Imagine that you’re a tobacco company CEO in the 1960s, and the Surgeon General announces that your product kills people. What would you do? Perhaps you’d experiment with new filters and blends for a few years, trying to minimize the harm. But a decade passes, nothing changes, and you face a horrible truth.
Your product is lethal; cigarettes aren’t safe under any circumstances. In fact, the statistics are staggering. You know that nicotine is almost as addictive as heroin. You know that lung cancer could be virtually eliminated if people stopped using your product. You know that tobacco kills close to 480,000 people in North America each year — more than double the total number of combined deaths attributed to alcoholism, car accidents, AIDS, suicides, homicides, fires, crack-cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
You know your product hurts the innocent. Every year, tobacco smoke causes up to 300,000 respiratory infections in children younger than 18 months in the U.S. It results in as many as 26,000 new cases of asthma. More than 200,000 asthmatic children will be hospitalized this year because a parent smokes in their home.
If you’re a tobacco company CEO, what would you do?
Would you try to muddy the waters by paying lobbyists to write pseudo-scientific papers that portray cigarette smoking in a favorable light? Would you expand your operations to developing world countries and try to hook generations of foreigners? Would you lie to Congress, proclaiming that your product is safe and non-addictive?
An ethical CEO would do none of these things. Seen in such a stark light, the only moral thing to do would be to slowly put yourself out of business. You’ve enjoyed a good run, and tobacco created staggering wealth for generations. But if you’re a compasionate human being, you’d stop marketing your product to children, and you’d ensure that cigarettes didn’t hook another generation. You’d help existing customers quit, and you’d support growers during the transition as they replant fields with another, less harmful cash crop.
Of course, none of that happened. Forty-five years after the Surgeon-General’s landmark report, tobacco companies are still strong, still making money through scandalous exploitation, still trying to hook another generation of Canadians and Americans if they can — but young Pakistanis and Chinese will work in a pinch, and so will everyone else they can find. So you’ll forgive me for thinking that Big Tobacco is an evil industry.
Tar Sands Precipice
Oil sands producers are now sitting on that same precipice.
I write environmental newsletters for Fortune 1000 companies, and I read hundreds of clean technology and low-carbon articles and studies every week. I know what the media hasn’t properly reported — that the International Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report is woefully out-of-date. Every month, the science proves that global warming is here now, that it’s advancing much faster than expected, and that we have to cut emissions immediately.
Last March, the world’s leading climate scientists held an emergency session in Copenhagen to update the climate change science to better convey this urgency. Among the jaw droppers were these frightening revelations: The coming decade will be the warmest ever, and summer arctic ice will largely melt by 2020. Droughts will intensify, and hurricanes will become ever more potent. By 2100, we should expect sea levels to rise by between 5 and 7 feet; that 85 percent of the Amazon rainforest will die; that 40 to 70 percent of species will go extinct; that agriculture will fail in California; that the American Southwest will be turned into a permanent dust bowl; and that a few billion people in Asia to have no water for life. And that’s but a sampling of dozens of apocalyptic predictions.
It’s already happening. Small Pacific Islands like Kiribati are making evacuation plans because rising sea levels are destroying their homes. Sure, it’s just a few thousand people here and there, but what happens when the world has millions — perhaps hundreds of millions — of climate refugees? Who should we blame when skirmishes over scarce water supplies erupt, and farmland in the emerging world turns to desert, creating a dozen Darfurs?
I’m not for a minute suggesting that we immediately turn off the spigots at the Alberta oil sands. But if you produce Alberta oil, heavier in greenhouse gases than Saudi Arabia’s light sweet crude, then you should see the writing on the wall. Oil sands carbon capture won’t work fast enough, and it delays the inevitable. It’s time for producers to change industries, to invest in renewable power, in creating railways, in building wind turbines, in doing everything they can to hasten the transition to a low-carbon economy.
If they don’t, then oil sands producers will become the tobacco industry of the 21st century, reviled throughout the world for the pain and suffering that they’ve caused.