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The Climate Crisis: Ignored By Trump, Greenwashed by Big Oil

President Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the White House, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is right of the President. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the White House, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is right of the President. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

"Climate change will not be on the agenda."

That’s the note White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney added to his announcement that the 2020 meeting of the G7 nations would be held at the Trump Doral Resort in Miami next June.

The ethical blunder of hosting the gathering at the president's property overshadowed the irony of dodging the climate crisis in a city that just declared a climate emergency. And although the president was shamed into a quick reversal of his decision on the meeting venue, he gave no indication that he'd changed his stance on discussing climate issues.

Since the uplift from September's student climate strikes led by Greta Thunberg, optimism on the climate front has deflated. Mulvaney's heads-up on the G7 agenda was just the latest in a series of disheartening developments related to the climate and the world's energy future.

In the Democratic presidential contenders' most recent debate — moderated by CNN and the New York Times — the panel did not deign to pose a single question on the climate crisis. The failure to ask about climate sent the completely wrong message, implicitly attenuating the public's perception of the issue's urgency and importance.

Impeachment may be the most salient topic of the day, but the candidates' multi-trillion-dollar climate proposals would radically transform the nation's economy and infrastructure. Under what rationale can that be ignored? As former presidential candidate Jay Inslee tweeted, "This is the existential crisis of our time. Not one single question, and that's completely inexcusable."

There was more bad news for the climate buried beneath the headlines, such as the Reuters interview with Ben van Beurden, the CEO of Shell Oil. Van Beurden unapologetically voiced his commitment to the corporation's shareholders to grow its core business in fossil fuels in the coming decades. The article quotes him saying, "it is entirely legitimate to invest in oil and gas because the world demands it." By 2025, Shell expects to develop 35 new oil and gas fields.

Consider what this CEO is saying. Because the global market demands a product it sells, Shell sees itself justified not only in providing that product, but in aggressively expanding the supply of the product as well. It portrays the corporation heroically fulfilling the needs of a world starved for energy.

The analogy to the tobacco industry, which profits from the sale of addictive carcinogens because there's a market for them, may be apt yet doesn't capture the scale of the menace presented by burning escalating amounts of fossil fuels. Tobacco may be an enormous hazard to public health, but it doesn't threaten to melt the Antarctic ice sheets and undermine the global ecosystems on which human civilization is built.

Shell's outlook would be less troubling if it were unique. It's not.

An article in the New York Times earlier this month featured comments on the future energy landscape from a number of leaders of multinational oil and gas companies, including Chevron, BP, Total and Suncor. They all acknowledge the need to reduce carbon emissions. They all advocate more investment in renewable energy.

[Oil companies are] doing all they can to sustain their high-profit status quo, and protecting the climate is an afterthought, at best.

And yet, it's evident that these executives are desperately spinning the narrative that the world must continue to exploit fossil fuels indefinitely. A common talking point is that cheap oil and gas are the best energy sources to meet the needs of growing populations in the developing world, despite the plunging costs of solar, wind and battery storage. They are quick to mention that they're reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their extraction operations, including from dirty oil sands, as if they deserve praise for producing a deadly product more safely. And they are all very bullish on natural gas, promoting it as a "low-carbon" and "cleaner" option.

All of that amounts to greenwash. Behind the public posturing, these companies spend millions to secure favorable government energy policies. These are the same corporations that are fighting against electric vehicles and opposing stricter fuel economy standards. They are doing all they can to sustain their high-profit status quo, and protecting the climate is an afterthought, at best.

If the giant fossil fuel corporations succeed in their vision to keep the world dependent on oil and gas for a few more decades, we can be confident that the planet will breach thresholds of instability, and the consequences will make life difficult, if not unbearable, for billions of people.

Mick Mulvaney says the climate crisis won't be on the G7's agenda next June. And President Trump has not wavered in his obtuse denial of the scientific evidence. That's just fine with ExxonMobil and the other fossil fuel giants. For the rest of us, it's another reason to do everything possible to change the nation's course on climate policy.

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Frederick Hewett Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Frederick Hewett is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. He writes about energy, climate, politics and Boston.

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