Oil companies are laughing while the world burns
And the news media is once again failing to connect the dots.
Over the July 4th holiday, while Americans were firing up their barbecues and setting off fireworks, the world broke a new record.
Earth had her three hottest days ever recorded since instrumental measurements began in the 1850s. One climate scientist told the Washington Post that last week’s global average temperatures were likely the highest in 125,000 years. Another climate scientist, Bill McGuire, called the record heat “totally unprecedented and terrifying.”
The grim milestone may be unprecedented, but it’s not unexpected. Texas and the Southwest broke records just last month as a heat dome drove the heat index above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48°C). Parts of northern and east India similarly suffered under a deadly heat wave that killed nearly 100 people last month. Muslim pilgrims observing this year’s Hajj walked through temperatures of 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45°C).
The evidence that climate change is not merely a phenomenon, but a crisis, a catastrophe, and a calamity, grows stronger every day. Only a few decades ago, no journalist would have dreamed of writing a sentence like, “The Earth is getting too hot for humans to survive.” But we not only write that sentence this week, we expect to write it in weeks to come.
And it turns out, it bears repeating—because many in the mainstream media still aren’t connecting these extreme temperatures to climate change.
Misinformation by omission
TV is still the main source most Americans get their news, especially the weather. So it’s concerning that TV is one of the last bastions of climate skittishness.
Only five percent of TV stations that covered the heat waves in Texas and the Southwest connected them to the climate crisis, a new study from Media Matters found. The majority of major TV networks failed to report the direct link between global warming and record-breaking temperatures.
ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 123 segments about the heat wave, but only seven mentioned climate change. Major cable networks did no better: CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC aired 187 segments about the heat waves, but only 8 mentioned climate change.
At this point, failing to connect extreme heat to climate change is more than oversight—it’s misinformation. The scientific evidence that climate change is exacerbating both the frequency and intensity of heat waves is overwhelming. There’s no excuse to leave out the connection.
But even if the news media was regularly connecting extreme heat to climate change, it wouldn’t be enough. To truly do the climate story justice, the news media must go further, and connect climate change to the fossil fuel companies refusing to reduce their planet-destroying emissions.
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Amid record heat, oil companies double down on inaction
The science is clear: the carbon emissions fueling record temperatures around the world come primarily from fossil fuels. And the only way to ensure a safe climate future is to reduce fossil fuel dependence.
But lately, fossil fuel companies have been doing everything they can to increase society’s fossil fuel dependence, for the sake of their profits and at the expense of the planet.
In the past week, as the world continued to suffer under extreme heat advisories, fossil fuel CEOs denied the need to phase out their core products. Shell CEO Wael Sawan told the BBC that the world still "desperately needs oil and gas” and that cutting production would be “dangerous and irresponsible.” French petroleum company TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne said the company would invest two-thirds of its capital in oil and gas, with one-third left over for low-carbon technology. “Today, our society requires oil and gas…It will take decades to build a new system,” he told CNBC at the OPEC conference last week.
This rhetoric isn’t surprising. Fossil fuel companies raked in record-breaking profits this year, with major fossil fuel companies making nearly $100 billion in the first quarter. Last year, major fossil fuel companies earned a mind-boggling $457 billion. That’s a major incentive to ramp up production, regardless of the planetary cost.
Which makes it unsurprising that major oil and gas companies are scaling back their climate pledges. This year, BP significantly reduced its promised emissions cuts by 2030. Shell promised to cut oil production by 20 percent by 2030, then told investors earlier this year that they already met their goal—by selling some of their operations to ConocoPhillips. TotalEnergies pledged to reduce its emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
While making promises that they’ll slash their emissions by 2030, fossil fuel companies are simultaneously investing in new projects. Hundreds of new oil and gas projects around the world have been approved in the past year, according to a New York Times analysis. Demand is also higher than ever: fossil fuels made up 82 percent of the world’s energy use in 2022.
In order to secure that demand, the fossil fuel industry’s influence has spread beyond the energy sector. Big tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, which promised to help solve the climate crisis, have hired the same lobbyists working with oil and gas companies to delay climate action.
Worse, the fossil fuel industry is taking more direct action to influence climate policy. The world’s largest climate conference, COP28, is being led this year by a United Arab Emirates oil baron. Al-Jaber and other UAE leadership have already said they have a new “game-changing plan” to solve the climate crisis: involving oil and gas companies more fully in the U.N. climate talks. This isn’t the first time the fossil fuel industry has infiltrated the U.N. climate summit, but it is the most blatant.
The fossil fuel industry’s anti-climate tactics have been so egregious lately that, last week, the U.N.’s former climate chief admitted she was wrong to ever trust them as good-faith partners in tackling climate change. In an op-ed for Al Jazeera, former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres wrote:
More than most members of the climate community, I have for years held space for the oil and gas industry to finally wake up and stand up to its critical responsibility in history.
I have done so because I was convinced the global economy could not be decarbonised without their constructive participation and I was therefore willing to support the transformation of their business model.
But what the industry is doing with its unprecedented profits over the past 12 months has changed my mind.
This realization was long overdue for Figueres—and it’s long overdue for the media, too. Because what the fossil fuel industry has done with its profits over the past 12 months is no different from what they’ve done for the last four decades. At this point, to ignore it is to endorse it.
The IPCC makes it clear: fossil fuels must go. HEATED, March 2023.
Why won't anyone ask why? HEATED, June 2021.
The biggest story of the decade was orchestrated climate denial. HEATED, December 2019.
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