It has been revealed that the oil companies have long known about the consequences of their product on global warming. And now they may be held accountable.
The notion of holding oil companies responsible for global warming, in the same way tobacco companies had to pay billions of dollars in damages over the health effects of cigarettes, had long been seen as a quixotic quest led by scruffy, oil-hating extremists. But POLITICO’s interviews with dozens of activists, industry officials and lawmakers suggest that support for a legal crusade against Exxon is growing far beyond the political fringe — and now poses the biggest existential threat the company has faced in decades.
Disinvestment is already having an impact. It’s worked to strip billions from company bottom lines, and organizations like Go Fossil Free are encouraging investors to remove their monetary support from Exxon while exposing the network of relationships that allow these companies to distort policy and influence research. But there’s a growing movement to dent polluter profits through more than just denying them investment funds.
Once merely intent on shaming the oil giant into better behavior, environmentalists are pursuing a strategy to discredit the company, weaken it politically and perhaps make it pay the kinds of multibillion-dollar legal settlements that began hitting the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
Protest disinvestment provided critical support for ending apartheid in South Africa, and it’s developing into a critical tool for finally moving companies to act on the reality of climate change. Criminalization of climate-damaging activities would take this even further toward both slowing damage and providing encouragement for both private and public entities to move toward clean solutions.
To avoid this the oil companies could support a carbon fee which would put the true cost on oil and coal, and make alternative sources of energy competitive with oil.