When Will the Victims of Oil Companies’ Lies Get Their Day In Court?
It’s past time for the fossil fuel industry to face the same type of courtroom reckoning the tobacco industry did in the late 1990s and Alex Jones faced yesterday
The victims of Alex Jones’ lies about the Sandy Hook slaughter of their children were just awarded about a billion dollars by a jury of his peers. Jones made tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions peddling lies leading to years of stalking, harassment, and emotional torture of the families of the children who died.
Which raises a vital question: When will the victims of oil companies’ lies — which have led to far more deaths than happened that terrible day in Connecticut — get their day in court?
There’s an amazing backstory here.
During the week of Christmas, 1953 a group of tobacco executives met discreetly with John Hill of Hill & Knowlton, then the largest, most powerful, and most prestigious PR firm in the world, at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
News that tobacco caused cancer had leaked into the mainstream press with recent stories in TIME magazine, Readers’ Digest, and Life magazine telling the stories of scientists who had reached that conclusion and the tragedies of Americans dying of lung cancer.
John Hill, according to still-extant notes from the meeting, advised the tobacco bigwigs to create an authoritative-sounding group of scientists — he suggested it be called the “Tobacco Industry Research Committee” but they later simply named it “Project Whitecoat” — staffed by well-paid scientists willing to tell the public there was nothing to worry about.
For the next four decades the tobacco industry manipulated the press; published phony science; fielded scientists, doctors, and PR flacks; placed articles in mass-circulation magazines and newspapers; went on TV and radio; and paid writers, producers, and actors to smoke in movies and on television.
“Doubt is our product,” read a later memo from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”
The tobacco industry only stopped peddling lies about their product in the United States after losing a $206 billion lawsuit in 1998.
The fossil fuel industry set up their own version of Project Whitecoat after Exxon scientist Marty Hoffert ran a pretty irrefutable computer model in 1981 showing that disastrous climate change would happen if the world continued to consume fossil fuels at the rate it was then.
Instead of changing their ways, his employer and others in the industry threw millions into funding phony science outfits and sellout scientists willing to promote doubt as their product.
As Hoffert told the BBC two years ago:
“What they did was immoral. They spread doubt about the dangers of climate change when their own researchers were confirming how serious a threat it was.”
Now the bill is coming due.
So far governments have been the ones bearing the burden: two months ago Denmark announced that they’d allocated $13 million to help poor countries hurt by climate change caused by fossil fuels burned in that nation.
A year earlier, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, committed £1 million (about $1.3 million) to the United Nation’s Climate Justice Resilience Fund to help poor countries recover from climate change caused disasters.
Both allocations are a mere drop in the bucket — sort of like the early tobacco settlements in the 1980s and early 1990s — although they represent a trend that can’t be ignored.
Meanwhile, like the tobacco companies in the 1950s through the 1970s, the fossil fuel companies who funded decades of lies and misinformation have been largely untouched by requests or demands for reparations for the damages their products have caused.
The governments of Denmark, Scotland, and even the United States were not, by and large, the source of the coverups of knowledge about the coming impacts of climate change.
That distinction lies with the fossil fuel behemoths themselves, some of whom continue to fund such disinformation campaigns and climate-denying politicians to this day.
At last month’s meeting of the UN, Secretary General António Guterres pointed out the oil industry’s massive profits and spoke passionately about the importance of nations taxing their fossil fuel companies to raise money that could help people harmed by climate change.
The event was eclipsed by the war in Ukraine and Europe’s coming winter heating challenge. But make no mistake: the fossil fuel industry has known for over 40 years that the disasters and tragedies people are experiencing around the world were coming because of their products.
And instead of preparing the world, they chose to lie and bribe politicians while their executives laughed all the way to the bank.
The poor countries of the world — who have contributed only a tiny fraction of the world’s carbon pollution that’s driving climate change — are bearing the brunt of its impacts if only because they’re less resilient and less able to pay to recover and rebuild.
The people of Florida who were wiped out by Hurricane Ian, the people of California who’ve lost their homes to wildfires, the people of the Midwest whose homes were destroyed by flooding and derechos are also victims of these immoral companies, although they’re largely being backstopped by insurance companies and FEMA.
But, as Americans with access to wealth and our court system, it’s just a matter of time before they begin suing the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil fuel industry profits since the 1970s, when word was first circulating in scientific circles that climate change was happening and could be bad, have totaled as much as $50 trillion, an average of $3 billion a day for around 50 years.
Last year the oil industry alone saw over $200 billion in reported and distributed profits and the last few quarters have been the industry’s most profitable ever, with first quarter profits hitting over $100 billion.
The Saudis betrayed America and went along with Putin to cut production, increasing the price of oil and the price of gasoline at the pump, as we are seeing with the inflation numbers released this morning. This will add to the fossil fuel industry’s profit income in coming quarters.
The industry is using part of these obscene profits not to remediate the harms they’ve created but, instead, to lobby governments around the world to dial back plans to de-carbonize their economies.
Next month at the COP27 meeting in Egypt there will be more calls for rich nations to pitch in to help poor nations devastated by climate change. But that should be just the beginning.
It’s past time for the fossil fuel industry to face the same type of courtroom reckoning the tobacco industry did in the late 1990s and Alex Jones faced yesterday.
PS: On my radio program today Congressman Mark Pocan will be announcing new legislation to forbid insurance companies from calling the insanely profitable insurance products they peddle to seniors “Medicare” or “Medicare Advantage.” This is a big deal and I encourage you to reach out to your member of Congress to support his legislation to stop this deceptive branding and marketing.
All you say here, Thom, is absolutely accurate and true. However, I am old enough to remember the gas-rationing days during President Jimmy Carter's time in office and we (the USA at least) had a wake-up call regarding our great dependence on oil & gas--especially the foreign variety. We as consumers had choices--and we became well aware of that fact. But then Ronald Reagan stepped into the White House...and suddenly we as a country had complete amnesia about our wake-up call. We resorted to bigger & "better" gas-guzzling SUV's and monster trucks whose MPG's decreased greatly--not increased. In 2015 I found my dream car on Craigslist, took a Greyhound bus to Portland, OR (your city, Thom), and bought a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid. I found it was advertised brand-new as getting 50+ mpg...and hoped for at least 40. To my surprise, to this day it's still getting very close to 50 mpg--even with my mountain-home driving. It is the smartest, most economical, least polluting, least gas-consuming car I've ever owned in my 75 years. And the one question I haven't been able to answer is this: Why didn't we Americans fall absolutely in love with such a vehicle way back when this car came out in 2003? Can you imagine what a terrific stepping stone hybrids like this would have been for everyone while we weaned ourselves from foreign oil, cut emissions, and developed EV's & transitioned to them? I think we need to stop pointing the finger so much to "others"--even gas & oil companies--and wean our minds and choices from their products by choosing much more efficient vehicles...especially now that EV's are becoming affordable. Yes, climate change is real--and too often these days devastating. We consumers need to accept partial responsibility for THAT fact because, in my opinion, we really blew a great opportunity to really cut our consumption when we had our first big wake-up call some 45 years ago.
Once again, it's about how our brains work. From your BBC link: "This ideological divide has had far-reaching consequences. Polls conducted in May 2020 showed that just 22% of Americans who vote Republican believed climate change is man-made, compared with 72% of Democrats." That's in 2020 for Christ's sake!
I just want to add to the discussion on who drives what. I watched the creeps from the oil industry testify with the creeps from the car manufacturers in front of Congress. Simply put, they tried to act like they worked together to give the public what it wants to drive and clean fuels for those vehicles. I call BS! Neither industry cares about that. They build the BIG ones to keep sucking gas while trying to convince mom and pop their responsibility is to get an SUV to transport kids, dogs, and groceries. They try to equate macho with a big-ass-gas-sucking truck. Propaganda and collusion between those industries has set us back 50 years on the existing climate emergency.
It was all done on purpose---the big cars and trucks. We had to force the CAFE standards, and we had to fight the Republicans to do that. All along people on a budget have wanted small economical vehicles as well as hybrids. Now they want an affordable electric car they should have had nearly 30 years ago.
Same story as always, Republicans learn when the flood, tornado, hurricane, or fire takes away their home. Fossil fuels were a wonder, till we found out it will be a wonder if anyone survives the effect they have had. Make 'em pay for not stopping when they knew. Great Report as always, Thom.