Typically in Canada, wildfires consume an average of 2.5 million hectares of land annually. This year, 6,132 blazes burned 16.5 million hectares, according to Natural Resources Canada. The summer of 2023 was by far the worst wildfire season in history.
There were a few causes. But in a way you can trace the trails back to a meeting held in New York City’s Plaza Hotel 70 years ago this week, on Dec. 15, 1953.
That was a bad year for the tobacco industry.
And about to be a good one for the PR industry.
Early in 1953, Reader’s Digest, at the time the most-read magazine in the U.S., ran a piece called “Cancer by the Carton”. It alerted the smoking public to evidence of the cigarette’s harm, which had been growing for decades. Then, in November 1953, a published study showed the link between cigarettes and tumours in mice. Time magazine wrote an article titled “Beyond Any Doubt”.
That’s what brought a group of nervous CEOs to the Plaza on Dec. 15. The attendees included the heads of American Tobacco, Benson & Hedges, Philip Morris, U.S. Tobacco, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson. They controlled the cigarette market. Although they were competitors, they needed to band together to confront a common enemy. The truth.
The Plaza meeting was a strategy session. For advice, the tobacco companies called in John Hill, founder of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. He told the group to view science not as a threat but as an opportunity.
Don’t block research, he said, back ever more of it. Because if additional research is needed, no matter the overwhelming evidence, the issue isn’t really settled, right?
Hill recommended forming an entity called the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to fund endless studies on the topic. The industry knew the facts were against them. The goal wasn’t to engage in legitimate scientific discourse. It was to manufacture doubt, delay regulations and continue to rake in profits as long as possible.
The science of denial
I came across a description of the Plaza meeting in a terrific 2023 book by David Lipsky called The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial. He outlines how we’ve moved from a scientific consensus on what we’re doing to our planet to a denial cabal that has intentionally misled the public.
Although The Parrot and the Igloo is about climate change, Lipsky devotes a fair bit of space to the tactics of the tobacco shills. The cancer merchants wrote the blueprint for the PR strategy that other industries have adopted around the climate issue.
The tobacco and fossil fuel industries have been linked in other ways. Scientific American ran an article about this, quoting Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C. “From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and same research institutes, but many of the same researchers.”
To fight back, just blow smoke.
Over the decades, we’ve seen the long-term results of industry efforts to deliberately confuse or mislead. That’s true whether we’re talking about cigarette smoke or the smoke clouds hovering over much of Canada this past summer.
It should be a constant reminder that climate change “debates” stem largely from PR tactics.
An environmental sociologist named Riley Dunlap has noted how this counter-movement includes “contrarian scientists, fossil fuels corporations, conservative think-tanks, various front groups, amateur climate bloggers, self-designated experts, public relations firms, conservative media and pundits, and conservative politicians.”
And the consequences of decades of intentional confusion can be as out of control as wildfires.
This August, the Canadian Press ran an article about the fear, lies and conspiracy theories that were re-ignited this summer. “Canada’s current wildfire season is devastating evidence of the effects of climate change, scientists say, but for some conspiracy theorists the thousands of square kilometres of burnt ground isn’t enough to convince them.”
Instead, the article stated, many people pointed to arsonists and government plots to restrict people’s movement as some of the causes of the fires.
Wildfires aren’t new. You know what is? The literal environment in which these particular fires happened.
The World Weather Attribution, a global group of scientists, analyzed the Quebec wildfires in particular. The group concluded that the fires were at least twice as likely to occur, and 50% more intense once they did, as a result of climate change.
A New York Times article about that study explained it clearly. Yes, “wildfires can be ignited by lightning or human-related causes such as unattended campfires, downed power lines and arson.”
But, the article continued, hot, dry and gusty conditions affects how flammable trees are in the first place, how intensely they burn and how tough they are to extinguish. In short, without human-caused climate change, wildfires would still happen but they’d be far less severe.
Like going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale
In The Parrot and the Igloo, Lipsky writes frequently about an American pollster named Frank Luntz. In some ways, Luntz created the playbook for the last 25 years of misinformation and disinformation.
In 1998, he crafted a strategy guide for his Republican clients. The party had been dragging its feet on safeguarding the environment, and Luntz recommended a shift in tactics. Not in actually taking action, but in altering the terminology around the issue.
“It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of ‘global warming’,” he writes. “‘Climate change’ is less frightening. While ‘global warming’ has catastrophic connotations attached to it, ‘climate change’ suggests a less emotional challenge. ‘Climate change’ sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.”
Realizing that “people are willing to trust scientists”, Luntz also pulled a page from the tobacco industry to flood the zone with more research and development.
“The scientific debate is closing but not yet closed. Should the public come to believe that scientific issues are settled, their views will change accordingly,” Luntz wrote.
A 2013 study of 12,000 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers on climate science led to this often-quoted figure: 97% of published scientists agree that a) climate change is real; and b) humans are causing it. Later studies put the figure at more than 99%, and conclude that the tiny percentage of papers that disagree typically include errors or can’t be replicated.
Even so, planting any seeds of doubt has paid off.
For industry it has bought time, and those years have been profitable.
And how can you be accused of being anti-science when all you do is call for more of it? That principle, whether talking about tobacco or climate, was “a smoker’s cough communicated across the years and disciplines,” writes Lipsky.
In Canada, a 2023 survey from Research Co. reported that 87% of Canadians do believe climate change is a reality. But drill down and you find a split.
After all this time, just 60% of Canadians think climate change is mostly caused by human activities, and that’s down nine points in a year. 27% of Canadians say climate change is mostly caused by nature (that’s up seven points), and another 8% say climate change is only a theory that’s yet unproven (up three points).
There’s a huge divide along partisan lines as well, as shown by Research Co. and another study by EKOS Research (which matched Canadians’ voting intentions to their levels of false beliefs, including those around climate change).
Perhaps the PR spinners don’t even have that tough of a job to convince a chunk of us that human-made climate change isn’t settled.
Here are some other “beliefs” held by Canadians, according to surveys by Ipsos and Pollara: 46% of us believe in ghosts or supernatural beings, 28% say psychics can predict the future, 19% believe parallel universes exist containing different versions of our lives, and 17% say some people have telekinetic powers, i.e. the ability to move objects with their mind, and 4% feel the Earth is flat or are unsure.
A lot of us will believe anything. Except settled science.
As for Frunk Luntz, what did he come to believe? At 3:15 am one night in December 2017, he was awoken by his phone broadcasting an emergency evacuation warning. A series of wildfires had been blazing across Southern California. Luntz looked out the bedroom window of his Los Angeles home to see flames approaching.
Eighteen months later, he was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. The topic: breaking down partisan barriers to progress. Finally, Luntz acknowledged the danger.
“Rising sea levels, melting ice caps, tornadoes, and hurricanes more ferocious than ever. It is happening,” he told the Senate committee, recalling the moment when his possessions and life were on the line. “I’ve changed,” he testified.
What about his former positions? “That was a lifetime ago,” he said.
Maybe it took the flames at his front door to help Luntz see the light.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on X (formerly Twitter) @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.
Dec. 13, 2023