Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Are Fossil Fuel Industry Commercials Encouraging Americans to Engage In Unethical Climate Change Causing Behavior?


Are commercials currently being run in the United States paid for by the fossil fuel industry encouraging Americans to continue unjust and unethical behavior in regard to climate change? These commercials encourage Americans to organize politically against any legislation that would increase the cost of fossil fuel even though the US use of fossil fuel beyond its fair share of safe global emissions is already contributing to misery around the world and threatens many of the world’s poorest people in the years ahead with catastrophic threats to human life and the resources on which life depends.
ClimateEthics has written frequently about some obvious ethical problems with cost arguments often made by opponents of climate change policies. Among other problems with cost arguments are that they (a) don’t acknowledge duties, obligations, and responsibilities to those most vulnerable to climate change impacts, (b) ignore obligations to prevent human rights violations, (c) wind up being used to give polluters permission to cause great harm to human health and the environment around the world, and, (d) often ignore the costs of doing nothing to reduce the threat of climate change. For instance, see: Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens.

Despite the obvious ethical problems with these arguments that oppose climate change policies on the basis of increased cost to the United States alone, there is virtually no recognition of the ethical problems with these arguments by US politicians, the media, nor often even by environmental groups. This post explores this reality in regard to commercials currently being aired that have been paid for by the American Petroleum Institute (API).

To examine the strange anomaly of the failure to spot the obvious ethical problems raised by the type of cost arguments embedded in the API commercials, it is helpful to consider the following hypothetical:

If a Canadian manufacturer of garbage cans emitted toxic chemicals that migrated across the US border and killed Americans and harmed the environment and this company at the same time tried to convince Canadians that: (a) the chemicals were not toxic when there was strong scientific evidence that the chemicals would kill humans and harm the environment, and, (b) tried to convince Canadian citizens to oppose proposed Canadian government actions to prevent emissions of the toxins only because of adverse impacts on the Canadian economy, Americans would likely easily see the Canadian company as unethical if not criminal.

Yet there is no evidence that Americans see the obvious ethical problems with very similar behavior of some fossil fuel companies in regard to climate change. That is some American fossil fuel companies have been supporting the dissemination of misleading information about whether climate change is a huge threat particularly to poor people around the world and we now know that climate change is already harshly affecting some of the worlds poorest people. Some of these companies are also fighting any US government policies that would lead to reduction in use of fossil fuels on the basis of increased costs to the United States alone without acknowledging that the United States has duties, responsibilities, and obligations to people who are at great risk from human-induced global warming. Yet there is virtually no discussion of the ethical problems with this behavior in the US press, among US politicians, or in any civil society debate about climate change.

A current example of a fossil fuel industry attempt to generate public opposition to climate change policies on the basis of cost to Americans alone is a commercial frequently currently being run by API in many US states. This commercial’s goal is to defeat legislative proposals that would eliminate tax write-offs for the petroleum industry or impose new taxes on fossil fuel companies through a variety of mechanisms including cap and trade legislation.. The API commercial pictures ordinary working class people claiming that taxes on the petroleum industry will destroy jobs and ruin the economy. The commercial urges Americans to organize to defeat any legislation that would increase fossil fuel costs. Since most solutions to climate being seriously considered in the United States work by putting a cost on carbon, these commercials appear to be designed, at least in part, to generate political opposition to any climate change legislation.

(Although the fossil fuel industry is also opposed to the reduction of subsidies that will reduce oil company profits profits)

API is the key oil industry lobby organization in the United States, representing some 400 companies that cover the spectrum of the oil and gas industry, from the largest major to the smallest independent corporations. .

API has a long history of lobbying against climate change legislation For instance API was one of the major funding sources of the Global Climate Coalition along with ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum (now BP), Texaco, General Motors, Ford,

DaimlerChrysler, the Aluminum Association, the National Association of Manufactures, and others (Hoggan and Littlemore, 2010:13). The Global Climate Coalition was the major US industry group fighting against a global climate regime from the late 1980s to 2002. The Global Climate Coalition frequently opposed climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty that human releases of greenhouse gases were threatening human flourishing and the environment and cost to the United States economy.

Last year, Green Peace asserted that they discovered a memo leaked from API that urged oil companies to encourage their employees to act in such a way that would give the impression that there was a spontaneous bottom-up citizen rebellion against climate change cap and trade legislation. (Green Peace, 2009) If the Green Peace claim is true, API engaged in activities designed to fool the media and US citizens that opposition to climate change legislation was being mounted by regular citizens voicing their spontaneous concerns rather than employees of petroleum companies that had been encouraged by their employers to make a ruckus at public meetings.

The API ads currently playing in many parts of the United States also attempt to make the case against taxes on the petroleum by showing opposition from what appear to be ordinary working Americans. The logic of the advertisement is it is not in the US interest to increase fossil fuel costs, and therefore Americans should act only in their self-interest and oppose any legislation that would increase fossil fuel costs, which means any solution to climate change under serious consideration.

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