Time to push fossil fuel sponsorship beyond the Pale

Below, my article, as it appeared in the Irish Times earlier this month. Having had family members as past winners of the Texaco Children’s Art Competition made me leery about taking on writing about this long-running sponsorship, but then I realised part of the formula for corporate sponsorship of events or competitions actually depends on producing feelings of guilt and/or gratitude on the part of us adults. So, with a slightly heavy heart, I put them on hold on this occasion.

THE GLOBAL movement to delegitimise fossil fuels received a boost in recent days with the passage through Dáil Eireann of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill. This historic bill, introduced by Thomas Pringle, TD directs Ireland’s €8 billion Strategic Investment Fund to avoid investments in oil, coal or gas. Ireland is the world’s first country to make such a bold move.

While this decision is by itself unlikely to make even a dent in the trillion dollar hydrocarbon energy business, its real significance is symbolic, sending out a political and economic signal that the fossil fuel industry is to be regarded as a necessary evil, to be tolerated only until viable, safe alternatives can be brought on stream.

While this might sound harsh for an industry that has fuelled the world for the last century and more, in reality, the sector has been the author of its own misfortune. Oil giant Exxon, for example, first became aware of the dangers posed by climate change four decades ago, when its own senior scientists warned the board in 1977 that continued burning of fossil fuels would in time dangerously destabilise the global climate.

Faced with clear evidence of catastrophic future harm from its business model, Exxon did not simply decide to hush up the scientific evidence and keep drilling. It instead teamed up with other industry players and invested millions of dollars in funding doubt and disinformation about climate science in the media, politics and among the general public.

It worked. Simply creating the impression of doubt and controversy was enough to muddy the waters. They followed a playbook pioneered in the 1960s by cigarette manufacturers to downplay the dangers of smoking.

That strategy was hugely successful, shielding vast corporate profits for decades while millions of smokers died of a habit they had been conned into believing was largely harmless. The US government eventually prosecuted the entire industry, culminating in fines totalling over $200 billion in 1998.

The appointment of former Exxon chief, Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state paradoxically underlines the weakness of the hydrocarbon industry and its desperate attempts to hijack the political process to prop up its precarious, reality-denying business model by enabling a reality-denying president.

Mainstream businesses, mindful of their reputations, are slowly backing away from the energy dinosaurs. Danish toymaker Lego at the end of 2014 cancelled an €80 million deal with Shell to distribute their toys at fuel stations. A year later, the UK Science Museum announced that it would not renew a bizarre sponsorship deal with Shell for its climate change exhibition.

Ireland’s longest running sponsorship programme is the Texaco Children’s Art competition, which has operated since 1955 and has undoubtedly done much to promote and encourage young artists over the decades. Entries for this year’s competition close on February 28th.

My then five-year-old daughter was a prizewinner back in 2008 and it was a proud day out for the family. At that time, Texaco was owned by Chevron. Its CEO this week praised the Trump regime’s plans to demolish life-saving environmental regulations.

Texaco Ireland’s new owners, Valero Energy, were rated by the US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in a 2012 report as among the three most “obstructionist” energy corporations on climate change. The UCS found that Valero’s corporate PR was ‘pro-climate’ while its all-important ‘corporate actions’ were strongly anti-climate.

I realise now what I failed to notice in 2008: the real climate radicals are not the handful of eco activists battling impossible odds. The true radicals are in fact fossil fuel companies and their senior executives and shareholders whose science denial and cynical profiteering have taken us to the brink of an unfathomable global catastrophe.

Ignorance of the consequences of their actions is no longer tenable. The hydrocarbon industry has done this knowingly, and continues to collude with rogue politicians and corrupt regimes, from the Middle East to the Niger delta to Washington. Radicals indeed.

For all its history, ultimately the Texaco Children’s Art competition is a clever distraction from the true nature of its sponsors, and an industry’s reckless disregard for the future these same children must face. In hindsight, we as a family were wrong to participate.

Tobacco company PJ Carroll sponsored the GAA All Stars until 1978. Who today would find a tobacco firm sponsoring a sporting event or children’s competition acceptable? We as individuals may feel powerless, even complicit. After all, so many aspects of our lives, from home heating to transport, depend on these same fuels.

Yet, despite the industry’s tireless lobbying efforts, change is possible. Passive house technology for new homes is already here, while retrofitting would save billions in imported fuel costs. A national electric fleet is set to break our dependence on liquid fuels for public and private transport and lead to cleaner, safer air. The missing ingredient is political will.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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