Warned of ‘massive’ climate-led extinction, a US energy firm funded crisis denial ads
In 1980, a report circulated to a division of one of the biggest coal-burning utilities in the US warned that “fossil fuel combustion” was rapidly warming the atmosphere and could cause a “massive extinction of plant and animal species” along with a “5 to 6-meter rise in sea level” across the world.
Several years later an official at the utility co-chaired a conference where scientific researchers fretted that “as we continue to exploit the vast deposits of fossil fuels” it could cause “disruptive climate changes”.
Not only did Southern Company fail to adjust its business model towards cleaner energy sources, it began paying for print advertisements saying climate change was not real. “Who told you the earth was warming,” asks one ad from 1991.
Years after receiving multiple credible warnings about the atmospheric damage caused by its reliance on burning fossil fuels, Southern Company paid over $62m to organizations with a long record of spreading disinformation about climate change, a report released today by a fossil fuel watchdog called the Energy and Policy Institute has found.
Southern has now become the third-largest greenhouse gas polluter in the US due to its fleet of coal and gas-burning power plants, and until relatively recently was still denying the science behind global temperature rise. “Do you think it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary climate control knob?” the Southern Company CEO, Tom Fanning, was asked on CNBC in 2017. “No, certainly not,” he replied.
In response to a request for comment from the Guardian, spokesperson Schuyler Baehman said: “Southern Company is committed to reducing our GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and providing the customers and communities we serve a clean energy future.
“We always have engaged with regulators, stakeholders and legislators in the interest of our customers and shareholders.”
Major oil and gas producers are now being sued in more than 20 US jurisdictions for running campaigns to deceive the public about climate change while internally acknowledging the risks of burning fossil fuels. And the new report suggests that coal-burning electric utilities like Southern Company, which were also warned about climate change for decades, could be sued next.