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How climate denial was mined in Canada
Investigative climate reporter Geoff Dembicki discusses his upcoming book, “The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change.”
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Turn back the clock more than 60 years ago, and you’ll find that the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation and obstruction was born out of a race to exploit the Canadian tar sands.
Who knew? Certainly not me, before reading Geoff Dembicki’s upcoming book, “The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change.” Dembicki, an investigative climate journalist for more than a decade and a Canadian living in Brooklyn, tells the story of Big Oil’s deception by focusing on the relationship between the U.S. and Canadian oil producers and politicians, front groups, and think tanks. The history of their intertwined conspiracies to dismantle climate action — and the American colonization of the oil sands — is key to understanding how to address the climate crisis and hold its perpetrators accountable.
The book isn’t centered on villains alone: the powerful story of a young woman from the Philippines who goes from a victim of climate disaster to an activist for climate justice is expertly woven throughout.
Dembicki rewards readers with clarity, empowerment, solutions, and addictive dark humor. I spoke to him about the Canadian connection to climate deception, how communities are taking polluters to court, and the existing climate narratives he hopes to challenge.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. “The Petroleum Papers” will be out next week, on September 20.
EK: The legacy of Big Oil’s climate disinformation campaigns has been coming out in pieces basically since the first “Exxon Knew” stories broke in 2015. Why did you feel it was important to put the pieces together in one place?
GD: As a climate change reporter following this stuff closely, I had read a lot of that original Exxon Knew reporting with great interest, and also as a Canadian, it kind of fascinated me to see the role that Imperial Oil, the Canadian subsidiary of Exxon, had played in creating this whole denial and disinformation machine from Big Oil. And so specifically what led to the writing of the book is that a few years ago, several organizations, including Desmog and some others released this huge cache of Imperial Oil files. It basically traced the company's climate strategy going back to the 1960s. So what I wanted to do in the writing of this book was to show the central role that Imperial and [those involved with] the Canadian oil sands had played in essentially destroying our best opportunities to fight the climate emergency by spreading lies about the science and the solutions.
Why did you choose to tell the story of climate activist Joanna Sustento throughout this book, and why is it important to put climate disasters in the context of the fossil fuel industry’s climate deception?
I was in the Philippines three or four years ago in order to report on this really interesting human rights investigation looking at the impacts of climate disinformation spread by several dozen of the biggest polluters in the world. That was especially important for the Human Rights Commission because, in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan killed thousands of people and disrupted the lives of countless more. It was through that reporting that I met this young woman, Joanna Sustento, who really experienced some of the worst climate impacts you could possibly imagine. Before [Typhoon Haiyan], Joanna hadn't really followed climate change that much or anything to do with the fossil fuel industry. But as she sort of came to terms with what had happened to her family, she learned about the climate science showing how vulnerable the Philippines was, and then she also learned through some of the ExxonKnew reporting the role that companies like Exxon had played in first studying climate science and then outright denying it. What I think was especially disturbing to her was that some of these companies had actually researched typhoons, or other examples of extreme weather, in tropical countries. So in a sense, they had predicted the possibility of such a disaster hitting. I thought it was so important, especially for readers in North America to just hear her story and to experience her own journey of coming to terms with who might be to blame for this disaster.
Can you talk about any stand-out Canada-specific examples of climate deception that people in the US might not know about?
Well, to me, it was fascinating to learn about how the entire Canadian oil sands industry — which is one of the biggest oil deposits on the planet, up there with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela — was started with advance knowledge of climate change. I'm referring specifically to this meeting that happened in 1959 at Columbia University, where Edward Teller, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb, warned a whole bunch of oil and gas executives about what could happen from the burning of their products, and even suggested that New York City, where the conference was being held, might one day be underwater. One of the executives up on stage with him was Robert Dunlop, who was the head of Sun Oil. A few years after that talk and that warning, Robert Dunlop was up in Canada, helping set up the first oil sands project. So he had four years to stew over this warning that he'd received from a very credible source — and yet he set up this project that paved the way for one of the most massive oil deposits in the world to be tapped, and for that oil to start flowing in huge quantities down into the US. I think that was the very first act of climate deception that led to so many others.
There are some players in your book that we don’t hear as much about: Sun Oil (now Suncor) and Imperial Oil, for example. You write about how Suncor’s operations in the Canadian tar sands are referenced in a climate liability lawsuit filed by some Colorado communities. And in July, Vancouver became the first Canadian city to set aside funds for a similar lawsuit against Big Oil. Do you think we could be seeing more cases in Canada or ones in the U.S. that reference Canadian subsidiaries and extraction?
If you're trying to figure out why the United States has acted so slowly on climate change, heavily polluting oil coming down from Canada is a huge factor in that — not only the massive emissions caused by the millions of barrels of oil flowing into the U.S., but also because of the reactionary climate politics that that oil has funded.
Koch Industries probably would not be the company that it is today without a refinery it has in Minnesota that processes tons and tons of heavy Canadian oil. Canadian oil was a crucial source of revenue for the Koch brothers, which then allowed them to fund all sorts of right wing reactionary think tanks and political causes, the most consequential of which was all of the climate denial campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s. You really can't separate that massive disinformation effort from all of the oil north of the border.
Do you hope the book will be a way in for people less familiar with this body of knowledge and evidence? Are there any particular narratives on climate change and action that you’re hoping to challenge?
I think for so long, people have been hammered with this narrative that we're all equally responsible for climate change, and I really wanted to push back against that in this book. A lot of the book is just cataloging all of the lost moments we had to fix climate change, but I wanted to put specific names of companies and even executives and politicians to that story. Because once you realize that it was really only a relatively small handful of people that sabotaged our best chances of fixing the climate emergency, I think to me, that's simultaneously depressing and also kind of inspiring, because it shows that it actually doesn't take a lot to get progress. When you know the names of people that are holding us back, that's a much easier fight to have than changing the individual behavior of billions of people.
You end on the note of lawsuits being filed against Big Oil, and Congress getting involved with hearings on the industry’s disinformation campaigns. What do you think is the next chapter in this story? What are you focusing on after this?
The book essentially goes from 1959 up till 2022. So what I'm really interested in now are the forces that are keeping reactionary climate change denial alive in the media and in the collective consciousness. What I've seen is that a lot of disinformation and denial is still being given a huge platform by digital right wing media. Sites like the Daily Wire or PragerU, or even the Canadian conservative mega influencer, Jordan Peterson — it's voices and platforms like that which are still keeping climate denial alive in the public consciousness. I think people who track disinformation haven't focused as much on that recently, and I see that as a new area that is going to have a big impact on how we understand climate change.
One of my big takeaways from doing this book was to realize that it's at the moments of greatest possibility for climate action that disinformation campaigns get the loudest and the most disruptive, which makes sense in a way, because those are moments when the oil and gas industry feels most threatened. It seems kind of counterintuitive, but the moments that we’re being hit on all sides by this disinformation machine are actually the moments when it's most possible to get things done.
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ICYMI: This week, three U.S. House committees will hold hearings about Big Oil’s climate disinformation efforts.
On Wednesday, September 14, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will examine the role of public relations firms in preventing action on climate change and marketing disinformation on behalf of fossil fuel companies, and the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will examine “how the fossil fuel industry is weaponizing the law to stifle First Amendment protected speech and stymie efforts to combat climate change.”
On Thursday, September 15, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform will “examine Exxon, Chevron, BP, and Shell’s record-breaking profits, discuss the adequacy of their climate pledges, and hear firsthand accounts from survivors of climate change-induced severe weather events.”