The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Climate Crisis (2/2)

by Paula Struthoff

Modern society – think air travel, refrigeration, heating – runs on energy. How this energy is produced is not only a scientific and technical question but is deeply political, and is a key concern for the climate crisis. In this article, I take a closer look at the fossil fuel industry as one of the pivotal actors at the intersection of energy production and climate change mitigation

The fossil fuel industry, which profits from continued extraction of fossil fuels, is an influential actor globally, and is partially owned by the government in many countries [1]. Scholars and climate activists have argued that the reach and influence of the industry has been preventing effective climate policies and must be limited. This influence of the industry happens through a variety of pathways, of which three are highlighted here.

The most straightforward pathway is the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying efforts. Lobbying is the act of trying to persuade an authority, such as policy makers, to your cause [2]. Lobbying is often done through financial means, like donating to a politician’s campaign or sponsoring. In the USA, for example, the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying expenditures are immense, at roughly 4.5 times that of renewable energy. The size of these lobbying expenditures has shown to be linked to how (un)likely significant climate policies are to pass [3]. This means lobbying efforts negatively influence climate policy-making. 

A second pathway in which the fossil fuel industry can influence the response to the climate crisis is spreading disinformation about the crisis. This is often called climate change denial, and influences what people believe. There is now ample evidence showing that some fossil fuel industry actors fund climate denial knowledge production. An example is the funding of think tanks which produce scientific reports presenting alternative climate information and argue that there is no dangerous climate change [4]. The ExxonMobil case is another widely known example. Scientists uncovered that ExxonMobil, a fossil fuel producer, had found scientific evidence that the fossil fuels cause climate change over 40 years ago, yet spent many of its resources promoting their products and denying climate change [5] up until recently. 

A third pathway is that of the ties between the fossil fuel industry and the financial system. Fossil fuel corporations are highly involved in financial markets and therefore a lot of people, banks, and firms have invested in stocks, bonds, and other investment funds connected to the fossil fuel industry, allowing them to continue their operations. These financial investments fund large parts of the expansion of the fossil fuel industry [6]. Environmental finance [7] and the fossil fuel divestment movement [8] are two efforts to limit the influence of the fossil fuel industry through their financial ties. Universities, national banks, private investors and all other kinds of people have financial stakes in the fossil fuel industry. They aim to help remove this financial support to the industry, which would limit the possibilities to expand and extract more. 

The links between governing energy production, which we need for our societies to function, the fossil fuel industry, and the climate crisis are complex as this article shows. A first important step in untangling these links has been calling out the fossil fuel industry for its culpability in the climate crisis. Uncovering how climate denial works, questioning lobbying, and divesting from fossil fuels are all ways to limit the influence of the industry, which we must do to avoid more dangerous climate change.

Paula is a postgraduate student in the environmental social sciences and currently lives near London. Her academic work focusses on on corporate greenwashing and short term politics, which in her opinion are the biggest hurdles to overcome to have more productive climate conversations and policies. She is a Cambridge geography graduate and loves to walk dogs, cook, and read books in her free time.


Categories Energy/Technology and the Environment

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