PBS’s frontline public relations investigative program specializes in reminding us of things we’d rather forget. A three-part dive into climate change begins on Tuesday, this potential killer of species that has recently taken a back seat to more traditional scourges such as disease and war.
Titled The Power of Big Oil, the weekly mini-series focuses on denying climate change as it is practiced and paid for by the fossil fuel industry – especially Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries – along with its business allies and increasingly policy makers. . In addition, it is a story more depressing than revealing why nothing has been done about the existential crisis we have been aware of for at least four decades.
Indicators of our visual understanding and anxiety are well known, including the testimony of climatologist James Hansen from 1988 before Congress, the Kyoto and Paris agreements, the documentary “Inconvenient Truth” and increasingly frightening UN reports. The answer that Frontline meticulously outlines – a disciplined, coordinated campaign of disinformation and obscurity that began in the industry and was adopted by conservative political groups – is less well known, but has always been obvious.
Part of the campaign is public, a series of talk chapters on television and publications and promotional materials in prominent publications (including The New York Times) that do not deny absolute global warming, but present it as the nightmares of eggheads that attract attention. Behind the scenes, Big Oil-paid undercover lobbying groups are putting pressure on key politicians at key times – whenever it seems that the United States can pass legislation that affects their profits.
One lesson the show offers, almost in passing, is how the refusal to accept the reality of climate change precluded the broader attacks on science – and knowledge in general – that were to characterize the Trump years and Covid’s response. 19 pandemic. The successful but lonely battle waged by the oil and gas industry is joined wholeheartedly by Republican politicians as they see climate change and the specter of unemployed miners and drillies combine with their efforts to demonize President Barack Obama and radicalize conservative voters. . At this point, the fig leaf of the scientific debate falls away and pure emotion takes over.
And the bigger lesson of the program is about the cunning manipulation of emotions. From the outset, it is clear that the oil industry’s campaign was not to persuade us on a scientific basis, but to use the basic human desire to avoid taking difficult, awkward actions. Finding political cover to continue to make huge profits was troubling and surprisingly easy.
Frontline is trying to add some dramatic tension to this sad story in several ways. One is prosaic and on the nose: when there is a need for a transition or just an injection of sensation, the program throws a montage, I told you, of forest fires, hurricanes and floods.
The other is more engaged and also more frustrating. Lobbyists, media consultants, researchers and politicians who have been involved in questioning climate change are testifying and then offering varying degrees of apology – a series of aha moments whose sincerity is suspicious and also meaningless. “Yes, I wish I hadn’t been a part of it, looking back.” “I would have taken a different path.” “I can tell people to say, ‘You’re a traitor.’
(They will not escape the attention of some viewers that the people who can think are, without exception, middle-aged white men.)
As the infantry offer their mea culpas, the program quietly notes people and organizations that have refused to appear or comment, including Koch Industries and Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil’s CEOs during the “lost decades” when the action could have been are taken to limit carbon emissions. Exxon Mobil offers a statement saying that its public statements have always been “in line with the current understanding of basic climate science” – an understanding she has made as much as anyone else.
The “power of big oil” does not offer comfort; it ends hastily with the environmental changes undertaken by President Donald Trump and the energy crisis now facing the Biden administration over the Russian war in Ukraine. The last note is one with predictable pathos: a professor whose work facilitated the growth of fracking – and thus extended the life of the fossil fuel industry – wonders “what the hell” his grandchildren will have to pay. If they watch, it is doubtful that they will have much sympathy.