The Villain's Backstory

Climate change is the biggest story in 66 million years.

In the beginning there was . . . nature. And three dudes with very different ideas about it.

For Lakota leader Crazy Horse, nature was a relative.

For naturalist John Muir, it was a gift from God to be protected (and “saved” from Indigenous people).

And for Gifford Pinchot, it was a resource to be extracted for economic benefit.

The least known of the three—Pinchot—won out, bending the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s. At the time, everyone was picking on the poor little industrialists. Labor unions were forming, and journalists like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair were exposing the blatant exploitation of workers and the planet. The US government was finally passing its first regulations on industry. The vote was expanding beyond land-owning white men. Businessmen needed a way to retain power, and they found it in another new industry: PR.

Oil men invested heavily and early, using PR from the late 1800s onward to shape how the public, media, and government saw them and the environment. Men who were trained in wartime propaganda and psychological warfare put their skills to work: Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, for example, famously staged a “women’s empowerment” protest to break the taboo against women smoking—to help the American Tobacco Company sell more cigarettes. Earl Newsom helped Standard Oil commission a film that romanticized the oil industry, Louisiana Story (1948), which earned an Academy Award nomination. The PR men created advertisements, school curricula, and films, as well as trade groups that could market and lobby on behalf of entire industries, like the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Scientists first warned government officials about climate change in the late 1950s, and continued throughout the 1960s. In the ’70s, confronted with an oil shortage, Nixon created the Department of Energy and funded research into renewable energy tech, a project zealously championed by his successor, Jimmy Carter.

At the time, the government was more worried about costs and pissed-off American voters than this so-called “greenhouse effect.” But hey, it was a start.

Meanwhile, the industry commissioned its own studies. In 1974, ExxonMobil launched its Research and Engineering arm, envisioning a “Bell Labs of energy.” Bright-eyed postdocs and the country’s greatest scientists researched everything from solar and battery tech to the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Their goal was twofold: continue to lead the American energy industry, and ensure a seat at the table if the government decided to regulate emissions.

Cue the 1980s. Oil prices fell and new regulations loomed. Fearing for their bottom line, the fossil fuel heavyweights huddled in dark rooms and decided to squash any threat of emissions regulation. Again, the PR masters were there with a plan—casting doubt on even the industry’s own science, and reverting to that age-old framing: environment versus economy.

In 1991, with George Bush Sr talking about using “the White House effect” to counter the greenhouse effect, fossil fuel barons Charles and David Koch decided the key to stopping climate policy was to politicize this thing. They organized the first documented climate-denier conference and worked to turn climate into a partisan issue.

Bush, who’d planned to commit the US to emissions reductions, instead began talking about the need to balance environmental concerns with economic growth.

In 1998, a few months after a binding international climate treaty was signed in Kyoto, representatives from oil companies and conservative groups met to draft the API’s Global Climate Science Communications Plan: a strategy to kill the treaty and momentum on climate action.

“Victory will be achieved,” they wrote, “when average citizens and the media ‘understand’ the uncertainties of climate science.”

Yes. They put the word “understand” in quotation marks.

Victory was achieved. Kyoto was not ratified and today, in 2022, the latest batch of fossil fuel–funded politicians are attempting to block policy that would only begin to tackle the issue. The scientific ground has been regained, but the ol’ economy-versus-environment narrative is still standing in the way of change.

Amy Westervelt headshot

✍️ Amy Westervelt is a climate journalist bringing the fossil fuel industry to its knees. Amy has contributed to the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, NPR, and other outlets. She has won a Rachel Carson Award for Women Greening Journalism and an Edward R. Murrow Award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. As the founder of podcast network Critical Frequency, she has executive produced more than a dozen podcasts, including her own show, Drilled, a true crime–style podcast about climate change that was awarded the Online Journalism Award for Excellence in Audio Storytelling.