Spreading a deadly smokescreen of disinformation

Long before the fossil fuel industry began using its money and influence to spread doubt and disinformation about the climate crisis, the book on how to dupe and deceive the public by peddling doubt had been practically written by the tobacco industry and its PR advisers, as I discussed in this Irish Examiner piece in January.

AS RECENTLY as two or three decades ago, cigarette smoking was part and parcel of life. People lit up indoors, in cars, pubs and on public transport, even aircraft. In fact, the GAA All-Stars awards were sponsored by PJ Carroll until 1978.

Posters, billboards and media sponsorship normalised a product whose manufacturers had known for decades kills one in two smokers. Slowly at first, then quickly, the smoke cleared and cigarettes were pushed almost completely out of the public domain.

All advertising and sponsorship is now banned, as is smoking indoors. Even in retail outlets, the packaging has to be hidden from public view. This dangerous substance, while not illegal, has lost its social licence.

The efforts by the industry to sow doubt and confusion in the public mind regarding overwhelming medical evidence of the dangers of smoking is known as the “tobacco strategy”, and it helped delay regulation by decades.

This campaign of systematic deceit came to a crashing halt in 1998, when the industry was ordered to pay a whopping $368bn in compensation to the US government over the following 20 years, and was forced to disband its elaborate pro-tobacco PR and lobbying operations.

Similarly, the global fossil fuel industry has known since at least the 1970s that continued wide-scale use of their products would lead to dangerous and potentially catastrophic climate change.

A newly published review of internal research produced by oil giant Exxon from 1977-2003 found that the firm’s own scientists had accurately calculated that global temperatures would rise by 0.2C per decade, a rate of change unprecedented in thousands of years.

Exxon and other fossil fuel industry leaders suppressed the data and instead invested heavily in spreading disinformation and funding attacks on legitimate climate science, with the aim of stymieing the transition to clean energy.

The results of this massive deception are becoming ever more apparent, as average global surface temperatures have already climbed by 1.2C above pre-industrial, fuelling deadly heatwaves, droughts, unprecedented flooding events and rising sea levels.

Last August, France became the first country in Europe to ban adverts for fossil fuels, with natural gas ads being outlawed later this year. The Dutch capital Amsterdam went a step further last year, banning all advertising from fossil fuel firms, including cars and aviation.

Irish regulations

Attitudes as well as regulations in Ireland are lagging far behind. Not only are there no restrictions on conventional advertising, national broadcaster RTÉ allows a company selling oil-fired boilers to sponsor, of all things, its weather forecast while NewsTalk’s weather bulletins are sponsored by an airline.

Texaco, owned by Valero Energy, sponsors a long-running children’s art competition, which delivers a bonanza of soft-focus coverage for the company every year. Texaco also runs a competition where sports clubs compete for funding. Such clubs are “the heart and soul of the community”, according to Valero Energy. Well-known former rugby player Donncha O’Callaghan is the ‘ambassador’ of this sponsorship.

Independent think tank ‘Lobby Map’ gave Valero Energy a dire E-minus rating on climate, noting that it “appears to be lobbying negatively on US climate change policy –  it demonstrates limited top-line communication on climate policy and has engaged in opposition to specific policies”.

This view was shared by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which rated Valero among the top firms with an ‘obstructionist’ policy on climate action.

Back in 2007, my then four-year-old was a prizewinner in the Texaco children’s art competition. In hindsight, this is something we both regret today. I have long felt slightly guilty about having my family co-opted into Texaco’s greenwashing activities.

In the intervening decade and a half, the evidence of the devastating impacts of fossil fuel emissions, and the revelations about the ongoing role of the industry in deceiving the public and evading responsibility for the havoc their business model is creating is simply overwhelming.

Last July, the Irish Museum for Modern Art took the principled decision to end all involvement with the Texaco children’s art competition.

What is needed next is for local and national media, as well as schools, to boycott the event, which is simply a PR vehicle for an industry that endangers the lives and future well-being of these same young people.

At Davos this week, UN secretary general, António Guterres slammed an industry that knows “full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival” like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account.

This is only the beginning. Student activists in New Zealand and the UK have petitioned the International Criminal Court in the Hague, under Article 15 of the Rome Statute, asking the court to open an investigation into British Petroleum, seeking prosecutions and reparations. The charge: climate crimes against humanity.

While it may seem far-fetched to portray the entire fossil fuel sector as a vast conspiratorial enterprise, consider the industry-supported backlash. In the UK, the Tories have railroaded through a vile Public Order Bill that criminalises climate and trade union protests, and aims to label peaceful climate activists as “terrorists” a draconian move straight from the playbook of Putin’s Russia.

Don’t be fooled by the touchy-feely spin: this industry is not your friend.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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