In their book, Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe the parallels between the doubt that was spread regarding the risks of getting cancer from smoking and the denial of climate change. Many of the strategies used by the tobacco companies were used about the scientific consensus on climate change, with some of the very same “expert” witnesses playing a role in both doubt-campaigns.
We know how the story ended for the tobacco companies. There were large monetary settlements in favor of families who lost a member to lung cancer and lawsuits were pending from state attorneys general to recover costs of medical treatment. Then, in 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement was negotiated and the four largest tobacco companies had to reimburse the states for medical costs in exchange for exemption from further lawsuits.
In addition to stopping the advertising of cigarettes, the tobacco companies funded an ad campaign that informed the public about the health risks of smoking. These public service messages were often seen on TV, print media, and public transportation. In one memorable TV ad, the rugged cowboy from Marlboro ads warned about the dangers of smoking with a voice damaged from a tracheotomy.
The Truth anti-smoking campaign was a success, as the incidence of smoking decreased significantly. In addition, there were significant shifts in public attitude such that bans on smoking in public spaces (i.e., governmental regulation) and hefty taxes on cigarettes were approved.
There are a number of lawsuits that have been filed against the oil companies in regards to climate change. The most publicized one alleges that ExxonMobil knew about the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels but claimed otherwise and helped fund the misinformation campaign. Another suit has been filed by coastal counties and cities in California to pay costs of adaptation to rising sea-levels.
And then there is the Young People’s Trust Case (Juliana vs. U.S.), which alleges that the government’s actions (and inaction) have contributed to global warming that threatens the youth’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. The government has made a motion to dismiss the case but two judges have now denied that motion so the case is still pending.
Another area of potential damages could come from the link between climate change and health problems. A recent article in the medical journal, Lancet, reported studies that link climate change to a number of health issues including deaths due to heat waves, as well as asthma and other breathing issues.
Rather than face a string of lawsuits related to climate change, and the strong possibility of inevitable costly settlements, the oil companies should, as the tobacco companies did, reach a Master Climate Settlement that, in addition to supporting needed adaptations, would fund The Climate Truth campaign. If the oil companies sponsor the messages about global warming, the message would be given credibility and weight that they would not have otherwise.
Why would the oil companies agree to this?
For a number of reasons, this seems unlikely. The fossil fuel industry is currently in a position of strength having successfully funded political and misinformation campaigns that have given them control of powerful political and media positions. And, of course, they stand to make billions from the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels — money that could be used to secure their own comfortable futures while others suffer the consequences.
The resources of the fossil fuel industry obviously dwarf those of environmentalists, to a degree that the court battles seem like David vs. Goliath. However, in this case, Goliath has already read the book, knows what’s coming, eyes David’s slingshot warily, and decides that negotiation might be the best option.
Unlike the case with the tobacco companies prior to the settlement, many of the largest oil companies have already acknowledged that burning of fossil fuels causes global warming. The corporate websites of the five largest oil companies clearly say so.
The facts regarding climate change are against the oil companies and they know this. These are intelligent people who understand the underlying science and that the weather disasters we’ve experienced are a harbinger of worse to come. It’s often a good strategy, when faced with a conflict where your opponent’s position will only get stronger over time, to negotiate a compromise sooner rather than later.
Time is running out for the oil companies to be part of the solution rather than seen as the cause of global catastrophe. In a NY Times article (Aug. 10, 2017) regarding the suit from California counties, a spokesman for Chevron was quoted as saying that the company recognized the threat of climate change but that the lawsuits were not the proper way to address the problem. I believe that this proposal could be considered the “proper way.”
It is also possible that the oil companies would support the public relations effort because the thrust of the campaign would not be to blame them but to mobilize the public to support community and governmental efforts to address the issue.
In our current political climate of partisan divisiveness, which many have described as alarming and anti-democratic, wouldn’t it be a positive model for two apparent and historical adversaries, the fossil fuel companies and environmentalists, to work cooperatively to preserve a positive future?