My dvr is set to tape all Frontline episodes, although I haven't been watching them religiously lately. This week however I did watch a 3-part series on the energy industry and climate change--an excellent piece of history of the last 30 years or so, and a very depressing one. It casts grave doubts both on our democracy's ability to function, and on the significance of real information in today's world. You can stream it here.
The great irony with which the series begins is this: as early as the 1970s, Exxon, our leading energy firm, began studying the impact of greenhouse gases on climate in some detail, and realized that the problem was a serious one. At one time they even made significant investments in the development of alternative energy sources. These conclusions have come to light in recent years, but by then, Exxon and the whole energy industry had begun moving in a completely different direction. Rather than join the emerging scientific consensus about the sources of the gravity of climate change, they have spent many millions on disinformation campaigns designed to stop a popular or political consensus from emerging. Their first strategy, which in effect they borrowed from the tobacco industry, was to argue that scientists did not agree on the causes and impacts of global warming, and that major attempts to combat it had to await better data. The Koch brothers, Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute and other key players have created a whole network of "researchers" whose job was to popularize this campaign. They evidently enlisted the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal in their crusade, and spent many millions on "advertorials"--ads masquerading as editorials--in other major publications. Apparently, this has worked.
In 1992, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the presidential election, a new era of environmental regulation seemed possible. Climate change was already Gore's signature issue, and Clinton seemed to be on board. During his first year Clinton spent most of his political capital on his economic program--including an unpopular tax increase--and threw a controversial health care plan into the mix for good measure. He also called for a BTU tax--a tax on thermal units of energy--to be levied on all forms of energy except solar, wind, and geothermal. That proposal passed the House, but even a watered-down version failed in the Senate after a tremendous lobbying campaign against it and the costs it was supposed to impose on the economy. Then, in November, the Republicans won their biggest midterm victory since 1946, taking control of both chambers. Any chance of significant environmental legislation or of health care reform disappeared, and Clinton governed from the center for the rest of his term. His administration signed the Kyoto Protocol committing the US to action to reduce emissions in 1997, but times had changed by 2005 when the protocol theoretically took effect.
As I have noted a number of times over the last 22 years, a post-2000 investigation by journalists suggested that a full recount of Florida in November of that year--which Al Gore never had the temerity to ask for--would have given Gore the presidency. No such recount occurred and we will never know if Gore might have reacted to 9/11, not be embarking on a series of new wars, but by proclaiming the necessity of weaning the nation from fossil fuels. We also do not know if he could have sold the Congress on such a policy. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney went in a completely opposite direction. The documentary disappointed me when it failed to discuss Cheney's energy task force, which operated largely in secrecy, and which I believe laid out the groundwork for seeking US energy independence by fracking for natural gas. They do mention that Hurricane Katrina, which disrupted oil drilling in the Gulf, became an excuse for developing new fossil fuel sources. In any event, by the time Bush left office in 2009, the fracking revolution was underway.
The campaign of 2008 was another bad moment for the energy industry because both candidates--Barack Obama and John McCain--supported some kind of energy tax and recognized climate change as a major problem. After his smashing victory, Obama asked Congress for a cap-and-trade measure that would have forced energy consumers to bid for the right to use allocations from a defined total of energy. The Democratic House of Representatives passed it, but another huge lobbing campaign managed to keep it from coming to a vote in the Senate, which meanwhile lost its filibuster-proof majority after Ted Kennedy's death. Right-wing lobbying groups led by the Koch brothers argued that its costs would cripple the American economy, and like Clinton's BTU proposal in 1993, the cap-and-trade proposal became one of several factors in a huge Republican victory in the 2010 midterms. Bob Inglis, a courageous Republican Congressman from South Carolina, suffered a humiliating primary loss after he came out in favor of it, winning less than 30 percent of the vote. Obama, like Clinton before him, had to move to the center, and he also adopted a key piece of oil industry propaganda himself. Boasting that the United States now had enough natural gas available to last a century, he adopted the industry line that natural gas was a clean fuel because it resulted in half the carbon dioxide emissions of oil or coal. That turns out to be a half-truth at best, because the mining of natural gas also leads to huge leaks of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO 2. The energy industry was itself pushing natural gas as an alternative to coal, the worst greenhouse gas source, but Republicans seem to have done quite well by blaming a "war on coal" on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Like Bill Clinton, Obama balanced inaction at home with international agreement abroad, making new commitments to the Paris accord--but those commitments, like Clinton's, fell victim to the US electoral process. Trump backed out of the accord, claiming that it was unfair to the US.
Throughout this long story--and now, into the Biden administration as well--the fossil fuel industry has benefited from its entrenched, enormous role in our economy. Any time we encounter a new economic setback, we hear that we cannot afford expensive transitions to new energy sources. Now, with the price of oil soaring because of the Ukraine war, Biden is off to the Middle East to beg for higher production. He meanwhile had to abandon the climate provision of the Build Back Better act.
Two kinds of interviewees dominate the documentary. On the one hand, there are calm, measured scientists, some of whom have worked in the energy industry, who explain the dangers of emissions and the failure to do anything about them. On the other, there are former industry lobbyists who boast about stopping any measures that would really hurt their employers, and stick avidly to the fictions that they have developed. Meanwhile, nearly every actual energy producer or active lobbying group refused to be interviewed at all or to provide meaningful written answers to questions. That is how entrenched interests now treat the mainstream media, of which PBS obviously is a part. Most viewers would prefer to share a meal with one of the scientists, but there are few of them I would bet on in a fight with one of the flacks. The production of information is a major industry in the United States today, but it serves entrenched interests. High-quality information--which has also become very hard to market to publishers--has to face torrents of opposing misinformation any time that it threatens established interests. Neither Obama nor Biden has made a real effort to educate the American people on any critical issue. The great enlightenment experiment may be over.