The audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change

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    On an early autumn day in 1992, E Bruce Harrison, a man widely acknowledged as the father of environmental PR, stood up in a room full of business leaders and delivered a pitch like no other.

    At stake was a contract worth half a million dollars a year – about £850,000 in today’s money. The prospective client, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – which represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries – was looking for a communications partner to change the narrative on climate change.

    Don Rheem and Terry Yosie, two of Harrison’s team present that day, are sharing their stories for the first time.

    “Everybody wanted to get the Global Climate Coalition account,” says Rheem, “and there I was, smack in the middle of it.”

    The GCC had been conceived only three years earlier, as a forum for members to exchange information and lobby policy makers against action to limit fossil fuel emissions.

    Though scientists were making rapid progress in understanding climate change, and it was growing in salience as a political issue, in its first years the Coalition saw little cause for alarm. President George HW Bush was a former oilman, and as a senior lobbyist told the BBC in 1990, his message on climate was the GCC’s message.

    There would be no mandatory fossil fuel reductions.

    But all that changed in 1992. In June, the international community created a framework for climate action, and November’s presidential election brought committed environmentalist Al Gore into the White House as vice-president. It was clear the new administration would try to regulate fossil fuels.

    The Coalition recognised that it needed strategic communications help and put out a bid for a public relations contractor.

    Though few outside the PR industry might have heard of E Bruce Harrison or the eponymous company he had run since 1973, he had a string of campaigns for some of the US’s biggest polluters under his belt.

    He had worked for the chemical industry discrediting research on the toxicity of pesticides; for the tobacco industry, and had recently run a campaign against tougher emissions standards for the big car makers. Harrison had built a firm that was considered one of the very best.

    Media historian Melissa Aroncyzk, who interviewed Harrison before he died in 2021, says he was a strategic linchpin for his clients, ensuring everyone was on the same page.

    “He was a master at what he did,” she says.

    Before the pitch, Harrison had assembled a team of both seasoned PR professionals and almost total novices. Among them was Don Rheem, who had no industry credentials. He had studied ecology before becoming an environmental journalist. A chance meeting with Harrison, who must have seen the strategic value of adding Rheem’s environmental and media connections to the team, led to a job offer on the GCC pitch.

    “I thought, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity to get a front row seat at probably one of the most pressing science policy and public policy issues that we were facing.’

    “It just felt enormously important,” Rheem says.

    Terry Yosie – who had recently been recruited from the American Petroleum Institute, becoming a senior vice-president at the firm – remembers that Harrison began the pitch by reminding his audience that he was instrumental in fighting the auto reforms. He had done so, in part, by reframing the issue.

    The same tactics would now help beat climate regulation. They would persuade people that the scientific facts weren’t settled, and that alongside the environment, policy makers needed to consider how action on climate change would – in the GCC’s view – negatively affect American jobs, trade and prices.

    The strategy would be implemented through an extensive media campaign, everything from placing quotes and pitching opinion pieces (so-called op-eds), to direct contacts with journalists.

    “A lot of reporters were assigned to write stories,” Rheem says, “and they were struggling with the complexity of the issue. So I would write backgrounders so reporters could read them and get up to speed.”

    Uncertainty ran through the full gamut of the GCC’s publications, a creative array of letters, glossy brochures, and monthly newsletters.

    Rheem and the team were prolific – within a year, Harrison’s firm claimed to have secured more than 500 specific mentions in the media.

    In August 1993, Harrison took stock of progress in another meeting with the GCC.

    “The rising awareness of the scientific uncertainty has caused some in Congress to pause on advocating new initiatives,” declared an updated internal strategy pitch, shared with the BBC by Terry Yosie.

    “Activists sounding the alarm over ‘global warming’ have publicly conceded that they lost ground in the communications arena over the past year.”

    Now, Harrison counselled, they needed to expand the external voices making their case.

    “Scientists, economists, academics and other noted experts carry greater credibility with the media and general public than industry representatives.”

    FALL FUNDRAISER

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