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How fossil fuel industry misled Americans deliberately about climate change

Scientists working for the fossil fuel industry knew about the potential warming effects of CO2 emissions as early as the 1950s.

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Over the past few decades, the fossil fuel industry has subjected the American public to a well-funded, well-orchestrated disinformation campaign about the reality and severity of human-caused climate change. The purpose of this web of denial has been to confuse the public and decision-makers in order to delay climate action and thereby protect fossil fuel business interests and defend libertarian, free-market conservative ideologies. The fossil fuel industry’s denial and delay tactics come straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook.

As a result, the American public have been denied the right to be accurately informed about climate change, just as they were denied the right to be informed about the risks of smoking by the tobacco industry. While fossil fuel companies attacked the science and called on politicians to “reset the alarm,” climate-catalyzed damages worsened, including increased storm intensities, droughts, forest damage and wildfires, all at substantial loss of life and cost to the American people.

Climate disinformation has had many negative effects. It reduces public understanding of climate change, lowers support for climate action4, cancels out accurate information, polarizes the public along political lines, and reinforces climate silence–the lack of public dialogue and private conversation about climate change. Climate deniers directly impact the scientific community–and, in turn, its ability to serve the public good–by forcing climate scientists to respond to bad-faith demands and arguably causing a chilling effect pressuring scientists to underplay scientific results.

Strategies proposed to counter climate disinformation include political mechanisms, financial transparency, legal strategies, and inoculation of the public. Inoculation involves explaining how and why climate deniers mislead, in order to neutralize the influence of their disinformation.

Attacking the scientific consensus on climate change

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a scientific consensus emerged that human-caused climate change — which had long been predicted — was now underway. Since that time, a number of studies have found over 90% agreement among climate scientists on human-caused global warming, with multiple studies converging on 97 per cent consensus.

The emergence of a shared consensus among thousands of independent scientists all around the globe through independent lines of evidence is a clear and strong signal of robust scientific knowledge. Climate scientists are as sure that burning fossil fuels causes global warming as public health scientists are sure that smoking tobacco causes cancer.

Figure 1: Studies quantifying the consensus on human-caused global warming

Attacking this consensus is one of the chief strategies of climate deniers. The strategy behind the denialist attack on consensus is informed by market research conducted by industry groups and political strategists. This market research found that confusing the public about the scientific consensus on climate change reduced public support for climate policy. Science denial continues unabated — in the last decade, content analysis of online misinformation has found the prevalence of science denial has been on the increase.

What fossil fuel knew vs. what fossil fuel did

Scientists working for the fossil fuel industry knew about the potential warming effects of CO2 emissions as early as the 1950s. Exxon’s internal documents show that their own scientists were explicitly aware of the potential dangers of human-caused climate change caused by their products, but instead of taking action or warning the public, they spent millions of dollars on disinformation campaigns designed to obscure the scientific reality.

Fossil fuel knew (1950s-80s)

Figure 2: Exxon 1977 internal memo. Fossil fuel industry documents show that they knew the basics of climate science in the 1950s-80s.

Fossil fuel schemed (1980s-90s)

Figure 3: Top: Exxon 1988 internal memo. Middle: Exxon 1989 internal memo. Bottom: Exxon et al. 1998 internal memo. Fossil fuel industry documents show that they devised public relations strategies to promote doubt about climate science in the 1980s-90s.

Fossil fuel denied (1990s-2010s)

Figure 4: ExxonMobil 2000 advertorial in The New York Times. The fossil fuel industry implemented their plans to promote climate denial in the 1990s-2010s.

Contradictory contrarianism

The most common denialist arguments have been shown to contain fatal assumptions or fallacies. Climate deniers do not offer any rational explanation for why our climate is changing. Rather, denialist arguments are incoherent and often contradictory. For example, deniers will seize on snowfall to claim that global warming is a hoax, while at the same time claiming that an extreme event such as a drought or wildfire cannot be attributed to climate change. This is incoherent because either extreme events can be a signal of climate change or they cannot be.

Climate denial lacks consistency because it is not about scientific evidence—it is about how to continue business as usual in the face of climate disruption. Climate deniers reject climate science because they are averse to proposed or perceived solutions to climate change.

Figure 5: Examples of common climate denialist arguments that contradict each other.

Denialist techniques

Climate denial arguments can be summarized by the five techniques of science denial (summarized with the acronym FLICC): fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories.

Figure 6: FLICC: The techniques of science denial.

Understanding the techniques of denial is necessary to avoid being misled by disinformation. This is why explaining denialist techniques is effective in neutralizing disinformation.

Deconstructing denial

Figure 7 shows deconstructions of some of the most common myths about climate change. Determining the misleading techniques of a climate myth requires outlining the argument structure: listing any premises (starting assumptions) and the conclusion. This allows one to ascertain whether any premises are false, and/or whether the argument is logically invalid.

Figure 7: Deconstruction of common climate myths.


Disinformation about climate change has a straightforward purpose — to block action on climate change. In America, it has largely succeeded, with policies to mitigate climate change stymied or delayed for decades.

Meanwhile, climate change has intensified, causing impacts such as intensified extreme weather events, rising sea level, harmful effects on human health, and much more.

Climate denial has seriously hurt the American people. The damage, deaths, and harm to people will continue to worsen if we don’t expose and discredit denial.

This is not the first time that corporations prioritizing profits over people have caused great harm. The tobacco industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars disinforming the public about the health impacts of smoking in order to undermine tobacco control. The World Health Organization estimates that six million people die every year from preventable tobacco-caused disease. Drawing on the tobacco industry’s playbook, fossil fuel companies have done the same on climate change, spending hundreds of millions of dollars confusing the public and delaying life-saving action. Their legacy is the death, destruction, and injustices of irreversible global warming. Big Oil is the new Big Tobacco.

John Cook is a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University. 

Geoffrey Supran is a Research Associate in the Department of the History of Science at the Harvard University.

Stephan Lewandowsky is a cognitive scientist at the School of Psychological Science, University of Bristol.

Naomi Oreskes is a professor at the Department of History of Science, Harvard University. 

Edward Maibach is a professor of communication and Director, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University.

This article is an excerpt from the authors’ report ‘America Misled: How the fossil fuel industry deliberately misled Americans about climate change’, first published by the Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University.

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