Oct. 25 2016

The Senate’s Climate Crusader Speaks

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse delivers the annual Benrubi Lecture on industry denial related to health risks, from lead paint and tobacco to climate change

Prior to being elected to the United States Senate, Sheldon Whitehouse was Rhode Island’s Attorney General. Among his celebrated cases was a civil suit against the companies that manufactured lead paint. David Rosner, professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and his collaborator, Gerald Markowitz, a professor of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, were instrumental to the legal action, marshaling decades of evidence that these companies sold a product they knew was toxic while actively undermining efforts to protect children from lead poisoning.

Sheldon Whitehouse on the Senate floorOn Thursday, October 27, Senator Whitehouse will deliver the ninth annual Benrubi Lecture at the Mailman School on industry tactics that put profit ahead of human health, drawing attention to specific strategies used by paint manufacturers, tobacco companies, and the fossil fuel industry to mislead the public and prevent any meaningful action. Organized by the Center for History and Ethics in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, the lecture series is named for Isidore Benrubi, a physician who believed that history and science are necessary to help people make informed decisions on health and human rights.

Last year, InsideClimate News and the Los Angles Times reported that beginning in 1977, Exxon concealed its own research on the link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming. In April, the Center for International Environmental Law revealed that a 1968 report commissioned by the oil industry detailed climate risks from rising levels of carbon dioxide. Starting in the 1940s, industry backed research to engender public skepticism on pollution and the need for environmental regulations. The revelations are reminiscent of strategies used in the 1960s by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to discredit science on cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

Since Rhode Island elected him Senator in 2006, Whitehouse has worked to cut carbon pollution and protect the air and water. In 2011, he founded the Senate Oceans Caucus and proposed legislation to require federal natural resource agencies to consider the long-term effects of climate change. He has delivered more than 100 speeches warning about the dangers of carbon pollution. This past July, he was among 20 Senators to introduce a resolution under the banner “Web of Denial” condemning industry efforts to mislead the public about the hazards of climate change, tobacco, and lead.

Damning Evidence

As part of the 2006 case against the lead paint industry, Rosner and Markowitz unearthed internal company memos and newsletters from the early part of the 20th century that called lead paint a “deadly cumulative poison,” and records from trade association meetings indicate discussions on childhood lead poisoning. Meanwhile, industry worked to undermine the growing medical literature on the dangers of lead; one ad campaign claimed, “Lead Helps to Guard Your Heath.” Simultaneously, the companies worked to overturn laws restricting lead paint on toys, cribs, and children’s furniture, while arguing that lead poisoning was the fault of “ignorant … Negro and Puerto Rican families.” (For more on this history, read Rosner and Markowitz’s 2013 book Lead Wars.)

At the end of what was the longest civil trial in Rhode Island history, the jury held Sherwin-Williams liable for detoxifying hundreds of thousands of homes across the state. But the battle wasn’t won: after an industry-led intense public relations campaign painting the industry as the victim of greedy lawyers and misinformed advocates, the State Supreme Court reversed the jury decision, arguing that responsibility for preventing lead poisoning rested on landlords, not industry.

“That saga not only showed the important story of the health effects of lead paint,” Whitehouse reflected at an event around the publication of Lead Wars, “it showed the backstory of the campaign to discredit public health concerns so major industries can continue to pollute and profit from dangerous products.” Industry-supported think tanks, researchers, and front organizations work together, he said, like the mythological Hydra, a beast with many heads, to legitimize bogus science and create a “web of denial”—the phase he used in this summer’s Senate speeches.

Even as the majority of Americans want their government to take action on climate change, Congress as a whole continues to sit on its hands. “The polarization that we see in this building and in this chamber on this issue is a product created by this web of corporate-funded climate denial front groups,” Whitehouse said in July. “Congressional inaction is the sabotage their product has wrought in our democracy.”