PBS Frontline umasks the villains of the climate crisis
Part one of "The Power of Big Oil," the new three-part documentary series about the oil industry’s insidious campaigns to block climate action, is a must-watch.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
This week PBS launched the first 90-minute segment of “The Power of Big Oil,” a three-part documentary series that promised to show “how fossil fuel companies and their political allies cast doubt and helped delay action on climate change for decades.” “Part One: Denial” seriously delivered. We highly recommend that you watch.
The first episode is an epic telling of the origin story of the climate crisis: the oil industry’s early knowledge that burning fossil fuels caused “catastrophic” climate change, followed by their consequential decision to push climate denial and dismantle political action that could curb the use of their oil and gas products.
“Denial” featured never-before-seen internal industry documents and on-camera interviews with a host of (mostly old white male) characters — including former PR representatives and economic consultants for the industry, politicians and lobbyists, academics and watchdogs, and former Exxon scientists — all of whom contribute key pieces to a chilling picture of how Big Oil coordinated a large-scale, deeply funded takedown of proactive climate policy that left us, decades later, in a world consumed by fire and flood.
The documentary looks at key moments when powerful global entities came close to enforcing the transition away from fossil fuels, but were disarmed by an endless torrent of disinformation spread in media outlets, scientific and economic journals, and advertisements by the oil and gas industry. Particularly unsettling were the workings of the Global Climate Coalition, a network of industry allies formed for the sole purpose of lobbying against the Kyoto Protocol and other international climate agreements to reduce emissions.
Perhaps the documentary’s most revelatory moment came from Chuck Hagel, the former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, President Obama’s one-time Defense Secretary, and a Republican. Hagel sponsored a 1997 U.S. Senate resolution that prevented the United States from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, and he tells an interviewer that if oil companies had been truthful about what they knew, “it would’ve changed everything.”
“I was misled. Others were misled,” Hagel said. “When they had evidence in their own institutions that countered what they were saying publicly… they lied.”
As indicated by recent academic studies, including new research and documents published last week by environmental sociologist Robert Brulle of Brown University, the industry’s narratives relied as much or more on inflating the economic costs of climate action as they did on climate science denial. The dishonesty of that framing, which ignores the significant economic benefits of NOT burning the world down, is a major theme of the episode.
Paul Bernstein, a former economic consultant for Charles River Associates, a firm that published skewed economic studies on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute, admits to having “misgivings about just telling half the story.”
“I wish I weren’t a part of that, looking back,” Bernstein says. “I wish I weren’t a part of delaying action… clearly on the wrong side of history.”
The episode opens and closes with interviews of Martin Hoffert and Ed Garvey, two scientists hired by Exxon more than 40 years ago to perform then-cutting-edge research into the greenhouse gas effect caused by burning fossil fuels. In 2019, both scientists testified before Congress about Exxon’s early scientific understanding of climate change and efforts to sow public uncertainty. Nearly three years later, facing down the heightening global consequences of their former employer’s deception, the scientists’ insight is all the more cutting.
“I’m 83 years old. Three or four decades ago, we predicted it,” said Hoffert, who is also a former NASA physicist. “To have those predictions come true, that’s sort of the golden icon that you look for as a scientist. However, as a human being, and as an inhabitant of planet Earth, I’m horrified to watch the lack of response to this.”
In one unforgettable moment, Hoffert reads a 1996 statement by former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond with clear disgust. Raymond calls climate science an “unproven theory” and “inconclusive,” despite having a team of climate researchers at his own company laboratory saying otherwise.
“This person should never be the CEO of an energy company,” Hoffert said. “He’s using something which is a lie to justify a policy which is bad for the world, and I would have to say that on an ethical basis it’s actually evil. I think he should be ashamed of himself, and I think he should apologize to the world for saying that.”
The documentary flashes forward to footage of current Exxon CEO Darren Woods at an October 2021 hearing in the House Oversight Committee. Woods, one of six oil and gas executives brought in to testify on the industry’s ongoing disinformation campaigns, says that the company never lied to the public, and has “continued to maintain a position that has evolved with science and is today consistent with the science.”
Apologies from oil CEOs are clearly not in the cards, nor, as the documentary illustrates so powerfully by flashing between these interviews and footage of catastrophic wildfires, storms and floods across the globe, are they enough to help communities address the devastating climate damages this industry continues to cause.
Parts two and three of “The Power of Big Oil” will be streaming on PBS.org and airing at 10 p.m./9 p.m. Central the next two Tuesday nights. We hope to “see” you there.
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