Blaming the fossil fuel companies for climate change is not helping

18 July 2017

Oil rig

A new report by CDP has generated a rash of headlines concluding “These 100 Companies Are Responsible for Most of the World’s Carbon Emissions.” The 100 companies are, of course, oil companies. 

The report has calculated the contribution to carbon emissions made by the quantity of fossil fuels that each has historically extracted going back all the way to 1850. 71% of historical emissions, according to that exercise, lies at the feet of the 100 companies in question.

It plays well to the “Us vs Them” perspective. Unsurprisingly therefore, the resulting news stories have been significantly retweeted by every eco-warrior out there.

To be fair, the CDP report itself is fairly measured in its language. It doesn’t talk per se about blame, and its key observation is that “fossil fuel extraction companies will need to plan their future in the context of a radical transformation of the global energy system.” For me, that’s the right tone. It says that a transformation is necessarily coming, and that these important companies will have a highly influential role to play.

But that sober assessment is not for the headline writers, obviously. The reports are all about blame. These companies have made obscene historical profits, the argument goes. And in so doing, they’ve screwed up the planet for all of us. “Thanks guys,” one writer sarcastically begins his piece.

I’ve said before that if we fail to address climate change, we will tip over the abyss pointing fingers at each other in mutual recrimination as we go. And this is exactly what that looks like.

No, the oil companies are not responsible for 71% of emissions. Their existence doesn’t mean we get to enjoy the benefits of those fossil fuels and absolve ourselves of the shared responsibility to deal with the consequences.

Solutions that are about dividing people and casting blame are not solutions. They offer a strategy doomed to failure.

Let’s be clear. Over the last two centuries, some truly amazing things have happened. We have expanded as a species to massive numbers - way beyond the carrying capacity of the natural environment if we hadn’t developed technology to support us. Quality of life, and length of healthy life has increased massively. Absolute poverty worldwide has fallen significantly, and we are making progress against a range of other measures to make life better for billions of people.

The availability of a high calorific, relatively cheap, energy source has been the driver for much of that progress. If you want to hold the companies responsible for the emissions, then you should give them credit for the benefits as well. But of course, they were simply the enablers - providing the resource that we wanted and needed to make that progress (along with our fair share of mistakes as well, of course).

Now we know that our aggregate activities are having an impact that threatens our continued progress, and we have to change how we provide for that quality of life. As a species, we know enough about our own neurological functions to understand that we’re really poor at dealing with bad news that requires changing habits. I mean, look at your own life to find plenty of examples. Most men (like me) know that once you pass the age of 50 you should get regularly checked for things like prostate cancer. But we don’t, because we don’t want to face even the possibility there could be such a problem when we otherwise feel so fit and healthy. We’re all prone to similar behaviour patterns, whether your thing is smoking, or obesity, or speeding, or self-harm, or so many other things.

So when the CDP and campaigners say that the oil companies should have known from 1988 onwards that fossil fuels were a problem, and they should then have started dealing with the implications, they’re suggesting that these massive companies with a huge stake in the status quo should have dealt with that in a speedy and wise manner beyond anything that we ever manage to achieve individually in our own lives. And to do so when society as a whole still insisted (and largely still insists, although the change is now finally taking place) that it wanted those fuels and all the benefits they bring.

Let’s take some collective responsibility here. We have all benefited to a large extent  from the progress we have made since 1850. We, collectively, as a society and as an economy, need to work out how to survive the consequences of the immense scale of the human race on the face of a finite planet. It is a shared problem. It will only be solved by us working together - the political left and right, businesses and wider society. Each brings a potential part of the solution. People that think we will only achieve sustainability by electing left-wing, or right-wing, parties are part of the problem. Because if it’s not both, it’s not going to work for the long-term. People that think we will achieve sustainability by ‘defeating’ the big companies and replacing them with - what? They are part of the problem, because we need the companies to come up with aspirational solutions and innovation that the broader public will accept.

Because, you know, if the electric car of the future drove like a milk float nobody would want it. Make it a Tesla, then before you know it the rest of the industry is following.

And that’s the point. The people that want to point fingers and blame the oil companies for emissions are showing that they are completely blind to the human progress that cheap energy has brought us. They are putting themselves in the position of arguing the hair-shirt vision of sustainability that no-one will buy, no-one will vote for, and ultimately will lead to failure for us all if that’s what people think sustainability is about.

Solutions that are about dividing people and casting blame are not solutions. They offer a strategy doomed to failure.

Yes, there are people fighting change - there will always be people fighting change. The question is whether you see them as enemies to be defeated, or allies who just don’t yet realise it. Your approach to dealing with them is radically different depending on the answer to that question.


ps. If you've been reading my stuff for a while, and paying attention, you'll spot I've written on this topic before, two years ago in fact. For completeness, here's the link. Why demonising the fossil fuel companies is wrong. I'm not optimistic the same case will no longer be relevant in two years time.