By Karen Savage
It was a sweltering hot day in June 1988 when NASA climate scientist James Hansen stunned the world, testifying before the U.S. Senate that “global warming has begun.”
Hansen’s words reverberated through the summer, as a heat wave and drought ravaged the nation’s midsection. Crop damages topped $40 billion. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people died from heat-related causes according to the National Climatic Data Center.
Climate change was little known by most Americans, but the U.S. government had been receiving warnings about the growing science behind it for decades. Similarly, the oil industry and several of its associated trade groups had been studying global warming since the 1950s, and had long understood it was overwhelmingly driven by the burning of fossil fuels.
By the late 1980s, the public began to hear scientists’ ominous warnings, and in 1988, climate change was making headlines not only in the U.S., but globally as well. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) later that fall.
The IPCC is made up of about 2,500 scientists from around the world. It doesn’t conduct its own research, but is charged with synthesizing existing research into reports for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC’s objective is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human] interference with the climate system.”
While greenhouse gas emission reduction agreements could save the planet, they threaten the future of the fossil fuel industry. Companies stood to lose billions in profits if international negotiations resulted in the regulation of emissions.
The first IPCC meeting put the industry on the defensive. The companies knew they would need a plan to fend off climate action, so they launched an organization with a respectable-sounding name, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Formed in 1989, the GCC was initially part of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Its mission was to “coordinate business participation in the scientific and policy debate on global climate change.”
It was not the first time NAM mobilized to defend a portion of its membership. It notoriously went to bat for Big Tobacco companies when they faced liability litigation in the 1980s, using a combination of tactics that included attacking mainstream science that proved a cancer link to smoking.
The GCC became the fossil fuel industry’s premier front group with a mission that evolved over time into a sharp focus on undermining the growing scientific consensus that global warming was a major global threat and was caused by the industry’s products. It was set up primarily to block international action and to build public support for delaying action in the U.S.
GCC membership spanned the automotive, utility, manufacturing, petroleum, and mining industries. Founding members included oil majors Shell, Texaco (now a part of Chevron), Amoco (now part of BP); oil refiner and retailer ARCO (now a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum); coal miners BHP – Utah International and Peabody; and utilities American Electric Power and Pacific Gas and Electric. Trade association members included the American Petroleum Institute, Edison Electric Institute, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. Other companies, including Exxon, joined later.
The GCC and its member companies collaborated on a coordinated campaign over its 13-year history to highlight uncertainty in climate science, discredit mainstream climate scientists and mislead the public about the role of fossil fuels. They promoted work of climate change-denying scientists, citing them in GCC-commissioned reports and saying their “arguments have received far less attention than they deserve.”
The ultimate goal was to protect members’ financial interests by delaying regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
In practice, the coalition launched an all-out assault on anything—or anyone—that could sway international negotiators or convince domestic lawmakers that emissions regulations were warranted. It began by attacking the science itself.
Many GCC members—including ExxonMobil, Shell, Edison Electric Institute (EEI), Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Ford, and the American Petroleum Institute (API)—had internally acknowledged years earlier that climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
NAM acknowledged in 1991 that “global climate change is a potential result of natural and human-produced emissions that may affect the earth’s surface temperature and precipitation patterns.” The GCC internally acknowledged in 1995 that the “scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 is well established and cannot be denied.”
Yet NAM and GCC members worked collectively to publicly emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions on mainstream climate science until the coalition disbanded in 2002.
Many former GCC companies—including Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and Marathon—are currently facing climate liability suits by dozens of municipalities across the U.S., which aim to hold them accountable for climate change-related damages.
Exxon is facing a lawsuit by New York State for allegedly deceiving investors for years by deliberately downplaying the climate risks to its business and long-term financial health and is facing investigations over potential deception over climate change by at least two more state attorneys general.
One of the companies’ staunchest defenders is NAM, which in 2017 launched the Manufacturers Accountability Project (MAP) to help defend its member companies in a growing number of climate liability suits.
The 123-year-old trade association has put itself front and center in the current effort to prevent fossil fuel companies from being held liable for their role in climate change. It has written friend-of-the-court briefs in support of defendant companies and even intervened in the landmark constitutional climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States, which was brought by 21 young people, opting out when it was required to submit discovery requests.
NAM has a long history of defending fossil fuel interests.
NAM Got the Ball Rolling
NAM was a driving force behind the GCC. The trade group handled financial matters, including membership dues, which started at $2,500 for a general membership, rising to $20,000 per year for companies with more than $5 billion in revenues and associations with more than $10 million in revenues. Checks were to be made payable to: “NAM – Global Climate Coalition.”
Associations could pay their dues with in-kind contributions and records show NAM provided office space, equipment, computers and administrative support to the GCC in lieu of dues. From 1989 through 1997, the coalition operated out of NAM’s Pennsylvania Avenue offices in Washington D.C., just a short 10-minute walk from the White House.
NAM said it had no comment on its history or role in GCC.
In 1997, the GCC moved its offices to K Street, then a hub for D.C. lobbying firms. It’s unclear if NAM then began paying dues or continued to staff the coalition, but records show it remained a member until the GCC disbanded in 2002, long after its controversial tactics caused an exodus of many of its most prominent members.