Climate Of Denial

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Climate change first registered on the radar screen of fossil fuel companies in the late 1980s and early 1990s amid growing demands for an international treaty to address the issue. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had been set up in 1988, and, at the end of 1990, negotiations were set in train to agree a treaty in time for the Rio conference of 1992. Businesses whose interests were threatened by the prospect of action to reduce the use of fossil fuels realised they were under attack. They moved into gear to hire lobbyists and form coalitions to defend their interests. Two organisations in particular stood out; the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) and the Climate Council. Members included all the main companies involved in oil extraction, car or steel manufacturing, and electricity generation, as well as industry associations like the US National Association of Manufacturers and the National Mining Association. Though now disbanded, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the GCC during the early to mid 1990s as the voice of concerned industry in the international climate negotiations. As Robert Reinstein, former head of the US climate delegation and then-industry lobbyist told us back in 1996: 'When GCC, which represents companies constituting a very significant proportion of the country's GDP start making noises, they obviously get attention.'3

2 D. Adam, 'ExxonMobil continuing to fund climate skeptic groups, records show', The Guardian, 1 July 2009. See 01/exxon-mobil-climate-change-sceptics-funding.

3 Quoted in P. Newell, Climate for Change: Non-State Actors and the Global Politics of the Greenhouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

At national levels, powerful groups sought to fight off policy measures that threatened their interests, such as the proposed EU carbon tax in 1992. These groups included the Confederation of British Industry (UK) , the World Coal Institute, the American Petroleum Institute or Western Fuels Association (US), as well as regional groupings such as employers' organisations like the Union of Industrial Employers' Confederations in Europe (UNICE, now called Business Europe) and the European Round Table of Industrialists.

A multi-pronged strategy was developed to get the message across loud and clear: that climate change was not happening; that if it was then it was natural and nothing to do with human activities (certainly not fossil fuel use); and that to act to limit emissions would cripple industrial economies and result in politicians being kicked out of office. This chorus of opinion helped make a 'wait and see' approach sound like common sense. 'Cool heads in a warming world', was one of their slogans. The strategy was to kill off climate change as an issue before it got too serious and gathered too much political momentum. And for a long time it worked.

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