Perhaps the most compelling testimony in Episode 2 of the BBC’s documentary Big Oil vs The World comes from Bill Heins, a geoscientist who worked with ExxonMobil from 2001 to 2019:
I’m disappointed, I’m angry, I’m disenchanted at the duplicity exhibited by ExxonMobil to say one thing internally and to say a different thing with a much different consequence in the political arena.
The implication is that the same people within ExxonMobil were saying one thing internally and another publicly. But the story Heins tells suggests that it was different people who were saying different things:
Shortly after I joined ExxonMobil, there was a presentation by Art Green, who was the chief geoscientist of ExxonMobil Exploration. All the scientific staff were there. Art got up and gave his presentation about how ice core records were unreliable and here were temperature excursions in the past when there couldn’t possibly be any human influence. And here’s all these reasons why we really don’t have to worry about climate change. He didn’t clearly state it, but the subtext appeared to be that his bosses didn’t believe that climate change was something to be concerned about. There was kind of stunned silence in the room. And ExxonMobil is a very polite place. In that context the reaction was remarkable. Translated into modern parlance, the reaction was, “Are you f***ing nuts?”
To Heins, the scientist, the facts are clear:
[W]e put CO2 in the atmosphere and that makes the temperature go up and that’s bad. Everybody understands that completely, clearly.
Exxon executives either disagreed or, more likely, believed that there was more to the story. Heins’s one-dimensional thinking is reflected in the opening sequence of each episode in the BBC’s three-part documentary. We hear a disembodied voice ask, “What do you do when you learn the product you make threatens the entire planet?”
As a rhetorical device, this question is brilliant. As a reflection of reality, it’s ludicrous. A better, less biased, less loaded question is: “What do you do when you learn the product you make that is keeping billions of people alive might hurt the planet sometime in the future?” The short answer is: “You keep making the product until there are viable alternatives, otherwise millions of people will die.”
Oil companies (and others) have tried to find practical substitutes for oil and natural gas but failed, as could have been predicted. First, established companies rarely create and develop the technologies that will replace their products; their capital, both physical and human, is rooted in the existing tried-and-true technology, not the experimental new. Second, no one else has yet been able to find a practical substitute, with the politically unacceptable exception of nuclear power.
The acceptable alternatives that have been found – wind turbines, solar farms, biomass, biofuels, utility-sized batteries – are either unreliable, unscalable, more polluting than fossil fuels, or consume more energy to make than they produce. They are certainly noncompetitive, requiring special government favor.
This is a vast problem, but just how vast isn’t widely appreciated. In 2015, global carbon emissions were around five tons per person per year. Annual per capita emissions vary greatly by country: from less than one ton in Haiti to about 17 tons in the U.S. According to the IPCC, global per capita emissions must drop to Haitian levels by 2075 “just to stabilize human influences on the climate.” (Steven E. Koonin, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, p. 213). Yet this drop must occur even as demand for energy is sharply rising, especially in China, India, Central and South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
But the oil companies’ alleged crime was not just that they continued producing and selling their products. They also advertised the benefits of their products and cast doubt on the alternatives that governments around the world were pushing. Worse, their advertising highlighted uncertainties in the science that, in a one-dimensional world, would dictate the need to stop pumping oil immediately.
Earlier this year, Robert Bradley Jr. and I reviewed the ExxonMobil ads that Harvard science history professors Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes identified as particularly egregious. We found that the ads were in accordance with the accepted science of the day and generally hold up well even now. But Heins doesn’t dispute that the ads were factual, he argues that they were misleading. Heins (reviewing a stack of ExxonMobil ads):
When I looked at those advertorials at the time, I didn’t take them to be that important… So, this one about “unsettled science” is highlighting uncertainties or variabilities that are true but they’re not important to the issue. It’s not something that deflects us from the basic idea that more CO2 changes the climate in a bad way. They were sowing doubt. It was not just public posturing; it was truly casting aspersions on science.
Heins’s charge, and that of the BBC, is not that ExxonMobil lied, but that they misled the public by emphasizing the “wrong” truths, and they funded think tanks that also emphasized the wrong truths.
That ExxonMobil’s ads were technically factual is, of course, a low bar. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “Half the truth is often a great lie.” So, what about the part the company left out? What about the natural disasters that are so prominently featured in the BBC’s documentary?
Doubling Down on Disaster
Like the first episode, Episode 2 presents a series of clips depicting horrific natural disasters. Viewers are told that the number of such events has been steadily growing. However, a review of the actual data reveals a far less alarming picture (the following comes from Koonin, pp. 130–43).
Tornadoes – The number of tornadoes in the U.S. has not increased over the last sixty years. What has increased is our ability to detect smaller and smaller storms. So, a chart showing all detected tornadoes since 1960 shows an alarming rising trend. If, however, we remove weaker (and less damaging) tornadoes from the charts and include only the high-intensity storms that were detectable throughout the entire reporting period, the rising trend completely disappears.
Hurricanes – Reports showing a sharp increase in the number of hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons typically use 1970 as their starting point. If, however, we expand the window back to, say, 1850, the recent increase is revealed to be simply part of a sixty-year cycle.
Rainfall – In the U.S., average annual precipitation has increased by about 0.6 percent per decade since 1900. In addition, during the last 40 years, the number of intense rainfall events has increased. Anthropogenic causality or natural, the good news is that prioritized flood management works against the alarmist narrative.
Drought – While California’s recent six-year drought is the worst since 1901, it is difficult to identify a long-term trend from the Palmer Drought Severity Index for the state over the last 120 years.
Wildfires – Satellite data for 2003–2015 shows a steady downward trend in the global area burned by fires. However, the “data also showed a significant increase in the intensity and reach of fires in the western United States.” These observations probably reflect a combination of improved firefighting equipment and techniques worldwide, with the U.S. West Coast experience reflecting warmer temperatures due to some combination of weather variations and anthropogenic climate change, and notoriously poor forestry management.
In short, extreme-weather-event frequency is far more nuanced than the BBC portrays, and it certainly does not accord with the unrelieved images of catastrophe depicted in its documentary.
The BBC’s claim that ExxonMobil misled the public doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A better case can be made that it is the BBC that is being misleading. First, it reported only part of the story. Yes, burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide warms the planet. But fossil fuels also keep most people in the world today alive and there are currently no alternatives that are both practical and politically acceptable. Moreover, there are benefits to increased atmospheric levels of CO2 and to the warmer, wetter world that the higher levels foster. For example, more carbon dioxide increases crop yields by raising the rate of photosynthesis and reducing the amount of water that plants lose through transpiration.
Second, it charged that ExxonMobil “knew.” But ExxonMobil is not a single entity. It has tens of thousands of employees who have a wide range of opinions. Yes, its scientists knew that carbon dioxide emissions were a potential problem. But company management also knew that there was little choice but to keep producing the fuels that power the world. Third, the BBC hyped extreme weather events without providing any context. Finally, the documentary offers a false choice by implying that we can quickly stop using fossil fuels without the loss of millions of lives.
Richard W. Fulmer is the coauthor (with Robert L. Bradley Jr.) of Energy: The Master Resource (Kendall-Hunt: 2004) and the author of numerous articles, book reviews, and blog posts in the classical-liberal tradition.
This is the second installment of a three part series. Part I on BBC Episode I was yesterday; Part III BBC Episode III is tomorrow.
For his other posts on the same subject (coauthored with Robert Bradley Jr.), see: