Competition Commissioner Asked to Investigate Climate Change Denier Groups

False representations made by denier groups have misled Canadians about climate change and may violate the Competition Act.

Today, Ecojustice lawyer Charles Hatt filed an application with the Competition Commissioner to investigate false and misleading representations made by climate change denier groups. I am one of six applicants, which include Stephen Lewis, Tzeporah Berman, David Schindler, Danny Harvey and Devon Page. A press release from Ecojustice is available here.

A climate change misrepresentation made by denier group Friends of Science. Image credit: Greenpeace.
A climate change misrepresentation made by denier group Friends of Science. Image credit: Greenpeace.

The application alleges that the denier groups have furthered their business interests and those of their sponsors by misleading the public about the reality, causes, and consequences of climate change. The Competition Act holds that such misrepresentations are illegal. Advertisers may not spread falsehoods.

The denier groups have made the following general misrepresentations:

  • The earth’s climate system is not warming;
  • Humans are not causing any warming that is occurring;
  • Actions to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions are not warranted; and
  • Any climate change that occurs is beneficial.

The claims are false. There is overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that climate change is real, the result of burning fossil fuels, and a significant threat.

What impacts do the misrepresentations have? The application argues that

“Climate change misrepresentations are inherently harmful to the proper functioning of markets in Canada. The confusion they sow makes low-carbon technologies less competitive and distorts capital investment toward high-carbon industries.”

Market distortions are apparent. Canada’s renewable energy and energy efficiency manufactured environmental goods sector has become less competitive internationally since 2005, losing a whopping 71% of its market share. During this time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion that human activities are the dominant cause of observed global warming increased from “likely” in 2001 to “extremely likely” in 2014.

The pollution of the public square with falsehoods has also undermined much-needed public discourse about climate change and the 21st century transition away from fossil fuels. This was particularly apparent in the last parliament, which featured several MPs who cast doubt on climate change. Witnesses affiliated with denier groups were even called to testify in a Senate Committee meeting.

With world leaders gathered in Paris to negotiate a new climate agreement, it’s time to clear the air.

Three denier groups are named: Friends of Science, International Climate Science Coalition, and Heartland Institute. The denier groups are alleged to have used the same “open question” strategy pioneered by front groups for the tobacco industry. In one case, a denier group is known to have had funding from the oil industry.

The application argues that an inquiry is needed. It recommends that the inquiry proceed on the criminal track because misrepresentations by one group continued after a ruling that they had violated truth-in-advertising standards.

What happens next? The Competition Commissioner will consider our application and decide how to proceed. It is not known how long this will take. As a rough guide, the Information Commissioner took about 6 weeks to decide to investigate the muzzling of federal scientists. Should the Competition Commissioner choose to investigate, he has the ability to order production of written records and the oral examination of witnesses, and to apply for search warrants.