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PollutionYou remember what RICO did to Big Tobacco, right? No, not your cousin, Rico. I didn’t say Rico, I said RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. That RICO.

In 1999, the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil RICO lawsuit against the major tobacco companies and their associated industry groups, claiming that the companies “engaged in and executed — and continue to engage in and execute — a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes, in violation of RICO.” The government accused Big Tobacco of engaging in a “racketeering enterprise” consisting of (1) paying scientists to produce studies defending their product, (2) developing an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science—as they know it to be—and then (3) relentlessly attack your opponents and beat them into the ground.

Tobacco spent millions of dollars and years of litigation fighting the government. But finally, through the pre-trial discovery process, government lawyers were able to peel back the layers of deceit and denial and see what the tobacco companies really knew all along about cigarettes.

In 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled, in a more than 1,600 page opinion (a juicy novel is between 250 and 500 pages), that Big Tobacco’s fraudulent campaign amounted to a racketeering enterprise: “Defendants coordinated significant aspects of their public relations, scientific, legal, and marketing activity in furtherance of a shared objective to . . . maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public.”

Now, many regulators are comparing the activities of fossil fuel companies and their allies to Big Tobacco’s denial of the health dangers of smoking, claiming that they are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil to produce “documents on what [it] knew about climate change and what it told shareholders and the public.” The subpoena compelled ExxonMobil to hand over scientific research and communications about climate change dating back to 1977.

Schneiderman’s investigation is based on New York State’s consumer-protection and general-business laws, in particular the state’s Martin Act. That Act prohibits fraud or misrepresentation in the sale of securities and commodities, and gives the Attorney General extraordinary power to fight financial fraud.

While ExxonMobil arguably had no duty to share with the public the information it gathered about climate change starting almost forty years ago, it was forbidden to deceive shareholders and potential buyers of its shares. Earlier this fall, the Los Angeles Times reported that ExxonMobil scientists warned executives about the potential environmental catastrophe from the use of fossil fuels, but that the company nevertheless deliberately spread doubt about that scientific view.

Under the Martin Act, the state must prove only “misrepresentation,” omission of a material fact or other conduct that deceives or misleads the public. It is not necessary to prove intent to defraud or that anyone was actually defrauded.

Enter once again your cousin, RICO. In the face of the climate control meetings in Paris last week, and the expected follow-on, Whitehouse representatives, members of Congress, and many others are now calling for a Justice Department RICO probe of ExxonMobil.

Even if such a measure ultimately succeeds against ExxonMobil, and perhaps against other big oil companies, if the tobacco saga is any indication, it is likely to be only the first battle in what likely will be a very long and protracted war.

Tobacco continues to be the number one cause of deaths in the U.S. today, amounting to some 480,000 deaths per year, including around 50,000 from secondhand smoke. Though tobacco’s effects are very costly to society, tobacco is primarily a curse for smokers, and those who live and work with them. But the influence of tobacco is on the decline and will hopefully, gradually die out.

In contrast, climate change is a threat to the entire planet and mankind as a whole, and that threat is annually growing worse. On the eve of the Paris climate summit, none other than Pope Francis warned that it would be “catastrophic” if world leaders allow special interest groups to get in the way of a global agreement to curb fossil emissions.

While the battle with oil is just getting underway, as the battle with tobacco may be winding down, tobacco only had to deal with Cousin RICO. It looks like oil is going to have to deal with both Cousin RICO and Uncle Francis. Maybe it’ll think twice. Probably not. Too much profit at stake. Every year it can delay. Even if it ultimately loses. Even if we all ultimately lose.


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  • Jane S Taber

    Explain the reasoning behind the belief by the environmentalists that
    CO2 is a pollutant. Anything with leaves needs CO2.

    • Great question, Jane, perfectly logical. I initially wondered about that myself. The short answer is that one glass of wine with dinner is probably good for you, especially if you live in Italy or France, but five glasses with dinner may not be, especially if you are the one driving home after. For whatever it may be worth to you, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that CO2 is a “pollutant.” So has the Environmental Protection Agency. For a more formal, reliable and detailed answer to your question, please check out the following link, including the video at the end of it: http://www.skepticalscience.com/co2-pollutant-advanced.htm. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. I love the attention! 🙂

  • Jane S Taber

    In deductive reasoning …one does not start with an answer and work backwards. It seems to me that the EvironMENTALists have started with their answer and fit their reasoning to it.
    Humans and all mammals breathe out CO2.
    We cannot take that in like carbon monoxide which is CO.
    Therefore how can it be harmful to our health….we make it.

    • Jane, I will try to address your points in the same sequence in which you present them.
      Your first point addresses how you believe the “EnvironMENTALists” reach their conclusions about global warming. You charge them with starting with an assumed answer (theirs) and then working backwards from there to an opening proposition. You said deductive reasoning is not supposed to work that way. You are right, but that is the way I believe inductive reasoning works.
      When I was a Physics major in college, we were taught that there are generally two kinds of reasoning, or logic, deductive and inductive. Both apply logic to develop support for inferences. My understanding is that either form of reasoning is rational and can be applied, from either direction, to find the best support under the circumstances at hand. I’m not sure why you chose to mention only deductive and not inductive reasoning.
      In essence, you criticize the environmentalists for taking an inductive approach. I’m not sure you can lump all “environmentalists” together under one roof, as you seem to be doing. My instincts tell me that one size does not fit all, that some apply a deductive approach, some apply an inductive approach and some apply a little of both. I don’t know that the approaches are mutually exclusive or what deductive versus inductive really does for us in this issue.
      Next, you are right that humans, for the most part, breath out carbon dioxide, CO2. More specifically, they breath in oxygen, O2, convert it to CO2 (the details of which are entirely over my head), and then expel the CO2. You are also right that humans cannot breath in carbon monoxide, CO, which is lethal to our species. However, I’m not sure where any of this gets us either.
      Your final point is what seems most pertinent to me and is the point you first raised earlier today, how can CO2 be dangerous “to our health” since we’ve been making it for millions of years without any problem? That was certainly true until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, sometime in the 1700s. Until then, the CO2 humans produced came from their bodies and it was in balance with nature. Give or take, the amount produced by human bodies was fully absorbed and accounted for by plants and some other animals. Our planet was in harmony. There was no excess CO2.
      From the time of the Industrial Revolution, that balance began to change. Not only did humans produce CO2 from their bodies, but they also started producing it from their machines. While it is the subject of considerable debate, the argument is that the machine generated CO2 is not being fully absorbed by nature, but has started to accumulate in the atmosphere. This build up is now being exponentially increased by the oil companies and the way they produce their consumable oil and, so the argument goes, this excess will at some point become dangerous, and perhaps irreversibly so.
      There is debate, of course, about how fast this is occurring and how harmful it will be–not necessarily directly to we humans, as you challenge in your comment, but to our planet and, therefore, ultimately to we humans indirectly. I can’t answer these kinds of questions; they go way beyond my wheelhouse. However, what I do think bears repeating is the example I gave earlier today about the number of glasses of wine consumed at dinner. One or two glasses is harmless. Four or five or six is quite possibly a different story.
      What I found interesting enough to make me want to write the blog I did is not the number of glasses of wine that may finally become dangerous, but the fact that the governments and their lawyers are claiming that Big Oil is talking out of both sides of their mouths, as the courts found that Big Tobacco once did. The claims are that Big Oil PR says to the public that there’s nothing to worry about while their scientists are privately telling their executives just the opposite. That is what interests me and it is neither deductive nor inductive; it is potentially ugly lies, either by Big Oil or by the governments and their lawyers. If Big Oil scientists are saying there is a problem, my logic tells me there must be. If so, I’d like to see the problem alleviated in some rational way not left solely to Big Oil to determine. If the government and its lawyers are exaggerating, then that should be determined as well, and no doubt Big Oil and their lawyers will see that that happens.
      Bottom line, at least for me, who has no real axe to grind on this subject, one way or the other, I just want a problem as huge as this one might be to see the light of day and be fully aired. Unless you somehow already know the answer, I would think you would want to see this issue aired just as I do.
      By my blog, I simply intended, in my own tiny way, to draw a little more attention to this subject and the showdown to which we seem inevitably and necessarily headed.

  • Kamala Harris, California State Attorney General, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate has announced last week that her office is investigating ExxonMobil on securities fraud claims as a means of getting at the oil company for its fracking practices. No doubt she was influenced in her decision to move forward by this writer’s blog on set forth above on December 10, 2015. 🙂