Within the science community, and it’s supporters, litigation is viewed often with suspicion or beneath the scientific community. Reticence is based on two arguments:
- This is a scientific question, therefore we should let the evidence speak for itself.
- Resorting to litigation or (civil action) is seen to be “beneath” the methodology and reputation of the science community.
Litigation implies “dirty hands”, a course of action that compromises the “purity” of science.
However I would contend that the litigation process – primarily as a response to libel and defamation of individuals and institutions – is a legitimate strategy to counter the denial movement.
The comparison to the “tobacco wars” and wave of class actions that effectively neutered the industry is not simply analogous, but a good model for how we can fight the industry funded think tanks and the armies of professional PR “hacks”.
They not only mislead the public, but through their websites, blogs, YouTube video’s, newspaper articles and books defame both individual scientists and institutions.
It’s often been said the climate debate is a street fight, and the denial movement is not afraid to throw some low blows. While I’d not advocate adopting the same “dirty tricks” of the deniers, there are legitimate counter strategies and tactics to neutralise their effectiveness.
Suing for defamation is a legitimate and perhaps effective strategy.
The “tobacco wars” as a model
“For 40 years, the US tobacco industry was invincible in court. Tobacco companies have long been among the most profitable in the US, and used that money to fund a seemingly unbeatable legal defence team…” ~ Tobacco Wars, BBC
The denial movement is a direct outgrowth of the tobacco industries campaign to discredit science by establishing “independent” think tanks that challenged the scientific evidence. Groups such as “The Advancement of Sound Science Association” (TASSA) where established and seeded with money from Philip Morris.
Let’s not forget our old friend, Richard S. Courtney, who works for a think tank that challenges both climate change and the effects of second hand smoke.
For almost thirty years the denial movement has thrown the wildest accusations at the scientific community. They have defamed the reputation of scientists calling them “frauds”, “liars” and “criminals” and accusing them of deliberately fudging data, making up “global warming” and wanting to tear down industrial civilisation.
These wild claims and been thrown around by the denial movement with careless abandon.
And for those same thirty years the scientific community ignored these attacks. By not engaging with the denial movement, or directly countering these charges, it was hoped they would simply go away. Given how preposterous these charges where, many felt the public would reject them outright.
Sadly, they have not. Being “skeptical” of climate change is now mainstream.
There are many ways to challenge the claims of the deniers. Sites such as Skeptical Science perform an invaluable service in countering the many obvious flaws in their misrepresentation of the science. But facts will not move people alone.
Helping the public understand how they have been deceived will cripple the legitimacy of the denial movement.
For a good comparison I’d urge people to view the the BBC series “Tobacco Wars”. It traces the history of their campaign of denial and how they where effectively countered. Here’s our model.
Episode One: Smokescreen
I’d also also the great website Tobacco.Org. They continue to effectively monitor the tobacco industry.
What are the possible gains in such a strategy
Firstly, it would shut down the most outrageous lies and slander peddled by the deniers. By setting a precedent it would as a precautionary example to many in the denial movement. It signals that they will be held to account – something they have lacked for decades.
Secondly, during what is called the discovery process (when both sides exchange documents) we would gain access to the emails, documents and memos that detail just how deliberate and considered their misinformation campaign. The tobacco litigation in the US made available thousands of documents that simultaneously:
- demonstrated how they deliberately mislead the public
- damned them with their own words as outlined in the tens of thousands of documents that demonstrated their premeditated deceit
How deep are the pockets of the deniers?
But so were the pockets of the tobacco industry.
And yet they still lost. They can be challenged. It’s been done before.
Strangling free speech?
I’ll be the first to defend free speech. However, there are limits to free speech and this is recognised in the various libel and defamation laws found in most common law countries. Already we have two examples of scientists either or contemplating or starting legal action for libel/defamation.
Obviously this is a very complex issue, and the effectiveness of pursuing such a strategy needs to be debated. However the counter balance to this is challenging obvious falsehoods or the statements that slander the reputation of individuals.
The denial movement needs to be held to account. When you make outrageous claims you have the responsibility to back up those claims. Freedom of speech does not exempt one from responsibility.
Encouraging whistle blowers: a few good men and women
As the scientific evidence gets clearer the deniers have ratcheted up their campaign of confusion. By making more “noise” they hope to mislead the public and drown out ever increasing number of studies that confirm the reality of AGW.
I believe there are individuals of good conscience who have – for what ever reason – found themselves enmeshed in the denial movement. And yet they may find themselves questioning the actions of the denial movement.
We need our very own “Insider”, a heroic individual in the mould of Jeffrey Wigand who blew the lid on the tobacco industries deceit:
“Wigand became nationally known as a whistle blower regarding the company’s decisions involving the selection of ingredients in their cigarettes when on February 4, 1996 on the CBS news program 60 Minutes, he stated Brown & Williamson intentionally manipulates the tobacco blend to increase the amount of nicotine in cigarette smoke, thereby increasing the ‘impact’ to the smoker. Nicotine is a naturally occurring substance in tobacco that is widely held to be responsible for the habit-forming and addictive effects of cigarette smoking. Wigand claims that he was subsequently harassed and received anonymous death threats…”
We should encourage and make ourselves available to “whistle blowers”.
I have no doubt that some of those individuals deeply embedded within the denial movement have come to realise that the actions of the TASSA, Heartland and Exxon-Mobil not only confuse the public but stymie our response to the challenge of climate change.
Such “insiders” would be privy to documents, emails and sources of funding that could be made public.
Their release would open the door to challenge the denial movement and mobilise public opinion in the same way the revelations about the tobacco industry made clear their deliberate campaign to mislead.
We need to tear down the wall the deniers operate behind and expose their “dirty secrets”.
It’s time to turn the tables.
[Note: I am not a lawyer, and note this is a complex area. Thoughts, comments or criticism on this idea welcome]