How Koch Industries, fake scientists and Rush Limbaugh invented climate denial

A February 26, 2007 file photo of Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries.

A February 26, 2007 file photo of Charles Koch, head of Koch Industries. (Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

This is from the new book “The Petroleum Papers” by frequent VICE News contributor Geoff Dembicki, who extracts from hundreds of confidential documents to tell the story of how oil companies have been lying to the public since at least 1959.

On June 5, 1991, an organization with close ties to Koch Industries organized one of the world’s first events dedicated to climate change denial. Gathered at the Capital Hilton Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., dozens of scholars, many of them male, white and bald, came together to attack the growing scientific consensus on global warming that James Hansen had helped to bring to public attention just three years earlier. .

“The idea that global warming is a fact and that it will be catastrophic is forced into people until

point where it seems surprising that anyone would question it, and yet there is very little underlying evidence,” one participant said. “Nevertheless, there are statements made of such patent unrealism that I feel embarrassed.”

“Global Environmental Crises: Science or Politics,” as the conference was titled, was organized by the Cato Institute think tank. The issue of climate change was so new at this point that most conservative organizations did not have a clearly defined position on it.

But the Cato Institute entered the arena of public debate ready to fight. “Many may find it surprising that respected scientists challenge all high-profile environmental ills,” reads a conference brochure. “Concern about global warming, for example, has become part of the American psyche, despite scientific uncertainty.” Participants saw this as a worrying trend: “We are apparently moving towards a new world order of population control, economic planning and ‘sustainable development’.

This conspiratorial attack on what was then considered neutral mainstream science was entirely consistent with the larger mission and strategy of the Cato Institute, as well as the business interests of Koch Industries. When Charles Koch founded the think tank in the mid-1970s, he proceeded to give it up to $20 million in seed funding from his own private fortune during its early years. He saw the organization as the generator of ideas that could build support for a radically constrained public sector.

The only legitimate role of government, Charles said in a speech around this time, is to “serve as a night watchman, to protect individuals and property against external threats, including fraud. It is the maximum. »

The Cato Institute’s goal of “cutting taxes, loosening regulations, and reducing the number of government programs for the poor and middle class was consistent with the Kochs’ accumulation of wealth and power,” as Jane Mayer writes in Dark Money: The Hidden Billionaire Story Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

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A conference brochure.

By the 1990s, Koch Industries had grown into a fossil fuel giant, employing thousands of people to run an extensive network of pipelines across the United States and Canada, in addition to gas plants, petrochemical facilities, coal mines and car dealerships. The “cash cow” of this empire remains the company’s Pine Bend refinery in Minnesota, which processes crude oil from Alberta. A Goldman Sachs analysis from the 1980s estimated the value of Koch Industries’ refining assets to be as high as $1 billion.

As Pine Bend’s processing capabilities grew, Koch Industries sought to become more actively involved in the Canadian oil sands, where it had held large exploration mining leases for decades. The company planned to build an open-pit bitumen mine in the Fort Hills area of ​​northern Alberta, not far from where big companies like Imperial Oil and Suncor had their base of operations. The idea was that this new source of heavy crude from the oil sands could be shipped by pipeline to Pine Bend. “As demand for heavy crude continues to grow at the Koch refinery in Minnesota, we intend to meet this demand with heavy crude from Canada,” said Steve Kromer, President of Koch Exploration.

Koch Industries, like other oil companies expanding into Canada’s oil sands, had a keen sense of emerging environmental issues that threatened its profits.

In the new conversations about climate change that unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he saw the potential for a vast expansion of government powers culminating in regulations and taxes.

“The economic, societal and personal consequences of these changes have been ignored,” argued the Cato Institute conference brochure. “Instead of accepting more regulation and possibly jeopardizing our common future, Cato brings together the scientists and policy analysts who offer alternative perspectives on environmental crises.”

Opening of the conference in a program entitled “Global Warming: Catastrophic? Manageable change? Beneficial?” was a University of Virginia biological sciences professor named Patrick Michaels. The title of his speech, “The Political Science of Global Warming,” turned out to be apt. Michaels was not a climatologist, but he had just spent the previous months working on an experimental media campaign to convince average Americans in three test communities that global warming wasn’t real.

This campaign was organized by Southern Energy, a major coal-fired electric utility, as well as the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group whose members also relied heavily on coal.


These organizations saw the new public awareness of climate change as a threat to their polluting business models.

Together with Simmons, a public relations and marketing firm, they conducted public opinion research in Fargo, North Dakota; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Bowling Green, Kentucky. Of five hundred adults interviewed by telephone by researchers, 82% claimed to have some knowledge of global warming, a subject that is still relatively new in the American media.

Worryingly for coal utilities, more than a third of respondents supported “federal legislation without any qualifications or cost,” according to campaign documents that were later leaked.

The aim of the campaign by the utilities, which was dubbed ‘informed citizens for the environment’, was to change what people thought and believed about climate change. “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact),” reads a strategy document. “Target print and radio media for maximum effectiveness. The optics of coal interests leading a publicity effort to confuse the public weren’t great, so they decided to “use a spokesperson from the scientific community” to get their message across.

Throughout the spring of 1991, Michaels was their man. The University of Virginia professor met with editors and writers in the media from the three test communities and appeared on local radio shows. “We believe it is wrong to predict that higher levels of carbon dioxide will lead to catastrophic global warming,” he said. The goal was to give the impression that these ideas were organically generated by ordinary people. “Change often starts with one person,” Michaels would say after challenging the validity of climate science.

“You can make a difference by sharing what you have learned with others.”

The campaign also hired Rush Limbaugh, the prominent far-right radio host, to record commercials to air with his show. “I know you’ve seen more and more stories about the global warming theory,” Limbaugh said in an announcement. “Stories that paint a horrible picture. Stories that say the polar ice caps will melt. . . Well, get real! Stop panicking! I’m here to tell you that the facts just don’t square up with the theory that catastrophic global warming is happening.

That’s the message Michaels delivered at the Koch-backed Cato Institute conference, which took place just a month after his work on the Informed Citizens for the Environment campaign.

The climate debate was still in its infancy, but Koch Industries had already defined an effective strategy. Getting a credentialed scientist to poke holes in the rapidly growing scientific consensus was a useful way to divert people’s attention from the real interests that were threatened by governments’ responses to the crisis.

“We can look a little further and see an industry under siege,” predicted during this period a member of the Koch network, an oil executive from Oklahoma named Lew Ward.

“We’re not going to let that happen.”


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