Bill McGuire – Fossil Fuel Corporations are in for the Long Haul

The Iron Law of Climate Policy: “When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time.”

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL, and a co-director of the New Weather Institute. His current book is Waking the Giant: how a changing climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes

Cross-posted from Bill’s Cool Earth Website


If you are one of the surely rapidly diminishing group of people that think fossil fuel corporations can still be part of the solution to the climate crisis, think again. The reality is, given the chance to do so, they will continue to suck up oil and gas, and hack out coal until – quite literally – there is no tomorrow, at least as far as a functioning global society is concerned.

A report published a couple of weeks back by ActionAid International revealed that, between 2016 and 2022 the fossil fuel sector attracted $3.2 trillion of investment to support massive expansion into the global south. Here, the plan is to block urgent efforts to decarbonize economies by exploiting all and any fossil fuel reserves, so locking countries into high-carbon futures and guaranteeing big increases in greenhouse gas emissions. This seemingly endless push to exploit oil, gas and coal wherever it can be found, tells us everything we need to know about how the fossil fuel industry sees the future. It may be one of blistering heat and extreme weather, of collapsing ice sheets and rapidly rising sea levels, but it will also be one of business as usual – or so the big corporations assume.

We know this because of a revealing report, published in 2017 by the responsible investment charity, ShareAction. This went largely under the radar at a time, and the full implications are only now beginning to hit home. The report revealed that while, in public, supporting the idea of keeping the global average temperature rise (since pre-industrial times) to 1.5C, oil and gas giants BP and Shell were both evaluating the resilience of their businesses on a planet between 3C and 5C hotter. This really is quite extraordinary, and completely damning, amounting as it does to a de facto acceptance of catastrophic climate breakdown in the decades to come. The report is now six years old, but I have seen no evidence that makes me think their plans might have changed.

Think about the implications of this for a moment. The only way temperatures will reach these sorts of values is if there is little or no action on curbing emissions driven by the burning of fossils fuels. The corollary of this is that BP, Shell and other big polluters, have no intention of cutting back or stopping the production of the oil, gas and coal that will cause this. In apparently accepting hothouse conditions as a fait accompli, they are also sending the message that they are perfectly relaxed about the millions of deaths and planetary ruin this will cause. They are, when all is said and done, developing future business models predicated on the devastation of billions of lives and livelihoods. If this doesn’t qualify as a crime against humanity, I am not sure what does.

The truth is that the fossil fuel sector will never reign in production unless it is compelled to. Left to its own devices, it will continue to throw miniscule scraps of cash at petty renewables projects to underpin duplicitous greenwashing campaigns, while focusing almost entirely on what it does best, pumping hydrocarbons and screwing the planet. Bearing in mind that companies like BP and Shell are – by any measure – hugely successful businesses led, one presumes, by astute people, this is a quite staggeringly blinkered approach. One can only assume that the lure of the fast buck tops everything, even the lives of company CEOs’ children and the ultimate survival of our civilisation.

And I am in no way exaggerating here. Analysis by Carbon Tracker and the Global Energy Monitor, of the Global Registry of Fossil Fuels inventory launched last year, revealed that if all proven fossil fuel reserves are burned, this would add a further 3.5 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is significantly more than emitted since the start of the industrial revolution, and would set our planet on a long, hot, road into completely uncharted – although not unanticipated – territory. In their 2013 paper, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, illustrious climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues showed that burning all fossil fuels would result in a 16C global average temperature rise. This would see the mean temperature of our world topping 30C, and would make most of the planet uninhabitable for humans.

Surely, you might think, the fossil fuel corporations wouldn’t be so stupid as to launch us on such a suicidal path? But I see no evidence of those in the hydrocarbons sector seriously planning for anything other than business as usual, and we simply can’t afford to take the risk that they will eventually come to their senses, without being forced to.

According to ShareAction, the way to do this is via investor power, and its Investor Decarbonisation Initiative seeks to galvanise investors so as to accelerate corporate action on climate breakdown in high carbon sectors, most notably fossil fuels. This may bear fruit, eventually, but time isn’t on our side. The critical move that needs to be made, right now, is stopping the colossal subsidies to the hydrocarbons industry, which, in 2022, totalled a mind-boggling US$7 trillion – or $13 million a minute. But, on its own, shutting down this life-blood supply is not likely to be quite enough to bring the sector to heel. At the same time, banks must be disallowed from lending to fossil fuel companies, and insurers prohibited from insuring their facilities. Such measures may seem draconian, but they are the only answer to a hydrocarbons industry that is out of control and refuses to change. The alternative, for our children, for our civilisation, and for our world, is simply too terrifying to contemplate.

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