My weekly Guardian column is published today:
The viability of a fossil fuel future is rarely connected to the human rights abuses required to sustain it. How often do we think about where oil and gas is obtained? Are the Europeans or Americans any more aware? This deliberate depoliticisation of our energy present, by the vast majority of politicians, journalists and self-described public intellectuals, is leading to an environment that is both unsustainable and dangerous for the planet.
But don’t worry, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott says climate change has nothing to do with bush fires. Move along. Remain relaxed, comfortable and consume skewers of chewy coal and grisly yellow cake with a touch of BBQ sauce.
One might question why there is such resistance to transitioning to renewable energy and which entrenched interests are at stake.
Buried in the heart of New York Times best-selling author Steve Coll’s 2012 book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, are fascinating insights into one of the most powerful companies on the planet.
Scientists working for the corporation examined ways that climate change could affect ocean and surface trends and allow the firm to source new oil and gas. “Don’t believe for a minute that ExxonMobil doesn’t think climate change is real,” a former manager tells the author. “They were using climate change as a source of insight into exploration.”
By 2004 ExxonMobil, both internally and externally, were forecasting that there was little to no chance of a global response to warming temperatures in the coming decades. Former CEO Lee Raymond publicly dismissed the seriousness of the problem.
ExxonMobil and Walmart trade spots year to year as America’s biggest company and this explains why both of them are so reluctant to do anything that they perceive to affect their bottom line. Acting on climate change was not a priority while continuing business as usual was so profitable.
But Exxon wasn’t blind to the changing agenda. Coll succinctly outlines the dilemma faced by the company’s forecasters: “The issue here was not whether the world had the technologies to forswear oil; it was whether governments, panicked by climate change, would intervene to change price incentives to favour clean energy, knowing that such an intervention might curtail overall economic growth, at least for a time.”
The truth remains that the free market will not solve the climate change problem. Hoping and presuming that a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme will ameliorate steadily worsening pollution, as too many Australians who should know better have claimed for years, is missing the point. With global energy markets currently in flux – witness the possible end to the domination of Arab hegemony and subsequent shift in Middle East geopolitics, thanks in part to America’s pushing of shale gas deposits – old assumptions are ripe for ditching.
A new book, The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, details the brutal realities of how comfortable Europeans consume without thought as to how the their cars are fueled. The multinational BP operates the main pipeline that goes through Georgia, Turkey and despotic Azerbaijan. This has become a key geostrategic struggle between Russia, China, Iran and America for domination of the energy market. A growing rift between Washington and Saudi Arabia, affectively known as a “protection racket” relationship, remains unpredictable.
One of the master illusions of the modern age is how governments and the media so rarely discuss the ways in which our energy needs are sourced. It’s a problem that understandably angers the voiceless, including Indonesians in Aceh, suing Exxon for allegedly supporting Indonesian troops committing human rights abuses while protecting the highly lucrative natural gas pipeline and processing facility at Arun, a claim that Exxon denies.
The debate in Australia over fossil fuels is staid and separated from a global debate. What happens here does affect the world, as environmentalist Bill McKibben correctly said on his recently sold-out tour of Australia in reference to mooted expanded coal plans in Queensland. Such plans literally threaten global temperatures.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, when demanding Abbott approve massive coal expansion, simply said that he must be allowed to “take the state forward economically”. The miners’ lobbyists have done their work effectively. What should be discussed is the need not to burn fossil fuels and leave carbon in the ground forever.
Research released in April by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics found that, “despite fossil fuel reserves already far exceeding the carbon budget to avoid global warming of more than 2°C, $674bn was spent last year finding and developing new potentially stranded assets. If this continues for the next decade, economies will see over $6tr in wasted capital.” Convincing companies such as Exxon not to exploit the resources under their control will take economic and political pressure.
A campaign this month sees dozens of global investors, managing over $3 trillion of assets, writing to the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies asking them to assess, before annual shareholders meetings in 2014, how the real cost of changes in price and demand could affect their business plans. Craig Mackenzie, head of sustainability at Scottish Widows, one of Europe’s largest asset management firms, says that, “companies must plan properly for the risk of falling demand by stress-testing new investments to minimise the risk our clients’ capital is wasted on non-performing projects.”
Embracing a fully renewable future isn’t a technological problem; it’s a political fix that will only come with a massive fight. Scandinavia is leading the world in examples of divesting from fossil fuel companies. Oxford University recently found that these campaigns are growing in strength globally. It must be considered in Australia, with the worst polluters facing financial pain – the only message they’ll understand – for continuing with business as usual. Rio Tinto, I’m looking at you (amongst others).
Vast research has been undertaken in the last years that reveals the possibility of moving to a sustainable and cost-effective energy future.Clean energy reports are being issued constantly and the Greens partyhave provided a realistic roadmap.
Even the World Bank, that bastion of neo-liberal “reform”, is warning about the dangers of a four-degrees warmer world, causing increased risk of natural disasters and sea-level rises. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rationally explains the dangers without immediate action. The United Nations Environment Program released a 2012 report that outlined the required cuts to global emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change in both the developed and developing world. Australia’s Beyond Zero Emissions have a zero carbon plan.
Tackling the world’s most powerful corporations, whose interest it is to continue consuming and burning fossil fuels, will take nothing short of a soft revolution. I’ve long argued against climate activists who use cataclysmic language when discussing climate change; this alienates the vast bulk of a population that needs to believe in the importance of changing habits and mindsets. But this doesn’t mean that hoping and praying for polluting companies to realise they need to reform or die won’t take massive public pressure, divestment and new opportunities.
Uncontrolled capitalism is sold as the best system to ensure global prosperity. In reality its strongest advocates, with help from its political and media mates, is ruining the chances of a healthy globe for all its citizens, not just the wealthy in the London, New York and Sydney bubble. Climate justice, for the silenced in our corporate media, is just the beginning.