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How Fossil Fuel Executives Fooled Themselves on Climate Change

Oil companies’ climate change policies may not have been criminal, but they were self-deceiving.
November 9, 2015

Last week the New York state attorney general announced an investigation into the climate change statements and policies of Exxon Mobil. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a broad subpoena to the world’s largest private-sector oil company, seeking to discover whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and investors with statements that contradicted its own internal research on climate change. The investigation represents the clearest signal yet that fossil fuel companies may yet have to come clean on their long and well-funded history of obfuscation and outright mendacity on the science of climate change.

In a separate but releated case, Schneiderman’s office also announced a settlement with Peabody Energy, the largest publicly traded coal company in the world, after a two-year investigation that found that Peabody’s climate change denial program had “violated New York laws prohibiting false and misleading conduct in the company’s statements to the public and investors.” As part of the settlement, Peabody will revise its past disclosures to affirm that “concerns about the environmental impacts of coal combustion … could significantly affect demand for our products or our securities.”

These cases raise the question, what do the people who crafted these strategies actually believe? Questioning science, generally, is not a path to profitability in the oil and gas or the coal business. Were they cynical, or merely misguided?

I asked that question in 2013 of Greg Boyce, the CEO of Peabody Energy, the largest U.S. coal producer. The company has a long history of climate change denial even more vociferous than the oil companies. But by 2013, when I met with Boyce in his St. Louis office (and when the attorney general’s investigation began), Peabody had shifted its strategy: climate change might be happening, and might be attributable to human activity, Boyce allowed, but we are faced with a much more immediate problem: how to bring electricity to the billion-plus people in the world who live without it.

“We see that as a moral issue,” Boyce told me.

Fossil fuel companies, he argued, are morally obligated to keep producing and burning their products in order to bring light and power to poor communities—even at the cost of destroying the environments on which those communities depend. This, you might say, is a somewhat inverted argument. Boyce didn’t strike me, though, as a man actively practicing fraud; he was genuinely convinced of the truth, or at least the plausibility, of what he was saying.

In his 2011 book, Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others, the Rutgers anthropologist Robert Trivers examines the evolutionary roots of self-delusion. According to the review of the book in The Guardian, Trivers “explains how the human male drive for power and control correlates with ignorance and self-delusion.” Magnified by the power of money, the focus on “building shareholder value,” the cult of the all-wise CEO, and the self-reinforcing bubble in which fossil fuel executives live and operate, these forces are strongly displayed in the self-deception and moral confusion of fossil fuel executives. (It’s worth noting that this applies mostly to U.S. fossil fuel companies; European companies have taken a much more realistic and progressive stance on climate effects.)

Whatever their personal beliefs on climate change—a psychological puzzle that would take a university department to plumb—it’s clear that the executives at Exxon Mobil, Peabody, and other fossil fuel companies have engaged in a long, thorough, and pervasive campaign of ignorance and self-delusion. Soon they will find out what that campaign will cost them.

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