By Karen Savage
At a small round table in a darkened room at one of Washington D.C.’s posher restaurants, Nicky Sundt listened intently. Two men interviewing her for a job with the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) described what would be one of her first tasks if she accepted their offer.
“They wanted to make this little passport,” Sundt said in reflecting on the meeting, which took place in the early 1990s. “It was something they could hand out at the climate negotiations and it would have their views on climate change.”
The problem for Sundt, an expert in climate science, policy and communications with a degree in energy and resources, was that she immediately knew John Shlaes, executive director of the GCC and Donald Pearlman, an international oil lobbyist also with the GCC, wanted to promote ideas refuting established climate science.
Those talking points were part of a decades-long coordinated campaign to sow doubt in the minds of the public about climate change, which an overwhelming majority of scientists had concluded was being driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels. That science, however, created an existential crisis for the producers of fossil fuels, who responded with a well-funded and comprehensive plan of attack to muddy that science, to push the public debate away from the necessity of greenhouse gas emissions reductions and protect the industry’s profits.
The misinformation onslaught was led by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the GCC, a fossil fuel industry-backed group created to strategically undermine international climate negotiations and block, or at least delay, the regulation of emissions.
“As they described it, it dawned on me that I would rather collect unemployment than work for these guys,” said Sundt, who said Shlaes and Pearlman envisioned a document that would entice readers with its handy small size and “international flair.”
Sundt said the meeting was a pivot point in her career. She realized there were certain jobs she couldn’t take, no matter how good the money. Instead, she went on to publish well-respected newsletters documenting progress—and lack thereof—in addressing climate change.
In that role, she received countless press releases, pamphlets and other documents from the GCC, all aimed at influencing media coverage of climate science. Sundt kept copies of those mailings, including a copy of the GCC’s “Climate Change: Your Passport To The Facts,” which it had created without her help.
Documents provided by Sundt, along with hundreds of documents containing GCC briefings, meeting minutes, notes and correspondence obtained through litigation, FOIA requests and IRS filings were released Thursday by the Climate Investigations Center in collaboration with DeSmog and Climate Liability News.
Collectively, the documents paint the clearest picture yet of the GCC’s efforts to manipulate the process behind the United Nations climate assessments for decades, cast doubt on established climate science, emphasize uncertainty, advocate for regulatory inaction and attack the IPCC and its scientists, including Ben Santer, convening lead author of the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report.
The documents, which date from 1989 through 2002, also reveal the extensive role NAM played in the founding and daily operations of the GCC. The GCC’s founding members included oil majors Shell, Texaco (now 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.
During its 13-year existence, the GCC and its member companies collaborated on a campaign to convince the public that scientists were uncertain about climate change and its cause, even as scientists grew even more certain that fossil fuel burning was warming the planet. It worked to discredit legitimate scientists and promote the ethically questionable work of others who were funded by the industry. It worked to keep the public in the dark about the urgency of the crisis. By all those means, it aimed to delay any meaningful action in reining in emissions to protect its members’ financial interests.
Inside the IPCC
The GCC took particular interest in the inner workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which produces the international climate assessments that form the basis for global climate policy and negotiations. For more than a decade, the GCC worked to shape the IPCC’s reports. GCC representatives regularly met with IPCC scientists to lobby the panel to accept industry language in its reports, the documents show. Tax returns also show the GCC spent tens of thousands of dollars on an “IPCC Tracker Fund” to monitor and lobby the organization’s meetings.
IPCC reports contain myriad chapters and technical summaries. They also include a summary for policymakers (SPM), describing the report’s main findings as they relate to policy issues. Each step in the writing process has set procedures and several opportunities exist for review by experts and governments. The SFP is approved line by line by delegates from participating countries.
For anyone hoping to prevent regulatory action, the SPM is arguably more important than the actual reports. Many policy makers do not read the entire report and instead rely on the language of the SPM, which is why it is so carefully debated and edited.
IPCC rules allow non-governmental organizations, or non-profits like the GCC—which operated under NAM and later as its own organization—to attend as observer organizations.
But the GCC was hardly just an observer. Its representatives often outnumbered entire national delegations—the GCC delegation to COP2 was twice the size of the delegation from developing nations. It also played an outsized role in influencing final reports, and once the reports were finalized, attacked them as if they had no knowledge of how they were produced.
Records show GCC representatives sometimes attended as representatives of other organizations.
Two of GCC’s biggest players were Pearlman and Shlaes. Pearlman, who was often called the “High Priest of the Carbon Club,” was also a partner at the law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, where he represented Dupont, Exxon, Texaco and Shell. But on the international stage, he most often identified himself as a representative of the Climate Council, another industry-aligned non-profit organization that allowed him access to negotiations.
Pearlman was known to have a close relationship with the Saudi and Kuwaiti delegations. An investigation in 1995 by the German newspaper Der Spiegel found a Kuwaiti representative had submitted proposed changes to the 1994 IPCC report in Pearlman’s handwriting. Pearlman has denied it was his.
Representatives of observer organizations like the GCC are allowed to attend IPCC sessions and plenary sessions of IPCC Working Groups. They are also allowed to participate in the review process.
GCC representatives attended coalition meetings prior to international convenings to strategize and comment on draft documents. Afterwards, they met as part of the GCC’s Science and Technology Assessment Committee to share notes, preview draft documents and language and review their impact.
The GCC’s strategy was to obstruct progress by “asking repeated questions, demanding scientific citations when science was being discussed and making long speeches.”
Ben Santer said the first time he interacted with GCC members was during the IPCC plenary meetings held in Madrid in November 1995.
For nearly 18 months prior to the meetings, Santer served as convening lead author of the Second Assessment Report’s eighth chapter, which covered the detection of climate change and the attribution of its causes. Scores of scientists worked on it and the attribution studies came from more than 100 scientific research papers.
By late summer 1995, a draft was ready, including a summary that concluded the statement: “Taken together, these results point towards a human influence on climate.”
The draft was sent to governments and other participants, including the GCC, in mid-October, well ahead of the plenary meetings, which provided an opportunity to conduct a line-by-line review of the SPM.
“On the first day of the Madrid meeting, the GCC was able to make interventions, they were able to ask questions in plenary,” Santer said. “And it became clear on that first day that GCC, the Saudi delegation, the Kuwaiti delegation, didn’t like the bottom-line finding of the chapter I was responsible for.
“It seemed like they were playing an obstructionist role on that first day. Their role seemed to be to cast as much doubt as possible,” he said. “They were supported by the Saudi delegation. It seemed, to the best of my knowledge, that Pearlman was actually consulting with the Saudis.”
An extraordinary amount of time was devoted to reviewing Chapter 8, which linked the warming of the planet to the burning of fossil fuels. The U.S. government had suggested several changes to the SPM and requested it not be finalized until the Madrid meetings.
It was Bert Bolin, then-chair of the IPCC, who finally suggested the word “discernible,” thus finalizing the SPM’s wording to read: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on climate.”
Santer said it was a very cautious 12-word statement.
“But that cautious statement was too much for them [the GCC] to stomach—and too much for the Saudis, too,” Santer said.
“It was as if they recognized what I did not back in 1996: that consensus statement would inevitably lead to some efforts to deal with the problem, to address the problem, to address the underlying causes of the problem, the burning of fossil fuels. So they understood. For them it was the scientific equivalent of the handwriting on the walls.”
GCC Goes on the Attack
The newly released documents show the October draft of Chapter 8 drew intense scrutiny from members of the GCC’s Science and Technology Assessment Committee (STAC).
If the “discernible influence” statement was the handwriting on the wall, the GCC was working overtime to erase—or at least discredit—that handwriting.
They drafted a primer intended to cast doubt on the work done by Santer and his co-authors.
Predicting Climate Change: A Primer, was accepted by STAC in February 1996, but documents show it had been extensively edited from an early draft that actually acknowledged the human impact on global warming.
That draft, In late December, just a month after the 1995 Madrid meetings, Exxon scientist Lenny Bernstein circulated by Exxon scientist Lenny Bernstein in December 1995, included a document he said was “the final draft of the primer on global climate change science we have been working on for the past few months.”
Included in the draft was this statement: “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” Listed at the end was a section debunking alternate explanations for climate change, including the work of climate deniers Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen.
“The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change,” wrote the draft’s authors.
In the end, however, the final product looked little like Bernstein’s draft. Instead, it reflected the GCC’s fear that the conclusions in Chapter 8 could result in policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Most notably, the statement that climate science “is well established and cannot be denied” was omitted, as was the entire section on contrarian theories, including the note that they were unconvincing.
GCC chair William O’Keefe, who was also executive vice president and chief operating officer for the American Petroleum Institute, said allegations that the GCC was trying to muddy waters, sow confusion or deny the science are unfounded.
“I don’t think there’s any document or data that would confirm that,” O’Keefe said in a recent interview.
“The GCC raised questions about the science and I was one of the leading questioners, but our major objective was to try to communicate to members of Congress, the media and the American public that any international agreement on fossil fuel use was going to have a large economic impact on the U.S. economy,” he said.
Attempts to Discredit Santer and the IPCC Process
After the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report’s public release in the spring of 1996, the GCC launched an assault not just on the science in Chapter 8, but also on its authors.
Santer and co-author Tom Wrigley were invited to present their work at a seminar on Capitol Hill in late May.
In the audience were Shlaes and Pearlman, along with other GCC representatives, including O’Keefe.
“At the end of my presentation, Pearlman got up and started screaming, literally screaming, ‘Who made these unauthorized changes to Chapter 8? This is illegal,’” Santer said, describing it as one of the low points of his career.
“I responded that the changes to Chapter 8—as he should have been aware since he was there in Madrid—had been made in accordance with IPCC rules and procedures and in full view of the entire world,” Santer said. “His intent seemed to be literally to make a scene and maybe to get me to lose my cool in a public setting.”
Sundt, who covered the event for her newsletter, said the behavior of GCC representatives was unsettling.
“I did feel like they were there ganging [up] on these scientists who were just presenting the science,” Sundt said. It was the first such attack she had seen.
“It really did seem like at that point there had been some kind of coordinated plan among these participants to question and undermine the science,” she said.
O’Keefe maintains it was the editing of the Second Assessment Report was questionable and the phrase “discernible influence” had been added in after the Madrid meeting.
However, according to multiple records and first-hand accounts, the wording had been deliberated extensively in Madrid. And the GCC had witnessed those deliberations, knowing full well how the participants had arrived at it.
As Santer and Wrigley were defending themselves and their work on Capitol Hill, the GCC was already launching its next attack, circulating a report entitled The IPCC: Institutionalized “Scientific Cleansing.” The title conjured images of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Bosnia and Germany under Hitler’s rule.
In the document, the GCC questioned the scientific integrity of the IPCC, writing that “the changes quite clearly have the obvious political purpose of cleansing the underlying scientific report of important information and scientific analysis that would lead policymakers and the public to be very cautious, if not skeptical, about blaming human activities for climate change over the past century.”
O’Keefe said the nine-page document was a press release, and believes the term “scientific cleansing” was attributed to him.
“I know that I used that term once or twice and in hindsight, I regret using it because at the time I did not equate it with the ethnic cleansing that took place in Germany of Jews, so in that sense, it was an inappropriate word, but it conveyed that the science and the scientific findings were being doctored,” O’Keefe said, repeating the false allegation that IPCC procedures had been violated.
His argument was later echoed in a Wall Street Journal letter to the editor by climate denier S. Fred Singer. Singer additionally alleged that Santer had altered the Chapter 8 to reflect the findings of his own work, rather than a synthesis of the findings of many researchers.
“That was just blatantly untrue,” Santer said, emphasizing that more than 125 papers had been cited in Chapter 8.
Santer was forced to spend the summer defending himself from similar allegations, all part of a disinformation campaign orchestrated by the GCC.
Shlaes and Pearlman wrote a letter to Bolin, alleging that the IPCC process had been compromised. Copies were sent to 12 members of Congress.
Fred Seitz, a past president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences—who also worked to cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer—wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Santer was responsible for the “most disturbing corruption of the peer-review process” that he had seen in his 60 years as a scientist.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), wrote to Hazel O’Leary, head of the Department of Energy, which employs Santer and funds his research, questioning his funding and authority to work on the Second Assessment Report.
O’Keefe and the GCC tried to persuade Santer to attend an “independent” review of his work “by a small panel comprised of people whose evaluation and objectivity are beyond question.”
Santer chose not to attend.
“I’d just spent one and a half years of my life working on Chapter 8 and working on this report and trying to do the best possible job I could, along with my co-authors in synthesizing and accessing the then-available science,” he said.
Santer received an outpouring of support, including the endorsement of Bolin, who wrote that the “allegations are completely unjustified.”
The American Meteorological Society and the Trustees of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) wrote that they “believe the attacks on the IPCC process in general, and you in particular … have no place in the scientific debate about issues related to global change.”
Santer said the GCC and its allies tried to take down the science by taking down the author.
“I thought my job was done after Madrid and I could go back to being a scientist and doing the science I loved and get back to my family and I was wrong,” Santer said.
The Beginning of the End
By October of 1996, member companies, which were increasingly forced to defend the GCC’s incendiary tactics, became restless. BP left the GCC that fall. Over the next few years, Ford, Texaco, GM, Daimler Chrysler and others would exit and the coalition was forced to restructure, with membership open only to trade associations.
As an association of trade associations, the GCC continued to influence international climate negotiations, shifting its arguments to focus on what it called the extreme economic hardships that could result from mandatory emissions limits. Those negotiations were working toward the Kyoto Protocol, which was the UN’s first global agreement to reduce emissions. The treaty was finally agreed upon in 1997, and in 2004 enough countries had ratified it to send it into force.
The GCC met with high-level government officials at least 10 times between 1996 and 1997, voicing opposition to greenhouse gas emission regulations and the Kyoto Protocol, which President George W. Bush rejected in 2001. In preparation for a meeting with the GCC that year, Under-Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky was instructed to tell coalition representatives that the “POTUS rejected Kyoto, in part, based on input from you.”
The GCC eventually disbanded in 2002. It cited the end of the Clinton/Gore administration, its anticipated ally in the Bush administration and its own success in keeping the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol.
In hindsight, O’Keefe said he wishes there had been more emphasis on finding common ground on climate issues and concedes the GCC might have used “sharper elbows” than he wishes it had.
He also stands by the work of the GCC.
“Do I regret what we did to stop the U.S. from signing and ratifying the Kyoto treaty? No I don’t,” O’Keefe said “I think that was something that would have done great damage to the U.S.”
He also said those who challenge what he calls the “climate orthodoxy” should be given the benefit of the doubt instead of being labeled deniers.
“I don’t know anyone who denies any of the things we’ve said we agree on about climate change. It’s the extent of attribution and how much as a nation we should be willing to spend to manage a distant risk,” O’Keefe said.
Science shows climate change is more than a distant risk. Its impacts have already arrived with a costly vengeance.Twenty of the hottest years on record have occurred over the past 22 years. Sea levels are rising, threatening coastal communities, extreme weather is being fueled by warming oceans and changing atmospheric patterns. Scientists are increasingly able to attribute the strength of those storms, as well as drought and wildfires and extreme rainfall, directly to climate change.
Climate change-induced extreme weather events cost the nation at least $91 billion last year. If warming continues unabated, by 2100 that cost to the globe could be a staggering $54 trillion. And that doesn’t even account for the human toll.
Santer said no computer model can simulate how much the efforts to tackle the problem of human-caused climate change have been set back by the GCC’s interventions.
Without the GCC, “I would argue that we would be in a better place now and perhaps there would not be this politicization of climate science that we see in the United States,” he said.
“I would argue we would be in a much better place if we had good faith discussions about the science and uncertainties and how we reduce them and risks and how to mitigate real serious climate risks. Imagine if we had those discussions back in 1996?” Santer said.
“But unfortunately, the Global Climate Coalition and their allies were not interested in a good faith discussion of the science. They were scared, pure and simple.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of John Shlaes. The article has been corrected.