What does it take to convince a Republican that oil and gas companies lied about the existence of climate change and are responsible for contributing to it?
Some were swayed by just a few sentences.
That’s according to a new poll commissioned by VICE News and the Guardian with Covering Climate Now, which shows that after learning that oil and gas companies became aware of climate change as early as 1977, even conservatives were more likely to blame them for climate change.
Overall, Republicans are far less likely to “strongly agree” (14.9 percent) that “climate change is happening now” than Democrats (70.6 percent). Republicans are also far less likely to “strongly agree” (9.8 percent) that climate change has led to “increased heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and other extreme weather events in recent years” than Democrats (66.5 percent).
Republicans are also less likely than Democrats to hold corporations responsible for contributing to man-made climate change. For example, just 19.6 percent of Republicans polled said oil and gas companies were “completely responsible” for the climate crisis (while 60.2 percent of Democrats hold that view), and a majority say global warming was “caused by natural changes in the environment.”
But that changes after they were informed of findings from a 2015 Inside Climate News investigation that showed the world’s largest oil and gas company has known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels caused man-made climate change but did not publicly acknowledge it:
Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue, according to a recent investigation from InsideClimate News. This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation—an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public.
After being exposed to that information, participants across the political spectrum were more willing to believe that oil and gas companies knew about and contributed to climate change. This includes Republicans: While 27.8 percent of Republican respondents initially said that oil and gas companies were “completely” or “mostly” responsible for climate change, that number rose to 36.5 percent after they read the excerpt.
And while 38.4 percent of Republicans said that oil and gas companies lied to suppress public awareness of climate change before reading the excerpt, afterwards, 48.6 percent said oil and gas companies had lied.
At the same time, after learning about the Inside Climate News investigation, the number of Republicans who responded “climate change does not exist” actually rose slightly, from 14.7 percent to 18.0 percent.
Overall, more than half of all surveyed believed after reading the excerpt that oil and gas companies lied about both their contribution to and knowledge of the existence of climate change, the poll found.
The poll shows that even though Americans’ views of climate change are hardened by their politics, education levels, or their media consumption habits, they can be persuaded if they’re provided with compelling evidence.
The poll surveyed 1,000 Americans over the age of 18 between Oct. 7 and Oct. 13. The survey results come as the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, kicks off in Glasgow next week.
Though more people are becoming aware of climate change and its causes, the prospects for taking substantive action to protect the climate are dim.
Congressional Democrats continue to hash out the details of a multi-trillion infrastructure plan, and already the centerpiece climate provision of that plan — the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), which would incentivize companies to transition to renewable energy — is likely to be cut due to opposition from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, The New York Times reported last week.
Manchin, who filmed an ad depicting him shooting a bullet through a Democratic cap-and-trade bill in 2010, has long been cozy with and supported by energy companies. He has received more than $64,000 from lobbyists, political action committees, and lobbying firms connected to Exxon over the past decade, Grist reported in July. Manchin also made nearly $500,000 in 2020 due to his non-public shares in West Virginia-based coal company Enersystems.
This summer, Channel 4 in the U.K. published a recording showing a senior Exxon lobbyist bragging, “Joe Manchin, I talk to his office every week.” In September, when asked if he had weekly meetings with Exxon, Manchin responded, “Absolutely not.”