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Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Lies

| October 12, 2015

big oil big lies big tobacco bill mckibben

Where there’s smoke, there’s lies. (POD)

By Bill McKibben and Kelle Louaillier

Over the last few years, a growing number of people have been taking a hard look at what is happening to our planet – historic droughts, rising sea levels, massive floods – and acknowledging, finally, that human activity is propelling rapid climate change. But guess what? Exxon (now ExxonMobil) had an inkling of this as early as 1978.


By the early 1980s, Exxon scientists had much more than an inkling. They not only understood the science behind climate change, but also recognized the company’s own outsize role in driving the phenomenon. Recognizing the potential effects as “catastrophic” for a significant portion of the population, they urged Exxon’s top executives to take action. Instead, the executives buried the truth.

There may be a silver lining to this infuriating story: the recent investigation that exposed Exxon’s deceit could end up catalyzing the action needed to address the looming climate crisis. After all, similar revelations about the tobacco industry – what the major cigarette companies knew and when they knew it – transformed the public-health landscape.

In 1996, a series of lawsuits forced tobacco companies to release millions of internal documents, which confirmed what public-health advocates and policymakers had long suspected: as early as the 1950s, the industry knew that nicotine was addictive and that cigarettes caused cancer. But, to protect its own interests, Big Tobacco deliberately misled the public, doing everything possible to cast doubt on scientific findings that it knew to be accurate. Such tactics enabled the industry to delay, for more than 50 years, regulation that could have saved millions of lives annually.

After the revelations, however, it was clear that the tobacco industry was a malevolent force that did not belong in the policymaking process. With Big Tobacco out of the picture, and armed with evidence of the real effects of tobacco consumption, health advocates were finally able to compel their governments to act.

In 2003, world leaders agreed to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. Today, the treaty covers 90% of the world’s population and has contributed to a significant decline in sales for global tobacco corporations. Over time, it will save hundreds of millions of lives (and save governments’ health-care budgets huge sums).

Big Oil, it is now clear, has been following Big Tobacco’s playbook. In 1997, almost two decades after it began studying climate change, it quashed its research, claiming that climate science was “far from clear” and thus that it did not “support mandated cuts in energy use.”


Exxon scientists knew in the early 1980s of climate change’s catastrophic consequences.


Beyond suppressing its own findings, ExxonMobil (and its peers) funded and promoted junk science and attacked scientists who warned of the impending climate disaster. The fossil-fuel companies’ approach was so effective that the media are only now beginning to recognize the leading role the industry played in creating – almost out of whole cloth – the so-called “climate debate.”

But perhaps Big Oil’s biggest success was diminishing the political will to implement appropriate regulation. Even after the international community adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, the fossil-fuel industry managed to block meaningful progress – to the point that, if serious action is not taken soon, the entire process could unravel.

In Europe, Royal Dutch Shell’s lobbying so diluted the European Union’s efforts that there are now no binding targets for renewables or energy efficiency for individual countries. The company even sent a letter to the European Commission’s president claiming that “gas is good for Europe.” Shell and other oil companies are now promising to work as “advisers” to national governments on how to deal with climate change.

Just as the tobacco files drove the tobacco industry out of policymaking processes, the Exxon investigation should compel world leaders to eliminate the fossil-fuel industry from efforts to solve the climate crisis. After all, no policy can succeed if those who shape it are betting on its failure.

The turning point for tobacco-related public-health policy came when the industry’s depravity became indisputable. Now, that moment has come for the climate movement. We cannot simply hope that the fossil-fuel industry will change its ways. As an alliance of human-rights groups, environmental activists, and corporate-accountability advocates already is demanding, we must kick the industry out of the policymaking process altogether.
Exxon’s scientists were right: the effects of climate change on many communities are catastrophic. With so many lives at stake – and such clear evidence of the threat – Big Oil, like Big Tobacco before it, should be treated for what it is: Big Trouble.

Bill McKibbenkelle louaillierBill McKibben, a scholar in environmental sciences at Middlebury College and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a co-founder of 350.org and the author of “The Age of Missing Information” and “Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist,” among some 16 books. Kelle Louaillier is President of Corporate Accountability International. (© Project Syndicate)

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7 Responses for “Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Lies”

  1. Banjomatic says:

    Bkg Tobacco. Big Oil. And now Big Government is going to save us.

  2. m&m says:

    The champion for blowing smoke and telling lies is Obama.

  3. Just me says:

    Love how in the headlines you call it “Exxon’s scientists knew by the early 1980s that human causes of global warming” global warming but now its not called that by the political extremists environmentalists. Now its known as climate change to cover whatever Nature does.

  4. Sherry says:

    Ahhhh.. . dear m&m. . . you could really save yourself a lot of time by just pasting those same words as comments about every article. . .

    The toe you stubbed this morning. . . was that “twice elected” President Obama’s fault also? Without ANY facts or reasonable logic. . . why bother to type the same comment over and over again. . . no “intelligent” person cares.

  5. Sherry says:

    The temperature on our planet ARE RISING and the vast majority of scientists have FACTUAL data to prove it! SO no matter what the idiot “Deniers” want to call it. . . we need to take care of our environment NOW!

    Take the time to “read” and “think” about some factual analysis:

    The average global temperature fluctuates every year. However, when you look at a snapshot of the global temperature trend, it’s on the rise – particularly since 1970. The main cause? Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

    There are plenty of factors that influence temperatures in different regions across the globe. El Niño is one of the biggest drivers of year-to-year variability, increasing the likelihood of warm weather in the Pacific Northwest and cooler weather in the Southeast as well as a host of other global impacts. Longer-term fluctuations such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and aerosols from natural and human sources can further affect regional climate. Solar cycles also have global temperature implications, although on a much smaller scale.

    These shifts taken individually and together account for the year-to-year variability seen in the global average temperatures. They can’t fully explain why the globe has warmed about 1.6°F since 1880, though.

    Overlaying the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere shows a clear correlation with that rise in temperatures. Of course correlation doesn’t always equal causation.

    However, reams of peer-reviewed research, basic physics, the ability to track the specific chemical fingerprint of fossil fuel-driven carbon, and the fact that no models can replicate this century’s warming without pumping up carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere give scientists confidence that human carbon emissions are driving the globe’s temperature higher. Other indicators such as ocean acidification, increasing deep ocean heat, melting ice and permafrost, shrinking snow pack, and sea level rise further make the case that the additional carbon dioxide is affecting the global climate system.

    There are periods when other factors might temporarily slow that rise such as the much-discussed global warming “pause” of the last decade, but the overall connection is clear. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the globe’s average temperature is projected to follow suit. The worst-case emissions scenario, the track that we are currently on, estimates a rise in temperature of 4.7° to 8.6°F by 2100.

  6. Richard S. says:

    The real problem is China. The United States has already made great inroads into taking care of pollution through better CAFE standards, scrubber units at coal-powered electric plants and auto emissions.

    China has not done anything to cure the main problem of their emissions. The ball is in their court.

    If China doesn’t act on this, the efforts of the EPA will be naught in order to gain a 0.01% “cleaning” of our atmosphere at the cost of our economy. It is time for the EPA to take a rest and for Obama to pressure China into cleaning up its act.

    Air currents flow from west to east. And so goes the air pollution.

  7. Sherry says:

    No American President can control what “other” countries do! President Obama has worked hard to challenge China to cut their pollution. . . and has made some inroads there. Yes, we shouldcertainly keep up the pressure.

    What we CAN and SHOULD control is what happens in the USA. . . yet, we still have too many “climate change/warming deniers” who toss scientific fact aside! There are many in Congress and the state houses who are much more focused on dragging their feet on the environment because their decisions are “bought and paid for” by bribing “political contributions” by Big Oil!

    Whining like children that we shouldn’t need to do more because those other naughty countries aren’t doing enough is a typical childish Koch talking point.

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