A growing and powerful Greek chorus—composed of activists, environmentalists, billionaires, former Goldman Sachs partners, former Goldman Sachs partners who are also former Treasury secretaries, and a former vice president of the United States—has been sounding an urgent message to the world: Big Oil companies cannot, and must not, sell the vast fossil-fuel reserves they have spent billions of dollars finding, digging up and refining. These voices warn that if ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell are allowed to burn all their carbon, the planet’s temperature will rise beyond the 2-degrees-Celsius threshold that, a consensus of scientists holds, is the tipping point to environmental Armageddon. In economic terms, this means we can have either a safe planet or an ExxonMobil worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but we can’t have both. Nothing less than Earth’s future is at stake.
In June, that chorus seemed to find an important ally: President Obama. In an interview on Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously, Obama told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that Big Oil must leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel in the ground. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” Obama said.
There’s just one problem: Big Oil doesn’t agree. On the contrary, Big Oil wants to burn all of the fossil fuel it has found, and then some. It doesn’t want anyone telling it what it can and cannot do. Indeed, there is increasingly a sense that the latest efforts of the environmentalists—including the worldwide People’s Climate March in September—are desperate ones, reflecting political impotence in the face of an intransigent Congress. “The climate movement is choosing these narratives not because they are objectively the best way to describe the problem,” said Steve Coll, the author of Private Empire, the definitive book on the history of ExxonMobil. “It’s because they are the best way to describe the problem in the absence of comprehensive legislation to actually fix the problem, which they can’t achieve in the United States.”
That political reality just got a whole lot worse, too, in the wake of the midterm elections, when lawmakers deep inside Big Oil’s pockets swept further into power. Caught in a moment of seeming ennui a few days later, Bill McKibben, the Middlebury College professor and 350.org leader, was at something of a loss to describe exactly how the movement presses on from here. “My guess is [the election] means we need to really push outside the formal political system, so things like divestment become even more critical,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That said, we’re already working as hard on it as we know how to.” On December 2, McKibben resigned as the chair of 350.org. His interim successor, K.C. Golden, reached by phone, acknowledged there is “a yawning gap” between what is morally and ethically the right thing to do on the environment and “what the political system is able to deliver.” Nevertheless, he argues that “a lot of things are moving in the right direction.” Divestiture, he says, is one of them: “It’s one step at a time. Divestment gives every person, every institution, every pension fund the opportunity to take control and do something positive.”
* * *
Big oil companies have made no secret of their belief that they can have it all: both a huge market valuation and a planet that suffers no catastrophic effects from climate change. For the record, ExxonMobil is the world’s second-most-valuable company (trailing distantly behind Apple), and its AAA-rated bonds are yielding only slightly more than similar-duration Treasury securities, suggesting that creditors are not the slightest bit worried about a default or a write-down of the value of the so-called stranded assets—oil and gas that ExxonMobil has found but that environmentalists hope will never be sold. “They’re some of the biggest political players on Earth, and they have enormous clout,” McKibben said of Big Oil. “So they will use that clout to try and ensure that they’re allowed to burn everything they’ve got, and there’s all this stuff they continue to look for every day.”