Yesterday, executives from four major oil companies, Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Shell, testified before Congress. The hearing focused on the historical practices of these companies intentionally spreading misinformation about climate change.
Rather than a groundbreaking rerun of Congressional hearings in the ‘90s with tobacco executives—in which those heads of business overtly lied about the addictive nature of cigarettes—yesterday’s hearing ended up as most do. On their time, Republicans took turns asking leading questions of a welder—who used to work on the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline which President Joe Biden halted—and yelling about how China would subjugate the United States if we bought too many solar panels. Conversely, few Democrats had very productive or compelling lines of questioning, and many instead engaged in similarly performative bouts of rage, these directed at the oil and gas industry rather than Mr. Biden.
Despite the lack of a real smoking gun, this hearing’s topic was incredibly significant. Even before the big tobacco hearing, consensus among scientists was clear about climate change. In fact, oil and gas companies knew too. As early as 1980, Exxon had conducted its own research affirming scientific findings.
In response, the oil industry did exactly what tobacco companies had done. Internal memos at Exxon from the ‘80s laid out strategies to downplay the science and steer the media in a direction of both-sides-ism to inhibit consensus.
The strategy of blocking the development of consensus was and is the linchpin of the effort to prevent industry regulation or pro-climate legislation. This idea also forms the bedrock of Steve Bannon’s media strategy which guided the Trump campaign. Sean Illing at Vox wrote a fantastic article early last year about this effort, known as “flooding the zone.”
Instead of relying on pure propaganda, the oil and gas industry’s campaign against climate action focused on disorientation. Propaganda seeks to persuade people of a particular narrative. “Flooding the zone” seeks to inundate people with contradictory narratives and uncertainty in order to generate confusion, cynicism, and resignation. In turn, nothing gets done, because no consensus can be reached. No legislation is written or passed, because so many people aren’t sure what to think.
With that in mind, it’s fair to point at this hearing and say, “Why are you doing this? What’s it going to achieve, when you should instead be focusing on doing climate policy?” After all, that would do more to counteract the effects of misinformation than trying to expose it at a hearing.
But this just points to the bigger problem our democracy is facing, not just with climate policy but across the board. As powerful a tactic as “flooding the zone” may be, most Americans now agree that climate change is real and caused by human activity like the burning of fossil fuels.
Yet there’s been almost no legislative progress on climate change, because these corporations have an iron grip on politicians. American politics has been sidelined by an absolutely broken campaign finance system. A look at the oil and gas industry’s donations to politicians reveals a clear and decisive trend of support for Republicans who perpetuated narratives of uncertainty and inaction.
Democrats, however, are by no means exempt from guilt. There is meaningful climate legislation under negotiation at the moment: Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which contains numerous provisions that would reduce emissions if implemented. But it’s being stonewalled and eroded by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Surprise, surprise! He’s the number one recipient of oil and gas industry donations in all of Congress for the 2021-22 election cycle.
Here’s the point to all this:
In response to misinformation campaigns upending democratic functioning, lots of very reasonable people have objected, “That’s too bad, but we can’t let the government regulate what’s true and what isn’t.” And they’re exactly right.
In the long run, most citizens are sensible. Climate misinformation has delayed but not prevented public consensus. The fact of the matter is that it isn’t the public’s susceptibility to falsehood that inhibits necessary policy change. Rather, the obstacle is those anti-democratic aspects of our system, like campaign financing, that allow the interests of the oil and gas industry to outweigh those of Americans.
There’s no need to dangerously empower the government to regulate fact and fiction. Instead, the government ought to delegate that power to citizens, by limiting the political influence of mega-corporations, because citizens, on average, understand and care about what’s right and wrong.
In the end, as dire as our present situation is, this is a hopeful story for democracy, even if it isn’t so glowing a review of our democracy. To build a better, healthier world, we just need to place more trust in the people to seek the truth and speak for themselves.Subscribe to Spectacles