The audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change
Thirty years ago, a bold plan was cooked up to spread doubt and persuade the public that climate change was not a problem. The little-known meeting – between some of America’s biggest industrial players and a PR genius – forged a devastatingly successful strategy that endured for years, and the consequences of which are all around us.
On an early autumn day in 1992, E Bruce Harrison, a man widely acknowledged as the father of environmental PR, stood up in a room full of business leaders and delivered a pitch like no other.
At stake was a contract worth half a million dollars a year – about £850,000 in today’s money. The prospective client, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – which represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries – was looking for a communications partner to change the narrative on climate change.
Don Rheem and Terry Yosie, two of Harrison’s team present that day, are sharing their stories for the first time.
“Everybody wanted to get the Global Climate Coalition account,” says Rheem, “and there I was, smack in the middle of it.”
The GCC had been conceived only three years earlier, as a forum for members to exchange information and lobby policy makers against action to limit fossil fuel emissions.
Though scientists were making rapid progress in understanding climate change, and it was growing in salience as a political issue, in its first years the Coalition saw little cause for alarm. President George HW Bush was a former oilman, and as a senior lobbyist told the BBC in 1990, his message on climate was the GCC’s message.
There would be no mandatory fossil fuel reductions.
But all that changed in 1992. In June, the international community created a framework for climate action, and November’s presidential election brought committed environmentalist Al Gore into the White House as vice-president. It was clear the new administration would try to regulate fossil fuels.
The Coalition recognised that it needed strategic communications help and put out a bid for a public relations contractor.
Though few outside the PR industry might have heard of E Bruce Harrison or the eponymous company he had run since 1973, he had a string of campaigns for some of the US’s biggest polluters under his belt.
He had worked for the chemical industry discrediting research on the toxicity of pesticides; for the tobacco industry, and had recently run a campaign against tougher emissions standards for the big car makers. Harrison had built a firm that was considered one of the very best.
Media historian Melissa Aroncyzk, who interviewed Harrison before he died in 2021, says he was a strategic linchpin for his clients, ensuring everyone was on the same page.
“He was a master at what he did,” she says.
Drawing on thousands of newly discovered documents, this three-part film charts how the oil industry mounted a campaign to sow doubt about the science of climate change, the consequences of which we are living through today.
Before the pitch, Harrison had assembled a team of both seasoned PR professionals and almost total novices. Among them was Don Rheem, who had no industry credentials. He had studied ecology before becoming an environmental journalist. A chance meeting with Harrison, who must have seen the strategic value of adding Rheem’s environmental and media connections to the team, led to a job offer on the GCC pitch.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity to get a front row seat at probably one of the most pressing science policy and public policy issues that we were facing.’
“It just felt enormously important,” Rheem says.
Terry Yosie – who had recently been recruited from the American Petroleum Institute, becoming a senior vice-president at the firm – remembers that Harrison began the pitch by reminding his audience that he was instrumental in fighting the auto reforms. He had done so, in part, by reframing the issue.
The same tactics would now help beat climate regulation. They would persuade people that the scientific facts weren’t settled, and that alongside the environment, policy makers needed to consider how action on climate change would – in the GCC’s view – negatively affect American jobs, trade and prices.
The strategy would be implemented through an extensive media campaign, everything from placing quotes and pitching opinion pieces (so-called op-eds), to direct contacts with journalists.
“A lot of reporters were assigned to write stories,” Rheem says, “and they were struggling with the complexity of the issue. So I would write backgrounders so reporters could read them and get up to speed.”
Uncertainty ran through the full gamut of the GCC’s publications, a creative array of letters, glossy brochures, and monthly newsletters.
Rheem and the team were prolific – within a year, Harrison’s firm claimed to have secured more than 500 specific mentions in the media.
In August 1993, Harrison took stock of progress in another meeting with the GCC.
“The rising awareness of the scientific uncertainty has caused some in Congress to pause on advocating new initiatives,” declared an updated internal strategy pitch, shared with the BBC by Terry Yosie.
“Activists sounding the alarm over ‘global warming’ have publicly conceded that they lost ground in the communications arena over the past year.”
Now, Harrison counselled, they needed to expand the external voices making their case.
“Scientists, economists, academics and other noted experts carry greater credibility with the media and general public than industry representatives.”
While most climate scientists agreed that human-caused climate change was a real issue that would require action, a small group argued there was no cause for alarm. The plan was to pay these sceptics to give speeches or write op-eds – about $1,500 (£1,250) per article – and to arrange media tours so they could appear on local TV and radio stations.
“My role was to identify the voices that were not in the mainstream and to give those voices a stage,” Rheem says. “There was a lot we didn’t know at the time. And part of my role was to highlight what we didn’t know.”
He says the media was hungry for these perspectives.
“Journalists were actually actively looking for the contrarians. It was really feeding an appetite that was already there.”
Many of these sceptics or deniers have rejected the idea that funding from the GCC and other industry groups had any impact on their views. But the scientists and environmentalists tasked with repudiating them – arguing the reality of climate change – encountered a well-organised and effective campaign they found hard to match.
“The Global Climate Coalition is seeding doubt everywhere, fogging the air… And environmentalists really don’t know what’s hitting them,” environmental campaigner John Passacantando remembers.
“What the geniuses of the PR firms who work for these big fossil fuel companies know is that truth has nothing to do with who wins the argument. If you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it.”
In a document dating from around 1995, shared with the BBC by Melissa Aroncyzk, Harrison wrote that the “GCC has successfully turned the tide on press coverage of global climate change science, effectively countering the eco-catastrophe message and asserting the lack of scientific consensus on global warming.”
The groundwork had been laid for the industry’s biggest campaign to date – opposing international efforts to negotiate emissions reductions at Kyoto, in Japan, in December 1997. By then, a consensus had emerged among scientists that human-caused warming was now detectable. But the US public was still showing signs of doubt. As many as 44% of respondents to a Gallup poll believed scientists were divided. Public antipathy made it harder for politicians to fight for action, and America never implemented the agreement reached in Kyoto. It was a major victory for the industry coalition.
“I think E Bruce Harrison was proud of the work he did. He knew how central he had been to moving the needle on how companies intervened in the conversation about global warming,” says Aronczyk.
The same year as the Kyoto negotiation, Harrison sold his firm. Rheem decided that public relations wasn’t the right career, while Yosie had long since moved on to other environmental projects for the firm. Meanwhile, the GCC began to disintegrate, as some members grew uncomfortable with its hard line. But the tactics, the playbook, and the message of doubt were now embedded and would outlive their creators. Three decades on, the consequences are all around us.
“I think it’s the moral equivalent of a war crime,” says former US Vice-President Al Gore of the big oil companies’ efforts to block action.
“I think it is, in many ways, the most serious crime of the post-World War Two era, anywhere in the world. The consequences of what they’ve done are just almost unimaginable.”
“Would I do anything differently? It’s a hard question to answer,” reflects Don Rheem, who says he was “way down the totem pole” of the GCC’s operation. “There’s some sadness that not much has happened.”
He maintains that climate science was too uncertain in the 1990s to warrant “drastic actions”, and that developing countries – particularly China and Russia – have ultimately been responsible for the decades of climate inaction, rather than American industry.
“I think it’s really easy to create a conspiracy theory about really pernicious intent of industry to completely halt any progress,” Rheem says. “Personally, I didn’t see that.
“I was very young. I was very curious… Knowing what I know today, would I have done some things differently then?