Carlos Osorio / AP

When Pope Francis used his bully pulpit to speak out about climate change, conservative global warming deniers were quick to dismiss him. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe said, “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.” Inhofe’s “job” has literally been to spread disinformation on behalf of the fossil fuel industry in order to stymie action against climate change.

Now, the Union of Concerned Scientists has released a damning new report on how fossil fuel companies have known the risks of climate change for years and worked actively to deceive the public. Dubbed “The Climate Deception Dossiers,” it includes a collection of secret documents and memos over a 27-year period from companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Shell, obtained through a variety of Freedom of Information Act requests, lawsuits and whistleblower leaks. The 85 memos, numbering a total of 330 pages, are available for public viewing.

Nancy Cole, one of the report’s authors, told me in an interview on “Uprising” that what the documents show in stark relief is that for years fossil fuel companies worked to generate uncertainty in climate science to impact public perceptions. By creating confusion among ordinary Americans, they were able to successfully derail meaningful change. “The fossil fuel companies are simply playing off the same playbook as the tobacco companies and other industries that have sought to deny and deceive the public about the harm of their products,” Cole explained.

Sowing doubt is a popular tactic used by industry groups to stave off regulation. In fact, a 1969 memo by a tobacco executive explicitly stated that “doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” Just as this strategy enabled an industry that has led to millions of deaths worldwide, fossil fuel companies are spreading doubt through campaigns of disinformation that are likely to cause a similar, if not greater, death toll.

A 1998 memo from the American Petroleum Institute spells out that strategy very clearly: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’ “

As Cole noted, “They don’t have to win. They just need to sow doubt, they need to make uncertainty their product. That makes it harder for the public to rally around the solutions that we should have been working around for decades and it gives policymakers an excuse for not taking action.”

Among “The Climate Deception Dossiers” is a leaked 1991 strategy memo to the Information Council on the Environment, a front group for coal interests. Under “strategies,” the memo reads, “Reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” The idea was to create a series of advertisements questioning the reality of climate change through ads targeting demographic groups that the industry thought would be most receptive to such information: less-educated males and young lower-income women. And they did just that, in venues such as “The Rush Limbaugh Show.”

The deception didn’t stem from a sincere belief that global warming is a myth. Scientists working for fossil fuel companies have known for decades that climate change is a serious problem. A 1995 letter from Mobil Oil Corporation (before it merged with Exxon to become ExxonMobil) describing how global warming is a reality that “is well established and cannot be denied” is among the trove of documents that Cole and her fellow scientists analyzed. “These companies banded together and sought purposely to deceive the public and our policymakers and to undermine the potential for action,” she said.

So slimy has their behavior been, so shameful their lies, that at one point in 2009 a public relations firm hired by oil and gas companies sent letters to members of Congress purportedly from nonprofit groups with forged signatures. “The fossil fuel companies ramp up every time there is a possibility of legislation or policy being put into place that would reduce carbon emissions,” said Cole. She added that the forged letters were sent “right before a big vote in the U.S. Congress on a bill that would have begun to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S., known as the Waxman-Markey Bill, the first big federal effort to curb carbon emissions. And so they just pulled out all the stops.”

Because fossil fuel companies have successfully staved off climate action federally, it has only been at the state level that progressive, climate-friendly policies have had some measure of success. But the industry started to catch on and worked in concert with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to disseminate deception. Most of the major oil, gas and coal companies are members of ALEC. Cole sees ALEC’s role in derailing some of these state-level policies as “very frustrating and infuriating … and disgusting.” According to her group’s report, “ALEC provides a means for major fossil fuel companies to pay lip service to the realities of climate science in their public-facing materials while their behind-the-scenes memberships and sponsorships support misinformation and block climate action.” One annual ALEC meeting featured famed climate denier Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute.The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), a powerful trade group, has also engaged in dirty tricks and outright lies to stymie action at the state level. The scientists’ report cites includes an internal PowerPoint presentation by WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd, which she presented to the Washington Research Council only last November, and which was leaked to the press. In it, WSPA boasts of the many grass-roots-sounding front groups that it has created or engaged with to manufacture opposition to climate-friendly policies.

The decades-long strategy of denying climate change by fossil fuel companies has clearly worked in their favor. There is a stark “before and after” effect. The year 1988 was a turning point, when the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It was also the year NASA climate scientist James Hansen gave historic testimony to Congress about the human impact of climate change, which generated a front-page headline in The New York Times. Today the effects of catastrophic climate change and the countless studies examining it rarely, if ever, make the front pages of any major newspaper.

Because fossil fuel companies have adopted many of the same tactics as Big Tobacco with similarly fatal consequences, perhaps they deserve the same fate. There was a time when cigarette sellers such as Philip Morris seemed untouchable. But today, they have not only been forced to pay out massive sums of money in compensation to victims, they have also had to publicly state that they were wrong. In a poetically just move, tobacco companies have been required to admit their lies and deception in advertisements, as part of a settlement with the Justice Department.

Oil companies are the largest and most profitable corporations in the world. We ought to envision a time when fossil fuel companies are publicly shamed, humiliated and targeted for massive disinvestment, when oil profits are redirected toward paying for the damage done to our climate, and when, rather than derail climate action, they will be forced to admit they lied all along. Humanity cannot afford anything less.

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