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29 October 2021updated 02 Nov 2021 2:13pm

Why Big Oil is about to experience its “Big Tobacco” moment

A historic congressional hearing with oil executives may not have produced a smoking gun, but the tobacco industry has showed how cover-ups unravel slowly.

By India Bourke

Nearly 30 years ago, the CEOs from America’s seven big tobacco firms denied under oath that they considered nicotine to be addictive. It was truly a “smoking gun” moment. The claim was so clearly at odds with reality that millions of damning documents were consequently exposed, public opinion gradually turned, and the Republican Party abandoned its support for the industry. Now, the world’s leading Western oil executives have begun a process that could lead to a similar fate. 

On Thursday (28 October), the CEOs of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, alongside the president of the American Petroleum Institute (the industry’s biggest trade association), appeared for questioning in the US Congress. Accused of deceiving the public about climate change risk, the executives were faced with a choice: admit past mistakes in failing to convey the existential threat that fossil fuels pose to the planet, or obfuscate and deny what was already known and risk a similar undoing to that experienced by Big Tobacco.

They chose to obfuscate and deny. 

Presented with clear warnings from the company’s former scientists and a 1997 statement from Exxon’s former chief executive arguing that the evidence on climate change was “inconclusive”, Exxon’s current head, Darren Woods, still claimed that his predecessor’s response was “consistent with the science of the day”.

Furthermore, when asked if they would “commit to no longer spending any money, either directly or indirectly, to oppose efforts to reduce emissions”, the CEOs refused. Instead, they chose only to repeat their commitment to a low-carbon transition. 

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“Would any of you commit to having an independent audit to ensure none of your funds are going to climate denial?” asked Ro Khanna, a Democrat congressman for California. Silence.

In emphasising their concerns over global warming, the CEOs continued to obscure their role in perpetuating the largest threat of our time. But don’t forget that with a smoking gun you can see the smoke only after the weapon has been fired. And so it is  likely to be with Thursday’s hearings. The testimony is part of a larger investigation conducted by the House Oversight Committee’s environment panel that will now involve subpoenaing millions of documents from oil companies and trade groups.

“This hearing is the first of hopefully many into what’s going on. That’s what happened with Big Tobacco in the 1990s,” says Jamie Henn, co-founder of the NGO 350.org. 

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The wider aim of the congressional investigation is not just to expose what the fossil fuel industry covered up in the past, but to reveal the extent of money flowing to anti-climate action propaganda and lobbying today.

“For all the skeletons we have already found in Big Oil’s closet, we are still only looking through the keyhole,” says Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow at Harvard. “This is where congressional authority to request documents comes in, and where the historical significance of this moment really lies.”

The historic significance could be manifold and extend public understanding of climate disinformation. Analysis shows that 139 elected Congress officials still refuse to acknowledge that climate change is human-made, despite scientific acceptance that this is the case.

Supran and others argue that today’s climate disinformation tactics are more subtle than outright denial and are aimed instead at using the industry’s vast marketing and lobbying apparatus to delay or distract from positive action on climate change. In 2016, InfluenceMap showed that more than $100m a year was spent by fossil fuel groups on obstructive climate lobbying. 

[see also: The price of the planet: who will step up at Cop26?]

For many watching the hearings, the statements given this week by the CEOs and Republican congressmen were themselves disinformation. The industry’s talk of reducing emissions is a key part of this strategy, says Supran, as it is “mostly greenwash” and plays to “fossil fuel saviour” rhetoric. The UN and the International Energy Agency insist that new oil and gas development must end if global emissions are to be brought down to net zero by mid-century and dangerous levels of climate change avoided. Exxon and Chevron are poised to double down on investment.

The CEOs also played up their industry’s “essential role in modern society”, something that Khanna dismissed as “American apple pie speech”. And there was repeated mention of China’s rising emissions and trade threat, a distraction from the issue at hand.

“What’s been missing on the part of the public is a clear understanding that this industry knew about, lied about and is continuing to block climate action,” says Henn. “And I think once that’s understood in the same way as it was reached with tobacco it could be a real cultural tipping point.”

Increased awareness of disinformation tactics could, in turn, support legal and political action against the industry around the world. 

Various state-level climate lawsuits are going back and forth in the US courts, and successful legal action is happening in other countries. Nine de Pater, a researcher and campaigner at Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands), says the biggest lesson learned in its successful 2019 court case against Shell was that the science could be used to hold the company to account. “What is now happening in the US is another example of how we can show the true face of fossil fuel companies,” she says.

Ultimately, a shift in public awareness could help loosen the industry’s stranglehold over American politics. “It is my hope,” Khanna told the New Statesman days before Cop26 before began, “that this hearing shows the world the US is serious about tackling climate change and holding bad actors accountable ahead of President Biden’s trip to Glasgow.”

[see also: Degrees of separation: why Cop26 is so important]