While 2022 may have been the year when full-scale war returned to Europe for the first time since 1945, with massive spikes in energy prices impacting tens of millions of households, it was also a great year for fossil fuel industry war profiteering, as oil companies raked in a record $200 billion in profits in 2022. That works out at around $4 billion a week, every week last year for an industry whose decades of lies and deception have taken us to the brink of a global calamity, as I explored in a piece for TheJournal.ie in early February.
CONSPIRACIES, REAL AND imaginary, come in all shapes and sizes. None however are more real or more dangerous than the vast, decades-long conspiracy by the global energy industry to deceive and mislead us on the existential dangers of fossil fuel burning.
At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, UN secretary-general António Guterres called out the conspirators by name, identifying the fossil fuel industry and its financial backers as “racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival.”
Guterres pointed to a recently published study of internal scientific research produced by oil giant Exxon from 1977-2003. This found beyond doubt that Exxon’s own scientists had understood clearly that continued unmitigated burning of fossil fuels would dangerously destabilise the global climate system in the 21st century. This was in turn communicated to the firm’s senior management and board.
The roots of this deadly deception go back much further. In 1962, a company called Humble Oil, the predecessor to ExxonMobil, ran a magazine advert featuring a huge glacier, headlined: “Each day Humble supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier!”
Three years earlier, physicist Edward Teller told a conference in New York in 1959 that “a temperature rise corresponding to a 10% increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecaps and submerge New York”.
“All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe”, Teller added.
What did science say?
Armed with irrefutable scientific evidence, the industry was faced with a dilemma: the most profitable business in human history was also on track to destroy civilisation. Would it use its vast revenues to diversify into clean energy technologies, or ignore the warnings and plough ahead regardless?
In what is likely to be regarded as the greatest criminal conspiracy in human history, Exxon and other fossil fuel industry leaders not alone suppressed the data, they actually launched a counter-offensive, spending tens of millions of dollars in organised campaigns to spread disinformation, buy politicians and engage in “astroturfing” via setting up phoney pro-industry grassroots groups. They also coordinated smear campaigns against mainstream climate science, all to protect their vast profits and social licence to operate.
Phrases that still swirl around the internet today, and are frequently parroted by “thinkers” on the right, such as “the science isn’t settled”, “CO2 is plant food” or “the climate has always been changing” were all devised by PR firms working for Big Energy and tested on focus groups decades ago.
All the industry had to do was to sell doubt and spread uncertainty, and it had an almost unlimited budget with which to purse this deception.
Record win for oil
As the climate crisis deepens, with global average surface temperatures already 1.2C higher than pre-industrial, the industry fuelling this coming cataclysm is making more money than ever. Shell this week reported that it made $40 billion in profits in 2022, the highest in its 115-year history.
War profiteering as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven a bonanza for the world’s energy companies, whose expertise in global tax law loopholes is also legendary. As energy prices spiked since early last year, tens of millions of people across Europe are struggling to pay sharply increased energy bills this winter as oil company chiefs and shareholders rake in billions.
Last September the EU passed emergency legislation in the form of a windfall tax on “extraordinary” profits being gouged by energy companies. The €1.7 billion that Shell claims to have paid on windfall taxes in the UK and EU represents less than 5% of last year’s profits.
In addition to price gouging, the energy giants are also engaged in highly cynical greenwashing efforts. Shell for instance claims to be spending over €2 billion a year on renewable energy solutions. However, an investigation by NGO Global Witnessrevealed that only around 1.5% of its total investments went on renewable projects. “Shell’s so-called renewable and energy solutions category is pure fiction”, according to Zorka Milin of Global Witness.
A report published last September by InfluenceMap analysed thousands of public communications materials produced by energy companies and identified that 60% of these made specific “green” claims. The five major firms analysed are misrepresenting their primary business operations by “overemphasising energy transition technologies” and green campaigns in their public relations.
The major energy companies continue to spend lavishly on political lobbying and media communication seeking to continue to explore and drill for new oil and gas deposits.
However, the International Energy Agency in 2021 stated unequivocally that oil and gas companies must stop all new exploration and drilling immediately and no new coal-burning plants could be approved in order to have any prospect of avoiding a climate catastrophe.
In psychology, a sociopath is defined as a person who shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. They regularly break the law and show no guilt or remorse for their behaviour. Recent research has linked the psychopathic personality to success in the corporate world.
By this clinical definition, for generations, then the captains of fossil fuel industries and their shareholders have shown such traits. They have long known that what they are doing is not just wrong, but extremely dangerous, but this clearly doesn’t cost them a thought. All that matters to these organisations is the money and the power they accumulate.
Later this month is the closing date for the Texaco Children’s Art competition, an annual opportunity for this dirty, dangerous industry to greenwash its reputation using the very children whose futures it threatens. The same company sponsors sports clubs in an attempt to position itself as caring about the communities the industry’s business model jeopardises.
As the world teeters ever closer towards the climate abyss, driven forward by greed and hubris, what will be our legacy to posterity? The satirist Kurt Vonnegut put it best when he wrote: “Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.”