Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Big Tobacco Comparison

Welcome to Katrina Kuh from Hofstra Law who has agreed contribute to the blog.  Here's her first piece on a topic that has crossed my mind more than once since ExxonMobil's funding of organizations who promote denialist global warming reports became an issue.  Certainly the effect has been no more benign than Big Tobacco, but it's not necessary a good analogy.  Professor Kuh's analysis follows:

In their recently-filed public nuisance suit, the plaintiffs in Kivalina v. ExxonMobil et al. allege a civil conspiracy by select energy defendants to distort public perceptions about the causes and effects of climate change.  In its description of the conspiracy, the Complaint suggests similarities between the energy defendants and Big Tobacco.  See Kivalina Complaint ¶¶ 192-93.  This follows on the heels of a number of reports and articles likewise drawing comparisons between major energy companies (Big Energy) and Big Tobacco.  E.g., Union of Concerned Scientists, Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco's Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science (January 2007).  The tobacco comparison thus seems to be catching on as a way to frame the climate change narrative.  However, is this comparison (1) apt and (2) useful in the context of climate change?  Are energy companies (really) to climate change as tobacco companies are to smoking?

There are compelling similarities between the energy industry's response to climate change science and the tobacco industry's response to research showing that smoking is harmful.  "Greenwashed" ads alternating images of oil rigs and natural vistas call to mind the rugged, healthy-looking Marlboro man; industry-funded "reports" and adverts about climate "science" call to mind tobacco company ads with doctors extolling the health benefits of smoking.  And there seems to be evidence that at least some energy companies used a number of the same strategies (and even sometimes the same advocacy groups, e.g., TASSC) as Big Tobacco in conducting so-called "information" campaigns.   Moreover, there is a similar specter of political capture - both Big Tobacco and Big Energy generously fill the coffers of influential politicians.

However, the comparison between Big Tobacco and Big Energy becomes strained when you move beyond the narrow issue of how the industries responded to science presenting a threat to the industry and consider more broadly the industries and the social problems at hand.   Cigarettes are expendable with respect to our way of life; fossil-fuel energy (at least for now) is not.  Stopping cigarette production on a dime would have bankrupted some major corporations and tobacco farmers; stopping fossil fuel energy production on a dime would bring our lives to a halt and cripple a massive economic infrastructure.  Although Big Energy may well be blameworthy in its efforts to unnecessarily prolong the use of fossil fuel energy, the mere fact that the industry continues to generate energy from fossil fuels (even with knowledge of climate change) simply isn't as culpable as the tobacco industry continuing to sell cigarettes knowing that they cause cancer. Moreover, unlike the tobacco industry, there is an opportunity (perhaps necessity) for energy companies to help implement responses to climate change.

Wholesale conflating of Big Energy and Big Tobacco may also have some unintended adverse consequences.   Painting Big Energy as a Darth Vader-like enemy could complicate efforts to involve the energy industry in responding to climate change.   It may also make it harder to induce GHG-lowering behavior changes by individuals.  In the context of climate change, we cannot indulge the environmental policy cliché that the problem can be solved by running herd on a few large ("evil," i.e., energy industry) polluters.  A meaningful response to climate change is going to require a far broader response with far greater impacts on individuals.  Moreover, if those who produce fossil fuel energy are evil then it's a short leap to paint energy consumers as complicit - in effect, energy consumers become the storm troopers to the Big Energy Darth Vader.  If individuals hear a message that they must adopt GHG-reducing actions (driving a hybrid, buying a fluorescent bulb) as atonement for "bad" behavior, that risks trading the halo effect for a pitchfork effect and engendering resistance and rejection.

Highlighting political failures (and the extent to which they may have been contributed to by industry disinformation campaigns and political contributions) can be helpful to insure healthier policy discussions going forward; comparisons to the tobacco experience in that limited context may well be appropriate and useful.  However, advancing a narrative with Big Energy cast broadly as the new Big Tobacco overstates the case and could have unfortunate consequences.   --  Professor Katrina Kuh, Hofstra Law

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Good comments. In support:

1) Since wealth ~ efficiency x energy, the energy companies are pretty important, and modern civilization is built on fossil energy. In any case, many execs from energy companies agree that Climate Change and Peak Oil are major problems for this next century.

For example, here's the ex-Chairman of Shell, Lord Ronald Oxburgh, a very good guy:

or recently retired CTO of Chevron, Donald Paul:

2) Nevertheless, we have a serious problem replacing fossil fuels. See Charlie hall's Balloon Chart:

All of which means we have to work very hard on efficiency and replacement via sustainable sources, and it will take many decades.

3) For cigarettes, I recommend the fine book by harvard medical historian Allan M. Brandt: "The Cigarette Century". This history is useful in understanding:

a) The rise of some of the tactics.
b) The rise of some of the PR agency / thinktank / lobbyests that serve both tobacco & fossil fuel.

4) However, the tobacco companies clearly provided the bulk of funding for the various pro-tobacco efforts. This is not at all clear in the case of those entities' fossil efforts.

If one looks at Sourcewatch, while Exxon Mobil, Western Fuels Association appear on occasion, big family foundations like Koch & Scaife are widely found.

I don't know the numbers [they aren't easy to find], but I'd speculate that there is far more funding from such foundations than directly from, say ExxonMobil.

5) We're going to burn all the oil & gas we can reasonably extract - they're just too useful. The real issue is coal, and there, I'd recommend Jeff Goodell's "Big Coal". If we try to burn all the coal, unsequestered, it is Very Bad News. look carefully at Charlie Hall's Balloon Chart to see why coal is so tempting...

6) Just as people vary, so do companies. We should reward energy companies that are trying ahrd, because if we lump them all as "evil", there is a temptation to say" we're evil no matter what we do, so we might as well be..."

Posted by: John Mashey | Mar 23, 2008 6:26:50 PM

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