Fossil fuel giants have known the harm they do for decades. But they created a system that absolves them of responsibility, says Guardian columnist George Monbiot
Lets stop calling this the Sixth Great Extinction. Lets start calling it what it is: the first great extermination. A recent essay by the environmental historian Justin McBrien argues that describing the current eradication of living systems (including human societies) as an extinction event makes this catastrophe sound like a passive accident.
While we are all participants in the first great extermination, our responsibility is not evenly shared. The impacts of most of the worlds people are minimal. Even middle-class people in the rich world, whose effects are significant, are guided by a system of thought and action that is shaped in large part by corporations.
The Guardians polluters series reports that just 20 fossil fuel companies, some owned by states, some by shareholders, have produced 35% of the carbon dioxide and methane released by human activities since 1965. This was the year in which the president of the American Petroleum Institute told his members that the carbon dioxide they produced could cause marked changes in climate by the year 2000. They knew what they were doing.
Even as their own scientists warned that the continued extraction of fossil fuels could cause catastrophic consequences, the oil companies pumped billions of dollars into thwarting government action. They funded thinktanks and paid retired scientists and fake grassroots organisations to pour doubt and scorn on climate science. They sponsored politicians, particularly in the US Congress, to block international attempts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. They invested heavily in greenwashing their public image.
These efforts continue today, with advertisements by Shell and Exxon that create the misleading impression that theyre switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In reality, Shells annual report reveals that it invested $25bn in oil and gas last year. But it provides no figure for its much-trumpeted investments in low-carbon technologies. Nor was the company able to do so when I challenged it.
A paper published in Nature shows that we have little chance of preventing more than 1.5C of global heating unless existing fossil fuel infrastructure is retired. Instead the industry intends to accelerate production, spending nearly $5tn in the next 10 years on developing new reserves. It is committed to ecocide.
But the biggest and most successful lie it tells is this: that the first great extermination is a matter of consumer choice. In response to the Guardians questions, some of the oil companies argued that they are not responsible for our decisions to use their products. But we are embedded in a system of their creation a political, economic and physical infrastructure that creates an illusion of choice while, in reality, closing it down.