In 1923, the National Lead Company took out an advertisement in National Geographic touting the health benefits of lead paint. “Lead helps guard your health,” the ad claimed. “Lead concealed in the walls and under the floors of many modern buildings helps to give the best sanitation.” At the time, warnings about lead poisoning in workers and children were beginning to circulate in the press, and the industry was scrambling to defend itself. In 1928 companies banded together under the umbrella of the Lead Industries Association, which tried to counter what it saw as “undesirable publicity.” For decades the LIA insisted publicly that fears about lead poisoning were overblown, that it was merely “a slum problem.” Meanwhile, in private, the industry was studying and discussing the very significant health threat posed by its product.
Sound familiar? According to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who initiated a landmark case against three paint manufacturers and the LIA when he was the attorney general of Rhode Island, the LIA presents “an early example of the strategy of an industry creating a propaganda campaign to try to defeat the actual science about the hazard of their product.” Big Tobacco used a similar strategy to undermine research showing smoking to be unsafe. So did the fossil-fuel industry, Whitehouse believes, with regard to climate change—though instead of promoting climate skepticism through one major trade association, fossil-fuel interests funded a whole network of think tanks and political groups.
On Monday and Tuesday, Whitehouse and more than a dozen other Democrats in the Senate gave floor speeches about this “web of denial,” calling out the organizations that together “have developed and executed a massive campaign to deceive the public about climate change to halt climate action and protect their bottom lines.” Democrats in both chambers of Congress also introduced a resolution condemning the efforts of the lead, tobacco, and fossil-fuel industries “to deliberately cast doubt on science in order to protect their financial interests.” The resolution calls on fossil fuel companies to cooperate with investigations into their climate change activities.
Whitehouse was one of the first members of Congress to raise the idea of bringing a civil case, similar to the racketeering suit Bill Clinton’s administration brought against the tobacco industry, against fossil-fuel companies for deliberately misleading the public on climate science. I spoke with him on Tuesday about the “web of denial,” as well as claims that criticizing fossil-fuel corporations and outside organizations for their positions on climate amounts to a violation of free speech. (One of the groups mentioned in the floor speeches, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, called the action “a McCarthy-style attempt to shut down the democratic process.”) “That argument is a crock on so many levels that it’s almost hard to summarize all of them,” Whitehouse said; read on for his rebuttal.