Role of oil companies in climate change

Fossil fuels are a dead end', says top UN climate adviser on 'Decarbonization Day' at COP27 | Decarbonization, negotiations and US President Biden, on the spotlight at COP27 UN News

Role of oil companies in causing climate change

By Jitendra Bhojwani


Irresponsible burning of fossil fuels has been consistently adding significantly to climate change, but its outcomes have become alarmingly apparent in the last 5 years. 

With farming communities losing their crops and homes to extreme rains in Midwestern states, constantly rising sea levels threatening coastal city natives, and precious marine life being destroyed by polluted ocean water, we know that climate change concerns not only the pro-environment fraternity but also the common populace. 

Though partially driven by selfish reasons, an increasing portion of the mass population now supports the pro-environment lobby in demanding that oil companies take immediate preventive measures to limit further damage and pay for the losses.

What actually puts the oil companies in the conviction box is that their in-house scientists had already warned them about the severe impact of fossil fuels on the environment. They, however, chose to safeguard their commercial interests by initiating well-planned campaigns to trick the public with convincing lies. Surprisingly, these companies succeeded in sustaining these cover-up campaigns for decades.

Critical discoveries conveniently ignored


There are solid pieces of evidence proving that these oil giants already knew about the possible consequential effects of fossil fuel burning. One of the top brands in the oil industry, for instance, had started studying the impact as far back as 1978. Its seasoned experts found solid evidence of the harmful impact of fossil fuel burning, clearly warning the company that they still had a time window of 5-10 years to avoid any drastic decisions regarding the energy generation or distribution model. 

The company, however, chose to keep its commercial interests a priority.

The same company conducted a study the very following year, which stated that fossil fuel burning can have a perceptible impact on the environment. It clearly hinted at the urgency of the issue.

The third time, the same company used a more advanced research strategy and equipment for measuring carbon dioxide levels in the air and seawater to measure the extent of the impact. Its scientists were able to present an accurate graphical presentation of rising levels of global temperature. It was in 1982.

The same year, the scientists were unanimously united in their observation that climate change will drastically change the world’s climate, and there were enough scientific pieces of evidence to support that.

Priorities recognized, preventive measures redefined


You might well be puzzled about why the same company was repeatedly conducting studies almost every year. It was not for solidifying their findings and taking reformative measures to avoid climate change. They did take preventive measures; measures that “prevented their companies from registering losses.”

Science sacrificed for business


Almost immediately, the big oil companies joined forces to orchestrate a thoroughly planned strategy to gradually and logically downgrade their findings. The science was deliberately put under doubt, the accuracy of solid evidence was questioned, and factual projections were presented as uncertain assumptions. With reputation and resources in their favor, these companies first started propagating the “insufficient evidence against fossil fuel impact” to prevent any wide-scale opposition.

Then they spent heavily on advertising, quoting those media reports. These advertisements used convincing language, stats, and facts highlighting the global benefits of the oil industry and raising doubts about the extent of fossil fuel’s impact on climate change.

Figuring the right way of doing wrong things


Aided by the top advisors, the companies were smart enough to take a legally correct course to avoid any legal trouble. Instead of explicitly proving the studies wrong, they started by equally highlighting the scientific evidence as well as sowing doubts about science and denying climate change. 

This decades-long strategy paid off well; eventually, global heating was demoted from a “proven fact” to a “theory” that was yet to be proven beyond doubt. In the meantime, the “business was going as usual,” and companies’ revenues kept growing. 

Influencing federal policies through political lobbying


Proving science wrong, however, isn’t an easy task. So the companies chose to influence the people by building a reputation so strong that easily outweighs their wrongdoings. Another obstacle was the legal compliances and new rules brought by climate change research that could halt their growth. To counter this, the companies started political lobbying, helping authorities in decision-making positions through funding and support. It allowed top companies to wield a sizeable influence in shaping federal decisions regarding the energy and petroleum industry. 

The invisible consortium of big oil companies also started funding dozens of groups that explicitly denied climate change. They also funded seemingly pro-environment organizations like GCC or Global Climate Coalition, inflating their authority and power to noticeable levels. So, the higher political authorities invited their input while making environment-related decisions. Even the Kyoto Protocol for lowering greenhouse gas emissions was rejected by President George Bush, partially based on GCC’s input.

Climate change and today’s world


Fast-forwarding to the present year, the dire consequences of climate change impact are becoming more obvious—higher heat levels, rise in sea levels, and changes in the ecosystem have started affecting lives and livelihoods. What’s more disturbing is that according to a UN report, these changes will continue impacting Earth’s life even after taking preventive measures.

Can oil companies be proven guilty?


Raising awareness about climate change has helped activists’ concerns get vocal support from the general population. The legal procedures against these oil companies have been initiated. However, it can be an uphill task to prove them guilty on legal charges. First of all, they have the top legal talent to fight the case on their behalf. Secondly, as already mentioned, these companies were doing wrong but in the right way—carefully not leaving any legal residue that can prove them outright guilty.

Now, their legal advisors will have to exert some more efforts like cherry-picking the technical niceties to save these companies or at least to (again) create uncertainties that will buy them enough time to clean up their image and influence the narrative. 


All hope is not lost though. While it may be difficult to prove them legally wrong, even taking the legal course will compel these companies to restrain their activities and pause relentless expansion. It will also force government bodies to make strict federal laws to mitigate the environmental impact of fossil fuel burning.