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Big Oil and Big Tobacco use same tactics to mislead the public, says new report

Oil giant ExxonMobil is headed to federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday, October 22 — and that legal battle may closely resemble similar battles in the tobacco industry. The State of New York is suing ExxonMobil on charges that the company misled its investors about the climate crisis. And today, scientists at Harvard, George Mason, and Bristol universities released a report, “America Misled: How the Fossil Fuel Industry Deliberately Misled Americans About Climate Change.”

George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication summarizes the report:

Over the past few decades, the fossil fuel industry has subjected the American public to a well-funded, well-orchestrated disinformation campaign about the reality and severity of human-caused climate change. The purpose of this web of denial has been to confuse the public and decision makers in order to delay climate action and thereby protect fossil fuel business interests and defend libertarian, free-market conservative ideologies. The fossil fuel industry’s denial and delay tactics come straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook. As a result, the American public have been denied the right to be accurately informed about climate change, just as they were denied the right to be informed about the risks of smoking by the tobacco industry. While fossil fuel companies attacked the science and called on politicians to “reset the alarm,” climate-catalyzed damages worsened, including increased storm intensities, droughts, forest damage and wildfires, all at substantial loss of life and cost to the American people.

This report explores the techniques used to mislead the American public about climate change, and outlines ways of inoculating against disinformation.

Geoffrey Supan, report co-author and a researcher in the department of the history of science at Harvard University, told the Los Angeles Times:

For 60 years, the fossil fuel industry has known about the potential global warming dangers of their products. But instead of warning the public or doing something about it, they turned around and orchestrated a massive campaign of denial and delay designed to protect profits. The evidence is incontrovertible: Exxon misled the public.

Scientific American published an article in July 2016 that stated that the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Washington, DC, analyzed documents at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), that showed that oil and tobacco have been linked for decades. UCSF’s files are open to the public. Scientific American writes:

“From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and same research institutes, but many of the same researchers,” CIEL president Carroll Muffett said in a statement.

“Again and again we found both the PR firms and the researchers worked first for oil, then for tobacco,” he said. “It was a pedigree the tobacco companies recognized and sought out.”

For example, both industries hired heavy hitter PR agency Hill & Knowlton as early as 1956.

ExxonMobil’s troubles are just beginning: On October 10, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office sent a notice to ExxonMobil of their intent to sue the company in civil court for violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act “by engaging in unfair or deceptive acts” regarding fossil fuels.

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.