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House panel questions oil executives over industry's part in climate disinformation


Oil company executives took questions under oath about whether their companies engaged in climate disinformation for the first time yesterday. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee grilled the leaders of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell. Here's Representative Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the committee.


CAROLYN MALONEY: They promised they will reduce their carbon emissions and even aspire to net-zero emissions. And they've spent billions of dollars on PR firms to paint themselves as climate champions. But Big Oil's actions tell a different story.

MARTÍNEZ: Republicans on the committee mostly questioned the premise of the hearing. It all ended with Congresswoman Maloney announcing subpoenas for the companies, saying they failed to turn over documents the committee requested.

For more, we turn to Kert Davies, who did the original research into Exxon. He's the founder and director of Climate Investigations Center. Kert, what struck you from the hearing with the oil executives yesterday?

KERT DAVIES: Well, it's a pleasure to be here - you know, first of all, that the committee is very serious about continuing this investigation. That was the last line in the takeaway. We also learned that these companies are still unwilling to really acknowledge the seriousness of climate change. They refuse to agree with what scientists call a code red situation. They continue to evade responsibility for their past efforts to mislead us and to obstruct efforts. And they also refuse to stop funding groups or funding actions against climate action right now, against climate legislation and funding.

MARTÍNEZ: Did you think that maybe the committee would leave it there 'cause you were surprised that they seemed serious about continuing it?

DAVIES: You know, not surprised, but it was a really robust hearing. They were very well prepared. The majority deserves a lot of credit. Carolyn Maloney held the chair for - what? - six hours. And, you know, this really marks the beginning of things, in a way. They're committed to conducting this investigation for the next year, at least. And they are issuing subpoenas to ask for additional documents. They were unimpressed with what the companies had delivered so far.

MARTÍNEZ: How have these companies spread climate disinformation over the years?

DAVIES: Well, it's really started in the '90s. The committee went back to the '80s with documents showing that they studied the issue internally but didn't share that information publicly. But in the '90s, there was a robust effort to block, really - to spread disinformation about the scientific basis of the problem - how serious it was - to stop efforts by the Clinton administration first and even under the Bush administration, to block efforts by Senator McCain and others to try to address climate change at all. If we had started in the '90s, we'd not be in the place we are now. So this effort to block things had a real impact.

MARTÍNEZ: It almost sounds like tobacco companies and smoking.

DAVIES: You know, it's a lot like that. It's also like opioids or lead or asbestos, you know, things that were sold, and then the companies knew well that they were causing harm and continued to sell those products. So it's very similar in look to the tobacco hearings of the early '90s. But in many ways, it's a bigger deal.

MARTÍNEZ: So how do you think this disinformation has affected how climate change is addressed and has been addressed since the '90s?

DAVIES: Well, you just see how the Republicans reacted in this hearing. They continue to show a lot of ignorance and an unwillingness to really deal with climate change at the, you know, the scale we need to. And a lot of that misinformation that they're conveying about how serious climate change is was installed by many years of deliberate campaigning and PR by - funded by the oil industry going back decades. So in some of the documents that we have from the '90s, for example, Congress was the target. The victory would be when Congress vocalized uncertainty rather than concern. So that's pretty serious. And so when a person expresses doubt around climate change, a lot of the words you see - you hear come out of their mouths have been propagated by this denial machine over many decades.

MARTÍNEZ: So it's time that we can't get back, essentially.

DAVIES: Well, that's true. I mean, that's true on a lot of issues. But, you know, people have compared this to the pandemic - flattening the curve. If we had flattened the curve on emissions in the '90s, as documents from inside Exxon and Shell from the '80s said we should do - that said we should start cutting emissions now - we would not be experiencing the crisis as we are now. And what's happened is people are waking up. There is very serious impacts being felt all over the world from, you know, drought to flood, fire...


DAVIES: ...Heat waves. We all know it. So that's driving this, I think.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. OK, so the committee now intends to serve subpoenas. Beyond that, how could the government hold the industry accountable?

DAVIES: Well, that remains to be seen. I mean, there is a lot to do around false advertising. There are lawsuits across the country. States and cities are trying to hold the same companies accountable for their - misleading their citizens. And you know, this could go in a bunch of different directions. But as they get more documents, we will know more of the truth about what they're doing now, what they've done in the past. And the truth will lead us to somewhere. We hope that it is a real, you know, comeuppance for these companies.

MARTÍNEZ: Kert Davies is the founder and director of Climate Investigation Center. Kert, thanks.

DAVIES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.