Every person on Earth today lives in a crime scene.
This crime has been going on for decades. We see its effects on the horrible heat and fires that are unfolding this summer in the American West; in the megastorms that were so numerous in 2020 that scientists have lacked names for them; in global projections that sea level is set to rise by at least 6 meters. Our only hope is to slow down this relentless ascent so that our children can understand some way to deal with it.
This crime has displaced or killed a large number of people in the world, caused billions of dollars in economic damage and devastated vital ecosystems and wildlife. It has disproportionately affected the world’s already marginalized communities, from farmers on the coast of Bangladesh, where rapidly rising seas salt the land and reduce rice yields, to low-income residents of Houston, Chicago and other cities, whose neighborhoods suffer higher temperatures than the prosperous areas throughout the city.
This crime threatens especially young people today and calls into question the very survival of human civilization. Yet, the criminals responsible for this devastation are still at large. In fact, they continue to perpetrate his crime, and even earn money from it, especially because his crime remains unknown to most of the public.
This is enough to make your blood boil, especially if you are a parent. My daughter is now 16 years old, and I have thought about the safest place where she can spend her adult life since she was a child and I started writing to adapt to climate change. The orange sky covering his hometown of San Francisco after last summer’s record fires has been a harrowing and infuriating sign that California will not be that safe haven.
The crimes in question are the 40 years of the fossil fuel industry that lie about climate change. Probably the most consistent corporate deception in history, industry lies have had the effect of shattering public awareness and government action against what scientists say is now a climate emergency. at full return. As a candidate in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden said he would support efforts to prosecute oil giants for their lies. It remains to be seen if he will keep that promise.
Journalists have spent years documenting evidence of the crime scene. In 2015, an investigation by the Columbia Journalism School and the Los Angeles Times uncovered the case by tracing the criminal link to ExxonMobil, then the world’s largest oil company.
Internal records show that in the late 1970s, Exxon scientists were informing their executives that artificial climate warming was real, potentially catastrophic, and caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels. Climate activists have taken the revelations by launching the hashtag #ExxonKnew.
Further investigations found that Chevron, Shell and other oil giants also knew that their products threatened to make the earth’s climate uninhabitable. In short, it wasn’t just Exxon that knew it. Everyone knew it.
And they all chose to lie.
Beginning in the 1990s, oil companies spent millions and millions of dollars on public relations campaigns to confuse the press, the public, and policymakers about the dangers posed by the burning of fossil fuels. His goal was to “reposition global warming as a theory, not a fact,” a planning document said. Front groups and friendly politicians spread the lies of the companies. The media, particularly in the United States, has ingested and reprimanded those lies to an unsuspecting public.
Humanity has ultimately spent precious decades discussing whether global warming was real rather than disarming the threat. Instead of launching a transition to renewable energy, fossil fuel consumption is increasing. More than half of the total greenhouse gases that now overheat the planet were emitted after 1990 – after Exxon and other fossil fuel giants learned in private what they were sowing.
Exxon “could have ended the pretentious debate on climate change as early as the 1980s,” author and activist Bill McKibben later wrote. “When scientists like NASA’s Jim Hansen first made the public aware of climate change [in 1988], think about what would have happened if the executive director of Exxon had also gone to Congress, and said that his internal scientific efforts show[ed] exactly the same thing. “
While the pockets of the American public may already know about the big oil crime, the vast majority of its victims almost certainly don’t know it. How could they? Big Oil’s record of lying has never become part of the public narrative about climate change, in large part because most stores have not incorporated it into their ongoing coverage of climate change.
The initial “Exxon knew” revelations in 2015 received relatively little follow-up coverage beyond the outlets that released them. Television, which even in the internet age remains the primary source of news for most people, has completely ignored the revelations. There were a number of stories in the commercial press and independent media, especially years later when New York State and other local governments began suing oil companies for damages. But the media in general seems to have forgotten that the Big Oil climate has ever happened.
He spent the time to cure these mistakes. To date, oil companies, the executives they have hired, the propagandists they have hired and the politicians they have funded are largely blamed, much less had to pay – either through financial sanctions or for prison time – for the immense damage they had done. The news also owes the public an apology for treating this story badly, with a commitment to making coverage much more acute in the future.
Humanity cannot recover the 40 years lost by the Big Oil climate lies. It is now beyond the urgency that rich and poor countries abandon fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy and other smart practices in terms of climate. Equally crucial is that we fortify our communities against the dreaded climate impacts that, due to our decades of delay, can no longer be avoided.
All this will cost money – a lot. Governments around the world will discuss from now on through the UN climate summit in November on who will pay how much. Restoring Big Oil’s lies to their rightful place at the heart of climate history will offer an answer to that enigma, one that Biden must be pressed to: Big Oil knew – Big Oil shouldn’t pay?
This story appeared in The Guardian and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration that reinforces climate history coverage.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.