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Shame on Me!

Most have heard the proverb, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”. Literally, this means after being tricked once, one should learn from one's mistakes and avoid being tricked in the same way again.

One of the more significant tricks impacting human health and survival was that of the tobacco industry telling us smoking was safe. They even had doctors advertising their cigarettes. At the beginning of the fifties, scientists began publishing research showing a statistical link between smoking and lung cancer. In the face of mounting damning evidence against their product, the tobacco companies responded by creating doubt and controversy surrounding the health risks. However, at the same time the tobacco industry’s own research began to find carcinogens in smoke and began to confirm the relationship between smoking and cancer, however that research was not shared with the public.

The industry’s public response was driven by money and profits and making sure their industry survived even if their customers did not. Their lawyers even convinced them to put a voluntary warning on cigarette packs, however this was only a safety device to protect the industry against litigation. Big tobacco meanwhile poured millions of dollars into political and misinformation campaigns. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, and millions of deaths caused by tobacco, the industry still largely maintains that the case against the cigarette is unproven. Yes, we were fooled once! However, for the most part the majority of the public finally figured it out and the smoking population has decreased.

And now many are being fooled twice! This time by another big industry called the fossil fuel industry and a much larger issue. The similarities are numerous. In 1977 an Exxon senior scientist told many of the company’s top leaders that there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from burning fossil fuels. A year later he told an expanded group that doubling carbon dioxide concentrations would increase average global temperatures by 3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Did the executives believe the science? Yes, they did, because internal documents show that Exxon and other oil giants began building their new oil drilling platforms higher to compensate for the sea level rise they knew was coming. They also knew that the drilling season in the Arctic would lengthen from two months to as much as five months allowing them to make more money. Internal documents show Shell scientists predicted in the late 1980s that carbon dioxide levels could double as early as 2030, resulting in increases in runoff, destructive floods, and inundation of the low-lying farmland. Much like Nebraska encountered in March 2019. Why didn’t they say something and be on the cutting edge of alternative energy, instead of creating doubt and controversy surrounding climate change and its causes? However instead the oil giants formed a Global Climate Coalition to coordinate business participation in the international policy debate on climate change. This coalition hired the very same people that years earlier had defended the tobacco industry, using the same tactics of creating uncertainty and misinformation, like saying higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will solve world hunger by enhancing plant growth but not saying how it lowers the nutritional value of plants. Big oil has coordinated with the National Coal Association and others to defeat efforts to do anything about climate change.

The fossil fuel industry makes significant contributions to political campaigns and works through various news mediums to distort the truth about climate change and the human influence, even though 99 percent of the world’s climate scientists say climate change is real and that humans are a major contributor. And they have been very effective because many in the general public have been slow to learn from one's mistake with tobacco and avoid being tricked in the same way again.

The clock is ticking on what needs to be done and soon. There are viable economic and practical solutions. While they do involve changes in the way we live, however the longer we wait to deploy them, the more radical the changes we will have to make. Don’t be one of the people who has to say, “Shame on me”. Our children and grandchildren’s futures depend on it!

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