As Houston works to dry out its streets and Florida braces for Hurricane Irma to land, some environmentalists are already pointing to the storms as examples of the extreme weather caused by global warming. A new study published in Climatic Change, a scientific journal studying climate variability, takes this a step further, attempting to both quantify the historical impact of carbon dioxide emissions on global surface temperatures and to tie these changes to specific companies. Though as with another recent study targeting ExxonMobil, the methodology has raised significant questions and the researchers who produced the report are closely connected to efforts that have had a stated purpose of doing damage to the fossil fuel industry.
“Nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions can be traced to the products of a small number of major industrial carbon producers; 83 producers of coal, oil, natural gas, and 7 cement manufacturers,” the study found.
These companies included Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillip, as well as Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the U.S., and nationalized energy companies in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, and elsewhere. By combining information about the carbon dioxide emissions released by burning the fuels sold by these companies, with statistics about sea level changes, the researchers tried to determine the proportional responsibility of each company.
“Removing the annual emissions traced to 90 major carbon producers from the best estimate full historical forcing case shows that the combustion of their products from 1880 to 2010 led to a 0.4 (±0.01) °C increase in [global mean standard temperature], 50 (±1.1)% of the total increased temperature over this period,” the study said.
The research draws upon work first begun by Richard Heede in 2014, when he published research tracking the carbon dioxide emissions of the world’s largest publicly traded and state-controlled fossil energy companies. Since its release, the study has been the subject of heated debate.
The study relies on several significant suppositions to reach its conclusions. When estimating the impact of historical carbon dioxide emissions from major carbon producers over the course of the coming two decades, the authors assume that no major volcanic eruptions will occur. It also presumes that energy companies should be the ones held responsible for the environmental costs of the fuels they produce, even though they are not the end energy consumers.
Critics of the study say that this is part of a larger plan to demonize large energy companies. Steve Everley, senior advisor to Energy In Depth, connects the study to a 2012 conference in La Jolla, California organized by Naomi Oreskes and the Union of Concerned Scientists, where environmentalists met to develop a strategy for how to take down big oil companies. Four out of the paper’s seven authors attended the conference (Ekwurzel, Heede, Allen, and Frumhoff), as did Michael MacCracken, who the authors thank for his “constructive comments.” Oreskes was the author of another recent paper targeting ExxonMobil that has received significant criticism.
“This study – if you can even call it that – is exactly what the Union of Concerned Scientists said it needed to produce five years ago in order to create ‘wrongdoers’ of global warming. The conclusions were written before the research began, because that’s how political campaigns work,” says Everley, who questioned the effectiveness of targeting specific companies in an attempt to solve a problem that the paper’s authors admit is global.
“What’s ironic about this kind of paper is that it effectively denies how climate change is a global problem that requires global action,” Everley continued. “Instead, the authors – and other ‘Keep It In the Ground’ activists – just want to attack a handful of companies and try to extract value from their shareholders in court.”
Although the paper was published in a scientific journal, the research was funded by groups with deep ties to the environmentalist movement, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and the Wallace Global Fund.
The study is more than just a scientific report; it also makes policy recommendations. In their conclusion, the researchers presume that assessing responsibility for global warming is a common goal and that the size of a company’s contribution to carbon emissions is “one factor to consider in assessing responsibility for climate change consequences.” However, they also leave open the possibility that a company could potentially mitigate its financial responsibility through its response to “the climate risks of their products.”
“[These] ethical, legal, and historical considerations may further inform discussions about carbon producer responsibilities to contribute to limiting climate change through investment in mitigation, support for adaptation, and compensation for climate damages,” they conclude.
Already, supporters have drawn on the research from the study to call for forcing fossil fuel companies to pay for the costs of “climate damages,” including damage due to hurricanes and flooding.