Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Tom Engelhardt Headshot

Merchants of Doom

Posted: Updated:

"The industry's position was that there was no 'proof' that tobacco was bad, and they fostered that position by manufacturing a 'debate,' convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present 'both sides' of it." Using a handful of scientists as their expert witnesses, the major tobacco companies also denied the science linking cigarette smoking and cancer and claimed that anti-tobacco findings were driven by a political agenda. Using publicity outfits, think tanks, and those "objective" scientists in their pay or thrall, they put their money where their mouths were and financed a massive campaign of what, in retrospect, can only be called disinformation on the effects of tobacco smoking on human health. In this way, they created the doubt and debate they wanted, successfully postponing a reckoning for their industry for years.

Sound familiar today? It should. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway documented in their classic book Merchants of Doubt, the seeding of doubt into the cigarette controversy proved a brilliant move. The two authors call it "the tobacco strategy." It was so successful for the cigarette companies that it would be imitated and replicated in similar encounters over acid rain, the ozone hole, and finally global warming, a "debate" still ongoing and, as Oreskes and Conway make clear, with the same tiny cast of doubting scientists, who have moved conveniently from one issue to the next (without themselves doing original work), ending up in league with the fossil fuel industry. It's quite a tale of men representing whole industries who have ended up repeatedly on the wrong side of science. On the effects of tobacco, acid rain, and the chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer, they were notoriously wrong and yet, for the industries that supported them, notoriously right. It's clear enough how the fourth of these "debates" on climate change will be decided. The question is only when -- and on that question hangs human health on a global scale.

In the meantime, Big Energy has never stopped learning from Big Tobacco's successes. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What's Left, reveals today in his new piece "Let Them Eat Carbon," they are once again adapting and exploiting the latest tobacco strategy in a new and devastating way -- in this case, focusing their fossil fuel-selling campaigns on the developing world in trying to perpetuate the age of fossil fuels into the age of the apocalypse. They are truly the merchants of doom. It couldn't be a more shameful tale and no one has told it -- until now.