PBS’s “Frontline” public affairs research program specializes in reminding us of things we’d rather forget. On Tuesday, a three-part dive into climate change begins, this potential species killer that has recently taken a back seat to more traditional scourges such as disease and war.
Titled “The Power of Big Oil,” the weekly miniseries focuses on denying climate change as it was practiced and paid for by the fossil fuel industry, especially Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries, along with its business allies and , increasingly, politics. By extension, it is a story, more depressing than revealing, of why nothing has been done about an existential crisis of which we have been aware for at least four decades.
Indicators of our nascent understanding and alarm are well known, including the testimony of climatologist James Hansen in 1988 in Congress, the Kyoto and Paris agreements, the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” and increasingly terrible reports from the United Nations. The response that “Frontline” meticulously paints – a disciplined and coordinated campaign of misinformation and obfuscation that began in the industry and was accepted by conservative political groups – is less familiar, but it was always in sight.
Part of the campaign is public, a slew of TV talking heads, and opinion pieces and advertisements in major publications (including The New York Times) that do not deny global warming at all, but present it as night terrors. of eye-catching egg heads. Behind the scenes, the disguised lobbyists paid by Big Oil are putting pressure on key politicians at key times, as long as it looks like the United States could pass legislation that affects its profits.
One lesson the program offers, almost in passing, is how the refusal to accept the reality of climate change foreshadowed the broader attacks on science — and knowledge in general — that were to characterize the years of Trump and the United States. response to Covid. -19 pandemic. In the successful but lonely battle waged by the oil and gas industries, Republican politicians are wholeheartedly united when they see climate denial, and the specter of unemployed miners and drillers, coincide with their efforts to demonize President Barack Obama and radicalize conservative voters. At this point, the fig leaf of the scientific debate is dropped and pure emotion takes over.
And the biggest lesson in the program is about clever manipulation of emotions. From the outset, it is clear that the campaign of the oil industry was not to convince us for scientific reasons, but to exploit the basic human desire to avoid difficult and awkward actions. Finding political coverage to continue to reap great benefits was distressing and not at all surprisingly easy.
“Frontline” tries to give this sad story a dramatic tension in two ways. One is prosaic and in the nose: when you need a transition, or just a shot of feeling, the program launches a montage of forest fires, hurricanes, and floods.
The other is more involved, and also more frustrating. Pressure groups, media consultants, researchers and politicians who were involved in questioning climate change testify to their actions and then offer various degrees of apology: a series of moments whose sincerity is suspicious and also meaningless. “Yeah, I wish I wasn’t part of that, looking back.” “I would have taken a different path.” “I can understand people telling me, ‘You’re a traitor.'” Oh well.
(It will not escape the attention of some viewers that people in a position to have these two thoughts are, without exception, middle-aged white men.)
While the standing soldiers offer their mea culpas, the program silently points out people and organizations who refused to appear or comment, including Koch Industries and Lee Raymond and Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil’s executive directors during the “lost decades” in which the action could have been. have been taken to limit carbon emissions. Exxon Mobil offers a statement saying its public pronouncements have always been “consistent with the contemporary understanding of the science of the dominant climate,” an understanding it had done as much as anyone else to shape.
“The power of big oil” offers no comfort; it quickly ends the environmental setbacks enacted by President Donald Trump and the energy crisis now facing the Biden administration over Russia’s war in Ukraine. The final note is of a predictable pathos: a professor whose work facilitated the growth of fracking – and therefore extended the life of the fossil fuel industry – wonders “what kind of hell” will they have to pay their grandchildren. If they are watching, it is doubtful that they will have much sympathy.