Yes, ExxonMobil Committed “Unparalleled Evil” Yet that Evil Can Distract From Taking Action

By Michael Hoexter

In a series of revelations over the past three months, the Pulitzer Prize winning website Inside Climate News has revealed what may be the greatest crime of the 20th and the 21st Centuries.  Via interviews and archival research, ICN recovered irrefutable evidence that Exxon scientists (and then ExxonMobil) had an extensive climate research program in the late 1970’s and 1980’s and came to the conclusions that fossil fuel use would lead to heating of the atmosphere, a radical change in climate, and would lead very likely to catastrophic consequences.  In the 1980’s, Exxon scientists participated in scientific conferences that explored the role of carbon dioxide in warming and other climatic effects. However, ExxonMobil, once government officials were alerted in 1988 by the broader scientific community that global warming was occurring and was a global crisis, changed course and funded climate denial, delaying and weakening climate action and nascent climate policies.  Exxon’s current CEO, Rex Tillerson, claims that global warming’s effects are exaggerated and won’t be that bad for humanity.  The Los Angeles Times has used some of the same archival material to come to similar conclusions as has ICN.

Bill McKibben, the founder of and one of the leading climate activists has fittingly characterized these actions of ExxonMobil, as “unparalleled evil” in a Guardian op-ed piece.  McKibben points out plausibly that if ExxonMobil hadn’t thrown its substantial political and economic weight behind climate denial, we would have acted sooner and more vigorously to change our energy system.  McKibben imagines a positive role for Exxon in the climate action past and present that “might have been”.  Despite McKibben’s reputation as a harsh critic of the fossil fuel industries, I find it surprising how much he holds onto the idea that they can be “converted” to the cause of helping the fight against global warming.

McKibben, in a solo protest, got himself arrested recently, in front of a gas pump at a Mobil Station in Burlington Vermont near where he lives, holding a sign saying that that gas pump was temporarily closed because “Exxon lied”.

That ICN uncovered one of the greatest corporate crimes or crimes overall of all time is pretty clear:  the continued use of fossil fuels has warmed the planet substantially in the last 25 years and the likelihood of hitting irreversible turning points in warming and negative climate impacts for humanity have greatly increased.  At the point that Exxon started concealing and distorting knowledge of carbon dioxide’s role in the global climate, it had a large share of the scientific resources and data to inform the world of the problem.  The likelihood of climate catastrophe, destruction of human civilization and maybe self-extinction of our species has become uncomfortably high in the intervening years.

The news has not gone unnoticed and some Democratic members of Congress are calling for a criminal investigation into Exxon’s efforts to undermine climate action, even as its leadership knew about the catastrophic impacts of its own and the entire fossil fuel extraction business.  It seems like a wide-ranging case of criminal negligence, racketeering, and reckless endangerment could be built quite successfully if there is political will to do so.  You can sign a petition to call for Exxon to be prosecuted here.

I support such efforts to bring Exxon and other professional climate deniers to justice but at the same time, I see a massive trap for the climate movement in maintaining a central focus on both past and current wrongdoings of the fossil fuel industries.

Anti-Fossil Fuel Company Activism ≠ Climate Activism

As time allows, I have been active for a couple years now in local groups in Northern California that ostensibly are combatting climate change and I also put some effort into publicizing and attended last year’s People’s Climate March in New York.  I have been active politically over a couple of decades in electoral and issue oriented politics and have become, through practice and maybe temperament, used to interacting with people with a wide variety of political views.  After working in energy efficiency and renewable energy and writing about climate change, economics, and technology, I had thought that climate activism on the local level would be, in part, about pressuring for the best or better policies to actually cut our emissions.

However, after being a participant for several years now in grassroots activism on these issues, it appears to me that the stance of blaming fossil fuel companies for our dependence on their products is the default stance of most in the movement.

In that stance and activism are a whole host of illusions about what would be the expected causal chain from various protests or attempted blockades to the net-zero carbon emitting society we require.   Though I did not start there, I have come to the view that the primary focus on the sins of the fossil fuel industries is largely counterproductive as well as ethically questionable.  In my observations, most troublingly, the focus on the wrongdoings of the fossil fuel industry seems to distract activists from pressing for solutions to our overall dependence on fossil fuels.  For instance, it doesn’t occur to local climate activists to press for safe biking and walking infrastructure or better electric public transit, i.e. ways to immediately cut emissions, cut the use of oil, and create more cohesive communities.  That the fossil fuel companies are “worse” than we activists are and are capitalist firms, does not begin to address either the complicity of political figures in keeping our fossil fuel dependence largely intact, as well as our own roles as consumers in enjoying to varying degrees our fossil fuel binge.

Bill McKibben, in his Tumblr blog post explaining his arrest yesterday, calls people who point out that consumers and demand for fossil fuels/energy needs to be considered in the moral equation, “cynics”.   I don’t believe that it is at all “cynical” to see ownership of our individual as well as collective roles in global warming as a basis for sustained activism.  I have in fact developed what I believe to be a non-cynical but also realistic framework for understanding our ethical responsibilities as regards the climate.

Unfortunately national leaders of the climate movement, including Bill McKibben as well as Josh Fox, both of whom have wide-ranging interests, have not realized that there seems to be a trade-off between a focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels and a focus on the various missteps of fossil fuel refiners, extractors, and transporters.  Few if any seem to notice that the implied message of criticizing the “how” of the fossil fuel industry diverts the discussion from the “what”, the overall practice of burning fossil carbon for fuel.  Far more “climate” activists, it seems, see it as their role in compiling lists of the various faults of the fossil fuel industries (which are many) than as figuring out how we can politically, culturally and economically extract ourselves from the use of their products, thereby lowering our emissions.  Josh Fox has a foot in both worlds, being both the author/director of Gasland 1 and 2 and now Gasworks as well as a founder of the Solutions Project.  The former are highly influential films chronicling the dangers and upswing in fracking activity in North America; the latter is an educational project about climate solutions based on the work of Stanford engineering professor, Mark Z. Jacobson that has not had nearly the impact on activists as have Fox’s movies, at least to date.

There appears to be a comfort zone in which activists want to live, where blaming the nevertheless blameworthy fossil fuel companies, appears to be what those activists interpret to be the heart of climate activism and they seem to have little motivation to go any further.  I believe this is because many of these, mostly older, activists have spent a long time in either the traditional environmental movement or the traditional left where there are simple and comforting distinctions made between the culpable and the innocent.  The personal function of activism appears to be to offload responsibility onto institutions, like corporations or, alternatively, in the “climate justice” idea, to side with victimized groups versus perpetrators, a comfortable political liberal or left stance.   What is most attractive, apparently, is the clear-seeming distinction between good and evil, with victims and perpetrators clearly demarcated.

Pursue Vigorous Prosecution, But Retribution Doesn’t Lead Us Forward

In Bill McKibben’s causal framework for the delay in meaningful climate action, Exxon Mobil, at least in his current analysis, plays an overwhelming role, as if that single corporation “stood astride the earth” and decided to condemn us to climate hell.  It did have a key role, as we have recently learned, but McKibben’s analysis excuses the role of neoliberal politicians, intent on keeping a series of economic bubbles going and in currying favor with large corporations and a complacent and misinformed electorate.  These politicians did not decisively challenge climate denialists and proposed weak climate policy instruments, in particular cap and trade schemes that have always been shot through with debilitating compromises.  There were political events and well-funded ideological campaigns, unrelated to Exxon, regarding society and the economy that made this seem “sensible” at the time though their scant rationales have now worn thin.

The causal framework that blames only fossil fuel companies also excuses us consumers who were and are only too happy to continue the fossil-fueled party, especially with no visible impingements on our fun from the side of the climate until quite recently.

Even as now a number of corporations are committing to 100% clean energy, we cannot stand by as citizens and hope and pray that somehow corporate “big brothers” will solve all of our problems.  If they can apply these commitments to 100% renewable energy to their operations that is all to the good or offer their various technical competencies for the public benefit.  But the influence of even well-wishing corporate lobbying on the future structure of government carbon policy must be held in check.  Climate solutions written by contemporary corporations or their surrogates will never get us rapidly enough to net-zero emissions as a society, as public obligation beyond profit and loss will be central to actually-effective climate policy.  As fantastic a demand as it may seem in our still-neoliberal era, government leaders must subordinate even well-meaning and economically favored (because of their low carbon products or processes) corporations to the common good.  All corporations must be sufficiently regulated even as also some are also greatly helped by an effective policy framework like the US Climate Platform I have proposed.

Prosecuting and fairly punishing Exxon would have its greatest effect in tarnishing the reputations of all funders and promoters of climate denial and demonstrating to them that their climate denial has pernicious and deadly consequences.  However spurring on and reveling in the prospect of retribution is something upon which climate activists should only spend a fraction of their time and efforts.  For this reason, we have courts and prosecutors, who exact public vengeance upon wrongdoers to stop their wrongdoing and as an example to others.

However, actually-effective climate action will be ultimately an enormous creative endeavor, a series of injunctions (commandments to DO something) rather than prohibitions (i.e to NOT do something).  Indulging in or focusing on retribution, in my view, diverts energy and attention from that enormous creative endeavor.  It is not wrong to punish wrongdoers and make examples of them but it does not, in my experience, lead to an effective climate politics that will actually cut our emissions and dependence upon fossil fuels.  That massive creative effort will require a great deal of our energy, which has little to do with exacting vengeance on those who have done us wrong.

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