They knew

The tobacco industry knew that cigarettes were both addictive and carcinogenic. They sold them anyway, and hired professional obfuscators and lobbyists to bury the truth.

Now we know that the oil industry is the same way. Exxon knew how much carbon was buried in oil reserves. They knew how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere. They were able to calculate in 1979 what burning all that oil would do to the carbon dioxide concentration.


They knew. They didn’t care what its effects were. They only cared about their bottom line.

You know, the future is going to look back on rabid capitalism as one of the damning pathologies of our history.


  1. parasiteboy says

    I’ve had my students watch a lecture by Naomi Oreskes one of the authors of “Merchants of Doubt” to show them the direct connection between the tobacco industry’s misinformation campaign and the fossil fuels industry’s missinformation campaign on global climate change. It was mainly the same people doing both misinformation campaigns. According to her lecture Reagan and H.W. Bush considered global climate change a real problem. For those who do not have time to read “Merchants of Doubt” they did put out a documentary film by the same name last year.

  2. parasiteboy says

    They knew. They didn’t care what its effects were.

    This is one of the things that really annoys me about climate change deniers. For over 100 years scientist have known that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and have been able to measure the amount that is produced from the burning of different types of fossil fuels. It becomes trivially easy then to calculate how much CO2 is going to be released by that burning and as they do in this paper speculate how much the atmospheric CO2 will change if a portion of it stays there. As they say, “this isn’t rocket surgery”.

  3. says

    You know, the future is going to look back on rabid capitalism as one of the damning pathologies of our history.

    I wish I had your optimism that we have a future, but I live in Alberta where even the NDP has to tread very carefully around the oil… sorry, “energy” industry.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I presume they rationalized it with the concept of oil being necessary to sustain the overall economy, with personal wealth a mere reward for maintaining the health of the economy.
    of course a heroin dealer can take the same tack: they just provide the med that the junkie requires to maintain their heath to avoid withdrawal symptoms. The simile is apt.

  5. Jake Harban says

    You’re being absurdly optimistic. Every piece of evidence I find says that most people don’t know anything about history at all.

    Ronald Reagen commit treason, but very few people are aware of this. The regulations on financial industry shenanigans prevented major economic depression until they were repealed, but only clever people who pay attention to Warren and Sanders are aware of this. Segregation was official law until 1965, but even the people who are nominally aware of this fact rarely understand that complex social pathologies don’t vanish the instant you remove the law formally codifying them.

    And these are all examples from living memory. If the day ever comes when we move beyond rabid capitalism, the people of that day will regard it the way we currently regard, say, feudalism— a dry historical fact that they’re nominally aware of but which is sufficiently removed from their daily lives that they rarely think about it and on the rare occasion that they do think about it, they regard it as inert records of an irrelevant past; an era-appropriate and entirely expected tantrum from people so primitive they simply can’t be expected to understand the concept of right and wrong.

    Although considering that we still allow inheritance of wealth and status, with a handful of people born into wealth and power, a small group born into relative privilege being paid well to defend that power, and a majority born into poverty and forced to work for the nearest lord Job Creator, I’d say we haven’t moved beyond feudalism nearly as much as people think we have. So the people who have moved “beyond” rabid capitalism will probably still be destroying the environment all without the slightest shred of historical awareness.

  6. brett says

    This reminds me of Mark Kleiman’s post on environmental lead exposure and crime:

    The toxicity of lead has been known for at least a century. The introduction of tetraethyl lead into gasoline in the 1920s sparked a controversy, which the automobile industry, the petroleum industry, and Ethyl Corporation (a GM/Esso joint venture) won, using the usual mix of dirty tricks including lying and threatening scientists with lawsuits. A similar battle was fought over lead paint in the 197os, with the lead-paint vendors in the bad-guy role, and over lead emissions from smelters, with the American Iron and Steel institute trying to destroy Herb Needleman’s scientific career.
    Then, mostly by the accident that leaded pain fouled catalytic converters, the battle was rejoined over lead in gasoline, with the old pro-toxin coalition fighting a drawn-out rearguard action to delay regulation as much as possible.

    As far as I know, not a single executive, lobbyist, or scientist working for any of the companies that were making money by poisoning children and causing a crime wave spoke out in favor of public health and safety. Why should they? After all, they were just doing their jobs and paying their mortgages, and Milton Friedman had proclaimed that the only social responsibility of business was to make money (and that anyone who believed otherwise was a closet socialist): a morally insane proposition still widely repeated.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Of course they knew. No surprise at all. The sociopathic behaviour of corporations and, often, governments, is a feature.

    For anyone who hasn’t already, read the history of leaded gasoline in the US here. Profit trumps lives every time.

    U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, a Republican and small-government conservative, moved rapidly in favor of the business interests.

    Of course he did.

  8. says

    Wired took a close look at the chemistry of the diesel VWs. VW fooled the EPA, but could not alter the basic chemistry.

    Chemistry took them down. They got caught. They didn’t care about the emissions standards, and they got away with not caring for a long time. Regulations. This is why we need government regulations and testing. Watchdogs. We need watchdogs.

  9. Usernames! (╯°□°)╯︵ ʎuʎbosıɯ says

    Ronald Reagen commit[ed] treason, raised taxes, granted amnesty to undocumented workers and worked with Democrats, but very few people are aware of this.
    — Jake Harban (#5)

    FTFY :)
    St. Raygun would never make it in today’s teabagger GOP. He’s too “librul”.

    …will regard it the way we currently regard, say, feudalism…

    Reminds me of a lecture I attended about Edward Gibbon. The lecturer asked us to contemplate what we thought a 3600 CE history book would say about “the ancient civilization called the USA”. And remember, he said, there would only be one or two paragraphs.

    At first, the question is ludicrous–even insulting! We’re the greatest country on earth! Everyone is going to know everything about us forever! We have so much influence!! One or two paragraphs is much too short!

    …and a Roman citizen in 100 CE would’ve said the exact same thing.

  10. monad says

    @5 Jake Harban:
    We may not remember colonialism in full detail, but many people have a vague sense that lots of countries and indigenous people were destroyed by it. It’s easy to imagine a world where most people don’t really understand what corporations were about, but do know their greed is why some of the great cities of the past are underwater.

  11. voidhawk says

    “…and a Roman citizen in 100 CE would’ve said the exact same thing.”

    And he’d be right. Pick up any decent history book and there’ll be more about the Romans than just a paragraph. I remember the ‘my first encyclopedias’ I had when I was 10 had a couple of pages on the Romans, about their go, what their soldiers looked like, how the common people lived, who some of the more eccentric emperors were…

    I imagine that citizens of the 37th century will read about how European civilisations conquered the Americas, the civil war, the world wars, civil rights, how the American style economy came to dominate the world, the robot uprisings of the 27th century, and the development of the warp drive…

  12. says

    Jeb Bush has spectacularly bad timing. He is pushing his anti-regulation ideology in the face of the “cartoonishly evil” scheme to distribute salmonella-tainted peanuts; in the face of the new facts about Exxon; and in the face of the VW scam.

    GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush unveiled a plan Tuesday to roll back a number of controversial regulations from the Obama administration, ranging from environmental rules to financial reform laws.

    During campaign events in Iowa, Bush threatened to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) controversial power plant rules, clean water rule, and coal ash rule.

  13. Rich Woods says

    Bush threatened to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) controversial power plant rules, clean water rule, and coal ash rule.

    In what world is that not seen as “Vote for me — I want to kill your children”?

    Actually, don’t bother. I can guess.

  14. komarov says

    I’d imagine the average republican voter has already bought into the idea that regulations are Bad For The Economy and that they will be much better off once corporations are free to do as they please. And that probably won’t change even if their cars started giving them salmonella and their peanuts exploded on the shelf (or some variation thereof). Anything has to be better than liberal regulations Strangling The Economy!

  15. numerobis says

    What’s new here? Of course they knew. The science was clear back then, all they had to do was open a journal — and their scientists do open journals.

    Maybe we can put them in jail now, or fine them giant amounts like we fined the tobacco industry, but that’s only because the laws don’t let you say “this is obviously true no matter your denial” when it comes to scientific facts.

  16. microraptor says

    @ 15 Rich Woods

    In what world is that not seen as “Vote for me — I want to kill your children”?

    In the one where Republicans have successfully convinced people that having a functional government is the worst threat the country could possibly face.

  17. robro says

    They knew!? Heaven forbid! Let’s see…the oil companies knew. The tobacco companies knew. VW knew. Ford knew (about the Pinto). Johns Manville knew (about asbestos). Perhaps there’s a pattern here?

    The pictured document doesn’t appear in the linked article, as far as I can tell. Is it in one of the source Exxon documents?

  18. dogfightwithdogma says

    @1 parasiteboy

    Have you seen the documentary Merchants of Doubt, based on the book? I would recommend this as something to show your students as well. Does a wonderful job of drawing the connection between the tactics of the tobacco industry and the oil industry.

  19. mickll says

    Corporations have this sort of shitty behavior more or less written into their DNA.

    If a company doesn’t do anything and everything to turn over a profit then their shareholders have grounds for seeking redress.

  20. unclefrogy says

    if a corporation can not make a reasonable profit without resorting to cheating the government, polluting the environment with toxic chemicals destroying ecosystems and or cheating their costumers they do not have a legitimate business they are operating a criminal enterprise.
    uncle frogy