Documentary Review: The Power of Big Oil, Part One: Denial (PBS Frontline)

Image credit: PBS Frontline

Just days before Earth Day, PBS Frontline released the first part of a three-part series: “The Power of Big Oil.” This eye-opening hour-and-a-half documentary, Denial, examines the intentional and malicious ways that executives of the fossil fuel industry launched denial campaigns creating distrust and doubt in the scientific evidence about human-caused climate change. These initiatives have deeply influenced public opinion up to this day.

Denial exposes documents and interviews with scientists who were involved with the rise of climate doubt in the late 1980s and 1990s, a time when evidence connecting fossil fuels and climate change was mounting in the scientific community.

The documentary reveals the role that supposedly “independent” scientists played in the narrative of climate change who were actually bought off or influenced by powerful profiteers of fossil fuels. These so-called “neutral” parties dominated the media and sowed divisions within the scientific community, casting doubt on the growing evidence, and even claiming that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had benefits for society.

The role of these media campaigns was stated plainly in a 1993 corporate internal document: “It is important…to continue to emphasize the scientific uncertainty surrounding climate change…  Scientists, economists, academics, and other noted experts carry greater credibility with the media and general public than industry representatives… The communication efforts should be directed toward expanding the platform for third party spokespersons.”

Denial details how successful this PR campaign really was. Those early doubts placed on science, and the emphasis placed on voices that are “unaffiliated” with an agenda, have led to an overall distrust still prevalent today. The doubt forced into this narrative undercut people’s efforts to take action against the fossil fuel industry.

While Denial exposes the role that the fossil fuel industry played in casting uncertainty about its role in exacerbating global heating, the documentary does not detail in full why these massive and expensive efforts were taken. Of course, the fossil fuel industry wants to hide their own responsibilities, but beyond that, within a capitalist system, the industry had no other choice. The survival of capitalist businesses relies on constantly expanding the exploitation of labor and resources. Despite knowing about the climate impact of burning fossil fuels, the only path forward for the petrochemical industry was to continue extracting and burning. Now, we see the fallout: a dying Earth, an oppressed majority facing constantly worsening conditions, an understandably distrustful public who doesn’t know who or what to believe, and decades of fossil fuel expansion. (More fossil fuels have been burned since 1990 than during the previous two hundred years of industrial activity.)

Denial shows us the success of the denial campaign launched by the fossil fuel industry and how it helped create the reality we live in today. Now, we are running out of time to implement sustainable practices that benefit all of us, not just those with money and power. Now is the time to organize and fight back.