Ever since Big Tobacco reached a deal with the U.S. government to settle the claims against it the folks who profited most from the deal have been looking for ways to replicate it. They haven’t had much success, but not for lack of trying.
No, the trial lawyers and university scholars and public interest activists and media hogs and politicians who found the tobacco case so helpful to them in so many ways tried to get their hooks into Big Snack, Big Soda, Big Pharma, Big Food and other industries without much success. Their only bright spot thus far is they’ve managed to get Big Oil — or Exxon/Mobil at any rate — into court over allegations the company lied for years to the public about the effects of global warming.
The suit is the brainchild of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman whose case was moving along fine until the judge determined Exxon/Mobil had not lied to anyone about the possible connection between the use of fossil fuels and global warming. In fact, he found, they’d been publicizing the potential linkage for some time.
Mr. Schneiderman, who’s not one to give up easily, changed tactics and forged ahead. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the academic community. It was still busy trying to make the case the original charge held water. On August 22, The New York Times published an op-ed by Harvard University post-doctoral fellow Geoffrey Supran and Harvard University History of Science Professor Naomi Oreskes promoting a new finding that did just that.
“Scrutiny is mounting on the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company,” they wrote. “On multiple legal fronts the question is being asked: Did Exxon Mobil’s communications about climate change break the law?”
The answer, as the New York judge has already determined, is no. Ms. Oreskes may be an anti-global warming activist but she’s no climate scientist. She’s in a poor position to judge the science of which she claims to know the history but is in an excellent position to develop ideas the so-called environmental community can use as the leading wedge in suits against companies like Exxon/Mobil.
She’s following a playbook very similar to the one used by the plaintiffs against Big Tobacco, which probably utilized more activists with fancy sounding titles than actual scientists to make its case.
In 2010 along with Eric Conway, Ms. Oreskes wrote “Merchants of Doubt,” which claimed scientists with conservative connections and leanings had let their politics interfere with their interpretation of data and were used by Big Oil to mislead the public on the dangers of issues like climate change.
Some academics dismissed the book as merely a “one-sided polemic.” Nonetheless it helped give considerable momentum to the #ExxonKnew campaign on social media.
Ms. Oreskes’s work has been the subject of sharp questions by some leading scientists, including S. Fred Singer, a physicist and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project whom advocates for the theory of manmade global warming regard as one of the world’s principal and most effective “climate deniers.”
The book he co-wrote with other skeptics, “Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Consensus,” and released during a 2014 Paris climate meeting has been particularly helpful in beating back the idea the issue is settled because the scientific community is in lockstep agreement about the facts, the cause, and the solution. In truth there are about as many theories as there are serious scientists looking seriously at the problem.
Ms. Oreskes is hardly a disinterested observer. She’s an activist who is using both the report and the op-ed in the Times to jump start the #ExxonKnew campaign which, most observers would likely agree, is foundering as a result of Mr. Schneiderman’s failure to make progress in the New York courts. Ironically enough her work, like the work of some many others attacking Exxon/Mobil and Big Oil, is generously supported by The Rockefeller Family Fund — whose economic strength is founded in the fortune created when family patriarch John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil practically ran the American oil industry.
For anyone who bothers to connect the dots, the effort to prove the case against Big Oil has many fingerprints on it. It’s not some kind of artesian effort to get at the truth with the different players coming together to reach the same conclusions at convenient times by coincidence. There’s too much order and logic behind it all for that to be the case.
Someone or something is behind it all, motivated more by self-interest than by altruism. On the other hand even if this effort fails it’s been a pretty good shakedown cruise for the theories and tactics they planned to employ against industries with deep pockets. What ultimately flops against Big Oil could, with a little tweaking here and there, work quite well against Big Something at some time in the future.
• Peter Roff is a former senior writer for United Press International who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network.
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