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21 July 2022

Big Oil v the World: an unmissable series about climate change and corruption

This is the kind of journalism that has you lying wide awake at 3am, your thoughts doom-spiralling like a fairground ride in a bad horror film.

By Rachel Cooke

It so happened that I watched the BBC’s big new series about climate change in the heatwave, my curtains tightly drawn and my fan set to “hurricane”. But even if the weather had been less punishing – in the garden, the nasturtiums I’d planted had the appearance of a small pile of potato crisps – these revelatory, rage-inducing films would have left me feeling fractious and exhausted. Big Oil v the World is the kind of journalism that has you lying wide awake at 3am, your thoughts doom-spiralling like a fairground ride in a bad horror film. Unmissable though this series is, watching it cannot be said to be even remotely enjoyable, for all that it deserves to win every award going.

By now, we all know an uncomfortable amount about climate denialism, a wilful ignorance that takes many forms (isn’t the city-living neighbour who has just bought a brand new four-wheel drive at this point far more appalling to you than any number of right-wingers on Fox News?). What I did not know until I watched the first episode of this series, however, is the degree to which doubt about the warming of the planet was fostered from the beginning by the oil industry. As it reveals, it was in the late 1970s that Exxon, then the biggest oil company in the world, first knew what fossil fuel emissions were doing to the planet. Unbelievably, this discovery had come courtesy of its own extremely well-funded scientists, several of whom appear here (the series is based on more than 100 interviews and thousands of newly released documents).

For a while, Exxon, it seems, hoped to be part of the solution to global warming. But in 1982 oil prices dropped, and the company retrenched, axing its research projects. It then embarked, under CEO Lee R Raymond, on a long campaign of disinformation, hoping to cloud the issue in the minds of both public and politicians. Faced with a choice between saving the planet and enjoying another three decades of profits, it chose the latter. To make this happen, it spent huge amounts on lobbying, PR and “friendly” scientists who were willing to spout “baloney”. Lunches were bought. Lies were told. An entire industry of naysayers was established.

[See also: Deregulation will worsen the climate crisis – and Boris Johnson knows it]

Do you remember Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska who served as Obama’s secretary of state for defence? And do you also remember that in 1997 Hagel co-sponsored a Senate resolution that effectively prohibited the US from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol? Here, having acknowledged the meetings he had with big oil – Lee R Raymond was “a South Dakota boy”, he tells us, approvingly – Hagel expressly states he was lied to. Would things have been different had they not? I was expecting him at least to half-stick to his guns. But, no. Had Exxon given him the facts, it would, he says, “have changed everything… we would have been so much further ahead [in the fight against climate change]… it cost this country and the world”. It’s statements like these that have you agreeing with Al Gore when he describes the oil companies as having committed the biggest “moral crime” of the last century.

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What do you do when the product you make threatens the entire planet? This is what you do: you damn the planet to hell, and think only of your bank balance, and that of your high-placed friends. Raymond refused requests for an interview. So, too, did Exxon, and the PR companies it employed. How, you may wonder, do they live with themselves? But I’d guess it’s pretty easy in a post-Trump US. Patrick Michaels, an agricultural climatologist who became the industry’s “voice of doubt”, does appear, and he is bullish about the way in which he used to “emphasise the uncertain”, describing himself – dear God – as having “had a ball” in this period.

Of course I want to watch the second episode of Big Oil v the World; I know that I must. But I also know it won’t be good for me. Forget the Daily Mail’s hysterical talk of burning railways, the government’s summer health advisories. It is Michaels’ face, fleshy and irredeemably smug, that should really come with a weather warning. It will, I’m here to tell you, change the climate of your very body, anger rising inside you like a hot tide. For some days, sleep will be all but impossible.

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[See also: 40°C and wildfires in London. What happens next?]