During the summer of 1924, workers at a refinery in Bayway, N.J., started to get sick.
First, they complained of irritability, insomnia, and memory loss. Symptoms progressed to convulsions and collapse. Then tragedy struck: Five workers died from lead poisoning.
By the fall, the plant—which produced a new gasoline additive containing lead—had been shut down. But companies continued to sell lead as an additive to gasoline and an ingredient in household paint for years to come, with little attention paid to its deadly side effects.
What does all this have to do with global warming? The lead industry distorted the public debate over the lethal metal using many of the tactics that the fossil-fuel industry employs to stir up controversy over climate change, according to three science historians who spoke Thursday on Capitol Hill.
"This is a cautionary tale of what happens when an industry learns about the bad things it has done, and tries to cover them up," said Columbia professor David Rosner, who coauthored the book Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children with CUNY professor Gerald Markowitz.
Rosner and Markowitz made their case at an event hosted by the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change. The event was moderated by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Rep. Henry Waxman of California, both Democrats.
According to Rosner, the lead industry systematically denied that its product posed a threat to public health starting in 1914. Scientists on the industry's payroll churned out studies to refute evidence that lead exposure causes illness and, in extreme cases, death.
The industry also waged a marketing war to boost the popularity of their product, Rosner and Markowitz said.
Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, the author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming, said at the same event that the fossil-fuel industry has followed a similar playbook to halt political action on climate change.
According to Oreskes, industry-funded think tanks like the George C. Marshall Institute and the Heartland Institute have sowed seeds of doubt that have spurred debate over whether human activity is the primary driver of climate change.
Peer-reviewed studies indicate that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and man-made.
Here's how the Marshall Institute's website describes the science behind global warming: "Human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels to power our homes and businesses and changes to the land caused by the rise of modern cities and expanded agriculture, undoubtedly affect the global environment. It is the extent of that effect and how it relates to changes in the modern climate which is the subject of current scientific debate."
It's not climate denial, but the statement suggests uncertainty over whether human activity has caused global warming.
That, the academics say, is the problem. "This isn't a coincidence, it was part of a strategy, and today we're seeing the results of that strategy," Oreskes said, referring to the fact that a congressional push for policy to address global warming stalled during the president's first term after some segments of the fossil-fuel industry lobbied to kill the legislation.
The Marshall Institute and Heartland have refuted Oreskes's claims, saying that the allegations lack integrity and logic.
William O'Keefe and Jeff Kueter, the Marshall Institute's CEO and president, respectively, published a lengthy critique in 2010 of Oreskes's book. "Merchants of Doubt is long on innuendo and short on evidence," the critique states. "It fits well with Mark Twain's classic observation about gathering facts and then distorting them as the gatherer desires."
Heartland has also criticized the science history professor. "Oreskes can name virtually no significant funding for skeptics," a post on the think tank's website states. "Skeptics are almost all unpaid volunteers, working out of professional and patriotic duty, appalled by the illogical, anti-science sentiments of people like Oreskes."