This is crime at a level never before seen in human history. Star culprits include Chevron Texaco, Exxon/Mobil, and BP. Co-conspirators include your daily newspaper and evening news broadcasts. Hundreds of millions of people have shared the bounty of this ongoing depravity. Billions are now at risk of losing their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives.
The latest chapter of this saga took place in Warsaw earlier this month at the “COP 19” global governmental meeting on climate change. The big news, and this is news, is that once again, nothing of substance happened.
The timeline for our story is chronicled not so much by years as by the parts-per-million (PPM) atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) count. The glaciers tell us that atmospheric carbon, before humans developed an industrial economy, fluctuated between 180 and 280 PPM. By 1958, when we began sampling atmospheric CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, back when President Eisenhower was cutting ribbons on the newly built Interstate Highway system, the atmospheric CO2 number was 315 PPM. This was around the same time that scientists started publicly warning about CO2’s warming effect on the climate.
In November 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, the number had already risen to 319 PPM. In 1979, when Jimmy Carter installed 32 solar panels on the White House roof and gave what became known as his “malaise” speech calling for energy conservation, the CO2 count was 337 PPM. When Ronald Reagan removed the solar panels from the White House in 1981, symbolically trashing Carter’s call to conscience and responsibility and inaugurating a generation of conspicuous consumption, the CO2 count was 339 PPM. During Reagan’s last year in office, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen loudly warned the US Senate about the ongoing global warming crisis, the C02 count had hit 351 PPM, crossing the 350PPM threshold that climatologists warn will cause catastrophic climate change. By the time Reagan left office, the number was 352PPM.
In March 1997, with the CO2 count hovering at 363 PPM, the United Nations convened its first Conference of the Parties (COP) intergovernmental meeting on climate action in Germany. In December of that year, with the CO2 count hitting 365 PPM, the group met again in Japan, adopting the Kyoto protocols, with every UN member nation except Andorra, Canada, South Sudan, and the United States signing on, committing to cutting overall emissions of greenhouse gasses to five percent below 1997 levels, with historically polluting nations making the largest cuts. Eleven years later, in 2008, with CO2 levels hitting 385 PPM, James Hansen renewed the warning he made 20 years earlier, pleading that only immediate drastic action could ward off the direst consequences of global warming.
Today the CO2 count at Mauna Loa is at 397 PPM, with some counts having the number tickling the 400 PPM count. At no other time have humans lived on the planet with such a high atmospheric CO2 count. With weather records breaking practically every year, we’re living at the beginning of the future that climatologists warned of. Extreme weather now causes approximately $400 billion of damage annually—just counting financial damage, not lost or ruined lives and cultures.
This month at the COP 19 meetings in Warsaw, the government of Japan announced that rather than cut CO2 emissions by 25 percent by 2020, they will limit their C02 emission increase to three percent, or 28 percent off of their promised target. Looking at the numbers, by the early 1960s, CO2 emissions were 40 PPM higher than historic pre-industrial highs. Now they are 120 PPM higher, with the increase having more than tripled since the alarm was first raised, and having gone up almost 50 percent since the first COP climate summit.
Add forensic science to the climate mix and we can get a good idea about who is responsible for this crisis. A study published earlier this month in the journal Climatic Change argues that almost two-thirds of the CO2 added to the atmosphere since the 1850s, the aforementioned 120 PPM, can be directly traced to 90 fossil fuel and cement producers. Most of the culprits, having enriched themselves at the expense of our atmosphere and future, are still in existence today. Many of them are financing public relations campaigns aimed at stopping or delaying any meaningful climate preservation action.
At the top of the list of corporations is Chevron Texaco, whose activities have generated more CO2 pollution than all other organized entities in history, with the exception of the government-run entities in China and the former Soviet Union. Chevron Texaco is responsible for 3.52 percent of the industrial world’s atmospheric carbon contribution. Exxon Mobil is right behind them, responsible for 3.22 percent, followed by BP at 2.47 percent, Royal Dutch Shell at 2.12 percent, and Conoco Phillips at 1.16 percent. Put together, these five private oil companies are responsible for 12.4 percent of the carbon causing global warming.
We now have a real and quickly increasing global price tag for climate change. And we have five corporations that are liable for 12.4 percent of this damage. No matter how you do the math, as superstorm-driven tidal surges push rising oceans across populated cities, if this really was a free market economy, the liabilities of these corporations would be far greater than their total value. But this isn’t a real free market. It’s a corrupt system gamed by the largest corporations.
The top three corporations on this list, Chevron Texaco, Exxon Mobil, and BP, are also on the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of the “Top All-Time Campaign Donors.” Hence it should come as no surprise that the US’s position at COP 19 was a firm “no” to any talk of reparations paid by top CO2 polluters to the victims of CO2-induced climate change. And, once again, another global climate summit was scuttled thanks in large part to the consistent intransigence of the US government. If we’re really serious about saving the climate, first we have to save democracy.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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