Carbon emissions, Asbestos, Cigarettes and Lead: A short history of denial

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes”. Mark Twain.

I first became fully aware of the climate change debate roughly 10 years ago. And in that time, the traditional arguments against climate change seem to continue on. Such examples include “how can they predict the climate decades later when they can’t predict the weather 10 days from now?”, “the 97% consensus is silencing skeptics”, “the climate has changed naturally in the past”, “the carbon produced by humans is minimal” and so on. All of the arguments have been sufficiently answered, is a useful resource to view the responses to these and many more.

The conflict between the scientific community and producers of resources that have been discovered to be problematic is nothing new. In this post, I will demonstrate how the cases of asbestos, cigarettes, and lead all follow the same pattern as we see today regarding arguments concerning carbon emissions.

I will start with discussion Asbestos. According to Rationalwiki, asbestos was known by scientific community to be harmful from the 1930s and became a matter of consensus by 1955. However, companies that relied on asbestos continued to cover up and deny the harmful effects up to the 1970s.

Now on to cigarettes. According to the Cancer council, the relationship between smoking and serious diseases was a matter of scientific consensus by the 1960s. In fact, the Surgeon General officially declared smoking to be hazardous to your health in 1964. However, according to S. A Glantz, in 1977 numerous cigarette companies gathered together to combat the science with advertising campaigns, which was called “Operation Berkshire”. And tactics like these seemed to have an effect. K. M Cummings & R.N Proctor mention:

“In the years following the release of 1964 Surgeon General’s report the tobacco industry also stepped up its public relations campaign aimed at reassuring the public, especially smokers, that there was no real link between smoking and disease (14). The success of this campaign is described in the 1981 Federal Trade Commission report, which found millions of Americans still poorly informed about the serious health risks of smoking (23).”

And finally the subject of lead poisoning. The man mostly recognised for discovering the adverse health effects from lead is Herbert Needleman. According to Markowiz and Rosner in their book Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, they mention that after Needleman’s compelling research was being utilised by the EPA and the CDC in the 1970s, the dominant lead companies in encouraged investigations into Needleman for scientific misconduct, where they say:

“The lead industries association claimed credit for sowing the seeds of doubt that prompted the creation of this expert committee and hoped that it would provide a forum for undermining Needleman’s contributions.”

Now let’s consider the current status of climate change conversations. It was recently revealed by The Guardian that Australian mining company billionaire Gina Rhinehart gave regular donations to climate denier think tank: The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

Similar can be said of the Koch brothers, as reported by The New Yorker, have contributed to the spread of climate denial, which can be read here:

In 2018, according to CNN, US President Donald Trump dismissed reports by his own administration on the adverse impacts of climate change because he “doesn’t believe it”.

And finally, the findings of the major governing body, the IPCC, are often accused of being alarmist and has been set up only to find evidence that says climate change is man made, which has also been addressed by

What can be noticed about this history, is that each time scientists reach a level of consensus on a product being harmful. The governing bodies of that time recognise those findings and make recommendations. With smoking it was the Surgeon General, with lead and asbestos it was tge EPA and the CDC, and with climate change it is the IPCC. However it was the businesses that utilise those products that attack the consensus and the governing bodies to create a false controversy.

What is also consistent with this history, it is the governing bodies are in line with the consensus which are on the right side of history. Lead poisons. Cigarettes cause lung cancer. And asbestos cause lung disease. Even though at the time business lobbyists attempted to prove them wrong and give the impression of a controversy, history has proven the scientists right.

A common objection I come across is that renewable energy is the motivation, or that all the climate scientists are keeping to the narrative to keep their funding. The conspiratorial ‘follow the money’ argument is normally put forward. If we are to take the ‘follow the money’ argument seriously (which I am not sure we always should, since this would logically follow that any expert in any field should be distrusted), then it puts far more suspicion towards the fossil fuel industry than renewable energy. Take for instance Forbes listing of Australia’s richest people, which shows that 6 of the top 50 are from mining an 0 are from renewable energy. Similar for Forbes’ global assessment of top billionaires, where the Koch Brothers, who’s wealth is heavily involved in fossil fuels and are just as heavily involved in engaging in politics, are listed 11th richest billionaires. Contrast this with Elon Musk, who is dedicated to renewable energy, is listed 40th.

Therefore, if one wants to ‘follow the money’ it leads us to fossil fuels, not renewables. As for “trying to get grants and funding”, skepticalscience gives an example form a climate scientist’s view on this, who says:

Are scientists getting rich from grant funding?  I will use myself as a case study in this post and, in Part II, I will write about others’ experiences.

I recall a lecture I gave on climate change back in April 2009.  After I was finished, a gentleman told me that he though[sic] the whole thing was a hoax so that we scientists could get rich from funding.  Before I even had a chance to reply, a voice from the crowd (my wife) yelled out, “Trust me, I can tell you, he isn’t making any money from this. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing!”  The truth hurts, doesn’t it?

What can we take from this reflection of historical science denial? In one sense, it can give us some hope. Despite efforts of powerful companies attempts to discredit the scientific community, the scientific community eventually wins. Although that hope is also the concern: eventually. Regarding all of these previous denials, the transition from scientific consensus to public consensus took decades. And these are decades we do not have regarding the consequences of climate change. Hopefully, the recent rise of climate activism from Greta Thunburg’s climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion’s non-violent disobedience is evidence of a speeding up of the transition.


S. A Glantz:

Markowiz & Rosner: Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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