Holding the Fossil Fuel Industry Accountable: What We’ve Done and Must Do in the Wake of Paris

December 18, 2015 | 11:51 am
As Typhoon Melor threatens the Philippines, a Filipino boy prepares a fishing net. Photo: Francis R. Malasig/EPA
Peter Frumhoff
Former Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

As we celebrate the landmark Paris Agreement and the momentum it creates for accelerating the pace of clean energy adoption and climate preparedness in the U.S. and internationally, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) will also keep working to ensure that the fossil fuel industry does not stand in the way of needed progress.

Building on our successful efforts earlier this year to motivate BP and Royal Dutch Shell to leave the climate-science-denying American Legislative Exchange Council, here are a few recent outcomes from our climate accountability campaign:

1) Pressure from Congress

Drawing on UCS investigative reporting, members of Congress are pressing fossil fuel companies to fully disclose funding of climate science disinformation and to describe their business plans for reducing emissions consistent with global temperature limits.

On December 7th, 45 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, Conoco Phillips, Peabody Energy and BP, calling on them to clarify what they knew about the climate risks of their products, when they knew it, and what plans they are putting in place to limit future risks. Initiated by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Rep. Peter Welch (D- VT), the letter draws heavily on the UCS Deception Dossiers investigative report released last summer, noting that:

“UCS uncovered many internal company documents which appear to confirm a coordinated campaign of deception conducted by the industry to deceive the public of climate science that even their own scientists confirmed.  These actions included ‘forged letters to Congress, secret funding of a supposedly independent scientist, the creation of fake grassroots organizations, [and] multiple efforts to deliberately manufacture uncertainty about climate science.’”

2) Climate damages investigation

UCS is supporting a precedent-setting international investigation into the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for climate damages.

On December 4 in Paris, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR) announced that it will launch a public inquiry into whether the 50 largest industrial producers of coal, oil and natural gas have violated the human rights of Philippine citizens facing damages from typhoons and other extreme weather worsened by global warming. This is the first time any national human rights commission has taken up such an inquiry; it came about in response to complaint initiated in September by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and supported by more than 125,000 citizen petitioners. While the CHR lacks authority to establish penalties or award damages, they have significant standing to draw attention to any human rights violations they find and help “establish clear mechanisms and processes for redressing Human Rights victims arising from climate change”.

We are providing scientific advice and counsel to our Philippines-based NGO colleagues and to the Commission on Human Rights. In Paris, I had the privilege of briefing commissioners on the state of the science of climate attribution and the potential for further research to link emissions traced to these companies to specific climate impacts and damages in the Philippines.

3) ExxonMobil investigation

UCS helped set the stage for the New York State Attorney General’s ongoing investigation into whether ExxonMobil concealed climate risks from shareholders and the public, and is pressing to expand such inquiries.

In early November, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena calling on ExxonMobil to release documents dating back almost four decades that could shed light on what Exxon knew about the climate risks of its products and how these risks could affect company operations relative to what it had disclosed to its shareholders and the public. This investigation builds directly on the strong evidence put forth by UCS and subsequent reports by published by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times of the company’s early understanding of climate science and climate risks and subsequent investment in climate science doubt-mongering. In light of this evidence, we are now calling on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and other state attorneys general to use the tools at their disposal to launch similar inquiries.

4) Groundbreaking research

New UCS-supported research focuses attention on the need for investors to limit industry exploration and development of new fossil fuel reserves.

Much has been made of the notion that the current reserves of investor-owned fossil fuel companies are at risk of becoming “stranded assets” in a carbon-constrained world. A study published in late November by Richard Heede and Naomi Oreskes in Global Environmental Change, and partly funded by UCS, suggests that, while existing reserves are important, far greater attention needs to be paid to the ability of companies to develop new reserves. They find that the 42 largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell, maintain proven reserves of coal, oil and natural gas totaling an estimated 44 gigatons of carbon. These reserves contain, on average, about 12 years of further production at current rates for oil and gas companies, and contain a significant portion of the remaining carbon budget that cannot be exceeded if global average temperature increases are to stay well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as called for in the Paris Agreement;

Fossil fuel companies spend an estimated $700 billion per year to identify and develop new fossil reserves; Heede and Oreskes argue that it is this continued development that poses the greatest risk of driving emissions traced to these companies to “exceed the carbon budget and push global climate well past” global temperature limits. Far greater investor and consumer pressure, therefore, should focus on “dissuading these corporations from further investment in fossil fuel exploration and development,” particularly from tar sands and other high carbon sources.

A New Year’s Resolution

There’s much to celebrate – and there’s much more to be done. As nations build on their Paris climate commitments, the fossil fuel industry will need to decide whether they play a constructive  role and begin the process of transitioning to responsible energy companies. They could, for example, build on initial generic calls for a global price on carbon and forcefully advocate for a strong specific economy-wide carbon price policy in the U.S.; join with other leading corporations in committing to adopt science-based targets for reducing emissions across their operations and detail their plans for doing so to investors and the public; substantially increase their investment in clean energy technology research and deployment; and unequivocally denounce and distance themselves from continued climate and clean energy disinformation from industry-supported trade associations and lobbying groups.

We resolve to keep holding them accountable for doing so.

Featured image: A Filipino boy prepares a fishing net as Typhoon Melor threatens the Philippines. Extreme weather will become more severe with climate change. Photo: Francis R. Malasig/EPA