Executives at ExxonMobil knew the risks to the environment from CO2. Yet they misled the public, calling the science into question. The fact we knew it all along does not dilute the pain of the betrayal.
On my eighteenth birthday I hooked up with my girlfriend at a local tennis tournament. We weren’t a good match (ha!). For years a worm in my belly had been whispering that we shouldn't have been together, but I’d doggedly ignored its voice.
I hadn’t been there two minutes when she took off somewhere — I assumed to retrieve my gift. Half an hour later she had not returned and I began to think something was up. Eventually, I wandered home alone, monumentally miffed.
It was a typical Australian summer’s day, so I took the swamp route. Waterbirds speared the grass about my feet, gobbling up the deadly spiders as they thronged fang-first for my flesh. Falcons swept from the sky, clearing away the snakes, while mosquitoes tattooed my neck with my own blood.
Aah, the peace and harmony of nature…
Movement in the undergrowth caught my eye. Twinned shapes twisted and rolled. I thought for a moment of the geese that nested in those parts and I took a silent step sideways to improve the view.
Lo and behold, there was my truant sweetheart wrapped in another’s embrace. The cad was one of my teachers and, evidently, one of hers. She seemed to be learning quite a lot.
‘Happy birthday, AJ!’ she called.
Well, okay, she wasn’t quite that callous. To this day I don’t think she noticed that I noticed.
Fair enough. She was busy.
And so, just as truth met reality between sets of the Under 18s round robin, we meet the theme of this article. Yeah, we shouldn’t have been together. The fact I knew it did nothing to dilute the pain.
Inside Climate News has revealed that executives at ExxonMobil deliberately misled the public about the perils of CO2 emissions. Financial records, emails and the research of the company’s own scientists tell a sorry tale of what they knew and how it differed from what they told us.
The New York Attorney-General’s Office has opened an investigation and prosecution is expected to follow under the Martin Act. To gain a conviction the state must prove a company deceived the public by misrepresenting or omitting a material fact in the offering of securities.
It’s clear that Exxon’s scientists briefed executives on the risks of CO2 and that they chose to spread disinformation in response. For instance, one memo admits that ‘fossil fuels contribute most of the CO2’ causing global warming, while another declares that the company would ‘emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions’ in public. Between 1998 and 2005 the company contributed around $16 million to organizations committed to creating the impression of scientific debate where there was none.
Of course, we knew it all along. The scientists were right about tobacco and they’re right about CO2 emissions. That we can’t trust vested interests is hardly revelatory, but that doesn’t make Exxon’s betrayal easier to accept.
We may be living with the ramifications of twenty-five years of manufactured doubt for years to come. Disturbingly, GOP candidates for President, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, all spout misinformation produced by ExxonMobil as if it were fact.
That candidates should disregard evidence for an ideological position does not bode well. Just imagine President Trumpet galumphing up to COP21 to bluster that this global-warming malarkey is nothin’ but a hoax…
Lord, save us.
In the build up to COP21, religious leaders have come out in support of action on climate change. Of course, not every religion shares the faith.
One early autumn evening in Melbourne, when the chill was still novel enough to brave a backyard barbecue, my associates assembled for a bender. It was a troubled, not-altogether hygienic bunch who rallied their inner beasts for revelry that Saturday.
The partying progressed along productive lines until Toddy the dog-breeder took offence at something somebody said. A tad touchy was Toddy. Dog breeding is a crooked game and, knowing that, players tend to be wound tight.
The offendee dealt out a hammer-blow that crumpled the offender like an aluminium can. Immediately, a rough-head firebrand leapt to the can’s defence, barbarian eyes burning wild and wasted. Toddy flipped the pretender head over tail, then drove knee into midriff with a sound like a puncturing tire.
Then the men stepped in. One produced a length of two-by-four and swatted Toddy to the skull. It would have knocked me cold, but Toddy merely dipped a little and sprang back into place like a button. She turned on her assailant, tore the weapon from his hand and walloped him with it, sending him reeling, hands pinned to a broken nose.
I can’t recall exactly what happened next, only that it lacked dignity, but we ended up bruised, bloodied and bunkered inside, cowering with cops on the way. As her boyfriend tried to calm her down, talking through the bleeding, Toddy prowled the backyard like a Doberman.
Perhaps it sweetly illustrates the caliber of the people I was among that some wag, disgruntled at the turn his evening had taken, ripped open the door and bellowed into the wilderness, “Party pooper!”
And thus, just as a length of two-be-four connected with Toddy’s skull, we connect with the theme of this article: No matter how hot the party, some people just have to pour cold water on it.
In September 2015 Pope Francis addressed the UN, cautioning against the “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity.” He warned that man “can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favorable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”
Thank God for Pope Francis. He’s one of those stalwart optimists all good parties need — the charismatic chat-smith entrenched next the heater, radiating good cheer even while the barrels run dry.
And thank God for the Dalai Lama, too. He and other Buddhist leaders have signed a statement urging the use of wisdom and compassion in reaching agreement at COP21. What an elevating presence he is, bringing to mind one of those impish pranksters who buzz about shoving firecrackers into peoples’ pockets. Sister Chan Khong, another eminent Buddhist, says, “We must take action, not out of a sense of duty but out of love for our planet and for each other.”
Leaders of the evangelical movement, also, have made clear their views. John MacArthur of Grace Community Mega-Church in LA says, “The environmental movement is consumed with trying to preserve the planet forever. But we know that isn’t in God’s plan…I’ve told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it.”
Don’t rely on him to bring the melon balls, then.
On the bright side, if the nut-jobs are the only ones resisting action on climate change, clearly there is hope. As more and more leaders of wisdom and compassion come to the party, it seems more and more likely COP21 will succeed.
In a best-forgotten epoch of life, I escorted a blond uptown for a high-end version of a down-market dish, fish n’ chips. I had expected to pay but not to spend the rent. One dead sea-creature and chips stiffed me for seventy smackers. I don’t remember what she ordered, only that it stiffed me for significantly more, of course.
Up there among the bright and beautiful, spirits were soaring. This was the late nineties, and all about us the benefactors of Internet IPOs were celebrating with the abandon of those who believe they deserve it.
Unfortunately, at our little airstrip the plane couldn’t get off the ground. Time and again the blond would angle her head and frown at my witticisms as if they did about as much for her as cancer.
Then, suddenly, she burst into life. Had I somehow unknowingly done something right?
No. I hadn’t.
Who had was a table of chisel-jawed financial types with the glint of Audi key-chains in their eyes. Clearly, the blond and the money-boys were buds, and she took off to reconnect. Laughter and joy erupted. By the time she returned, her chips had hardened.
I signed the mortgage and we left. At my offer of a ride she claimed to need exercise. At my promise to call, her head exercised a refusal so brutal it sent me spiraling backward into the gutter. My shoes filled with stormwater, and the blond skipped off in the direction from which we’d come.
Later, with my socks drying on the radiator, I poured my heart out to my best mate, a big-bearded sage known as ’Zin (short for Ama-zin’). As he emitted a sympathetic Om, I confessed disappointment that the woman I’d thought of as my soul-mate, my wings on the flight to fame, fortune and … other things beginning with f … had wielded the ejector seat.
And that’s when he uttered the most profound question ever asked of me, anyone has. “AJ,” he said. “What did you expect?”
And so, just as fantasy met reality over one hundred and sixty dollars worth of deep fried fat, we encounter the theme of this article: Be wary of expectations.
This December, heads of government meet in Paris to discuss action to tackle climate change. Previous attempts, Kyoto and Copenhagen, achieved not much.
News in the run-up has been positive. The EU’s climate-change big-wig, Miguel Arias Cañete, is astonished at the positive progress. “There are many, many reasons to be cheerful,” he says. One hundred and forty-nine reasons, apparently. That’s how many countries have bought tickets to ride the “finally-do-something” balloon.
Even the captains of carbon are jumping onboard. The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative represents ten of the world’s biggest oil companies. “Our shared ambition is for a 2C future,” the CEOs say. “Over the coming years we will collectively strengthen our actions and investments to contribute to reducing the greenhouse gas intensity of the global energy mix.”
Patrick Pouyanne, of Total, says, “Sometimes in all these discussions you have the impression that all fossil fuels are the bad guys.”
In the year since the EPA proposed new regulations on emissions from power plants, the fossil fuel lobby in the US alone spent 502 million bucks fighting action on climate change. What impressions should we have from that?
Leopards. Spots. Change. Don’t.
The captains of carbon are serving us smiles while hijacking the plane. Paris looks like being a success, but if these people are involved it would be wise not to get our hopes up.
Duplicitous. Behavior. Expectations. Meeting.
Once upon a whim, I tossed a burning match into the clothes dryer. Nothing much happened. When I reached inside to retrieve the spent stick, a wisp of chemically stinky smoke coiled out. But that was it. On the whole, it was a non-event.
Or so I thought.
Later that morn, my mother summoned her delinquent horde. She loomed above us like a judge, one hand on hip, the other clutching a plastic lattice-thingy all drooping and blackened from exposure to heat - Exhibit A, the filter from her dryer. She wished to know whodunnit.
Each of us shook our heads, I thought with equal innocence. But soon all eyes converged upon me. Perhaps the shaking of my head had been less convincing than the trembling of my knees, or perhaps it was the stench of conscience steaming from my body and the expression of imminent puking upon my marble-white face.
Initially, Mum just wanted me to realize it had been dangerous and therefore dumb. But then I pushed the big red button.
It wasn’t me, I said. It wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t.
A cataclysm materialized on the heels of those five boldfaced lies. As the truth erupted around me, I collapsed into a quivering rubble of tears.
And so, just as confrontation with the evidence exposed my guilt, confrontation with clarity exposes the theme of this article. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Best simply to own up and get on with life.
Back in 1953, confronted with evidence that its product was killing people, the tobacco industry hired a public relations firm. As they would. More than forty years on, the heads of big tobacco were still propagating the illusion that the science was inconclusive. Did smoking cause cancer? Well, would come the answer, we just don’t know…
The PR strategy was to manufacture doubt. It worked so well that other questionable industries began dipping into the same bag of tricks. Asbestos, Fire Retardants and Fossil Fuels have since deceived us in the same way, and with similar success.
One tried and tested dodge works just like the Three-card Monte. In this classic con, a dealer enlists apparently independent people called shills to convince a mark to bet. The shills appear to win, so the mark believes they can too. The appearance of legitimacy is key.
In terms of fossil fuels, it means that we encounter “expert” representatives of think tanks and “citizen groups” saying things like, “The scientific evidence does not support the notion that humans are causing a global warming crisis” or “There’s no scientific basis for alarm” or, irony of ironies, “Climate scientists have a political agenda and they’re using science to drive that agenda.”
The claim to expertise drives the deception. Doubt is the product. The goal is to delay action.
Is there any doubt among scientists? Well, no. An examination of every paper published between 1992 and 2002 which included “global climate change” as a keyword phrase revealed that all nine-hundred and twenty-eight agreed that global warming is a consequence of human activity.
Not one disagreed. That’s zilch. Diddly. And that was thirteen years ago.
The captains of carbon are wrong and they know it. They’re using shills to project the appearance of legitimacy while conning as much as they can from the marks.
They lack the maturity to own up. The question is what to do about it. Well, as magician Jamy Swiss points out, “a trick revealed is never concealed,” so find out how the illusion works and confront them.
Watch Merchants of Doubt: takepart.com/doubt.
Geir Lundestad was Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute from 1990 to 2014. Now he has a book to spruik, and he’s been doing the rounds of the media, serving up the publishing business’s equivalent of supermarket tastings. For me, it’s been a bit like shopping at Costco, which - American readers will be happily aware - is a canny route to a free lunch.
In 1994 the Nobel Peace Prize went to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. The situation could easily have deteriorated into farce, but, fortunately, the three men got along. The team on the award committee didn’t gel nearly so well, with one member taking his bat and ball and storming off in protest.
The evening of the award banquet, Mr Lundestad trooped over to the Arafats’ suite to escort the couple to the do. They weren’t quite ready, and Yasser’s wife, Suha, asked Geir to wait a few minutes as he’d caught them smack bang in the midst of their favorite activity.
So Geir went into the living room to bide his time, only to find Yasser chilling on the couch, watching an episode of Tom and Jerry, his favourite cartoon. “It was made very clear that they intended to watch until the end,” Lundestad says.
And so, just as Tom met the sharp edge of Jerry’s ingenuity, no doubt much to Yasser and Suha’s delight, we meet the theme of this article. People do the most surprising things.
I was certainly surprised to learn that Bryony Worthington, professional climate and energy analyst, formerly of Friends of the Earth and current UK shadow energy minister, supports the development of a fracking industry.
“We have to be realistic. We are going to be using gas for a long time because of the huge role it plays for heating homes and for industry,” she says. To be sure, she insists development should go ahead only if emissions are captured and stored.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is the system of bagging-up carbon and forcing it into rocks underground. It’s the environmental equivalent of sweeping the dirt under the carpet, allowing the captains of carbon to go on trashing the house until they’ve wrung every last dollar from fossil fuels.
The way people talk about CCS, you’d think it a. works, b. is economically viable and c. cheaper than renewables, each of which d. ain’t true. Friends of the Earth’s director, Craig Bennett, says, “Betting everything on carbon capture and storage is highly risky… It’s increasingly looking like a pipe dream.”
I’m sure he’s right - but why should we believe him? Friends of the Earth have a serious credibility problem thanks to Bryony Worthington. Here’s a prominent environmentalist advocating massive public investment in a high-carbon future when the science is clear that most of the world’s fossil fuels must remain unburned if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. If anyone should be aware of the facts, it is the Baroness.
Is it coincidence that this is happening just as the UK government is cutting investment in renewable projects? I don’t know, but I suspect that the serious coal and gas dollars invested of late in lobbying US governments are being matched across the pond.
Perhaps the captains of carbon are playing the shadow minister for a fool, working the levers of power, discrediting the environmental movement in the process and laughing all the way to the Bahamas.
Is that paranoid? Maybe. But if Yasser Arafat would rather watch Tom and Jerry than attend the Nobel Prize banquet, I’d say pretty much anything is possible.
When I was a boy, my dad would sometimes take me sailing. He regularly crewed the boat of a friend, a man who will forever live large in my imagination for his custom of wearing a pair of underpants on his head as a hat.
A man like that deserves to live large in everyone’s imagination.
After spending the afternoon hurling my lunch over the side, the adventure would conclude - as all maritime adventures must - in the pub. The men would order a beer each, a lemon squash and aspirin for me, and one of them would tear open a packet of chips in such a way that everyone could share. Then they’d crap on about stuff that adult males crap on about.
An enduring subject of discussion was the owner of the establishment, a stout lady of hair-trigger temperament with masses of curly blond locks. Boy, how it tickled my funny bone to hear her referred to (affectionately, to be sure) as Miss Piggy.
Lacking the filter adults use to differentiate between things to blurt and things best unblurted, I relayed my enthusiasm for the nickname to Pig-minor, a lad at my school, three years older and an order of magnitude bigger and meaner than I, the runt of my grade.
Take it for granted that it hurt a lot when he poleaxed my jaw.
Fair enough. I deserved it.
And thus, just as Pig-little’s fist smashed into my gums, we smash into the subject of this article. Some things are better left unsaid. But should they be said, the speaker must accept responsibility.
Australia’s freshly-culled Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, returned not-so-long ago from a meeting on climate change in PNG where he doubtless floored the crowd with his conviction that “coal is good for humanity” and that the appropriate response to the climate crisis is to dig up everything burnable and convert it into CO2 ASAP.
At the same meeting, low-lying Pacific island nations called for a global moratorium on new coal mines. How they must shake their heads at Australia in disbelief and despair… Or perhaps their fists.
Abbot and his colleagues couldn’t give a monkey’s. In fact, they’re cracking jokes about it. In conversation with the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, the PM noted that the meeting for which they were waiting shared something in common with the meeting in New Guinea. It was slow.
Dutton then remarked, “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.”
I heard a worse joke once, but that had Hitler in it.
Unfortunately for the pair, the microphone dangling above their heads caught the lot.
Of course, the media pounced on Dutton like a tiger upon a wounded gazelle, but his response to the mauling was bloodless: “I had a private conversation with the Prime Minister,” he said. “I don't intend to comment publicly on that.”
His gaff is unlikely to win Australia much support among its neighbors, and it already has precious little of that. A short while back the Abbot government scrapped funding for climate change adaptation programs.
When its neighbors needed it most, Australia cut and run. And now we’re laughing at them.
If only Mr Dutton had said, “Look, I apologize. It was a terrible joke. Even Abbot barely chortled,” he would have at least appeared contrite. But he’s behaving as if he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his actions.
Perhaps what’s best is for one of our islander neighbors to deliver the message Pig-junior style ’cause, far as I can tell, the minister duttongeddit.
Once upon a time, a friend of mine lost her job. It was a good job, and by any measure she was good at it. It wasn’t a difficult job - but then, like all jobs, the difficulties aren’t apparent until you have to cope with them yourself. Only by walking do we discover if the shoe fits.
Her challenges were those of time management. By putting in more hours and upping her work-rate, she masked her problems but did not remedy them. Just as when milk is poured unceasingly into a cup, eventually, inevitably, it must overflow.
And so there came the point when my friend could do no more.
She had three options. Continuing the analogy, the first was to enlarge the cup. But the cup size was fixed. It couldn’t be done. The second was to reduce the flow of milk. That proved not to be fixed but steadily increasing, and could neither be slowed nor stopped. No luck there.
The third option was to acquire another cup - not as large as the original, but large enough to capture the excess. That would keep the process running, at least temporarily. It could be done, but she had no power to authorize the purchase.
And that’s when she made her fatal error. She reached out for help.
Her situation required understanding, an open mind, an ear sensitive to the issues at hand and feet willing to take steps to deal with them. In short, she needed trust.
She found none. Instead, she found abuse.
And thus, just as the spillage from an overfilled cup will stream in rivulets down the cupboards to the floor, we stream into the subject of this rant. When the wrong people are in charge, things can change for the worse very easily.
Such a state of affairs has descended upon the UK. The Tory government has announced plans to cut subsidies for small-scale renewable energy projects. This comes hot on the heels of cuts to large-scale renewable energy projects, announced back in January.
Small-scale projects are those which can be installed on twenty-five acres or less, supplying enough electricity to power about one thousand five hundred homes. They are perfect for smallholdings with unproductive soils.
They are easy on the eye, they don’t poison rivers or dirty the air, and they are healthy places to work. Significantly, they don’t cave in, trapping fathers, sons and brothers underground to await suffocation or starvation.
Not every government is taking the same backward steps. Just look at the Emirates: with GDP from non-oil sectors growing six percent to two hundred and seventy billion in just one quarter, the leaders of the UAE are taking responsibility for the future, preparing for a lower-carbon economy.
They acknowledge both environmental and economic problems, and projects such as Masdar, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park and the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant demonstrate they are prepared to act to solve them.
Perhaps only emerging economies are nimble enough to pull off moves like these, going several directions at once like a newborn calf as they find their feet, building up infrastructure without having to run the gauntlet of vested interests who prey on the vulnerable.
The Captains of Carbon are at it again. Faced with a challenge, they know but one response. Lash out. Choke that baby while it’s still small enough to kill. It’s a shame they can’t see past their fairy-floss egos and learn to love the thing.
But what am I talking about? There’s no telling them how to run their business…
When I was a little fella, summer meant beach, barbecues, sport and sunburn. Each morn, shortly after sun-up, my mother would turn me outdoors stipulating that I was not to be seen again until dinner - although brief interludes for intakes of sandwiches and milk were permitted.
Nary a thought was given to sunscreen, and my northern skin peeled off in freckled flakes the size of crisps. The damage was permanent. Last week, at a complimentary spa treatment, Francis the Facialist tut-tutted in dismay before diving desperately for his cabinet of corrective chemicals. It was hopeless. I left the poor man stretched out exhausted, muttering incoherently, self-medicating with herbal infusions via intravenous drip.
Even in the seventies, climate change was an issue. I learned in grade four that CO2 trapped heat. But what was an eight-year-old to do about it? The lights I used to thwart the night-monsters lurking in our hallways had to draw power from somewhere, and in Australia they drew it from coal. But I wondered why, when the sun was capable of withering an entire nation prune-like, it couldn’t come from there.
Of all renewable energy sources, solar has the greatest potential. To paraphrase a beardy-weirdy from the US DOE, “The theoretical potential of solar power is the integral of the average flux (342.5 W/m2 · (1-0.49) = 174.7 W/m2) over the earth’s surface area = 89,300 TW.”
Exactly what that means, I do not know. Clearly it’s code comprehensible only to beardies. But I’m told it represents more energy in one and a half hours than the total consumed globally per year from all sources combined.
In practice it means the world’s power needs could be met from a carpet of solar panels the size of Venezuela. I know some Venezuelans, and they’d be pretty happy to carpet the country over at the moment. The US’s power needs require only an area the size of either of the Dakotas, and no-one’s going to miss one of those.
In other words, it’s doable. And, believe it or not, it’s happening. More capacity for renewable power is being added each year than coal, natural gas and oil combined.
And that’s great news, but for one glaring problem. If my children went to thwart the monsters in our hallway tonight, solar power couldn’t be of any help, as the sun don’t shine after dark. Seems obvious. To be practical, solar requires storage, and the power industry has never found a cost-effective way to store large volumes of energy for later distribution.
Fortunately, Tesla has. In early May, the electric-car company released a product called Powerwall. Billed merely as a storage solution for the home, in fact the technology heralds a sea-change in the economics of utility-scale power.
Just as the cost of solar is plummeting, so too is the cost of lithium-ion batteries. Tesla is gambling that their battery “gigafactory”, now under construction, will drive the price through the floor, bringing into being cost-effective storage solutions on the scale of utilities.
It works like this: by storing energy during the day and releasing it at night, peak demand is shifted and reduced, bringing down energy bills for industrial consumers.
The math is simple. If the cost of installing, maintaining and using Tesla’s solar-based systems comes to less than the cost of power from traditional hydrocarbon-fired systems, Walmart goes for it and we all win.
The key to averting the climate catastrophe is turning in the lock. Sooner rather than later, the captains of carbon will be shown the door.
It’s not personal. Just good business.