• Pete Setabandhu

Why are we holding the wrong people accountable for climate change?

Image Source: Valdemaras D. - used with permission under CC0 license

If you question what has been done to thwart environmental problems like climate change, deforestation, ocean acidification, air/water/land pollution, and more in the past few decades, you would hear about our advancement towards renewable energy, improvements in waste management, easier access to sustainable transportation, the increase of protected areas, and so on.

Nonetheless, global mean temperatures are still rising, sea levels are still rising, and more and more species are still going extinct. While we have worked relentlessly, it seems like our problems still prevail - and the earth ever more desperate.

Leaders and activists continue to call for people to reduce their climate footprints by conserving energy, reducing waste, flying less, and eating less meat.

The thing is, if you look at a graph of contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, the things we supposedly need to work on do not have that much of an impact. In 2020, 10.9% of greenhouse gas emissions came from the energy produced for residential buildings, 3.2% from landfills and wastewater, 1.7% from aviation, and 5.8% from livestock and manure [1] [2].

In reality, transnational corporations like those in the fossil fuel industry are much larger contributors to greenhouse gas emissions - the largest of any industry. As of 2015, the fossil fuel industry accounted for a colossal 91% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions and over 70% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions [3].

So how come nobody is calling for these companies to do anything?

Image Source: Pixabay - used with permission under CC0 license

We need environmental honesty

A 2018 dataset [4] [5] showed that a third of the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions - equivalent to 493 billion tonnes since 1965 - can be traced to just 20 fossil fuel companies (dubbed the “Carbon Majors”). Of those, the top 3 contributors are Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia), Chevron (USA), and ExxonMobil (USA). Regardless of the ever-increasing awareness and action for climate change, the actions of fossil fuel companies have largely gone unregulated and unnoticed, and continue to pollute the environment in record amounts every year.

Image Source: The Climate Accountability Institute [4]

In the same way the tobacco industry manipulated research on the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes, the fossil fuel industry obfuscated evidence showing the effects of climate change on the environment, even years before most of the public had even been made aware of the term climate change [6].

In 1977, senior scientist James Black presented his preliminary findings to ExxonMobil’s management committee - that the emission of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels would warm the planet and eventually endanger humanity. In 1978, he presented an updated version of his findings to Exxon managers and scientists, warning them that researchers estimated a coupling of carbon dioxide concentrations would result in an average global temperature increase of 2-3 °C.

In the year following the presentation, Exxon launched a carbon dioxide research program to investigate how quickly the oceans could absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide and to assess how large of a threat climate change was to their business. Scientists and mathematicians were hired to develop more accurate climate models, and their findings were published in peer-reviewed articles. Over $1 million and 3 years later, at the end of the 1980s, they curtailed the project - but not before they could confirm that global warming was real, and could even be worse than Black first predicted.

The Esso Atlantic tanker, where Exxon’s climate research project took place between 1979 and 1982.

Image Source: InsideClimateNews [7]

In 1982, a corporate primer marked “not to be distributed externally” was circulated to Exxon management, informing them that slowing and stopping global warming would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion and that the effects of global warming may be irreversible. In 1989, the Global Climate Coalition was co-founded by Exxon, a lobbying group seeking to oppose regulation mitigating climate change and the science behind global warming - regardless of what they discovered themselves just a decade earlier.

Over the next decades, they continued to lobby and greenwash with the intent of manufacturing doubt and confusing public opinion on climate change, downplay fossil fuel giants’ contributions to climate change, and block federal and international action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Woefully, much of this misinformation still stands to this day.

There is a simple reason to why they have been able to continue - money. The oil business, however environmentally damaging, has allowed top executives to make shedloads and even more to be spent on donations and lobbying, all to prevent anyone from stopping them. During the 2017-2018 midterm election cycle, $265,773,915 was spent on lobbying, with an additional $93,392,002 spent in donations to various candidates, parties, and other groups [8], for a total of almost $360 million. Meanwhile, just $26,204,224 was invested in renewable energy [8] - roughly 0.01% of ExxonMobil’s 2018 operating budget. That very year, ExxonMobil’s CEO Darren Woods’ pay was raised to $17.5 million.

Because of this far-reaching influence (some would call it a plutocracy), big oil companies like ExxonMobil have been left with little restrictions and little incentive to do better. Through the obfuscation of research, corporate lobbying, and mass disinformation and greenwashing campaigns, these corporations have shifted the blame onto the individual, leaving us scrambling to fix what they continue to create.

We need role models

Large companies that are investing substantial effort and money into environmental sustainability are far and few between, but when there is, everyone has a chance to benefit. In this regard, some of the top role models of the big corporations are Apple and IKEA.

A wind farm, the energy output (200 megawatts) of which powers an Apple data center in Prineville, Oregon.

Image Source: Apple [9]

Apple is already carbon neutral for their global corporate operations and has pledged to go 100% carbon neutral (including all products, services, and supply chains) by 2030 [9]. Their new M1 chips are many times more energy-efficient than the older, less energy-efficient Intel chips, and their manufacturing processes have been refined to harvest more usable materials from recycled products, and use more recycled materials in the production of new ones.

Image Source: IKEA [10]

Already in effect at IKEA is their IWAY supplier code of conduct, ensuring good environmental, social, and working conditions, as well as animal welfare. According to IKEA, more than 98% of the wood used in their products today is sourced sustainably, either recycled or FSC-certified. Through their “People & Planet Positive strategy,” IKEA has pledged to become climate positive (reducing greenhouse gas emissions more than what the IKEA supply chain emits), become a circular business, and develop their products to last as long, as healthy, and as sustainable as possible. By 2030, they have pledged to use 100% recycled or renewable materials in their products in addition to accomplishing their people and planet positive strategy [10].

Some may argue that their actions are just for PR, but in the end, the environment legitimately benefits, and the rest of us do too. Besides, it sets a good example for other companies to follow.

We need accountability

Many world leaders have been letting these companies off the hook, without consequences, and until lately without much public attention.

In May of 2019, global carbon emissions surpassed 415 parts per million for the first time since humans have existed. In the Pliocene epoch, which scientists say may be an analog of our future climate, atmospheric CO2 levels reached about 400 parts per million, mean annual surface temperatures were approximately 1.8-3.6 °C warmer than preindustrial temperatures, and sea levels were predicted to be 27 meters higher than they are today [11] - at that level, many cities, including Bangkok, would be deep underwater.

Is that the future we want?

We need to stop thinking that as individuals it is solely our job to stop climate change - a mindset we were conditioned to have through decades of deliberate disinformation. In truth, if fossil fuel corporations continue to operate the way they are doing currently, the rest of us can merely make little impact - their effect on climate change is simply insurmountable. This is not to say we are not responsible as well - we must all do our part, including them.

The rapacity of those making big cash and influence have shoved the environment aside - and we need to give them a reality check.


[1] Our World In Data, https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions

[2] Our World In Data, https://ourworldindata.org/ghg-emissions-by-sector

[3] The Climate Accountability Institute - Carbon Majors Report (2017), https://climateaccountability.org/pdf/CarbonMajorsRpt2017%20Jul17.pdf

[4] The Climate Accountability Institute - Carbon Majors Dataset (2018 data, published 2020), https://climateaccountability.org/carbonmajors_dataset2020.html

[5] The Climate Accountability Institute - Press Release (December 9, 2020)

[6] Neela Banerjee, David Hasemyer, Lisa Song, John H. Cushman - Exxon: The Road Not Taken,

ISBN 1518718671

[7] InsideClimateNews, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/17092015/exxon-believed-deep-dive-into-climate-research-would-protect-its-business/

[8] OpenSecrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/industries./recips.php?ind=E01++

[9] Apple, https://www.apple.com/environment/

[10] IKEA, https://about.ikea.com/en/sustainability

[11] K. D. Burke, J. W. Williams, M. A. Chandler, A. M. Haywood, D. J. Lunt, and B. L. Otto-Bliesner, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, https://www.pnas.org/content/115/52/13288