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To take down Big Oil, opponents are following the Big Tobacco playbook

‘Two can play that game’

US-POLITICS-EXXONMOBILE-PROTEST Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images

This week, ExxonMobil goes on trial, facing a potentially historic legal showdown in New York. The company faces charges that it misled investors by downplaying how much future environmental regulations could affect its bottom line. If prosecutors nail Exxon on this case, it could be the start of a major reckoning for Big Oil.

Watching this week’s case is sort of like seeing notorious mobster Al Capone face a jury on tax evasion. It hinges on whether the company fudged its accounting, but symbolically, the trial stands for a lot more. Although this legal battle is a little different than the flood of other suits aimed at holding oil giants like Exxon responsible for catastrophes associated with climate change, this is the only suit so far to make it to trial.

It’s not just financial risk that Exxon has been accused of withholding. The oil giant knew for years about the dangers that burning fossil fuels pose to the whole planet, and it tried to cover it up, investigations by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News revealed in 2015. Some people think those tactics could eventually get it into a heap of trouble, on par with Big Tobacco paying hundreds of billions of dollars after its cover-up of the link between its products and cancer.

One of those people is Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes who has studied how oil companies like Exxon have influenced public opinion on climate change. The Verge caught up with Oreskes while she was in a cab on her way to the airport to testify before Congress at a hearing called “Examining the Oil Industry’s Efforts to Suppress the Truth about Climate Change.” She says she’s seen the same strategies deployed over and over again by tobacco, asbestos, and oil and gas. She co-wrote a book on that history called Merchants of Doubt, which was turned into a documentary film in 2014. She’s also the co-author of a new report released yesterday called “America Misled: How the fossil fuel industry deliberately misled Americans about climate change.”

“Merchants Of Doubt” Washington DC Premiere Photo by Kris Connor / Getty Images

Oreskes has been personally entangled in the hoopla surrounding ExxonMobil. In a statement regarding the trial it’s facing in New York, the company said, “It’s been well established that the New York Attorney General’s investigation and resulting civil lawsuit were politically motivated and resulted from a coordinated effort by anti-fossil fuel groups and contingency-fee lawyers involved in other lawsuits against industry.” On its webpage explaining the controversy over what ExxonMobil knew about climate change, the company calls Oreskes an activist who is behind efforts to convince a state attorney general to open an investigation.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The report published this week ends with a pretty big statement: “Big Oil is the new Big Tobacco.” Why is that?

The similarity in strategies and tactics [between the industries] was not coincidental. In fact, the fossil fuel industry hired many of the same PR firms, used many of the same advertising agencies, and, in some cases, used the same people to promote its message. So we’ve been trying to bring up this point for a long time now, nearly a decade, but since [Merchants of Doubt] was published, there’s been additional work done by additional people that has fleshed out the story in great detail.

The important additional piece that we’ve learned in recent years — which, again, parallels the issue with tobacco — is just how much ExxonMobil Corporation, in particular, actually understood the science internally, even while externally they were denying it. And of course, that’s the same thing we know the tobacco industry did. That was a big part of the basis for the prosecution of the tobacco industry by the US Department of Justice.

What was the “aha moment” for you when you started to really see those parallels?

There was a small handful of people who were quite prominent, like Fred Seitz who had been the former president of the US National Academy of Sciences. These people [were] involved in attacking climate science. There was no way that Fred Seitz didn’t understand the science. This was a world-class physicist, former president of the academy, so there was no way that this could be a story of public misunderstanding. We wanted to know: why would a prominent scientist attack his own colleagues and reject the work of his own people?

So it started out as a kind of mystery story to try to figure out what the heck was going on, and the “aha moment” was when we discovered that Fred Seitz had worked for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. In fact, he had done many of the same things working for R.J. Reynolds — funding distracting research, promoting a message of uncertainty, saying it was the responsibility of the individual, and attacking the credibility of scientists — he had done all of these same things when he had been working for R.J. Reynolds. It was that connection that then motivated us to look deeper and discover it wasn’t just an isolated connection. There was this whole fabric of connection between tobacco and fossil fuels.

When it comes to this week’s trial with ExxonMobil, do you see any of those same strategies playing out?

They’re continuing to pursue misleading messaging, even as the trial is going on, including misleading messages about me. So they’ve been attacking me, attacking my credibility. Much of what they’re trying to do to me is similar to what they’ve done to scientists in the past: try to impugn my reputation, claim that my methods are faulty.

Someone sent me a link to ExxonMobil has posted on their website, a kind of defense in the context of this new trial, and it attacks me and accuses me of being part of an orchestrated campaign, which is pretty hilarious. I mean, for ExxonMobil of all groups to criticize somebody for being part of an organized campaign. They’ve been part of a 30-year campaign to discredit climate science. I’m part of a campaign to defend and protect climate science, so I think I’m in a pretty strong position on this one.

The so-called “orchestrated campaign” that ExxonMobil refers to is a conference that I organized where we gathered a group of scientists, lawyers, and activists to talk about what strategies could be used to make [fossil fuel industries] accountable for what they had done. And we were particularly interested in the tobacco model because I had the idea, “Well, two can play that game.” If the fossil fuel industry had used the tobacco industry’s strategies and tactics to pursue disinformation, maybe it was possible to use the same strategy and tactics to bring them to accountability.

One of the things we know from history is that there was a tremendous amount of evidence of the harms of tobacco, long before the tobacco industry was ever prosecuted by the US Department of Justice. But what really helped change the public conversation in a big way was when the industry started losing lawsuits. It became clear to the American people that this was not simply an honest corporation selling products that people like to enjoy, but that this was a dishonest corporation who had committed fraud.

As a historian, do you see this as the moment when we might start to see a big reckoning for Big Oil?

I certainly hope we’ll see a big reckoning, but I think one has to be cautious. My heart has already been broken so many times because there have been so many opportunities, so many moments when we thought there was going to be a breakthrough, and then they didn’t happen, very often because of pushback from the industry. I’m not naive. This is a very powerful industry with some of the best lawyers in America. We don’t know what’s going to happen in New York in the coming weeks. Perhaps we don’t win this case. But I think it’s opened up a conversation that, in the end, will be to the exposure of what the fossil fuel industry has done. And I do think it will change the conversation, I simply hope that it isn’t too late.

What’s it like for you to watch this trial unfold?

I’m not expecting the world to change tomorrow. But I do think that there’s a really important issue being aired. And I think it’s profoundly important that these questions are finally being addressed in a rigorous, substantive, and legal way.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I always like to point out that I’m a geologist by training. I started my career in the mining industry. Some of my best friends worked in oil and gas. So I’m not anti-oil. I am anti-disinformation. I’m anti-lying. And that’s where I think we have to draw a line.