He recently published his findings in the journal Environmental Politics: Since the late 1980s, economists at private consulting firms, funded by the fossil fuel industry, have played a key role in shaping public discourse about climate policy in the U.S., hawking flawed research and spreading disinformation everywhere from newspapers to congressional testimonies. In an interview with Grist, Franta discusses economists’ role in the fossil fuel industry’s PR campaign, and why these relationships flew under the radar for such a long time.
“For decades, [these] economists have been inflating the cost of action,” Franta said, “and downplaying the cost of inaction.”
Q. Who were these people, and what were their strategies?
A. I tried to track all the activities that I could from the economic consulting firm Charles Rivers Associates. Every time a major climate policy was proposed, these economists would be there, writing newspaper articles and giving testimony in front of Congress. From carbon tax conversations in the Clinton administration to [opposing] international treaties, like the Kyoto Protocol and the COP meetings. They also worked to defeat the cap and trade bills that were proposed throughout the 2000s in the U.S. When that was basically defeated, and climate policy became an issue for the states, like in California, they would go to address the California climate policies too.
There is one advertorial in the New York Times, an advertisement presented as a news article, from March 6, 1997. This was around when the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated. The piece iss called “Stop, Look and Listen before we leap,” and it starts off: “International efforts to deal with climate change are lurching from speculation towards actions that could wreak havoc on nations, even as the underlying science and economics continue to signal caution.” It represents this two-prong strategy that the industry used again and again, where it would cast doubt on the science and say, “Well, actually, we don’t know if climate change is happening, or if it’s from fossil fuels.” And then they would go, “And even if it does, it’s too expensive to act.”