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.