Most of us recognize the value of science in dealing with complex problems that pose significant risks to public health and well-being.
Thus we expect reputable science to be reported and used in helping us make difficult policy choices, such as what to do about climate change.
Scientific findings and associated uncertainties should be scrutinized carefully and debated vigorously within the scientific community and among the public.
However, denying the best scientific evidence we have is neither smart nor safe. It could lead to greater societal harm than if we had taken sensible action when reliable knowledge was first available.
Dismissal of well-established climate science has parallels to decades of debate over tobacco use and its effects on health. Tobacco companies long denied any causal relation between smoking and disease even when their own studies showed the opposite to be true.
Similarly, some fossil fuel companies for decades publicly rejected established climate science and the role of burning fossil fuels in anthropogenic climate change while their internal studies confirmed both.
The tobacco companies eventually paid a steep price for their actions. In 1999, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against them, charging that they “engaged in and executed” a “massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes,” in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
Specifically, the lawsuit said the companies engaged in a conspiracy to launch a public relations campaign challenging scientific evidence that demonstrated the health risks of smoking at the same time that their own research confirmed smoking’s danger.
The tobacco companies lost the suit. The federal courts found them in violation of RICO, in particular for fraudulently covering up scientific evidence of health risks linked to smoking. The courts rejected the tobacco companies’ argument that their statements were protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
Is there a parallel to current controversies over climate change science? Some members of Congress say there is. Members of Congress have asked the Justice Department to pursue charges under RICO against major fossil fuel companies for knowingly deceiving the public — and investors — about the dangers of climate change when their own studies showed the reality of the threat. Under questioning by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Attorney General Loretta Lynch revealed she has referred the matter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for study.
In addition, in late March, more than a dozen state attorneys general meeting in New York also said they would “aggressively” investigate whether fossil fuel companies misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. Several state attorneys general already have initiated such investigations under consumer and investor protection laws.
Some ask whether such inquiries should be limited to fossil fuel companies. What about extending the liability, they say, to certain think tanks and advocacy groups?
Some such groups have been heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry and have misrepresented climate change risks to the public. That might be a tougher sell, given rights to free speech, but it could be given consideration.
The Obama administration and other nations finally are acting on climate change. But their responses are modest in light of the challenges faced, and they will need to be supplemented over time with more effective initiatives. Will the public support tougher policies?
Recent polls show that worry about climate change is now at an eight-year high. However, climate change remains a low salience issue, and the public is poorly informed about its causes and impacts.
There also is no sense of urgency about taking action, including the widely endorsed setting of a price on carbon.
Our current limited policies reflect a history of science denial by fossil fuel companies and others that have sown confusion and weakened public support for doing more. Those who intentionally misled the public about climate change should be held accountable.