How Big Oil Luddites are blocking progress on climate change

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In the interest of fighting climate change, most of us avoid buying SUVs -- fortress-like vehicles that aren't necessary unless one intends to take the whole family for a spin through downtown Baghdad.

Most of us also recycle and keep the thermostat low. However, these gestures are doing almost nothing to stop the warming of the planet.

Yet climate change has disappeared from the political agenda. While the media diligently scrutinize the security risk posed by a hot relationship between a general and his biographer, there's little airtime to consider the security risk posed by something even hotter: the planet. (A Pentagon-commissioned study in 2003 concluded that global warming would lead to brutal storms, flooding, drought and widespread human strife. "Once again, warfare would define human life." But back to the general…)

The news on the climate front is devastating.

In a report earlier this month, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the world's largest accounting firms, states the world has "passed the critical threshold" and that current carbon reductions amount to "a fraction of what is required against the international commitment to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius."

In order to keep within that limit by 2050, the accounting firm says the world will have to dramatically accelerate its annual pace of carbon reduction -- to a rate never before achieved, and then continue at that rate "for 39 consecutive years." No problem!

That's if we want to keep warming to just 2 degrees Celsius -- which may be too high. So far, we've warmed the planet by only 0.8 degrees Celsius -- and yet that little bit of warming packs quite a punch, as the U.S. east coast learned last month.

The PwC report notes that, at current rates, we're headed for 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

Yet this alarming news was barely reported. The media apparently didn't think it necessary to inform us that the Earth has basically been tossed onto the barbecue.

The good news is, with great effort, we can still turn things around. But blocking the path to a green future are the world's most powerful corporations, whose phenomenal wealth derives from selling the very fossil fuels that are driving up the temperature.

In a brilliant article in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben sets out exactly why Big Oil and the rest of the fossil fuel industry so fiercely resist action to tackle climate change.

The companies currently have proven reserves of oil, gas and coal worth $27 trillion.

If the world were to reduce carbon emissions enough to keep the temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, 80 per cent of those reserves would have to stay in the ground! McKibben notes that this means the fossil fuel industry would "be writing off $20 trillion in assets" -- not something corporate moguls do, especially when it involves their core business.

As author Naomi Klein puts it, "With the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."

One proposed solution is a "fee-and-dividend" scheme, which would heavily tax fossil fuels and then return the revenue to the entire population by monthly cheque, encouraging everyone to save money by switching to cleaner energy.

This would help the public transition to a greener economy. But it wouldn't help Big Oil, whose executives would remain hell-bent on stopping the march of progress -- just as 19th-century textile workers fiercely resisted being replaced by spinning machines.

While those workers angrily smashed the machines, the world moved on to a prosperous new era of large-scale factory production, enabling the public to enjoy brightly coloured cotton calicoes and a popular social event known as the calico ball.

The workers, dubbed Luddites, paid a heavy price for their resistance. They were executed for destroying the machines, and have been ridiculed throughout history.

By contrast, the Luddites running Big Oil are enjoying the biggest bonanza in history, even as they block the saving of the planet -- a more grievous offence, by any reckoning, than denying the world the benefits of the spinning machine or even the calico ball.

Photo: Svetoslav Nikolov/Flickr

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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