Friday, November 6, 2015

The Costs of Deceit and Denial

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There have been a number of articles in the press about the efforts of the State of New York to sue energy companies for their climate change deceit and denial. If you have been following climate change news over the last two decades like I have, this should not come as a surprise. In the 90's there was a tremendous effort by a number of energy companies to muddy the waters on climate change while many of their scientists were actively involved with climate change research. In other words, the energy companies knew full well that climate change was caused by greenhouse gases and they actively worked to suppress the information or discredit climate change science.

The deceit and denial by the companies was used in a recent legal case (Kivalina vs. Exxon et al.) and it was written about extensively in the 00's. Many equate what the oil companies did by hiding or distorting science to the type of deceit and denial employed by the tobacco industry. Of course, there is now legal precedence for the payouts on tobacco due to the cancer causing impacts of cigarettes. How do we hold energy companies responsible for their bad behavior in this situation? It will be interesting to see how this case proceeds. The energy companies won the Kivalina case in part because one could not trace the damages that Kivalina endured directly to the companies. The New York case is different. It is looking at broader corporate behavior and not suing for direct damages as a result of climate change (which was the focus of the Kivalina suit).

In the 00's something happened about the time of the Kivalina case. Many of the main energy companies changed their Websites to include a great deal of information about climate change. They no longer fought strongly against the very notion of climate change or greenhouse gas pollution. Just take a look at British Petroleum's Webpage on climate change. The first thing stated on the page is BP believes that climate change is an important long-term issue that justifies global action. We have come a long way.

However, as Timothy Egan notes in his opinion piece in the New York Times, we have many cultural remnants of those years when energy companies were very actively involved in deceit and denial. While there may not be any legal recourse for the cultural damage, the morality of climate change deceit and denial is becoming a broader issue within our society.

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