How oil capitalists conspired to spread climate change denialism — in 1988

Starting decades ago, powerful corporations spread a sophistic climate change denialist ideology. Here's how

By Andreas Malm - The Zetkin Collective
Published May 15, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)
Exxon Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lee Raymond (C) and Vice Chairman Lucio Noto, circa 01 December, 1999. (HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
Exxon Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Lee Raymond (C) and Vice Chairman Lucio Noto, circa 01 December, 1999. (HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

Adapted from "White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism " by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective. Copyright Verso Books, 2021.

In the summer of 1988, the United States experienced the worst heat waves and droughts since the Dust Bowl. Ominous images of burning forests, withering fields and sweltering cities filled the American press and elicited nervous suspicion: was this the work of the so-called greenhouse effect? Had the danger of which some scientists warned already arrived?

It was amid this tense national atmosphere climatologist James Hansen intervened with his testimony to the Senate, in which he forthrightly asserted that "we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming." The suspicions were sound: "It is already happening now." Describing the extreme summer as a taste of things to come, the report in the New York Times also noted that the testifying scientists "said that planning must begin now for a sharp reduction in the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide." Planning for a sharp reduction? The very notion injected panic in fossil capital.

With signs of trouble ahead multiplying, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, was established in 1988, the United Nations began preparations for a concerted response and awareness of the problem spread across what was still referred to as "the free world" There was no time to lose.

In 1989, several urgent counter-initiatives were launched: Exxon formulated an internal plan for how to drive home "the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect" and ran its first advertorial on the subject. A suite of companies set up the Global Climate Coalition to contest the science. The key conservative think tank known as the George C. Marshall Institute published its first report attacking it. When more than a hundred heads of state gathered in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1992 and adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with its call to prevent "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system," further alarm was stoked. Socialism appeared to be passing out of history, but at the very same moment, fossil capital had to gear up for a war to safeguard its freedom.

 * * *

Rarely has a dominant class so swiftly, purposefully and effectively built up an ideological state apparatus (ISA) in an hour of need. Scholars of the entity refer to it as "a denial machine," but it also fits Louis Althusser's criteria of an ISA: "a system of defined institutions, organizations, and the corresponding practices," which, through their day-to-day activities, uphold some elements of the dominant ideology.

A classic example of an ISA is the school. The teacher turns to his pupils and, swinging his pointer, asks them to provide the right answers. In a church, the priest invites the congregation to mass and offers everyone the body given up for you; in a television show, the host looks the audience in the eye and raises it to the level of participant; in a party, the leaders spur their members to canvass for the upcoming elections – in an ISA, the subjects are hailed or interpellated and, responding to the call, partake in some material practice by which the ideology is dispensed. Now interpellations happen all over the place, whenever someone addresses someone else and seeks to purvey an idea or prompt a course of action. If a man shouts to his neighbors below that they too should hang the national flag from their balconies, he interpellates them, on his own and in the moment; in ISAs, such acts are organized over time. Their messages can compete and commingle in a cacophony of communication.

But why call these entities ideological state apparatuses? A federation of sports clubs or the museums of a town are not necessarily part of the state, as normally defined, but they are clearly capable of organizing interpellations. Ideological apparatuses seem to be plural and fluid, located at the interface between civil society and state, more often than not existing outside government control. Some of them are even built to question elements of the dominant ideology – an LGBT organization in Poland, a movement for immigrants' rights in Denmark. These deserve the label of "counter-apparatuses," But for ideological apparatuses that reproduce the dominant ideology, we can retain Althusser's original term, the S for "state" not a literal suggestion that a king or prime minister rules them like an embassy, but a sign precisely of that reproducing and cementing function. On this account, the denial machine did indeed emerge as an ISA. It was formed to secure one element of the dominant ideology against the peril of climate science. The doctrine at stake – the credo and communion of fossil capital – can most simply be summarized as fossil fuels are good for people.

The basis of this doctrine was a particular material mode of accumulating capital, in ascendancy since the early nineteenth century: the generation of profit through extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. A fire that never goes out, capital here expands by taking coal and oil and gas out of the ground and burning them. When profits have been made, they are reinvested in the same cycle on a larger scale, so that ever-greater clouds of CO2 are released in the process. This is what we refer to as "fossil capital," It ties various brands of capitalists together in a dependence on fossil energy, the material substratum for any number of commodities: a car manufacturer needs steel for its factory and gasoline for the vehicles on the road. A steel producer uses coal to process iron ore. A software company runs on electricity from the nearest gas-fired power plant, and so on; throughout the capitalist mode of production, fossil fuels are consumed as an input. But for that to happen, there must also be someone who produces those same fuels as an output. This, of course, is the specialty of the coal and oil and gas corporations, the raison d'être of the capitalists who invest in mines and rigs and pipelines to pull up the stock of energy from its reservoirs. Karl Marx observed that for capital accumulation in general to commence, capital has to be concentrated on the one hand and workers possessing no other commodity than their labor-power amassed on the other; he termed this process "primitive accumulation," and so we can, analogously, speak of a primitive accumulation of fossil capital.

An unfortunate English rendering of the German ursprünglich, "primitive" has the connotation of something archaic and long ago superseded. The process should rather be understood as primary, a logical antecedent without which the whole thing would die down. If no one digs up the coal, the steel producer will have no coke for the furnaces, the car manufacturer no steel for the chassis. Only if the stock of energy is continuously hauled up and offered as discrete commodities can other capitalists purchase it and set it on fire, as part of their cycle of accumulation, ever intertwined with the cycle of profiting directly from the sale of fossil fuels. We can thus distinguish between fossil capital in general and primitive accumulation of fossil capital as two moments of fossil capital as a totality, much as we can tell the flames from the billets in a fire. The first term refers to capital for which fossil fuels are a necessary auxiliary in the production of other commodities, the second to the department known in the vernacular as "the fossil fuel industry," the third to the two in their unity. When we use "fossil capital" with no qualifier, it is the latter – the fire as a whole – we have in mind.

Now, from this base grows a political structure of a determinate character. The capitalists who preside over the primitive accumulation of fossil capital constitute a class fraction. Given their role in the total metabolism and process of production, they make up a subcategory of the capitalist class, a bearer or agent of the special task of supplying fossil fuels to the market; they glow with the drive to maximize profit from the selling of these and no other commodities. Delivering materials to the fire is what they do. Fossil capital in general, on the other hand, is no class fraction, because it is precisely the generality of capital, comprising auto and steel and computer companies and any other entities in the habit of expanding value by – among other conversions – turning fossil fuels into CO2. It is a broad, not to say universal category, too amorphous and open-ended to constitute a fraction sensu stricto. Marx's "primitive accumulation" was not executed by a particular class fraction – any merchant, landowner or slave trader could engage in it – but, in our case, it is the permanent mission of a subset of the capitalist class that we can simply refer to as primitive fossil capital. Located at the deepest material base, this fraction is also capable of operating at the highest political levels. It has a venerable history not only of fulfilling its economic task, but also of acting as a political force, using its narrow composition and centralized operations to bend governments to its will, or just whisper in their ears.

Under the threat of climate mitigation, the stakes are of a different order for primitive fossil capital. It faces an existential crisis, because the prevention of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system ultimately requires that it ceases to exist. The lion's share of coal and oil and gas still in the ground must be left there for the duration, which means that this particular class fraction cannot continue to reproduce itself by extracting more of them to sell – but asking it to stop doing so is like asking a human being to stop breathing. There is no way around this contradiction. Primitive fossil capital has to be liquidated wholesale. For the rest of capital, however, climate mitigation rather represents a structural crisis. It would have to cease being fossil and might reinvent itself as non-fossil capital. A car manufacturer can potentially source its steel from a plant that reduces iron ore with something else than coke (such as hydrogen gas). A software company will be just as contented if the electricity comes from wind turbines. Since the transition would have to affect actually existing capitalism as the greatest totality of all, it might very well be painful, require large-scale destruction of fixed capital and induce serious losses for some. But capital as such may survive it. We cannot know this for a certainty, since a transition of this kind has never happened before – particularly not under such an ultra-tight schedule – but it is not a logical impossibility, not an axiomatic end as it is for primitive fossil capital. When the threat of climate mitigation first appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the latter found itself questioned to the core. It then spared none of its capacity to act as a class fraction in the realm of politics to stave off an existential crisis and thereby also protected fossil capital in general from a structural one. This division of labor has remained operational into the time of this writing, with some peculiar political effects.

The first thing primitive fossil capital did was to set up the denial machine – or, a synonym, the denialist ISA. A plethora of think tanks sprung up to fight back against climate science. They employed professional denialists, hosted anti-IPCC conferences, organized symposiums for policymakers, testified in Congress, appeared on television and in radio debates, flooded media with advertisements and produced "an endless flow of printed material" disseminating their beliefs. From the start, the corporation then known as Exxon made critical contributions to the apparatus, through its own efforts as well as via uncountable think tanks, front groups, legislators, columnists and other generously funded proxies. Exxon was one of the sponsors of the Global Climate Coalition, alongside fellow oil companies Shell, BP, Amoco and Texaco. They were joined by car manufacturers GM, Ford and Chrysler, chemical giant DuPont and business umbrellas such as the American Petroleum Institute, the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Highway Users Alliance, to name only some. A broad church for Anglo-American fossil capital, the Coalition is today largely forgotten, but in the early 1990s it was the largest pressure group in international climate negotiations and left an indelible mark on their trajectory.

Exxon was the exemplary driving force of denial. The coal industry, however, was nearly as quick on the draw; in 1991, American coal interests set up the Information Council on the Environment to "reposition global warming as a theory (not fact)," But in these early years, primitive fossil capital also gathered around itself fossil capital in general in the efforts to defend the doctrine of fossil fuels as a blessing. All of this happened primarily on American soil. The US-born ISA then diffused a bundle of tropes in the public conversation, not always consistent with one another but united in political intent. One said that temperatures are not in fact on the rise. Another held that swings in the climate – including any perceptible warming – are caused by the sun and occur as part of a natural cycle. Of particular interest for our purposes, however, is the trope of carbon dioxide as a gift to life, since it occasionally lifted the veil on some deeply ingrained associations between energy and race.

In a bid to influence the Rio summit in 1992, the Global Climate Coalition distributed a video claiming that more CO2 in the atmosphere would fertilize crops and help feed the world. In 1998, the Western Fuels Association, a consortium of coal companies headquartered in Colorado, established the front group Greening Earth Society to further purvey the idea that excess CO2 should be welcomed. But the most famous composition from this genre came later, in 2006, when the Competitive Enterprise Institute – another key think tank in the apparatus, recipient of lavish Exxon funding – released a sixty-second commercial simply called "Energy," In the opening scenes, happy people mill around in New York's Central  Park. A blonde woman of model beauty blows soap bubbles; a group of equally blond children skip rope; another white woman jogs on a beach. A blonde girl blows on a dandelion, scattering its seeds. The voice-over says: "There's something in those pictures you can't see. It's essential to life. We breath it out. Plants breath it in" – cut to an old-growth forest – and this miraculous invisible medium comes straight from "the earth and the fuels we find in it. It's called carbon dioxide, CO2." Cuts to images of a refinery and an oil derrick, the voice-over continuing: "The fuels that produce CO2 have freed us from a world of back-breaking labor," the last five words spoken over the image of the only black person to appear in the clip. She raises her arms high to strike a heavy pestle into a wooden mortar, presumably pounding cassava or some other African crop. A thatched hut can be seen in the background. This black woman represents the world from which fossil fuels have freed us, "lighting up our lives," Then suddenly the pastoral piano melodies are broken up by a drone of sinister strings and the warning: "Now some politicians want to label carbon dioxide a pollutant – imagine if they succeed. What would our lives be like then?" In the final scene, we are back at the blonde girl scattering the dandelion seeds, who gets to personify the slogan: "Carbon dioxide – they call it pollution. We call it life."

Thanks to fossil fuels, white people have ascended the evolutionary ladder to the height of comfort and affluence. Black people have stayed behind in the fossil-free bottom to break their own backs. Now, imagine if CO2 would be treated as a pollutant – what would our lives look like then? Primitive fossil capital clearly did not shy away from interpellating white people and framing mitigation as a threat to their life: the "Energy' commercial inspired other think tanks to play up the trope of fossil fuels and their derivative gas as life-enhancing substances. Anne Pasek has named this genre of denial "carbon vitalism" and picked out seven beliefs that hold it together. CO2 is only toxic at artificially high levels that can never be reached in the atmosphere and so it cannot be a pollutant; it is essential for photosynthesis and thus beneficial to plants; it does not have the ability to alter the climate by trapping heat; current atmospheric levels are far below those that reigned on the luxurious earth of the dinosaurs – we still live in a CO2 famine; a return to such geological heights should be the aim of energy policies; to burn fossil fuels is to render the biosphere a service; any measures to cap their use would be detrimental to life itself. Whose life? The Competitive Enterprise Institute gave its answer, but other carbon vitalists would probably argue that everyone on earth would prosper in a CO2-saturated atmosphere, black people included, their cassava growing better too. Some just have the burden to kindle that flame.

The denials of trend, attribution and impact were united by the overarching trope of the enormous and insurmountable uncertainty of the science: no firm conclusions can be drawn on any of the issues at hand; the methods of climate scientists are riddled with conjectures and outright counterfeits; springing to action on such slippery foundations would be foolhardy. Or, in the plain language of an advertorial from Exxon's future partner Mobil, printed in the New York Times in 1997: "Let's face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil." From this followed the trope of scientists and activists as a bunch of alarmists and religious zealots. Or, in the words of another Mobil advertorial, published two years earlier: "The sky is not falling" – "Good news: The end of the Earth as we know it is not imminent." Those who dared to question the doxa of the doomsday were the brave sons of Galileo. They faced persecution from the guardians of "the hoax" – another prominent trope, canonized by James Inhofe, a Republican senator funded by Exxon, who said in a speech that global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and then went on to publish a book-length study of "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future," the cover featuring a faceless leader of the conspiracy with his hands around a gleaming globe. (But Inhofe is probably most famous for trying to disprove climate change by taking a snowball into the Senate and tossing it on the floor.) To this must be added the anti-communism so defining for the denialist ISA. We shall return to it in some depth later.

The denialist ISA interpellated a range of subjects: businessmen, car owners, Americans, rational agents; perhaps most importantly, everyone who identified themselves as a beneficiary of the free market. The Heartland Institute, perhaps the key think tank of the apparatus, in 2020 still trumpeted the mission "to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems," It spoke to anyone who was already a subject of the free market. Broad in its appeal, the denialist ISA operated across other ISAs firmly entrenched in the American social formation – churches, schools, courts, trade unions, radio and television programs, but most of all the Republican party – as a kind of transversal, single-issue apparatus. Because climate mitigation posed a threat to privileges tied to a whole range of subject positions, this apparatus – devoted to the literal denial of one problem – could combine several interpellative elements in a cohesive, if not exactly coherent, structure. It developed a most impressive capacity for public outreach, as well as for symbiotic existence with centrally located parts of the American state apparatus; put simply, it had a hotline to decision-makers. It hailed as much the citizens as the rulers of the American empire.

In one respect, however, the denialist ISA presents a challenge to Marxist theories of ideology. Ever since Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, such theories have worked on the assumption that the most effective bourgeois ideology is the one least obvious and ostentatious in its class bias, inconspicuous enough to sink into popular  consciousness as the normal way of doing things. All have sought to loosen the strictures of the base/superstructure model. But original climate denialism looks as though someone had striven for the most overdrawn caricature of that model and staged a mock play of material interests paying for ideas. Massive trawling of the output from the American denialist ISA has documented that, in the period 1993 to 2013, agents with direct corporate funding were vastly more likely to spread the message that climate change is a natural cycle and CO2 good. Initially, the efforts to camouflage this base logic were minimal; as crude as any ideological campaign had ever been, the purposes were written on the foreheads of its priests and patrons. It was all about fending off regulations that would trim profits in the short term. United in their outspoken faith in the free market, the deniers were – so Jacques quotes Gramsci – a "real, organic vanguard of the upper classes," and anyone with a modicum of critical instinct could see this. In the longer term, it was all about ensuring the very reproduction of fossil capital. The snake feared for its head and secreted a venom of disinformation: as simple as that.

In spite of this transparency – or perhaps because of it, in the triumphalist mood after the Cold War – the denialist ISA was eminently successful on its home terrain. The American public had expressed high degrees of worry around the time of the Hansen testimony, in response to which Bush the elder vowed to counter "the greenhouse effect with the White House effect," but by the mid-1990s, doubts were sown deep in the nation. The Republican party had been swayed by the ISA. Representatives of the latter had achieved a status as legitimate authorities on the subject, leading to decades of "balance" in media reporting – one minute to someone who believes in global warming, one minute to someone who does not. All the standard tropes of denial were in rapid circulation, within and beyond US borders. Most importantly, international climate politics had developed a determinant pattern it has retained ever since: the US, responsible for more CO2 emissions than any other country, could not be counted on for even the mildest of action. But, at the same time, there were indications that the denialist ISA faced a kind of crisis.

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The Crisis of Denial

We now know that primitive fossil capital possessed rudimentary knowledge of the problem since at least the 1960s. One early moment of dissemination occurred in 1959, when three hundred industry executives, government officials and researchers convened for a symposium in New York on the theme of "Energy and Man," It was meant to mark the centennial of the first discovery of oil in the US, but one scientist on the podium, physicist Edward Teller, spoiled the party by telling the audience that CO2 blocks infrared radiation, and so continued emissions of that gas might well "melt the icecap" and cause "all the coastal cities" to be submerged. To better understand the process, the oil industry turned to Stanford and other top universities for collaborative research. In 1965, the American Petroleum Institute, or API, the main trade association for oil and gas corporations active in the country, received a report from its president Frank Ikard on the findings so far. Speaking to the annual general meeting, he did not mince words:

This report unquestionably will fan emotions, raise fears, and bring demands for action. The substance of the report is that there is still time to save the world's peoples from catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out. One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth's atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.

No corporation was more proactive in instigating climate research than Exxon. As early as 1957, scientists working for what was then known as Humble Oil published peer-reviewed calculations of the atmospheric impacts of CO2 from fossil fuels. Two decades later, one senior in-house scientist informed top managers about a "general scientific agreement" on the ensuing climate hazards, which would have to be swiftly addressed; he estimated "a time window of five to ten years' before humanity must make the critical decisions. Exxon now reacted by driving straight to the research front, for no altruistic reasons: it sniffed a danger to its business. Exactly how close was it? The corporation equipped one of its supertankers with a laboratory for investigating the share of CO2 absorbed by the oceans, ran  advanced climate models, perused the latest literature and predicted, in 1982, that the atmospheric rate of CO2 would reach 415 parts per million in 2019. It could not have been more spot on: in June 2019, the rate hit 415 parts per million. An internal consensus formed in the early 1980s, as Exxon's researchers and managers stared a warmer world in the face: it was real; it called for action; fossil fuels would soon be in the cross-hairs. Other corporations knew too – Shell, BP, GM, Exxon's future partner Mobil, coal giant Peabody, all keen to read up and attend symposiums and hearings on "the greenhouse effect," as the problem was then known. The basic knowledge continued to make its way through the circuits of primitive fossil capital, into the Global Climate Coalition, whose very own scientists in 1995 wrote a seventeen-page internal primer asseverating that "the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,"

And yet deny it they did. Primitive fossil capital established and kept the denialist ISA going against its better knowledge, deliberately misleading the subjects of its interpellations. We must correct Althusser on one point: "The bourgeoisie has to believe in its own myth before it can convince others." The faith in denial, if not in  capitalism itself, was only ever half-hearted, at the most. After Hansen's testimony and the creation of the IPCC, primitive fossil capital – led by Exxon and the API – launched into denial of something it had itself observed and counted on; thus in 1997, Lee Raymond, the CEO of Exxon, declared that "the earth is cooler today than it was 20 years ago," due to "natural fluctuations" that had nothing to do with fossil fuels. The next year, a team at the API outlined a "road map" for how to turn climate change into "a non-issue," Victory in this pursuit was defined as the moment when "average citizens "understand" (recognize) uncertainties in climate science," such perceptions become "part of the "conventional wisdom" " and "media coverage reflects balance," The laymen's impression of a debate between researchers who believed in global warming and those who disputed it was completely manufactured by the class fraction that knew, before almost anyone else, that there was no reason to have such a debate, any more than one over heliocentrism or the laws of thermodynamics. The debate was a victorious trick, the denial but a tactic. Some of the early reports might have been buried deep in desks and archives, but the knowledge was updated and the duplicity renewed on a regular basis. Exxon, for instance, spoke with a consistently forked tongue over the years, saying one thing in internal documents and something entirely different in advertorials and other PR material.

The apparatus was erected on lies, and it also suffered from contradictions in its external communication. It paid purportedly independent scientists to wage war on science. To gain credibility, the denialist ISA contracted some willing old white men with distinguished scientific careers – if only in peripheral disciplines – to debunk the elementary insights; most august among them were Richard Lindzen and Fred Singer. The apparatus raised the banner of reason and attacked climate scientists for being prone to myth. No corporation could afford to abandon its pretense to rationality: even at the height of its sponsorship of the ISA, ExxonMobil self-identified as "a science- and technology-based company," As the evidence for human-induced and potentially catastrophic global warming accumulated relentlessly over the 1990s, cracks began to appear in this edifice. It came to be regarded, outside the community of believers, as the temple of an obscurantist faith-group that refused any contact with actual science and reason. The crudity was not necessarily a strength. From the start, it made the apparatus vulnerable to exposure: the Information Council on the Environment set up in 1991, for example, fell dead in the same year, after journalists revealed that its putative scientists simply fronted for coal companies. When the second IPCC report in 1995 marshalled a new mountain of evidence in support of the conclusion – phrased in characteristically restrained terms – that there was "a discernible human influence on global climate," the discrepancy between the consensus and the caucus became too glaring in the eyes of too many.

Adapted from "White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism " by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective. Copyright Verso Books, 2021.

Andreas Malm

Andreas Malm is a scholar of human ecology, and the author of "How to Blow up a Pipeline," "The Progress of this Storm," and "Fossil Capital," which won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize.

MORE FROM Andreas Malm

The Zetkin Collective

The Zetkin Collective is a group of scholars, activists and students working on the political ecology of the far right.

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