Twenty five corporate scoundrels: The Climate Minute Podcast

This week we have three main topics: the CDP Worldwide (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) report that twenty-five fossil fuel companies are responsible for over half of the carbon pollution in the air since 1988; the actions that utilities are taking against renewable energy; and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau.

We will start with the CDP Worldwide Carbon Majors Report that twenty-five fossil fuel companies are responsible for the majority of the carbon emissions. Inside Climate News ran an article summarizing the Carbon Majors Report. It described the major players since 1988 – among the top 10 were Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia), ExxonMobil (United States), Shenhua Group (China), and Rosneft (Russia). It makes us wonder, how many of them may have internally recognized the damage they were exerting on the planet and buried this information? We know that ExxonMobil did – but who else? And also, how many of them used their political influence to confuse the issue?

There is also this strange mentality out there where people will say, it doesn’t matter what ExxonMobil did back in the day, they are responsible now because they want a carbon tax. It doesn’t matter that Shell was involved in ALEC and some other disinformation groups because now they are going to spend as much as $1 billion a year on clean energy. There is this idea that these top polluters can get a pass on negative behavior because they have espoused positive behaviors today.

For the folks whose lives are permanently altered due to the emissions from the top fossil fuel producers, however, a pass on past behavior won’t cut it. Several landmark cases exist where citizens have united to hold polluters responsible: the Comer vs. Murphy Oil case, the Native Village of Kivalina vs. ExxonMobil, and Juliana vs. U.S.In the Comer vs. Murphy Oil case victims of Hurricane Katrina sued to hold the fossil fuel companies responsible for the emissions that caused climate change. The courts said these specific fossil fuel companies couldn’t be held responsible, because what about all of those polluters since the days of the industrial revolution? Well, now—thanks to the Carbon Majors Report—we know that “all those polluters” can be pinpointed to a small number of worst offenders.  Yet the court decisions are often made in favor of the fossil fuel companies—perhaps due to pressure from these top offenders or the resulting public confusion from well-funded disinformation campaigns that may influence the courts. Note: On February 5, 2018, a group of young adults—and some adult supporters such as James Hansen—are going to trial for Juliana vs. U.S. They are seeking donations and pro bono lawyers as they prepare for court, more information here.

To provide some perspective on how many emissions these top polluters have produced since 1988, let’s examine two concepts that help us to understand the accumulation of greenhouse gasses – the rate of emissions and the stock. The first measure, rate of emissions, is the amount of greenhouse gasses that we put into the atmosphere each year. For example, this measure may look like this: X gigatons/year of emissions. The second measure that we have to keep track of is the stock of emissions that we already have in the atmosphere—in other words, how much carbon dioxide (or carbon dioxide equivalent) is there in the atmosphere at any given time. To provide an analogy, the first measure is a savings rate—how much money do you put in the bank each month, e.g. $10/month. The second measure is how much you have in your savings bank, e.g. $4,000.

From the beginning of the industrial revolution up until 1988, there was a slower rate of carbon dioxide emissions added by Model-Ts and people burning wood. Since 1988, however, we have added the same amount of carbon dioxide (or its warming equivalent) to the global stock of carbon in the atmosphere as we have over the preceding 237 years—that is 833 gigatonnes over the past 28 years compared with 820 gigatonnes since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.[i] To emphasize, we have added an enormous amount of pollution since 1988, even though we knew about global warming and its effects at that time—thanks to James Hansen’s 1988 Senate testimony.  There are just 100 companies that created almost all of that pollution. Further, this is a scale thing—these 100 companies are going to continue to give us stuff to burn, but the total amount of carbon dioxide in the air will essentially double if we keep burning at this rate. The preponderance of evidence shows that the significant increase in carbon dioxide stock in the atmosphere is due to the actions of these companies trying to retard the growth of a different technology—that of clean, renewable energy.

This list of 100 top polluters gives us a particular group of people to name and shame. That makes this report particularly compelling. But we are dealing with people who—even when named and shamed—seem to lack accountability. Look at Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil—who is now Secretary of State. He moved on up – George Jefferson wishes he could move on up the way Rex has!

The next piece of news that our listeners should be aware of is the actions against the renewable energy industry. Massachusetts has many excellent solar incentives, and solar power has been doing well here—but that is not the case nationally. The New York Times printed an article about a concerted effort nationwide by utilities in their industrial organizations to try to kill off solar, to make sure that solar is taxed, to make it nearly impossible to get solar on your roof. We hope, however, that this injustice will galvanize people to push back on a state and local level to stop this nonsense. The way to push back is through knowledge and debunking the false claims the utility companies are making to pit neighbor against neighbor and to undermine the role of renewable energy. We did a podcast on this a year ago—you can find it here from February of 2016 . In brief, the argument of the utility company is that whoever has the solar panel on their roof is free-loading from the system because they are using the transmission lines that bring power to their house or take power away and they don’t have to pay for it. The person next door ends up paying more to support the neighbor’s solar panels being on the system. This is simply not true.  That is the divisive, polarizing argument that pits people against each other to say that your neighbor is cheating you by having solar panels. The reality is that solar panels on your neighbor’s roof ensure a cheaper cost for everyone, improve the system reliability, and are a net benefit to the whole system. Knowing that allows you to mitigate that argument that Joe Shmoe with the solar panels is taking advantage of everyone.

Also, the people against renewables are attacking the concept of a greater good – to say that there is no such thing as a greater societal good by implementing such things as solar panels. The Atlantic ran an article about James Buchanan – a libertarian economist – who pretty much created the philosophy of conservatism. Essentially, Buchanan claimed that politicians should not be viewed as serving the public good. They should be viewed as independent actors trying to maximize their own personal gain by being in the public sphere. That sort of argument is in direct contradiction to the idea of a common good. We have solar panels because they are good for everybody. The attack on the solar panels falls out of this reprehensible philosophy of absolute free market fundamentalism, the fact of dominance of the market over the individual. John Kenneth Galbraith talked about how people like Mr. Buchanan try to find the virtue in selfishness – like Gordon Gekko says in the movie Wall Street – greed is good, greed makes everything happen. Perhaps too many people mistake Oliver Stone’s intentions to make the Gekko a villain and instead look at him as someone to emulate! Buchanan’s philosophy is sleazy and worse, the people against renewables are organizing and are winning. Now it is time to do our own organizing and winning—visit  MassClimateAction.org for ways to participate locally.

Time for a more uplifting topic! Recently was the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau came from the Boston area; he is most famous for living at Walden Pond, a state park off of Rt. 128 in Massachusetts. The Thoreau cabin is remarkable—it is this teeny, tiny 8’x10’ cabin with a little cot in it, overlooking Walden Pond. For an analogy, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album is so fantastic because it set a definition of what music should be. Thoreau’s little cabin set this definition of what the right way to live life should be—simple, connected to nature and its systems, using minimal resources, having just what he needed and no more—it is just gorgeous. We are thrilled to see Thoreau being honored. It is a good thing, however, that Fox News wasn’t around when he was living; we can only imagine what they would have said about him! The other interesting thing about Thoreau’s cabin—from a climate perspective—is that Thoreau was an excellent documentarian. He recorded when certain plants came out, when the ice thawed out, etc. Scientists are currently using his records as a check for the shift in spring weather patterns. Bill McKibben has provided a revised introduction and helpful annotations for a newly released version of Thoreau’s Walden.

 You can’t retro-actively claim a climate hawk, but if you could Thoreau would be it. And at the very least we would interview him for this podcast!

Let us know if the technical quality needs adjusting, and if you have any topics that you want to hear about.

Because we recognize the necessity of personal accountability for our actions, because we accept responsibility for building a durable future and because we believe it is our patriotic duty as citizens to speak out, we must insist that the United States put a price on carbon.

Thanks for listening.

…Ted McIntyre

Thanks to Mariah Tinger for composing this post!

 



[i] Georgina Gustin, “Producers Responsible for Half Global Emissions in Past 3 Decades,” Inside Climate News, July 9, 2017, from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/10072017/fossil-fuel-companies-responsible-global-emissions-cdp-report?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social (accessed July 12, 2017).

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