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Blair Horner: The Climate Crisis Worsens And Big Oil Dodges Legal Accountability

The world’s leaders met in Madrid to discuss new steps to combat the threat posed by global warming.  The Conference was convened by the United Nations two weeks ago and finished its work with far too little progress toward curbing a rapidly heating planet.  The Conference wrapped up with a modest agreement, too weak to have any effect on the warming of the planet – a warming that is heating up at a pace that exceeds even the direst predictions from a few years ago.

And the data is showing that the world may be past the tipping point – the point at which the damage to the environment and the public’s health may be catastrophic.  For example, a report by the United Nations found that by 2030, global emissions — which are currently still rising — would have to be 25 percent lower than last year in order to keep the rise in the global temperature less than 2?C (3.6?F) and 55 percent less than last year in order to keep the global warming to less than 1.5°C (2.7?F).

Why should the world be keeping the heat to those levels?  According to the International Panel on Climate Change (the world’s experts), going from 2.7?F of global warming to 3.6?F could mean:

  • 1.7 billion more people will experience severe heatwaves at least once every five years.
  • Seas will rise – on average – another 4 inches.
  • Up to several hundred million more people will become exposed to climate-related risks and poverty.
  • The coral reefs that support marine environments around the world could decline as much as 99 percent.
  • Global fishery catches could face massive declines.

Going above 2.7?F of warming puts millions more at risk of potentially life-threatening heatwaves and poverty. It all but wipes out coral reefs that entire ecosystems rely on. Seas will flood even more of the world’s cities.
Yet, not enough is being done to keep the lid on heating.  Instead, the planet is heating up at a rate that may threaten our existence.

As depressing as the projections are, what is most shocking is that we are doing it to ourselves.  Most notably, scientists at huge oil companies like Exxon knew since the 1970s that global warming was an increasing existential threat – unless actions were taken.  But instead of alerting the public and policymakers to the growing danger, the industry focused on undermining the science and using its finances to bamboozle the public and purchase political leaders as its supporters.

And they succeeded.

We live in a country whose political leaders don’t believe the science.  They are far more interested in fattening the profit margins of the oil, gas and coal industries.  And the nation’s lack of leadership is also contributing mightily to the global failures to collectively act.

The fossil fuel’s industry actions may have pushed the earth – and civilization – to the breaking point.  What consequences should they face?

Last week, the effort by the New York State Attorney General to hold oil companies legally accountable for their actions was blocked.  A judge ruled in favor of ExxonMobil Corp. in a case that accused the company of misleading investors about climate-change regulations.

New York state's attorney general launched an investigation into Exxon in 2015 and then sued the company last year, claiming it used two sets of numbers when calculating the cost of climate change regulations on its operations. This approach, according to the Attorney General, misled investors and made the company's investment decisions appear more profitable or less costly than they otherwise would have.

The court ruled against the Attorney General, however, stating that New York "failed to prove that ExxonMobil made any material misstatements or omissions about its practices and procedures that misled any reasonable investor."

Whether New York chooses to challenge the ruling is unclear, but it shouldn’t be the last effort to hold the industry accountable.  The Attorney General’s effort deserved public support.  But its legal loss shouldn’t mean that the industry should not be held to account for its efforts to undermine the science and corrupt the nation’s politics.

Like any polluter, they should pay for the mess that they have created.  And policymakers worldwide should use the industry’s resources to pull back from the climate abyss.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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