Kenneth Worthy Ph.D.

The Green Mind

Dirty Little Secrets of Exxon

Exxon mimicked the tobacco industry with lies to sow denial and doubt.

Posted Dec 31, 2015

The German political philosopher and historian Karl Marx observed that history repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

In 2006 a U.S. district judge ruled that U.S. cigarette makers had concealed the dangers of smoking for decades. This was not news to the many people who had been saying so for years. The tobacco industry regularly claimed in court cases and in the court of public opinion that smoking was not harmful (before then shifting the responsibility for the harms to smokers themselves, even though their product is addictive). Tobacco companies not only didn’t disclose the important public health data that their own research had produced but they also actively contradicted such reports in courts for many years. They lied, the judge found.

The federal government and the nation’s tobacco companies came to a settlement in recent years in which major U.S. tobacco companies were required to publish corrective statements saying that they had deceived the American public about the dangers of smoking and disclosing that smoking “kills more people than murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol combined, and that ‘secondhand smoke kills over 38,000 Americans a year.’” Pregnant mothers regularly smoked well into the 1960s unaware or unconcerned that doing so was causing deformities and low birth weight in babies.

These disclosures come a bit late for the many people killed, sickened, or deformed by tobacco smoke.

History Repeating Itself, Tobacco to Climate

It’s now been revealed that another lucrative industry—fossil fuels—has been concealing vital information about their products at least since the 1970s. Inside Climate News revealed through leaked internal documents that oil giant Exxon’s own research confirmed the role of fossil fuel in global warming decades ago.

According to these new reports, for decades the company actively sowed doubt about the same scientific consensus on climate science that its own scientists had confirmed in 1982. Exxon worked “at the forefront of climate denial, manufacturing doubt about the scientific consensus” on climate change and global warming. They also collaborated with the Bush-Cheney white house (remember, Vice President Dick Cheney had been an oil-industry executive) to exaggerate and misinterpret scientific uncertainty to create doubt that would support the status quo on oil production. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that other oil companies similarly concealed and acted against their own knowledge of the harms of their industry.

Global climate change, produced primarily by fossil fuels and industrial meat production, is a vast, multi-dimensional problem that is already creating chaos and uncertainty in weather patterns and death and destruction through flooding, drought, and a host of other ways. And its effects will continue for centuries, impacting generations of people yet born with famine, displacement, disease, and other terrible problems.

As I wrote in my previous post, the climate agreement reached by nearly two hundred countries in Paris in December gives reason for hope that governments around the world will respond in earnest and in ways that are appropriate to the scale of the problem.

But we’re LATE! Because we failed to act when the problem was first understood—and then for decades more—our actions now will have to be far more aggressive to slow or possibly stop climate change. The carbon released into the atmosphere in the decades since the scientific consensus around climate change began to arise in the early 1980s, when Exxon knew quite well about the problem, has committed the globe to some amount of climate disruption, as we have already begun to see. And it has made the work we must now do to change our economies and their energy base much harder because it must be done faster.

It’s like you’re driving a car at high speed toward an intersection where you know you’ll have to make a turn. You haven’t begun to slow down early enough, so you’re going to have to jam on the brakes, raising your risks as you enter the intersection, including the risk that you’ll miss the turn and crash.

Imagine how much good Exxon Mobil could have done by releasing and acting upon—rather than publicly fighting against—its own information about the dangers of climate change OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. The transition to a climate-neutral economy could have begun long ago. Given the economic and human toll already incurred from climate change (as I wrote in a previous post, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of people are already are dying per year as a direct result of climate change, and there’s approximately a 1–2 percent drain on global economic activity according to the organization DARA).

The public deserves to be outraged toward Exxon executives for purposely concealing and denying such critically important information and thus playing a major role in damaging global nature and human health.

Why Choose Death and Destruction?

What could make company executives and investors so callously disregard millions of people’s health and well-being and the security and habitability of planet Earth?

A knee-jerk answer might be profit. These decision makers stood to gain enormously by denying the deaths and destruction caused by their products. And let’s just imagine, with their salaries in the tens of millions of dollars, and industry profits in the hundreds of billions, that they did indeed enrich and empower themselves by ignoring or denying their role in climate change.

Greed is the cause, we are supposed to believe. But as I discuss in my book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment, greed may be a critical ingredient, though it’s not enough to facilitate these calamitous decisions by industry executives and investors. Dissociation is the other key ingredient.

Would those same tobacco industry executives take a gun and shoot in the head thousands or millions of people in return for tens of millions of dollars (even if they could get away with it)? Would the titans of fossil fuels push a button to inundate New Orleans or strangle to death hundreds of thousands of people every year (the number possibly already being killed by global warming) in return for their millions? Doubtful. You may find a psychopath willing to do these things, but a psychopath or even a “greedy bastard” isn’t necessary when decision makers are so decisively insulated from the harmful impacts of their decisions as are industrial titans in the modern economy. They make these decisions from the comfort of their posh offices, homes, clubs, and limousines.

Let’s make those industries pay for the cleanup of the messes they create (that would be fossil fuel and industrial agriculture companies paying for climate mitigation and adaptation, yes). Make those executives visit coastal cities in developing countries to see how climate change is impacting millions of poor people. Make the cigarette executives visit lung and colon cancer patients in the hospital every day. Let them all witness firsthand more of the consequences of their daily decisions.

The worst devastations of the modern era—people starving while ample food is produced in the world; the “sixth mass extinction,” in which human activity, particularly building or farming over natural habitats, is wiping out thousands of species permanently; entire oceans at risk of death due to acidification caused by increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere; loss of rainforests and their absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and so on—will continue so long as modern people continue to be dissociated from most of the direct harms of their everyday choices.

History repeating itself the first time in this case is the tragedy of global climate change. What farce is in store for us if we don’t demand decision makers be held accountable and put in touch with the consequences of their decisions?

Learn more about my book: Invisible Nature

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