Should fossil fuel companies have "a seat at the table" in crafting solutions to global warming?

When your house is burning down, you don’t ask the arsonist for his help in putting out the fire he started.

This article is part of a long series of my thoughts on the role of climate change in history, which interfaces with the collapse of American democracy. For other articles in this series, see here, here and here.

Once in a while, even in a world being ravaged daily by global warming and its many disasters, fossil fuel companies muster the chutzpah to ask the public for our sympathy. Their PR arms are adept at trying to spin arguments like, “Have pity on us after all we’ve done for you,” and “You still need us,” or, my personal favorite, “We will be a part of the world’s energy mix for decades to come.” In May 2021, Ben van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, made this argument to Axios, a news outlet, in an exclusive interview. “What quite often I think is insufficiently understood,” van Beurden said, “is that companies like us are absolutely needed for the solutions that the world needs…[but] in many parts of society, everything we say is wrong.” While Shell, one of the worst polluters in the history of the planet, is alone among the oil majors in making (supposedly) a “net zero emissions by 2050” pledge, this kind of argument is nothing new. When they do decide they care about public relations, oil companies frequently play the old “you still need us” standby, and proudly—or arrogantly—assume that the world has no choice but to continue to tolerate their noxious world-killing business indefinitely into the future, and, in their view, toleration is all they really need.

The argument proffered by Van Beurden and the other fossil fuel companies is nonsense of course, but possibly not for the reasons you might immediately assume. In the oil execs’ vision of the future, if (and for them it’s very much still an “if”) the world should decide that it needs to do something about global warming, it will be done gradually, through familiar consensus-based political and economic processes, and, being consensus-based, those processes will include a wondrous rainbow of stakeholders—which conveniently include the fossil fuel companies. As I’ve explained before, that is not likely to be our future. If it ever was, the time to build that future was 1980, or 1970, when the oil companies themselves knew full well the ruin their products were creating. But certainly by now, two decades into the 21st century, all the familiar, gradual and consensus-based solutions to the climate crisis are off the table. Only the scary and radical ones remain. In my September article about the “Lenin of climate change,” I quoted a tweet I saw not long ago whose exact wording I can’t recall, but it was to the effect of, “Today’s leaders are behaving as if the people they’re governing aren’t going to put them in the dock someday.” Mr. Van Beurden should stop reading memos from his PR department and start reading some history. The Russian Revolution might be a good subject to start with.

The truth is that fossil fuel companies in general, and oil companies in particular, are rapidly losing—or have already lost—their “social license to operate.” This is a concept that governs the phenomenon of what historians refer to as the moral economy. However unfettered capitalism may be in the fantastic reality-divorced theories of kooky libertarians, in the real world it is constrained by a sense of basic ethics, often crude and nebulous, and usually enforced (unfortunately) by mob behavior. During the American Revolution, merchants in Boston and New York who did business with British interests in defiance of boycotts organized by local pro-revolutionary committees, were often tarred, feathered, their warehouses burned and otherwise subjected to mob violence. In the modern day, boycotts of companies that support fulsome causes, like Chick Fil-A or Hobby Lobby, are smaller-scale, nonviolent examples of the moral economy in action. The actions of former NFL football player Colin Kapernick were intended to bring the moral economy into play to focus attention on issues of racial equality. It worked: he and his protests are household names and the NFL looks villainous for resisting him. The moral economy is alive and well.

Would you expect Underwood, a maker of typewriters in the 20th century, to have a major role in the development of personal computers? Of course not. So why would anyone think ExxonMobil would be a major player in renewable energy?

Oil companies and the men who run them know full well what the moral economy and the social license to operate are, and they are terrified of them. In 2014, a man named Alex Epstein, a Koch-funded, Ayn Rand-worshiping global warming denier, wrote a book called The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels which attempted (badly) to argue that fossil fuels are a net win for humanity, having powered innovation, economic growth and human empowerment for most of the last 150 years. The book got traction among the chattering class upon its release and was something of an event in the online denialist ecosystem at the time. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels was nothing but a fairly desperate attempt to slow down the cancellation of the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate. Its central tenet concedes how terrified fossil fuel interests are of the moral economy: once they lose the moral justification to exist, they’ve essentially lost the whole game. Climate deniers have warned each other for decades that they cannot concede the moral high ground on fossil fuels to “the left.” This is the battle they most fear losing. Ben van Beurden’s less incendiary remarks this year underscore the point that they have a lot to be afraid of.

As a practical matter, the idea that oil companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have any substantive contributions to make to solving the climate crisis is laughable. In every major technological transformation in the past few hundred years, especially those involving transportation or energy, the major interests that controlled the old technologies have never been a major part of the transition to new ones. Quite the opposite: they always stand in opposition, and they always go down to ruin. Were horse breeders or the owners of livery stables significant players in the transition from horse-drawn urban transportation to automobiles at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries? Did monks hand-copying manuscripts in monasteries in the 15th century have any role in the invention or dissemination of the printing press? Expecting oil companies to provide bold new innovations to hasten the transition to renewable energy is like expecting Underwood, a company that manufactured typewriters, to be a major innovator of personal computers. Seen this way, van Beurden’s statement that “companies like us are absolutely needed for the solutions that the world needs” is false and absurd on its face.

The view of the oil companies that they are necessary in an energy transition only makes sense if they sucker you into believing they are in the energy business, which presumes that the manner of delivering that energy—whether by whale oil or nuclear fusion—is essentially immaterial. But that’s very obviously not true. Shell is not in the energy business. It never has been. It’s in the oil business. Any “solution” to the climate crisis that doesn’t involve burning more oil, neither Shell nor any other oil company will ever be interested in.

Revolutionaries stormed the Tsar’s Winter Palace and looted it of all its valuables. The Tsar did not have a “seat at the table” to discuss how Russia would change in 1917.

There is, however, one thing that fossil fuel companies can, and eventually will, contribute to the climate crisis, and it’s the one thing they are least willing to part with: money. Oil, coal and natural gas companies, which bear most of the moral responsibility for the climate crisis, do have significant assets that can be expropriated to fund both the rapid development of alternative technologies, and damage and reparations funds for societies, communities and individuals hurt by over a century of their malfeasance. The leaders who will take power in a climate-ravaged world—the “Lenin of climate change”—would gain significant economic and political capital by using the power of the state to dismantle and destroy these companies and raid their assets. In a climate crisis severe enough to bring a Lenin of climate change to power, no one will give a damn about giving these companies (or their shareholders) any sort of due process. American slaveowners were not compensated when slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865. Similarly, the stakeholders of fossil fuel interests will not be compensated if their own assets are stripped to fund climate solutions. The limits of the moral economy are more often enforced by angry mobs, but their actions are usually given legal sanction. Both the American and Russian Revolutions contain examples of this.

Oil companies are on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of morality. Men like Ben van Beurden know this, which is why they’re working hard to try to convince you that they aren’t. No matter how much money Shell pretends to funnel into proposed solutions to the climate crisis, they will never be anything other than an oil company. They cannot and will not change. When your house is burning down, you don’t ask the arsonist for his help in putting out the fire he started. Fossil fuel companies have nothing to contribute to solving the climate crisis except a dwindling pot of greasy, oil-soaked money. The Shakespearean end for which the fossil fuel industry is inevitably headed will ensure that, eventually, they’ll lose that too.


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