting in huge increases of methane released into the atmosphere. The case they present reveals more than 40 years of deliberate deception.
Each film uses the same framework. Scientists, many of whom had worked for Exxon studying the impact of fossil fuel use, talk about what they found. We hear from lobbyists employed by the industry to counter that evidence and we also hear from politicians who were influenced. Some of them admit they were involved in deceiving the public.
Interviews are intercut with footage of wildfires and floods. Refreshingly, the makers decided the experts should be heard far more than the opposition. Tellingly, no one from Exxon or the fossil fuel industry wanted to defend their position.
Villains of the piece
Exxon, its former chief executive officer Lee Raymond and the American Petroleum Institute (API), are the main villains of the piece. They realised anything that cast doubt on their ability to produce oil and gas would substantially hurt their profitability, and they pulled every lever available to push a narrative that the science couldn’t be trusted. They focused on people’s emotional response. Objectivity didn’t matter – “truth had nothing to do with who wins the argument”, says John Passacantando, executive director of Ozone Action, “if you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it”.
Besides Exxon, American industrial giant Koch Industries and Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy got involved. Koch helped fund the API to sow enough doubt until recognition of uncertainties became “part of the conventional wisdom”. Every political initiative – Berlin (1995), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama’s election pledges on climate action, the Paris Accord (2015) – was met with a flood of intensive lobbying which stymied progress.
Later, in a more sinister move, they interfered in the electoral process by funding political opponents of those who showed any interest in or support for action on climate issues and engineered the replacement of experts on global panels whose views they didn’t like.
Progress despite the opposition
Despite this, some progress was made, especially by President Obama during his second term. However, in a bid to secure energy independence for the USA, McClendon joined with Exxon to promote fracking for shale gas, which was popular and politically very astute. In a spectacular act of ‘greenwashing’, he seized on the detail that burning shale gas released less CO2, and promoted it vigorously.
But what wasn’t revealed was that fracking increases the amount of methane – a more harmful greenhouse gas than CO2– leaking into the atmosphere. Persistent and effective lobbying set that fact aside. American climate scepticism returned, highlighted by Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Accord. The fracking boom continues.
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”
The evidence from these three excellent but quite shocking films shows the fossil fuel industry has been involved in what Jerry Taylor, former lobbyist for the right-wing Cato Institute who has changed his mind on climate change, calls a “multi decade act of fraud”. While there’s no argument that oil has provided the world with huge social and economic benefits, that progress has been bought at a price we’ve yet to realise.
It’s now almost ten months since COP 26 in Glasgow, where governments pledged to ‘keep the rise of global temperatures by 1.5 degrees within reach’. Many believe that won’t be possible. The recent spell of extreme heat, explicitly linked to climate change, hints at what’s likely to come.
The films therefore feel like a call to arms; that we must all change our behaviour urgently. Economist John Maynard Keynes is reported to have said, “When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The facts the films expose are now entering the public domain. While environmental groups and individuals continue to fight back, the fossil fuel industry drags its feet and politicians prevaricate, but now lawyers are gathering evidence to try and hold the industry to account in the courts.
Some say these efforts may be too late – but if they are, it’s clear who is to blame.