We have wasted so much time. Despite decades of urgent warnings from scientists about a looming climate crisis, global carbon emissions have continued to climb year after year, amplifying and compounding the challenge the world faces to avert catastrophe. A new UN report reveals that global temperatures are now on track to rise by 3.9 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. To avert climate chaos, the report suggests, global emissions need to fall by 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020. That is to say, by next year, carbon pollution needs to start falling five times faster than it has been rising. Possible? Yes. But about as likely as reversing gravity.
Why have we waited so long to deal with this crisis? Lots of reasons, from the sheer scale and inertia of our energy systems to the psychology of denial. But the fossil fuel mafia played a big part in it. Thanks in part to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting a few years ago by InsideClimate News, we now know that ExxonMobil and Shell and other Big Oil companies knowingly misled the public and their shareholders about the risk that climate change poses to their assets, as well as to the habitability of the planet. In internal memos dating back to the 1970s, Exxon predicted that the effects of fossil fuel pollution could “indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the world’s population).” In 1982, it estimated that the atmosphere would contain 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide in 2019 – a stunningly accurate prediction. As a recent New York Times editorial pointed out, “The parade of horribles foreseen by the company — sea level rise, more intense rain and snow, inundation, hotter temperatures, desertification, agricultural disruption — are now regular features of the nightly news. And it will only get worse.”
But rather than warn the public, Exxon spent over $30 million on climate-denying think tanks and shady researchers to confuse people about the risks of climate change, while doubling down on its mission to pump as much oil out of the ground as quickly as it could. The New York Attorney General sued Exxon Mobil for securities fraud; if the company is found guilty, it could be on the hook for $1.6 billion in damages (closing arguments concluded a few weeks ago). Other lawsuits are piling up, including one by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey accusing Exxon Mobil of “systematically and intentionally” misleading “Massachusetts investors and consumers about climate change.” Again, billions of dollars in damages are on the line.
But it wasn’t just Big Oil who understood the risks of climate change to its business. Big Coal knew too. Last week, Huffington Post published a story citing an article in a coal industry trade publication from 1966 that proved that climate change was no secret to people in the coal industry either. “There is evidence that the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is increasing rapidly as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels,” wrote a coal industry executive named James R. Garvey. “If the future rate of increase continues as it is at the present, it has been predicted that, because the CO2 envelope reduces radiation, the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere will increase and that vast changes in the climates of the earth will result.
“Such changes in temperature will cause melting of the polar icecaps, which, in turn, would result in the inundation of many coastal cities, including New York and London,” Garvey continued.
This is, of course, just the view of one coal industry executive, and there is still a lot to learn about exactly what other players in the coal industry understood about the risks of climate change 50 years ago.
But it’s already clear that in the early days of the climate wars, nobody was a bigger player than Big Coal. The industry had decades of experience undermining, subverting, and obfuscating science in their battles over air pollution laws, water pollution laws at mining sites, and safety regulations for deep miners (the recent outbreak of black lung disease among coal miners – a terrifying disease that should have been eliminated in the 1920s – is further evidence of Big Coal’s indifference to the health and welfare of workers).
In the early 1990s, when the information war over the climate began, Big Coal’s most aggressive front group was the Western Fuels Association, a group of coal-burning electric utilities and cooperatives. Western Fuels began a “mystification campaign” to undermine the science of climate change. In many respects, it was the same strategy the tobacco industry had used to fight the connection between smoking and lung cancer, and which Big Coal had used to question the health impacts of air pollution: Hire a small group of shady scientists whose views contradicted the world’s experts and promote their views to a gullible public.
Western Fuels also funded the Greening Earth Society, a non-profit that argued that carbon dioxide made for a healthier, happier planet. Among other things, the group made a hilarious, earnest video that was widely circulated in the early 1990s, arguing that higher levels of CO2 were going to lead to a warmer, more productive future for mankind. Looking at it now, it’s astonishing to think that anyone took this pseudo-science seriously. But there are some kooks in President Trump’s orbit still claiming it, including William Happer, a 79-year-old physicist who until recently served on Trump’s National Security team.
Both Western Fuels and Greening Earth Society was headed by a man named Fred Palmer, who was executive vice president of Peabody Energy, which was once the largest coal company in the world (last year, Peabody declared bankruptcy, although it continues to limp along). In the early 1990s, Palmer was one of the most outspoken advocates of Big Coal’s idea that more CO2 in the atmosphere was a good thing. For Palmer, coal was quite literally, a gift from God. “It’s easy to conclude that, under a preordained plan, coal and oil lay in wait for exploitation by humans to permit our creation of an environment on Earth conductive to the spectacular success of our species,” Palmer told an international coal conference in 1996. He argued that the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the treaty that eventually led to the Paris Climate agreement in 2015, was based on a vision of “apocalypse, scarcity, drought, famine, and pestilence” and that the agreement was designed “to limit the material progress of the human community based on a moral view of the present and future that by definition rejects the pro-human vision of all the world’s great religions.”
To Palmer, taking action on global warming was not so much a question of science as it was a question of faith. Why would the world have so much coal if we weren’t meant to burn it?
In 2009, just after I published Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, I debated Palmer about the future of coal at a forum in Lexington, Kentucky. Palmer was no Appalachian country boy – he wore a nicely tailored suit, and big gold rings on his fingers. He exuded Beltway power and confidence. When I challenged him on climate change, pointing out that burning coal was increasing the risks of climate chaos, from melting ice sheets to epic droughts, he waved off my comments like they had come from a fly buzzing around in the room. All he wanted to talk about was the moral imperative of burning coal, and how electricity from coal would lift millions of people out of poverty. When I suggested there were other, less destructive ways to generate electricity than burning coal, he scoffed and cited fake numbers about the extreme costs of renewable power. In the tone of a Baptist preacher, he argued that restraining the burning of coal would condemn millions to lives of suffering and hardship.
It’s hard to know how sincere Palmer was in all this. He was a slick dude, and I’d guess he was using the rhetoric of the Religious Right to give moral justification to the industry’s desire to fatten its bottom line.
There’s still lots to learn about Big Coal’s tactics to deny and subvert climate science. But in the end, Big Coal and Big Oil have been able to delay and subvert action on climate change not because (or not only because) they were greedy, dishonest, and manipulative, but because it was all too easy for them to use their money and their cunning to subvert and undercut the political system that was supposed to be looking out for the larger public good. And a stable climate is the Mother of all public good.
As for holding Big Coal accountable for decades of denial and obfuscation – well, good luck. The industry is racing toward extinction, done in by cheap natural gas, cheap renewable power, and a growing awareness that coal is a 19th century fuel ill-suited to 21st century life. Eight U.S. coal companies declared bankruptcy in 2019 — including Murray Energy, headed by Trump’s pal and campaign contributor Robert Murray (“a geriatric Dr. Evil,” John Oliver famously called him, prompting a now-dropped lawsuit from the 79-year-old coal baron). In just the past month or so, two big coal burners, Bruce Mansfield power plant in Pennsylvania and Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, shut down. Globally, electricity production from coal is on track to fall 3 percent in 2019, the biggest drop on record. Big Oil is still rich and may yet have to pay for their role in knowingly trashing the Earth’s climate for profit. But Big Coal is broken and bankrupt. It stole our future, and will get away with it.