The oil, natural gas, and coal industries once were heroes of the industrialized world. Without them, many of the world’s people would not have the quality of life they enjoy today.
But the industry is not a hero now. Instead, Big Oil (including natural gas) meets the definition of a criminal enterprise. In the second-biggest source of fossil fuel pollution, the United States, the industry has created a racket. Its members sit in Congress and business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Their greed is literally threatening life on Earth.
The industry's transformation from hero to villain began the moment its scientists confirmed that the combustion of fossil fuels was causing the world's climate to become increasingly violent. The well-documented response of corporate executives in the U.S. was to cover up that knowledge and, once it leaked out, discredit it with a multi-million-dollar disinformation campaign.
Now, at least 26 states and municipalities have sued the largest oil companies for damages. ExxonMobil is usually named in the cases, but there are many companies in the racket. The state of Rhode Island has sued 21 fossil fuel companies for current and future damages from sea-level rise, record floods, extreme rains, and drought.
In 2021, all 197 nations agreed to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. The watchdog Net Zero Tracker counts 133 countries with net-zero targets so far. But those that still subsidize fossil fuels, including the U.S. and the rest of the G20, are effectively members of a global carbon cartel, technically defined as collusion among partners to dominate markets and increase profits.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), worldwide fossil energy subsidies for consumers and producers totaled nearly $6 trillion in 2020, including social and environmental damages. State and federal government subsidies in the U.S. are usually said to be about $20 billion, but the IMF says they actually will be nearly $790 billion this year and $824 billion in 2025 when they include social and environmental costs. The cartel has been successful so far. Fossil fuels still provide 80 percent of the energy in the U.S. and worldwide. Some of the world's leading scientists say it's time to get serious about engineering nature because our efforts to stop fossil fuel pollution are not aggressive enough. The options would influence the Earth's carbon cycle or control how much sunlight reaches its surface without fully understanding possible unintended consequences.
So, what did the co-conspirators know, and when did they know it? And what would the consequences be if we don't stop fossil-fuel pollution?
Scientists identified a connection between fossil-fuel emissions and climate change in the late 1880s. President Lyndon Johnson's science advisors warned him about it in 1964. One of the world's leading experts, Dr. James Hansen, told Congress in 1988 that climate change had begun.
The same year, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to monitor the work of climate scientists around the world. Countries signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, establishing a negotiating process to determine how they would cooperate to prevent climate change. In 2015, 196 nations and the European Union agreed in Paris to cap global warming.
When countries met in Egypt to check on progress last November, 636 fossil-fuel lobbyists registered to attend. As the Guardian reported, the delegation's size led to suspicions that the industry intended to "slow progress rather than discuss limiting their own industries." The suspicions were correct. Oil lobbyists helped defeat a proposal to set a worldwide deadline for ending the use of fossil fuels.
No one thinks decarbonization will be easy. One analyst writes that climate change is a "wicked problem, affecting every part of our ecology and economy, defying all easy solutions, and requiring a level of collective action, we haven't yet been able to achieve." But it’s unlikely the world will make sufficient progress so long as the carbon cartel undermines public confidence in climate science and interferences with the delicate diplomacy necessary for sovereign nations to work together.
A coalition of civil society groups made this point after the Egypt conference. It wrote to UN officials that international collaboration would not make meaningful progress “as long as polluting interests are granted unmitigated access to policymaking processes and are allowed to unduly influence and weaken the critical work of the UNFCCC."
What would be the cost of failing to end CO2 pollution? The UN warns climate change is about to get much worse. Summing up a UN report issued last year, the Guardian explained that warming is "likely going to make the world sicker, hungrier, poorer, gloomier and way more dangerous in the next 18 years with an 'unavoidable' increase in risks." More specifically, the report said:
Even a slight increase in the Earth's surface temperature will subject the world regularly to 127 adverse consequences for human and planetary health. Some changes will be irreversible.
With that sight increase, today's children alive in the year 2100 will experience four times more climate extremes than they do now.
If temperatures rise by nearly two more degrees Celsius, people will experience five times the floods, storms, drought, and heat waves.
More people will die yearly due to heat waves, diseases, extreme weather, air pollution, and starvation. Billions of the world's people will be at risk, and damages will be in the trillions of dollars.
Some parts of the world, including land and oceans, will be uninhabitable for other species and ours. Biodiversity will suffer.
These dire predictions, along with others the UN has issued over the last 30 years, read like a plea for help in getting countries to defect from the carbon cartel. One response has been in the courts. In the most notable lawsuit of recent years, Juliana v. United States, 21 children, and young adults sued the U.S. government in 2015 for facilitating fossil energy production and violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. Unfortunately, the Biden administration is trying to keep the case from going to trial.
In related developments, more than 30 U.S. localities recognize the rights of nature. In other countries, citizens have filed lawsuits to establish that nature has intrinsic value and an inherent right to exist. Another global movement would outlaw ecocide, defined as severe environmental destruction. The constitutions in three U.S. states – Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania –include rights to a healthy environment; at least nine states reportedly are considering it this year.
These "Earth guardians" are in a race with the carbon cartel on behalf of us all. It could not be more critical. Scientists say most coal, oil, and natural gas reserves must remain in the ground to achieve the goals of the Paris Accord, but the cartel has no intention of complying. As a result, global CO2 emissions reached a new high in 2022 and continue to rise. Tipping points – when emissions trigger irreversible catastrophic impacts – are getting closer. Yet several zero-carbon resources like sunlight and wind provide less expensive power than any of the fossil fuels.
This profit-oriented march to disaster is happening because we do not hold the carbon cartel to account. That must change, and soon. If people worldwide fully understood what was at stake, they would take to the streets and use every legal weapon in their arsenals until they forced fossil fuels out of the global economy.