TIME rewards climate villains
In honoring polluters like ExxonMobil and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company in its inaugural list of "the most influential climate leaders," TIME gave arsonists a firefighting award.
Isabella Garcia is staff writer at the Center for Climate Integrity. You can follow her here.
Two weeks ago, TIME released its inaugural list of the “100 most influential leaders driving business to real climate action,” highlighting “individuals making significant progress in fighting climate change.” While the list honors many hard-working people dedicated to addressing the climate crisis, it also inexplicably features representatives from some of the most obvious and odious climate villains, including ExxonMobil and Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
In a morbid-but-not-surprising turn of events, days after TIME recognized Al Jaber, the host of the COP28 climate talks that are about to kick-off in Dubai, as a “climate leader,” it was revealed that the oil executive was planning on using the climate summit to make oil and gas deals.
TIME’s climate list is a stark reminder that mainstream media is too often still failing to recognize the fossil fuel industry as the cause of — not the solution to — our worsening climate emergency.
The list features some familiar leaders in the fight to hold Big Oil accountable, like Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, whose work as a historian of science has been critical to exposing Exxon’s historic and ongoing disinformation campaigns. There are also newcomers like Melissa Sims, an attorney representing Puerto Rico municipalities in the first racketeering lawsuit against Exxon, Shell, BP, and other oil companies for climate deception and damages. But the respect TIME aims to bestow on those climate leaders is immediately undercut — and the integrity of the entire list compromised — by the inclusion of some of the world’s biggest climate polluters, who continue to lobby against climate action while deceiving the public about their commitment to solutions.
How did representatives from fossil fuel giants wind up on one of the most culturally prominent climate leaders lists in mainstream media? When it comes to Exxon, apparently TIME took the company’s deceptive marketing at face value, despite the company’s long track record of lying to the public about their role in the climate crisis.
The names on the TIME list were chosen, according to the publication, because of their “measurable, scalable achievements over commitments and announcements'' to address climate in the business sector. But Dan Ammann, Exxon’s president of Low Carbon Solutions, was named one of those top 100 global climate leaders not for any “measurable, scalable achievement.” Instead, Ammann was awarded — in TIME’s own words — for having “committed” and “allocated” less than one percent of the company’s total revenues toward supposed low carbon solutions. If that’s where we’re setting the bar for climate leaders, we’re all doomed.
By TIME’s own metrics, Exxon’s record should not merit inclusion on this list. But more to the point, news outlets should know by now to take any low-carbon “commitment” from Exxon with many, many grains of salt. Remember the company’s plans for algae biofuel?
TIME specifically named Exxon’s carbon capture plans in its brief write-up, but those proposed plans are several years out from implementation — the company’s plan to start capturing more carbon emissions in the Gulf Coast won’t kick off until 2026. They’re also based on underperforming, expensive technology that the IEA last week called out as an ineffective solution to the climate crisis.
As IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol — someone who earned their place on the TIME100 list — said last week, the fossil fuel industry needs to “[let] go of the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution.”
Al Jaber’s spot on the list was also secured by his company’s commitment to carbon capture and his work co-founding a renewable energy company — a company that is dwarfed by ADNOC and whose values don’t seem shared by the two companies. Per TIME’s own reporting, Al Jaber has not committed to cutting ADNOC’s oil production and the company has invested more than $150 billion in growth projects that will significantly increase ADNOC’s daily oil production. Al Jaber showed us his commitment to oil and gas long before those leaked documents were shared — why did TIME choose to ignore it?
Journalists have a responsibility to accurately report on companies’ claimed climate solutions, just like any other topic. When a mayor boldly claims their safety program decreased crime rates, journalists should review the crime data before repeating the claim. When a politician claims to have never known about a scandal brewing in their office, journalists should do some digging to find out if that’s true. When the largest oil company in the world claims to be investing in a technological climate solution, journalists should research whether that technology is functional at-scale before lauding an executive at that company as a climate leader.
“[I]t is crucial not to be distracted by ‘solutions’ that might work down the road but take too long to implement, and/or lock in fossil-fuel dependency,” Oreskes said in her TIME interview. Yet mainstream media’s willingness to uplift the fossil fuel industry’s false solutions enables that distraction.
As Ammann is praised for Exxon’s “low carbon solutions” — an award that the company quickly touted on social media — Exxon is simultaneously doubling down on oil and gas. Weeks before Exxon was included in TIME’s climate list, Exxon acquired Pioneer Natural Resources in a massive, $60 billion deal — a move that more than doubles Exxon’s oil production in the Permian Basin. Following the merger, CEO Darren Woods told CNBC that “oil and gas will continue to play a role” in the energy field and “be around for a long time.”
The oil industry has been able to get away with its climate deception for decades in part because of its longstanding influence over mainstream media, which still too often allows oil executives to credulously report their talking points without pushback — even as companies like Exxon face growing evidence of their well-documented track record of lying to the public. Big Oil has proven time and time again that it is an unreliable narrator when it comes to climate change, so why are journalists allowing their claims of climate solutions to go unchallenged?
Major outlets have the evidence they need to call out Exxon and every other oil company’s climate deception; all they need now is the integrity to do so.
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