Congress’ investigation of fossil fuel companies is only the beginning

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This Thursday, fossil fuel company executives will testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee about their role in spreading disinformation to prevent action on climate change. This made-for-tv and long-overdue hearing will likely draw parallels to the tobacco executives testifying before Congress in 1994 about what they knew about the dangers of smoking. Fossil fuel companies’ malfeasance on climate change is well-documented and researched, but it’s only the beginning of the story: a raft of other major industries are equally complicit.

In 1988, the dramatic testimony of Dr. James Hansen established the reality and dangers of continued increases in carbon emissions and called for government action to address global warming. In response, corporations with strong ties to the production and use of fossil fuels — acting in coordination with trade associations, conservative think tanks, conservative philanthropic foundations and public relations firms — mounted sophisticated and effective lobbying and public relations efforts to obstruct political action on climate.  For over 33 years, these efforts have successfully blocked meaningful legislation and regulation of carbon emissions, both in the United States and at the global level. The result is that the world is on a course to likely catastrophic climate change.

What will these hearings find? We have a good idea. Academic literature clearly documents fossil fuel companies participating in a decades-long effort to manufacture uncertainty regarding climate science. At the same time, public relations firms hired by a wide range of fossil fuel companies and their trade organizations orchestrated complex campaigns to greenwash their corporate images, often spending billions of dollars to do so. These brilliant operations created the impression that the fossil fuel related corporations were responsible actors taking care of climate change.

We now know that these efforts were all undertaken while fossil fuel companies’ own scientists were studying the dire impacts climate change would unleash on communities if use of their products continued to go unchecked. 

As with the tobacco companies, despite this knowledge, fossil fuel related corporations have continued business as usual even as climate impacts have become more visceral and damaging. 

This obstruction effort dwarfs that of the tobacco industry, however.  Recent studies show that the major oil companies were just one of hundreds of companies that took part in campaigns to obstruct climate action over the past three decades. Auto manufacturers, coal companies, steel manufacturers, utilities, railroads, chemical companies and unions associated with these sectors all participated in extensive and well-organized efforts to obstruct action to address climate change. These efforts were bolstered by a number of conservative think tanks, primarily funded by dark money, and public relations firms that developed and conducted extensive campaigns to manipulate public opinion regarding climate change.

The major oil companies are certainly leading actors in the effort to obstruct climate action, and the hearing this week is a good start. It should be just the beginning, however. 

First, the committee has limited its inquiry to 2015 — although the efforts to obstruct climate action go back at least to 1989.        

Furthermore, there are several equally culpable organizations that also deserve congressional scrutiny. Congress needs to hear from the wide number of corporations and trade associations that were — and remain — part of the massive effort to stop meaningful action on climate change. The conservative think tanks and public relations firms that spread their message also need to be called to account for their actions.  

Finally, the Department of Justice should open a full investigation into efforts to obstruct climate action. There is enough evidence for several state attorney generals to have already filed suits against the oil companies.

A full moral accounting of these efforts needs to encompass the entire historical arc of climate obstruction. 

Obstruction efforts that continue to this day have locked us into dangerous climate impacts for generations to come. Congress’ investigation needs to greatly expand to identify how these corporations were able to manipulate the political process to get us to this point.  We can then use this knowledge to drive reforms to bring irresponsible corporate power under control.

As Congress begins to pull on this thread, it will unravel a much bigger disinformation and anti-climate action campaign. The full force of the federal government should be harnessed to hold polluters and their accomplices accountable.   

Robert J. Brulle is a visiting professor of environment and society at Brown University, an emeritus professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, and director of research at the Climate Social Science Network.

Tags carbon emissions climate action Climate change Fossil fuels Global warming Robert J. Brulle

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