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THERE is a New Yorker cartoon that lives in my head rent free. It pops into my mind at random times, roughly once a week or so. Without fail, however, it snaps into sharp relief every time I read about oil companies insisting that they should have a say in how we transition to a fossil-free society.
The picture shows a man in a tattered suit sitting by a fire, smiling as he lectures a group of dirty children. In the distance lie the ruins of a great city. The caption reads: “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”
I don’t read the New Yorker. But this cartoon has done the rounds a thousand times online because it so perfectly captures the idiocy of prioritising the wealth of the 1% over the wellbeing of our planet, our people and our lives.
Left to their own devices, I have no doubt that oil and gas companies would crush every drop of profit from this planet that they could, regardless of the consequences.
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It is a consistent facet of the ultra-wealthy that they view any fall-out over their disastrous decision-making as something that happens to other people.
We saw this during the 2008 financial collapse, when Britain’s billionaires actually doubled their net worth while entire countries were pushed to the edge of financial ruin. With COP26 tentatively scheduled for later this year, it’s imperative that oil and gas companies with a vested interest in perpetual growth are kept at arm’s length from the process.
Yet as reported in The Ferret earlier this week, both Shell and Oil & Gas UK, which represents the interests of offshore oil and gas, have already lobbied Scotland’s Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse to try to steer how the conversation around transitioning to a fossil-free world should take place.
According to the lobbying register, Wheelhouse was approached and encouraged to consider the “importance of balanced messaging” in the lead-up to the event. I wonder what oil and gas giants would consider to be “balanced messaging”, given that they have historically invested a staggering amount of time into ignoring and discrediting the threat of climate change itself.
According to Influence Map, Shell spent $22 million in 2015 alone lobbying against effective climate change policies while publicly talking up its green credentials.
In fact, documents show that oil and gas companies have known since the 1980s that their actions were contributing to climate change. Both Exxon and Shell were producing reports on the impact that carbon dioxide would have on the environment almost 40 years ago. Exxon was predicting as far back as 1982 that exploitation of the natural world would lead to global temperatures rising but did not share this with the public.
Analysts at Shell, too, forecast that global warming would lead to rising sea levels and the destruction of entire ecosystems. They went as far as concluding that “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history”.
The documents that revealed just how much these companies knew were leaked to the public only very recently. Back in the 1980s however, there was absolute silence on the issue.
COP26 is undoubtedly viewed as an opportunity by oil and gas firms to greenwash their organisations, distancing themselves from any culpability over catastrophic climate change while raking in profit from business that directly contributes to it.
ScottishPower has already been selected by the UK Government to be one of the principal corporate partners of COP26. Yet while ScottishPower’s supply of electricity in the UK is now generated by green means, The Ferret has reported that its Spanish parent company Iberdrola has been investing in the gas industry abroad, opening four new gas plants in Mexico since 2019.
SCOTTISHPOWER is functionally a green facade for Iberdrola, which can smile and point to its eco credentials in the UK, while contributing massively to climate change elsewhere. It’s a sham, and unfortunately for us all, the consequences of catastrophic climate breakdown don’t magically stop at the border.
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The companies lobbying the Scottish Government are trying to stay relevant in a world that cannot survive their business model. Energy companies, who for decades have ignored what their own scientists told them, are now trying to rebrand themselves as the solution to the problems they caused in the first place.
Perhaps because they have finally, to a degree, been lashed by politicians and leaders who have begun to recognise the scale of the challenge ahead.
But we should never forget how these organisations behave when they are strong, and when there are no consequences.
Shell’s calls for “balanced” messaging to the Energy Minister came after carbon emissions at the company’s Mossmorran natural gas plant in Fife hit record-breaking levels, while the neighbouring Exxon Mobil plant turned the sky into a living hell for 56 hours through unscheduled flaring.
Oil and gas giants have shown us time and time again that they cannot be trusted to put the climate ahead of their own profit margins.
That’s why they should be kept as far away from influencing the conversation on climate change as possible –particularly when COP26 may be our last chance to finalise the Paris Agreement.