Cli­mate change: Are oil in­dus­tries and fos­sil fu­els to blame?

It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that global mo­bi­liza­tion to rout cli­mate change would pro­vide a host of eco­nomic and so­cial ben­e­fits.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - ANNA KU­CIRKOVA

Global warm­ing. Cli­mate change. These terms are of­ten used in­ter­change­ably. How­ever, they have dif­fer­ing and dis­tinct mean­ings. On one hand, global warm­ing is the in­crease of mean tem­per­a­tures on the Earth’s sur­face. Cli­mate change, on the other hand, af­fects ecosys­tems and habi­tats of plants and an­i­mals.

For decade, sci­en­tists have been search­ing for ways to com­bat both phe­nom­ena. In this re­gard, the ma­jor cul­prits of global warm­ing and cli­mate change that have been dis­cov­ered are fos­sil fu­els.

How cli­mate change hap­pens

Cli­mate change hap­pens when the weather pat­tern of a ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion is al­tered. This could be man­i­fested by changes in rain­fall or sur­face tem­per­a­tures. The timescale for the rise in av­er­age tem­per­a­ture that re­sults in global warm­ing is hun­dreds, and mil­lions of years.

The Earth’s cli­mate changes fre­quently. There have been times in his­tory when Earth’s cli­mate has been warmer and times when it has been cooler. These pe­ri­ods can last for an eon – or an in­def­i­nite pe­riod of time.

Con­tem­po­rary cli­mate-change sci­en­tists say that the Earth’s tem­per­a­ture has gone up about one de­gree Cel­sius dur­ing the last cen­tury. Though it doesn’t seem like a big deal, even small changes in global tem­per­a­tures can cause big changes to the cli­mate with im­pli­ca­tions for ecosys­tems and weather pat­terns.

We are see­ing ev­i­dence of the Earth’s warm­ing, with ris­ing oceans and more fre­quent in­ci­dents of storms and heat waves, among other un­usual weather events.

Oil com­pa­nies and cli­mate change

In a 1988 Shell re­port, the oil com­pany re­vealed what it knew about cli­mate sci­ence as well as Shell’s own role in in­creas­ing global green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions. “The Green­house Ef­fect” was writ­ten by mem­bers of Shell’s Green­house Ef­fect Work­ing Group. The com­pany plainly stated that fos­sil fu­els play a dom­i­nant role in GHG emis­sions. In ef­fect, its own prod­ucts were con­tribut­ing to these global emis­sions. The re­port con­tains a de­tailed anal­y­sis of po­ten­tial cli­mate im­pacts and the po­ten­tial im­pacts on the oil sec­tor it­self.

Shell was not only aware of the po­ten­tial threats posed by cli­mate change; it also ad­mit­ted to its own role in con­tribut­ing to global warm­ing through the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els – like oil. Other com­pa­nies like ExxonMo­bil, oil trade as­so­ci­a­tions and util­ity com­pa­nies have also re­leased re­ports ac­knowl­edg­ing their con­tri­bu­tions to cli­mate change.

Oil com­pany’s opac­ity

The oil in­dus­try’s knowl­edge of cli­mate change and the con­tri­bu­tion of fos­sil fu­els to it dates back to the 1960s, as un­cov­ered doc­u­ments show that oil pro­duc­ers were warned about se­ri­ous world­wide en­vi­ron­men­tal changes more than 55 years ago. Stan­ford’s Re­search In­sti­tute of­fered a re­port to the Amer­i­can Petroleum In­sti­tute (API) in 1968, warn­ing that the grow­ing re­leases of car­bon diox­ide from burn­ing fos­sil fu­els into the at­mos­phere could re­sult in deadly con­se­quences for the Earth.

The 1968 Stan­ford re­port, un­cov­ered and re­pub­lished by the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Law (CIEL), states: “If the Earth’s tem­per­a­ture in­creases sig­nif­i­cantly, a num­ber of events might be ex­pected to oc­cur in­clud­ing the melt­ing of the Antarc­tic ice cap, a rise in sea lev­els, warm­ing of the oceans and an in­crease in pho­to­syn­the­sis.”

Thanks to huge in­creases in CO2 and other GHG emis­sions since the late 1960s, global tem­per­a­tures have risen by 1C above the pre-in­dus­trial level. Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that the world’s known fos­sil fuel re­serves will have to re­main in the ground if hu­mans are to avoid the worst ef­fects of cli­mate change such as floods, droughts, and sea storms.

The CIEL also said, “hun­dreds of doc­u­ments show oil and gas ex­ec­u­tives met in 1946 to agree that they should fund re­search into air pol­lu­tion is­sues. The sub­se­quent find­ings were then cov­ered up to pro­tect com­pany prof­its.”

Hold­ing them ac­count­able

The oil and gas in­dus­try is cur­rently grap­pling with a wave of le­gal chal­lenges, as ac­tivists de­mand for ac­count­abil­ity of oil com­pa­nies for cli­mate change. This be­gan af­ter ExxonMo­bil was ex­posed for its fail­ure to pub­licly ad­mit that it al­ways knew about the threat of burn­ing fos­sil fu­els to the planet.

Af­ter the re­lease of in­ter­nal ExxonMo­bil doc­u­ments, a spot­light on the con­duct of the fos­sil fu­els in­dus­try emerged in 2015. In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists wrote sto­ries dis­clos­ing that the oil com­pany un­der­stood global warm­ing, pre­dicted its con­se­quences, and then spent mil­lions of dol­lars on a mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign.

Such ev­i­dence was enough to birth a le­gal de­mand, part of which called for a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the com­pany. The list of chal­lenges grew when at­tor­neys gen­eral from Mas­sachusetts and New York sub­poe­naed ExxonMo­bil for in­ter­nal cli­mate change-re­lated doc­u­ments.

The var­i­ous court cases, strength­ened by sci­ence, have the po­ten­tial to al­ter the way the world thinks about en­ergy pro­duc­tion and cli­mate change. The le­gal ac­tions high­light the need to move away from fos­sil fu­els and move to­ward re­new­able and sus­tain­able en­ergy. In fact, in Cal­i­for­nia – where law­suits seek bil­lions of dol­lars for cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures, such as sea walls – oil and gas com­pa­nies tried to move the cases to fed­eral courts, where the nui­sance suits were less likely to suc­ceed. The Cal­i­for­nia law­suits have been hap­pen­ing since the sum­mer of 2017. Be­low is a time­line of some of the suits:

July 17, 2017: San Mateo County, Marin County and Imperial Beach filed sep­a­rate law­suits at the Cal­i­for­nia Su­pe­rior Court, seek­ing dam­ages from 37 fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies.

Sept. 19, 2017: San Fran­cisco and Oak­land filed law­suits at the Cal­i­for­nia Su­pe­rior Court, seek­ing dam­ages from five fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies over sea level rise.

Dec. 20, 2017: Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County filed law­suits at the Cal­i­for­nia Su­pe­rior Court against 29 fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies, seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion for cli­mate change-re­lated dam­age.

Jan. 22, 2018: City of Rich­mond filed law­suit at the Cal­i­for­nia Su­pe­rior Court against 29 fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies.

March 16, 2018: Fed­eral judge ruled some of the cases should be tried in state court, cre­at­ing a con­flict with an­other judge who ruled sim­i­lar cases be­long in fed­eral court.

March 21, 2018: Fed­eral judge over­see­ing the San Fran­cisco and Oak­land cases hosted a cli­mate change tu­to­rial for the court.

June 25, 2018: Fed­eral judge dis­missed the San Fran­cisco and Oak­land cases, say­ing the dan­gers of cli­mate change are “very real” but that the is­sue should be solved by Congress.

It seems rea­son­able to hold oil giants like ExxonMo­bil and Shell re­spon­si­ble for cli­mate change. But, what can the world do to re­verse the dam­age?

What is be­ing done to re­verse cli­mate change?

Amer­i­can sci­en­tists have been in­volved in a con­cen­trated ef­fort to de­ter­mine how quickly cur­rent tech­nol­ogy can be de­ployed to slow and stop global warm­ing. The re­searchers looked deep into the specifics of con­vert­ing from fos­sil fu­els to clean en­ergy. Data shows that about four-tenths of one per­cent of Amer­ica’s land­mass could pro­duce re­new­able en­ergy. But to make that work, the US would need to build the fac­to­ries nec­es­sary to churn out thou­sands of acres worth of so­lar pan­els, wind tur­bines and elec­tric cars and buses.

It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that global mo­bi­liza­tion to rout cli­mate change would pro­vide a host of eco­nomic and so­cial ben­e­fits. Deaths from air pol­lu­tion would be greatly re­duced and there would be safer and bet­ter-pay­ing em­ploy­ment for en­ergy work­ers.

In Amer­ica, a wide­spread cam­paign has stymied Arc­tic drilling and banned frack­ing in key states. Cities and coun­ties are build­ing more bike paths. Leg­is­la­tors and lob­by­ists are propos­ing sev­eral ideas, in­clud­ing a car­bon tax, a world­wide frack­ing ban, man­dat­ing fed­eral agen­cies to get their power from green sources, and a pro­hi­bi­tion against min­ing or drilling on pub­lic lands.

Should these ini­tia­tives be im­ple­mented, ma­jor fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies would face the risk of hav­ing large parts of their re­serves be­com­ing worth­less. This would leave BHP Bil­li­ton, An­glo Amer­i­can, and Exxaro’s coal re­serves in the ground, and also BP, Lukoil, ExxonMo­bil, Gazprom and Chevron’s huge gas and oil re­serves un­tapped.

If the na­tions of the world hon­our their pledge to fight cli­mate change, the prospects are drea­ri­est for coal, the mother of all pol­lut­ing fos­sil fu­els. Eighty-two per­cent of the global re­serves of coal would have to stay un­der­ground.

For gas, 50% of global re­serves would have to re­main un­burned. Ge­o­graph­i­cal vari­a­tions mean that colos­sal gas pro­duc­ers in Rus­sia and the Mid­dle East must leave huge quan­ti­ties un­der­ground, while the US and Europe could use more than 90% of their re­serves in place of coal.

And while the politi­cians and pol­i­cy­mak­ers bicker about the so­lu­tions for the fu­ture, progress has been made in sev­eral ar­eas, such as: cut­ting ozonedam­ag­ing chem­i­cals and in­creas­ing en­ergy from re­new­able sources. But these are small steps.

Nev­er­the­less, in the past 25 years, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the UK’s In­de­pen­dent, the amount of fresh wa­ter avail­able per head of global pop­u­la­tion has re­duced by 26%. The num­ber of ocean “dead zones” – places where lit­tle can live be­cause of pol­lu­tion and oxy­gen star­va­tion – have in­creased by 75%. Also, nearly 300 mil­lion acres of forests have been lost, mostly for the pur­pose of farm­ing.

The re­port also shows that hu­man pop­u­la­tion has risen by 35% in this pe­riod. Mean­while, col­lec­tively, the num­ber of mam­mals, rep­tiles, am­phib­ians, birds and fish in the world has fallen by 29%.


The ev­i­dence is over­whelm­ing. The burn­ing of oil and other fos­sil fu­els has had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment. And while oil and coal com­pa­nies have made ef­forts to en­cour­age de­vel­op­ment of cleaner and re­new­able en­er­gies, their main­stays are still the prod­ucts that are harm­ful to the en­vi­ron­ment.

The gen­er­a­tion in­hab­it­ing the Earth in 2018 may or may not see any sig­nif­i­cant cli­mate changes in its life­times. Nev­er­the­less, the over­ar­ch­ing goal of this gen­er­a­tion should be to pre­serve the planet for gen­er­a­tions yet to come.

The over­ar­ch­ing goal of this gen­er­a­tion should be to pre­serve the planet for gen­er­a­tions yet to come.

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