“Conspiracy Theory”—Will the legal strategy that brought down Big Tobacco work against Big Oil?


In an article about climate litigation filed against major energy companies on behalf of a village on the coast of Alaska, Stephan Faris writes in the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly: “Proving that energy companies tried to slow government action on global warming won’t be hard. The challenge in the Kivalina case, as it was in the breakthrough tobacco cases, will be to prove that these companies lied in the course of their business, and were aware that the consequences could be dangerous.” We add a quote about the fossil fuel lobby’s presence at the table of the federal climate science program.

To ward off unwanted regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel companies have used methods that are in some cases analogous to those used earlier by the tobacco companies—including the use of industry-funded groups to spin up an exaggerated sense of fundamental scientific uncertainty about the harmful consequences of consuming their product. Now litigation filed against 24 oil, coal, and electric power companies, claiming that their emissions are contributing to the destruction of a village on the coast of Alaska, are using an approach similar to one that proved effective in litigation against the tobacco companies. The lawsuit charges that the companies knew about the scientific evidence of the threat of global climate change driven by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, but conspired to conceal the risks and mislead the public through their support for what we termed the global warming denial machine, or disinformation campaign. Stephan Faris writes about this in his article “Consipracy Theory” in the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly. The article includes the following: 

The energy industry’s ties to government, like the tobacco industry’s, have been unusually tight, and its lobbying efforts demonstrably effective. Philip Cooney, a liaison between the Bush administration and federal environmental agencies, edited uncertainty into reports on global warming by top government scientists from 2001 until 2005, when he resigned after examples of his changes were published by The New York Times. Before joining the White House, Cooney had worked for the American Petroleum Institute; a week after his departure, Exxon­Mobil announced he was joining the company. “In a sense, ExxonMobil walked right into the room of the science program,” says Rick Piltz, the federal official who blew the whistle on Cooney….

The first tobacco suits were filed in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1988 that lawyers were able to find chinks in the industry’s armor. The first lawsuit to succeed was also the first to accuse the industry of conspiracy.

*RP disclaimer: To keep the record straight on one detail, while I served as Senior Associate in the coordination office of the federal Climate Change Science Program / Global Change Research Program, I was not technically a “federal official” because formally my employer was a university research consortium. The quote from me is accurate.


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