Climate Change Denial: The Smoking Gun
Is there a legal right to shout “hoax” on a burning planet? It is well documented that corporate interests fund a widespread campaign of lies and misinformation about climate change. Worse, they have been enjoying considerable success just as they did with tobacco. Small wonder since they are employing the same tactics, even some of the same shills posing as climate scientists. Is it their legal right to do so? And what can be done about it?
‘Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ [linking smoking with disease] that exists in the mind of the general public. ”
Tobacco company Brown and Williamson internal document, 1969
Greenpeace recently released it’s report Dealing in Doubt: The Climate Denial Industry and Climate Science – A Brief History of Attacks on Climate Science, Climate Scientists and the IPCC. This report adds to the already considerable documentation of industry propaganda such as Jame’s Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming and Exxon Secret’s and the tobacco campaign links (Where there’s smoke, the climate change Denial lobby).
At Grist you can watch the Rachel Maddow segment that talks about the Greeenpeace report, focusing on the involvement of Koch Industies as well as an interview with Hoggan. Maddow looks at the the linkages with other right wing campaigns through bogus grassroots “think tanks” such as Americans for Prosperity which was also involved in the anti-health reform campaign and many others. As Maddow documents Americans for Prosperity is anything but a grassroots organization.
It was in 1950 that Richard Doll documented the link between smoking and lung cancer. It did not take long to provide overwhelming evidence of the lethal effects of tobacco smoking, yet industry campaigns managed to delay action for almost half a century. Now that the industrialized world is making some effort to curb tobacco smoking the industry is expanding in the developing world.
Let’s be clear here. We are not talking about the right of corporations and individuals to voice dissenting opinions. This is not an ad hominem attack meant to cast doubt on their arguments based on who funded it. We know for a fact that their claims are false. Just as the tobacco lobby does and did, they are knowingly and deliberately disseminating lies for the purposes of personal profit. Lies that will kill many hundreds of millions of human beings.
Yet it is equally true that if we are to save humanity we have to consider why we are doing so. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right and not one to be dismissed lightly. To suggest saving people only to have them live under totalitarian dictatorships is a Devil’s bargain at best.
If the Deniers are using the tobacco model and techniques for their lies, then the appropriate model for legal action against oil companies and their executives is almost certainly the tobacco lawsuits. Here too we find corporate decision makers deliberately lying and funding doubt about the science in order to continue profiting even though it does great public harm. In fact it is no accident that many of the more prominent climate Deniers like Steve Milloy, Fred Singer and Thomas Gale Moore were also funded by big tobacco to do cancer denial before they became climate change Deniers.
In the Litigation Against Tobacco Companies the courts found that the defendants were liable because the “Defendants have falsely denied, distorted and minimized the significant adverse health consequences of smoking for decades.”
The criteria was “The scientific and medical community’s knowledge of the relationship of smoking and disease evolved through the 1950s and achieved consensus in 1964. However, even after 1964, Defendants continued to deny both the existence of such consensus and the overwhelming evidence on which it was based.”
So they ARE criminally liable if they continue to knowingly spread misinformation after the scientific community has achieved consensus. There is scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change and there has been for 15 to 20 years.
Insomuch as the corporate Deniers claim that they have investigated the climate science thoroughly and that there is no significant evidence it seems to me they have lied themselves into a corner. Either they are lying about having examined the science or they are lying about what the science says, but either way they are lying. This makes them liable to legal action.
We don’t have half a century to waste tolerating these disinformation campaigns. This is not a question of upholding freedom of speech, it is a matter of corporate and individual criminality. The value of these reports is not in casting doubt on the Denier arguments; those have been known all along to be nonsense. The value is that the reports present an opportunity to hold the guilty parties responsible for their crimes, and to end the disinformation campaigns with legal penalties appropriate to the magnitude of those crimes.
This is not what we should do, it is what we must do … and soon.