Studies agree: Big Oil is the problem
From wildfires to public health crises, new research confirms that, yes, we can blame the fossil fuel industry.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Temperatures are likely to (temporarily) breach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels for the first time ever within the next 5 years, the World Meteorological Organisation just warned. That’s the threshold of warming at which some climate tipping points could become irreversible. This week, haze from wildfires that forced thousands out of their homes in Western Canada stretched all the way to New York City, where I live, the sickly red sun like a warning sign.
A series of recent studies are helping to quantify some of the climate damages we have and will suffer, while all pointing back to a common cause: major fossil fuel companies, which lied for decades about how their products cause climate change and are now making record profits while continuing to extract and burn coal, oil, and gas. The new research clarifies that companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP are indeed the problem — despite Big Oil’s years-long attempts to portray itself as part of the solution to climate change.
Here’s what they found:
Fossil fuels are wreaking havoc on public health, particularly in communities of color.
Air pollution from U.S. oil and gas production causes about $77 billion in annual health costs nationwide, including thousands of additional deaths, asthma attacks, cases of childhood asthma, hospitalizations, and emergency room visits, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Research: Health. The researchers found that while the costliest impacts were concentrated in areas with oil and gas operations, they also spread to other regions across the country.
Those costs aren’t evenly distributed, though. Throughout the nation, the public health harms caused by every stage of the fossil fuel lifecycle hit Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities hardest — and that’s no coincidence, says another study published in Energy Research & Social Science this month. In their review of more than 200 studies revealing the myriad health complications fossil fuels cause in communities of color, the authors found that the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors — who were among the most disproportionately polluting industries in the U.S. — rely on systemic racism to pass off the costs of their harmful products.
Big Oil depends on “sacrifice zones,” the study explains, or places where environmental devastation is posited as an acceptable cost for access to “cheap” fossil fuels. Often, that means putting heavily polluting oil and gas infrastructure in communities of color that have been historically segregated and disempowered through racist redlining practices. These same communities most burdened by air pollution are also most affected by the health impacts of climate change.
“Oftentimes the industry will say ‘we’re doing everything we can,’” said Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist at Greenpeace USA and the lead author of the study. “But if this is everything they can do, and we’re still seeing hundreds of thousands of people die from fossil fuel-linked pollution every year, that’s a pretty big condemnation of the polluting nature of fossil fuels.”
Major fossil fuel companies “knew about the realities of climate change and air pollution as far back as the 1960s and '70s, but they have actively opposed and worked to block stronger climate and pollution policies,” the report reads. In recent years, the authors found, those same companies have helped to diminish communities’ ability to fight back by attacking their democratic rights, from supporting racist voter suppression to the criminalization of protest.
The authors conclude that “carbon-centric” climate policies pushed by the industry, like carbon capture and carbon offsets, prolong the use of oil and gas and can perpetuate environmental racism. “We need to have solutions that involve environmental justice communities and workers, and that alleviate the health harms and historical injustices that have been visited upon these communities that are overly polluted,” Donaghy said. “There’s not really a way to use or extract fossil fuels in a way that doesn’t harm local communities.”
Big Oil is fueling the fire — literally.
More than a third of forest burned in wildfires across the western U.S. and Canada since 1986 can be attributed to emissions from just 88 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, according to researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the University of California, Merced. Their new study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, is the first to link specific polluters to wildfires worsened by climate change.
“These companies should be held accountable for their fair share of the damages that they’ve caused,” Carly Phillips, one of the study’s authors and a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Grist. “They lied and engaged in this orchestrated campaign of deception for years, and it didn’t have to be this way, right?”
Fossil fuel companies could owe trillions of dollars for the damage they caused.
The fossil fuel industry is responsible for at least $23.2 trillion in costs caused by climate disasters expected over the next 25 years, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis published in the journal One Earth. The study tallies the climate costs caused by individual fossil fuel companies and concludes that 21 of the worst offenders, including Exxon, Shell, Chevron and BP, owe $209 billion per year to the victims of climate change.
The researchers determined each company’s climate reparations based on its emissions since 1988 and the economic status of its home country. They point out that the damages these companies owe are pretty small in comparison to the gargantuan profits they’ve made from burning fossil fuels. Exxon, for example, would be responsible for an annual $18 billion; the company made a record $56 billion in 2022 alone.
Studies like these can be used to support legal efforts to hold polluters accountable.
The new research adds to a growing field of attribution science that ties climate damages back to individual companies — which could be used as evidence in climate liability lawsuits filed against Big Oil by communities across the country.
“This evidence keeps getting stronger and [scientists] keep being able to do it faster,” Karen Sokol, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, previously told ExxonKnews in reference to a lawsuit filed last year by Puerto Rico municipalities that points to the companies’ role in turbocharging the fatal 2017 hurricane season. Indeed, lawsuits working their way through the courts that cite the rising threat of wildfires can now point to a study linking that damage to individual fossil fuel defendants.
The climate reparations analysis, too, could be used to help courts determine the damages fossil fuel companies should pay to “help fill the massive gap [left] by states in covering the scale and costs of climate harms,” Erika Lennon, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, told the Guardian. “This is the next step in holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their trillions of dollars of climate impacts.”
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