For U.S. utility companies, man made climate change was indisputable fact — until it wasn’t.
As far back as 1968, speakers at industry conferences were warning of the risks of manmade climate change. In the 1970s, industry trade associations joined more than 50 utilities companies to include climate change research in their industry planning documents. Until the late 1980s, the reports that they published freely acknowledged the risks of burning fossil fuels.
Still, knowing the risks, they continued to up investments in coal-burning plants for four decades. Coal use in the U.S. finally peaked about a decade ago.
A new study by the environmental watchdog Energy and Policy Institute unearthed troves of documents that clearly show utility companies, and the organizations that lobby on their behalf, were aware of the damaging effects of climate change long before the public.
Exxon knew — the company conducted extensive research on the effects of burning fossil fuels on climate change, research it then buried and denied, until it was unearthed in 2015 by InsideClimate News. The new report, published Tuesday, indicates that utility providers, like oil and gas companies, were complicit in producing research that they’d later repudiate.
As late as 1988 — the year that global warming became the focus of national attention during a scorching summer of forest fires and damaged crops — the head of a utility trade association published in the association’s journal about the “growing consensus in the scientific community that the greenhouse effect is real.”
The industry shift away from the science started in 1989, when a number of utilities signed onto the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group that opposed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. By 1991, the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group, was helping to roll out a media campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).”
It seemed to work — in March, 2017 Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning made an appearance on CNBC, where he declared that the jury was still out climate change. The hosts let it go.