Global Warming Controversy

What is global warming?

Global warming, climate change, weather, and climate are vocabulary terms that tend to be used interchangeably, but are actually quite different. In the interest of making sure we’re all on the same page from the beginning of this article, global warming is defined by NASA as:

The long-term heating of Earth’s surface observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere. This term is not interchangeable with the term “climate change.”

What are controversies on this topic?

The core controversy around Global Warming is whether or not it’s happening at all, and whether or not the science behind it is accurate or trustworthy. According to an article on the ProCon blog by Britannica: 

The con side argues human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are too small to substantially change the earth’s climate and that the planet is capable of absorbing those increases. They contend that warming over the 20th century resulted primarily from natural processes such as fluctuations in the sun’s heat and ocean currents. They say the theory of human-caused global climate change is based on questionable measurements, faulty climate models, and misleading science.

The origin of the global warming controversy — a timeline.

1962: The earliest example of propaganda that I can find on the topic of global warming comes from Exxon (then “Humble”), where they launched an ad that stated, “Each day Humble supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier!” 

Image Credit: Life Magazine, 1962

1977: Exxon’s senior company scientist, James F. Black, warned company executives that if carbon dioxide were to double in the atmosphere, it would increase average global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius (4-5 degrees Fahrenheit). According to a 2019 NASA article, carbon dioxide has increased by 47 percent in the atmosphere since the Industrial Age. 

1988: On June 23, 1988, James E. Hansen — a climatologist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City — told Congress and the world that global warming had arrived. 

1991: Exxon launches an ad that says, “Who told you the earth was warming? Chicken Little?”

Image Credit: Informed Citizens for the Environment, 1991

It seems that as climatologists were discovering how increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would eventually pose a threat to the world, Exxon and other oil companies were scrambling to influence the public’s thinking in Big Oil’s favor so as not to have their revenue hurt. I believe that this has a lot to do with the origin of the global warming controversy.

Propaganda

Big Oil has been spreading disinformation on the subject of global warming for decades. Their early ads aimed to convince the public that global warming wasn’t actually happening, despite the fact that these very same Big Oil companies were aware of the impact they could have. A study by Exxon in 1979 found that:

Present climatic models predict that the present trend of fossil fuel use will lead to dramatic climate changes within the next 75 years. However it is not obvious whether these changes would be all bad or all good. The major conclusion from this report is that, should it be deemed necessary to maintain atmospheric CO2 levels to prevent significant climatic changes, dramatic changes in patterns of energy use would be required. 

Big Oil’s propaganda from the earlier days of the global warming controversy aimed to convince the public that global warming was not occurring, and especially not as a result of Big Oil’s activities. I imagine their approach was in an attempt to prevent the public from taking global warming seriously enough that it impacted big oil’s revenue. Big Oil is still trying to convince the public that global warming is nothing to worry about; however, their messaging has shifted from claiming that global warming doesn’t exist to acknowledging that it does, and then greenwashing their audience about Big Oil’s efforts to combat global warming.

Image Credit: Zachary Theodore, Unsplash

Is there still a global warming controversy?

While there isn’t much disagreement among climate scientists about global warming, there is significant disagreement and controversy in the world of global warming politics. Pew Research’s study on the politics of climate finds that only “11% of conservative Republicans think that climate scientists understand the causes of climate change very well”, and that “conservative Republicans are more inclined to say climate research findings are influenced by scientists’ desire to advance their careers (57%) or their own political leanings (54%) most of the time”. 

Image Credit: Mobil Oil’s Evolution of Public Affair’s

Much like how tech giants such as Google and Facebook are invested in collecting as much human behavior data as possible so long as it earns more revenue, Big Oil may turn to whoever they can receive support from in order to keep themselves in business. Mobil Oil’s documentation on their approach to public affairs details how they target the most influential politicians, reporters, editors, and publishers in dialogues about how Mobil has taken the offensive on topics like the energy crisis. Big Oil has been doing everything they can to influence public opinion in their favor for decades, and I think there will likely be some degree of controversy as long as they’re doing so.