Kivalina — a climate change story

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

During our visit to Iceland, we talked with a political leader who expressed two environmental concerns. One was that China’s massive increase in coal burning was accelerating the presence of mercury in the ocean food chain, which would have adverse economic effects on Iceland’s fishing industry. The second was that climate change would have a beneficial economic impact on their country as he envisioned becoming a major stop in the global shipping lanes, which would open up with the reduction of ice cover in Arctic waters.

A less salubrious impression of the loss of sea ice comes from the tiny Alaskan island of Kivalina, which is eroding away as the loss of sea ice leaves them unprotected from the waves generated by storms. In 2008, the native village filed a lawsuit against 24 fossil fuel companies for contributing to the island’s land loss by erosion resulting from the reduction in sea ice. This reduction was attributed to global warming brought on by the releases of heat-trapping gases from the combustion of fossil fuels. The suit sought financial compensation to fund moving the village to a more secure site.

The suit also addressed the role the companies played in creating a false debate about climate change.

In her book, Kivalina: A Climate Change Story, Christine Shearer not only addresses the threat to the island’s population, but goes on to describe what has been labeled the product defense industry, or PDI. PDI is described as being designed to help large industries stave off regulations and laws designed to limit the adverse impacts of their activities on people and the environment.

PDI consists of lawyers, public relations firms, think tanks and specialized organizations designed to shape public opinion, scientific research, government regulations and legal opinions. Their efforts often minimize environmental and health risks of selected actions while exaggerating the costs of regulations to the firms, consumers and the economy as a whole. Their goal is to delay and avoid regulations, leaving the costs to be absorbed by the public.

To illustrate the process, the author provides a brief description of the work of the PDI regarding asbestos, lead and tobacco. In these cases, proof of corporate malfeasance was necessary for a guilty verdict for the firms involved. With climate change, legal consideration of the corporate role in advancing false science to sway public opinion is seen as being far off in the future.

Her description of the tactics of the product defense industry provides an analytical framework that could prove useful in assessing the relative worth of scientific debates surrounding issues of energy and environmental reforms. The industry’s efforts are seen as having nurtured a widespread, dogmatic skepticism among portions of the public who remain unconvinced of any harm and danger, regardless of scientific evidence of its existence.

Kivalina remains in a quandary as to how to finance its move to a new location. A federal appeals court in September upheld a district court ruling that Kivalina did not have standing to sue oil, coal and power companies, and suggested seeking a legislative remedy.

From the Jan. 2-8, 2013, issue

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