The latest General Social Survey, released in March, found that just 16 percent of Americans—an all-time low—have a great deal of trust in major corporations. Many of the public relations people I speak to are understandably disturbed by that number. So am I, but I suspect for different reasons: I want to know who those 16 percent are and how they manage to remain so oblivious in the face of the facts.


Because the past few months have made it increasingly difficult to believe that American business executives as a group possess any kind of moral compass. There’s the financial crisis, of course, and the collective failure of “leaders” on Wall Street to take any responsibility for the rampant insanity that led us to our current state. (They’re more likely to complain about the unfairness of populist outrage than to acknowledge any culpability on their own part.) And now there’s the news that business leaders who belonged to the Climate Change Coalition systematically lied to legislators, regulators and the American people about the facts regarding global warming.


The New York Times reported this week that scientific and technical experts commissioned by the Coalition found that “the scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”


That was in 1995, more than a decade ago. Two years later, when the Kyoto Protocols were signed, the Coalition—despite those findings—was still running a massive advertising and public relations campaign claiming that the science was uncertain and arguing that the U.S. should not sign the treaty until more was known about the causes of global warming. The campaign was successful: it has delayed concerted international action on climate change for more than a decade.


It seems to me that there are only two explanations for an insistence that “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood” under those circumstances. The first is that the speaker is simply lying; the second is that he or she has not made any serious attempt to understand the science (or is perhaps too obtuse to understand the science). In the case of an ordinary citizen, the second explanation would be understandable if indicative of a certain lack of scientific curiosity. But in the case of an industry leader—particularly the leader of an industry that has a significant environmental impact—the second explanation is as troubling as the first.


Students of public relations history will discern immediately the parallels between these revelations about the Climate Change Coalition and what we known about the strategies adopted by the tobacco industry during the 50s and 60s. Then, as now, industry leaders knew that the weight of the facts was overwhelmingly against them, that the debate would ultimately be lost. Then, as now, they made a cynical calculation that if they could maintain the illusion of uncertainty for a few more years they could continue to operate without interference for a few more years.


In some ways, it is remarkable that the public relations playbook appears to have changed so little over the past half century—especially since the tobacco industry’s obfuscation and deceit exposed the industry to significant damage, both legal and reputational. One hopes that there will one day be similar consequences for those businesses that continued to insist throughout the 90s and through most of the first decade of this new century that the science on global climate change was inconclusive. Indeed, there are both moral and practical reasons to hope that their punishment will be worse.


First, because there is one powerful difference between those industries that contribute to climate change and the tobacco industry: the vast majority of the latter’s victims were people who willingly and (once the industry stopped lying) knowingly consumed its products; the vast majority of those who are suffering—and the billions more who will suffer in the future—as a result of global climate change have not given their consent. Once the facts about tobacco were known and beyond dispute, cigarette manufacturers could still fall back on the “informed consent” argument to keep their products on the market. No such intellectually or morally honest answer will be available to those responsible for climate change.


And second, because we must—as a society—make it clear that lying to the public will always cost more than telling the truth, that the long-term negative consequences of obfuscation and deceit far outweigh their short-term benefits. Otherwise, the incentives to lie, cheat and steal will remain too strong for business leaders to resist.


Finally, unless there are consequences for dishonesty, even those oblivious 16 percent will eventually come to the conclusion that business cannot be trusted.