Cigarettes, big oil, and the power of corporate interests

Drew Dellinger pretty well says it all in his compelling 2006 poem, Hieroglyphic Stairway.  In fact, he pretty well says it all in his first stanza.

it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do
once
you
knew?

Think about it.  As is evident from Dellinger’s powerful poem, when he published it in the mid 2000s not only was the destruction of our planet through man-made climate change well known – the only place that sustains life as we know it – but as well the threat to democracy around the world was well known.  And both have only grown worse in the intervening years.

There’s a sad parallel. Think about cigarettes – deaths from lung cancer, foul air in airplanes and indoor spaces, enormous pressures on healthcare systems everywhere due to smoking-related illness – and the tobacco industry.

The first scientific findings of the link between an unprecedented epidemic of lung cancer and smoking were reported in the 1940s and 50s.

The first regulations to ban indoor smoking in public places didn’t come in until the mid-1990s, 50 years later.  And several places didn’t implement indoor smoking bans until 2018 … or not at all.

The tobacco industry and all its money did an incredibly impressive job of suppressing scientific results, attacking and denying the evidence, and mounting conspiracy theories.  Anything to keep cigarette sales flourishing.  All that money to remind politicians of all the jobs that would be lost, not to mention all the corporate donations and political support that would be lost.  It took 50 years to overcome that powerful corporate industry for the public good.  But it was never the existential question of the only planet we have becoming uninhabitable; it was “just” a question of all those lives lost to cigarette smoking and quality of life for everyone having to breathe in secondhand smoke, even at work and on public transit.

DD-HealthyCigarettes-australian broadcasting corp

Now think about our use of fossil fuels for, well, pretty well everything.  Climate change is now impossible to ignore.  It’s affecting everyone everywhere.  Unprecedented hot temperatures, horrific wildfires even in Siberia, frequent and early extreme weather events causing unprecedented levels of flooding.  People are starting to really get it, now that it’s affecting them directly.

DD-wildfires

Of course the people living in the Arctic have been directly experiencing the effects of fossil fuels on our environment for a few decades now, despite not having contributed to the destructive CO2 emissions.  The Arctic warms at 2-5 times the rate of elsewhere thanks to the air flow towards the poles due to the rotation of the earth.  Hence the loss of sea ice and the resulting absorption of heat from the sun into the sea water instead of being reflected by the ice.  Hence the melting of the permafrost and the sinking of housing in the Arctic.  Hence the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctic ice, which will make such enormous contributions to raising sea level, sending countless major cities around the world under water by the end of this century.  The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine of climate change, but nobody wanted to listen.

The first scientific findings of the link between CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect and resulting climate change on our planet were reported in the 1960sMore than 50 years ago.

From a 1968 report from the Stanford Research Institute for the American Petroleum Institute (Wikipedia):

If the earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis. [..] Revelle makes the point that man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth. Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic changes.

But despite several grand proclamations of action to come, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accord, there has been precious little concrete action.  Baby steps at best.

Yes, many places have put greenhouse gas emission and fuel economy standards in place for passenger vehicles, but these standards are being phased in slowly, and in some places not at all.

The large container ships, freighters, and cruise ships that ply the seas are not subject to any fuel standards at all; in fact in most situations they are allowed to use the dirtiest (and cheapest) fuel available, with no emissions restrictions.  Did you know that a 24-hour day in the life of one cruise ship emits as much particulate as one million cars?! (And that’s apart from dumping all their garbage into the ocean.)  And according to credible calculations, the emissions of 15 mega container ships equals all the cars in the world.  Why have no standards been imposed on these ships?

Yes, we have moved forward to some extent on renewable forms of energy, including wind and solar, but we still rely far too much on fossil fuels for every aspect of our energy needs.  Why?  Well, the tobacco industry has a worthy successor in the form of the oil and gas industry.

The oil and gas industry and all its money have been remarkably successful at suppressing scientific results, attacking and denying the evidence, and mounting conspiracy theories.  Sound familiar?  Anything to keep the oil and gas industry flourishing.  All that money to remind politicians of all the jobs that would be lost, not to mention all the corporate donations and political support that would be lost.  All the time lost as a result, when that money, plus constructive leadership, could have been put towards transitioning the energy sector to a future without fossil fuels and with new jobs.

DD-floods-eveningstandard

It took 50 years to overcome the powerful tobacco industry for the public good.  But, hey folks, it’s been more than 50 years since corporate and political leaders should have known that the very existence of our planet is at risk.  Not just polar bears and orangutans, but millions upon millions of people who will become climate change refugees.   800 million people alone, living in low-lying cities around the world, are at risk for being under water by as soon as 2050.  And that doesn’t count all the places that will become too hot and dry – or wet – to grow the crops and raise the animals they – and we – have been counting on for so long.  Water scarcity, food insecurity, people on the move for their survival.  This is what we’re talking about.

So why aren’t we doing more about it?  Why aren’t we panicking?

What did we do
once
we
knew?

DD-meltingglobe

Image credits: Evening Standard (flood in Germany), scienceovereverything.com (Stuart Palley wildfire picture), Australian Broadcasting Corporation (healthy cigarette image)

This entry was posted in Climate change, History and Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Cigarettes, big oil, and the power of corporate interests

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Excellent article Jane, but all the facts (that cruise ship example is a shocker) laid out so simply aren’t having the slightest affect. The world isn’t geared to take collective action, just the opposite.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, Roy, it’s depressing beyond all measure. Money rules … until we have no inhabitable planet left. There are a few hopeful stories emerging. Just last week I read that the huge Danish global shipping company, Maersk, is going to transition its fuel to hydrogen based. That’s a big step. I will live in hope that others take note, including govts for tightening regulations. Sigh.

  2. Dr. John Persico Jr. says:

    Wonderful piece Jane. I read in Nature magazine the other day some research that says climate change can now be traced as far back as 1830. Your parallels between the obfuscation of cigarette dangers and climate danger warnings are right on the mark. Short term thinking and greed are destroying us. I suspect it is too late for meaningful action but we will never know unless we try.
    John

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, John. Short term thinking and greed, those are the culprits all right. What a mess. Let’s hope some meaningful action comes soon and that it can do at least some good. I sigh for what comes next for the succeeding generations.

  3. A powerful posting Jane, and as often happens I always take away a new fact or two, truly shocking that ‘container-ships, freighters, and cruise ships that ply the seas are not subject to any fuel standards’, the emission levels are truly awful and totally unreported!

    For many years I worked alongside a now retired work colleague, back in the 60s he served as a Merchant seaman (on freighters), I remember him telling me these huge ships used two separate fuels, a lighter more combustible oil to get the engine ticking over, soon switching to a thick almost raw viscous oil for the journey, worse still, unrefined so goodness know what dangerous chemicals this nasty s*** contained………………..truly awful these shipping facts don’t reach a mainstream media, very sad!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, A.S. I know, it’s remarkable what we don’t know until it’s too late. Like having no idea that our plastics haven’t been being recycled domestically when we all are so careful about separating it all out with that expectation. Then it turns out it’s been going on container ships to SE Asia for picking through by very poorly paid people. Unbelievable!

  4. kegarland says:

    This part: ” People are starting to really get it, now that it’s affecting them directly” is what I fear is the problem for all of the things. For some reason, many of us have to experience fill-in-the-blank issue before we wake up and say OH….that’s what you meant ;-/

    Thank you for outlining this very important issue.

  5. Wonderfully said, Jane. The pushback on scientific evidence is what’s most galling. – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much, Marty. This business of ignoring scientific evidence just never ceases to amaze me. I get people not liking to hear bad news, especially when it involves them or their money, but ignoring reality and putting EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING in danger is astounding. Mind you, we see it in the anti-vaxxers on a smaller scale, which is only a smaller scale because their action (or lack thereof) doesn’t help kill their planet. Their pushback is having other kinds of devastating consequences.

  6. Linda Sprague says:

    A really important post Jane. Thanks.

  7. barryh says:

    Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    Here’s a powerful post by Jane Fritz. How corporate interests have successfully stopped effective action on climate change for decades, until it’s too late to avoid the really serious weather stuff that is evident right now, and only going to get worse.
    And yes, the rest of us let them and our politicians get away with it. Collectively we have so far failed to meet the challenge. What a mess we are in now…
    And there’s a great poem by Drew Dellinger.

  8. barryh says:

    Great post, Jane. I have to reblog it. Thanks.

  9. Sandra says:

    Well said! Just this morning I was reading a piece on the just published IPCC report on climate change. ‘Code red for humanity’, they warn us. I read on – and find an almost carbon copy of the 1968 report you quoted. The wheels turn so slowly… too slowly. Thank you for a clear and thought-provoking post 🌍

  10. BernieLynne says:

    I knew that air travel was a huge pollution issue but had never thought about those big cruise ships. I wonder if their industry will ever recover. Maybe it is time for it to be phased out. As to the container ships — each country needs to become more self sustaining like they were 150 years ago and rely less on plastics and goods from China and India. Yes I worry about what will be left for my grandchildren let alone my great great grandchildren. Is my switching to not using a dry enough? Is our changing to a hybrid or electric vehicle enough? Is the fact that we rarely fly anywhere enough? It seems hard for one couple to really make a big impact but we must all do our part. Thanks for the timely and thoughtful post. Bernie

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Bernie. Yes, we must all do our part. But we have to push our govts to take concrete action in regulating more of these things. No packaging that can’t be recycled. Ships requiring fuel efficiency measures and emission controls. The list is a long one.

      • BernieLynne says:

        It will certainly take a huge shift in Western Canadian political will to change a lot out here. Sadly. Lots of individuals doing actions will help but not if coal continues to be mined and fossil fuel consumption does not change.

  11. heimdalco says:

    Your post is certainly one of the most frightening, thought-provoking, chilling I have read in a while … perhaps because there’s so much alarming information in one place at one time. No matter what we, as individuals, may feel, we must be united to make a dent & we don’t seem to be doing that. What that says for the future of our grandchildren, their children & our beautiful planet scares the hell out of me. My heart weeps …

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for voicing the same reaction I have to this frightening situation we’ve put our planet in. Our leaders need to step up with a vengeance. Now.

      • heimdalco says:

        They certainly DO … but there are still those who believe that there is no such thing as global warming or our planet being in extreme danger. As with the reality of COVID, these same people have their heads buried in the sand. I don’t understand how they continually not only ignore science, they ignore what is happening right in front of them.

  12. Well said, Jane. Clearly, mother nature is fighting back at mankind’s thoughtless stupidity.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Debra. Let’s hope that mankind’s smarts, of which we have many, can save the day once the reality hits that there’s no choice. And let’s hope that starts happening right now.

  13. Jean says:

    That is a powerful lst stanza. Ironically right now in Alberta there’s a real demand for trained oil well workers…some of them probably retired/got fed up. It surprised me when I read that. Anyway some solar farms being built quielty, etc.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I do understand that there will be a need for gas and oil as fossil fuel is phased out, but it has seemed to me for some time that Alberta really missed an opportunity by not pushing the inevitable transition right from the word go. They could have led the way. Fingers crossed that that still happens.

      • Jean says:

        Right now, there are some short term retraining programs to move unemployed oil and gas professionals and technicians into technology, analytics and alternative energy. They seem to run 1-2 programs. Then they end. Then there’s another bunch in a few months. It’s all good. However, I think for the recent university and college grads., they don’t see their immediate future in alberta and part of it is the awful old-style politics in power. I would agree…go elsewhere in Canada and overseas. Then return to Alberta for a job offer.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          Gosh, I hope this sense of lack of opportunity for anything but the oil industry turns around for Alberta – and Canada – very, very soon. I get how it’s so difficult, but still …

  14. An aching question. One I ask myself all the time.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      And I think you’ve been doing a better job at it than I have. But it’s really govt regulations that will make the difference. And that takes political courage.

  15. LA says:

    On a slightly sideways note, the last two weekends my husband and I have seen old movies. It’s amazing to be how smoking was featured in those films…crazy

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, isn’t that the case?! We forget. Even watching reruns of old sitcoms, smoking is just what everyone did. I still remember the horrible smell in every indoor venue, and non-smokers were just out of luck for avoiding it unless you stayed home. Glad some things have changed for the better!

  16. Pingback: Cigarettes, gas guzzlers, and the power of corporate interests — Robby Robin’s Journey – Musings and Wonderings

  17. Inkplume says:

    A powerful poem and thoughtful, well-constructed post. Thank you Jane.

  18. Thanks once again for a very worthy article that certainly gets me thinking about my contributions and how I can do more.

  19. somekindof50 says:

    Powerful post Jane.

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