Climate action supporters: The fossil fuel industry is not your friend
A week after taking office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order “on tackling the climate crisis” that aims to face the challenge comprehensively and equitably. Biden has quickly appointed and seen confirmed a team of leaders who are committed to all aspects of this mission. Our country is finally on the cusp of meaningful climate action. The climate action train is so popular that even fossil fuel companies, which have historically sought to derail it, are now saying they’re on board.
We should, of course, welcome all sincere collaborators; the fossil fuel industry is not among them.
Yes, major oil and gas companies are finally, if reluctantly, beginning to publicly acknowledge the climate crisis, and some even claim to “support” the Paris Agreement’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
These claims are a central part of the industry’s massive PR and lobbying campaign to position itself as an essential leader in the country’s transition to a “low-carbon” future. But given the industry’s decades-long and painfully successful effort to hide and deny the science of dangerous climate disruption in order to block national and international efforts to address it, its recent insistence on being a key part of the climate solution — and entitled to VIP status at the climate policymaking table — bears scrutiny. This is particularly so now, since science indicates that we likely still have time to maintain a habitable planet if we get climate policy right.
Fortunately, a new study published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science provides much-needed insight. The study examines whether executive pay at the top four investor-owned carbon emitting energy companies is consistent with their purported climate-friendly commitments.
Authors Dario Kenner and Richard Heede conclude that it is not.
Contrary to their claims, these companies remain steadfast in accelerating a climate apocalypse, Kenner and Heede find. “[W]hat the executives and directors (of these four companies) share in common is a desire to maintain demand for oil and gas, and to defend their company’s social license to operate,” they write. “They are paid to run fossil fuel supply chains — with large greenhouse gas emissions.”
That business plan — though key to the survival of an industry whose core business today remains oil and gas and whose investments assume that will continue to be the case beyond 2050 — is planetary suicide. These companies’ climate-friendly statements are merely a Trojan horse designed to maintain their “social license to operate” and secure a seat at the table so they can continue to undermine climate policy.
What does this mean for policymakers who are serious about surviving the climate crisis? First, they should question climate policies the fossil fuel industry is pushing and seek independent and rigorous evaluation of them. Second, they should not weaken or deprioritize policies that the industry opposes, particularly those that would significantly limit oil and gas extraction and production — the very thing that must be rapidly scaled down and ultimately abandoned for climate action to have any hope of succeeding.
The industry, however, attacks any suggestion of ramping down production of fossil fuels and transitioning to carbon-free energy systems, particularly at the rapid pace required to maintain a habitable planet. That goal, of course, must be front and center of meaningful climate action.
Instead, the industry advocates for market mechanisms, even more government subsidies for fossil fuels, and continuing production. At the same time, it calls for “capturing” carbon emissions with technologies that have proven to be neither feasible nor safe and that require new infrastructure that will disproportionately harm communities that already disproportionately suffer from our existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
These policy goals certainly support the industry’s core fossil fuel business. But they are, at best, a distraction from the core of meaningful climate policy: transitioning away from fossil fuels. At worst, they undermine it.
Fortunately, we do have true heroes who should be at the head of the climate policymaking table: those who have been at the frontlines of the climate crisis. At the international level, they are developing countries, and particularly low-lying island states. At the national level, they are communities targeted for oil and gas infrastructure siting, which are mostly Black, Brown and indigenous communities. In sharp contrast to the fossil fuel industry’s interests in its survival, their interests in survival align with the Paris goals, and thus with those of this planet and all people who inhabit it.
Karen C. Sokol is a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and is a member scholar of the Center for Progressive Reform.
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