Fossil Fuel Obstruction Brought Us the Climate Crisis: Hard Questions Big Oil CEOs Should Answer

October 27, 2021 | 3:09 pm
a pair of hands holds up a sign reading "I want you to act as if your house is on fire, because it is" at a youth climate protest in NYCFelton Davis/Flickr
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

Tomorrow, top executives from some of the largest fossil fuel companies will appear before the House Oversight and Reform Committee and face questioning about the industry’s history of climate disinformation. In the background is another calamitous year for our climate, Congress and the White House struggling to deliver a Build Back Better plan sufficient to the climate crisis, and world leaders gathering in Glasgow for international climate talks where rich nations threaten to disappoint. And at the center of this maelstrom: the fossil fuel industry and its leaders, their decades’ long pursuit of climate inaction, and their success at that inaction, even today as our climate swerves dangerously and the costs and harms mount.

These corporations rely on a social license to operate – one they’ve proven they don’t deserve. As with the tobacco industry before it, their destructive business practices have eroded public trust to the point that their social license is at stake. What the tobacco industry did to downplay the dangers of smoking was criminal and they deserved their Congressional grilling and the game-changing regulations handed down. What the fossil fuel industry has done–and still does today–will reverberate in global, multi-generational hardship and suffering and it deserves lawmakers’ and societies’ harsh rebuke. They should face an unvarnished line of questioning on the public stage.

I hope that Committee members ask the hard questions tomorrow. I hope the fossil fuel executives get caught between a rock and a hard place: having to admit their role in spreading disinformation and blocking action, or lying like the tobacco executives did only to have those lies come back to haunt them. And I hope that the public finally gets the chance to see the industry for the gross transgressor it is, that its social license to operate is soon stripped, and that climate action, freed from its influence, charges forth, putting us rapidly on a path toward a safe climate future.

Given the multi-generational harm brought on by the industry’s obstructionism, these leaders’ morality needs to be in the hot seat as well. If I could ask these witnesses questions tomorrow, it would be questions like these:

Were your company’s profit and your personal wealth worth irrevocably damaging our children’s futures?

In the 1980s, 90s and even 2000s, we could have readily avoided a 1.5 degrees C increase in global average temperatures–the threshold science warns us not to surpass–with the introduction and steady pursuit of low-carbon energy policies. In those decades, however, your corporations were buying political influence and revving up climate denial and disinformation campaigns, repeatedly undermining and beating back the political will to take important steps when there was ample time to do so.

Now the chances of avoiding 1.5 degrees C of increase are incredibly slim and we need to brace for new harms like the accelerated shrinking of water supplies and strained crop production. The more than 1 degree C of temperature increase we’ve already seen is wreaking havoc and costing lives. This year alone, the U.S. has experienced devastating wildfires, heatwaves, drought, and flooding, with costs topping $81 billion dollars and counting. You have succeeded in running down the clock and securing those years’ worth of profits for yourself; the price we have paid is our safe climate future.

Here in 2021, we’re fighting, not to avoid climate change–we’ve experienced plenty already and locked in much more. We’re fighting to avoid catastrophic climate change. Change that will drive upheaval, conflict, displacement, and loss; a world transformed, that no child should inherit. The science couldn’t be clearer on this point: “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach” says the IPCC in 2021.

So my question is: Knowing full well that continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels will be unfathomably costly, indefinitely, and will mean profound hardship and suffering for large swaths of the world’s people, why are you prioritizing a few more years of corporate profits over humanity’s safety and well-being?

The science is very clear on the solutions, as well: we need to reduce global emissions at least 50% by 2030. Elements of the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) can accomplish that level of reduction here at home. And can do so with a just and equitable transition to clean energy that, studies also show, would be a boon for public health, job creation and the economy.

But in recent months and weeks, your industry has pulled out all the stops to block those parts of the BBBA. As my colleague, Elliot Negin reports, US Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark “vowed in an August 24 press release that the [US Chamber of Commerce] “will do everything [it] can to prevent” the proposed [BBBA], which would slash carbon emissions from the electric power and transportation sectors, “from becoming law.””

I have another question: Knowing full well that blocking those vital policies and programs will directly imperil our ability to achieve those emissions reductions and avoid catastrophic climate change, why do you do it? What is the price, Ms. Clark, of selling out the world?

How do you propose we prepare for, pay for, and survive the catastrophes your corporations’ actions have helped unleash?

During the unprecedented summer heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, hundreds of people from Oregon to British Columbia died of heat-related causes. Temperatures during the heat wave were found to be virtually impossible without climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Studies like ours at the Union of Concerned Scientists find that, by midcentury, without emissions reductions, more than 8 million people in the US will face a week or more each year of life-threatening heat index conditions over 120 degrees F.

Another question: Knowing that your product is driving a trend that costs people their lives, their property, their local and regional economies, how do you justify aggressively lobbying politicians to quash emissions-reducing policies–including lobbying Senator Manchin, just this month, to kill critical emissions reduction tools like the Clean Energy Performance Program?

Back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when your corporations were generating and covering up reports about the reality and grave threats of climate change, the use of your product was accelerating the global warming and sea level rise that is flooding communities today. Now, within the lifetime of an average home mortgage, more than 310,000 homes along the coasts of the lower-48 states will flood chronically, tanking property values and destroying communities.

Allow me to ask: What would you say to the homeowner, working hard to pay a mortgage, whose single greatest asset will be all but worthless in the next couple of decades because of sea level rise set in motion while your company was working to undermine climate science and obstruct the shift toward cleaner energy?

What do you have to say to the children whose future you’ve vandalized?

When I was a teenager in the 80s and learned about climate change and the looming threat it posed, I was frightened. But I was also sure that we, as a society, would never let that happen. We would never let a world in which we can thrive slip away from us, replaced by a world for which we’re unfit and scrambling to survive. But that’s just what we’re doing. Not because we want to. But because the fossil fuel industry and people like you have refused to let those who would tackle the crisis do so.

The engines of the world don’t have to run on your dirty, antiquated product. But here in 2021, too much of the world still does, like an addict with one foot in a better life but a pusher who just won’t let go.

What I didn’t understand back then is that there are people like you. People who are so in thrall to a profit model that if it requires sacrificing almost anything in the world to keep profiting, they’ll do it. For example, among other things that unfold in the 1.5 degree C world we’re rapidly living into is the widespread loss of sensitive species and systems (i.e., the really magnificent ones), including the expected loss of 70-90% of the world’s warm-water coral reefs. If your industry had not vigorously obstructed climate action, as has been documented since 1990s, your grandchildren and mine might have lived in a world cool enough for wonders like coral reefs. Instead, they will live a world where too much of nature’s splendor is going dark.

So my question is: What will you say to the children in your lives when they ask you why you put corporate profits over natural beauty, whole ecosystems, and the livelihoods that depend on them? What can you point to, and say, “That was worth ocean acidification and vital fisheries; that was worth the Andean glaciers and the crops that depended on them; that was worth the Great Barrier Reef?” How would you answer David Byrne’s timeless question: “My God, what have I done?

Our one job–any generation’s one job–is to pass on as bright a future as possible. Instead, young people got you, like some sci-fi super villain, peddling complacency and an irrational devotion to business-as-usual and running down the climate clock while they were still learning to tell time. They are furious. They are sad. And, the worst part, too many are hopeless, all around the world. Some even see a hunger strike as a necessary escalation in this fight.

My final questions to you are: When children ask why their future was irreparably damaged, and the answer is because people like you–and I do mean you, Darren Woods, David Lawler, Michael Wirth, Gretchen Watkins–thought their corporation’s fleeting profits were more important, did you know that this would be your lasting legacy? Do you regret that you may be despised for years for your role in the climate crisis? Have you stopped to fathom the shame that awaits you?