End of an anti-climate campaign: "Were afraid to go the way of the tobacco industry"

In the 1990s, the largest and most important US companies organized themselves into the Global Climate Coalition to raise doubts about man-made climate change - without the public noticing.

End of an anti-climate campaign: "Were afraid to go the way of the tobacco industry"

In the 1990s, the largest and most important US companies organized themselves into the Global Climate Coalition to raise doubts about man-made climate change - without the public noticing. Successful, as you can still feel today. Because the American industrial giants shape the "false balance", as the chairman of the German Environmental Foundation Jörg Sommer explains in the "Climate Laboratory" of ntv. The supposed climate coalition equips climate-critical researchers and places them in the media. "And because they also have a professor's title and a maximum of two protagonists from each side are invited to talk shows, viewers get the impression that science obviously doesn't agree." Only when the first companies get a bad conscience, the far-reaching influence flies up. A new study is merging who was involved - in hopes of prosecuting the companies for the damage they caused.

ntv: The American environmental magazine "Grist" wrote about the Global Climate Coalition in April: You stopped climate protection for a decade. And then boasted about it. Do you agree?

Jörg Sommer: Yes and no. That was definitely the goal of this coalition, but the focus was in the US. Almost exclusively US companies were involved in the climate coalition and of course we also know that the USA did not really play a role in the international climate protection movement at that time - in the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, I have the impression that it was a particularly efficient industrial policy initiative to prevent social progress. This was certainly also due to the fact that a particularly large number of very high-revenue companies were involved.

Who exactly was part of this climate coalition?

In fact, pretty much every major US company that was directly or indirectly involved with the petroleum industry and had no interest in changing was involved. The foundation was coordinated by the American Petroleum Institute (API). Shell and Exxon were there, and later BP as well. The car manufacturers too. In the phase when the merger of Daimler-Chrysler failed, Daimler too. It contained the American Chamber of Commerce, which is comparable to our Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), and thus the entire relevant US economy. Dow Chemical and the chemical industry were of course involved because it is also based on mineral oil.

And then they undermined climate protection unnoticed by the public?

That's part of the success: good lobbying and PR work isn't discovered in time. Basically, they only blew up when the first companies began to have a bad conscience. The first was Shell.

Because you were afraid you might look bad?

They were worried about ending up like the American tobacco industry. She got so caught up in her lies and fake reports that in the end there was huge economic damage. That's why it was gently phased out. Then documents, membership lists, budgets, contracts and so on were leaked. Therefore, we now know exactly at what rate they bought professors for false reputations. That was the background.

In fact, the initiative was not initially aimed at the public at all, but against the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the reports to be expected, of which one in this industry knew very well in which direction they would go. These were not actors who did not believe in climate change and wanted to communicate their point of view. They knew exactly what was in store for them. Therefore they wanted to discredit the IPCC and its scientific quality. To do this, they bought professors who they knew doubted climate change. They were brought to talk shows and the media, financially equipped, made dependent.

And with that they have successfully discredited the IPCC?

For that we have to go back to the society of the 80s and 90s. In the US, lying in politics is something completely normal. Voters certainly expect to be lied to. A US politician is more likely to resign over a sex scandal than a lie.

If you lie, you even become president.

Yes. What we experienced with Trump is a late consequence of that. A young politician once said "It's politics, you have to lie" in a CNN interview: In politics you have to lie. That was never wrong. If I then have companies with incredible sales and financial power behind me, I can of course place these lies very well in the American media: I buy scientists, entire talk shows or stations. We all know how Trump grew up. This is a society in which unbelievable sums of money have always been dealt with, including in election campaigns. That way you can form opinions. It's hard to back that up, but if they really managed to thwart crucial climate action for ten years, the membership list - don't pin me on the euro - we're talking hundreds of billions of euros in profit.

Do you have a concrete example of such a lie?

The basic concept was the so-called "false balance".

"We need to hear both sides."

I agree. 1000 scientists say well-founded that there is a man-made climate change. You contrast them with two who say: 'Nope, that hasn't been proven yet.' And because they also have a professor's title and a maximum of two protagonists from each side are invited to the talk show, viewers without a scientific background eventually get the impression that science obviously doesn't agree. We also experienced this during the corona pandemic, there is a suitable virologist for every opinion.

And did that really work?

Of course, this can only be measured empirically to a certain extent. But we do know that Donald Trump multiplied all that nonsense many times over and still became US President five years ago. He even got more votes when he lost the election than when he won. That means you can still capture about half the American population with positions like this. That has an enormous impact.

A mineral oil company had also made a billboard advertising an appointment. Husband and wife meet for dinner, then it said something like: Imagine that without oil ... the car had no tires, there was nothing to eat on the table, the meeting never took place and so on. The message was more or less: without us you cannot live a life worth living.

Have you noticed that these commercials are no longer available? But that has nothing to do with the fact that companies have suddenly discovered their good conscience.


Businesses have gotten smarter. Just as, of course, the environmental movement has become smarter and more successful. 20 years ago it did not look as if climate protection could be translated into government action.

Is that why the climate coalition dissolved?

No, there were two other reasons. The first was that people became afraid to go the way of the tobacco industry. The second was that in the 2000s, with George W. Bush, you had a US President who you were very sure would not implement any climate policy anyway. You could leave the initiative with a clear conscience. But the companies today are the same as they were then, they just have different strategies - adapted to the public debate. Now they buy certificates and present themselves as climate-neutral. This requires no change in my actions at all. You just have to look in the supply chain to see which items have the better CO2 balance. These are wonderful marketing tools. In the social media you can read every hour which company is becoming climate-neutral and when.

A topic that we have already discussed.

Yes. The second strategy is more perfidious, using sustainability as a brake on change. You then hear, for example, from the Federation of German Industries (BDI) that you always have to rebalance the ecological, social and economic consequences. In view of the global situation, this is - with all due respect - bullshit. We are ruining the environment, climate, animal species, resources - there is nothing to balance. Our planet has ecological limits that cannot be negotiated. One can only try to act economically within these limits.

And the third strategy?

We see the third thing in Ukraine: The global crises are so threatening that we first have to take the pressure off the ecological measures. The economy is more important right now. Only when this crisis is over can we talk about ecology.

But right now, the rapid expansion of renewable energies is being called for.

But you only hear that from a very small part of the economy. Just two examples: agriculture, which wants to soften agricultural protection areas. The second is nuclear policy: we must turn on nuclear power plants again, because we no longer want to buy Putin's gas. Two keywords, but there is much more.

We have already talked about this in great detail. Is the Initiative New Social Market Economy (INSM) also an update of this climate coalition? She played a big part in stopping German solar expansion. This reminds you a bit when you read it.

The structure is comparable, but the New Social Market Economy initiative came about for a different reason: It wasn't about ecological issues, but about suppressing social democratic and trade union ideas. The "new social market economy" was never particularly social.

The Global Climate Coalition hasn't been particularly pro-climate either. Is that where the term "ecodictatorship" comes from, which is often used? Climate protection only works if everything else is subordinated to it?

Yes and no. I can't remember ever calling for an eco-dictatorship, on the contrary. I am not only committed to ecological issues, but also to democratic issues. But in a certain way, of course, we live in an eco-dictatorship. Why? The ecosystem dictates what resources we have. Point. The planet is finite. What is there, we have to share with seven or eight billion people. If we also want to do this fairly, we are all the more obliged to recognize these limits and to move within them. You can complain about that, but it's non-negotiable.

The sociologist, who studied the actions of the climate coalition, hopes that his results could help to prosecute the companies involved in court. Have you heard anything along those lines? Huge sums of money flowed into the coffers of the group.

There are efforts and also a few international organizations of lawyers who try to sue large corporations in test cases. Sometimes successful, often not. I don't see much potential for success, because again: what was really illegal? It's not a crime to lie - except on the witness stand. Nor is it a crime to sponsor a scientist if he then says the same things he said before - only louder.

But didn't such investigations later fall on the feet of the tobacco industry?

The tobacco industry has coldly falsified reports and figures. That's a different story. There it was also about immediate human health - by the way, the chain of arguments of the Fridays For Future people before the Federal Constitutional Court: It's about the health of future generations. But I believe that much of it cannot be lamented so easily. That is why another initiative demands that we enshrine climate protection in the Basic Law. Then forests and rivers could sue companies indirectly through stakeholders themselves. It's a noble story, of course, but I'm not sure if we're on the right track by generously granting rights to nature. This is the same approach that got us into trouble, which is the idea that we are the rulers of the planet. My approach is that nature is a dictatorship that gives us opportunities that we have to deal with.

And if we abuse the opportunities, do we get heatwaves, droughts, and storms?

Absolutely. Nature's ecosystems are incredibly sluggish. But when they get rolling, they don't know any mercy. In the end, we humans without technology are little sausages. The individual has a few hours' chance of survival in Antarctica.

Clara Pfeffer and Christian Herrmann spoke to Jörg Sommer. The conversation has been shortened and smoothed for better understanding.


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