Ashley Nunes is the Director of Competition Policy at the R Street Institute and a Research Fellow at Harvard Law School.
Big oil is in the hot seat. Again. Two weeks ago, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a lawsuit brought by Baltimore city officials against oil companies belongs in state courts, which favours the plaintiffs, or in federal courts, where oil companies stand a better chance of winning. A ruling on the case — expected later this year — could cost (or save) the industry billions.
The impetus for this and many other fossil-fuel related lawsuits is climate change. Plaintiffs want oil companies to pony up cash because company executives knew — and didn’t tell us — that fossil fuels harm the environment. Court filings by some plaintiffs describe, “cascading social and economic impacts,” like rising sea levels and deadly heat waves, all of which are tied to the burning of fossil fuels. Had oil execs admitted the truth sooner, so the reasoning goes, we’d all be saved.
To be sure, the link between fossil fuel use and climate change is irrefutable and the oil companies have long known about it. In 1954, geochemists from the California Institute of Technology warned industry leaders that burning fossil fuels was responsible for rising global temperatures. Noted physicist Edward Teller voiced similar sentiments in 1959, as did researchers from Stanford in 1968. By 1988, even the oil industry’s own scientists were concerned that burning fossil fuels could produce “significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperature and weather”.
Instead of publicly admitting these dangers, oil execs doled out cash for ‘advertorials’: paid, editorial-style advertisements that, for decades, expressed doubt about climate change. But would a change of corporate heart prompted a change in consumer behaviour? Would our insatiable thirst for oil really have been tempered by warnings about its use?
Twice weekly newsletter
Energy is the world’s indispensable business and Energy Source is its newsletter. Every Tuesday and Thursday, direct to your inbox, Energy Source brings you essential news, forward-thinking analysis and insider intelligence. Sign up here.
Public opinion polls overwhelmingly point to a unifying sentiment: not enough is being done to address climate change. However, actually getting consumers to abandon their fossil-fuel loving ways is, at best, a tall order. Just ask Emmanuel Macron. In 2018, the French president proposed hiking gas taxes to curb emissions. Higher taxes, after all, means less consumption. And less gasoline consumption is a win for the environment.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Confronted with higher taxes, the French people rebelled, staging nationwide protests. After weeks of unrest that saw some Parisian suburbs go up in flames, Macron threw in the towel on his eco-friendly ambitions. He’s not alone. Canada’s Justin Trudeau also promised to deliver climate accountability if voted into office. But the Prime Minister has since struggled to wean the local economy off fossil fuels. The reason? Canadians aren’t particularly enthused about giving up on oil either.
If better informed consumers today are unwilling to change their ways, why would they have done so four decades ago when confronted with similar facts? Make no mistake, a change is needed. Public health experts rightly warn, “if anyone doesn’t think (climate change) is a severe problem, they are fooling themselves.” But demonising big oil does little to address a seldom discussed truism: when it comes to combating climate change, a climate-conscious public may well be its own worst enemy.
There are other obvious trade-offs also. Much of the developing world is still heavily reliant on burning things that have been dug out of the ground. Slowing fossil fuel consumption, either at home or abroad, will inevitably mean others taking longer to get richer. Then, of course, there’s the worry that cheaper sources of renewable energy fuel further energy consumption. Bitcoin mining is but one live example of this.
Big oil may have been less than transparent about their products, but a cash-backed mea culpa alone does little to reverse the damage. What’s needed is a behavioural change; a conscious willingness to forsake the very gadgets, gizmos and technology that have used fossil fuels to propel economic growth. Even then, there’s no guarantee it will make a material difference, and it will be a painful switch. But apart from just accept the change and adjust radically, what else can we do?