The oil and gas industry on the wrong side of history

Christiana Figueres, who oversaw the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change, has been talking about the resistance of the fossil fuel industry to using its vast resources to rapidly move away from oil and gas and invest in renewables. Christiana was talking on the podcast “Outrage and Optimism” with co-founder Tom Rivett-Carnac, and the discussion contributes greatly to the understanding of why progress isn’t being made.

Profits vs Temperatures

Christiana: “It really is quite shocking that we now have again, again, and again, record breaking profits from oil and gas companies. Shell’s first quarter [profit] is $9.6 billion and BP $4 billion. On and on and on. I just don’t even know what words to use. Especially because they come exactly at the same time as the record breaking temperatures across Europe and Asia, like we just talked about last week. And the news that not only are we dealing with these climate change record breaking temperatures, but in addition to that, we’re going to have an El Nino season starting somewhere between the summer and the fall in the northern hemisphere of this year. That is going to take those temperatures even higher.”

“And so, how do we bring these 2 realities together? Record breaking profits from oil and gas companies and record breaking temperatures across Europe and Asia to begin with. We don’t know where else that is going to happen. How do we bring those 2 records together?”

Tom: “Well, it points to a fundamental weakness in our global economic system, doesn’t it? Privatising and damaging common goods have often been richly rewarded throughout history and we’ve reached a point now where we can no longer afford for that to be the case because not only is it a moral outrage, but it’s on the cusp of destroying us all. So those incentives have to be realigned through public pressure, through rethinking our economics, through the right tax incentives that actually shift our economy to where it needs to go.”

On the wrong side of history

Christiana: “What astonishes me is that the oil and gas industry makes apparently no effort to get on the right side of history. No effort to even be more, let’s say, discrete about their actions and their decisions. They’re just flaunting their profits in front of everyone, without any sensitivity to the impact of that. And I just cannot imagine how this is going to end up positively for that industry. I was just thinking last night how the slavery industry’s self-justified itself during a certain period of time. But now post factum, there is no one who would justify the slavery industry. The same is going to happen to the oil and gas industry. It is impossible. And they’re making it impossible to justify their continued action, seen now just from the movement of history forward”.

Tom: “The oil gas CEO, she or he on this podcast, would say ‘if I don’t carry on drilling, I’d get sacked by the shareholders’”
Christiana: “Yes. And there is a heck of a lot of education of shareholders and of investors that needs to occur. So, you know, CEOs cannot simply blame their shareholders or their investors. This is a collective responsibility”.

Companies turned their back on the solutions

Tom: “You have been willing to give oil and gas CEOs the benefit of the doubt to a certain degree. Do you still feel that, or do you feel that something has changed that is affecting how you see this issue?”

Christiana: “It’s a very good question. And I think, you know, just from my recent comments, I think you already foreshadowed how I feel. In the climate space I probably have been, if not the most patient with the oil and gas companies, at least one of the most patient. My patience has run down to zero, because these unprecedented profits are not being put to the use of humanity. These unprecedented profits are being put to the use of the industry and its shareholders. A very tiny, tiny little portion of humanity. If they had these unprecedented profits and took them to invest dramatically and deeply into all of the spaces of the solution, renewable energy, electrification of vehicles, of light transport, of heavy transport into hydrogen. If that were what they were doing, then I would be actually still interested in how and what they can contribute.”

“But they seem to have turned their back to that whole exercise that they had started. And to say I am disappointed is a diplomatic term. I am actually outraged that that is the choice that they have been making.”


Outrage + Optimism podcast, 11 May 2023:
Christiana Figueres:
Tom Rivett-Carnac:

Photo credits: Refinery: Nicola Giordano; Gas flame: Ratfink1973

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