The Politics of Global Warming

A nice piece, Global Smarming, by Ian Williams in The Guardian, on some of the jockeying on the issue of climate change. It contrasts the actions of British Petroleum with those of Exxon Mobil. BP in 1997 decided to lower its carbon emissions below the 1990 level by 2010. It achieved the goal in 3 years rather than 13 at a cost of $20 million. Oh, and it happened to save $650 million. With that sort of calculus, you’d think that every big corporation would be on the emissions-reduction bandwagon.

But not Exxon Mobil. It runs ads, tries to change the composition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the UN-sponsored group that issued the grim report a few weeks ago) and, through a lobbying group, offered $10,000 to scientists who’d write articles disputing the IPCC report. Fortunately, since the IPCC has 2000 scientists participating, its size probably prevents Exxon Mobil’s efforts to change its membership from having much impact.

In addition, the story discusses the evangelicals’ growing interest in throwing their considerable political muscle behind combatting climate change. And some Republicans are taking notice. Senators John McCain (R) and Jospeh Lieberman (I) have introduced legislation that would establishe caps on carbon emissions.

To the Guardian story:

Last week Exxon Mobil put full-page ads in, among other papers, the New York Times. The ads sort of implied that the company was as green as a New York St Patrick’s Day, which might be convincing if you forgot that Exxon Mobil is alone with the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the White House in pretending that global warming has nothing to do with the product the company sells so profitably. The sound of silence has rarely been so deafening.

In fact, although most of the other major oil companies are convinced that global warming is happening, and that human activity is a major cause of it, Exxon Mobil has been using its considerable charm and influence with the White House to dump opponents from the Intergovernmental Panel of Scientists on Climate Change. The White House in turn has been doctoring Nasa reports to add levels of uncertainty to its reports on the subject.

The company is increasingly isolated in its stand, a process that began when John Browne of BP in 1997 broke with big oil omerta and committed BP to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010. They met the target in only three years for an expenditure of $20m; the company actually made $650m in savings. (Of course they should have spent some of that cash in their Texas plant, but that’s another story.)

The very fact that Exxon Mobil felt forced to put out dissimulatory ads instead of a bald denial shows that the cloud of CO2 may have a silver lining. The new Congress seems alert to public interest on the subject, reinforced by the findings of the panel. It is also helped by the British government’s pushing of Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of climate change to Congress and the UN.

Even Tony Blair begs to differ with George Bush on this one – and even as he squirms to be as deferentially non-confrontational as possible.

More significantly, God is no longer on Exxon’s side. At one point, American conservatives who claimed to have a hotline to Heaven seemed to be losing the connection – as the deity sent a different kind of message. Can it be a coincidence that hurricanes keep ripping into the states that vote Republican?

More seriously, Rich Cizik, the government affairs officer for the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the legs of the Republican coalition, told me a year ago, “We have a fine history of advocacy, but it has been a little blind towards the environment, but we are beginning to change that.” A Toyota hybrid driver, he quotes polls showing that over 70% of Evangelicals thought the environment was very important, and in a shot across the bows of companies like Exxon Mobil, he warned, ‘We have not really used shareholder advocacy. But we are quick studies, and I think when we put our hands to the plough, then we will have a tremendous capacity to influence Wall St and corporate America.” And, of course, Republican policy.

Both Stern and Jeffrey Sachs at their UN presentation last week (hosted, incidentally, by the British mission) emphasised how achievable a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is, and showed how the relatively small costs are far outweighed by the benefits. Stern also noted that the success of the Montreal Protocol was in large part because the giant chemical companies had substitutes for the destructive CFC gases.

Both of them see the adoption of carbon-sequestrating coal plants as essential to maintaining global growth and prosperity – although Sachs, at least, also recommends nuclear energy. But one of the problems here is that the tide of neo-liberalism over the last thirty years has effectively disarmed us. The old publicly owned utilities could afford to take a long-term view, and to build such prototypes regardless of the effect on the next quarter’s earnings. Many are now privatized, and from California to New York to Britain, the capacity and willingness of private companies to build innovative and experimental new plants is diminshed. Stern estimated that R&D in the field has dropped by 50% since privatisation.

Sachs says that, armed with public money, private companies will be happy to design and build such generators.

Surely there is enough public interest here to take seriousa action. Why don’t western governments pay for prototype CO2 efficient hydrocarbon using plants to be built in nuclear and nuclear threshold countries – North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan and Israel – in return for them giving up their nuclear programmes. It repays the historic carbon debt of the industrial countries, diminishes the threats of global warming from greenhouse emissions and global scorching from thermonuclear explosions, and develops technology that could be used worldwide.

Who knows? If Bush’s friends in Exxon Mobil get a piece of the action, even they may be won over.

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