Why is humanity so entangled with the fossil fuel industry and incapable of meaningful climate action? What are the structures that make Big Oil so invincible to systemic change towards a truly sustainable economy? How are conflicts and wars used in the global fossil fuel game?
The fossil fuel industry and other large industries have never liked conservation regulations. They are a nuisance and cost money. The same is true for labour rights. Since neoliberal globalisation opened up the possibility of moving production to poorer countries with fewer regulations (China and the global south), industry’s wishes have been fulfilled. And the scale of nature destruction, emissions and workplace deaths have skyrocketed.
Globalised trade vs. climate action
A major reason that humanity’s climate action has been so slow to get off the ground is the dynamics of globalisation and free trade agreements. The climate movement and globalisation have developed on the same timeline, but neoliberal “free trade” has always had the upper hand.
In 1992, governments met for the first Earth Summit in Rio and signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In the same year, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. In 1994, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was established. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted to protect the climate. But while all climate agreements remain toothless voluntary “targets,” the “rights” of industry, its investments and patents are aggressively protected by the WTO.
Example: In 2010, an Italian photovoltaic company had developed solar modules with unmatched efficiency. It set up its production line in Ontario, fulfilling the province’s requirement that about half of its labour, materials and parts come from the region. Experts around the world praised this agreement as “the most comprehensive renewable energy policy … in the entire world. ” (Klein 2014, p.67) After all, “Buy local” and “Hire local” is the way to a truly sustainable future.
For two years, Ontario was indeed Canada’s largest solar producer. But in 2012, the whole arrangement was thrown into turmoil because Japan and the EU believed that Ontario’s regulations on regional production violated the WTO agreements. And indeed, the WTO ruled against Canada, stating that regulations on buying local products were illegal. Preferential treatment of local industry was illegal “discrimination” and protectionism against potential foreign suppliers. (And yes: largely unnoticed by the public, we then entered an era where Big Business can actually legally sue governments!)
And this is not an isolated case, but a globalist pattern of thwarting climate action: In 2010, the US challenged one of China’s wind energy subsidy programmes. In 2013, the US attacked India’s solar subsidy programme. Both China and India retaliated by targeting renewable energy projects in the US. China also attacked energy projects in the EU, particularly in Greece and Italy. Naomi Klein puts it succinctly: “The world’s biggest emitters are racing to the WTO to destroy each other’s wind farms.” (p.65)
The anti-climate alliance of the petro-states
To make politicians, investors and the public doubt the need to move away from fossil fuels, Big Oil is fighting on two fronts: domestically and internationally. On the international stage, an alliance of only four petro-states stands out: Russia, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Kuwait. The former two caused the dismal failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) in 2009 through a fabricated scandal called “Climategate” that spread false accusations and smears against climate scientists. This news was amplified by trollbot armies from Russian servers to flood Western social media, and in the analogue world by the Murdoch media empire (Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal is an ally of Rupert Murdoch and was at the time the second largest shareholder in Murdoch’s News Corp). *(1)
Since then, the US under Trump and Kuwait have joined the denial coalition and all four countries worked together to water down climate pledges at the 2018 climate conference in Katowice (COP24). *(2) From Big Oil’s point of view, this was more necessary than ever, as in 2012 the Russian state energy giant Rosneft and the world’s largest fossil fuel company, ExxonMobil, had signed an agreement to develop the world’s largest untapped oil reserves – oil reserves in the Arctic, Siberia and the Black Sea worth an estimated $500 billion.” (Mann, p.39)
That was a good reason for oil baron Putin to interfere in the 2016 US elections. Because Hilary Clinton would have kept Barack Obama’s Russia sanctions (imposed in 2014 after Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula). Donald Trump, on the other hand, after taking office appointed none other than – surprise, surprise! – ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Tillerson who, moreover, as a former director of the Russian-American fossil fuel company Exxon Neftegas, was also at the centre of major oil deals between the two countries for a long time. And of course, President Trump tried to lift the Russia sanctions that stood in the way of the Rosneft-Exxon deal, but to no avail.
Forget the usual opposition of political blocs! There is only one moral currency in this arena: oil dollars. The American oil plutocracy and the Russian oil oligarchy headed by Putin are pursuing the same goals. So do the Arab oil sheikhs. And yes, apart from denying climate disruption, most of these players share basic attitudes such as elitism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny. No doubt they get along very well behind closed doors.
Does this analysis hold up in the face of the Ukraine invasion?
Big Oil and the Ukraine war
A few days after the siege began, Ukraine’s representative at a virtual meeting of UN climate delegates declared: “Human-induced climate change and the war on Ukraine have the same roots: fossil fuels, and our dependence on them.” *(3)
As early as 23 February, the day before the Russian invasion, the American Petroleum Institute called for measures that had long been at the top of its policy wish list anyway: lifting restrictions on fossil fuel extraction on federal land, reopening offshore drilling and general deregulation. The contention is that the fossil fuel sector is a matter of national security and that weakening it would make the US and its allies “vulnerable to the vicious manoeuvres of Vladimir Putin.”
Within hours of the start of the invasion, Big Oil was already spreading the word in press releases and social media that the key to ending the crisis was to immediately hand over US public lands and waters to the fossil corporations and to quickly relax regulations. *(4) The US oil plutocracy had always been opposed to energy trade between Russia and the EU, hence, for example, President Trump’s sanctions against the Nordstream 2 pipeline in 2019. *(5)
A week later, the Heritage Fund, which is part of the Far Right influence network (see Part 7), endorsed the call for the Biden administration to immediately release federal lands and waters for new oil and gas exploration instead of “continuing to hold the US hostage to President Biden’s infatuation with ‘green energy’ and proceeding with measures to regulate conventional energy out of existence.”
By linking the increasing difficulty of many Americans to heat their homes to this policy, the Heritage Fund is using the old tactic of pitting climate protection against social justice. *(6) This gambit is now taking hold outside the US: instead of voting for climate protection against fossil energy, voters are now begging for fossil gas to heat their homes. It is now taking bitter revenge for not having effectively switched to renewable energies since the turn of the millennium.
Later in March, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, another major right-wing libertarian think tank, joined the fossil chorus, demanding that “the environmental red tape and litigation being used today to block new oil and natural gas projects” should disappear. *(7)
In Europe, especially the UK, consumer energy prices had been soaring long before the war, now driving corporate profits to all-time highs. *(8) More good war news for Big Oil: carbon credit prices collapsed immediately after the Russian invasion, effectively lowering the cost of emitting greenhouse gases for the dirtiest companies. *(9) The British response to the invasion of Ukraine was a new “energy security strategy,” for which consideration is being given to lifting the previous ban on drilling for shale gas (fracking) *(10) and bringing an old non-solution back out of the closet: nuclear power (see Part 3).
Faced with an energy crisis, Western countries are panicking and rushing to embed the fossil fuel path even deeper into their economies. No country is even close to achieving the promised post-corona “green recovery” targets. The UN warned in spring 2022 that this new fossil fuel course will even miss the 2 degree global warming target. *(11) Once again, the (short-term) future for Big Oil looks quite rosy. Even if Putin’s invasion has now ended the mega-deal between Exxon and Rosneft. All Western energy companies have withdrawn from Russia. This weighs not too heavy on the fossil corporations since the Eastern competition has now been eliminated and the global energy crisis is bringing them profits like never before.
Conclusion: In the course of three decades, globalisation and deregulated free trade have plunged humanity into ever greater social injustice, hunger, nature pollution and climate collapse. The corona crisis and the Ukraine war are clear evidence that the dismantling of colonialist globalisation and systemic change (decentralisation, degrowth, localisation) are urgently needed.
Instead of seeing the Ukraine war as an undeniable wake-up call for society to switch to greener energies and home insulation, the Western oil plutocracy is using this as a “shock doctrine” war as the ultimate lever to advance its fossil arguments and prolong its existence. *(12)
Which side will win? We need to be clear about who or what we are dealing with. More on this in Part 6.
The fight to take back our planet
Part 1: The fossil fuel industry’s mind-bending strategies
Part 2: The fossil fuel industry’s mind-bending strategies (continued)
Part 3: An urgent warning about “Net Zero 2050”
Part 4: Dirty Oil: It’s not just about carbon!
Part 5: Fossil giants, free trade, and war
Part 6: How the Far Right network rules (not just) the climate debate
Part 7: The shocking extent of the Far Right influence network
Part 8: Climate crisis, corona and conspiracy theories
Part 9: How conspiracy theories only serve one master
Part 10: The “Great Reset” and totalitarianism vs the real green revolution
Michael E. Mann 2021. The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet. Scribe, London.
Naomi Klein 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Penguin Random House UK.