Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 196: The Climate Imaginary: The Petroleum Papers — with Geoff Dembicki

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Sena Cleave, Am Johal, Geoff Dembicki

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Kathy Feng  0:14
Welcome to The Climate Imaginary, a Below the Radar series. As we navigate our future within the ongoing climate emergency, we seek different frameworks to help guide our learning and our actions. In this series, we bring together guests from across artistic and academic disciplines to speak about their approaches to working in solidarity amidst the climate crisis. We feature conversations that range from the unique power of creative works to mobilize people, to the importance of collaboration and interdependence across fields. 

Sena Cleave  0:50
Hello listeners! I’m Sena with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

On this episode of our Below the Radar series: The Climate Imaginary, our host Am Johal is joined by Geoff Dembicki, an author and journalist originally from Alberta, Canada, now based in Brooklyn, New York. Together, they discuss Geoff’s latest book, The Petroleum Papers, an investigation on climate disinformation campaigns conducted by Big Oil companies. They also talk about the shift of climate denial from traditional news outlets to digital channels, as well as the work of youth activists to combat these narratives. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  1:39  
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week. We have a special guest, Geoff Dembicki, who is joining us all the way from New York. Welcome, Geoff.

Geoff Dembicki  1:48  
Thanks for having me on the show.

Am Johal  1:51
Yeah, Geoff, why don't we begin with you introducing yourself a little bit?

Geoff Dembicki  1:56  
So I am an investigative climate change journalist, and I've been living in Brooklyn, New York for the past three and a bit years. I'm originally from Alberta, spent quite a long time living on the west coast in Vancouver. And now I'm immersed in the insanity of the US.

Am Johal  2:18  
Yeah, there's multiple dynamics going on right now. It's a very interesting place and time to be there, I'm sure. I know that you have a new book out. And we'll be talking about that shortly. But for people who don't know you, I know you as a journalist and Vancouver before you began to write books. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to how you started in journalism and kind of the areas that you were writing about?

Geoff Dembicki  2:42
I guess I should go like way, way back, because it will make my journalism maybe make a bit more sense to people listening. But like when I grew up in Alberta, I was just like, absolutely surrounded by oil, like, not only culturally but also literally in some cases. Like my brother and I played at this playground that was built underneath an oil refinery. So I remember, like, being on the monkey bars and looking up and seeing the refinery tower shooting all these flames into the air. And after I got a journalism degree, I came to Vancouver and began writing for the Tyee, mostly about climate change and environmental issues. So, as you can imagine, that caused all sorts of interesting debates with friends and family members back in Alberta who work in the oil and gas industry. But I've really got involved in my current beat, which is sort of the climate disinformation beat, after I learned about the role of the Koch brothers in funding think tanks across the world that dispute whether climate change is real. And I learned that a huge part of the Koch brothers fossil fuel empire is a refinery in Minnesota that processes oil from the tar sands in Alberta. And, and so for me, that's kind of when it all came full circle. I realized that, you know, this oil I'd grown up around was funding all of these climate lies in the US and Canada. And so I decided to make that a real focus of my reporting. And that's what my new book is about.

Am Johal  4:20  
Wondering if we can maybe start with the book that you wrote several years ago, before this one, Are We Screwed? And wondering if you can talk about where that project started from?

Geoff Dembicki  4:32  
So my first book, Are We Screwed? How A New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change, it grew out of some reporting I did about how younger people were approaching the climate emergency. And I saw some big shifts in activism happening and sort of like a new, sort of more combative approach to addressing the emergency that really named climate villains, and advocated for very direct, aggressive government climate actions. I was seeing a lot of this type of organizing taking place in Vancouver and across Canada, and then also in the United States. And so that book was really an attempt to explain like, where the fight on climate change was heading, what new perspective younger people were bringing to it, and what impacts that that was having in the world.

Am Johal  5:31
I wonder, you know, moving from journalism and long form pieces to writing a book, how did you find that writing process different when you were working on your first book?

Geoff Dembicki  5:43  
I mean, writing a book is a pretty crazy undertaking. I asked other friends of mine who had written books for advice, and they basically told me that I should expect to lose my mind at one or several points, which ended up being a very accurate prediction. But essentially, it wasn't too different from writing long form articles or in-depth features for the Tyee in that a book is essentially, you know, a whole bunch of short articles piece together and a longer form narrative, hundreds of actually and you write one every single day. And so it sort of felt like a marathon to me at the beginning. It was fun, exciting, admiring all the scenery. And then by the end, I was just like a hollowed out corpse, sort of like trudging across the finish line.

Am Johal  6:36  
[laughs] You know, I—having been involved in two books myself, one of which was an adapted dissertation, another one a collaborative project with friends, also environmentally-oriented with Matt Hern and Joe Sacco, I really resonate with what you just said about the writing. Because the thing is also, if you haven't written a book before, the process is quite mysterious. And the editing time takes just as long as the writing. And by the time it comes out, you're kind of like sick of it, because you've been so in it for so long. Then there's the whole kind of promotional cycle part of it. It's quite an interesting process to go through. But that book did resonate in many ways, because it talked about things from an intergenerational point of view, and particularly the millennial generation and how it impacted them and wondering how that book landed down, and the kind of conversations that started in terms of its reception for you. What were some of the takeaways for you after the book came out and you heard the responses? 

Geoff Dembicki  7:34
Well, after the book came out, some of the people that read it were involved in the Sunrise Movement in the United States. And at the time in like late 2017, this was a fairly obscure group. Very few people in the climate world had heard about them. And so I started doing a bit of writing about their activism. And then a bunch of Sunrise people were also involved in the campaign to get AOC elected, in Queens. And so I was following that quite closely, because I was familiar with, with some of the people, sort of, working behind the scenes on that. And then, so AOC gets elected to Congress. And like, within a few short months, she goes from this obscure person to like an absolute political celebrity on the left. And then, Sunrise Movement also starts pushing this thing called the Green New Deal in the United States. And Sunrise is mainly Latin, staffed by millennials and Gen Zers. And a lot of the intergenerational analysis that I had in my book, that was kind of also their sort of worldview and the type of thing I was trying to write about. And so anyway, it was quite interesting to see all these like sort of abstract things that I discussed in the book be actually turned into real policy and political organizing. I'm not saying Sunrise was in any way influenced by what I wrote, but we were sort of all doing things at the same time. And I think ultimately, like, the impact of a group like that, and younger climate organizers was to totally like reframe the discussion around climate action, and to turn it into a political program involving billions and trillions of dollars of spending by government to create jobs and in entirely new industries. Whereas before, I think the debate has really been defined by like pretty conservative, and like fiscally libertarian voices—the idea that, you know, we would just put this carbon tax in the background, and the market would sort it all out.

Am Johal  9:43  
So the book that you have out now, it's getting rave reviews. I know you actually did a book launch a couple blocks from my house at Container Brewing, but I unfortunately had something else going on that night, I couldn't make it out. I hope it went well. I'm wondering if you can just talk a little bit to start about where you conceived of this project, where you decided that you were going to write a book around this, what drove you to begin this project?

Geoff Dembicki  10:10  
So sort of the big background, meta thing was that realization that the Koch brothers who had such a pivotal role in in fanning the flames of climate disinformation were directly profiting from my home province. And so I felt kind of like a moral obligation to look deeper into the role that Canadian oil was playing in terms of financing climate lies. And then the near term-thing was that several groups including the climate investigations group, DeSmog, got a hold of a huge collection of confidential oil industry documents from the company Imperial Oil, which is a huge tar sands player, it's owned by Exxon. And these documents kind of charted Imperial's perspective on climate change, going really over the course of decades. And it showed that Imperial had acknowledged the dangers of climate change internally and then spread lies about the dangers to the public. So in one instance, in the 90s, the Chairman of Imperial wrote notes in his reports to shareholders saying that the science was unsettled, and we couldn't trust the government to take action on this. And so I thought that this was a pretty fascinating insight into how one of the most consequential oil companies on the planet was looking at the issue. And so that really became the bedrock for the book. And that's what the name The Petroleum Papers refers to as these large Imperial files.

Am Johal  11:47
And so as you dove into these files, what were the kind of moments where your jaw dropped and left you astounded in terms of—I mean, it's the sheer volume of work that you're going through. But there must have been some astounding pieces there that really reflected a particular moment. And that's, you know, ongoing in many ways in terms of a corporate oil approach to climate change and climate policy.

Geoff Dembicki  12:15
The most astounding thing to me was a document that Imperial produced in the early 90s. And that that was a period when the company was not only researching climate change and the causes of it, but was researching solutions to the climate emergency. And so this was like very early days in the climate debate, because only a few years earlier, James Hansen had given testimony in the United States that put climate change onto the public radar for the first time. And so just a few short years later, Imperial Oil is running economic modelling about various solutions that could fix the emergency. And so one, one of the things that I discovered was that if you put a national tax on carbon emissions, this could essentially stabilize emissions in Canada, and then emissions would start to fall shortly afterwards. So in effect, it would start to really, you know, fix this thing. And Imperial also concluded that there wouldn't be too big a hit on the economy from doing this. In fact, it would probably even be good for the economy, because of all of the additional revenue governments would have to spend on green stimulus. What Imperial did conclude, though, was that this type of climate solution would be horrible for its tar sands business. And it even calculated the loss in revenues that would result from that. And so in this document, I looked at Imperial created a list of talking points for executives, both at Imperial and at Exxon, in the US, and these were talking points meant to convey to policymakers, people in the media that fixing climate change is economically reckless. It rests on sort of, you know, dubious science, and that it's not something that any country really can afford to do. So at this critical early moment, when we were just waking up to the dangers of climate change—we had all the tools to fix it, like right there. And Imperial knew about it, and then it spread disinformation in order to prevent those types of solutions from happening.

Am Johal  14:28  
You know, oftentimes, the disinformation that came out of the tobacco industry, which, you know, had a long arc to it, and oftentimes, the approach of Big Oil is compared to it. How do you see some similarities in the disinformation of the tobacco industry and Big Oil in this context, and how was it maybe different as well?

Geoff Dembicki  14:51  
Well, one of the people I interviewed for the book was this famous class action lawyer named Steve Berman, and I went down to his office in Seattle and spoke with him one afternoon. And the reason I wanted to make the trek out there is because Steve Berman was part of the legal team that brought litigation against the tobacco industry, for lying about cancer. And that resulted in one of the biggest corporate settlements in history. And so, afterwards, Steve Berman was looking for other cases to take on and he saw all these similarities between how cigarette makers had lied about cancer and how big oil companies had lied about climate change. And in many instances, like these aren't even like metaphorical similarities. Tobacco and oil use some of the same organizations to spread disinformation and to confuse the public. And so Berman helped the cities of San Francisco and Oakland file lawsuits against Big Oil for lying to the public about climate change. And now there are about 20 different cities and jurisdictions across the US that have filed similar litigation and then all the legal complaints filed by those places. There's references to Big Tobacco's techniques. There's references to the fact that tobacco companies investigated cancer signs internally and then hid it and that's basically exactly what a lot of these Big Oil companies have done as well. And the main difference is that the Big Oil cover up of climate science is potentially one of the most consequential disinformation campaigns in history because it really stole from us an opportunity to get the climate emergency under control. And that's going to affect the habitability of this planet for thousands and thousands of years.

Am Johal  16:50
And so there is this sort of narrative of, you know, Merchants of Doubt, or taking science and putting it under a cloud of suspicion in what's been, you know, scientifically, at least a consensus around—if not by 1959, certainly by the 70s, that was kind of done and determined. But the doubt that was being spread continues, in many cases. And in the American political climate, where there aren't really limits to political donations due to Supreme Court decisions and that type of thing, large amounts of money that are put into lobbying—what are the points of intervention that are possible, given the light of day that these documents are clearly showing, and in the case that your book is making? Where are the places where this information can be put to use in terms of legal or political consequences?

Geoff Dembicki  17:45
So there's all those lawsuits that I was talking about, and those are basically attempts by cities to hold oil companies accountable for lying to the public. That's the crux of all that litigation. And those lawsuits could take a while to result in anything concrete, but they've been clearing procedural hurdles all year so far. And in some cases, actually, judges that were appointed by Trump, you know, effectively agree with the core arguments of these cases and didn't dismiss them, which just shows you how much compelling evidence there is behind these things. But I think in a broader sense, knowledge of the extent to which oil companies lied to the public about climate change really changes how you see the emergency. Because for so long, we've had it drilled into us, so to speak, that this is something that we're all equally responsible for: we all drive, we all need to heat our homes, you know, we're hypocrites for saying any different. And what I found through reviewing all of these confidential documents is that that's not actually really the case. That narratives not really accurate, because there were all of these key moments when we could have gotten climate change under control. And companies knew that, and they actively spread lies to prevent that from happening. And so I think once the public, like, fully wakes up to that, I do think that opens up a whole bunch of new political possibilities. And we've yet to see what that will look like. But just to give you one example, like I saw some polling that tried to measure how people view climate change before and after hearing how much they were lied to by oil companies. And in all the cases, there was a huge jump in anger and willingness to take action, once people heard a statement about the oil industry's lies. And this jump even occurred among, like, pretty hardcore Republicans. And so I think we're just beginning to see what's going to happen with the release of all this information.

Am Johal  19:52
Now, you know, there are the instances, particularly in the States, where you have large amounts of public funding going into the largest military in the world, or at least the one with the biggest budget. And you even see contexts in which the US military is putting out documents related to climate change, aiming for net zero by 2050. Or as some people in the climate security area are also looking at the geopolitical implications of climate change, where climate change might not be the reason for war or a conflict, but certainly as a driving factor that can exacerbate sectarian or existing tensions in regions. Which has, you know, grave consequences and in particular areas, but also climate refugees, other kinds of aspects. And I'm wondering as you finish the book, and the kind of reception it's had, and what are new questions that are opening up for you in terms of possible future projects?

Geoff Dembicki  20:50  
One of the things that I've been looking into in depth since I finished the edits on the book earlier this year is sort of the the continued spread of climate denial through new digital channels. So, you know, most mainstream news organizations won't put a climate change denier on the air anymore, and some of them even have policies against it. And so you started to see the denial, disinformation movement kind of retreat from these mainstream publications because it's just not taken seriously there anymore. It's a good story, however, a lot of those same people are now finding massive new audiences through right wing outlets on Facebook. and other other social media and to give you an example, like one of the biggest spreaders of climate disinformation in the world is a site, The Daily Wire, set up by Ben Shapiro. It has a reach, on somedays, eclipsing all of the major US media outlets combined. And in Canada, one of the biggest spreaders of climate denial now is Jordan Peterson. And Jordan Peterson has become increasingly interested in climate change. And he frequently cites people that have been absolutely discredited in other arenas. But Peterson doesn't need mainstream media anymore to get his message out, because he can just put a video on YouTube that reaches millions of people. And so I think that's kind of the new front in these disinformation battles. And it's coming at a time when really, we need to stop arguing about whether this thing is happening and get on with the solutions as fast as we can, because we don't have that much time to reverse the damage that we're doing to the planet.

Am Johal  22:45  
Now, as someone who's worked in the media, such as yourself, I'm wondering about hearing your own kind of critique of mainstream media. In some sense, you know, when the effects of climate change happen, like forest fires, floods, etc, it'll momentarily take up a new cycle. Like, with Lytton burned to the ground here in the Fraser Valley, or, you know, in the context of Pakistan, there's over 15 million people internally displaced in the country—just massive, massive effects, so many global examples. But oftentimes, it's just the effect of climate change, rather than it being the news driver, in a lot of ways. And there's a temporality to climate change that sometimes is difficult to kind of place on to structures that we have that predate an era of awareness on climate change. And so wondering if you could speak just a little bit to you know, what could the media be doing better in terms of covering climate change and getting facts out to the public, or where has it failed?

Geoff Dembicki  23:51  
I've seen climate coverage just really explode over the past few years. And that's kind of just like across the board and all sorts of outlets, big and small. And part of that is that we're just seeing the effects of it so much in our lives all the time, like we had the atmospheric river last year in the Lower Mainland, there's now a historic drought. The town of Lytton burning down, all of these generated tons of media coverage. I think where the media is really failing is linking that stuff directly to climate change. It's doing a bit of it, but there's still a lot of work to do. But then very, very few outlets take that additional step and explain where the climate change is coming from, which and Canada is predominantly the oil and gas industry. So you don't see the coverage and mainstream outlets reporting on a climate disaster, saying this is climate-caused and then saying, "The oil industry's rapidly growing emissions are a big factor in that climate change." And I think the reason for that is, a lot of media organizations, especially in Canada are just operating on this really defensive footing every time they report about climate change, because they're terrified as being portrayed as activists, or not objective. And there's a huge like right-wing apparatus in the country set up to attack any sort of good faith climate coverage. The thing I would want to say to any journalist who feels that way is it's just a scientific fact that the oil and gas industry in Canada is one of the biggest and growing contributors to the crisis, and all of the greenhouse gas emissions were pumping into the atmosphere play a big role in the disasters we've seen. So you can report on that objectively, because it is ultimately a scientific fact. But a lot of people have a vested interest in Canadians not seeing it that way. 

Am Johal  25:53  
Yeah. Do you have any ideas on future projects you'd like to take on as a result of going through all this material for this book?

Geoff Dembicki  26:02  
Well, at the moment, I'm kind of just trying to clear my head a little bit and the become sort of like a fully functioning human again, [laughs] before I decide what to commit myself to next.

Am Johal  26:17
Well, Geoff, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on Below the Radar. I look forward to reading the book. We're gonna have links to it in our show notes. So, thank you, Geoff.

Geoff Dembicki  26:28  
Yeah, thanks a lot for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.

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Sena Cleave  26:34
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Geoff Dembicki. Head to the show notes to check out the resources mentioned in the episode. We release episodes every Tuesday, so subscribe to Below the Radar on your podcasting app of choice to make sure you never miss an episode. 

Tune in next week for the sixth episode of The Climate Imaginary with guest Julian Brave NoiseCat!

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 29, 2022

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