Thursday, June 27, 2019

Archiving the Anthropocene: Introducing UCSF’s Fossil Fuel Industry Documents

Guest Post By Yogi Hale Hendlin & Naomi Oreskes

On every front, academics, journalists, and policymakers compare the fossil fuel industry to the tobacco industry. The strategies of delay, exculpating blame by making the consumer responsible, denying scientific consensus, conducting important science purposefully buried while publishing industry-promoting and -funded science, and fostering public confusion over the real impacts of their products, are common in the histories of both tobacco and fossil fuel companies.

A major difference between the two industries, however, is the timescale and scope of the harms caused. While public health professionals are well underway in coordinated efforts for a “tobacco endgame” – reducing smoking and tobacco prevalence to five percent of the population or less, with the possibility of ending the tobacco epidemic in certain areas within a couple decades – even if all fossil fuel production and consumption ended today, the fallout from the fifty years of delay caused by industry obfuscation will have ramifications for humans and other species for centuries or even millenia. If disruptive climate change continues unabated, the impacts on the planet may be essentially irreversible, at least as far as any humanly relevant scale.

The Fossil Fuel Industry Documents at the University of California’s Industry Documents Library provides an essential complement to the already nearly 15 million and growing internal industry documents from the tobacco, food, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries. This new set of documents provides key evidence regarding what the fossil fuel industry knew regarding the catastrophic impacts climate change and its predicted time horizon, when they knew, and how these companies used every means possible to protect themselves and their shareholders at the expense of everyone else.

These documents come from diverse sources, including the Climate Investigations Center, discovery processes in litigation, and documents published on Climate Files, largely derived from Freedom of Information Requests and lawsuits. While some of this collection’s documents overlap with other online databases, when examined in the context of the other archives in UCSF’s Industry Documents Library, a more nuanced picture emerges amongst the mosaic of shared lobbyists, consulting shared, public relations groups, between the fossil fuel, chemical, pharmaceutical, food, and tobacco industries. Inter-industry analysis can help make sense of the larger patterns across and within industries that have caused irremediable harms to public health, biodiversity, and the natural environment.

UCSF’s collection of Fossil Fuel Industry documents highlight the mechanisms that have been used to thwart concerted action. A key aspect of this was the early knowledge the fossil fuels industry had about the ramifying consequences of unabated anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and the contrast between this and their public stance. For example, Exxon and other fossil fuel companies’ own research showed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that a doubling of anthropogenic atmospheric CO2 would likely cause “major shifts in rainfall/agriculture,” polar ice melt, coupled with “3°C global average temperature rise and 10°C at poles.” Yet they doubled-down on business-as-usual policies of continued and even intensified fossil fuel extraction of oil, gas, and coal, and spent significant amounts of money to create the impression in public that the science was highly uncertain. It is not that these companies were not aware of the opportunities to work towards mitigating the runaway global warming they were precipitating and shifting the direction of their energy companies towards less greenhouse gas polluting sources; they just time and again refused to do so.

Why is this collection being housed at UCSF? One reason has already been suggested, and is discussed further below: the parallels between the misrepresentation and denial of climate science and the misrepresentation and denial of the harms of tobacco use. This parallel is not just analogical: documents show that many of the same individuals, PR and advertising companies, and think-tanks have been involved in both. The other reason is that climate change is a major global health threat. From the Lancet Countdown to the World Health Organization’s Climate Health Country Profile Project, the public health and medical communities worldwide are in agreement that climate change affects every aspect of health, often disproportionately harming those with the least resources for resilience. The World Health Organization estimates that children 5 years or younger bear 88% of the health burdens of climate change.

Anthropogenic climate change will define the future of health for humans and life on this planet. It has already fundamentally shifted the geography of disease and increase in prevalence of both chronic and infectious disease. Fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change.

Documents like those in this collection will be crucial in helping the public come to terms with the implications of these harms. Consider the current open constitutional climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States, filed by 21 youth plaintiffs against the United States Government on behalf of youth and future generations for actions that jeopardize the constitutional rights of children to life, liberty, and property threatened by climate change. The fossil fuel industry initially intervened in a failed attempt to dismiss the case; now they face numerous lawsuits themselves, both in the United States and across the globe. Over 80 prominent scientists and physicians as well as health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have submitted amicus briefs. As U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken wrote in her 2016 decision denying motions to dismiss the Juliana v. United States case, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”1

The Tobacco-Climate Change Connection

Historians and public health professionals working with documents from various industries have documented the parallels and links between tobacco and climate change. In some cases the parallels are virtually exact, as sentences such as “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions,” as one internal Exxon memo from 1988 concluded, echo the famous tobacco industry document “Doubt is our Product.”2

Cross-referencing the different collections are revealing. For example, the American Petroleum Institute (API) attempted to recruit the president and affiliates of the Tobacco Institute in 1997 for its own president and CEO position.

Excerpt from the February 4, 1997 recruiting letter from Ronald H. Walker, Managing Director of the API to Samuel D. Chilcote, Jr., President of the Tobacco Institute.

Just as the tobacco industry promoted smoking not as a threat to public health but rather a “personal choice,” this same refrain is now being used by the fossil fuel industry urging people to make lifestyle choices as the solution to climate change. Such industry-sponsored “solutions” shift the blame from the industry to consumers. In the health literature, this public relations move is called “responsibilization,” as it deliberately aims to exculpate the industry from responsibility and delays effective supply-side interventions.

These documents also highlight the relationships between industry and government and the conflicts of interest that develop when government and industry are intertwined. One notices, for example, a persistent revolving door between government and the fossil fuel industry, of which ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s brief tenure as the US Secretary of State is but one instance. These documents provide insight into how and why industry decisions get made not because of but despite science. While the documents are US focused, the patterns revealed are often applicable globally, because most large oil and gas companies operate internationally.

The documents offered here are the raw materials of history. Publishing them, interpreting them, and learning about their implications is the basic task of historians, essential for understanding how we came to our present state of affairs. However, these documents can also serve a political, scientific, and moral purpose: helping to make people aware of the long and complex history of industry disinformation and malfeasance, and, at least in part, innoculate the public against further disinformation. As we increasingly face the costs of climate change, they can also provide documentary evidence for legal action.

The Fossil Fuel Industry documents have been made possible by seed funding from the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, and the Samuel Lawrence Foundation. Donors either of documents or funds to make the history of the Anthropocene available to the public are invited to make contact here.


1 Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224, 1250 (2016).
2 Oreskes, N., Conway, E.M., 2011. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Reprint edition. ed. Bloomsbury Press; Michaels, D., 2008. Doubt is their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Oxford University Press, New York; Proctor, R.N., 2012. Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, University of California Press, Berkeley; Brandt, A., 2009. The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America, Basic Books: New York.