President’s Blog: The Big Oil cover-up
WBA President David Newman gives his take on the news that fossil fuel companies disguised their knowledge of climate change as far back as the 1980s
The news published this month that the major oil companies knew of the climate consequences of burning fossil fuels as long ago as the 1980s will come as a shock to many people. That they hid their data, kept it secret and continued to finance the movements that claimed climate change was a myth is an outrage. It may even amount to criminal activity given that climate change could have been slowed down had their data been made public and had we started working on reducing emissions 40 years ago, instead of now.
But to those of us with grey hair the news is not a shock; it is a confirmation. History is full of examples of polluting industries covering their tracks by hiding their data, publishing false data, and financing scientists to disseminate research which calls into doubt claims around pollution, allowing them to deny responsibility. You’ll be able to think of some yourself but it suffices to mention Erin Brockovich; asbestos; tobacco; lead in petrol; CFC gases damaging the ozone layer; the dumping of nuclear waste in the oceans and of chemical waste in rivers and lakes; and acid rain. In each of these cases the industries responsible fought tooth and nail to resist attempts by governments to stop them polluting the environment.
Research and pressure to counter this mostly came from environmental and health activists such as Greenpeace and WWF, while the major corporations under attack financed all sorts of fake activists to counter the claims made against them. In the USA this was known as the Wise Use Movement, essentially a collection of groups paid by companies in the oil, nuclear, coal, and lumber industries to undermine environmental movements. We can find traces of this anti-environmentalism in Trumpism today.
Resistance to change can also been seen today in the plastics industry, which is under attack for not taking responsibility for the plastics put onto the market that are ending up in rivers and oceans. The industry is desperately fighting to stop governments legislating to reduce plastics use and make those companies pay for the clean-up. History shows that where public pressure is applied, the polluters will lose.
With oil, the case is bigger. Big Oil is heavily subsidised by governments globally and enjoys enormous political privileges. Global tax breaks for Big Oil are five times larger than those for renewables despite the fact that we need to urgently reduce dependence on oil to meet the goals in the Paris Agreement. The UK alone gave £14bn of tax breaks to the oil and gas industries in 2017, whilst giving just £303 million to the Green Climate Fund, which ironically finances adaptation to climate change caused by those same Big Oil companies.
While the oil companies may be cashing in on these tax breaks now, public and political opinion will not tolerate them forever, and things are slowly starting to change. In the meantime, WBA is making the case for investment in biogas, sustainable development, and low-carbon solutions to politicians around the world, while other bodies do the same for other renewable technologies. Together we can overcome the declining power of the fossil-fuel companies and consign their dirty industries to the dustbin of history.
Find out more about WBA’s work here.