The remote Alaska village of Kivalina has been in danger for a number of years from the effects of climate change: “Sea ice no longer adequately forms on the village’s coastline, leaving the tiny island—perched on a thin strip of land between a sea and a lagoon—vulnerable to storms and erosion, and requiring relocation.” But the word relocation is easier spoken than achieved, as Christine Shearer’s arresting book Kivalina: A Climate Change Story tells.
Government sources of finance don’t appear to be available for the move estimated to cost between $100 million and $400 million. The village therefore in 2008 filed a claim against twenty four oil, electricity and coal companies alleging that the defendants are significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating global warming and the erosion in Kivalina, constituting a public nuisance under federal and state law. The suit seeks damages of up to $400 million, enough to cover relocation costs. There were secondary claims of conspiracy and concert of action against eight of the companies for conspiring to create a false scientific debate about climate change to deceive the public. The ruling to date is that the issue of addressing climate change and its negative effects is not a matter for the courts but should be left to the government. The judgment is being appealed.
After an opening section on Kivalina the book plunges into accounts of the ways in which corporate interests in America have defended products even after they knew them to be dangerous to human health. Asbestos was an early example. Shearer relates how in the 1920s and 1930s the asbestos industry agreed to finance experiments on asbestos dust, as long as companies maintained control over disclosure of the results. The studies showed that asbestosis affected miners and workers even below the arbitrarily determined threshold which had been claimed as safe. But rather than publicising the studies and warning workers, the industry suppressed the results and instead argued that asbestosis was not a serious disease, and was due to poor factory conditions or excessive smoking by workers, not to the asbestos fibre itself. It was only as the evidence began to accumulate and the threat of liability became serious that manufacturers started using alternative materials.
“Harmful findings were systematically suppressed, disputed, and denied, with the industry turning to public relations to rebrand its product as safe in the public eye and stave off regulation.”
The case was similar with lead. League of Nations members signed an agreement as early as 1922 forbidding the use of white-lead interior paint. Not so the US. In the 1930s the white-lead producers found an academic (one or two always seem to be available) who claimed that eating lead paint did not harm children; rather, he argued, to eat the paint they must have already been “defective” due to other factors, such as nutritional deficiencies and poverty. As in the case of asbestos it was only when the evidence became incontrovertible that lead was gradually phased out of gasoline beginning in the 1970s and banned from paint in 1978, despite industry efforts and objections.
“The lead industry responded to growing scientific evidence of public harm by creating doubt, while marketing its products directly to children and increasing production.”
The tobacco industry’s long history of denial and distortion is well known, and covered again by Shearer in a cogent and telling narrative.
Given the disproportionate power of large businesses in determining regulation, and the difficulty of applying criminal law to a corporation, lawsuits have been the recourse for those hoping to hold the asbestos, lead or tobacco industries accountable for their actions, and Shearer devotes a chapter to discussing the very mixed fortunes of such an approach. The large financial resources poured into such suits by the defendants make the success of the plaintiffs all the more unlikely. I hadn’t seen before the memo from one of the lawyers for the tobacco giant RJ Reynolds, but it speaks volumes:
“To quote General Paton, the way we won these cases was not by spending all of Reynolds’ money, but by making that other son of a bitch spend all of his.”
Shearer then moves to global warming and the US fossil fuel industry, showing how the industry has drawn on the standard tactics already well established in the cases of asbestos, lead and tobacco: “creating scientific doubt, delaying government regulation, and affecting legal and judicial consciousness, exposing growing numbers of people to potential harm”. The US is enmeshed in fossil fuels. 85 percent of US energy comes from that source. Large manufacturers, financial institutions, the military-industrial complex, the US government itself, are caught up in an economy in which coal is only half to a third of what its price would be if the full cost of its health expenses and environmental damage was factored in. Oil, much of it imported, is ubiquitous and highly profitable. Structural dependence on fossil fuels increased under the Bush administration.
The fossil fuel industry as Shearer presents it is a behemoth, and aided by the supporting industry of denial and often enough the US government itself it has:
“worked to prevent widespread understanding of climate change, constructing uncertainty and ignorance, deconstructing knowledge, and transforming global warming from a looming threat to a non-problem, toying with the fate of the entire planet.”
It’s at this point, some two thirds of the way through the book, that Shearer turns her full attention to the situation in Kivalina and their search for environmental justice. Their legal claim has been dismissed for now. A rock sea-wall has finally been constructed which buys the village perhaps 10 or 15 years, but relocation remains the only longer term option if the village is to survive as an entity. The muddle in which the issue is mired is not encouraging in terms either of funding or of an agency with which the villagers can work and which will be aware of the deep cultural issues at stake for a people whose ancestors have lived successfully in the Arctic environment for thousands of years. “Relocation in a Neoliberal State” is the far from encouraging title Shearer gives to the chapter in which she discusses the prospects. It is certainly difficult to imagine a country like the US putting the necessary money and effort into maintaining the traditional settlement of small Native American populations.
Kivalina is presented by Shearer as an early example of the human face of global warming. The people of the village are poor, and it is increasingly evident that the early casualties of climate change are mostly poor. I found it difficult to imagine that the giant and rampant fossil fuel interests Shearer describes are likely to be deflected by the fate of a few Alaskan villagers. Or, for that matter, by the fate of millions of sub-Saharan Africans or Bangladeshis. The capacity of humans in corporate mould to gloss over the harm they cause others seems unlimited. Shearer is absolutely right in her conclusion that the dangers have become clear, imperilling people throughout the world like those in Kivalina, and it is time to act. But it still looks a long hard battle against deeply entrenched forces.