The Clever Public Relations Plan that Sows Doubt About Climate Change
A bold plan to sow doubts and convince the public that climate change was not an issue was devised thirty years ago. The little-known meeting between some of America's largest industrial companies and a PR genius resulted in a ruthlessly effective approach that survived for years, and its effects are everywhere.
On an early fall day in 1992, E Bruce Harrison, largely regarded as the father of environmental public relations, stood before a room full of corporate leaders and gave an unprecedented pitch.
At stake was a contract worth $500,000 per year, or around £850,000 in today's money. The prospective customer, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries, sought a communications partner to alter the climate change narrative.
Two members of Harrison's team there that day, Don Rheem and Terry Yosie, are sharing their stories for the first time.
"Everybody wanted to get the Global Climate Coalition account," says Rheem, "and there I was, smack in the middle of it."
Three years prior, the GCC was conceived as a venue for members to exchange information and lobby against efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
In its early years, the Coalition saw little cause for fear, even though scientists were making great strides in understanding climate change and it was gaining political prominence. President George H.W. Bush was a former oilman, and a senior lobbyist told the BBC in 1990 that his climate message was identical to that of the GCC.
There would be no obligatory reduction of fossil fuels.
But in 1992, all of that changed. In June, the world community established a framework for climate action, and Al Gore, a devoted environmentalist, was elected vice president of the United States in November. There was no doubt that the new administration would attempt to restrict fossil fuels.
The Coalition recognised that it needed assistance with strategic communications and solicited proposals from public relations firms.
Though few outside of the public relations business may have heard of E Bruce Harrison or the namesake firm he had led since 1973, he had managed campaigns for some of the United States' largest polluters.
He had worked for the chemical industry to discredit research on the harm of pesticides; for the cigarette industry; and, most recently, he had led a campaign against stricter emissions rules for large automobiles. Harrison had established a business that was regarded as one of the best.
Melissa Aroncyzk, a media historian who interviewed Harrison before his death in 2021, asserts that he was a strategic linchpin for his clients, ensuring that everyone was on the same page.
"He was a master at what he did," she says.
Before the pitch, Harrison had organised a team that included seasoned public relations pros and near-total amateurs. Don Rheem, who lacked industry credentials, was among them. Before he became an environmental journalist, he studied ecology. A chance meeting with Harrison, who must have seen the strategic importance of Rheem's environmental and media links, resulted in a job offer for the GCC pitch.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is an opportunity to get a front row seat to probably one of the most pressing science policy and public policy issues that we were facing.'
"It just felt enormously important," Rheem says.
Terry Yosie, who was recently recruited from the American Petroleum Institute and became a senior vice-president at the company, recalls that Harrison began his presentation by reminding the audience that he was instrumental in opposing the auto changes. He accomplished this feat in part by reframing the situation.
The same methods would now be used to circumvent climate control. They would convince individuals that the scientific facts were not conclusive and that, in addition to the environment, policymakers needed to consider how climate change action would negatively impact American jobs, trade, and prices.
The strategy would be carried out by a comprehensive media campaign, including everything from inserting quotes and pitching opinion pieces (so-called op-eds) to establishing direct contact with journalists.
"A lot of reporters were assigned to write stories," Rheem says, "and they were struggling with the complexity of the issue. So I would write backgrounders so reporters could read them and get up to speed."
Uncertainty ran through the full gamut of the GCC's publications, a creative array of letters, glossy brochures, and monthly newsletters.
Rheem and the team were prolific-within a year, Harrison's firm claimed to have secured more than 500 specific mentions in the media.
In August 1993, Harrison took stock of progress in another meeting with the GCC.
"The rising awareness of the scientific uncertainty has caused some in Congress to pause on advocating new initiatives," declared an updated internal strategy pitch, shared with the BBC by Terry Yosie.
"Activists sounding the alarm over 'global warming' have publicly conceded that they lost ground in the communications arena over the past year."
Now, Harrison counselled, they needed to expand the external voices making their case.
"Scientists, economists, academics and other noted experts carry greater credibility with the media and general public than industry representatives."
While most climate scientists agreed that human-caused climate change was a real issue that would require action, a small group argued there was no cause for alarm. The plan was to pay these sceptics to give speeches or write op-eds-about $1,500 (£1,250) per article-and to arrange media tours so they could appear on local TV and radio stations.
"My role was to identify the voices that were not in the mainstream and to give those voices a stage," Rheem says. "There was a lot we didn't know at the time. And part of my role was to highlight what we didn't know."
He said the media was hungry for these perspectives.
"Journalists were actively looking for the contrarians. It was feeding an appetite that was already there."
Many of these sceptics or deniers have rejected the idea that funding from the GCC and other industry groups had any impact on their views. But the scientists and environmentalists tasked with repudiating them—arguing the reality of climate change—encountered a well-organised and effective campaign they found hard to match.
"The Global Climate Coalition is seeding doubt everywhere, fogging the air… And environmentalists don't know what's hitting them," environmental campaigner John Passacantando remembers.
"What the geniuses of the PR firms who work for these big fossil fuel companies know is that truth has nothing to do with who wins the argument. If you say something enough times, people will begin to believe it."
In a document dating from around 1995, shared with the BBC by Melissa Aroncyzk, Harrison wrote that the "GCC has successfully turned the tide on press coverage of global climate change science, effectively countering the eco-catastrophe message and asserting the lack of scientific consensus on global warming."
The groundwork had been laid for the industry's biggest campaign to date-opposing international efforts to negotiate emissions reductions at Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. By then, a consensus had emerged among scientists that human-caused warming was now detectable. But the US public was still showing signs of doubt. As many as 44% of respondents to a Gallup poll believed scientists were divided. Public antipathy made it harder for politicians to fight for action, and America never implemented the agreement reached in Kyoto. It was a major victory for the industry coalition.
"I think E Bruce Harrison was proud of the work he did. He knew how central he had been to move the needle on how companies intervened in the conversation about global warming," says Aronczyk.
The same year as the Kyoto negotiation, Harrison sold his firm. Rheem decided that public relations weren't the right career, while Yosie had long since moved on to other environmental projects for the firm. Meanwhile, the GCC began to disintegrate, as some members grew uncomfortable with its hard line. But the tactics, the playbook, and the message of doubt were now embedded and would outlive their creators. Three decades on, the consequences are all around us.
"I think it's the moral equivalent of a war crime," says former US Vice-President Al Gore of the big oil companies' efforts to block action.
"I think it is, in many ways, the most serious crime of the post-World War Two era, anywhere in the world. The consequences of what they've done are just almost unimaginable."
"Would I do anything differently? It's a hard question to answer," reflects Don Rheem, who says he was "way down the totem pole" of the GCC's operation. "There's some sadness that not much has happened."
He maintains that climate science was too uncertain in the 1990s to warrant "drastic actions", and that developing countries—particularly China and Russia—have ultimately been responsible for the decades of climate inaction, rather than American industry.
"I think it's really easy to create a conspiracy theory about really pernicious intent of industry to completely halt any progress," Rheem says. "I didn't see that.
"I was very young. I was very curious... Knowing what I know today, would I have done some things differently then?