Suing oil companies will achieve nothing — time to curb our own carbon consumption
It’s no secret greenhouse gas emissions around the world are still rising. Like losing weight over the holiday season, shedding a few mega-tonnes is damn tough.
So, who is to blame? Or more to the point, who is being blamed? There is a growing trend to hold oil and gas companies culpable and even ask them to pay reparations for complicity in changing our planet’s climate.
Overt examples in Canada are municipalities like Victoria, British Columbia, firing off letters demanding compensation. Now Victoria is moving towards a lawsuit. This is not unique. Last year, San Francisco and Oakland sued five oil companies for redress. A judge threw the suit out of court, but the accusations are a harbinger of more needling to come.
Philosophically, the whole thing is a head scratcher. After all, fossil fuels don’t emit anything. People who burn them in devices like engines and furnaces are the overwhelming emitters. So why are long fingers only being pointed to the purveyors of production and not as much to the actors of consumption?
Okay, I’m not naïve. We live in a world where blaming others is a sport. But if we’re going to play the blame game, at least let’s keep the rules consistent.
We have many societal ills, among them obesity, alcoholism, and many other communal concerns. In each case, we tend to demonize different parts of the supplier-consumer contract.
What we eat (our personal fuel choices), and where our calories come from, is a good analog. If we’re consuming an excess of food — bad food in particular —we are conditioned by societal narratives to blame ourselves: “Eat less, eat better and go to the gym,” is the patronizing message to the masses, urged by multi-billion-dollar self-help industries.
If people signed up to carbon clinics like weight-loss programs, some of us might be on our way to achieving our Paris Agreement goals by now.
In the world of nutrition, there is also a big push for people to transition to “low-carb” diets. That’s familiar talk in the energy world, where the jargon is “decarbonization.”
Admittedly, fast food restaurants and junk food processors get a fair share of the blame for the obesity epidemic, much like carbon-intense purveyors of energy are vilified for excess emissions.
But have you heard of anyone with a weight problem in Toronto blaming their waistline on a farmer in Saskatchewan? Blockading grain trucks? How effective would that be in reducing personal or societal obesity?
So why is reckless and inefficient energy consumption blamed on the upstream extractor of oil, and not those further down the chain of consumption? Surely, automakers are culpable for selling 98 million internal combustion engine vehicles a year. Why are mayors and environmental groups not sending them a bill for making pistons and spark plugs?
More to the point, why is there no equivalent of a gym, or energy diet clinic for shedding joules of energy and lightening up on emissions? It’s true, some countries in Europe have cultivated a culture of efficiency and conservation. And the Japanese are well known for making energy frugality a sport. But this type of consumer-focused responsibility is hardly universal — I don’t see it in North America, let alone other energy-obese parts of the world.
Personal accountability on the consumption side of energy, where it matters most to reducing CO2 emissions, is weak. Worse, blaming and suing others merely teaches us to relinquish social conscience. After all, “It’s all ExxonMobil and Chevron’s fault; I don’t own the problem.”
Too often, concentrating blame leads us to hypocrisy. It’s much easier to call down the oil business, chow down a propane-grilled burger and then jump in the petroleum fuelled XL-SUV to go to the gym.
If we had to civilize society from scratch, with new technologies we have today, we wouldn’t, nor shouldn’t, choose to burn fossil fuels in obese vehicles. Maybe we wouldn’t introduce poly-saturated cheesecakes and supersized soda drinks, either.
Are fossil fuel companies part of the climate change problem? Yes, they are. But where there is a supplier there is always a consumer, and vice versa. Everyone who steps on a gas pedal and buys a plane ticket to Cancun is culpable for societal problems like climate change. Blaming one link in the long chain solves nothing.
Suing an oil company may make people feel like progress is being made. The stubborn problem of rising emissions shows the efforts are a misplaced use of time, effort and money. Last time I checked, climate change is a serious problem and our collective goal is to reduce emissions, not pick ineffective fights that harden already-polarized attitudes.
Peter Tertzakian is Executive Director of the ARC Energy Research Institute in Calgary, Alberta.
Published at Tue, 29 Jan 2019 17:50:52 +0000