Science and Tech Co-Editor
For many years, the battle against climate change has been hindered by resistance from climate change deniers. Significant steps towards climate action have been delayed due to the involvement of the oil and electric industries in climate denial. Motivated by their financial interests, these organizations have misled the public about climate science. UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers investigated these actions and to what extent they set back progress in combating climate change.
Prior to their involvement with climate denial, the electric utility industry was actually well-versed in the science of climate change and their understanding of the issue. However, the electric utility industry, along with other industry giants, got involved in climate denial once scientific consensus began to increase. In order to secure their financial positions, they spread doubt and misinformation, which has proven successful.
Leah Stokes, associate professor of environmental politics at UCSB and a contributor to the study investigating these acts, explained, “Worst of all, monopoly utilities used money from captured customers to fund these climate denial campaigns.”
The research team used several different methods in order to retrieve information on the electric industry’s alleged wrongdoings. First, they gathered documents from the utility organizations involved, including the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and EPRI, a non-profit energy research and development organization maintained by EEI. From those documents, they were able to look into what these organizations were sending in external messages that promoted climate change denial.
Once they gathered enough documents, the next step was to use coding. The coding system Atlas TI scanned every document and divided the information into climate messaging categories. These categories organized the documents based on the information they contained and whether the information pertained to climate denial.
So, how does the electric utility industry influence the general public and push back climate action?
According to Stokes’ research, they perpetuate climate denial and doubt. A majority of the messages being sent out were supported and promoted by groups such as American Electric Power (AEP), Southern Company, and Southern California Edison (SCE). Additionally, the documents revealed that industry leaders have paid lobbying groups that work to block climate legislation.
With the electric utility industry being one of the main contributors to environmental harm, seeing these results reiterate the uncertainty of a future clouded by climate change. Though many of these groups have moved from climate denial to delayed action as many technologies are being created to decarbonize emissions, until the industry no longer gains any profit from fossil fuels, climate action will continue to be limited.
Emily Williams, a lead author and researcher on this project, emphasized that “utilities must reckon with the role they played delaying climate action” instead of running from the truth.
As the threat of climate changes continues to increase, holding problematic industries accountable is crucial. Many people don’t realize that their electric companies are supporting fossil fuels and yet are funding them through necessity. It’s important to know the whether the companies and government officials you are supporting are funded by fossil fuels. This can help us hold companies accountable and have people who care about the environment become involved in important legislation. Finding companies that are sustainable can help migrate customers to utilities that are better for the environment. By revealing the industry’s intentions, the research team hopes to push the electric utility industry to help take action against climate change.