Climate Fossil Fuels

Emissions rise from the smokestacks at the Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets near Emmett, Kansas, on Sept. 18. 

With The Warming rapidly warming, we’re starting to see efforts to assess blame and even to suggest appropriate punishment for environmental evil doers.

Take this recent piece in the Guardian, for example. In “The dirty dozen: meet America’s top climate villains,” the newspaper suggests: “For too long, Americans were fed a false narrative that they should feel individually guilty about the climate crisis. The reality is that only a handful of powerful individuals bear the personal responsibility.”

The article cites a study indicating that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And, as might be expected, the CEOs of a number of biggest of these polluters are featured prominently in the Guardian’s list.

These corporate villains include the heads of Chevron, ExxonMobil, Chevron’s “smooth talking” lead attorney, and Charles Koch, multibillionaire CEO of Koch Industries, a refining, petrochemical and pipeline company that finds paying massive fines for environmental transgressions is cheaper than fixing the problems.

One major reason we find ourselves hurtling toward a global climate catastrophe is the uncounted millions in advertising, public relations, support of pseudoscience and lobbying spent by these energy companies to downplay the problem and to shift blame.

The effort was made to convince the public, first, that the warming wasn’t real. Failing that, the focus shifted to blaming a “natural warming cycle” as the culprit instead of greenhouse gas emissions. Failing that, we’re now being told that the forecast negative effects are exaggerated.

This campaign of outright lies and disinformation is reminiscent of that perpetrated by the tobacco industry in its successful 50-year defense of smoking. It’s the same playbook. Only, in this case, the deceit has been far more harmful. It has misled and confused the public, substantially slowing society’s reaction to this potentially civilization-changing crisis.

“Public discourse has been polluted now for decades by corporate-funded disinformation — not just with climate change but with a host of health, environmental and societal threats," according to climate scientist Michael Mann. "The implications for the planet are grim,” 

Another character whose portrait graces this hall of shame is DINO (Democrat In Name Only) Joe Manchin, the obstructionist who is almost single-handedly stalling the Build Back Better bill that, in its current pared-back version, includes $555 billion for clean energy.

Exxon lobbyists caught on tape earlier this year specifically identified Manchin as “their guy,” and said they meet with him several times a week. According to OpenSecrets, Manchin takes more money from the fossil fuel industry than any other Democrat.

Other perpetrators include CEOs of investment firms heavily invested in fossil fuels, Senator “No” (Mitch McConnell), and “propagandists” who have helped spread the lies: Rupert Murdock, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman Public Relations. Also included is Cargill’s CEO for its rainforest destruction caused by soy and beef production, particularly in the Amazon.

There are those who believe this media “perp walk” — and any resulting ignominy — is insufficient punishment for these hall of shamers. This kind of corporate misbehavior and disregard for the future of the human race has led many, from the pope to Greta Thunberg, to call for the crime of “ecocide” to be recognized in international criminal law and meted out as appropriate.

The charge of ecocide — which literally means “killing the environment” — may seem questionable from a legal perspective, but advocates claim it’s reasonable. The theory holds that no one should go unpunished for destroying the natural world. They believe the crime should come under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, which currently can adjudicate four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

While it is unlikely that petrochemical, coal and utility chief executives, politicians or media moguls will see the insides of jail cells, there are many who believe they should. Others would also include a certain ex-president and several former federal government officials.

Locking people up, of course, is not going to forestall the developing climate crisis. Nor should we let ourselves off the hook. It’s axiomatic that if there’s a demand, there will — in a free economy — be a supply.

Lorin R. Robinson is a writer and former chair of the Department of Journalism, University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

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