By Prof Giles Jackson
Things were looking up for a while. Earlier this year, none other than the Rockefeller Family Fund announced that it would divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies, starting with ExxonMobil — the descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company — because of its “morally reprehensible conduct”. Specifically:
“Evidence appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change’s march, while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change’s destructive consequences and track new exploration opportunities as the Arctic’s ice receded. Appropriate authorities will determine if the company violated any laws, but as a matter of good governance, we cannot be associated with a company exhibiting such apparent contempt for the public interest” ~ Rockefeller Family Fund
As reported by the LA Times, in 1990 a dissident shareholder petitioned the board of Exxon, imploring it to develop a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from its production plants and facilities. The company rejected the petition on the grounds that the science of global warming was too murky to warrant action, yet was already several years into a study of the positive and negative effects that a warming Arctic would have on oil operations.
In 2007 the Union of Concerned Scientists published the report Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to “Manufacture Uncertainty” on Climate Change which details how the company funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that sought to confuse the public about the scientific consensus that its own scientists had confirmed, while using its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming.
They were merely following in the founder’s footsteps. The Standard Oil Company’s underhand tactics included organising a network of spies to learn about competitors with the sole purpose of undercutting them. Today, however, the implications of Exxon’s actions are more far reaching because of the immense damage to life on this planet.
This really hit home for me last year while reading environmental management at Harvard. Studying the degradation of the world’s 112 coral reef systems, I zeroed in on coastal pollution, which affects 92 percent of reefs for the simple reason that 90 per cent of all wastewater in developing countries is discharged untreated into rivers and oceans. However I gradually came to realise the futility of examining local factors in isolation.
Mounting evidence suggests that local wastewater reef stressors — including foreign freshwater, inorganic nutrients, pathogens, endocrine disrupters, suspended solids, sediments, heavy metals, and other toxins — interact with key global stressors (ocean warming and acidification) to decrease coral growth and reproduction in synergistic ways. For example, warming seas are hypothesised to increase the susceptibility of coral to disease through temperature stress and increasing the virulence of pathogens.
I once went diving off Hastings Reef, the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef some 30 nautical miles from Cairns, where deep ocean swells meet great, vibrant cliffs of coral, teeming with life. At least they were teaming with life twenty-five years ago. Now, two-thirds of corals in one part of the reef have died, and even the remotest areas aren’t immune. It’s not death by slow starvation either, but sudden death by literally cooking. “The pace of global warming is now so rapid that it’s probably too late to save the Great Barrier Reef,” says John “Charlie” Veron, a leading authority on coral reefs who has clocked up 6,000 hours underwater.
As reported in the FT, according to a report published by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the world is experiencing the “longest and most widespread coral-bleaching event on record”, with more than 70 per cent of reefs exposed to temperatures that cause bleaching. Bleaching has occurred in the past in El Niño years, when sea temperatures rise, but with the oceans warming it could now happen every year, crucially leaving coral reefs no time to recuperate. Coral reefs won’t be the only things affected, warns Veron. The death of many of the world’s coral species would have a devastating impact on humanity, given that reef systems support almost a third of marine life. Climate change could precipitate a “mass extinction” on earth, an event which last occurred 65 million years ago.
“Humans and corals do very similar things. We both create very sophisticated ecosystems that enable us to live on this planet. But corals grow on the interface between the land, sea and atmosphere, they grow where very few other things can grow. It’s a fragile world” ~ John Veron
Into this fragile world stomps Donald Trump, armed to the teeth with Exxon chief Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State and former president of Boy Scouts of America, believe it or not. According to Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental campaigner, this “completes the takeover of our democracy by Big Oil, Wall Street and the Far Right”. A world in desperate need of statesmanship is about to get its very opposite: snake oil politicians that either won’t listen, or know the truth and do absolutely nothing about it.
What can the fractured environmental movement possibly achieve in face of this mass extinction event (i.e. the death of common sense)? This question crossed my mind a few days ago, as I read the latest email from the good folks at 350.org…
Hey Giles, Did you see this? We’re mounting a campaign to stop Trump and his climate denier cabinet (including ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, and fossil fuel industry ally Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy). To do it, we need to make sure the global climate movement is strong enough to be a real bulwark against anti-climate governments like Trump’s. Can you chip in $15 to help make it all happen? Thanks again, Jenny
Sorry Jenny, but the usual protest tactics won’t cut it. Either we rethink our strategy, or ‘350’ (their parts-per-million target for atmospheric carbon dioxide) will increasingly seem like a pipe dream — if not tragically funny.
The author is founder of Liberation Kilt Co.