Among climate activists, the scene is remembered with a mix of embarrassment and scorn: at the end of his 2006 Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore, having just detailed the existential threat posed by global climate change, offered the audience a way to take action: Change your light bulbs. Gore’s prescription seemed completely incommensurate with the scale of the problem. The future of the human race, as well as millions of other species, is hanging in the balance—better get to the hardware store for some compact fluorescents.
Yet even today, at this late hour, the fight against global warming is bedeviled by public bewilderment. Climate change is such a huge, multidimensional threat that it’s hard for many people to grasp the root causes of the crisis. Perhaps most pernicious, some Americans still believe that we are all equally responsible for climate change. This shibboleth was the basis for the novelist Nathaniel Rich’s much-discussed 30,000-word magnum opus in The New York Times Magazine, published this August, which argued that “human nature” is to blame for our inability to address global warming. “[W]e had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis” in the 1980s, Rich writes. “Almost nothing stood in our way—nothing except ourselves.”
Such gauzy thinking is exactly what the carbon polluters want—and it demands a forceful counterargument that calls out those polluters for their greed and duplicity. Climate change isn’t so much a failure of human nature as it is the predictable result of a small number of corporations putting their profits ahead of humanity’s future and the planet’s well-being. A growing number of activists have grasped this fact and are saying, with new clarity and force, that global warming is a crime perpetrated by a group of (what else to call them?) corporate villains.
The activists’ new target is what you might call the climate-wrecking industry: the coal, gas, and oil companies that have amassed colossal fortunes through the extraction, marketing, and sale of fossil fuels and, along the way, deceived the public about the inherent dangers of their business model. The activists’ refashioned narrative follows a proven axiom of social change: To solve a problem, you first have to name a perpetrator.
This new corporate-focused activism is partly a response to research that has clarified the carbon polluters’ role in altering the atmosphere. According to peer-reviewed studies by Richard Heede and the Climate Accountability Institute, the business practices of just 90 fossil-fuel companies are responsible for two-thirds of the observed increases in global surface temperatures between 1751 and 2010. Similarly, a report by the British research group InfluenceMap has established precisely how companies exacerbate climate change through deceptive PR and advertising, as well as by funding research of dubious quality and submitting regulatory filings that skew the public discourse by, in effect, “working the refs” in government agencies. The InfluenceMap researchers concluded that the political and media activities of a mere 35 corporations have played an outsize role in stalling action on climate change. The list includes the usual suspects, such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, but also some surprising names, like Bayer, Caterpillar, and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
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Drawing on this and other research, The Nation has assembled a list of the “Worst of the Worst” in the climate-wrecking industry. (See our list on here.) Earning a dishonorable mention is the Republican Party, which continues to drink the Kool-Aid of climate denial and to obstruct even the most modest measures to protect the climate. Also on the list is the US Chamber of Commerce, which has spearheaded much of the opposition from business groups as a whole.
While it can feel as though the invisible hand of the market is driving global warming, the fingerprints of the climate-wrecking industry are clear. Deep-green groups like Greenpeace have always viewed unchecked corporate power as the greatest threat to a stable climate. These days, that view is far more widely shared—not only by movement upstarts like 350.org, but also by legacy organizations like Earthjustice and even some elected officials.
Local governments around the country have filed more than a dozen lawsuits seeking to hold the fossil-fuel industry liable for climate-related damages. In an echo of the historic campaign against Big Tobacco, these local governments argue that the industry’s products are inherently harmful, and that its well-documented decades of deception concerning those harms require some sort of restitution. The lawsuits stretch from Baltimore (wracked by two so-called “1,000-year” storm events in just two years), to Boulder, Colorado (slammed by wildfires and freakish floods), to King County, Washington (where ocean acidification is taking its toll on the shellfish industry).
“The public mood is shifting enormously,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a leading climate champion on Capitol Hill. He spoke with me this past summer, not long after the Rhode Island attorney general filed the first state lawsuit against the major oil corporations. “You now have a situation in which the CEOs of Shell and Exxon and the other big oil companies have to publicly admit that their products are causing climate change.” Of course, Whitehouse added, these same companies continue to push for increased fossil-fuel production (ExxonMobil recently released oil-and-gas extraction forecasts stretching out to 2040). But he argues that a reckoning is at hand: “I think what petrifies the fossil-fuel industry is not so much the possibility of ultimate judgments and liability, but the day of discovery, when plaintiffs start to get access to their internal files. Once the documents become public, and a hard look can be taken at those documents, then the reputational damage for their knowing behavior will begin to pile up.”
The climate-liability suits are one tactic in a multipronged strategy against the climate wreckers. A reinvigorated Native American sovereignty movement is fighting fossil-fuel projects from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and in the process bringing a sharper moral clarity to the climate fight. At the same time, environmentalists are attempting a pincer maneuver aimed at cutting off the flow of capital to the fossil-fuel companies—staging demonstrations at banks and other financial institutions that underwrite carbon-intensive energy projects. Religious groups, major philanthropies, and public and private colleges and universities have pulled their money out of oil, gas, and coal investments.
The veil of invulnerability that the climate wreckers have hidden behind for decades is starting to tear. But will the new corporate-accountability efforts be enough?
A signature difficulty of the climate threat is that it is so massive, and its causes so widespread, that people have a hard time wrapping their minds—much less their energy—around the thing. For years, activists have struggled to figure out where to place the bull’s-eye.
Then came the years-long campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline and the dramatic, Native-led opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016. When the grassroots movement against Keystone began to gather momentum, many DC insiders dismissed the campaign as unstrategic. But the effort had a kind of ripple effect: It is now virtually impossible for a fossil-fuel company to propose a major project anywhere without throngs of activists trying to tie up the bulldozers with little more than human bodies and bike locks.
The infrastructure fights have provided climate campaigners with something they had long been in search of: tangible local targets that ordinary citizens can focus on. In contrast to the campaigns in the early ’00s targeting ExxonMobil and Chevron, the “keep it in the ground” movement (as activists call it) has the power of emotional immediacy. The pipeline fights and oil-train opposition are fueled by the righteous parochialism that has always been the backbone of the environmental movement: the desire to save a beloved patch of woods or to protect a special river. “Everybody can relate to someone’s home, ranch, or sovereign land being threatened by a corporation, because they have a backyard too,” says Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, one of the groups that have spearheaded the effort to stop the Keystone pipeline.
Activists concede that these infrastructure fights can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. But here’s the thing: Sometimes they succeed in hitting a mole. While TransCanada continues to make noise about stockpiling pipe for Keystone XL, the fact remains that, as of this writing, construction has yet to start on the critical northern section of the pipeline, and a federal judge has recently ruled that the Trump administration cannot unilaterally resurrect the project. Meanwhile, the Constitution pipeline, a proposed gas conduit from Pennsylvania to New York, appears dead, and a string of proposed coal-export terminals in Oregon and Washington have all landed in the dustbin.
Moreover, even when these campaigns ultimately fail to stop a proposed project, activists say they still have an important effect on public opinion. “It’s not about this one pipeline; it’s about changing the culture of how we think about the damages they do versus the benefits we get out of them,” says Cherri Foytlin, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, which is fighting the construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline through Louisiana. “You can still have a win even if it’s not a victory. If all we get out of this is an army of people willing to defend the waters of southern Louisiana, that’s a win, because it wasn’t like that before.”
But this strategy has a natural limit. One weakness of campaigning directly against the climate wreckers is that it’s simply unrealistic to expect a corporation to abandon the very reason for its existence. A lasting and equitable solution to climate change would put the fossil-fuel industry out of business, since these companies aren’t going to walk away from their (for now) still-profitable enterprises.
Recognizing that problem, organizers have sought to outflank the companies by targeting their bankers. As the protests and blockades make new fossil-fuel projects controversial, even notorious, there’s an increased reputational risk to lenders, who will begin to think twice about taking such projects on. That, at least, is the theory; in practice, the results have been mixed. “The reality is that, on the finances side, it was always going to be a long row to hoe,” says Lindsey Allen, the executive director of Rainforest Action Network. “Where we have seen the most progress is when we can get in front of a project before it is so far down the road.”
In response to grassroots pressure, most American lenders have retreated from financing mountaintop- removal coal mining. Last year, US Bank announced that it would no longer lend to oil-and-gas-pipeline construction projects. Most of the success, however, has been overseas. BNP Paribas, France’s largest bank, has announced that it will no longer fund tar-sands or oil-shale extraction. HSBC, the biggest bank in Europe, has also retreated from tar-sands projects, as well as from coal-fired power plants and oil drilling in the Arctic.
Yet while they’ve declined to finance specific projects, these banks are still extending loans to the carbon polluters’ various holding companies. And even their baby steps toward climate responsibility have generated blowback. HSBC has been quietly blackballed by the fossil-fuel industry, which has had little difficulty finding other lenders (most notably JPMorgan Chase) to fill the gap. For now, at least, the banks need fossil-fuel companies as much as these companies need the banks. “Until the revenue loss is greater than the revenue opportunity, the banks won’t stay out,” says one Wall Street banker, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Destroying the climate, in short, remains a winning business proposition.
Among activists, a consensus is emerging that legal action may prove the best way to bring the climate wreckers to account. While the direct-action and financial campaigns to keep oil and gas in the ground target current and future emissions, the city and county lawsuits seek to hold fossil-fuel companies liable for climate-related damages that have already occurred. In doing so, these lawsuits sharpen the public narrative about the imminence of climate change. Global warming is no longer some far-off, abstract threat; it’s something that’s causing real trouble now. “I think the thing that is most working [to hold carbon polluters accountable] is, in fact, the litigation,” Senator Whitehouse told me. “The fear of liability is the dominant driving factor in the fossil-fuel industry’s thinking about whether to sue for peace.”
The climate lawsuits, like the other strategies, have not been uniformly successful. This past summer, federal judges dismissed the complaints brought by New York City, Oakland, and San Francisco. But other lawsuits are still churning through state courts, and new cities continue to join the effort; Baltimore’s lawsuit was filed the day after New York’s suit was dismissed. A key to the landmark settlement with Big Tobacco was getting dozens of state attorneys general to file suits against the cigarette makers.
While acknowledging that there is strength in numbers, some legal observers say the magic number for success is one: A single judgment against the oil companies would be enough to change their political calculus about the value of continued intransigence. “I think, in some respects, it’s less about how many cases are filed, [and more about] whether a judge rules in favor of a city or county or state. That will open the floodgates,” says Ann Carlson, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who has followed the climate-liability cases closely.
The climate wreckers do, in fact, appear to be shaken by the lawsuits. In a procedural counterattack, ExxonMobil has petitioned a Texas judge to allow it to depose attorneys and local officials from the California communities suing the company. During the federal-court proceedings in San Francisco, the fossil-fuel defendants all acknowledged that human activities are driving climate change—then swiftly pivoted to argue that the ultimate responsibility lies with the general public and its appetite for energy. The rhetorical sleight of hand perfectly captures the climate wreckers’ classic talking point: Since you can’t live without us, we’re innocent.
The more savvy wreckers like to say they’re open to Congress crafting a political solution. But their PR statements are hard to take seriously. On the same day that the San Francisco ruling came down, the House of Representatives voted 229 to 180 to condemn the idea of a carbon tax; only four Republicans voted against the nonbinding measure.
Moreover, if the fossil-fuel industry were genuinely interested in addressing the crisis through legislation, many climate advocates would gladly take them up on the offer. Whitehouse and Carlson, among others, think the lawsuits could open the way for a kind of grand bargain on climate change: In exchange for helping to pass a law mandating an economy-wide tax on carbon, the major polluters would receive immunity from lawsuits. But such a deal would have to come with financial accountability for the climate wreckers’ misdeeds—what Whitehouse called a “massive climate-relief fund” modeled on the tobacco settlement and BP’s settlement for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. “They don’t get to walk away scot-free,” Whitehouse said.
Of course, for that to happen, climate-action champions would have to gain control of Congress. Which means that climate activists, like the rest of the progressive movement, need to do everything they can to ensure that Congress changes hands.
That’s the sort of transformation that will require far more work—and many more people—than changing a light bulb.