Around the world, carbon-based fuels are under attack. Increasingly grim economic pressures, growing popular resistance, and the efforts of government regulators have all shocked the energy industry. Oil prices are falling, colleges and universities are divesting from their carbon stocks, voters are instituting curbs on hydro-fracking, and delegates at the U.N. climate conference in Peru have agreed to impose substantial restrictions on global carbon emissions at a conference in Paris later in the year. All this has been accompanied by what might be viewed as a moral assault on the very act of extracting carbon-based fuels from the earth, in which the major oil, gas, and coal companies find themselves portrayed as the enemies of humankind.
Under such pressures, you might assume that Big Energy would react defensively, perhaps apologizing for its role in spurring climate change while assuming a leadership position in planning for the transition to a post-carbon economy. But you would be wrong: Instead of retreating, the major companies have gone on the offensive, extolling their contributions to human progress and minimizing the potential for renewables to replace fossil fuels in just about any imaginable future.
That the big carbon outfits would seek to perpetuate their privileged market position in the global economy is, of course, hardly surprising. After all, oil is the most valuable commodity in international commerce and major producing firms like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell regularly top lists of the world’s most profitable enterprises. Still, these companies are not just employing conventional legal and corporate tactics to protect their position, they’re mounting a moral assault of their own, claiming that fossil fuels are an essential factor in eradicating poverty and achieving a decent life on this planet.
Improbable as such claims may seem, they are being echoed by powerful officials around the world — typically, the leaders of carbon-producing nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia or the representatives of American energy-producing states like Texas and Kentucky. Count on one thing: This crew of fossil fuel enthusiasts is intent on ensuring that any path to a carbon-free future will, at best, be long and arduous. While you’re at it, add top congressional leaders to this crew, since many of the Republican victors in the 2014 midterm election are from oil and coal-producing states and regularly laud carbon production for its contribution to local prosperity, while pocketing contributions by Big Oil and other energy firms.
Unless directly challenged, this pro-carbon offensive — backed by copious Big Energy advertising — is likely to attract at least as much favor as the claims of anti-carbon activists. At this point, of course, the moral arguments against carbon consumption are — or at least should be — well known. The oil, gas, and coal companies, it is claimed, are selfishly pursuing mega-profits at the expense of the climate, the environment, our children and grandchildren, and even possibly a future of any reasonable sort for humanity as a whole. “Basically [the big energy companies have] said, we’re going to wreck the planet, we don’t care what you say, we think we can, and we dare you to stop us,” observed climate activist and 350.org cofounder Bill McKibben in a recent interview. This outlook was reflected in many of the signs carried by the estimated 400,000 demonstrators who participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City last September.
The fossil fuel industry is often also portrayed as the nucleus of a global system of wealth and power that drags down democracy and perpetuates grotesque planetary inequalities. “Fossil fuels really do create a hyper-stratified economy,” explained Naomi Klein, author of the bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. “It’s the nature of the resources that they are concentrated, and you need a huge amount of infrastructure to get them out and to transport them. And that lends itself to huge profits and they’re big enough that you can buy off politicians.”
Views like these animate the struggles against “fracking” in the United States, against the transport of tar-sands oil via the Keystone XL pipeline, and against the shipment of coal to ports in the Pacific Northwest. They also undergird the drive to rid college and university endowments and other institutions of their fossil fuel stocks, which gained momentum in recent months, thanks to the decisions of both the Stanford University board of trustees to divest from coal company stocks and of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to eventually rid itself of its fossil fuel stocks and invest in alternative energy.
Once upon a time, the giant carbon companies like Exxon sought to deflect these attacks by denying the very existence of climate change or the role of humans in causing it — or at least by raising the banner of “uncertainty” about the science behind it. They also financed the efforts of rogue scientists to throw doubt on global warming. While denialism still figures in the propaganda of some carbon companies, they have now largely chosen to embrace another strategy: extolling the benefits of fossil fuels and highlighting their contributions to human wellbeing and progress.
At the moment, this carbon counterattack is most clearly and fully articulated in the speeches of top industry officials and in various corporate publications. Of these, the most recent and authoritative, ExxonMobil’s The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040, was released in December. Described as a planning guide for future corporate investment and decision-making, the Outlook combines an analysis of global energy trends with a summary of the company’s pro-carbon ethos — and so offers us a vivid look at where Big Energy is heading in its counterattack on the climate movement.
If a climate movement is going to challenge the energy powers of this planet effectively, it’s crucial to grasp the vision into which Big Energy is undoubtedly planning to sink incredible resources and which, across much of the planet, will become a living, breathing argument for ignoring the catastrophic warming of the planet. They present it, of course, as a glowing dreamscape of a glorious future — though a nightmare is what should come to mind.
Here, then, in a nutshell is the argument that Big Energy is going to seed into the planet for the foreseeable future. Prepare yourself.
No growth without us
The cornerstone of the Exxon report is its claims that ever-increasing supplies of energy are needed to sustain economic growth and ensure human betterment, and that fossil fuels alone exist in sufficient quantity (and at affordable enough prices) to satisfy rising international demand. “Forecasting long-term energy trends begins with a simple fact: people need energy,” the report asserts. “Over the next few decades, population and income growth — and an unprecedented expansion of the global middle class — are expected to create new demands for energy.”
Some of this added energy, Exxon acknowledges, will come from nuclear and renewable energy. Most, however, will have to come from fossil fuels. All told, the Outlook estimates, the world will need 35 percent more energy in 2040 than it does today. That would mean adding an additional 191 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) to global supplies over and above the 526 quadrillion BTUs consumed in 2010. A small percentage of those added BTUs, about 12 percent, will come from renewables, but the vast majority — estimated by Exxon at 67 percent — will be provided by fossil fuels.
Without fossil fuels, this argument holds, there can be no economic growth. Here’s how Exxon CEO and Chair Rex Tillerson puts it: “Energy is fundamental to economic growth, and oil is fundamental because to this point in time, we have not found, through technology or other means, another fuel that can substitute for the role that oil plays in transportation, not just passenger, individual transportation, but commercial transportation, jet fuel, marine, all the ways in which we use oil as a fuel to move people and things about this planet.”
Natural gas is equally essential, Tillerson argues, because it is the world’s fastest-growing source of energy and a key ingredient in electric power generation. Nor will coal be left out of the mix. It, too, will play an important role in promoting economic growth, largely by facilitating a rapid increase in global electricity supplies. Despite all the concern over coal’s contributions to both urban pollution and climate change, Exxon predicts that it will remain“the No. 1 fuel for power generation” in 2040.
Yes, other sources of energy will play a role in helping to satisfying global needs, but without carbon-based fuels, Exxon insists, economic growth will screech to a halt and the world’s poor and disadvantaged will stay immersed in poverty.
Propelling the new global middle class
If there is one overarching theme to the new Exxon ethos, it is that we are witnessing the emergence of a new global middle class with glittering possibilities and that this expanding multitude, constituting perhaps one-half of the world’s population by 2040, will require ever greater quantities of oil, coal, and natural gas if it is to have any hope of achieving its true potential.
Citing data from the Brookings Institution, the company notes that the number of people who earn enough to be considered members of that global middle class will jump from approximately 1.9 billion in 2010 to 4.7 billion in 2030 — representing what it calls “the largest collective increase in living standards in history.” China and India will be the two countries adding most substantially to the global middle class, with each acquiring hundreds of millions of newly affluent citizens, but substantial gains will also be achieved by such “key growth” countries as Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The emergence of a middle-class bulge on a planetary scale, representing a kind of consumerism gone wild, is something to be celebrated the company insists in its new report, echoing the words of the U.N. Development Program: “When dozens of countries and billions of people move up the development ladder, as they are doing today, it has a direct impact on wealth creation and broader human progress in all countries and regions of the world.”
For all this to occur, however, that rising middle class will need staggering amounts of added energy — of course, we’re talking about new supplies of the same old carbon-based energy forms here — to build and power all the cars, homes, businesses, appliances, and resorts that such consumers would undoubtedly crave and demand. More income, Exxon explains, “means new demand for food, for travel, for electricity, for housing, schools, and hospitals” — and all of these benefits “depend on energy.”
By itself, an increase in world energy supplies could indeed be widely beneficial, if supplied largely by climate-friendly fuels. But such genuinely “alternative” sources of energy (into which, by the way, the giant energy companies have invested next to none of their profits) generally cost more than fossil fuels to produce, at least initially, and that, says Exxon, creates a problem once you consider where demand will be coming from in 2040.
According to the Outlook, virtually none of the expected increase in global energy demand will come from the older industrialized countries, which can afford more costly alternatives; rather, its source will be developing countries, which generally seek cheap energy quickly — that is, coal and natural gas for electricity generation and oil for transportation. Of the 201 quadrillion BTUs in added energy required by the developing world between now and 2040, predicts Exxon, 148 quadrillion, or 74 percent, will be provided by fossil fuels — a statistic that, if accurate, should chill us to the bone in climate change terms.
The role of fossil fuels in satisfying the aspirations of the world’s growing middle class is especially evident in the field of transportation. “Rising prosperity will drive increased demand for transportation,” the Outlook notes. “An expanding global middle class means millions of people will buy a car for the first time.” Between 2010 and 2040, the human population is expected to grow by 29 percent, from approximately 7 billion to 9 billion people; the global population of cars, SUVs, and other light-duty vehicles, however, is projected to grow by more than 100 percent, from 825 million to 1.7 billion. And while an increasing number of these vehicles will be powered by gas-electric hybrid engines, the majority will still be fueled by petroleum, pushing up the demand for petroleum and pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
A rising middle class seeking more consumer products, urban amenities, and travel opportunities will also require a commensurate fleet of trucks, buses, trains, ships, and planes. Reliance on trucks and container ships for moving goods around the world will, in turn, generate a huge demand for diesel and heavy oil, while all those low-cost air carriers (like ill-fated Air Asia) will only up the requirement for aviation fuel.
Finally, the new global middle class will want more computers, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioners, and other appliances, stoking a soaring demand for electricity. Among the advanced nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a growing share of the energy used in generating electricity will indeed come from renewables and natural gas, while coal use will decline sharply. In non-OECD countries, however, the drive for electrification will be accompanied by a significant increase in the consumption of coal — from 54 quadrillion BTUs in 2010 to 82 quadrillion in 2040. This means that the non-OECD’s contribution to global warming will continue to soar, although that’s not a point that Exxon is likely to emphasize.
Nor does the Exxon blueprint neglect the needs of the world’s poorer citizens. “The progress enabled by modern energy has not reached everyone,” the Outlook notes. “One out of every five people in the world still has no access to electricity. Even more lack modern cooking fuels.”
This is the basis for what can only be termed “carbon humanitarianism” — the claim that cheap carbon-based fuels are the best possible response to the energy-poor of the planet (despite everything we know about the devastation climate change will cause, above all in the lives of the poor). This vision of Big Energy as the Good Samaritan of our world was articulated by Rex Tillerson in a June 2013 address to the Asia Society Global Forum. “Approximately 1.3 billion people on our planet,” he said, “still do not have access to electricity for basic needs like clean water, cooking, sanitation, light, or for the safe storage of food and medicine … [which means that] the need to expand energy supplies has a humanitarian dimension that should inform and should guide our energy policy.”
Asked whether climate change didn’t pose a greater challenge to the world’s poor, Tillerson chose to demur. “I think here are much more pressing priorities that we … need to deal with,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2012. “There are still hundreds of millions, billions of people living in abject poverty around the world. They need electricity … They need fuel to cook their food on that’s not animal dung … They’d love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably. You’d save millions upon millions of lives by making fossil fuels more available to a lot of the part of the world that doesn’t have it.”
In fact, Exxon predicts that reliance on fossil fuels will grow fastest in the poorest parts of the world — precisely the areas that are expected to suffer the most from climate change. Africa, for example, is expected to witness a 103 percent increase in net energy consumption between now and 2040, with 83 percent of that increase supplied by fossil fuels.
We can do it better
The final part of the industry’s counterattack is the claim that, for all their purported benefits, renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power are just not up to the task of providing the necessary extra energy needed to sustain economic growth and propel billions of people into the middle class.
The problem, Exxon claims, is that wind and solar are more costly than the fossil fuel alternatives and so are not growing fast enough to meet rising world demand. Even though the energy provided by these renewables will expand by 315 percent between now and 2040, it still represents such a small share of the total global energy mix that, by the end of this period, it will only reach the 4 percent mark in its share of total world energy consumption (compared to 77 percent for carbon fuels). Renewables are also said to be problematic as they provide only intermittent sources of energy — failing at night and on windless days — and must be bolstered by other fuels to ensure uninterrupted energy output.
Facing the challenge
Put together, this represents a dazzling vision of a future in which growing numbers of people enjoy the benefits of abundant energy and unlimited growth. You can already imagine the heartwarming TV commercials that will be generated on a massive scale to propagate such a message: pictures of hard-working individuals of all genders and hues enjoying the American Dream globally thanks to Exxon and its cohorts. Needless to say, in such imagery there will be nothing to mar the promise of unbridled prosperity for all — no horrific droughts, colossal superstorms, or mass migrations of desperate people seeking to flee devastated areas.
But this vision, like so much contemporary advertising, is based on a lie: in this case, on the increasingly bizarre idea that, in the 21st century, humanity can burn its way through significant parts of the planet’s reserves of fossil fuels to achieve a world in which everything is essentially the same — there’s just more of it for everyone. In the world portrayed by Exxon, it’s possible for a reassuring version of business-as-usual to proceed without environmental consequences. In that world, the unimpeded and accelerated release of carbon into the atmosphere has no significant impact on people’s lives. This is, of course, a modern fairy tale that, if believed, will have the most disastrous of results.
Someday, it will also be seen as one of the more striking lies on whatever’s left of the historical record. In fact, follow this vision to 2040, burning through whatever fossil fuels the energy companies and energy states can pull out of the earth and the ballooning carbon emissions produced will ensure planetary warming far beyond the 2 degrees C deemed by scientists to be the maximum that the planet can safely absorb without catastrophic climate effects.
In fact, those dreamy landscapes in the new pro-carbon version of the planetary future will, in reality, be replaced by burning forests, flooded coastlines, and ever-expanding deserts. Forget the global rise of the middle class, forget all those cars and trucks and planes and resorts, forget the good life entirely. As climate conditions deteriorate, croplands will wither, coastal cities and farmlands will be eradicated, infrastructure will be devastated, the existing middle class will shrink, and the poor will face ever-increasing deprivation.
Preventing these catastrophes will involve sustained and dedicated effort by all those who truly care about the future of humanity. This will certainly require better educating people about the risks of climate change and the role played by fossil fuel combustion in producing it. But it will also require deconstructing and exposing the futuristic fantasies deployed by the fossil fuel companies to perpetuate their dominance. However fraudulent their arguments may be, they have the potential to blunt significant progress on climate change and so must be vigorously repudiated. Unless we do so, the apostles of carbon will continue to dominate the debate and bring us ever closer to a planetary inferno. This is the only way to thwart and discredit those who seek to perpetuate the Reign of Carbon.