It is no accident that in the US, climate change has become inextricably intertwined with the ongoing ‘culture wars.’ Turns out the fossil fuel industry's trade groups spent billions of dollars on public relations to make that happen!
In a September literature review of climate denial research, Dr. Matthew Hornsey and Dr. Stephan Lewandowsky once again confirm that climate change is in fact, an issue in which many people look for evidence to support their preexisting, values-driven ideologies (rather than evaluate the conclusions that come from actual scientific evidence). The review states “when a scientific issue [like climate change] gets drawn into the culture wars—one that differentiates between political identities—that issue can get sucked into a self-reinforcing feedback loop of political polarization. Once this has occurred, beliefs may reflect more of an identity-expressive motive than an accuracy motive, and so facts become rubbery and subjective.”
The literature review also covers the solid body of knowledge pointing to the fact that climate denial in the US is the result of organized disinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks. The authors report, for example, that “most environmentally sceptical books [in the US] are published or financed by conservative think tanks.” By contrast, where there haven’t been decades of disinformation, “In most European countries, all mainstream political parties subscribe to the scientific consensus on climate change and, at least until recently, rejection of climate science represented a fringe opinion.”
It is a well-known fact by now that the fossil fuel industry is funding a well-orchestrated effort to sow doubt about climate change, particularly in the US, and grow their profits at the expense of life on Earth. But it's not just companies like Exxon —it's also their trade associations.
A recently published study by Dr. Robert Brulle and Dr. Christian Downie revealed this month that trade associations’ political spending plays a big role in the obstruction of climate policies. Brulle and Downie identified key trade associations working in climate change politics and built an original dataset of the IRS Form 990 filings of 89 trade associations across nine sectors, including oil and gas, utilities, renewable energy, and transportation.
They found that trade associations spent a whopping “$3.4 billion on political activities related to climate change between 2008 and 2018.” (However, we can't "assume that every dollar spent was directly on climate change” because this study examines the total political spending of these trade associations.)
Of the $3.4 billion, the trade associations collectively spent the most money on advertising and promotion ($2.16 billion), followed by lobbying ($729 million), grants ($394 million), and political contributions ($105 million). The authors also note that “The oil and gas sector is easily the largest, with total spending over $1 billion, representing 47% of all spending.”
And that's way more than pro-climate groups spent. Brulle and Downie found that trade associations “generally opposed to climate change action spent an estimated $2 billion, compared to $74.5 million for industries that traditionally support climate action.”
Brulle and Downie also conducted 23 semi-structured interviews with individuals from the largest trade associations in the nine sectors as well as with respondents from “key member firms, and lobbying and public relations firms that work with these trade associations.”
These interviews revealed that “one of the key reasons that trade associations spend more on advertising and promotion than any other activity appears to result from their specific role in maintaining the public reputation of their industry.” Additionally, “trade associations spend more on advertising and promotion and lobbying because these activities are generally viewed as more effective than grants and political contributions.”
With all this money fueling efforts to oppose meaningful climate policies, how can we ever hope to fight back? Well, after reviewing the landscape of research on climate skeptics, Hornsey and Lewandowsky have some suggestions. One of their potential strategies for addressing the negative influence of climate denial is to remind conservative climate deniers of the 97% scientific consensus on climate change, since “Successfully communicating this consensus message has positive downstream influence on climate-friendly attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.”
But as we've learned from past studies, pro-climate messaging is only effective in conservative audiences until they hear something contradictory, which is why the industry spends billions of dollars to produce politically-charged climate disinformation. The only lasting solution to climate denial is shutting down the disinformation industry's lies and politicizing propaganda!