by Guest Authors
This blog post is Part Three in our series on the geopolitics of sustainability, the theme of this quarter’s Roble Hard Earth Talks. Ben Franta, JD-PhD student in law and history, presented on the fossil fuel industry’s early knowledge of climate change and their deliberate efforts to mislead the public about its existence and effects brought many issues for discussion. You can read more about Franta’s research here.
Students were particularly interested in questions of culpability – who is to blame, and how should they be punished? When we think about the full costs of climate change, the damage is so large that it’s effectively infinite. Should the fossil fuel industry bear the full, infinite liability of climate change for their fraud on the public? If we answer yes, does that imply that we assume that if the public had known – i.e., if the industry had been forthcoming about the science – then the public would have acted aggressively to avert climate change and its consequences?
Answers to these questions are difficult to settle, not least because they require us to construct an alternate reality in which the fossil fuel industry had not deceived the public. Students disagreed about how the public would have responded to the science in this alternate reality; some thought the public would recognize the impending dangers and act aggressively, while others thought we would be in more or less the same situation because even now, when people know the science, we are still not acting as aggressively as we could (or should). We agreed, however, that the climate denial phenomenon would not be nearly so strong if the industry had been forthcoming with the science. Students also recognized that fossil fuels are not the only contributors to climate change, and that consumer decisions about the use of fossil fuels and other contributing factors are important to consider. Individuals bear responsibility for the consequences of their actions – especially when they are conscious of those consequences before they act. We discussed this in regard to both individual members of the public and decisionmakers in the fossil fuel industry. We agreed that a person’s knowledge and intent are important in determining how blameworthy they are.
We also discussed the structure of Ben’s presentation. Who was its intended audience, and was it persuasive? How would fossil fuel industry apologists respond? Is it possible that they could marshal an effective rebuttal of the allegations of fraud? Although Ben presented a damning case against them by juxtaposing the industry’s public statements with their internal scientific reports, it is at least possible that he chose the most compelling documents to show us. In a courtroom, such as where Ben plans to present his research, opposing counsel will be sure to rebut the notion as forcefully as they can. In the public square, however, people are less able to identify evidence as potentially problematic because of its source.
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This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.