Hoping fossil fuel giants will see the light on climate hasn’t worked!

Nov 16, 2023, 11:13 AM

One of the most demoralizing things about the world’s response to the climate crisis is the fossil fuel industry’s continued success in blocking the pollution-cutting actions that are in the interest of all of humanity.

The solution to our predicament couldn’t be clearer: We need to stop burning fossil fuels and pumping pollution into the atmosphere. So much needless human suffering and ecological destruction could be avoided if oil, coal and gas companies saw the existential threat their business model poses and moved quickly to transition into selling safer, less expensive and more reliable renewable energy.

Too many powerful people in government, business and civic organizations have clung to the fantasy that some of the most powerful and destructive companies in history would eventually face reality and transform on their own initiative into clean and sustainable operations.

But the last year has shown they are committed to profiting from pollution. While major oil companies post record profits, they are retreating on their climate pledges, lobbying to reverse climate policies and trying to derail the switch to electric vehicles. In California, the industry is spending tens of millions in an attempt to overturn health protections against drilling near homes and schools while misinforming the public about the high gas prices and their huge windfalls.

It should be obvious by now that fossil fuel companies have no real plans to change in response to the climate crisis. And that the only way forward is without them.

Some high-profile environmental leaders have come to a similar conclusion recently, among them influential climate negotiator Christiana Figueres, under whose tenure as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the landmark 2015 Paris agreement was developed. She wrote in Al Jazeera earlier this month that after years of holding out hope that oil and gas companies would wake up and participate in the decarbonization of the economy, their actions over the last 12 months have changed her mind.

Former Vice President Al Gore, a longtime champion for climate action, has also been speaking with refreshing frankness about fossil fuel industry obstruction, decrying “anti-climate plotting” by companies that refuse to disclose their emissions or commit to phasing them out while they successfully push government policies to slow down the transition to clean energy.

It’s a little late for powerful voices from older generations to come to the realization that fossil fuel companies aren’t operating in good faith and will fight climate action until the bitter end. But it’s welcome nonetheless, and there’s clear generational shift in that direction that offers some hope. Polling last year by the Pew Research Center found that while most Americans are reluctant to ditch fossil fuels, younger adults are much more supportive of phasing out oil, gas and coal entirely.

As much as renewable energy like wind and solar has grown globally, we still get more than 80% of our energy from burning fossil fuels. Global greenhouse gas emissions have rebounded, climbing to new all-time highs after a brief downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic. The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues its unrelenting rise, and is now 50% higher than in preindustrial times.

The more we experience the horrors of climate-fueled extremes, from destructive storms and wildfires to deadly and debilitating smoke and heat waves, the clearer it ought to be that we cannot trust in the same actors whose dangerous, unhealthful and unsustainable products are responsible for more than a century of unabated dumping of greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere.

It would be delusional to expect the trajectory to change without a fundamental shift in our economic system, including moving on from the companies that profit from the continued extraction and burning of hydrocarbons.

If only it were that easy, right? But politicians, who are often financially beholden to these planet-wrecking industries, have wasted decades with denial, delay tactics or outright hostility to anything more than incremental steps.

It’s alarming to see the extent to which fossil fuel industries have captured institutions responsible for slowing climate change. This year’s United Nations climate summit in Dubai is being hosted by an oil executive, which is like the climate equivalent of letting arms dealers hold peace talks. Instead of propping up and legitimizing fossil fuel companies, we ought to be stigmatizing them as morally repugnant for continuing to add fuel to a house that’s on fire.

A Guest Editorial