Blowing Smoke at Global Warming

In 1993, my office at the Environmental Protection Agency released a landmark study that created panic among tobacco industry executives. A result of years of scientific research, the report determined that secondhand smoke was a deadly threat to non-smokers, killing at least 3,000 Americans from lung cancer every year. Cigarette companies were terrified that major regulation would follow.

Today, the report's findings are hardly shocking. The vast majority of Americans understand the risks of second-hand smoke. Over half the states have bans on public smoking. It is, in fact, more incredible that prohibitions on smoking didn't exist earlier. The U.S. Surgeon General had declared a link between cancer and smoking way back in 1964. Countless studies over the proceeding decades verified this huge public health risk. The 1993 EPA report expanded upon this growing body of knowledge with overwhelming medical evidence about the risks of second hand smoke. Yet no state banned public smoking until California in 1998. And most states' anti-smoking laws didn't take effect until over a decade after the EPA report was issued. How did the tobacco industry stave off major public smoking regulation for so long?

Unfortunately, there is another prominent example of an industry successfully dodging the repercussions of overwhelming scientific evidence that its products create a deadly health risk. For decades, climate scientists have released report after report about the risks of man-made climate change, a phenomenon driven by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel. Over the past few decades, thousand of scientists, government agencies, health authorities and non-profits have compiled an enormously broad and comprehensive picture of the threat posed by climate change. And yet Congress has still not passed a single law to addresses it.

This is no coincidence. The success of the fossil fuel industry in stalling government action relies on techniques the climate change deniers learned at the feet of the cigarette companies. By the time the EPA report on secondhand smoke came out, the cigarette companies were already decades-long veterans of a war against facts.

Since at least the 1960s, the tobacco industry had refined an innovative technique to counter the overwhelming medical evidence linking their products with death and poor health. Faced with the threat of regulation, the conventional route for affected companies would be to argue that the proposed rules would cost jobs and make their companies uncompetitive. The tobacco industry knew they wouldn't win this battle. If they admitted that their products were killing thousands of people, they couldn't successfully argue against regulation. Instead, they declared war on the science itself.

By repeatedly questioning and obfuscating proven medical facts with pseudo-science, selective editing of medical reports and simply repeating what they knew were lies about their products' negative health impacts, the cigarette companies hoped to seed doubt in Americans' minds. In 1978, for example, Philip Morris claimed "scientists have not determined what causes cancer ...cigarettes have never been proven unsafe." Twelve years later -- in 1990! -- RJ Reynolds sent a letter to an elementary school principal claiming that "scientists do not know the cause" of any smoking-associated chronic diseases.

These techniques undergirded the deadliest public relations campaigns in American history. And, one that was a huge success. For 40 years, they managed to scuttle the medical science and stave off the most serious regulatory action -- while contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

If this sounds familiar, it's because the fossil fuels companies and industry-associated climate change deniers now occupy the same science-denying echo chamber. In 2010, for example, Indiana's Representative Larry Bucshon followed the lead of R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris when he asserted, "The data does not support the premise that carbon dioxide emissions are playing a significant role in the world temperature variations." That statement is false, flying in the face of a scientific consensus based on decades of data. But Bucshon is undaunted by such details. He is also far from alone in the House.

The claims coming from the mouths of our elected representatives showcase an incredibly wide array of pseudo-scientific criticism directed at the contemporary understanding of climate change. Some use science against scientific consensus: "we have a lot of science that tells us they're not basing [theories of climate change] on real scientific facts." Others pick and choose which science they like: climate change exists, but "the jury is still out" on whether it is man-made. Some refuse to believe any of it: the modern theory of climate change "is a hoax." Still others refuse to even read any of it: "I could read [climate change science], but I don't believe it." The tobacco industry -- or at least its media-relations people -- must be proud.

Unfortunately, climate change deniers have also successfully seeded doubt about the overwhelming science supporting climate change in the minds of many Americans. Largely as a result, action on the global threat has been suspended for years. Concern over global warming was already a headline-grabbing issue in the '80s, but Congress has yet to pass any legislation targeting climate change. Meanwhile, climate change-related events like prolonged droughts or extreme flooding continue to increase, claiming or disrupting millions of lives while causing billions of dollars in damage every year.

In 1993, after the EPA report came out, Philip Morris' public relations company APCO further refined this long-running war on medical science by pioneering two new techniques. The first was "astroturfing." Using corporate resources, APCO created what appeared to be organic grassroots action by local citizens concerned about regulatory overreach. APCO knew that pushback on government-funded science by "ordinary citizens" would seem much more authentic than arguments associated with Philip Morris.

The second innovation was a next generation front group. Cigarette manufacturers had long funded front groups -- reputedly neutral think tanks and institutions -- to give third-party credibility in their propaganda war against the "anti-smoking forces." Years later, the fossil fuel industries gladly followed the lead, funding organizations with important-sounding names like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research to advance the industry's agenda.

Now APCO further obscured the link between a new group, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, and its cigarette company patrons. TASSC's communications would be radically expanded. They didn't just cast doubt on the links between smoking and fatal diseases, but attacked all sorts of science. APCO hoped that dealing with a greater range of topics would help throw off the public from the corporate money trail.

For example, TASSC claimed that secondhand smoke, cellphones and pesticides were all subject to unfounded health concerns. The group also questioned the studies regarding nuclear waste disposal, biotechnology and... climate change. In fact, the Philip Morris-launched group became so effective at labeling the evidence on global warming "junk science" that TASSC eventually received funding from Exxon. In 2002, the group's former president, Steven Milloy, became a science correspondent for FOX News, providing him with an enormous audience to debunk health and environmental concerns like global warming as "junk science."

But by the beginning of the century, the tobacco industry finally ran out of public relations tricks. In 2002, the EPA won a tobacco industry lawsuit that attempted to repress the 1993 findings on secondhand smoke. The following year, New York City joined California in a ban on smoking including bars and restaurants. Over the rest of the decade, over half of the states established public smoking bans. As those bans were implemented, cigarette companies saw their sales in the United States drop precipitously.

There are signs that climate change denial is also reaching the end of its rope. Last month, over 400,000 people from all walks of life took to New York's streets demanding action on the global threat. President Obama has promised the United States' leadership on the issue in a 2015 international climate conference in Paris. Perhaps even more importantly, a 2014 Gallup Poll shows that young people between 18 and 29 are more than twice as likely to consider climate change a man-made phenomenon that will seriously impact their quality of life in coming years. The poll also showed that over half of those who don't consider climate change a real problem are over 50. Climate change denial has already lost the long-term generational war.

Despite holding sway in some parts of federal and state governments, as well as media outlets, the climate change deniers' success in staving off regulation has also been dealt a serious blow. In 2009 U.S. and foreign automakers agreed to the first-ever regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions on new cars and trucks. Another, tougher agreement followed in 2011. Over the life of this program, these regulations will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by six billion metric tons, equivalent to the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the United States in all of 2010. By 2025, the program will also be reducing oil consumption by more than two million barrels daily -- half as much as we import from OPEC nations. Next year the EPA will take final actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Once those regulations are in place, the two most climate damaging sectors of our economy will begin to be reeled in. Just like the tobacco industry, climate change deniers are finally being overwhelmed by facts.

Margo T. Oge, Former Director, Office of Transportation and Air Quality, and Former Director, Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, US Environmental Protection Agency