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The La Jolla Tobacconization Strategy (Part 1)
Naomi Oreskes and her Hypocritical War on Energy
In 2012, Naomi Oreskes organized a two-day conference in La Jolla, California together with her NGO, Climate Accountability, and the Union for Concerned Scientists. They brought together representatives from law firms, environmental NGOs, the academe and activist scientists in what has become an important event that has influenced anti-corporate, anti-capitalist strategy over the last decade.
The goal of the conference was to try to find a way to take the same campaign tactics that succeeded against the tobacco industry and apply them against oil companies. Big Tobacco, they argue, did not submit to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement on scientific grounds or because they were losing on the regulatory front. They relented because the prospect of unlimited, costly litigation would have financially destroyed their industry. So how could Big Oil be tobacconized, ie, put under relentless litigation pressure for the effects of climate change until they either go out of business or change the way they operate.
The conference discussed how NGOs could create public outrage to ensure angry jurors would demand exorbitant settlements; how scientists could coordinate studies with media organizations so there would be no doubt of the risks; and how law firms can work with the authorities to ensure that targeted companies would have no defense. This liquidation by litigation strategy via a symphony of self-interested stakeholders needed a conductor who could keep the harmony. Enter Naomi Oreskes.
I have referred to this elsewhere as the La Jolla Playbook. In 2015, three years after their conference, ExxonMobil was subpoenaed by the New York Attorney General to submit all internal documents related to climate change discussions. Lawyers started combing through the documents trove looking for evidence that ExxonMobil knew about the climate consequences from fossil fuels. Charges were levelled and campaigns were developed to destroy the oil company in the media, with shareholders and in the courts.
But it wasn’t just a strategy to destroy Big Oil; all industry was ripe for tobacconization. That same year, 2015, scientists tied to US tort law firms and anti-chemicals NGOs went to a small WHO cancer agency, IARC, to publish a report linking glyphosate to cancer. Within five years Monsanto ceased to be a company and parent, Bayer, had to settle with law firms for $11 billion, wiping out half of the company’s stock market value. Oreskes’ La Jolla Playbook was earning dividends.
Lawyers found a new way to get rich, NGOs found a new outlet for fear-mongering and political activists found a new weapon to attack capitalism. Rather interesting was how the regulatory risk management process was starting to be replaced by emotional claims from a small group of self-interested, manipulative tort lawyers. Why bother to change the laws through the democratic structures when you can just sue companies out of existence or into submission?
The Merchant of Clout
This union of activist opportunists was made whole by the crafty organization and relentless campaigning of Naomi Oreskes who co-founded the Climate Accountability Institute (from ideas in her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt). The Institute was set up in 2011 to find a way to use law firms to make fossil fuel companies pay for the effects of climate change in the same way tobacco companies had to pay for different cancers. The 2012 conference in La Jolla was the implementation of an action plan.
For the last decade, Oreskes has been relentlessly supporting activists, briefing lawyers and holding strategy meetings with the goal of isolating, delegitimizing and shutting down fossil fuel companies, and ExxonMobil in particular. The single-minded obsession of this movement is remarkable. At one meeting in 2016 at the Rockefeller Family Fund offices (a long-time funder of this movement), the agenda proposed setting up a “war room” to coordinate “media pushes”.
It is curious how this anti-industry campaigner who has spoken out against industry funding academics would so easily get into bed with the tort law industry who extort companies by buying and selling thousands of plaintiffs like merchants of misery. Was this a case of the enemy of my enemy being my friend, or was Oreskes that shrewd and manipulative?
One such law firm whose entire existence is based on suing fossil fuel companies for the consequences of climate change is Sher Edling. This law firm has even taken foundation money from groups like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to pursue public nuisance lawsuits.
It has recently been revealed that the law firm, Sher Edling, has kept Naomi Oreskes on retainer as a consultant. While the purpose of her consulting fees is protected by what she claims is attorney-client privilege, we could assume that the value of a history academic to a law firm would simply be to publish articles that would help them with their cases. In 2021, Oreskes denied having received any retainers and demanded that CNN remove any mention of it in connection to the study she had just published.
But under oath a year earlier, during a 2020 deposition, Naomi Oreskes admitted to having received retainers from law firms at least three times in the last ten years (including the ongoing one with Sher Edling). See three screenshots below from different parts of the Oreskes deposition.
What makes this sheer hypocrisy even more stunning is that Naomi Oreskes was the lead author of a 2015 opinion piece entitled “Why Disclosure Matters” where she accuses academics who do not disclose industry funding of having no research integrity. The last I checked, law firms were an industry.
So is this anti-corporate warrior, this academic assassin, this symbol of righteousness in the battle to save Mother Earth… merely a hypocrite who secretly lined her pockets from a legal industry built on greed and opportunism … and then lied about it? Or is this a case of a zealot who would cross any line just to win?
She never won.