When we see a stray can in our private gardens we do not hesitate to pick it up. It is considered common sense to prevent our children from playing in a lawn drenched in pesticides. Yet, because Earth is so unfathomably large, most of us quickly treat pollution and environmental degradation as if they are someone else’s problems rather than our own. But the Earth is ours. It is our only home and the provider of everything we need to survive. It is therefore essential that we translate the compassion we feel towards our private homes into a sense of concern on the grander scale. The quality of every individual’s life is inextricably linked to the health of planet earth, and currently, we are locking ourselves and our children in a garage with a running car.
Today, most people have come to accept that climate change is real. The problem is that the majority still believes it is not human-caused. They cannot seem to accept that the human race is capable of influencing something as seemingly all-powerful and uncontrollable as the climate. Aside from scientific data, this assumption of human insignificance is immediately debunked by simple reflection on the power of the atomic bomb, or the fact that 20% of the Amazon Rain Forest has been cleared in just forty years of deforestation for the purposes of farming and urbanization (Wallace). This demonstrated power is then validated by 97% of scientists who believe global warming exists and is human caused (Vaidyanathan, 2014).
As a passionate biochemistry student who is pursuing a carrier in research for environmental biology and bioremediation, it pains me to see that a public controversy still exists over an issue that enjoys so much scientific consensus. The perpetuation of this unnecessary doubt is bolstered by corporate lobbyist groups in the oil industry, and it is frightening to see how effective their propaganda is. There is a disproportionate disconnect between the 97% consensus of scientists and the public perception of scientific consensus: one third of people still believe there is “a lot of disagreement between scientists on the fundamental causes and existence of global warming” (Marion, 2013). This perceived disagreement then results in the staggering 59% of Americans who still either do not believe global warming is human-caused or “do not know” (Marion, 2013). This is detrimental to environmental reform because the public comprises the electorate that determines our democratic representatives in government. If the public questions the existence of a problem, then officials elected to office will similarly lack the drive to take action through regulatory programs, research funding, and proliferation of accurate information. Essentially, a misinformed populous results in a misguided government.
The corporate strategy of marketing scientific confusion to consumers is not new. The tobacco industry denied links between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer until the early 1960’s despite mounting evidence from research teams such as Wynder & Graham and Hill & Doll that began to reveal the negative health effects of smoking in the 1930’s (Brandt). Similarly, scientific data trends have suggested that global climate change is human-caused since the 1930’s. As research continuously revealed the detrimental effects of various industrial pollutants, a general scientific consensus on global warming was reached by the late 1970’s (Weart, 2014). It is now 2014 and 59% of American’s still do not believe in human-caused global warming.
Striking similarities exist between the tactics used by oil companies today and the tobacco industry of the 20th century to maintain this public confusion. The misinformation campaign begins with a marketing strategy. When health science became the tobacco industry’s primary rival, they cleverly claimed the arena by putting science on their side. The Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) was created and used as a propaganda machine to produce and publicize invalidated “scientific data” that countered the anti-tobacco movement. The oil industry has learned well from their predecessor. In 2013, over 140 million dollars was spent by lobbyist groups in the oil and gas industry (Annual, 2014). The oil and gas misinformation campaign is also strongly supported by multiple other groups such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Institute for Energy Research who all spread the seeds of unmerited doubt about global warming. All of these organizations are financially linked to the oil industry (Global). To gain credibility, the tobacco industry then funded vocal critics of the anti-tobacco movement, such as the renowned researcher, C.C Little (Brandt). Along the same vine, the oil industry is infamous for funding public representatives and corporate scientists to vocalize misinformation or false-conflict about global warming. For example, in 2007, “scientists and economists have been offered $10000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report [published by the UN’s IPCC]” (Sample, 2007). The power of the tobacco and oil industries stems also from their inherently close ties to our government. Tobacco had been a key part of the American economy since the 1700’s when colonists used it for trade (Brandt). It then grew to be a fundamental tax base which caused our government to rely on the industry for revenue. This reliance was exasperated by the apparent emotional benefits cigarettes gave war veterans from WWII, leading President F.D. Roosevelt to claim tobacco was necessary for our victory (Brandt). A similar power is held by the oil industry, which has been established as one of the central ingredients to America’s prolific industrial economy as well as a necessary agent for our national security. With such a powerful historical reputation, funding is disproportionately distributed to oil and gas as opposed to green energy. “In cumulative dollar amounts, over the lifetimes of their respective subsidies, the oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries have received approximately $630 billion in U.S. government subsidies, while wind, solar, biofuels and other renewable sectors have received a total of roughly $50 billion in government investments” (Even, 2014). Just as Americans had become physically addicted to nicotine, we now have become economically addicted to oil.
The tactics used repeatedly by industrial corporations to smother disagreeable scientific data is disturbingly shortsighted, a blatant devaluation of public health, and an illegitimate damper on scientific progress.
Just as the tobacco industry advertised to America’s youth with no regard to increasing our future generations’ susceptibility to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, the oil industry continues to push for dirty energy with no regard to the public health risks caused by natural disasters, extreme heat, poor air quality, increased diseases rates, and the turmoil from flooding and other invasive land changes caused by global warming (Union; 2011). Future generations are sacrificed for fast money.
Just as the tobacco industry manipulated cigarette design to fool regulatory safety tests rather than removing carcinogens, oil companies ferociously fight regulations on carbon filtration systems and find loopholes to avoid lawsuits, such as the fracking industry’s exemption from “key federal environmental regulations” that protect our drinking water (Fracking; 2014). Public health is sacrificed for money.
Just as the tobacco industry spent immense resources to stop scientists from effectively warning the public of the dangers of smoking, the oil industry is preventing the public from effectively creating a cleaner, healthier, and more efficient society. Scientific progress is sacrificed for money.
The list of corporate injustices committed by the oil and gas industry is virtually endless and it is sickening how dramatically greed can warp humans’ capacity for compassion.
Evidence of melting ice caps, increased ocean acidity, endangering species, excessive droughts, and unprecedented extreme weather shows that global warming is already causing harmful environmental changes. We are experiencing global warming as we speak, but the doubt spread by the oil and gas industry dissipates our motivation to take action. The oil and gas industry has learned to protect its wealth using the strategies of ingenious predecessors. We, the people, must now learn from former scientific and humanitarian activists how to prevent the successful application of manipulative misinformation, because the Earth is our home, and it needs a major renovation.
- Annual Lobbying on Oil and Gas. (2014, October 27). Retrieved November 24, 2014, from https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/indusclient.php?id=E01
- Brandt, A. (n.d.). The Causal Conundrum. InThe Cigarette Century (pp. 131-239). Basic Books.
- Even with massive subsidies, renewable energy technology cannot survive. Renewables have been getting subsidies for years now; they should be able to stand on their own. | Energy Fact Check. (2014, January 1). Retrieved November 25, 2014, from http://www.energyfactcheck.org/slideshow/even-with-massive-subsidies-renewable-energy-technology-cannot-survive-renewables-have-been-getting-subsidies-for-years-now-they-should-be-able-to-stand-on-their-own/
- Fracking: Laws and Loopholes | Clean Water Action. (2014, January 1). Retrieved November 25, 2014, from http://cleanwater.org/page/fracking-laws-and-loopholes
- Global Warming Skeptic Organizations. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2014, from http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/fight-misinformation/global-warming-skeptic.html#.VHP014vF8hU
- Marlon, J.R., Leiserowitz, A., and Feiinberg, G. (2013) Scientific and Public Perspectives on Climate Change. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication
- Sample, I. (2007, February 2). Scientists Offered Cash to Dispute Climate Study. Retrieved November 25, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2007/feb/02/frontpagenews.climatechange
- Union of Concerned Scientists. (2011, January 1). Global Warming Effects on Health. Retrieved November 25, 2014, from http://www.climatehotmap.org/global-warming-effects/health.html
- Vaidyanathan, G. (2014, July 24). How to Determine the Scientific Consensus on Global Warming. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-determine-the-scientific-consensus-on-global-warming/
- Wallace, S. (n.d.). Amazon Rain Forest, Deforestation, Forest Conservation – National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved November 25, 2014, from http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/last-of-amazon/
- Weart, S. (2014, February 1). Global Warming Timeline. Retrieved November 25, 2014, from http://www.aip.org/history/climate/timeline.html