We are just discovering how long and how deeply the tobacco and oil industries joined together to deceive the public about their toxic products. Their connections go back to the 1950s, studying and funding deceptions about smog science and cancer science.
The Center for International and Environmental Law wrote about this over three years ago, and like most other important news it got swamped by the furor over Trumpism. The Center used documents unearthed from the tobacco industry to establish the connections. Tobacco, they reveal,
used the same playbook of misinformation, obfuscation, and research laundered through front groups to attack science and sow uncertainty on lead, on smog, and in the early debates on climate change. Big Tobacco used and refined that playbook for decades in its fight to keep us smoking—just as Big Oil is using it now, again, to keep us burning fossil fuels.
The New York state attorney general is now bringing suit against Exxon Mobil, charging that the world’s biggest publicly traded energy company “misled its shareholders and the public by misrepresenting the risks that climate change poses to the value of its oil and gas assets.” The company took in $290 billion in revenue last year, and the suit argues not that it helped create climate change but that for years it has schemed (basically by keeping two sets of books) to defraud its investors, analysts and underwriters about the risks of climate change to its business.
That rather seems like begging the real question, though it will finally expose what many have suspected about Exxon’s business practices—assuming the state wins the suit. Ex-CEO Rex Tillerson, Mr. Trump’s one-time secretary of state, knew about this for years. Lee Wasserman, who directs the Rockefeller Family Fund (interesting, isn’t it, that the Rockefeller fortune came from Standard Oil?) wants to hold fossil fuel companies liable for reparations for the massive damages their products and practices have caused.
The company of course denies any attempt to mislead and professes to be proud of its many years of (accurate) research into climate change. The other day Tillerson testified under oath that the company knew long ago that global warming was very real, “a serious issue and we knew it was one that’s going to be with us now, forevermore.”
Tillerson didn’t deny Exxon’s role in creating the problem—which isn’t what the trial was about. But in his nuanced view, the company did its best to address the issue once it became apparent. He also said there may be plenty of blame to share, given that Exxon was providing products demanded by society.
But don’t hold your breath until Exxon becomes accountable for the huge sums that some states and cities are now suing for.