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TV review: Big Oil v the World

05 August 2022

BBC/Mongoose Pictures

Professor Patrick Michaels, a climate scientist, interviewed in Big Oil v the World (BBC2, three episodes, from 21 July)

Professor Patrick Michaels, a climate scientist, interviewed in Big Oil v the World (BBC2, three episodes, from 21 July)

FOR proof that our corporate iniquity, the evil decisions and actions that we commit in groups and organisations, easily outstrips our individual capacity for sin, look no further than Big Oil v the World (BBC2, three episodes, from 21 July).

The enormity of the crimes on display and their consequences are almost too shocking to comprehend. The first programme’s most significant revelation was that the major United States oil companies did not, as I had assumed, lag behind university research scientists in discovering that fossil-fuel emissions were raising global temperatures at unprecedented speeds and to unprecedented levels, thereby causing catastrophic extreme weather events, massive loss of life, and the degradation of our planet. The truth is the exact opposite. They knew before anybody, having bankrolled distinguished scientific research groups and encouraged them to produce blue-sky reports.

They all reached the same conclusion: it was essential to reduce emissions and immediately develop non-fossil-fuel energy sources. But the corporations simply buried the reports and sidelined the research teams, by contrast beefing up their own advertising and lobbying arms to persuade the US, and in particular its Representatives and Senators, that all such anxiety was left-wing scaremongering, an attack on the American people’s birthright to cheap fuel.

Their own short-term profit, dividends, and bonuses were far more important than the future of the planet; much better to feather your nest now than bother about whether your grandchildren would actually have a world to live in.

As the threat of global warming became generally known across the scientific community, corporations’ assault on the truth was subtle: rather than issue absolute denials, their PR machine constantly asserted that the case was not absolutely proven. They sowed doubt that lodged in the mind, and dismissed the bad news.

The programme documented, step by step, the success of the strategy among US leaders. Bill Clinton wanted the US to be the world leader in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions; this hope was destroyed on 25 July 1997 by 95 votes to 0; the Senate would take this step only if China and India did so, too. George W. Bush was persuaded to make an absolute U-turn on the issue. The story was illustrated by clip after clip of the catastrophic effects of our inaction: wildfires, floods, destruction.

We saw some confession and contrition: a few leading climate-change deniers now accept that they were wrong, and had led campaigns based on lies and misinformation. But this chilling indictment of world corporations’ power, how their PR, advertising, and bribery subverts all serious decisions, has the gravest consequence: essentially, it undermines any confidence in contemporary democracy itself.

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