CleanTechnica Fossil Fuels elaborated on the more and more overwhelming tendency of eying Fossil Fuel complicity as no longer hidden in America’s investments institutions. as well as elsewhere in the world. Here it is.
They’re not giving up. Yes, several attempts were defeated to persuade the Massachusetts municipal and county retirement systems to remove fossil fuel investments from their portfolios. But the Massachusetts Legislature is still considering measures that open up possibilities for divestment. To do otherwise, they argue, is to engage in fossil fuel complicity.
And they’re not alone. All over the US, organizations are pushing for divestments within institutions and municipalities. Led by FossilFree.org, individuals and advocacy groups are raising the discourse around the necessity to stop and ban all new oil, coal, and gas projects bypassing local resolutions to divest and by building community resistance.
Divestment has been a tool used to promote social change since at least the 1970s, when anti-apartheid activists urged institutions to move their investment dollars away from companies that did business with South Africa. Fossil fuel divestment has been gaining momentum in recent years, with more than 1,000 institutions pledging to remove $8.55 trillion from investments in the fossil fuel sector.
Fiduciary Duty is Now a Companion Argument to Social & Environmental Reasons to Divest
In 2017, Somerville, Massachusetts’ governing board agreed to move $9.2 million — 4.5% of the total invested funds — out of fossil fuel investments. The regulatory body that oversees public pension systems rejected the move, however, with reasons ranging from procedural to breach of fiduciary duty. The Massachusetts Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission (PERAC) claimed Somerville was failing to put the financial needs of its beneficiaries ahead of social and environmental causes. PERAC oversees 104 public pension plans across the state, with about $86 billion in total assets.
Demand for fossil fuels is likely to drop as much of the global economy shifts to renewable energy.
Increased storm frequency due to climate change can cause supply chain disruption and infrastructure damage for oil companies.
“From the fiduciary perspective, there are a lot of questions as to the economic health of the fossil fuel sector moving forward,” Alex Nosnik, a member of the Somerville board, said. “Risk, certainly in concert with the environmental and social issues, was driving our decision to move forward.”
Ultimately, after lots of divestment advocates worked alongside sympathetic legislators to craft a local option bill that would authorize any municipal or county retirement system to divest from fossil fuels should they so choose. Standalone bills have been filed in the House and Senate; similar language has also been included in a wide-ranging clean energy bill pending in the Senate.
Several of the state’s environmental groups have come out in favour of these measures, including the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, and the Climate Action Business Association.
“We have to stop putting money into fossil fuels,” said Deb Pasternak, director of Sierra Club Massachusetts. “We need to take our money and direct it toward the renewable energy economy.”
Every now and then, the idea of powering Europe using the vast solar resources of the Sahara Desert comes up. Were this to actually happen, we may witness the rise of new energy superpowers in Northern Africa. But a look at the economic and political energy system suggests what’s more likely is the oil-rich countries of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf will continue to dominate energy trade even in the post-fossil era.
Renewable energy, of course, is very location dependent – the sunnier a place is, the more energy you get out of photovoltaic panels. Over the course of a year, southern Algeria, for example, gets more than twice as much solar energy as southern England. The graph below, which I put together as part of my PhD, shows that some of the best solar resources in the world are indeed found in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Sudan.
So, one could build large Saharan solar farms and then transmit the power back to densely populated areas of Europe. Such a project would need to overcome various technical challenges, but we can say that in theory it is possible, even if not practical.
Yet plans to actually set up mass Saharan solar have floundered. The most notable project, Desertec, was fairly active until the mid 2010s, when a collapse in the price of oil and natural gas made its business case more difficult. At that time, the major technology considered was concentrated solar power, where you use the heat from the sun to run a steam turbine. Energy can be stored as heat overnight, therefore enabling uninterrupted energy supply and making it preferred to then expensive batteries.
Since then, however, the cost of both solar panels and battery storage have dropped drastically. But, while conditions might look favourable for Saharan solar, it is unlikely that new solar energy kingpins will arise in North Africa. Instead, we should look one desert further to the East – the Rub al Khali on the Arabian peninsula, the home of the reigning energy powers.
Sun shines on the Gulf
The economies of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf nations are built around energy exports. And as climate change imposes pressure on the extraction of fossil fuels, these countries will have to look for alternative energy (and income) sources in order to keep their economies afloat. The International Renewable Energy Agency set up its headquarters in Abu Dhabi, and the region has no shortage of ambitious solar projects promising extremely cheap electricity. However only a small amount of capacity has actually been deployed so far. Low oil revenues have not helped with the megaprojects.
Countries in the Sahara also have little history of trading fossil fuels, outside of Libya and Algeria, while things are rather different for the petro-states of the Gulf. And this matters because, in the energy business, worries over longer-term security of supply mean countries tend to trade with the same partners.
This would be the Achilles’ heel of a Northern African energy project: the connections to Europe would likely be the continent’s single most important critical infrastructure and, considering the stability of the region, it is unlikely that European countries would take on such a risk.
Which brings us to an alternative way to transmit energy: hydrogen. A process called electrolysis can use renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the resulting hydrogen can store lots of energy. Soon it will become feasible to move energy around the world in this form, using shipping infrastructure similar to that already in use today for liquefied natural gas.
Sure, there are disadvantages compared to batteries. It would mean introducing two more conversion stages and thus reduced efficiency (30% roundtrip efficiency compared to 80% for batteries), but it would overcome the distance barrier. And perhaps just as importantly: shipping energy by hydrogen would mean no significant change to the existing maritime trade infrastructure, which will hand an advantage to established energy exporters.
If this means the Sahara is unlikely to develop renewable energy superpowers, then perhaps this is for the better. With the booming populations of Sub-Saharan Africa in dire need of electrification, clean solar power might be better used to alleviate the energy crisis in somewhere like Nigeria rather than sent to Europe. While these countries may eventually be able to shake off any solar resource curse, in the short term, exports like these could just look like yet another European attempt to extract natural resources from Africans.
A Saudi push to become a major natural gas player is as much about diversifying the kingdom’s domestic consumption and export mix as it is about taking advantage of harsh US economic sanctions against Iran designed to force a change of the Islamic republic’s policy, if not its regime.
The sale speaks to the ambitions of Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Aramco, that seeks to become a major gas player by partnering with producers across the globe, including in the Russian Artic, and developing its own reserves.
Aramco expects the partnerships to position it as major marketer and trader, primarily in the spot and short-term markets.
Those discussions are certain not to include Qatar and Iran, two of the region and the world’s foremost producers and the kingdom’s primary regional bete noirs.
If anything, the Saudi move is not only part of its longer-term efforts to reduce its dependence on oil exports and diversify its economy but also an attempt to take advantage of the fact that Iran is severely hampered by the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against it.
The waivers granted the eight countries exemptions to sanctions imposed last year after the United States withdrew from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
Similarly, with the development of Saudi gas exports and sales also intended to chip away at Qatar’s market share, the Gulf state is not an option.
Qatar’s diversification of its exports was a key factor in its ability to so far fend off a 23-month old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott that, like in the case of Iran, is designed to force it to change its policies.
The two sides’ entrenched positions offer no prospect of a resolution of the dispute any time soon.
Saudi long-term gas ambitions could have shorter term consequences for its regional policies, particularly with regard to Iran.
The kingdom, perceived to be a proponent of regime change in Tehran, may prefer a substantial weakening of the Iranian government that keeps it contained and struggling to make ends meet, rather than the rise of a leadership acceptable to the West that would be allowed to quickly regain its place in global energy markets.
Striving for regime collapse rather than regime change would also allow Saudi Arabia to dampen prospects for Iran’s Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 70 kilometres down the Arabian Sea coast from Gwadar, the Chinese-supported port in Pakistani Balochistan.
Saudi Arabia has pledged to build a US$10 billion refinery in Gwadar.
Saudi plans to develop its gas industry suggest that the kingdom needs a decade to realize them.
“We are looking to shift from only satisfying our utility industry in the kingdom, which will happen especially with the increase in renewable and nuclear to be an exporter of gas and gas products,” Mr. Nasser said.
“Aramco’s international gas team has been given an open platform to look at gas acquisitions along the whole supply chain. They have been given significant financial firepower — in the billions of dollars,” he added.
Access to the project’s gas would allow Saudi Arabia to negotiate long-term deals and/or sell cargoes on the spot market or increase domestic supply.
Saudi Arabia is also looking to buy natural gas assets in the United States.
A Saudi-Russian deal in the Artic would likely not only enhance the kingdom’s position but also bring Saudi Arabia, a member of OPEC, and Russia, which is not formally part of the cartel, closer together in their joint management of global oil supplies.
In a world of rising economic nationalism, Saudi gas ambitions are not being universally welcomed.
While there is little doubt that the Trump administration will look favourably at Saudi investment, some analysts are raising red flags.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.
Polluters, as all those big energy producers (Big Oils, OPEC members and non members alike) are labelled, appeared to be ‘undermining’ UN climate Paris agreement. In effect, Oil, Gas and Coal world giants are exploiting a lack of conflict-of-interest protection at UN climate talks to push for continued fossil fuel use despite its contribution to catastrophic climate change through expensive lobbying campaigns because as it happens these oil, gas and coal giants could stand to waste trillions in a moderate world climate change. Patrick Galey elaborates on Phys.org.
The five largest publicly listed oil and gas majors have spent $1 billion since the 2015 Paris climate deal on public relations or lobbying that is “overwhelmingly in conflict” with the landmark accord’s goals, a watchdog said Friday.
Despite outwardly committing to support the Paris agreement and its aim to limit global temperature rises, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total spend a total of $200 million a year on efforts “to operate and expand fossil fuel operations,” according to InfluenceMap, a pro-transparency monitor.
Two of the companies—Shell and Chevron—said they rejected the watchdog’s findings.
“The fossil fuel sector has ramped up a quite strategic programme of influencing the climate agenda,” InfluenceMap Executive Director Dylan Tanner told AFP.
“It’s a continuum of activity from their lobby trade groups attacking the details of regulations, controlling them all the way up, to controlling the way the media thinks about the oil majors and climate.”
The report comes as oil and gas giants are under increasing pressure from shareholders to come clean over how greener lawmaking will impact their business models.
At the same time, the International Panel on Climate Change—composed of the world’s leading climate scientists—issued a call for a radical drawdown in fossil fuel use in order to hit the 1.5C (2.7 Fahrenheit) cap laid out in the Paris accord.
InfluenceMap looked at accounts, lobbying registers and communications releases since 2015, and alleged a large gap between the climate commitments companies make and the action they take.
It said all five engaged in lobbying and “narrative capture” through direct contact with lawmakers and officials, spending millions on climate branding, and by employing trade associations to represent the sector’s interests in policy discussions.
“The research reveals a trend of carefully devised campaigns of positive messaging combined with negative policy lobbying on climate change,” it said.
It added that of the more than $110 billion the five had earmarked for capital investment in 2019, just $3.6bn was given over to low-carbon schemes.
The report came one day after the European Parliament was urged to strip ExxonMobil lobbyists of their access, after the US giant failed to attend a hearing where expert witnesses said the oil giant has knowingly misled the public over climate change.
“How can we accept that companies spending hundreds of millions on lobbying against the EU’s goal of reaching the Paris agreement are still granted privileged access to decision makers?” said Pascoe Sabido, Corporate Europe Observatory’s climate policy researcher, who was not involved in the InfluenceMap report.
The report said Exxon alone spent $56 million a year on “climate branding” and $41 million annually on lobbying efforts.
In 2017 the company’s shareholders voted to push it to disclose what tougher emissions policies in the wake of Paris would mean for its portfolio.
With the exception of France’s Total, each oil major had largely focused climate lobbying expenditure in the US, the report said.
Chevron alone has spent more than $28 million in US political donations since 1990, according to the report.
AFP contacted all five oil and gas companies mentioned in the report for comment.
“We disagree with the assertion that Chevron has engaged in ‘climate-related branding and lobbying’ that is ‘overwhelmingly in conflict’ with the Paris Agreement,” said a Chevron spokesman.
“We are taking action to address potential climate change risks to our business and investing in technology and low carbon business opportunities that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
A spokeswoman for Shell—which the report said spends $49 million annually on climate lobbying—said it “firmly rejected” the findings.
“We are very clear about our support for the Paris Agreement, and the steps that we are taking to help meet society’s needs for more and cleaner energy,” they told AFP.
BP, ExxonMobil and Total did not provide comment to AFP.
Why have Middle East’s oil-rich economies failed to
diversify despite their tall promises and grandiose plans? The answer lies not
in the absence of good technical plans or weak implementation, but in
political incentives. If many other countries have been successfully able to
diversify their economies it was not merely a result of good policies but the
right political incentives of those who were in the driving seat.
An enabling political framework has been a common
denominator in all successful diversification experiments. Botswana’s
experience underscores the role of stable political coalitions and favourable
initial and external conditions. At its independence, Botswana inherited
multiple constituencies representing divergent economic interests. This was
complemented with the presence of political competition and stable coalitions.
A third important factor was a favourable external environment. Botswana’s
membership in the South African Customs Union served as a positive inducement
for sensible macroeconomic reform. Together, all these factors played a part in
protecting the interests of non-resource sectors.
The Malaysian experience reinforces the same
message. At Malaysia’s independence, the Chinese community represented a
powerful de facto economic force by virtue of their control of the Malaysian
private sector. Their continued presence counter-balanced any tendencies for
the natural resource sectors to grow at the expense of the private sector. In
the political domain, the consociational agreement between the ethnic Malay and
Chinese communities fostered a system of power sharing that protected the
economic interests of Chinese businessmen. Bad macroeconomic policy –
especially an overvalued exchange rate – was politically unacceptable to
Chinese interests. It was both bad policy and bad politics. If domestic
political economy was helpful, so was the country’s insertion into the regional
trade circuit, which created positive regional spillovers that supported
private sector development.
Clearly, each case is different and must be
analysed on its own merit. But politics provides a common thread across these
accounts. And, this is where Arab economies are especially challenged. Saving a
few cases, most countries in the region did not inherit strong and diverse
economic constituencies that could have gained political voice after
independence, and counterbalanced the dominance of the oil economy. An
unfavourable external environment, resulting in negative spillovers from
regional conflict and instability, served as another impediment to
diversification. The Middle East thus lacked all three factors that
facilitated economic diversification in other countries: strong political
coalitions, diverse economic constituencies and positive neighbourhood effects.
With this adverse legacy, is there any real hope for diversification? In this
regard, I have the following three points to make:
Successful diversification requires a new political
settlement that allows elites to concede greater space to the private sector;
Diversification is unlikely to succeed without a
regional vision that fosters complementarities among Arab economies and creates
a shared economic space to deal with emergent economic challenges common to all
Sustained economic change in the Middle East
requires a wider set of concessions that go beyond domestic and regional
political elites. It also requires a candid and constructive geopolitical
discourse that reconsiders the trade-off between a narrow, short-term, vision
of geostrategic stability and long-run development.
Let me briefly explain these in turn.
Given the primacy of the political, the debate on
diversification must begin with a discussion of elite incentives and political
concessions. If a closure of the economy benefits rent-seeking elites, what
will persuade them to concede greater economic space? What concessions are
needed from the ruling elite and what will persuade them to surrender their
control of the economy and the associated rents? Perhaps, they need to be
compensated for the loss of rents from a levelling of the economic field. After
all, new growth strategies in emerging markets are built on a happy (even if
fragile) coexistence of economics and politics.
The Chinese example serves to illustrate how
economic reform can be aligned with the interests of political elites. The
Chinese political experience is decidedly based on centralised authoritarian
control. But the system allows a balancing of competing interests. It co-exists
with considerable regional decentralisation where local leaders derive strength
from patronage – just as in any other developing country – but are equally
strongly incentivised to ensure economic growth in their localities. Economic
growth yields clear political dividends for local elites. And bureaucrats face
strong performance incentives. As a result, growth of the economy has become an
integral component of the political objective function.
Beyond the oft-cited example of China, Africa’s recent success stories confirm
the importance of elite incentives. Consider Ethiopia‘s recent economic transformation,
which has placed it in the list of the 10 fastest growing economies
of the world. Central to this growth experience has been the role of public
investment in infrastructure and public enterprises, and the changing political
orientation of state elites. The ruling political party managed to set up its
own enterprises supported by specialised endowments geared towards promoting
investment in underdeveloped regions. Although this model of party capitalism
poses serious questions about market competition, it goes to shows that elites
can favour an expansion of the economic pie when they are among its lead
beneficiaries. This is, after all, a key point of North, Wallis and Weingast’s
treatise on Violence and Social Orders. Change often begins with small outcomes
and processes that are compatible with elite incentives. But, what begin as
privileges for insiders can ultimately become universal rights for everyone
In short, the idea is not to search for the ideal
growth experience that will uniquely fit all Arab contexts. Rather, it is to
emphasize that whichever growth strategy the Middle East embarks upon should
consider and accommodate political incentives. And, elites have rarely
surrendered their economic control unless it became essential for their
survival. The so-called “Arab Spring” was a recent tapping on the
doors of power. Unfortunately, rather than resulting in any genuine economic concession,
what we have instead seen, is business as usual. The only concessions that came
through were financial concessions in the guise of cheap loans, salary hikes
and free bonuses. But such temporary appeasement without changing the
underlying rules of the game is unlikely to work for too long. And, the rules
remain rigged in the favour businessmen in and around the royal circle. In
North Africa, crony capitalism is rearing its head again, and insider deals
continue to thrive across much of the region. In this backdrop, economic
diversification will be difficult, if not impossible, to realise without a new
political settlement that caters for a future beyond oil and conflict. At the
very minimum, the region needs a new discourse on economic reform that
mobilises public support for two or three fundamental concessions that elites
must surrender for long-term economic revival.
Let me turn to the second idea. The argument, in
brief, is that national diversification plans that disregard regional linkages
in development are doomed to fail. It is important to recognize that, in the
Middle Eastern case, the questions of national and regional development are
closely interwoven. While national initiatives can kick-start economic revival,
it will be difficult to sustain without regional market access. Few countries
have effectively diversified without expanded markets and deeper trade reforms
that regional trade liberalisation affords. Turkey’s recent economic success is
built on a strategic cultivation of regional trade linkages. In Asia and Latin
America, regional market connections offer an additional avenue for
industrialisation through entry into global supply chains, which tend to
conglomerate spatially. Arab countries are clearly disadvantaged in this regard.
A larger coordinated effort is needed at the regional level to foster trade
complementarities, establish regional public infrastructure, and relax trade
barriers. Given the history of repeated failures at regional economic
cooperation and the adverse security climate, this seems like a pipe dream. No
matter how impractical, it will be difficult to sidestep the regional question
in any new vision for Arab development. In political economy terms, the
rationale for this is even stronger, since it is only through a regionally
integrated merchant class that a stable constituency for economic and political
reform will emerge. If the broader economic challenges faced by the Arab states
are common, they also deserve a common response. Even if a cooperative solution
does not serve the narrow factional interests of political elites, the Arab
civil society must lend its weight behind the regional project.
This brings me to the role of geopolitics, the
final element of my argument. In a region that has historically remained a
hotbed of conflict and violence, it is difficult to conceive economic
diversification in isolation from geopolitics. The powerful negative
externalities emanating from regional instability have scaled back even the
modest gains achieved on the economic front. Prior to the recent upsurge in
violence, countries in the Levant had begun to witness falling trade costs and
growing regional trade. These limited gains have been washed off by regional
violence. Foreign military interventions in the guise of regime change have
eroded state capacity, demolished public infrastructure and ripped apart the
very social fabric of Arab societies. The region has been set back by decades.
If conflict retards development a genuine economic
renaissance in the Arab world will also have geopolitical repercussions.
Foreign powers have a deep economic, political and military footprint in the
region. An economically independent Middle East can challenge the established
patterns of external hegemony and undermine the prolonged legacy of divide and
rule. In this milieu, structural economic change also requires a geopolitical
concession from regional and global powers that have high stakes and influence
in the Middle East. As the recent refugee crisis has shown, the spillovers from
regional conflict are difficult to contain within Arab borders. This is an
opportune moment to talk about concessions. A peaceful and prosperous social
order is now of direct interest for the global community, especially Europe.
Foreign powers face a deep trade-off between narrow
short-term strategic interests and long-term development. The human and
economic cost of this policy trade-off is rising by the day. Yet an effective
global response has been noticeably lacking. Since the start of the Arab Spring, economic development has been
conspicuous by its absence in western policy discourse. There has been no grand
vision for regional development on the part of multilateral institutions or
Western governments. Initiatives such as Deauville Partnership and the Arab
Partnership Fund were minuscule efforts both in size and significance, and
simply substituted talk for action. On the other hand, we have seen a major
escalation in the sales of military hardware to Arab states. Rather than using
their “convening authority” to organize regional funding for a major
development initiative, Western powers have instead sold billions of dollars in
worth of arms to the GCC states since 2011.
In closing, economic diversification in the Middle
East – far from being purely a technocratic affair – carries deep power
implications, involving all three inter-locking spheres in the domestic,
regional and geopolitical domains. By producing a greater number and variety of
products, diversification not only increases the complexity of economic
exchange but also risks generating independent constituencies whose political
economy effects are neither neutral for domestic power structure nor for the
prevailing geopolitical order. This calls for a more holistic understanding of
the challenge of diversification.
Adeel Malik, is Globe fellow in the economies of Muslim Societies at the University of Oxford.
To date, nine cities have
sued the fossil industry for climate damages. California fisherman are going after oil companies for their role in warming the Pacific Ocean,
a process that soaks the Dungeness crabs they harvest with a dangerous neurotoxin.
Former acting New York state attorney general Barbara Underwood has
opened an investigation into whether ExxonMobil has misled its
shareholders about the risks it faces from climate change, a push current
Attorney General Leticia James has said she is eager to keep up. Massachusetts
attorney general Maura Healey opened an earlier investigation into
whether Exxon defrauded the public by spreading disinformation about climate
change, which various courts — including the Supreme Court — have refused to block despite the company’s pleas. And in Juliana vs. U.S., young people have filed suit against the
government for violating their constitutional rights by pursuing policies that
intensify global warming, hitting the dense ties between Big Oil and the state.
These are welcome attempts to hold the industry
responsible for its role in warming our earth. It’s time, however, to take this
series of legal proceedings to the next level: we should try fossil-fuel
executives for crimes against humanity.
a Reasonable Doubt
Just one hundred fossil fuel producers — including privately
held and state-owned companies — have been responsible for 71 percent of the
greenhouse gas emissions released since 1988, emissions that have already
killed at least tens of thousands of people through climate-fueled disasters
Green New Deal advocates have been right to focus
on the myriad ways that decarbonization can improve the lives of working-class Americans. But an important
complement to that is holding those most responsible for the crisis fully
accountable. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes clear to fossil-fuel
executives that they could face consequences beyond vanishing profits.
More immediately, a push to try fossil-fuel
executives for crimes against humanity could channel some much-needed populist
rage at the climate’s 1 percent, and render them persona non grata in
respectable society — let alone Congress or the UN, where they today enjoy
broad access. Making people like Exxon CEO Darren Woods or Shell CEO Ben van Beurden well known and widely reviled would put names
and faces to a problem too often discussed in the abstract. The climate fight
has clear villains. It’s long past time to name and shame them.
Left unchecked, the death toll of climate change
could easily creep up into the hundreds of millions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC), in turn unleashing chaos and suffering that’s simply
impossible to project. An independent report commissioned by twenty governments in 2012
found that climate impacts are already causing an estimated four hundred
thousand deaths per year.
Counting a wider range of casualties attributed to
burning fossil fuels — air pollution, indoor smoke, occupational hazards, and
skin cancer — that figure jumps to nearly 5 million a year. By 2030, annual
climate and carbon-related deaths are expected to reach nearly 6 million.
That’s the rough equivalent of one Holocaust every year, which in just a few
short years could surpass the total number of people killed in World War II.
All caused by the fossil-fuel industry.
Knowing full well the deadly consequences of
continued drilling, the individuals at the helm of fossil-fuel companies each
day choose to seek out new reserves to burn as quickly as possible to keep
their shareholders happy. They use every possible tool — and they have many —
to sabotage regulatory action.
That we need to instead strip fossil fuels from the
global economy isn’t up for debate. Without the increasingly distant-seeming
deployment of speculative, so-called negative emissions technologies, coal
usage will have to decline by 97 percent, oil by 87 percent, and gas by 74
percent by 2050 for us to have a halfway decent shot at keeping warming below
1.5 degrees celsius. That’s what it will take to avert pervasive, catastrophic
climate impacts that will destabilize the very foundations of society. (Keeping
warming to a more dangerous 2.0 degrees celsius will require decarbonization
that’s almost as abrupt.)
A recent report by
Oil Change International detailing the climate costs of continued drilling lays
the problem out in simple terms: either we embark on a managed decline of the
fossil-fuel industry, or we face economic and ecological ruin. Simply put, the
business model of the fossil-fuel industry is incompatible with the continued
existence of anything we might recognize as human civilization.
Barring a major course correction, that business
model — and more specifically, the executives who have designed and executed it
— will be responsible for untold suffering within many of our lifetimes, with
the youngest and poorest among us bearing a disproportionate burden, along with
people of color and residents of the Global South.
As recent research and reporting have documented,
some of the world’s biggest polluters have known for decades about the deadly
threat of global warming and the role their products play in fueling it. Some
companies began research into climate change as early as the 1950s. These days,
none can claim not to know the mortal danger posed by their ongoing extraction.
Crime Against Humanity
Technically speaking, what fossil-fuel companies do
isn’t genocide. Low-lying islands and communities around the world are and will
continue to be the worst hit by climate impacts.
Still, the case against the fossil-fuel industry is
not that their executives are targeting specific “national, ethnical, racial,
or religious” groups for annihilation, per the Rome Statute,
which enumerates the various types of human rights abuses that can be heard
before the International Criminal Court. Rather, the fossil industry’s behavior
constitutes a Crime Against Humanity in the classical sense: “a widespread or
systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of
the attack,” including murder and extermination. Unlike genocide, the UN
clarifies, in the case of crimes against humanity,
it is not necessary to prove that there is an
overall specific intent. It suffices for there to be a simple intent to commit
any of the acts listed…The perpetrator must also act with knowledge of the
attack against the civilian population and that his/her action is part of that
Fossil-fuel executives may not have intended to destroy the world as we know it. And climate change may not look like the kinds of attacks we’re used to. But they’ve known what their industry is doing to the planet for a long time, and the effects are likely to be still more brutal if the causes are allowed to continue.