A daring plan was hatched 30 years ago to spread doubt and convince the population that climate change is not an issue. A littleknown meeting between leaders of some of America’s biggest industries and a public relations genius led to a strategy that lasted for years and had devastating success. Its consequences continue to this day.
On an autumn morning in 1992, E. Bruce Harrison widely recognized as the father of environmental public relations gave a presentation only he could give to a room full of American industry leaders.
A contract worth half a million dollars a year was at stake today about R$ 5.5 million.
The potential customer was the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which represented the oil, coal, automotive, service, steel and rail industries. The GCC was looking for a communication partner who would change the climate change narrative.
Two members of Harrison’s team present that day Don Rheem and Terry Yosie are now telling their stories for the first time.
“Everyone wanted the Global Climate Coalition account,” says Rheem.
“And then I was in the middle of an argument.”
The GCC was founded just three years earlier as a forum for its members to exchange information and lobby legislators against measures to limit fossil fuel emissions.
Scientists were then making rapid strides in understanding climate change, and its importance as a policy issue was increasing. But the coalition saw little cause for concern in the early years.
Then came US President George HW Bush, from the oil industry, and as a leading lobbyist told the BBC in 1990, his climate message was the GCC message.
There would be no mandatory reduction in fossil fuel consumption.
But in 1992 everything changed. In June, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio92, as it was later called) created a framework for action on climate change. And in November, the US presidential election brought environmentalist Al Gore to the White House as vice president. It was clear that the new government would try to regulate fossil fuels.
Realizing they needed the help of a communications strategy, the coalition announced that they intended to hire a public relations professional (known as PR).
Few people outside of the public relations industry may have heard of E. Bruce Harrison or the company that has been named after him since 1973. But he had a tremendous track record campaigning for some of America’s biggest polluters.
He had worked for the chemical industry and discredited research on pesticide toxicity; for the tobacco industry; and had recently led a campaign against stricter emission standards for the big car manufacturers. The company founded by Harrison was considered one of the best in the business.
Harrison died in 2021, but media historian Melissa Aronczyk managed to interview him while he was alive. She claims he was a strategic hub for her clients, keeping everyone connected.
“He was a master at what he did,” she says.
Prior to his presentation in 1992, Harrison had assembled a team of veteran public relations professionals and others, almost entirely newbies.
Among them was Don Rheem, who had no industry credentials. He had studied ecology before becoming an environmental journalist.
A chance meeting with Harrison who must have seen the strategic value of adding Rheem’s environmental and journalistic connections to his team led to the proposed work for the GCC project.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity to play a big part in what is probably one of the most important scientific and policy issues we face.’ It felt really important,” Rheem recalls.
Terry Yosie, on the other hand, was a recent hire, coming from the American Petroleum Institute and eventually becoming senior vice president at Harrison’s company.
Yosie recalls that Harrison began the presentation by pointing out to those present that he had been instrumental in combating autorenovation which he had achieved in part by reformulating the issue.
The same tactic would now help fight climate regulation.
They would convince people that the scientific facts were not settled and that, in addition to the environment, policymakers must also consider how action on climate change would, according to the GCC, harm jobs, trade and prices in the United States.
The strategy would be implemented with an extensive press campaign, ranging from issuing statements and opinion pieces to directly contacting journalists.
“A lot of journalists have been commissioned to write stories,” says Rheem.
“And they struggled with the complexity of the problem. So I wrote background information so they could read and speed up the process.”
Insecurity underpinned the full range of GCC publications a creative array of letters, eyecatching brochures and monthly newsletters.
Rheem and his team were productive within a year, Harrison’s company claimed to have achieved more than 500 specific press mentions.
In August 1993, Harrison summarized his progress at another meeting with the GCC.
“Increased awareness of scientific uncertainties has prompted some congressmen to stop endorsing new initiatives,” says an updated internal strategic report provided to the BBC by Terry Yosie.
“Activists sounding the alarm about ‘global warming’ have publicly admitted they have lost ground in the communications arena over the past year.”
Now Harrison advised that they needed to reinforce outside voices defending their position.
“Scientists, economists, academics and other leading experts give the press and the general public more credibility than industry representatives.”
While most climate scientists agreed that humancaused climate change is a real problem that requires countermeasures, a small group argued that there was nothing to worry about.
The plan was to pay these skeptics to give lectures or write opeds about $1,500 each and arrange visits so they could appear on local radio and television stations.
“My job was to identify unconventional voices and give them a platform,” says Rheem.
“There was a lot we didn’t know at the time. And part of my job was to highlight what we didn’t know.”
He says the press was excited about these views.
“Journalists were actually actively looking for opponents. We really satisfied an appetite that was already there.”
Many of these skeptics or deniers dismissed the idea that funds from the GCC and other industry groups had any bearing on their views.
But the scientists and environmentalists who set out to debunk them — and argued about the reality of climate change — faced an effective and wellorganized campaign that was difficult to resist.
“The Global Climate Coalition is spreading doubt and making it hard to see … and environmentalists really don’t know what hits them,” remembers environmental activist John Passacantando.
“What the PR geniuses who work for these big fossil fuel companies know is that it’s not the truth that decides who wins the argument. If you keep saying something, people will start believing it,” he says.
In a document prepared around 1995 and made available to the BBC by Melissa Aronczyk, Harrison wrote: “The GCC has successfully changed the course of press coverage of the science of global climate change, effectively combating the ecodisaster message and the lack of it of endorsed scientific consensus on global warming”.
The groundwork was laid for the largest campaign in the history of the industry: opposing international efforts to negotiate emission reductions in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan.
At the time, scientists agreed that manmade warming was already being felt. But the American people still expressed doubts. In a Gallup poll, 44% of respondents believed scientists were divided.
Public antipathy made it difficult for politicians to campaign for action, and the United States never implemented the Kyoto agreement. It was a great victory for the industry coalition.
“I think E. Bruce Harrison took pride in his work. He knew how instrumental he was in changing the way companies engaged in the global warming conversation,” says Aronczyk.
Harrison sold his company in the same year as the Kyoto negotiations. Rheem decided PR wasn’t the career he wanted to pursue and Yosie had long since moved on to other environmental projects at the company.
At the same time, the GCC began to disintegrate as some members became dissatisfied with its hard line.
But the tactic, the playbook, and the message of doubt were built in and would outlive their creators. Three decades later, the consequences are all around us.
“I think it’s the moral equivalent of a war crime,” said former US Vice President Al Gore of the big oil companies’ efforts to thwart climate protection.
“I think it’s in many ways the most serious crime committed in the world since World War II. The consequences of what they did are practically unimaginable.”
“Would I have done something differently? That’s a tough question to answer,” says Don Rheem. He claims he was “way under the lead” in the GCC operation.
“There’s a certain sadness because not much happened.”
Rheem argues that climate science in the 1990s was too uncertain to justify “drastic action” and that developing countries notably China and Russia were ultimately to blame for decades of lack of climate action, not American industry.
“I think it’s too easy to come up with a conspiracy theory about the industry’s malicious intentions to completely stop any progress,” says Rheem.
“I personally didn’t see it that way.”
“I was very young, very curious… If I knew what I know now, would I have done something different back then?” he asks.
This text was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional62326984