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To save climate, kick the oil out of politics

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

Last week, I took John Kerry’s recent Financial Times interview as an opportunity to unpack prospects for COP 28.

Suffice it to say, I was not left feeling particularly optimistic. In my view, COP has set itself up to fail – again. 

In fairness to Kerry, his overall optimism rests less on governance and more on business:

"I’m a big believer in the marketplace. When I left as secretary, I said no government is going to solve this problem. Government can help create structure, provide incentives…but the private sector’s going to do this because there’s money to be made. This is the new industrial revolution.”

I too believe we are facing a fourth (fifth? I’m losing count…) industrial revolution. And Kerry is right that government action can act as an important catalyst for private investment. His detailing of the impact of the IRA is the standout example of the year.

But what about the relationship in the other direction? Can the oil industry in particular become a positive force in climate governance?

“The final thing is, it’s really critical that the fossil fuel industry come to the table, join up, adopt the commitments to achieve net zero by 2050, to be supporters of Paris implementation, to make commitments with respect to 2030…my hope is that the industry will recognise that the science affects them, too.”   

Kerry is no climate denialist, but he’s certainly in denial on this one. Here’s why.

The roof over our heads

The idea that Big Oil has any interest whatsoever in becoming a constructive force in climate governance is laughable. 

Why would they feel the need to ‘come to the table’ anyway? They own the table. They own the chair Kerry’s sitting on. They own the roof over his head – the grand old Cupola of the US Capitol Building. 

Oil owns politics. That’s as true in Washington as it is in Riyadh or Moscow. For anyone who doubts that statement – or, like Kerry, would rather not recognise it in public – let us review the facts of the matter, with the US as our case study:

The oil lobby is probably the most powerful business interest in the world, and Washington is no exception. Between 2008 and 2019, fossil fuel interests spent over $2 billion in the US on political action, with oil companies the biggest contributor with $1.3bn. That allowed them to outspend the green lobby by 27 to 1. 

Oil lobbyists hold key jobs in the 2023 Republican Congressional administration. These include such critical roles as Chiefs of Staff to the House Natural Resources Chairman and Majority Leader. 

This is not just a Republican problem. A swathe of self-identified ‘progressive’ cities and organisations also employ lobbyists who are deeply enmeshed in fossil fuels. Chicago shares lobbyists with BP, Philadelphia and Apple with the Kochs. More than 150 universities are in the same boat. State Farm – which pulled out of the California insurance market due to climate-induced wildfires – sees no irony in employing fossil fuel lobbyists across 18 states.

21st century Rushmore

In fact, the endemic rot of oil money in US politics has been a cheerfully bipartisan affair throughout the 21st century. George W. Bush (who started his own pre-politics oil exploration firm) at least had the decency to admit, “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." 

America finally voted against Bush’s solution (disastrous misadventures in the Middle East) by electing “Hope and Change” Obama. Some slogan: he oversaw the beginnings of the fracking boom under an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, boasting that the 77% increase in US oil production, “was me, people!”

Then came Trump, who installed Rex Tillerman, sold Arctic oil licenses, gutted the EPA and generally applied the same care to the climate that he gave to everything else under his watch.

And what of Biden? He has certainly pushed ahead with climate policy, spearheaded by the IRA. But he has also continued the Obama-era approach of ‘strategic ambiguity’ on energy. 

Take, for example, his expansion of pipelines and terminals to export shale oil and gas. US exports hit record levels this year; should all Biden’s proposed fossil infrastructure go head in the Gulf region – from Sea Port to Calcasieu Pass 2 – they would lock us into another 3bn tonnes of CO2e every year for thirty years, equivalent to the entire footprint of the EU. Being exports, of course, none of these emissions would count within the US’s own NDCs. Meanwhile, developer Venture Global has planned for a thirty-foot sea wall to protect the proposed $10bn CP2 terminal from rising sea levels. Go figure.

What about the influence of Big Oil within COP itself? ‘Inviting them to the table,’ as Kerry put it, doesn’t mean anything when they’ve been there all along. Oil lobbyists, from Aramco down, have been editors and even lead authors on IPCC reports for years. According to Global Witness, COP 27 was graced with over 600 oil lobbyists accredited within national delegations. COP 28’s President runs one of the world’s biggest oil companies, so I imagine that number is only going in one direction this year.

Oil money out

Here’s the truth: as long as politics remains beholden to the oil lobby, the world will never get the commitment it needs from these companies to phase out fossil fuels. 

Instead, we will continue with governance by cognitive dissonance. 

It’s why this year’s COP hosts want us to talk about ‘emissions’ not ‘fuels,’ so we can lose a few more years chasing the dead-ends of green hydrogen, ‘bridge gas’, DAC and oil company CCUS. 

It's why said emissions keep rising, relentlessly, regardless of the flavour of the last election.

It’s why the world spent $7 trillion last year on fossil fuel subsidies, even as we scratch our heads and wonder how to afford the transition.

There’s only one solution: get oil money out of politics for good. 

Over to you, John.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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