Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
New York Times
April 23, 2009
For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a
group representing industries with profits tied to
fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public
relations campaign against the idea that emissions of
heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.
"The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not
well understood," the coalition said in a scientific
"backgrounder" provided to lawmakers and journalists
through the early 1990s, adding that "scientists differ"
on the issue.
But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates
that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its
own scientific and technical experts were advising that
the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in
global warming could not be refuted.
"The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the
potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases
such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be
denied," the experts wrote in an internal report
compiled for the coalition in 1995.
The coalition was financed by fees from large
corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal
and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an
international climate agreement that came to be known as
$1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by
Throughout the 1990s, when the coalition conducted a
multimillion-dollar advertising campaign challenging the
merits of an international agreement, policy makers and
pundits were fiercely debating whether humans could
dangerously warm the planet. Today, with general
agreement on the basics of warming, the debate has
largely moved on to the question of how extensively to
respond to rising temperatures.
Environmentalists have long maintained that industry
knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a
human influence on rising temperatures, but that the
evidence was ignored for the sake of companies' fight
against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Some
environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once
used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted
that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung
cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on
global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like
the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough
doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential
issue and delay government action.
George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and
writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken
advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage
of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.
"They didn't have to win the argument to succeed," Mr.
Monbiot said, "only to cause as much confusion as possible."
William O'Keefe, at the time a leader of the Global
Climate Coalition, said in a telephone interview that
the group's leadership had not been aware of a gap
between the public campaign and the advisers' views. Mr.
O'Keefe said the coalition's leaders had felt that the
scientific uncertainty justified a cautious approach to
addressing cuts in greenhouse gases.
The coalition disbanded in 2002, but some members,
including the National Association of Manufacturers and
the American Petroleum Institute, continue to lobby
against any law or treaty that would sharply curb
emissions. Others, like Exxon Mobil, now recognize a
human contribution to global warming and have largely
dropped financial support to groups challenging the science.
Documents drawn up by the coalition's advisers were
provided to lawyers by the Association of International
Automobile Manufacturers, a coalition member, during the
discovery process in a lawsuit that the auto industry
filed in 2007 against the State of
to limit vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions. The
documents included drafts of a primer written for the
coalition by its technical advisory committee, as well
as minutes of the advisers' meetings.
The documents were recently sent to The New York Times
by a lawyer for environmental groups that sided with the
state. The lawyer, eager to maintain a cordial
relationship with the court, insisted on anonymity
because the litigation is continuing.
The advisory committee was led by Leonard S. Bernstein,
a chemical engineer and climate expert then at the Mobil
Corporation. At the time the committee's primer was
drawn up, policy makers in the
were arguing over the scope of the international
climate-change agreement that in 1997 became the
The primer rejected the idea that mounting evidence
already suggested that human activities were warming the
climate, as a 1995 report by the United Nations
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had concluded.
(In a report in 2007, the panel concluded with near
certainty that most recent warming had been caused by humans.)
Yet the primer also found unpersuasive the arguments
being used by skeptics, including the possibility that
temperatures were only appearing to rise because of
flawed climate records.
"The contrarian theories raise interesting questions
about our total understanding of climate processes, but
they do not offer convincing arguments against the
conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced
climate change," the advisory committee said in the 17-page primer.
According to the minutes of an advisory committee
meeting that are among the disclosed documents, the
primer was approved by the coalition's operating
committee early in 1996. But the approval came only
after the operating committee had asked the advisers to
omit the section that rebutted the contrarian arguments.
"This idea was accepted," the minutes said, "and that
portion of the paper will be dropped."
The primer itself was never publicly distributed.
Mr. O'Keefe, who was then chairman of the Global Climate
Coalition and a senior official of the American
Petroleum Institute, the lobby for oil companies, said
in the phone interview that he recalled seeing parts of the primer.
But he said he was not aware of the dropped sections
when a copy of the approved final draft was sent to him.
He said a change of that kind would have been made by
the staff before the document was brought to the board
for final consideration.
"I have no idea why the section on the contrarians would
have been deleted," said Mr. O'Keefe, now chief
executive of the Marshall Institute, a nonprofit
research group that opposes a mandatory cap on
greenhouse gas emissions.
"One thing I'm absolutely certain of," he said, "is that
no member of the board of the Global Climate Coalition
said, `We have to suppress this.' "
Benjamin D. Santer, a climate scientist at
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was challenged
by the Global Climate Coalition and allied groups, said
the coalition was "engaging in a full-court press at the
time, trying to cast doubt on the bottom-line conclusion
of the I.P.C.C." That panel concluded in 1995 that "the
balance of evidence suggests a discernible human
influence on global climate."
"I'm amazed and astonished," Dr. Santer said, "that the
Global Climate Coalition had in their possession
scientific information that substantiated our cautious
findings and then chose to suppress that information."