Stacks and burn-off from the ExxonMobil refinery are seen at dusk last year in St. Bernard Parish, La. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about the ethics of global warming. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Robert Brulle is a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is co-editor of “Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. 

Future generations will look back on our tepid response to global climate disruption and wonder why we did not act sooner and more aggressively. Climate change will adversely impact present and future generations, as well as all species on Earth. Our moral obligation to protect life requires us to act.

Yet even after the recently completed United Nations climate conference, we are still on track for dangerous levels of climate change. Why haven’t we acted sooner or more aggressively? One answer can be found in the split over the veracity of climate science.

[Other perspectives: Inaction on global warming is as reckless as drunken driving]

Recent scholarship documents the coordinated efforts of conservative foundations and fossil fuel corporations to promote this uncertainty. Amplified by conservative media, this campaign of disinformation and omission has significantly altered the nature of the public debate and led to political polarization around the issue, making meaningful legislative action nearly impossible.

These findings are supported by recent investigative news reports, which show that since the 1970s, top executives and scientists in the fossil fuel industry have been well aware of the evidence that their products amplified climate-warming emissions. They conducted their own extensive research on the topic and participated in ongoing scientific discussions. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, even circulated the results to its members. By 1978, a senior executive at ExxonMobil proposed creating a worldwide “CO2 in the Atmosphere” research and development program to determine an appropriate response.

Unfortunately, that path wasn’t taken. Instead, in 1989, a group of fossil fuel corporations, utilities and automobile manufacturers banded together to form the Global Climate Coalition. This group worked to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, was not adopted by the United States. In public statements, the Global Climate Coalition continued to deny that global warming was occurring and emphasized the uncertainty of climate science.

The spreading of misinformation continued. In 1998, API, Exxon, Chevron, Southern Co. and various conservative think tanks initiated a public relations campaign, the goal of which was to ensure that the “recognition of uncertainties (of climate science) becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.'” 

While that coalition disbanded in 2001, ExxonMobil reportedly continued to quietly funnel climate misinformation through “skeptic” think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, until 2006, when its funding was exposed. The company — the nation’s largest and wealthiest — continues to work with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a so-called public-private partnership of corporations and conservative legislators, to block climate change policies.

For years, ExxonMobil had been a participant in public efforts to sow doubt about climate change. Yet at at the same time, the corporation was at the leading edge of climate science and its executives were well informed regarding the scientific consensus on climate change. This allegedly deceitful conduct has generated public outrage and recently led New York’s attorney general to initiate an investigation into whether ExxonMobil has misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change.

While important, these legal proceedings cannot fully address the larger moral issues of corporate social and political responsibility. Just as Congress investigated the efforts of the tobacco industry to dupe the public into believing its products were harmless, we need a full and open inquiry into the conduct of ExxonMobil and the other institutions whose misinformation campaigns about science have delayed our efforts to address climate change.

The central concern here is the moral integrity of the public sphere. The Declaration of Independence says the legitimacy of government is based on the consent of the governed. But when vested interests with outsize economic and cultural power distort the public debate by introducing falsehoods, the integrity of our deliberations is compromised.

Such seems the case today when we consider the fossil fuel industry’s role in distorting discourse on the urgent topic of climate change. If vested economic interests and public relations firms can systematically alter the national debate in favor of their own interests and against those of society as a whole, then the notion of democracy and civic morality is undermined. Congress can and should act to investigate this issue fully. Only then can we restore trust and legitimacy to American governance and fulfill our moral duty to aggressively address climate change.

Delegates from 196 nations approved a historic climate deal after 13 days of negotiating on Saturday, Dec. 12. Here's what you need to know about the accord. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Explore these other perspectives:

Daniel Farber: Inaction on global warming is as reckless as drunken driving

John Nagle: Pope Francis was right on climate change

Thomas Kostigen: If we’re going to fix climate change, we’ll have to get creative