A new exposé by Rebecca John at DeSmog Blog shows that as early as 1953 industry was up to capturing popular outrage and dishing out placation. To mollify disgust of Angelinos at the mounting smog in Los Angeles, industrialists got ahead of the public action curve to coopt rage through forming the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation to do more research on the issue. This seemingly legitimate group turned out to have not be neutral actors. American Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors and 15 other automotive companies furnished funds to create the foundation. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Western Oil & Gas Association were amongst the oil front groups and oil companies that this Foundation was formed by. Oil interests worked through a public-service-sounding ‘Foundation’ that was unprepared to seriously investigate the root problem, but rather wished to treat the worst symptoms, in order for business as usual to keep functioning.

Los Angeles Times announcement of the launch of the Air Pollution Foundation.

Credit: Los Angeles Times, November 7, 1953

But don’t believe me; see for yourself.

As DeSmog blog communicates, “Previously unseen correspondence between Caltech and the Air Pollution Foundation shows that the potential climate impact of fossil-fuel-generated CO2 emissions was communicated to the foundation in November 1954.” Indeed, Charles Keeling, of Keeling Curve fame, the first hard data (later at Mauna Loa) which tracked year by year increasing CO2 in our atmosphere, was originally funded by the Air Pollution Foundation – marking the first known interest of fossil fuel industry external funding of climate science. At Caltech, Keeling would also be funded directly by API in 1955 via “Project 53”. This is striking, because in this instance, the fossil fuel industry helped kickstart some of the very same climate science which would let us unambiguously know the indelible mark fossil fuels have made on the geological record, and track carbon isotopes, the main focus of climate change programs wishing to ‘draw down’ carbon.

This research confirms that the entwinement of climate science and fossil fuel-funded research goes back to the very beginning of data collection on climate. The idea forwarded at the time that industry must be involved in alleviating the problem they solved could be interpreted as a sign of their authentic goodwill and concern; but the change-everything-but-the-industry whataboutism could also be called what we term today greenwashing. Instead of reducing fossil fuel use, or reexamining its role in our society, the aim instead was abate the symptoms by other means (catalytic converters ended up being the solution in reducing LA’s smog, in this case). With industry always being part of the solution, they frame themselves as goodwill actors, thus securitizing their social license. This also prevents actually addressing the root of the problem, which is ultimately the only thing which will stop global warming.

It sounds great: “The principal reason for their membership on the Board, in addition to their recognized standing in the community, is to make certain that they will be parties to all facts and evidence brought to light on the problem so that they and their colleagues in like enterprises can continue to devote their best efforts toward the abatement of air pollution.” What’s there to argue with?

These guys are do-gooders, practicing CSR before it was mandated. And yet. And yet…