Big Oil v The World is a three-part documentary series produced by the BBC, which looks at how oil companies have denied the science around climate change, created doubt about the crisis and ultimately delayed action on the climate emergency. That this series has been made by the BBC is quite significant as they’ve historically been slow to present climate breakdown as the crisis that it is.
The following review includes a breakdown of each episode. Please be aware that this review contains spoilers.
Episode 1 – Denial
In the first episode we learn that Exxon Mobil, was the biggest company in the world. Exxon wanted to better understand the greenhouse gas effect and deployed an oil tanker on a scientific mission to this effect.
This project would be scrapped when oil prices fell in 1982. However, from the research carried out, they understood that greenhouse gas emissions would lead to earth warming. Exxon knew what their product was doing, but chose not to act. Researchers from Exxon who were interviewed seemed to believe that the research would help Exxon be part of the solution. As we now know, this certainly hasn’t been the case.
We also learn that Exxon donated their archives to the University of Texas. When researchers went through these documents, they uncovered conversations going on about climate change several decades ago. Once again, Exxon knew.
In 1988, climate change moved from scientific journals into the public sphere when Dr James Hansen made his senate testimony. Hansen said that there were signs human activity was affecting the climate and put forward three conclusions in his speech:
- Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time than in the history of instrumental measurements
- Global warming is large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree confidence, a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect
- Computer climate simulations indicate that the greenhouse effect is already large enough to begin to affect the probability of extreme events such as summer heatwaves
Hansen summed up by saying that, altogether this showed that the greenhouse effect had been detected and was changing the climate back in 1988. We then move onto an organisation called the Global Climate Coalition, who are spreading climate change denial. They did this by seeding articles with doubt, making it seem that the unknowns about climate change were on par with the knowns. This made people question the veracity of scientific research and doubt the severity of the climate crisis.
If the oil companies hadn’t lied and misled us, the world would be on a different tack. Al Gore says what they did is similar to a moral war crime.
Episode 2 – Doubt
The beginning of the second episode reminds us that the oil industry knew that their products were leading to climate change, and they knew this for 40 years. We discover that a cosy relationship existed between the White House and the oil industry, which meant that political action was not forthcoming.
In 1998, a meeting was convened by the American Petroleum Institute. This was attended by Exxon, Chevron, think tanks, and right wing libertarians. Together, they hatched a plan to create uncertainty about climate science. They proposed to do this by targeting the media, school teachers, citizens and Members of Congress. They stated that, “Victory will be achieved when recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.” They say that they never initiated their plan, but it did show their intentionality.
We then learn about the Bush government and its links to the fossil fuel industry. George Bush himself was a former oil executive from Texas. Dick Cheney headed Haliburton. Lee Raymond who was Exxon CEO, was very close to Vice-President, Dick Cheney. Bush who had said he was in favour of limiting carbon emissions, would back-out of his pledge as a result of industry lobbying. Instead he began adopting industry lines around the uncertainty about climate change.
We hear from an ex-BP CEO who once claimed that human activity was causing a noticeable impact on the climate. This was the same CEO who oversaw BP’s tagline change to “Beyond Petroleum.” He was unpopular with the oil industry for his views. He went on to say that, “Huge profitability created a high degree of arrogance”. This led to a disregard for the damage that was being done.
The episode moves on to Obama’s Climate Bill. Al Gore raised $300m to run ads on primetime TV to support the bill. However, Koch Industries put money towards killing the bill. This led to the bill being killed and the end of climate legislation in the US for some time. It must also be said that this happened at a crucial moment when the world really needed climate action. The Koch brothers then set out to oust Republicans who’d supported the climate bill against their wishes. The lesson being that you tow their line, otherwise your campaign funding will be withdrawn and they’ll support other candidates.
Episode 3 – Delay
Episode three looks at the impact of fracking and the industry’s attempt to further delay action on the climate crisis, by transitioning to less carbon intensive forms of fossil fuels.
Aubrey McClendon was one of the founders of Chesapeake Energy, and he believed natural gas was the fuel of the future. Controversy arises from his $26m secret donation to the Sierra Club, one of the biggest environmental organisations in the US. Carl Pope who was head of the Sierra Club supported fracking, which goes against the grain of what his organisation is meant to stand for. This calls into question the values and integrity of some environmental organisations.
When fracking became cost-effective, Wall Street took note and began pouring billions of dollars in. The Obama administration would say that fracking was clean and cheap and would last a hundred years. We learn that after Obama’s climate failures, and after Trump’s reign, that America unsurprisingly remains the world’s largest producer of oil and gas.
This three-part documentary exposes some of the tactics used by the oil industry to delay climate action for decades. This has led to climate breakdown which could, as some prominent figures now say, lead to civilisational collapse. That their crimes against humanity are exposed is important. That this is acted upon, even more so. Ultimately though, we have to have politicians unchained from corporate and financial backers to make the decisions that will lead the world on a new trajectory. We are far from seeing this happen, and as such, the power of corporations and individuals continue to hold all of our futures to ransom.
My new cli-fi children’s picture book is Nanook and the Melting Arctic. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. You can purchase Nanook from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.