As the UK sees record-breaking temperatures and forest fires devastate major areas of Europe, climate change is dominating news headlines. Now, a new BBC series tells the story of how we got here, charting decades of failure to tackle climate change.
Part of the award-winning This World series, Big Oil vs the World is a fascinating look at how oil giants fuelled climate change denial, despite warnings from their own scientists of the risks carbon emissions posed to the planet.
Drawing on thousands of newly discovered documents, the series goes on to chart, in revelatory and forensic detail, how the oil industry then mounted a campaign to sow doubt about the science of climate change, the consequences of which we are living through today.
Part One: Denial
Based on a year of investigative research, part one of the series: Denial tells the story of what the fossil fuel industry knew about climate change more than four decades ago, unveiling a complex campaign of media spin and political lobbying to spread scepticism on climate change.
Speaking in the film, former US Vice-President Al Gore describes the efforts of big oil companies to delay the response to climate change as “the most serious crime of the post-world war two era”.
“I think it's the moral equivalent of a war crime… The consequences of what they've done are just almost unimaginable,” he said.
In the programme, scientists who worked for the biggest oil company in the world, Exxon, reveal the warnings they sounded in the 1970s and early 1980s about how fossil fuels would cause climate change – with potentially catastrophic effects.
Discussing Exxon’s failure to act over the years, Dr Ed Garvey, who joined Exxon’s climate science research team in 1978, says that the company was aware that continuing to burn fossil fuels would mean significant climate impacts in the future.
“it's just squandered time, and we're going to pay for it,” he states.
Former United States Senator Chuck Hagel, who in the late 1990s led the charge in the US Senate against America joining an international agreement to reduce emissions, now says that the oil industry lied and misled him. “It’s cost the country, and it cost the world,” he admits.
‘Denial’ features first-hand accounts from politicians and activists fighting for action on climate change, including former Vice President Al Gore, as well as PR executives, scientists and economists paid by the oil industry.
Part Two: Doubt
Part two, Doubt, charts how the oil industry’s campaign to block action against climate change continued into the new millennium, even as the science grew more certain.
George W. Bush’s former environment chief Christine Todd Whitman explains how industry lobbyists and Vice President Dick Cheney persuaded Bush to reverse his campaign promise to cut emissions.
“It really was a tragedy. I think if President Bush had gone forward with a cap on carbon, it would have made an enormous difference,” she states.
Speaking for the first time on camera, a disaffected former ExxonMobil geoscientist and climate change specialist, Bill Heins, reflects on the disconnect between what the company’s scientists knew, and what the CEO Lee Raymond was saying publicly about climate change.
The film also unravels the story of the Koch Brothers’ extraordinarily successful effort to block President Obama’s early efforts to pass climate change legislation, and subsequent campaign to reshape the Republican Party into one in which climate denialism became the mainstream position of the party.
A lawyer who worked for Kochs through this period speaks on camera for the first time about the campaign, as does Steve Lonegan of the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity – who boasts that their effort “put an end to the whole climate change argument. Since then till now, it’s been a dead issue.”
BP’s former CEO Lord Browne tells the story of how BP first broke with the rest of the oil industry in acknowledging the reality of human-caused climate change, and re-branding as ‘Beyond Petroleum’. Accused of greenwashing by both environmentalists and other oil majors, Lord Browne continues to defend his record – although acknowledges that BP’s push into renewables ultimately fell short.
“Looking backwards over the last 25 years, we really have lost a quarter century in what we should have been doing,” Browne states.
Part Three: Delay
The third and final part of the series, Delay, follows the fossil fuel industry up to the present day, and examines recent efforts to hold Big Oil legally accountable for the climate crisis.
Delving into the world of fracking, revealing how big oil companies courted the Obama administration by presenting natural gas as an environmentally-friendly alternative to oil and coal.
Obama climate official Heather Zichal now acknowledges for the first time that the administration did not realise how the natural gas boom would only worsen the climate crisis. She says, “Did it turn out we had it wrong? Absolutely.”
Former ExxonMobil engineer, Dar Lon Chang, speaks for the first time on camera alleging that as the company increased its natural gas operations, it was not sufficiently monitoring methane leaks that were contributing to climate change.
“There wasn't much appetite for management to measure methane leakage because, if they found out there was a problem, they would have to do something about it,” he states.
But the film also speaks with activist Sharon Wilson who has spent more than a decade documenting methane leaks at sites operated by ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies. Still travelling across the US in 2022, collecting evidence of ongoing leaks, she says: “We can have a future, or we can have oil and gas, but we cannot have both.”
The Kochs did not respond to requests for an interview or statement.
ExxonMobil did not grant any interviews for the series, but told the BBC in a written statement that its ‘public statements about climate change are, and have always been, truthful, fact-based, transparent and consistent with the contemporary understanding of mainstream climate science.’
ExxonMobil said it’s been an industry leader in the effort to reduce methane emissions and has been using advanced technology to detect leaks.
The company says the litigation is ‘baseless’ and ‘without merit’; and ‘there is no truth to the suggestion that ExxonMobil ever misled the public or policymakers about climate change.’
Big Oil vs the World: Denial airs on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer, 9pm, Thursday 21 July.