Greed and Worship Conspire to Thwart Climate Action
The planet’s climate system is crumbling and the world’s economic system is rigged. Both need a radical reboot in 2024.
January 11, 2024
When you’re only thinking of yourself
You’re missing out on everybody else
— Margaret Glaspy
The privilege that seeps from Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive in Newport, R.I., recently provided a distasteful reminder to those trying to mitigate the climate crisis: the rich and famous believe their desires trump reality. The collective we allow it to be true. We fawn all over the rich and famous, alive or dead, for no good reason.
This reverence toward false idols has left us in a lurch. Two words sum up our inability to confront the biggest challenge humanity faces: greed and worship.
The richest 1% of humanity is responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%, according to research by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute and shared late last year with The Guardian, with dire consequences for marginalized communities and global efforts to address the climate crisis.
This affluent group — made up of 77 million people including billionaires, millionaires, and those paid more than $140,000 a year — accounted for 16% of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, enough to cause more than a million additional deaths due to heat, according to the extensive research. (2019 was the most recent year for which there was comprehensive data.)
Twelve of the world’s wealthiest billionaires produce more greenhouse gas emissions from their megayachts, private jets, helicopters, cars, luxurious mansions, and financial investments than the annual energy emissions of 2 million homes, according to the Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute research. (Those filthy-rich emissions account for nearly 17 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.)
These modern-day robber barons pollute and devour at will while we mindlessly pay to use their services and products, mostly because they are convenient, cool, or trendy. Besides fouling the planet’s air and water, escalating the climate crisis, and gobbling up natural resources, these gluttonous tycoons force independent operators out of business, bully competitors, exploit workers and the environment, and at least one enjoys spreading hate.
Those with the most greedily continue to take more from everyone else. For example, profiteering played a sizable role in boosting inflation in 2022. Many corporations, including energy companies ExxonMobil and Shell, mining firms Glencore and Rio Tinto, and food and commodities businesses Kraft Heinz, Archer-Daniels-Midland, and Bunge, made “super-profits” based on their ability to push through price increases and then blame it on inflation.
It worked. An ignorant neighbor has groaned to me about “Biden steaks.” He was hardly the only one convinced the president and not piggish CEOs was to blame. The same nonsense is applied when gasoline prices increase.
“This surge in profits happened as wage increases largely failed to keep pace with inflation, and workers suffered their largest fall in disposable incomes since the second world war,” according to a story in The Guardian about the “greedflation” report.
On Aquidneck Island, the Preservation Society of Newport County has filed lawsuits against two offshore wind projects. The Newport-based organization, which worships the extravagant Gilded Age mansions and lifestyles of now-dead robber barons, is concerned about rich ocean views being marginally altered — not about the massive global changes being caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
The organization’s pretentious lawsuits hide behind cries of due process — both projects had public comment periods but the guardians of opulence are offended the federal government didn’t specifically ask for theirs — and misrepresented statistics.
(The Bellevue Avenue nonprofit, with $83.6 million in total assets, pays its executive director $391,880, plus a $34,826 clothing allowance, according to the organization’s 2022 990 form. The organization held a holiday gala at The Elms, a 31,401-square-foot former summer residence of a late coal baron.)
It’s part of the selfish pattern that got us into this crisis in the first place. Like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry knew its products killed, lied about their destructive nature, hid the data that proved it, and failed to warn us. Profit over people.
Six fossil fuel behemoths — BP, Chevron, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies — more than doubled their profits in 2022, to $219 billion. The record-breaking windfall allowed the corporations “to shower shareholders with cash,” according to a Reuters story about Big Oil’s blockbuster profits.
Riches for the “super-majors” — BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies — and their backers followed them into 2023. The world’s five largest listed oil companies rewarded their investors with dividend payments and share buybacks worth $104 billion.
“Billionaires generate obscene amounts of carbon pollution with their yachts and private jets — but this is dwarfed by the pollution caused by their investments,” Oxfam International’s inequality policy adviser told The Guardian. “Through the corporations they own, billionaires emit a million times more carbon than the average person. They tend to favor investments in heavily polluting industries, like fossil fuels.
“The world’s poorest communities, those who have done the least to cause climate change — those who are least able to respond and recover — are the ones who are suffering the worst consequences. This is unfair and immoral.”
Last September at one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world, the Monaco Yacht Show, a Guardian reporter found most attendees were not concerned about the climate-destroying emissions being spewed from the enormous pleasure craft on display.
A superyacht, or even a regular yacht, is the most polluting single object a person can own, according to a 2021 study. Private jets are a very close second. (In Rhode Island for the past 30 years there has been no sales tax on boats, including yachts — mega, super, or otherwise — and power craft. Bicycles, however, are taxed. There’s also no excise tax in the Ocean State on pollution-spouting yachts and powerboats.)
An Instagram star at the Monaco Yacht Show, who was about to buy a superyacht that runs on diesel, told The Guardian, “There is no other way. For sure, if it’s possible, you take the green one … [but] if you want a big one, there is nothing fully electric.”
A recent Oxfam report found that it would take about 1,500 years for someone in the bottom 99% to produce as much carbon as the richest billionaires do in a year.
“The super-rich are plundering and polluting the planet to the point of destruction and it is those who can least afford it who are paying the highest price,” according to Oxfam’s senior climate justice policy adviser.
Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) detailed the energy-related carbon emissions per person in 2021 in a dozen major countries, plus the 27-nation European Union. In the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the EU, the richest 10% have carbon footprints about 15 times greater than the poorest 10%.
We — the Global North — fund the pummeling of the natural world and the misery of voiceless communities by buying a new phone every year. By driving gas-guzzling supersized pickups to run errands and poke about town while plastic testicles swing from the rear bumper. By electing rich, mostly white guys to Congress and by reelecting people who use the power of the office to get rich. By standing behind a wannabe billionaire and aspiring dictator running for reelection. By refusing to change our consuming behaviors or make lifestyle changes in the face of record climate emissions, ferocious wildfires, and deadly droughts.
It is an indisputable fact that the burning of methane (cleverly labeled “natural gas” by the racketeering fossil fuel industry) oil, gasoline, diesel, propane, and coal is damaging the planet’s climate system.
It is also abundantly clear that the corporations that own the world’s fossil fuel reserves and those who use the dirty hydrocarbons to power their lavish lifestyles — private jets, yachts, helicopters, Hummers, and multiple homes — don’t care about the consequences.
In fact, in an effort to keep the fossil fuel bonfire blazing, so CEOs and shareholders can continue to reap the financial rewards, the world’s hydrocarbon giants, often backed by the rich and famous, have proposed building vast engineering monstrosities — which the industry has dubbed “carbon capture” or more ridiculously “clean coal” — to catch their climate-changing pollution and force it back into the earth.
It’s a bogus solution — one attempt after another has failed and been abandoned — to a mounting crisis. But carbon capture fantasies help keep the bonfire burning and offshore bank accounts flush.
The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — in a gift to fossil fuel, petrochemical, and industrial agriculture corporations seeking a lucrative way to rebrand as “green” — appropriated $11.5 billion in government subsidies to spur innovation in the unproven carbon capture industry. That money should have been used to modernize the power grid and improve public transit.
Despite years of underwhelming results in carbon capture experimentation, based on a technology that has failed to deliver on its promises, the idea of clean coal allows the most heavily polluting industries to profit as they ruin the planet.
The world burned more fossil fuels in 2023 than it did in 2022, according to the Global Carbon Project, spewing 1.1% more planet-heating carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a time when greenhouse gas emissions must nosedive to stop extreme weather from growing more unpredictable and violent.
Greed is also good for the media behemoths. Their fossil fuel PR efforts scrub clean the reporting of their own journalists.
Many of the world’s biggest English-language news outlets — Bloomberg, The Economist, The Financial Times, The New York Times, Politico, Reuters, and The Washington Post — regularly lend their reputations to the fossil fuel industry’s messaging on climate-related topics, according to a recent report co-authored by DeSmog and Drilled.
These media-backed messages — from the false promise of carbon capture to the prominent role the fossil fuel industry claims to be playing in transitioning us away from nonrenewable energy, despite persistently low investments in anything other than increased fossil fuel production — sound like they have been pulled from the public-relations departments of the world’s largest oil companies, but they were produced and promoted by the in-house ad agencies of major media organizations, according to the report.
While the Times and Post’s marketing departments put a shine on petroleum, fossil fuel companies are investing twice as much in oil and methane extraction as they should if the world hopes to limit rising global temperatures, according to the IEA. The France-based organization has noted the industry spends just 2.5% of its capital on cleaner energy technologies such as renewables and electric vehicle charging.
The media’s role is not unlike the theater productions the rich and famous put on every year. These annual Conference of the Parties do little more than provide a smokescreen for the Global North to continue business as usual.
For instance, an oil industry executive led the COP28 climate summit held in Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), late last year. A few days before the U.N.-backed talks began, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber claimed (falsely) there is “no science” that says phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to keep global warming under the critical Celsius threshold. He used a tried-and-true tactic, fearmongering, to rail against a phaseout, claiming such a move wouldn’t allow sustainable development “unless you want to take the world back into caves.”
The most alarming thing about the sultan’s unsurprising comments is that after three decades of climate negotiations we’re still just talking about possibly phasing out fossil fuels. Fits the script. All talk and no action protects the status quo.
The 21st-century robber barons have no intention of quitting their black gold until every last drop has been burned. The UAE is among the world’s 10 largest oil producers. About 96% of the country’s roughly 100 billion barrels of oil reserves are in Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. “is a global leader in the oil and gas industry and is active in all sectors of the industry.” Al Jaber is the head of the fossil fuel giant. (COP28 organizers granted attendance to 475 lobbyists working on carbon capture.)
The two-week performance ended with an agreement riddled with loopholes and concessions to the behemoths. For instance, language backed by fossil fuel interests found its way into the agreement, including the use of “transition fuels” — “bridge fuel” was the former code phrase for methane — and carbon capture technology is cited as a potential solution.
Saudi Arabia and a few other fossil fuel-rich countries objected to the inclusion of any reference to reducing the production and consumption of fossil fuels in the text of any agreement. (Middle-income countries, such as Colombia, Nigeria, and Uganda, were also concerned about the phasing out of fossil fuels, saying revenues from their sale could pay for a transition to cleaner energy.)
They all got their wish. The agreement doesn’t include an explicit commitment to phase out or even phase down fossil fuels. It calls on countries to contribute to global efforts to transition “away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”
This jargon sounds like all the other COP promises that have been ignored. Excuse me as I throw up in my mouth.
After gaveling the theater production to an end, Al Jaber reportedly received an ovation from delegates and a hug from the U.N. climate chief. The world deserves much better from its purported leaders.
“While nobody here will see their views completely reflected, the fact is that this document sends a very strong signal to the world,” said John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate.
Agreed. Another Conference of the Parties deal lays bare the hypocrisy of wealthy nations, particularly the United States. It leaves the voiceless and the natural world exposed. To quote The Police:
“And every single meeting with his so-called superior
Is a humiliating kick in the crotch.”
In a related greedy matter, Saudi Arabia is looking to get poor countries addicted to fossil fuels. Also, the world’s largest fossil fuel producers, including Saudi Arabia, India, Russia, Brazil, Canada, and Kerry’s United States, are planning expansions that would blow the planet’s carbon budget twice over, according to a multi-organization report. These energy plans would lead to 460% more coal production, 83% more methane, and 29% more oil in 2030 than it was possible to burn if global temperature rise was to be kept to the internationally agreed upon 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The many miscreants who sit in Congress help keep the fossil fuel bonfire aglow.
At the end of last year, House Republicans added some 250 poison pill policy riders to their draft spending bills. Among the hundreds of adopted floor amendments were poison pills that were designed to weaken the U.S. response to the climate crisis, including stopping federal agencies from considering the societal costs of greenhouse gases and blocking President Biden’s executive orders on climate change.
This political move was hardly surprising, as one in four members of Congress reportedly own stocks in fossil fuel companies, worth a total of between $33 million and $93 million. The Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute research says this helps to explain why global emissions continue to rise, and why governments in the Global North provided $1.8 trillion to subsidize the fossil fuel industry in 2020.
Rich nations, like the United States, can mobilize billions for war — often fought over fossil fuels — and destruction but can’t find enough money to properly address the climate crisis, help society’s most vulnerable, make public transit dependable and efficient, or fund a logical health-care system.
The president even ignored his own climate change executive orders and promises, when, last March, his administration put up for auction an enormous swath of the Gulf of Mexico, spanning an area the size of 96 Rhode Islands, for oil and methane drilling.
The Gulf of Mexico auctions came just a few weeks after the Biden administration approved the controversial Willow project, a drilling venture in the remote tundra of Alaska’s arctic that will extract some 600 million barrels of oil over its lifetime.
The planet’s climate system is collapsing and the world’s economic system is rigged by the rich and famous. Fossil fuels aren’t the problem. We are the problem. The collective we need to demand — and force with our spending — radical change. Time to flip the script.
Note: I begin the new year writing about this climate emergency because if we don’t radically address the situation now nothing else really matters.
Followup: Last week’s column noted 2023 was expected to break the record for the warmest year. It did so by plenty, smashing the record for the hottest year by a huge margin, at least in climate terms. The planet was 1.48 degrees Celsius (2.66 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter last year compared with the period before the mass burning of fossil fuels ignited the climate crisis. Earth’s average temperature for 2023 was 14.98 degrees Celsius (58.96 degrees Fahrenheit) — 0.17 degrees Celsius higher than in 2016, the previous record year.
Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.