The Amazon and Australia are burning. England and Venice are flooded. Indonesia is having to relocate its capital to Borneo as Jakarta is sinking (1). Seven million people were displaced as a result of climate change and climate disasters, not over the last 3 or 5 years, but in the first six months of 2019 alone (2). Those are just a few of the most recent examples of extreme environmental events linked to climate change, which we are being told we must help curb by eating less meat, limiting flying, and using fewer plastic bags.
Many environmental problems are caused by the sheer scale of economic activity, of which the economies and multinational companies linked to fossil fuels are a prime example. Fossil fuels are the primary source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the most important long-term contributor to climate change. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), almost 90% of all CO2 emissions stem from the human use of fossil fuels (3). And it is those CO2 emissions that are and will be the main driver of climate change and its concomitant environmental disasters (4).
Sustainable scale is maintained when the material and energy flows, which fuel the economy and our societies, remain within the ecosystem´s capacity to provide sources of these inputs and sinks for the resulting wastes (5). Regarding fossil fuels, their sustainable use would be especially linked to the ecosystem´s capacity of carbon sequestration: removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in carbon sinks. Unfortunately, our addiction to this cheap energy has left the ecosystem incapable of sequestering carbon at a rate necessary to balance our consumption of it (6). Thus, limiting the scale of fossil fuel-use in an attempt to curb it down to more sustainable levels would be a smart move. This could be done through an orderly decline in fossil fuel production in line with an simultaneous increase in the supply of renewable energy, limiting the future impacts of fossil activities as the current level of emissions are already raging havoc (7).
However, instead of decreasing their output, the world´s biggest oil companies are doing the opposite: they are planning to increase production by more than 35% until 2030 (8). An increase of this size would use almost a quarter of the remaining 1.5-degree carbon-budget (9). It is safe to say that we are moving so far beyond the sustainable scale that we cannot even see it on the horizon. Scientists warn of the increased risk of crossing the tipping-points of irreversible planetary changes, linked to the estimated carrying capacity of the ecosystem and the impacts crossing these boundaries will have (10) (11). In light of this, policy-decisions made in the near future will have profound impacts on our societies, our ecosystems, and our climate. We will be facing these impacts for the next ten thousand years and beyond (12).
Politicians around the world have done little to limit the scale of fossil fuels. On the contrary, world governments spent an estimated $5.2 trillion in 2017 alone, 6.5% of global GDP, in subsidies for fossil fuel exploration, production and use (13). Not only does this guarantee that the extraction is lucrative, but it promotes the use of fossil fuels as cheap energy for both commercial and private consumers. The same report also found that the business of fossil activities would not even be profitable without government support and subsidies, but thanks to the public funding the 10 biggest oil firms clocked a staggering $209 billion in profits in 2018 (14). As a sign of gratitude, the same firms have spent millions over the years in funding skepticism through climate-change-denial lobby groups, fake grass-root movements and paying off scientists, which enable them to continue increasing the scale of operations (15) (16).
We are being told that each and every one of us has the power to make a difference in combating climate change. Politicians thereby move the responsibility of action onto us. Yet, even if we all stopped flying and eating meat, the increased amount of CO2 emissions from a mere 10 companies, made profitable by government support, would bring us close to the brink of complete environmental collapse. Stop actively funding environmental degradation. Stop placing monetary profit, lobbied forward by greed, above the welfare of our only home. A global mechanism is needed to stop this craziness, and the quickest way to disrupt the market sufficiently to force monumental change would be to withdraw all public money from fossil fuel subsidies. Our generation is the last one who can play the role of heroes. How about we begin by redirecting those $5.2 trillion into clean energy, decarbonizing our economy, and building a world safe to live in?
- Tan, Y. Will Indonesia´s new capital just move the problem to the jungle? [Online]. 2019. [Accessed on 14 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-49481090
- Watson, S. Climate Change displaces twice as many people as violence. [Online]. 2019. [Accessed on 11 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/climate-change-displaces-twice-as-many-people-as-violence-2019-9?fbclid=IwAR04yz1kb-hNgeIUDjc2IeIi1TMJXDPr9b9MpcHmHBP5dm2yu7kweuUaL5s&r=US&IR=T
- IPCC. Global warming of 1.5C. An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming. [Online]. Incheon: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. [Accessed on 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/download/#full
- Jackson, R.B., Le Quéré, C., Andrew, R.M., Canadell, J.G., Korsbakken, J.I., Liu, Z., Peters, G.P. and Zheng, B. Global energy growth is outpacing decarbonization. Environmental Research Letters. 2018, 13(12).
- Daly, H.E. and Farley, J. Ecological Economics. 2nd edition. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2011.
- Ravi, J., Urban, P.E., Balbach, H. and Webb, D. Handbook of Environmental Engineering Assessment. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2012.
- Herring, S.C., Christidis, N., Hoell, A., Kossin, J.P., Schreck, C.J. and Stott, P.A. Explaining extreme events of 2016 from a Climate Perspective. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 2018, 99(1), S1-S157.
- Oil Change International. Drilling towards disaster. [Online]. Washington, DC: Oil Change International. 2019. [Accessed on 14 November 2019]. Available from: http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2019/01/Drilling-Towards-Disaster-Web-v2.pdf
- Watts, J., Ambrose, J. and Vaughan, A. Oil firms to pour extra 7m barrels per day into markets, data shows. [Online]. 2019. [Accessed on 12 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/10/oil-firms-barrels-markets
- Climate Science Advisory Group. UN Climate Action Summit – United in Science. [Online]. New York: United Nations. 2019. [Accessed on 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://ane4bf-datap1.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/wmocms/s3fs-public/ckeditor/files/United_in_Science_ReportFINAL_0.pdf?XqiG0yszsU_sx2vOehOWpCOkm9RdC_gN
- Rockström, J., Steffen, S., Noone, K. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature. 2009. 461, pp.472-475.
- Clark, P.U., Shakun, J., Marcott, S. and Mix, A.C. Consequences of Twenty-First-Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change. Nature Climate Change. 2016. (6)4, pp.1-10.
- Coady, D., Parry, I., Le, N-P. and Shang, B. Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies Remain Large: An Update Based on Country-Level Estimates. [Online]. Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund. 2019. [Accessed on 12 January 2020]. Available from: https://www.imf.org/~/media/Files/Publications/WP/2019/WPIEA2019089.ashx
- Muspratt, A. The Top 10 Oil&Gas Companies in the World: 2019. [Online]. 2019. [Accessed on 13 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.oilandgasiq.com/strategy-management-and-information/articles/oil-and-gas-companies
- Carroll, W., Graham, N., Lang, M.K., Yunker, Z. And McCartney, K.D. The Corporate Elite and the Architecture of Climate Change Denial: A Network Analysis of Carbon Capital´s Reach into Civil Society. Canadian Review of Sociology. 2018. 55(3), pp.425-450.
- Mann, M.E. and Brevini, B. An Interview with Michael E. Mann: Fighting for Science against Climate Change deniers propaganda. In: Brevini, B. and Murdock, G. (eds). Carbon Capitalism and Communication. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp.23-30.