Doubt is our product. A destructive ideology

Early this year the Rockefeller Family Fund “announced that it would divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. We mean to do this gradually, but in a public statement we singled out ExxonMobil for immediate divestment because of its “morally reprehensible conduct.”” (1) For decades ExxonMobil casted doubt on climate change. Despite their early and vast knowledge of the problems of CO2 depletion.

Doubt: a handsome strategy

ExxonMobil must be praised for its vast investments in scientific research into climate change, from 1977 until 1988. What changed its mind? In 1988 for the first time the public and political community became aware of the effects of global warming due to the rise of CO2 levels. From then on, paradoxically, ExxonMobil started to cast doubts on the scientific evidence supporting the climate change claims. A strategy that paid of handsomely: “…the U.S. Senate in 1997, only three months before the Kyoto Protocol was finalized, resolved to block its adoption by a vote of 97 to zero.” (2) This strategy was far from revolutionary.

Tobacco, acid rain, ozone depletion

From 1953 and onward it was well known in the scientific community that smoking caused cancer. For forty years the tobacco industry was able to postpone any legal action by paying scientists to deny the overwhelming evidence. Companies that feared their trade was in danger (the coal industry, cfk-producers) directed their pr- and pa-strategies in the same direction: to cast doubt on the scientific evidence. In every case it paid of. Albeit in some cases governmental ruling was able to curtail these practices. And from 1990 the tobacco industry was plagued by one lawsuit after another.

It’s the ideology stupid

In 2004 two colleagues and I conducted a survey among regular milk farmers to find out whether they would be susceptible to conversion to biological farming. In fact they could do this practically from one day to the other and they would gain a substantial raise of their turnover, estimated at an average of 20% to 40%. None of the farmers even considered changing their business. There was only one reason: they associated biological farming with a liberal anti-business attitude. The strategy of casting doubt on climate change, was orchestrated by four scientists with vast track records in the academic community: Fred Seitz (the inventor of the ‘Tobacco Strategy’ of casting doubt), Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg. In 1984 they founded the George C. Marshall Institute, which was later joined by Fred Singer. They where paid vast sums of money by ExxonMobil and other companies to cast doubt on the scientific evidence which supported climate change. But far more interesting are the ideological motives of these men: “They were all fervent anti-Communists and ardent free-market purists. … they saw environmentalists as the next great threat to capitalism, since, by pointing out the damage industry sometimes does to the environment and human health, defenders of the environment are implicitly criticizing the workings of free markets and bolstering the case for regulation.” (3)


(1) and (3): Kaiser, D. & Wasserman, L. (2016) The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon, in The New York Review of Books, the December 8, Issue.
(2) Proctor, R. (2010). Manufactured Ignorance, in Amercian Scientist, September/October issue.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.