How Big Carbon Can—And Must—Pay for Its Climate Damage

Stephen Leonard

I was traveling through a typically crowded street in Jakarta on the back of a motorbike recently, breathing the usual noxious stench of exhaust fumes, when I was struck by a powerful realization about the climate crisis. Many of the people around me were two, three, or more to a bike. So many faces were covered with masks to protect against life-threatening pollution. The fossil fuel industry has the world fooled, I couldn’t help but think—billions are addicted to its products with nowhere else to turn.

One of the most incredible and outrageous things about the so-called “issue” of human-caused climate change is the mountain of credible evidence showing a decades-long, highly strategic effort by fossil fuel companies to prevent climate action.

ExxonMobil, for example, generated $32.5 billion in revenue in 2014 by extracting and selling oil and gas, and recently made clear that it intends to continue doing so without limit, explaining that serious emissions cuts from the world’s governments are “highly unlikely.” Dirty energy giants like Exxon and Koch Industries have spent millions funding conservative think tanks and their climate denial campaigns, and they’ve had a considerable impact—especially in the United States, where 72 percent of Senate Republicans don’t “believe” in the science.

There’s the fossil-funded deceit, and then there’s the lobbying. Shell successfully pushed to weaken European renewable energy targets in 2014, for example, while the coal lobby in Australia has undermined climate policy for many years. In 2008, the year Barack Obama took office in the US, oil and gas companies spent a combined $135 million lobbying in Washington DC; in 2014, it was $141 million. Revealingly, their lobbying peaked around $175 million in 2009, the year of the failed climate agreement in Copenhagen.

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