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Young leaders grapple with energy, tar sands, and the future

At the conference titled “Enter, Athabasca Tar Sands,” high school leaders learned about oil funded climate deniers, poisonous tailings ponds and the end of easy oil. But should this be their problem, or ours?

At “Enter, Athabasca Tar Sands,”  the climate change conference for high school students hosted by Windemere Secondary School this December, students asked Andrew Nikiforuk (author of an award winning book on the Tar Sands), what he would do differently if he knew in high school what he knows now. He laughed.

“How do I answer that? You know what you know.”

Then he continued, “I wish someone had explained to me the whole oil thing, what a magical substance it is, portable, dense, how it has created the world we now live in, how it has blinded us to other possibilities of living, thinking, and organizing our economy. I wish I’d heard more talk about how energy shapes lives, attitudes, and culture.” 

During the conference, students got a lot of explanations about “the whole oil thing,” how deeply it’s embedded in our lives, how increasingly destructive production has become as conventional oil reserves dwindle, and how the high carbon industries are systematically working (and succeeding) at shifting the debate around climate change.

The information download began with James Hoggan’s presentation of the oil and gas disinformation machine. Principal of the public relations firm Hoggan and Associates and author of Climate Cover Up , Hoggan learned about climate change through a pro bono project at his firm. His research left him increasingly staggered by the methodical and well-funded campaign aimed at discrediting the science of climate change and blocking government response.

Hoggan, by his own admission, is not one to shake the establishment. His firm’s website names clients in the worst carbon emission sectors: oil, natural gas, cruises, aviation and aluminum. But he was deeply disturbed by the intentional manner in which his PR colleagues mislead the public.

“Everyone has a right to their opinion,” he told the kids, “but no one owns the facts. They exist on their own and have to be respected.”

He described how a coalition of high emissions industries pool resources to seed front groups. Millions every year are directed from some of the largest and worst industry actors, like Koch Industries, which has been fined nearly one hundred million dollars for oil spills and other environmental crimes, and has spent close to the same amount on lobbying to support fossil fuel industries and funding climate denier groups.

These “Astroturf” (fake grass roots) groups take names that are counter to their real agenda, such as “The Advancement of Sound Science Center,”and “Friends of Science.” Ads with common sense appeal confuse people and stick, such as one ad campaign that asked, “If the earth is getting warmer why is the frost line moving south?” (The frost line isn’t moving south.)

Inaccurate messages get repeated so often and from so many sources that they begin to ring true. Fake issues (Is climate change real? Are humans causing it? Isn’t it a good thing?) displace urgent issues of public concern such as mitigation and adaptation.

The press lends credence to the Astroturf groups. News sources increasingly accept as news the press releases of organizations with an agenda. Climategate, in which scientists were accused (and later exonerated by 5 independent inquiries) of massaging their data, received substantially more press than Copenhagen, in which world-saving measures should have been adopted.

Astroturf groups are considered credible sources by news agencies looking for a “balanced perspective.”  Adding a denier to news reports creates the impression of a true debate, making people less certain of the facts and less likely to support government action.

But there is no debate. Every scientific body of every major country has accepted that human caused climate change will have devastating consequences if not mitigated. Mobile Oil Company is on record as stating this early as 1995. Nonetheless, the fossil fuel industry has created enough confusion that acceptance of global warming has declined.  

Meanwhile, the earth keeps warming and humans keep stoking the fire, he said.

The students listened intently to Hoggan’s description of the denial campaign. At the end, they asked Hoggan what they should do.

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