By Dana Drugmand
A Congressional hearing on how corporations have manipulated science and peddled denial campaigns to the public ended before it began on Tuesday when the Republican committee chair moved to adjourn the session and not enough supportive Democrats were in attendance to defeat the motion.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in the House Natural Resources Committee, succeeded in ending the hearing on a 4-2 vote, opposed by the only two Democrats that attended. Subcommittee chairman Rep. T.J. Cox (D-Calif.) continued the meeting as a forum, allowing the witnesses to testify, but without the recognition of an official congressional hearing.
Gohmert, a staunch conservative who received more than $35,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry last year, said the hearing, titled “The Denial Playbook: How Industries Manipulate Science and Policy from Climate Change to Public Health,” fell outside the committee’s jurisdiction. After the Republican members left, Cox oversaw the testimony that featured witnesses who spoke about the corporate role in opioid addiction, football-induced brain trauma, and climate change.
The hearing was supposed to be part of a series of hearings by the House Natural Resources Committee on climate change, a topic the new Democratic majority in the House has vowed to make a priority. While the testimony touched on other topics beyond the climate crisis, it highlighted a major issue in the effort to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate impacts: industry-led misinformation campaigns designed to spread doubt and undermine the science that indicates a clear danger in the industry’s products.
Cox said in his opening remarks that the misinformation playbook originated with the tobacco industry. “Nearly half a century ago a tobacco executive said that doubt is ‘the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public,’” Cox said.
“The denial playbook has been widely embraced because it works,” Dr. David Michaels, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, said during his testimony. “The strategy disingenuously demands proof over precaution in matters of the public good. For unethical corporations, there is no better way to stymie government efforts to regulate a product that harms the public or the environment.”
Michaels, author of Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, spoke of the real harm corporations cause by denying science.
“This denial playbook has caused the sickness and deaths of millions through its use defending tobacco, opioids, asbestos, lead, PFAS compounds and many more toxic products,” he said.
“But in the face of overwhelming evidence the fossil fuel industry continues the follow the tobacco road. These corporations are defending a product that will be far deadlier than tobacco unless we take urgently needed action. This industry is still funding scientists to manufacture doubt and still lobbying against meaningful climate action. And too many of our legislators continue to believe their lies.”
Other industries have followed a similar strategy, witnesses said, including professional football and pharmaceutical companies. “We’ve seen the NFL use the playbook to dismiss the role of professional football in causing a neurological disorder related to repeated trauma to the brain called CTE,” Cox said.
“And the pharmaceutical industry has used the playbook to deny the addictiveness of opioids…In each of these cases the science showed a clear risk, but industry distorted the science to keep selling their product.”
Chris Borland, a former NFL player, spoke about concussion studies funded by the league that downplayed the connection between the sport and debilitating head injuries. He said the vast majority of concussions go unreported, and the studies also ignore the issue of repeated smaller head injuries, or subconcussions, that can lead to neurological disorders. In recent years, the evidence has grown tying those repeated head injuries to long-term irreversible brain damage, including CTE, with a recent study of the brains of 202 deceased football players showing evidence of CTE in nearly all of them. The overwhelming evidence has forced the NFL to recognize the link between the sport and the disease—similar to the oil industry’s acknowledgment of the reality of climate change— but few changes have been made to the game to make it safer.
Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry has downplayed the risk of prescription opioids, despite an addiction epidemic that claims the lives of more than 130 Americans each day. Ryan Hampton testified to his experience battling opioid addiction, and pointed to the role that drug manufacturers played in obscuring the addictiveness of their products.
“My addiction stole 10 years of my life that I will never get back, and it all started with a pill,” he said. “These lies were not harmless. They were intended to boost Big Pharma’s profits, absolve the industry of any responsibility for the deaths their products caused, and shift the blame onto the people they sickened.”
Alexandra Precup, who lived through the devastation of Hurricane Maria in her native Puerto Rico, spoke about her experience, and of the link between extreme storms and climate change. Puerto Ricans she said, had endured previous hurricanes, but nothing could have prepared them for the monstrous Maria, a storm that scientists say was intensified by warming waters – a direct consequence of society’s fossil fuel addiction.
In his closing remarks, Michaels emphasized the seriousness of the climate crisis. “Climate change is really the most pressing issue facing all of us right now. We are seeing climate breakdown, not even climate change,” he said.
When Cox asked the witnesses what message he should relay to his colleagues, Michaels responded with a nod to younger generations.
“In terms of talking to your colleagues, ask them what they will tell their grandchildren when their grandchildren ask them what did you do when it became abundantly clear that unless we take urgent action, this Earth will become a much more difficult place to live.”