Fossil fuel accountability expert Kathy Mulvey and climate litigation scientist Dr. Delta Merner discuss the industry’s deception before Congress and at recent global climate talks.
In this episode
Colleen talks to Kathy and Delta about:
- the role of the fossil fuel industry both in the US and on the international stage
- how the fossil fuel industry feeds disinformation about its products to consumers
- the outsized influence fossil fuel interests have at international climate negotiations
Timing and cues
Interview part 1 (1:52-13:21)
Interview part 2 (14:21-28:13)
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: For those of us that follow the fossil fuel industry and climate policy closely, the end of October and beginning of November held a series of big events … Well, sort of. The events had the effect of a movie trailer rather than a movie premier. The long-awaited events that provided an opportunity for major change and action instead seemed to only provide glimmers of hope for what the future holds.
For the first time ever, on October 28th, executives from some of the major fossil fuel companies testified in front of Congress to address the role they play in climate disinformation. They appeared before The House Committee on Oversight and Reform. And while it marked a huge milestone and held all the promise of a superhero movie ending, where the bad guys face justice, instead they evaded the most important questions.
On the international front, COP 26, an annual global climate negotiation organized by the United Nations, provided a similar air of hope and subsequent disappointment as fossil fuel industry interests put a damper on the urgent actions we need to rein in heat-trapping emissions.
But, our experts are not without hope. They see many pathways to change. And that’s what Kathy Mulvey, Accountability Campaign Director, and Dr. Delta Merner, lead for the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained to me on this episode of Got Science.
Colleen: Delta, Kathy, welcome to the podcast.
Delta: It's great to be here.
Kathy: Great to be back.
Colleen: The fossil fuelindustry is under fire with lawsuits multiplying and industry execs being called to testify before Congress. Kathy, you've been on the podcast recently filling us in on their shenanigans. Delta, you were at the international climate negotiations referred to as COP26 in the climate lingo, which took place in Glasgow, Scotland. And you were able to see firsthand what type of influence the fossil fuel industry has. So a lot to talk about today . . .let's go in chronological order and start with the hearing. Kathy, what was the purpose of the hearing, and who showed up?
Kathy: Yeah, Colleen. So this hearing was by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform as part of an investigation into how the fossil fuel industry has contributed to climate change and also spread climate disinformation. So who showed up at the virtual hearing were the top executives of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Shell Oil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Colleen: So that's really interesting. I was surprised to see the Chamber of Commerce on the roster. What role do they play?
Kathy: Yeah. They actually have played a long-term role in spreading disinformation about climate science and seeking to block climate action. And it's one of the reasons that we looked into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in our climate accountability scorecards. So recent research from Brown University shows that the U.S. Chamber had knowledge of the link between fossil fuels and climate change since at least the 1980s. One more recent example in 2017, the U.S. Chamber funded a misleading economic study of the costs of joining the Paris Agreement that was actually part of the rationale that the Trump administration cited in pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. So this is really decades of involvement in discourses of delay on climate change.
Colleen: Did any of these top executives admit to lying about the harm and about actively feeding us disinformation in the hearing?
Kathy: They were very evasive on that point. And I think the critical response that we saw from the fossil fuel executives during the hearing was that actually none of them committed to stop funding or prevent their company or organization from funding climate disinformation directly or indirectly. And they were all asked to do that.
Colleen: That's really astonishing. Disinformation means lies, right? They're lying and they just refuse to stop lying.
Kathy: Yeah. And they refused also to stop lobbying against climate and energy policies that they claim to support. So there was another critical moment during the hearing when representative Ro Khanna, who's the chairperson of the Environment Subcommittee of the Oversight Committee asked first BP and Shell, and then each of the executives to turn on the virtual screen, of course, because none of them were in person, to the American Petroleum Institute and tell Mike Sommers of the American Petroleum Institute to stop lobbying against policies they claim to support. So regulations on methane and opposition to electric vehicles and all of the company's representatives, all of their CEOs refused to tell the API to back off.
Colleen: Why was this hearing so important?
Kathy: What was so significant about this event is it was actually the first time that top fossil fuel industry executives had to face Congress to answer for their disinformation. They were all under oath and they were put on record about what they knew and when about the climate crisis. And perhaps even more importantly, what they and their companies did in spite of what they knew. So it's a really critical moment in the context of the overall movement for fossil fuel company accountability, and the hearing happened as youth leading the climate movement, youth hunger strikers were actually in Washington. It happened as indigenous people continue to protest the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and the harms that it's causing to indigenous land and water. And it happened also, I think you mentioned the context of increasing numbers of cities, counties, and states in the U.S. that are actually suing to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate damages and for defrauding consumers. We hope that this moment, and we're going to work to ensure that this hearing is part of a sustained investigation and also to really help ensure that it's a turning point in the movement for fossil fuel accountability.
Colleen: So I have a question that I think might be the question that a lot of listeners are wondering or screaming at their devices, but it seemed like plenty of congresspeople at the hearing had a strong understanding of what kinds of mis and disinformation is being spread by the fossil fuel industry. So how are they still able to get away with it?
Kathy: Well, they are spending money on public relations campaigns to claim that they're part of the solution to climate change PR campaigns that tout their low carbon investments and PR campaigns that really seek to take the responsibility and the onus off of them and put it on to all of us. So, for example, people probably have heard of the concept of a carbon footprint, and it is important for all of us to play our part in helping to reduce global warming emissions. I don't know if all listeners are aware that the concept of the carbon footprint was actually created by the oil and gas giant, BP.
Colleen: Actually, I didn't know that. For what purpose?
Kathy: This is a way to divert our attention from the fossil fuel companies as the main driver of climate change and the main driver not just in the emissions from burning their fossil fuel products, but also due to their long-term and sustained deliberate campaigns to deceive the public and policymakers. So, you know, the other reason they get away with it is that they're a really aggressive lobbying force on Capitol Hill and in statehouses. You know, one of the things that the committee did ahead of the hearing was to release a study of the lobbying disclosures by the fossil fuel industry.
And, you know, for example, and you'll hear more about this from Delta, but the oil and gas industry claims now to support the Paris Agreement on climate change and the goals of the Paris Agreement. But this analysis by the Oversight and Reform Committee found that almost none of big oils lobbying on legislation since 2015, when the Paris Agreement was adopted, was devoted to the Paris Agreement or legislation related to it. So during the time period that the committee was focused on, from the end of 2015 to the present, big oil reported almost 4,600 instances of legislative lobbying, and only 8 of those were lobbying on the Paris Agreement. Among them, Chevron, for example, had almost 1,000 reported instances of lobbying and had lobbied 144 times on corporate taxes and zero times on the Paris Agreement.
So these companies are not putting their lobbying money where their mouths are, and they are either silent on the policies that they claim to support or worse yet, as a now-former ExxonMobil lobbyist revealed in an interview that came out this past summer, they are actually actively aware that saying they support a carbon tax is a good, what he called, "talking point." And that they actually like to hide behind trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute, which we knew, you know, but to have a lobbyist, a senior lobbyist from inside one of these companies actually admit to that was an important revelation .
Colleen: So the hearing came just before the climate negotiations in Glasgow. Delta, what did you see on the international climate stage?
Delta: Yeah. Thanks so much for asking, Colleen. Being at these meetings that we call COP, it was really both incredibly powerful and completely heartbreaking to be there this year. I'm gonna start just with a little bit of background on what these negotiations are. So the meeting in Glasgow is part of over two decades of climate negotiations organized through the United Nations. The goals of these talks are essentially to assess progress in dealing with climate change at a global scale. These talks started back in 1995. So the negotiations really focus on creating global legally binding obligations for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Probably the most well-known outcome of any of these negotiations is the Paris Agreement, which had a stated goal to limit global warming to well below 2 or preferably, 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Before the Paris Agreement, the world was on track for 4 degrees warming. After these meetings in Scotland, we're now on track for a reality that's closer to 2.4 degrees warming. I wanna be really clear about that because 2.4 degrees is still devastating, and this is really a failure of the world's largest carbon producers, which includes nations, but in my mind, can't be disconnected from the fossil fuel companies.
Colleen: So the fossil fuel industry has no formal role at the climate negotiations, yet they have a presence there. Can you explain the nuance and what happens at the international climate negotiations?
Delta: Yeah. So the negotiations are really intended to be these agreements between nations. So there's nearly 200 nations that are there, but we have representatives from across different industries, from different groups. I'm there as somebody working on climate science through an NGO. So there's a lot of different players that are present at the tables outside of just the nations. At this particular meeting, while most of the oil and gas CEOs actually were not present, the presence of the fossil fuel industry was really clear. There were more than 500 delegates at the meeting that were associated with fossil fuel industry. So this includes folks from World Petroleum Council, World Coal Council. The delegations are very much still influenced by the fossil fuel industry.
Across the board, we really see the fossil fuel industry playing a role to stop a lot of the meaningful climate policy. Industry representatives that I saw at Glasgow continued to argue that a shift to cleaner energy would be costly for consumers, and therefore, it's not equitable to phase out of fossil fuels. Somehow they're trying to imply in these arguments that climate change itself is equitable. The influence of the fossil fuel industry on the negotiations is probably most obvious when you take the time to really dig into the actual language of these negotiations. So when I think of climate change personally, I immediately think of carbon emissions. Most of our carbon emissions globally come from fossil fuels. So it seems obvious that phasing out fossil fuels would be prominently featured in the climate negotiations. It's pretty shocking to find out just how much political capital is actually spent in these meetings ensuring that fossil fuels are absent from these agreements.
So while I was at the meeting, Thursday morning, which was the second to last day of the negotiations, I woke up to kind of a quiet celebration because for the very first time, draft texts from the negotiations explicitly stated in one very short sentence that the world needs to phase out fossil fuels. I want that to sink in. So for the first time in 26 years, climate negotiations mentioned the need to phase out the use of any fossil fuels. This sentence actually had no enforcement mechanisms, no real requirements, but still in that moment, it was historic.
Colleen: Delta, that shocks me completely. I would have assumed that fossil fuels would be all over the negotiations.
Delta: Yeah. As someone newer to this space, it really shocked me as well. I couldn't believe it. Standing on the sidelines as this small sentence was put into the negotiations, I really didn't understand the importance of it because it seems, even as it stood, as such a mild statement. And at that point, you know, there was still two days of negotiations left and over the next 48 hours, that very mild language was even further weakened. So the final text simply called for a phase-down and not a phase-out.
Colleen: That's so interesting. I would have assumed that the majority of the conversation would be about phasing out fossil fuels.
Delta: Yeah. I felt the same way. And I think what's important here is, you know, we understand the political power that fossil fuels have by the absence of this language in these negotiations. And again, it's important to remember that the fossil fuel companies could play a role in the energy transition, but where I was standing in these negotiations, they really seem to just stand in the way.
Colleen: We're down to the wire now and it's so frustrating to hear that it's business as usual. Are there other avenues that will allow the U.S. and the global community to move forward more quickly?
Delta: Yeah. That's such an important question to ask. So this global diplomacy has been trying for 26 years to address climate change. To be fair, creating these mechanisms and processes for making global commitments to address climate change is really no easy task. And while in theory, the potential for a future of 1.5 degrees warming is still possible, it's not currently in these agreements and communities are suffering from the impacts of climate change today. So this is really where my work comes in. I lead the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Since these policy mechanisms aren't working, there's a growing global community of people looking to use litigation as a tool for accountability to climate change. This rise in climate litigation seems like it's being acknowledged in these types of meetings. So during COP26, I helped to organize an official side event that focused on climate litigation.
While I was in Scotland, I met people from all over the world who are looking to litigation to hold governments and companies accountable. In Latin America, there's over 50 cases that have been filed, including a case brought by 6 young people in Brazil against the government for violating the Paris Agreement. In Australia, there's over 120 cases that have been filed. One of the most recent ones was brought by First Nations leaders, and it asserts that the government's inaction will force their communities to migrate. And then here in the U.S., there are currently over two dozen cases filed against corporate actors, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP. And these relate back to the disinformation, greenwashing, and also damages caused by their emissions. It feels like there are new cases being filed every few weeks. There's a lot of energy. And some of this energy came from the notable win in the courts earlier this year against Shell, which has been discussed on this podcast in the past. It's important to remember that litigation is just one tool. But what I saw during these negotiations is that people across the world are really starting to turn to the courts to hold bad actors accountable for their role in the climate crisis.
Colleen: What is the timeframe on litigation? It seems like delay tactics and stalling is par for the course.
Delta: So again, it's important to remember that we have litigation that's happening all across the world and through all different kinds of systems. So the delay tactics that you're seeing in the U.S. are very prevalent. So in a lot of the cases that have been filed here, there have been kind of years of waiting for next step there. We don't always see those same kind of tactics being used in other parts of the world. So the case in the Netherlands move much quicker, there will be an appeals process that's tied to that, but even then, we expect there to be kind of the next step ruling within the next two years. So it's important to know that it varies a lot for kind of what to expect from these rulings, but throughout all of it, what the cases also expose is just the role of industry in climate change, which is important and it's important for us to be talking about.
Colleen: What are the biggest things that you would like to see the fossil fuel companies actually do? For real, not just say they're doing and then ignore.
Delta: Yeah, there are two areas that are very connected to the work that's happening at these international negotiations where the fossil fuel industry can play a key role. So first, every fossil fuel company can work to align their business practices with the Paris Agreement. So, like we mentioned earlier, some of these companies claim to support the Paris Agreement but their actions speak much louder. So we see the lack of support in their lobbying and the negative roles that their industry is playing during the negotiations. In fact, some climate litigation has really pointed out the gaps that exist between the actions that these companies are claiming to take to prevent further climate change and the reality. This was seen at the Shell case in the Netherlands where the courts essentially stated that the plan that the company had for emission reductions was insufficient at best.
The second thing is that the fossil fuel industry can start to pay its fair share of climate damage and adaptation. So during the meetings in Scotland, the idea of loss and damage was really top of mind. And that's what so many people were talking about throughout the two weeks. The term loss and damage actually refers to the impacts that countries are already experiencing from climate change. And really we can't properly address climate change without addressing loss and damage. Loss and damage doesn't just need to be thought of a responsibility of high contributing nations, but the fossil fuel industry can step into like right now to pay for the impacts of their products.
Colleen: Kathy, what are the most important things that you would like to see them do?
Kathy: Yeah, Colleen. So one very simple thing is to change their response to the question that they were asked at the House Oversight Committee hearing and actually commit to stop funding climate disinformation and lobbying, both the companies directly and also the way that they do that through trade associations and front groups. That would go a long way toward addressing the root cause of the problems that we've been talking about here, both in terms of obstruction of U.S. policies and also the obstacles that Delta has described on the international front. And it's, you know, increasingly the companies' own investors and shareholders are deeply concerned about them spending the companies' money to lobby against the very things that they say they support, and to stall and delay climate action when they claim to recognize that climate change is an existential threat.
Colleen: Kathy, my final question goes to you, what comes next for the Oversight Committee? How can Congress actually hold the fossil fuel industry accountable?
Kathy: Yeah, Colleen, it's a good question. And so after the hearing at the end of October, the committee actually issued subpoenas to the companies and associations that were represented there because the response by ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the information request from Congress just didn't meet the requirements. And the chairwoman of the committee, Chair Maloney from New York State, actually held up piles of paper that the companies had submitted, which included printing out reams of information from their own websites, but not actually asking the questions that the committee had asked for more information about.
And this investigation was only requesting additional information dating back to November of 2015. So the same timeframe as the adoption of the Paris Agreement. So the Oversight Committee has issued the subpoenas and we're expecting and our supporters are calling on the committee to enforce those subpoenas and to continue its investigation. Another way that the Oversight Committee has been pursuing the question of climate disinformation is by looking into the role of the social media companies. And there's also a role for Congress, and we've seen that already in other efforts to hold social media companies accountable. So the specific way that they have helped the fossil fuel industry to spread disinformation, and conflict, and delay around climate action is another important line.
You know, of course, the information that came to light through this hearing and information that the companies and trade associations produce in response to the subpoenas should also help to inform legislative actions. So the Build Back Better Act, which has passed in the House, calls for swift and deep reductions in emissions. It will be helping to accelerate the energy transition and providing real investments in predominantly Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities that are suffering from environmental racism and fossil fuel pollution. So Congress, the more the Oversight Committee puts information about the fossil fuel industry's disinformation campaign into the public eye, the less excuse there is for Congress not to act to address climate change.
Colleen: Kathy, Delta, it was great to gain some insight into what the fossil fuel is saying and doing, or really what they're not doing, both here in the U.S. and internationally. I wanna thank you both for joining me on the podcast and for all the incredible work that you do.
Delta: Thanks so much, Colleen.
Kathy: Thank you, Colleen.