To: Dr. Jason Carmichael, Associate professor of sociology, McGill University
A friend forwarded me your recent interview on Global TV, where you discussed research on petroleum industry advertising. Normally I don’t watch such news items, but after doing so, I thought your research was worth commenting on since it reached such a wide audience, one that in general is not aware of petroleum industry issues, and may therefore form opinions based on seemingly authoritative voices.
You mention that ad spending by fossil fuel companies shapes public opinion and public policy (“It’s not just lobbying, not just campaign financing in the US…it’s not just media intervention, it involves any number of aspects that they try to use…to shape the outcomes in terms of public policy.”). You note that two factors seem to drive ad spending by o/g companies – how much attention the US government is paying to climate change, and how much attention the media is paying to same (“When the media, or people in the media, talk about climate change, the o/g industry tends to flood advertising dollars into promoting their companies…at a rate of 5 to 1 by the way…other studies have shown that it’s about 5 to 1, minute for minute, of how much time the advertising says pro oil, and how much time the media says let’s worry about climate change.” These efforts, per you, “have been wildly successful. Look at the Trump administration, President Trump himself saying climate change is a hoax…backing off the Paris agreement…oil and gas industry has been laying the groundwork for this… political climate to say it’s safe to be against any sort of climate action…” When asked if the ads are misleading or just promoting their business, you mused, “Well…the ads vary, but typically the o/g industry are pro-social actors…trying to say we’re there for you, the public, we’re going to give you jobs, we’re going to improve the general economy, we’re going to make you safer…we’re pro-social…”).
A few thoughts spring to mind. First, your smirking tone through the whole thing belies an utterly un-scientific conclusion that you may believe from previous interpretations, that the petroleum industry will do whatever it takes to shape public policy and protect itself, will fight “any sort of climate action” (profoundly untrue – fighting some aspects of a political movement is not equivalent to fighting all action). What makes your pre-ordained outcome so flawed is that it avoids any acknowledgement of the value of what petroleum produces. It is impossible to not include that side when considering petroleum industry impact on public policy, but it’s easy and popular so you do just that. You are entitled to that view, but, it is unscientific, and is simply ignorant and nasty. Your underlying bias is so vicious that the very premises of your argument are so emotional as to be unstable. Your world of “science” is a very strange one.
Would it be possible to see the fact – the fact – that 7 billion people exist at the same time only because of fossil fuels? That without them, our way of life and all its marvels would never have existed, and you wouldn’t exist either in all likelihood? Are these facts not pertinent to public policy?
Children globally have been scared silly and now march for climate change, carrying signs like “fossil fuels are killing the planet” or some such. A teenage activist, with a mysteriously massive and instant media presence, is invited to deliver these messages to the UN, the EU, and any political body of significance. Are you then surprised that an industry that is being vilified by children through massive disinformation campaigns is trying to defend itself? And it is unequivocally true that at present fossil fuels keep “the planet” or civilization alive. Whether they might “kill” it is very much open to debate (below).
It is quite likely that your anger is due to oil’s colonialist history and it is true that in the past “Big Oil” was involved in the colonial traditions of England, France, and a few other nations. But it is necessary, if holding onto that vision, to remember that Big Oil was often invited into countries to develop the new miracle fuel that was raising the world’s standard of living like a magic elixir. You can scoff all you want, but it’s true. And it is also true that a “history of shaping public policy to defend itself” was inextricably entwined with virtually every government’s desire to see its petroleum resources developed.
And if your underlying and palpable hatred is built on Big Oil’s history of colonialist involvement/policy shaping (“they’ve been doing this for decades”, you say), can we look at that aspect for a second? Maybe in Quebec you’re environmentally smug because of a wealth of green hydroelectricity. Now, how did you get there? Let’s see…decades ago, authorities kicked several thousand natives out of their Quebec homes and territories and flooded 13,000 square kilometres in the James Bay projects (an area more than 13 times that disturbed by oil sands development, surely a relevant statistic?). You now bask in the glow of that “achievement”; governments eventually gave those indigenous people several hundred million for the inconvenience so they could feel good too. Now getting back to your disdain for oil and natural gas, is hydro the bedrock upon which your smugness is built? Is it possible to paint a worse picture of colonial behaviour? Because no petroleum project in Canada has ever come close to that sort of invasiveness (and that’s just the James Bay project’s two phases). But attacking petroleum is easy and fashionable, isn’t it? It is way more fun being part of the mob, parading around the streets with brainwashed youth, fighting against a villain. Villains make things easy, don’t they, scientist?
Now, to your claim that “minute for minute” the petroleum industry dominates the media stream by a 5 to 1 ratio…in the world of Greta, by what bizarre yardstick could you possibly claim that to be true? I’m sure you’ve found some singular way to support it, but the data point you give – Trump’s trumpness – is a fart in a windstorm compared to the climate change onslaught in the media. Presumably, you view this current imbalance as some sort of retribution for the way Big Oil dominated the petroleum world in the 1960s, but that is no excuse for using your academic credentials to spout such ideological nonsense on a news program.
The climate change narrative dominates every media stream there is. Any report whatsoever that speculates on the future harm from climate change is trumpeted like the word of God, and the media stream allows no comment whatsoever on the possibility that there could be benefits (not being a “denier”, just quoting the climate scientists from NASA as below). As but one example, never mind the global onslaught of Greta (and the fact that Greta is now a global household name), last year two obscure Australian researchers put out a report speculating that civilization will collapse by 2050 from climate change, and it was picked up by virtually every media outlet in the world. I have yet to see a single petroleum industry message get picked up and trumpeted around the world by the media, even for simple facts about consumption.
How does a Swedish teenager go from solitarily protesting on school steps to addressing/chastising the UN months later, and you claim that she is thrashed attention-wise by a 5 to 1 ratio? The Davos World Economic Forum summit kicked off this week; Reuters’ headline article was about Trump’s keynote speech yet devoted half the real estate in the article to Greta. The only other headline to come out of Davos so far is a Greenpeace report about how Davos participants have invested $1.4 trillion in fossil fuels, an incredibly well-disseminated propaganda piece with absolutely zero counterarguments from the petroleum industry appearing anywhere in the news. 5 to 1, hey…A Google search of “fossil fuel advertising” brings up nothing but organizations that feed from your fountain of “research”, about the inherent evils of an industry that provides the fuel that keeps you alive.
Now, if petroleum advertising has been as effective as you say, please do tell what petroleum statistic is common knowledge in the world, or is even known by a tiny fraction of the population. Do you know how much oil is consumed in the world every day? Do you know where it comes from? How about natural gas? How about propane? How much oil travels by ship every day? How much by pipeline? How many miles of pipeline are there? How many are being built as we speak? What is your home heated with? How many homes are heated with natural gas? How much food could be grown at present without petroleum? Do any of these questions relate to public policy? Should the industry be barred from discussions about any of these things, because they involve public policy?
You may say who cares, no one needs to know how a car is built to drive one. But don’t you need to understand those statistics before trying to destroy the source? Almost no one, and I’ll venture to include you, knows the answers to those questions, and yet their life depends on them, and the policies that allow or stifle them. Every day. Including you.
Every credible source says that petroleum usage will rise for at least a decade or two. Is it “advertising” to point that out?
Is it “advertising” to point out that fossil fuels currently keep 7 billion people alive, and that there is no realistic alternative for decades? Is it “advertising” to point out that too high of a reliance on wind and solar creates grid instability and widespread power outages, including for institutions like hospitals, as experienced in the UK and Australia (and since I doubt you’ll look, those are official reports from grid operators)?
Is it “advertising” when this frustrated farmer (who provides your food) and people like myself (who provide the energy that heats your world and fuels your lifestyle) stand up and say we’ve had it up to here with ignorant innuendo, with smirking commentary about an ideological villain, with complete and utter ignorance about how energy works, and, in instances like your interview, your appalling habit of cloaking your hatred in the robes of academia as a way of cowing the uneducated masses?
Is it “advertising” for energy producers and consumers like myself or the fed up (but funny) farmer to stand up and say wait a minute, why are you trying to wipe out the fuel that keeps us all alive; that, if you were honest, you would admit you cannot live without either, not now and not next decade?
I’m sure you have the standard cartoon imagery in your head that AOC does with respect to the petroleum industry – that Big Oil is at the heart of it, a sinister conglomerate of multinational corporations, fat middle aged white men in pinstripe suits counting money and celebrating the pillaging of yet another “third-world” country (because that’s how we see the world, right?), sowing “denial and doubt” about climate change, as she puts it. You’d be quite wrong there. The oil and gas industry is millions of hard working people, in tiny and huge companies, that provide the world’s essential fuels in a complex delivery mechanism you most likely have no understanding of, and that care passionately about the environment. Wind and solar do not have a hope of replacing fossil fuels for many decades. Millions of us work very hard to keep you alive, and we are proud that we do. Like farmers, we take pride in saying that we enable many people to live that otherwise cannot. Can you make the same claim?
But you see fit to critique an industry fighting against this tide of disinformation, fighting against it to ensure its survival, with its product keeping you and every other earthling alive. If Ms. Thunberg’s speculation is correct and climate change will damage the world irreparably in 50 years, it is even more correct to say that destroying the petroleum industry will devastate the world within a year. Actually, it would happen within a week.
The fossil fuel industry, fundamentally, is what you see when you look in the mirror. It is you, me, all of us. It is our life, it is our way of life, it is everything we use on a daily basis by need or by choice. Don’t forget the significance of the choice part. You do like a holiday, don’t you? Sorry, that was unscientific. How about this for a research paper: Why don’t you stop using fossil fuels entirely for a month and report the findings, and I mean totally? I know, I know, people like AOC scoff at those ideas (claim “personal footprints are largely beside the point”) and make bizarrely sidestepping statements void of all logic (“I also fly & use A/C…Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future.”). It’s hard to argue with people that proudly defend hypocrisy, and perhaps you’re not one of them, but at the same time, maybe consider the possibility that hypocrisy is not a good thing, and that appreciation of fossil fuels as the life-giving substance it is as relevant a stance as the theoretical one that fossil fuels may harm the planet.
(Oh, and I’ll head you off there…when stripped of social engineering/political gibberish, here is what real science has to say about climate change, from a site (NASA) that unconditionally supports the idea that humans are responsible for climate change: “The consequences of changing the natural atmospheric greenhouse are difficult to predict, but certain effects seem likely: On average, Earth will become warmer. Some regions may welcome warmer temperatures, but others may not…Warmer conditions will probably lead to more evaporation and precipitation overall, but individual regions will vary, some becoming wetter and others dryer…A stronger greenhouse effect will warm the oceans and partially melt glaciers and other ice, increasing sea level. Ocean water also will expand if it warms, contributing further to sea level rise…Meanwhile, some crops and other plants may respond favorably to increased atmospheric CO2, growing more vigorously and using water more efficiently. At the same time, higher temperatures and shifting climate patterns may change the areas where crops grow best and affect the makeup of natural plant communities.” Now that’s science! What you feel when watching a commercial, is not.)
There is a defining moment for some people, the “ok YOU drive” moment of illumination when those who loudly oppose something enter a position of authority and find their opposition melt away as cold hard reality strikes. Both Notley and Trudeau experienced this with a born-again respect for pipelines. You will never know the feeling because, as presently employed, you will never do anything constructive, but trust me it is real. You will never heat homes like a petroleum worker nor feed anyone like the farmer, nor will you construct solutions to incredibly challenging problems.
What you are doing is crafting “research” that fits your politicized narrative, and then your palavering circular support group rubber stamps your work and adds it to the colossal narrative that drowns the media, in an order of magnitude the petroleum industry couldn’t hope to match in a hundred years. If you still stand by your “research”, try to imagine the head of CAPP being invited into the media as you were to explain how insidious your propaganda is in today’s media. There is zero chance of that, and that destroys your whole thesis.
I don’t expect to change your mind or research; I’m sure you are so locked into a peer-reviewed cell of externally and objectively indeterminate quality that you can barely ask for salt without academic violation. What’s important to me is the next time you find yourself in the media discussing such research (curious, isn’t it, that you can get in the news with this dreck, imagine if I tried to with this note…what was that you were saying about a 5 to 1 influence?), anyway the next time you’re quoted as a subject matter expert on anything related to petroleum, what’s important is that there is a spear of doubt as to what damage your public musings are creating, such as divisiveness and mistrust in hard working people, beyond the political objectives that are so obviously supporting your entire “research” structure.
28-year energy provider (you’re welcome), ex-farmer (ditto), and author (of what you need as much as food and heat)
Time to stop disinformation in its tracks. Say no to the politicization of critical environmental issues, and yes to balanced discussions. Pick up a copy of “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or Indigo online. These Amazon reviews may be the wisest material you’ll find on the internet (except that one loser).