An oily, underhand demand for censorship

Calling for ExxonMobil to stop funding climate-sceptic groups is really a demand that these groups be silenced.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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‘Oil giant gave £1million to fund climate sceptics’, declares a headline in The Times (London) today. Predictably, many greens are demanding an end to this funding. Yet however much they try to dress up their demand as a radical, anti-oil stance, in truth they are really calling for the censorious blocking of alternative viewpoints and an end to the debate about climate change.

According to the Times report, ExxonMobil ‘gave almost £1 million last year to organisations that campaign against controls on greenhouse gas emissions’. This included $275,000 to four groups that co-sponsored the International Conference on Climate Change, a New York event that promoted a sceptical approach.

This is in spite of the fact that, under pressure from climate campaigners, ExxonMobil had declared in 2007 that it would, in future, ‘discontinue contributions to several public policy groups whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner’.

Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, told The Times: ‘Exxon has engaged in a public relations campaign to convince the world that it has stopped funding climate-sceptic groups. But this has turned out to be pure greenwash. Exxon has continued to provide financial support for many groups that are engaged in activities to persuade the public and policymakers into wrongly believing that climate change is a hoax.’

Ward has got form in this area. In 2006, while working for the UK’s leading scientific institution, the Royal Society, he wrote to the head of corporate affairs at ExxonMobil’s UK arm, Esso, to express his displeasure over its funding of groups that ‘have been misinforming the public about the science of climate change’ and demanding to know ‘which organisations in the UK and other European countries have been receiving funding from ExxonMobil’.

The first point that might be made is the stunning gall of people like Ward to point to ExxonMobil’s largesse while ignoring the mountain of funding and promotion that has gone into supporting the other side of the argument. The institute that Ward works for at the London School of Economics (LSE) was set up a couple of years ago thanks to a donation of £12million – considerably more than ExxonMobil has been dishing out – from a fabulously wealthy financier, Jeremy Grantham. That is on top of another £12million donation made by Grantham for a related centre at Imperial College, London. And as spiked noted when reporting on the launch of the LSE institute, Grantham is as misanthropic as they come.

He believes that the granddaddy of population scaremongers, Thomas Malthus, was right – he just got his timing wrong – and argues that we are now in the midst of the planet’s ‘third great die-off’, brought about, in part, by the ‘unfortunate hydrocarbon revolution’ – that is, the use of all that nasty oil, coal and gas to heat and light the world and allow us to travel about quickly and cheaply. How very unfortunate, indeed.

It would seem, therefore, that Grantham’s interest in supporting climate-change research is not a neutral one: he thinks human beings, particularly through the use of fossil fuels, are screwing up the planet. I think Grantham is profoundly wrong in his view – but I also absolutely support his right to put his money where his mouth is. To attempt, as Ward and others have done, to shut down support for an alternative point of view is censorship, pure and simple. It might not be censorship through the law and the courts, but it is endeavouring to undermine corporate and personal reputations in an attempt to achieve the same end.

It’s an issue that is close to our hearts here at spiked. In 2008, a UK national newspaper suggested that spiked‘s questioning approach to the politics of climate change was a product of backhanders from Big Oil, an utterly untrue and libellous statement. Yet such a censorious approach to debate is the logical outcome of the childish worldview of climate campaigners and commentators: fossil fuel companies are Evil and treehugging environmentalists are Good.

The truth in all these things is a hell of a lot more messy. Big Oil companies are enormously powerful in terms of economic muscle and are certainly not afraid to spend big bucks in defence of their interests. But they also provide society with a fuel that is absolutely crucial to giving us all a decent standard of living. What is really surprising about the oil companies is just how easily cowed they have been in recent years around the issue of climate change. Far from Big Oil corrupting the debate, journalists and campaigners have had to go scrabbling around to find even relatively pitiful sums being given to sceptics by one or two specific companies.

Meanwhile, the planet-loving greens – who would have us ditch fossil fuels in favour of more expensive, less reliable renewable energy or simply make do with less heat, light and travel altogether – have become big organisations in their own right. Groups like Greenpeace and WWF have incomes running into hundreds of millions of pounds and they even get backing from governments and the European Union. That’s in addition to the billions that are now devoted to climate research, a scale of financial support that surely must have some impact on how researchers – not just scientists but economic and social researchers, too – frame their work and interpret their findings.

Most of all, governments and the majority of the political class in Europe, along with most politicians around the world, accept that climate change is real, manmade and must be acted upon. This is not simply a matter of resolving an environmental problem, either. This has become one of the few Big Ideas around which political life can be justified and organised. To put this in perspective: the Carbon Trust, just one of the UK government’s various climate-related quangos, paid its three executive directors alone £570,000 in 2009 and spent £113million on all its various activities. Next to this kind of political backing, a few quid from ExxonMobil is nothing.

The brittleness of the reaction to any dissent around climate change only shows that this is not a dry, scientific discussion about what effect an increasing proportion of a trace gas in the atmosphere – carbon dioxide – has on the planet’s temperature. This is about defending The Science, the justification for an entire outlook that seeks to present human activity as a bad thing and demands that we rein in our desire for greater wealth in the name of Mother Earth. To suggest that humanity isn’t wrecking the environment has been – until the past few months and a variety of climate-related scandals – as heretical as Copernicus’ suggestion that maybe the Earth isn’t at the centre of the universe after all.

There are signs that a more balanced, cool-headed discussion about climate may be possible, one where the genuine uncertainties of the science can be openly debated and where a range of political responses can be considered. That can only happen when the evidence and the arguments are judged on their merits and not on who is funding them, and when the response to alternative viewpoints is not to say ‘stop funding them and force them out of the public realm’, but rather to engage with them.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and editor of What’s the Future of Food? (Buy this book here.)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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