Sometimes the truth hurts. And when it does, it can be tempting to try to cover up the facts. But ultimately it’s better to face them honestly because eventually the facts catch up to you. While I learned that lesson a long time ago, the fossil fuel industry seemingly has not.
After all, they have spent millions over decades to convince the public that consumption of their product would not lead to dire consequences for the planet. To date, they have yet to fully reckon with that, but I’m hopeful that the truth is catching up to the fossil fuel industry and 2016 will be a turning point.
This year there is an opportunity for the California Legislature to help redress this long-standing deception by passing the Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016 (SB 1161). This legislation, authored by Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, help law enforcement hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their actions. Specifically, it would extend the statute of limitations of California’s Unfair Competition Law to 30 years for deceptive behavior relating to the scientific evidence of climate change.
Why should the California legislature pass this bill? Here are my top five reasons:
1) Some fossil fuel companies have long known about the risks of climate change.
Recent reports by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times show that by the 1980s the fossil fuel industry was well aware of the emerging scientific consensus that emissions from the burning of fossil fuels were increasing global temperature.
In fact, many companies engaged in their own climate change research and shared some of this research with others in the industry. Exxon’s own climate scientists, for example, conducted cutting-edge climate change research in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
There is also evidence that companies began factoring projected climate change into their own business decisions and operations, such as designing new infrastructure to withstand rising sea levels and increased storm severity. In short, fossil fuel companies have long known about the risks and likely consequences of processing and burning their products.
2) The fossil fuel industry has spent decades deceiving the public about the science of climate change.
The realization that use of your company’s product (i.e., oil, gas and coal) as intended (i.e., burning it) is affecting life on earth in profound and potentially catastrophic ways for centuries to come (i.e., climate change) is about as hard a truth a corporation can be forced to face.
But that is exactly what confronted fossil fuel companies as the science of global warming was gaining wide recognition in the scientific community and making front-page headlines in the late 1980s and the broader public began to seriously consider whether, and how, to respond to climate change.
Here is where things get ugly: rather than owning up to the scientific reality of global warming, fossil fuel companies decided to develop and participate in a concerted campaign to sow confusion in the public about the scientific evidence linking fossil fuel emissions to rising global temperatures.
How do we know? UCS scoured collections of internal company and trade association documents that have been leaked to the public, come to light through lawsuits, or been disclosed through Freedom of Information Act requests and complied a report on our findings called The Climate Deception Dossiers.
In the report we describe, for example, a memo leaked to the New York Times that shows how the American Petroleum Institute—the country’s largest oil trade association whose member companies include BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell—convened a team in 1998 to create a public communications plan with the goal of convincing average citizens that the realities of climate science were uncertain. Other examples are in plain sight, such as a series of newspaper ads that Exxon ran in the late 1990s and early 2000s that overemphasized the scientific uncertainties of climate change.
3) There are real costs to fossil fuel industry deception.
Since 1988—around the time that fossil fuel companies began to systematically undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific evidence of global warming—743 gigatons of carbon dioxide have been emitted to the atmosphere. This represents more than half of all industrial carbon pollution emitted over the last 250 years.
Imagine an alternate world where fossil fuel companies had faced the facts of climate change head on and invested heavily in transforming themselves to provide low carbon sources of energy, leaving most of the fossil fuels consumed over the last two decades in the ground. We would live in a world with a far safer climate and Californians would face fewer threats from wildfires, drought, heat waves, and coastal flooding.
4) Deceiving the public is morally wrong.
Most of us expect businesses to look out for their bottom lines ahead of the public good. But there are limits to acceptable corporate behavior, and there is a difference between being amoral and immoral.
By constructing a decades-long campaign to misinform the public about the scientific realities of climate change, the fossil fuel industry crossed a moral Rubicon. By lying to the public, the industry has distorted the truth, denying the public a complete picture of the risks associated with using their products.
Many others have recognized the fundamental impropriety of this behavior as well. Most recently, the Rockefeller Family Fund announced its intent to divest from fossil fuels, citing ExxonMobil’s “morally reprehensible conduct” to confuse the public about climate change. This action is all the more notable given that John D Rockefeller Sr. was a co-founder of Standard Oil, a precursor to ExxonMobil. And a ruling last week by federal regulators cleared the way for ExxonMobil shareholders to grapple for the first time with the moral and justice implications of climate change as it relates to the company’s business.
There should be consequences any time a company lies to the public, but particularly for deceiving the public systematically for decades about an issue as serious and consequential as global warming. This legislation is an important way to hold them accountable.
5) A movement is building. California can stay at the forefront.
If you have been following this issue in the news, then you know that a movement is building to more fully uncover the truth about the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long effort to deny and deceive the public about climate change—and to hold these companies accountable for their actions.
Following the release of Inside Climate News’ eight-month investigation of Exxon and new reporting from the Los Angeles Times, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced in November that his office was beginning an investigation of ExxonMobil to determine whether the company lied to the public and shareholders. This was quickly followed in January with reports that California Attorney General Kamala Harris was beginning to investigate ExxonMobil as well.
While attention to ExxonMobil’s history of misdeeds is welcome, it is important to remember that they were not alone in fomenting disinformation about climate change—and that the campaign of deception continues today. In light of the evidence that has emerged so far, California congressman Ted Lieu has requested the U.S. Attorney General to launch investigations of both Shell and ExxonMobil.
Whether these companies have actually broken the law is something for the courts to decide—SB 1161 is not making that judgment. What SB 1161 is doing is giving law enforcement the opportunity to ensure that justice is served for the full weight of any violations that may have been committed.
Wherever these investigations lead, it is important that the California legislature—and by extension, the people of California—signal their intent to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its many decades of spreading disinformation.
- Background Information on Fossil Fuel Industry Climate Science Deception (PDF)
- Background Information on Climate Change and Costly Damages in California (PDF)
Update (April 1, 4:15pm): A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the bill would “give explicit authority to public prosecutors” to bring actions against those who have deceived with regards to climate change. The post has been updated to reflect the fact that the bill only extends the time period for bringing such actions based on existing law. The post also used the word “crimes,” but this is not a criminal statute. Instead, it is related to violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law, which is a civil statute.
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