Forget Climate Change, industry and governments will continue to put profit before people

It is futile to expect mankind to reflect on future risks and stop harming itself. Experience with tobacco, guns and DDT show how industry mocked science and spent fortunes in lobbying for status quo

Forget Climate Change, industry and governments will continue to put profit before people

Samir Nazareth

The congratulatory, encouraging, and placatory tone that COP 26 leaves in its wake is very different from the opening remarks of global leaders. Their speeches swung between suggestions that more should be done, to pontificating on how much their country had done to combat Climate Change. The official and unofficial topics that were discussed ranged from the role of gender in Climate Change, aboriginal rights, the vague US-China agreement to the number of lobbyists representing the fossil fuel industry.

It is quite appalling that even after numerous scientific reports, umpteen global meetings, and almost universal consensus that Climate Change is an existential threat, the world does not think it is necessary to take bold measures to protect mankind.

The refusal to get-up-and smell-the-coffee stems from the desire to maintain the status quo for all the benefits it provides. One can call it a lazy and cowardly approach to life as a re-orientation would entail all kinds of new effort and investment.

Though this may seem a gross dereliction of duty on the part of humanity and its leaders, this is not surprising. Humans have a long and chequered history of putting itself in harm’s way, refusing to acknowledge warning signs and its consequences, and thwarting attempts to course correct.

Combating the Black Plague was actually a war between the then prevalent thought of ‘great pestilence in the air’ or miasma, and the then new idea of undetectable microbes infecting people. Accepting the new principle threatened the prevailing orthodoxy. One doesn’t know the collateral damages of this war.

But that is ancient history. There are similar tales from more modern times which continue to have global ramifications. One could argue that they were just a warmup for a proclivity to play with fire.

The first is the saga of cigarettes, the tobacco industry and human health. Bill Bryson writes in ‘The Body: A Guide For Occupants’ that though the Journal of the American Medical Association, and British Medical Journal published two separate papers in the early 1950s conclusively establishing the link between cancer and smoking, the findings were universally panned and governments chose to ignore them. They did not have the foresight to see the socio-economic downside too.

In the US, cigarette manufacturers established the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to lobby and produce alternative science to counter any research on smoking’s deleterious impact on human health. It was only in 1964 that the US Surgeon General released a report linking smoking and lung cancer. Bryson notes that despite this, in 1973, Nature published an editorial supporting women smoking during pregnancy claiming it had a calming effect.

A Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) factsheet on smoking states ‘In 2019, the largest tobacco companies spent $8.2 billion marketing cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in the United States. This amount translates to about $22.5 million each day, or nearly $1 million every hour’. Smoking related illnesses cost the US economy more than USD 300 billion annually. According to the website the tobacco industry in the US spent approximately USD 28 million on lobbying efforts in 2019.

As the tobacco industry is being squeezed out of the developed world, they are casting a wide shadow in Asia. According to University of Bath’s site TobaccoTacticsIn 2020, the highest prevalence of tobacco use in the world, was reported in SEAR and it was around 27.9%.

The story of the automobile industry’s unwillingness to instal seat belts is another example of profit before people which exemplifies the Climate Change situation. The importance of seat belts was recognised early in automobile history. Interestingly the first patent for seat belts was granted in 1885 for a design to prevent passengers from falling off New York taxis. Over the decades, several types of seat belts were designed in Europe and America. Their efficacy to save lives was also proved. Though some car manufacturers provided seat belts in the 1940’s, consumers did not take to it. Ralph Nader’s 1965 book ‘Unsafe At Any Speed’ exposed the willingness of the automobile industry to sacrifice safety for speed and style thereby endangering the lives of motorists. It was only in the 1980’s that mandatory seat belt laws began to be introduced in the US.

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a synthetic pesticide developed in 1939 was used during the Second World in the South Pacific against malaria causing insects, and as a delousing powder in Europe. After the war it was distributed for civilian use. Rachell Carson published her seminal book Silent Spring in 1962. It documented the ravage caused by DDT on humans and the environment. The chemical and pesticide industry unanimously rose in indignation. They not only claimed that following the advice of the book would return mankind to the dark ages but also mocked the author and cast aspersions on her integrity. DDT was finally banned in the US in 1972.

Though the human body is a wonderful chemical phenomenon, the chemicals used by humans in industry and everyday life affect themselves, the environment and future generations. As per data, the chemical industry spent more than USD 39 million this year on lobbying US politicians to ensure they have a conducive manufacturing environment which means contaminating humans and the planet with toxins many of whose side-effects are unknown.

Over the centuries the playbook to prevent and undermine change for the better has been refined and perfected. It is not only the industry of large groups of people working in all forms of corporations that take us to the brink of extinction, but also individual efforts of humans that threaten themselves and mankind. There is enough information about what harms us as individuals and as a population, but it is ignored if not obfuscated.

What one sees time and again is this time-tested process being put into action. Vested interests desirous of maintaining the status quo create alternative narratives. These obfuscate, downplay the threat, suggest watered down alternatives, and cast aspersions on those sounding a warning. At the same time a lot of money is spent on the government to ensure it toes the corporate line in the garb of protecting national interests. What has changed is government’s using laws to viciously crush those protesting this status quo.

There must be a biological reason why some humans are capable of pushing everyone to the precipice. Maybe nature planted a yet-to-be-discovered self-detonating or redundancy gene in enough humans to propel all of humanity into oblivion. The inaction on Climate Change may finally culminate what began many millennia ago.

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