The Earth gets its day in court

Last month the Earth got its first day in court in cases against ExxonMobil lodged in New York and Massachusetts in which it was alleged, among other things, that the company misled the public about its product.

In 2010 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their book Merchants of Doubt detailed how a group of people obscured the truth on issues from tobacco to climate change – with, in some cases, the same people being involved in both denialist campaigns. Now, nine years later, the story may be coming to a conclusion with the issues litigated in court rather than the more hospitable theatres of the US Congress, the Murdoch media and the Australian Liberal-National Government. Not that Congress is entirely neglecting the issue, of which more later.

Significantly, to coincide with the New York case, George Mason University 4Cs researchers John Cook and Edward Maibach, along with colleagues from Harvard University and the University of Bristol, released a report illustrating how the oil industry “polluted the information landscape” and explaining how we can undo that damage.

In releasing their report 4C noted that Bloomberg had reported that Massachusetts was also “proceeding with a case against the company for misleading the public about its product. While the legal proceedings are complicated, they are underpinned by a simple truth: for decades, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations funded efforts to deceive the American people about the dangers of their product.”

Cook and Maibach say their report “summarizes the insights of more than a decade of peer-reviewed research, and is written specifically to help inform policymakers, journalists, and the public. It covers what the fossil fuel industry knew versus what they said the arguments they used to seed doubt in the public, the techniques they use to create those arguments. The report also discusses strategies for combating them.”

“This report shines disinfecting sunlight on how fossil fuel funded disinformation has denied the public’s right to be accurately informed,” co-author, Professor Cook said.

In summary the report concludes that:

• Internal corporate documents show that the fossil fuel industry has known about the reality of human-caused climate change for decades. Its response was to actively orchestrate and fund denial and disinformation so as to stifle action and protect its status quo business operations.
• As the scientific consensus on climate change emerged and strengthened, the industry and its political allies attacked the consensus and exaggerated the uncertainties.
• The fossil fuel industry offered no consistent alternative explanation for why the climate was changing—the goal was merely to undermine support for action.
• The strategy, tactics, infrastructure, and rhetorical arguments and techniques used by fossil fuel interests to challenge the scientific evidence of climate change—including cherry picking, fake experts, and conspiracy theories—come straight out of the tobacco industry’s playbook for delaying tobacco control.

“These key points reflect the position of experts studying climate denial and the history of fossil fuel interests, based on thousands of pages of documented evidence,” the researchers said.

Bloomberg reported that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was poised to sue Exxon Mobil “for allegedly deceiving consumers about the climate-warming impacts of fossil fuels” after having been ready to launch the action for more than four years.

Exxon promptly accused Healey of attempting to distract the company while it was getting ready for the separate climate-related trial in New York saying according to Bloomberg that  “The timing of the Attorney General’s threat is no coincidence,” and called it “an intentional and cynically transparent ploy to distract ExxonMobil from its trial preparations” and get media attention. Poor babies getting picked on like that and not having the resources to run two court cases at once!

Healey’s office promptly told Exxon that it “has reason to believe” the company violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act by “engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices” in the marketing and sale of fossil fuel products and Exxon securities.

Meanwhile things got interesting in Congress. Probably no newly elected Congress member has experienced such a vicious debut as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (popularly known as AOC). Attacked for her looks, her beliefs, even for how much she pays for having her hair done and many other assorted other things.

Ironically the hair problem was raised by Republican men who knew so little about women’s hair costs that they thought the price was outrageous and wanted to know why she hadn’t had her hair done in the taxpayer subsidised Congressional hair salon. To say the least, an odd attack on an alleged socialist from so-called believers in free enterprise. But then no-one ever said a Trump era Republican Congressman needed to be smart or consistent.

Why they hate AOC quite so much is, of course, because she is smart and effective as shown by her recent interrogations during Congressional hearings involving Facebook head, Mark Zuckerberg, and an Exxon Mobil consultant.

In Zuckerberg’s case he looked stunned and was exposed as rather gormless. He came across as he obviously is: thick and rich like cream. Indeed, in the face of the interrogation he didn’t say much for the benefits of a Harvard education. His marketing people aren’t that flash either having addressed some of its ongoing image problems with a rebranding of Facebook to FACEBOOK. Is it a forerunner of how they will once again facilitate a Trump election?

But even more effective was AOC’s demolition, during the hearing on ExxonMobil, of Martin Hoffert a consultant for the company. She showed Hoffert a graph he worked on from 1982, asks him to describe it, and gets him to explain how the company knew about climate change before she was even born – predicting its levels accurately until the present day.

The stinger comes at the end, when Hoffert testifies: “We were excellent scientists,” and she adds: “Yes. You were: so they knew.”

By the way the Harvard Professor, Naomi Oreskes has just published a new book, Why Trust Science?, which is a follow up to Merchants of Doubt and a guide to why science should be trusted before climate deniers, anti-vaxxers and other pedlars of dangerous misinformation. A Guardian interview gives you the flavour of her new book. Also by the way Nature celebrated its 150th birthday this week. Science research and discovery rocks on.