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Photograph by Carolyn Fortuna / CleanTechnica

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The Fossil Fuel Industry Is “Immorally Undermining Climate Action”

The remarks of Secretary General Antonio Gutterres in a speech to the UN General Assembly called out fossil fuel companies for “scrambling to expand production and raking in monster profits.”

Can 2023 be “a year of reckoning,” so that “game-changing climate action” permeates every government and industry, every local community and home? Or will warnings from United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in a type of State-of-the-Planet speech about global warming and the environment become reality, so that undermining climate action continues the world on a path to 2.8 degrees warming beyond pre-industrial times?

“We must end the merciless, relentless, senseless war on nature,” Gutterres exclaims, as that war “is putting our world at immediate risk of hurtling past the 1.5-degree temperature increase limit and now still moving towards a deadly 2.8 degrees.”

A whole bucketful of evidence supports this statement. The data is not new, and it’s disheartening that too many people in power aren’t paying attention.

  • In 2018 the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed how the 2°C upper bound was far below the path we were on at that moment of time. They called upon countries around the world to bring about the rapid and far reaching transitions to protect our communities and the natural world upon which we all depend from massively disruptive climate change.
  • NASA published an account in 2019 (during the dark times when so much climate data was squashed by the Trump administration) which described how climate-related risks for natural and human systems were found to be higher, often significantly so, under the hotter temperature threshold (to which Gutterres is referring). The degree of these risks depends on many factors, NASA said, such as the rate, duration, and magnitude of warming; geographic location; levels of development and vulnerability; and on how humans respond through adaptation and mitigation options.
  • Copernicus out of the EU showed how, in December, 2020, global warming reached 1.18°C above pre-industrial levels. The review stated that the 1.5°C limit would be reached in 2034 if the warming trend continues in the same way it has for the 30 years up.
  • A Nature 2021 study outlined how, by 2050, nearly 60% of oil and fossil methane gas and 90% of coal must remain unextracted to keep within a 1.5 °C carbon budget — a large increase in the unextractable estimates for a 2 °C carbon budget, particularly for oil, for which an additional 25% of reserves must remain unextracted. Furthermore, they estimated that oil and gas production must decline globally by 3% each year until 2050.
  • The November, 2022 Climate Tracker displayed the various trajectories aligned with policies then presently in place around the world. Projections pointed to about 2.7°C warming above pre-industrial levels.

Fossil fuel companies continue to mask their responsibility toward systemic energy systems change. BP’s influence ads last year, for example, were designed to promote their plan to “transition to net zero” by gradually reducing oil and gas production and investing more in “low carbon” and renewable energy sources. Now the financial projections are in, and BP’s oil and gas investments for 2023 will at least double renewable energy investments. BP greenwashing continues to be rampant, cloaked in a lofty façade of net zero fluffy promises.

Greenwashing, Guterres decries, is undermining climate action, as big banks and oil companies to pretend that they’re making progress on climate when they’re not. He warns of a “self-destructive fossil fuel resurgence.” Securing a livable planet depends on stopping the “bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers, ” and he calls for an end to “the merciless, relentless, senseless war on nature.”

Fossil Fuel Capitalism: Undermining Climate Action

Dismayed that many such warnings have remained unheeded, Gutterres announced, “Hence: We need disruption to end the destruction. No more baby steps. No more excuses. No more bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers.” Instead, he offered “a special message for fossil-fuel producers and their enablers scrambling to expand production and raking in monster profits: If you cannot set a credible course for net-zero, with 2025 and 2030 targets covering all your operations, you should not be in business. Your core product is our core problem.”

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? His words have spurred climate activists. Bill McKibben helped found, the first global grassroots climate campaign, which has organized protests on every continent, including Antarctica, for climate action. The Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, McKibben writes for the New Yorker, where this week he examined Gutterres’ recent comments. McKibben editorializes that, to achieve the “renewables revolution” the Secretary-General is calling for, we need to acknowledge that:

  • The central problem with climate change is the fossil fuel industry’s product.
  • The industry is immorally undermining climate action.
  • If it continues, it should be shut down.

“What we do in response is the one decision,” McKibben summarizes, “that will really matter for the deep history of the Earth.”

Others in position of authority and respect have also been calling out fossil fuel companies for undermining climate action.

  • Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’” remains the most important document of the millennium on the climate crisis, according to McKibben, who adds that the document is “among the best critiques ever issued on capitalism, consumerism, and our strained and unequal modernity.”
  • Back in 2018, a group of British climate activists started purposefully breaking the law, blocking roads and gluing themselves to government buildings in the name of cutting carbon emissions. The group responsible, Extinction Rebellion, swiftly rose to international notoriety with such radical civil resistance.
  • Al Gore, a Nobel laureate, brought news of the climate crisis with the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Gore spoke at the Davos World Economic Forum last month in a tone that McKibben says “can more accurately be described as a rant—an absolutely correct and remarkably red-faced rant.” Gore decried the oil and gas industry and the coal industry, which “use their legacy network of political influence and wealth to stop progress.” If we are ever to “stop using the sky as an open sewer,” Gore added, “we cannot let the oil companies and gas companies and petrostates tell us what is permissible.”
  • Over 700,000 signatories endorsed a letter sent to fossil fuel CEOs in attendance at Davos. In the Cease and Desist notice, the signers demanded that fossil fuel giants “stop opening any new oil, gas, or coal extraction sites” as well as to “stop blocking the clean energy transition we all so urgently need.”

McKibben argues that this and other “straight talk and truthtelling is crucially important right now,’ with influences like “enormous and unnatural disasters” alongside the human-caused “flood of obfuscation” of social media platforms.

The symbiotic relationships among governments can spur legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act and open up previously-unheard of global cleantech competition. Climate markets, as we have seen over the last few years, will respond in kind — if only the fossil fuel industry doesn’t stifle their possibilities. Will fossil fuel companies begin to listen to important climate voices like Gutterres and McKibben?

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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