Deceive, deny, delay
For decades, oil companies prevented humanity from reversing climate change
– SNEHA PANDEY
Oct 16, 2016 The Kathmandu Post- In 1994—after years of outright lies from the tobacco industry regarding the addictive and harmful properties of cigarettes—the top executives of seven American transnational companies were bought before the American Congress to testify about such deceitful tactics. However, despite an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community on the detrimental effects of smoking, the executives were adamant that there was no reliable proof that cigarettes were dangerous.
The American public was appalled by such blatant lies. The government, for its part, pursued this case and after more than a decade, in 2006, the US courts found the Big Tobacco companies complicit in a 50-year long racketeering enterprise that deliberately misled the public and hid the dangers associated with smoking. In the aftermath, the Big Tobacco was fined $10 billion, removed from international and national negotiation tables and strong laws and regulations against them were adopted.
Parallel to this old controversy of corporate abuse is a new one: Recently unearthed email evidence shows that ExxonMobil, the world’s largest and most profitable oil company, had first-hand knowledge about climate change as early as 1981—long before the issue entered mainstream discussions.
In 2015, Exxon was investigated after allegations of such deceptive activities were made. Company records obtained subsequently show that Exxon’s executives had been briefed about the potent effects of fossil fuels on the climate by their own scientists. The rich oilmen knew that burning fossil fuels would raise global temperatures. They knew that such change in the climate would threaten many populations and ecosystems. And they knew that in order to avoid such changes to the global climate, mankind had limited time to switch to a less polluting method of energy generation.
But Exxon did not care. Despite being among the few with access to such vital information at the time, Exxon decided against sharing this information with the public. Later—even when global warming became a widely accepted phenomenon—Exxon spent over $30 million in the period of 27 years promoting climate change denial.
Exxon hired Public Relations firms for dishonest public outreach and paid millions to politicians, academics and think tanks—strategies straight out of the Big Tobacco playbook—to promote climate denial. It helped found the Global Climate Coalition, which was an alliance of various transnational companies that sought to stop any efforts to curtail the use of fossil fuels. It spent millions lobbying against any market restrictions on fossil fuels. It also had a big hand in the Bush Administration’s decision to not sign the Kyoto Protocol—an international treaty adopted in 1997 to fight global warming.
By spending many decades and many millions denying climate change, Exxon, and other complicit Big Oil companies, “robbed humanity of a generation’s worth of time to reverse climate change”, affirms Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, a global grassroots climate campaign. Meanwhile, at the expense of the planet, Exxon made more than $1.9 trillion, just between 1999 and 2015.
An uphill battle
The crimes of the Big Oil are much bigger than that of the Big Tobacco; their corrupt business models did not only harm a select few but instead jeopardised the future of all life on earth. Today, with increasing evidence of such deception—even as poor nations and economies struggle to survive the harsh impacts of climate change—governments and citizens from all over the world are taking a stand against such corporate abuse.
This July, for example, the Commission of Human Rights of Philippines (CHR), a constitutional body that investigates cases of human rights violation, accused 47 ‘carbon majors’ including Shell, BP and Chevron of robbing people’s fundamental rights to “life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and to self-determination”. Being extremely vulnerable to climate change, the Philippines has witnessed a rising frequency and intensity of super-cyclones, floods and heatwaves in the past decade and with this an increased loss of lives and livelihoods. Taking this into account, the CHR demanded an explanation as to how these
companies plan to eliminate, remedy and prevent such violations from occurring in the future.
Zelda Soriano, an advisor to Greenpeace Southeast Asia, one of the groups that bought this issue to the CHR’s attention, says that such actions help establish moral and legal precedence to hold polluters accountable. “From the Netherlands to the US, people are using legal systems to hold their governments to account and demand climate action,” she says.
Such momentum that is gathering against corporate polluters today demands that the Big Oil—and other polluting industries—divest themselves of their polluting business models and compensate those who have fallen victim to climate change. Mr McKibben says that the pariah
status of Big Oil is growing: “The fossil-fuel industry remains incredibly strong—they are super-rich—but they are not as invincible as they thought they were.”
Given their political and monetary muscle, the fight against the Big
Oil is not likely to be over anytime soon. But until the fossil fuel industry is held legally and financially accountable—just as the Big Tobacco was—for all their climate crimes, the world has to maintain an unrelenting perseverance and diligence. No industry should be able to get away with deliberately lying about the risks associated with their products, especially when such lies put the fate of the entire human race in jeopardy.