By now, anyone paying attention knows that burning coal, oil and gas has created a crisis that threatens our survival. The scientific evidence — in fields including physics, geography, oceanography, meteorology, chemistry, biology and more — is indisputable. All major scientific institutions and national governments confirm this.
Still, many people continue to deny or downplay the problem. Writers for major media outlets complain about climate “alarmism,” failing to realize that if you aren’t alarmed by what’s happening, you aren’t paying attention.
A dwindling minority of the public prefers to believe industry propaganda over actual science, but it’s often those who aren’t adequately educated or versed in critical thinking, or who fear change. Others understand the threat but ignore it.
Speaking to the latter, climate activist Greta Thunberg said, “To all of you who choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself: Your silence is worst of all.”
Fear and ignorance may be somewhat excusable. But what about those who knew, and still know, that overheating the planet with fossil fuels and destroying natural systems that keep the carbon cycle in balance will create calamitous consequences for humanity — but who say or do nothing, or cover up what they know, for the sake of profit?
Recently uncovered documents and research papers show oil giant Exxon knew as early as the 1970s that using its products would cause global heating. Other oil industry organizations knew as early as the 1950s. Research shows projections from Exxon’s own scientists starting in the 1970s were astonishingly accurate — that burning coal, oil and gas would cause heating of about 0.2 C per decade.
“We now have the smoking gun showing that they accurately predicted warming years before they started attacking the science,” said Geoffrey Supran, who led the study by Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Instead of providing urgent warnings and shifting from a business model that UN secretary general António Guterres calls “inconsistent with human survival,” Exxon executives have put enormous resources into downplaying, discrediting and denying research by their own and other scientists. In 2013, Exxon’s then-CEO Rex Tillerson, who later served as secretary of state under U.S. President Donald Trump, claimed that climate models were “not competent.”
Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald told the Guardian that delays brought on by the misinformation have had “profound implications,” as the knowledge they covered up could have sparked a much faster shift to renewable energy.
Now, everyone is affected: from heat domes to atmospheric rivers, floods to droughts, migration crises to global conflicts, the consequences are increasing daily in all parts of the world. It will only get worse as we hit tipping points that could set off irreversible changes.
As just one of many examples, Greenland ice, which has helped keep the planet cool, is rapidly melting as the country reaches average temperatures warmer than in at least 1,000 years.
This could add more than 50 centimetres to rising sea levels by the end of the century!
Although it’s becoming impossible for industry executives to deny what science and observation confirm, they’ve come up with other ways to keep the money rolling in. They continue to argue that we’ll need their products for decades to come and that we “can’t shift overnight,” even though they’ve prevented us from starting the necessary transition that should have begun decades ago.
And, as the implications of burning coal and oil are indisputable, they’ve started touting “natural” gas (which is almost entirely the potent greenhouse gas methane) as a “green” fuel. The Washington Post recently revealed how “dark money” groups tied to the fossil fuel industry have convinced lawmakers in the U.S. to enact legislation redefining fossil gas as “green.”
The Empowerment Alliance and American Legislative Exchange Council (both anonymously funded) are working to get states to overturn renewable energy requirements or rebrand gas as “clean.”
Enough is enough. We’ve already wasted too much time, too many valuable resources and too many lives just to enrich people who care little if at all about anything beyond themselves. It’s time to hold industry accountable and end the fossil fuel era! A cleaner future is possible.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.