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Big Oil’s evergreen false solution is now Republicans’ climate plan
Major fossil fuel companies have been selling tree planting as an alternative to getting off oil and gas since the 1980s.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
When asked whether they have a plan to do something about the carbon pollution setting off deadly wildfires, heatwaves, and floods across America this summer, Republicans have decided on a common refrain: forget phasing out fossil fuels, let’s just plant a trillion trees.
Planting and preserving our forests is a necessary endeavor on its own — but becomes a dangerous diversion when used as an excuse to continue burning oil and gas. Indeed, scientists say that planting trees is “not a serious solution to the climate crisis” and “not a replacement for reducing emissions as quickly as possible.” The suggestion is especially preposterous as conservatives simultaneously plan to unravel nearly every existing climate and clean energy provision while increasing the production of fossil fuels, the primary driver of climate change.
Republican lawmakers are drawing from a playbook used by polluters for decades. Since first learning about climate change, Big Oil has been working to shift the public’s attention towards trees and away from reducing our dependence on oil and gas.
In a 1980 internal memo, titled “Exxon’s View and Position on ‘Greenhouse Effect’,” Exxon’s then-president of research and engineering, Edward E. David, warned a company executive that the greenhouse gas effect “is receiving widespread attention, based in part on dramatic claims and dire predictions that are appearing in the popular press.” Under a section labeled “Fossil Fuels or Forest Clearing?” David lays out a plan to study the impact of vintage wine production on the climate with the goal of “determin[ing] the relative annual contribution of fossil fuel combustion and of forest clearing to the atmospheric CO2 inventory.”
Exxon executives didn’t just want to drink the “some 100 bottles of wine with well-documented histories” they would obtain from a chateau in France — the company seemingly hoped to establish deforestation as an alternative culprit to fossil fuels in the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere and resulting global warming.
Other documents reference the company’s interest in deforestation, too; “If deforestation is indeed contributing to atmospheric CO2, then another sink for carbon must be found and the impact of fossil fuel must be considered in the context of such a sink,” another Exxon memo reads. By 1989, company executives concluded that Exxon should educate the public about the potential economic costs of international climate negotiations while promoting “environmentally sound adaptive efforts” that wouldn’t have an effect on the company’s bottom line — like “efforts to increase the global ratio of re/deforestation.”
Soon after, the Global Climate Coalition — a fossil fuel industry lobbying group designed by Exxon and other fossil fuel giants to oppose climate policy — proposed a “No Regrets” strategy of “voluntary actions by business and industry that [made] economic sense in their own right and produce an environmental benefit” in response to growing calls for mandatory action. Reforestation made its way to the top of that list for many fossil fuel companies, who promised to plant trees as a way of demonstrating their supposed commitment to planetary wellbeing. (In the 1990s and 2000s, coal consuming electric utilities also claimed to "offset" coal power plant emissions with tree planting, naming their project "UtiliTree".)
In recent years, “nature-based offsets” — including plans to plant trees in one location while polluting in another — have had a major role to play in some fossil fuel majors’ climate pledges. Aside from furthering environmental injustices and being vastly insufficient to counter the industry’s massive emissions from growing fossil fuel production, the companies’ offset strategies are outlandish; Shell’s 2021 “net zero” plan, for one, centered around a vague plan to plant trees over an area three times the size of the Netherlands. More than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading certifier — including Shell’s — are “largely worthless” and could worsen the climate crisis, according to an analysis by the Guardian.
Much as it did with its promotion of algae biofuels, Exxon worked to sell tree planting as a climate fix-all that could accompany its continued expansion of fossil fuel projects while distracting from its lack of investments in clean energy. A 2021 study by Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran analyzing Exxon’s public climate communications found the company “touts its efforts to plant trees, but renewables such as wind and electric vehicles/EVs are given short shrift.”
While it’s hard to say if Republicans’ so-called climate solution is rooted in Big Oil’s rhetoric, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time the industry’s disinformation helped shape political talking points.
Exxon was never quite able to successfully commandeer nature in pursuit of a greener image, though. In a Bloomberg exposé on the oil giant published last year, journalist Kevin Crowley describes how former CEO Rex Tillerson had a giant, century-old oak tree dug up and moved to Exxon’s campus courtyard in the early 2000s as a symbol of the company’s dedication to the environment. The tree didn’t fare so well in its new location.
“Eventually, around Memorial Day in 2021, the grand old oak was completely removed while most employees were out of the office,” Crowley wrote. “A memo went around the following morning explaining that despite its outward appearance, it was dying inside.”
Former Vice President Al Gore just delivered a scathing rebuke of fossil fuel companies’ climate deception and delay in a new TED talk. “They know the truth and they consciously decided to lie to publics all around the world in order to calm down the political momentum for doing something about it so they could make more money,” he said. “In order to move faster, we have got to empower the global community in a way that frees them from the hammerlock that the fossil fuel companies have on them today.” Listen to the full talk here.
The wildfires raging across Maui have already taken at least 36 lives and burned the town of Lahaina to the ground.
In October 2020, Maui County sued Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell and other fossil fuel giants for the escalating costs of climate damages those companies knowingly caused — including more frequent and devastating wildfires. That lawsuit is moving forward toward trial in state court. More to come.
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