As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway point out in their book “The Merchants of Doubt,” the fossil fuel industry and the hard right have used the same tactics as the tobacco industry to seed doubt about the danger of climate change. In fact, they’ve often used the same people and institutions to deliver that message. Although that’s depressing (fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me), it’s also hopeful, because we beat tobacco — or at least we’re winning, with smoking rates having dropped from 45% of the population in 1954 to less than 20% today.
First, we implemented policy solutions. The “sin taxes” levied on tobacco in most states made it increasingly difficult to afford the habit and created incentives to quit. Yes, those were regressive taxes, but some of the tax revenue has been used to support health and smoking-cessation programs.
Second, we used the courts to take on tobacco for willfully and knowingly hurting people. And we started to win those lawsuits.
Third, we changed cultural norms through advertising, in many cases funded through tobacco taxes.
And fourth, we embraced real, third-party, arbitrated science, blessed with the imprimatur of the U.S. surgeon general, as a tool for moving public policy forward.
And we won, even though nobody on an airplane in 1975 would have thought it possible. So let’s consider how we might apply those same techniques to solving climate change.
For starters, a revenue-neutral carbon tax could serve as a market mechanism to not only incentivize efficiency and clean energy but also as a way to create a free market for the first time, one that puts a price on the external costs of carbon. Even Canada’s oil-rich Alberta has such a tax. Such levies encourage efficiencies because reducing emissions leads to lower taxes.
As to legal action, we are already seeing a burgeoning movement to use the courts to hold polluters accountable for the harm they have done — and continue to do — to the air, the climate and our health.
“Atmospheric trust litigation” calls on the judicial branches of governments to force emissions cuts based on their fiduciary responsibility to protect the public trust.
NASA climatologist James Hansen recently filed a statement to a British court in support of an effort seeking to disclose who is funding the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate skeptic think tank. Meanwhile, there is a growing conversation about who is liable for climate change. Businesses, shareholders and insurance companies are taking notice.
We are also slowly but surely chipping away at cultural norms with advertising and other media. The movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was a watershed in this effort, but many other examples abound…. A good maxim is that when a social debate reaches a charged state at the dinner table, the battle is nearly won. Think about civil and gay rights.
Last, science is slowly but surely taking back the game. When the Wall Street Journal published a series of baseless lies about climate change in January, it was debunked rapidly and widely by third-party groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists. Other science arbiters, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, have also made overwhelmingly clear the need for action.
Sure, there’s a long way to go. Denial is rampant, and the money behind the effort to delay action is as plentiful as civilization has ever known. But one only need recall the despair of the “nonsmoking” section of an airplane to remember that often sea change laps at the edges of convention. It really is darkest just before the dawn.
You can read the entire piece on the LA Times website.
Auden Schendler is the author of “Getting Green Done” and a board member of Protect Our Winters.