My gracious host during the AGU in San Francisco was a veteran of the tobacco wars, so we had some interesting chats. Many people consider the tobacco battle won, but it’s actually just shifted to new fronts.
There are many lessons to be learned from the fifty-year battle with Big Tobacco, which famously perfected the art of industrial disinformation. They successfully stalled action against marketing cigarettes to kids for forty years after the discovery that tobacco is addictive and causes cancer. Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt documents in detail the direct lineage from tobacco to the climate disinformation campaign, which involves not only identical tactics but was launched by some of the very same individuals and PR firms.
The Climate Reality Project produced this riveting video on the same theme, including laughable cigarette ads (“10,000 doctors were asked, ‘Which cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?’ The brand named most was Camel!”) reassuring smokers on health, and featuring cold war physicist Frederick Seitz, who played a leading role in both disinformation campaigns.
Their tenacity is striking. An industry producing harmful but profitable products doesn’t give up, no matter how strong the science. They just retreat to a new line of defense and keep fighting. The exception: when an industry finds an safer but equally profitable substitute. In the 90’s, the chemical industry fought tooth-and-nail against a ban on ozone-eating CFL’s until they discovered that they could make even more money from ozone-friendly substitute refrigerants. Bingo! The Montreal Protocol was born.
Big Tobacco, on the other hand, cannot easily substitute another product. What other product is as satisfying, addictive, slow-to-kill, and profitable as tobacco? Fossil fuels arguably share that lucrative suite of traits, but that market is already locked up by it’s own oligopoly.
However, if the energy companies ever manage to find a way to corner the market for alternative energy, while generating even higher profits, the climate denial movement will rapidly “run out of gas.”
I used to wonder how tobacco and fossil fuel executives could look themselves in the mirror — and look their children in the eye. But that was before I appreciated the full power of cognitive dissonance and self-delusion, especially when vast riches are at stake.
Upton Sinclair dryly observed, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” I wonder what Sinclair would have said about the current case, when the stakes for oil executives are not ordinary salaries, but multi-million-dollar compensation packages.*
Some say tobacco and oil executives are “just doing their job,” which is defined by their boards — and by society at large — as maximizing profit as quickly as they can, any legal way they can, regardless of consequences. Given that reality, it falls to the rest of us, through representative government, to make sure that the full cost of any collateral damage — externalities such as pollution — to bystanders is priced into their products.
* In 2010, the median oil and gas CEO compensation was $13.7 million (Wall Street Journal). Topping the list is Exxon’s Roy Tillerson, who brought home $28,952,558 last year.
For perspective, however, it’s worth noting that at that rate of income, it would still take Tillerson 1,727 years to amass the wealth of the Koch Brothers, who in recent years surpassed Exxon as the chief funders of climate disinformation. Charles and David Koch’s combined net worth rose to $50 billion in 2011, placing them 4th and 5th on the Forbes list of “The Richest People in America.”