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Climate Warming like a Cigarette Butt

Although we have long-debated the existence and the dangers of climate change, the facts were known to a number of oil and gas companies as early as the 1970s. A 2015 investigation shows that these companies privately provided millions of dollars to scientists to fund groundbreaking climate research. The results showed them that human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, was responsible for global warming.

So why did we spend the next 30 years debating its existence?

According to environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben, the climate change fight “wasn’t about data and reason, the fight was about what fights are always about: money and power.”

In his new book “Falter“ McKibben explains how ExxonMobil was one of the first companies to invest in climate change research. They spent billions throughout the 1980s and after to promote campaigns that spread misinformation and uncertainty about climate change science, all the while building their drilling rigs higher to account for sea level rise.

The public is no stranger to multi-billion dollar manipulation. The climate change “debate” we have been locked in sings to the same tune as the tobacco industry’s symphony of deceit and denial around the same time. In the last century, companies like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris concealed and disputed evidence that cigarettes are addictive and cause disease, all the while intentionally designing cigarettes with enough nicotine to sustain addiction.

Both industries have suffered some defeats in their misinformation campaigns. Despite the tobacco industry’s every effort, the United States began passing legislation in 1965 that informed the public about the dangers of cigarettes and deterred consumption. In the 1990s, President Clinton agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, that’s where the parallel ends. Since1965, more than half of Americans have stopped smoking, and a recent federally funded campaign dropped cigarette use by the millions. Meanwhile climate change denial persists. The former CEO of Exxon Mobil was sworn in as the Secretary of State in 2017, and President Trump continues to claim global warming is a hoax.

Maybe it’s time Americans take a new approach.

While the 20th century saw some industries act unkindly to our lungs, planet, or sense of truth, it also saw the development of a new “technology” that McKibben believes could be the path to justice: non-violent activism.

“The suffragettes, Gandhi, Dr. King, and others figured out and refined ways to make movement building real, so that in essence, the small but many had some chance of standing up to the mighty [but] few,” said McKibben during a recent lecture to promote his new book.

Students of Extinction Rebellion perform a die-in on the campus of the UVA in Amsterdam to raise awareness on the ecological crisis. Author Catharina Gerritsen

Movements across the world are proving his idea to be true. McKibben pointed to the thousands of protests in London organized by a group called the Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg’s meeting with the Pope, and the Sunrise Movement’s involvement with the Green New Deal. Governments in the U.S. and elsewhere are also responding by divesting from fossil fuels: New York City just divested its pension fund, and Norway divested its sovereign wealth fund — the largest pool of investment capital in the world, according to McKibben.

While the smoking crisis and the climate crisis seem to have taken different paths on their journeys to justice, their outcomes could end up in the same place. Years before the first federal tobacco legislation passed, organizations like the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association had to write letters and lobby lawmakers to advocate for change in the name of human health. This action came in response to studies that linked smoking to lung cancer as early as the 1940s, while climate change research began in the 1970s. The biggest difference between these two fights is the timeline.

However early the climate change fight may be in its story, the time has come to address it. According to the authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC), the world has just 12 more years to make changes that will allow us to at least limit global warming to moderate levels.

“We need people way outside their comfort zone. Whatever your comfort zone is, you need to push harder because we’re not getting done as fast as we need now,” said McKibben. “The planet is miles outside its comfort zone.”

Written by Rachael Meyer, WGBH Forum Network’s intern. Rachael Meyer is a senior at Tufts University and is from Cedar Bluffs, NE. Follow her on Twitter.

GBH's video hub for lifelong learners. Public media purveyor of the enlightening. Supported by the Lowell Institute. Learn something new at forum-network.org.

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