How humanity is condemned to death by the political protection given to economic interests

by Jun 18, 2024Amandla, Article

*This article is jointly published by Amandla! and the Daily Maverick.

Protesters in Manila marched to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines in 2015, calling for an investigation into the responsibility of big fossil fuel companies for fuelling catastrophic climate change that is resulting in human rights violations. PHOTO: Greenpeace Philippines.


“Ηow dare you,” Greta Thunberg lambasted world leaders in 2019, “you have stolen my dreams and my childhood”. By 2024, one could say that world leaders have stolen much more than her dreams and childhood.  They’ve included the whole of humanity in the suicide they’ve chosen for themselves.  A suicide, moreover, that is no longer in the far distance. Climate change science is proving to be wrong in one important respect:  the change is happening much faster than predicted.  

The then 16-year-old Greta Thunberg also challenged the US Senate in a personal address in Washington. Her demand, she told them is that 

“governments, political parties and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and come together despite their differences – as you would in an emergency – and take the measures required to safeguard the conditions for a dignified life for everybody on earth.”

Rather than taking measures to ensure the very survival of our species, the governments, political parties and corporations have been complicit in the cover up exposed in April 2024 by the Democratic Party’s own Congressional Joint Staff Report made public by the Senate Budget committee ahead of its hearing on the report.  The 65-page report is titled “Denial, Disinformation, and Doublespeak: big oils’ evolving efforts to avoid accountability for climate change”.  

Drawing heavily on Jamie Henn’s article on this astonishing Congressional report, we learn that oil companies knew since the 1950s that their product was causing catastrophic climate damage. Companies like BP and Shell understood the dangers of methane emissions from ‘natural’ gas, but nonetheless marketed it as a clean energy. During the previous decade, the industry spent over $700 million on university research to ensure a future for fossil fuels.

The report is the culmination of a three-year investigation which the industry was most energetic in trying to obstruct. Amongst its manoeuvres, it tried withholding information, resisting subpoenas, and then swamping the committee with over 100,000 pages of meaningless documents.

Despite the industry’s efforts, Henn concludes, the report is a damning account of the oil industry’s

“decades-long crusade to simultaneously block meaningful climate action while extracting more government support for false solutions like ‘natural’ gas (aka methane) and carbon capture and sequestration. Over the course of thousands of emails, top executives, lobbyists, and PR advisors debate how to lobby against important regulations, greenwash the industry’s reputation, shape university research agendas, and mislead the public about the threat of fossil fuels.”

No less remarkable than the report itself was the Senate Budget Committee’s conclusion to its special hearing on the report. Its programme of action flowing from its recognition that the report “highlights the urgency of addressing climate change and holding corporations accountable” is no more than 

“[I]t is crucial that we prioritize transparency, scientific integrity, and the well-being of our planet. Only through collective action and responsible decision-making can we hope to create a sustainable and resilient future.”

Notwithstanding this pathetic political response, Jamie Henn’s focus – like the general public one – is exclusively on the fossil fuel industry.  Noting that this industry isn’t willingly going to give up its profitable primacy, he calls for “sharper teeth” with which to hold Big Oil accountable.

It is telling that none of the world’s major English newspapers seems to have published anything about the US Senate Report.  Indeed, the Senate report itself is the only reference available on Google.  There is a brief Canadian-focused article on the Report but, typically, its concern is not the failure of the political leadership but rather holding the fossil fuel industry accountable.  

“Our planet is dying. The time for fairytales is over” – Greta Thunberg 

The fairytale at the centre of this article is the belief that the political leaders of profit-maximising economies will do anything fundamental to adopt and enforce what climate science says is needed to stop human extinction.

These fairytales include: 

  1. Polluter Pays  

The principle that those who produce the pollution should pay the price of preventing damaging human health and the environment goes back to the 19th century and is embedded in legislation worldwide.   

A timeous August 2023 study, by a team of economists and finance professors, calculates the cost to corporations if they were to pay for their pollution.  The study of nearly 15,000 public companies in the US found that costs would amount to about at least 44% of their profits.  However, as Seth Borenstein points out in his report on the study, these 15,000 companies represent only a fraction of the corporate carbon damages worldwide.  The true cost is trillions of dollars globally and hundreds of billions for US corporations.  Nearly 90% of the calculated damage comes from only 4 sectors:  energy, utilities, transport and the manufacture of materials such as steel.  

The focus of the study was what it would mean to both profitability and the world’s ecological health if governments were to introduce and enforce legislation compelling corporations to report on their direct greenhouse gas pollution.  Omitting indirect pollutions means, for instance, that emissions by road-based transport were excluded from oil companies’ emissions.   

The  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s $190 cost per ton for carbon dioxide emissions was used in the research’s calculations.  At this price, the average damages caused by the utility industry was more than twice its profits. Materials manufacturing, energy and transportation industries all had average damages that exceeded their profits.

(To be noted in passing, and against this background, including the South African government’s carbon tax policies and practices, the Government’s current Draft Sectorial Emission Targets report is a fairytale within a fairytale.)  

The corporate damage report and its devasting impact on profit maximisation was published by the prestigious journal Science.  Yet its recommendation – captured by both its title and blurb – “Mandatory disclosure would reveal corporate carbon damages — Accurate reporting is critical for markets and climate policies” – speak to its limited focus on just accountability and transparency and its blindness to the political side of economics.  

Nobel prize winning economist Paul Romer, formerly of the World Bank and now at Boston College, had different – though equally revealing – reasons for being unhappy with the Report.  He allowed the Report’s damage estimates to be useful but wasn’t happy with “the moralistic framing and induced urge to punish.”

Most importantly, neither the Report nor any of its commentators saw the need to ask why, after some 150 years of being recognised as a need, polluters are (mainly) still not paying and are instead being allowed to “externalise” their costs to the public. 

As to the future likelihood of the fossil fuel industry and corporations making themselves accountable via government legislation, to accurately report on their greenhouse gas pollutions, we have just to look to the past.  The 2023 Report was preceded by a not dissimilar one 10 years earlier.  The 2013 report – “Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business” – was sponsored by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).  

With a brief to cost the total “unpriced natural capital” used by the world’s top industrial sectors where “natural capital” means ecological materials and services such as clean water or a stable atmosphere and “unpriced” means that businesses don’t pay to use them – the research found that the majority of unpriced natural capital costs were greenhouse gas emissions (38%), water use (25%), land use (24%), air pollution (7%), land and water pollution (5%), and waste (1%).  The total unpriced natural capital used by the more than 1,000 global primary production and primary processing sectors amounted to $7.3 trillion a year — 13 percent of 2009 global GDP.  

Of the top 20 of the world’s industrial sectors ranked by environmental impacts, none would be profitable if environmental costs were fully integrated. That amounts to a global industrial system built on sleight of hand. As Paul Hawken, the then Californian civil rights activist, environmentalist, businessman and author, puts it

“We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.”

According to David Roberts, the author of the article upon which I’ve drawn much of the above, more than a few accounting oversights are involved in the UNEP report.  Much more than a difference in degree separates a sustainable world from the free natural capital used by corporations worldwide. What is needed, in Roberts’ understanding is a “new way of providing for human wellbeing, and fast”.

Fast forward 10 years and we have the “fairytales” of politicians listening to calls to make the global polluters accountable for their destruction of life and the environment, a destruction now more widely known as climate change.  

2. Progressive taxation

Moving into the present, into as recently as May 2024, we have a repeat of the same theme of governments not taking political action to restrain economic profit maximisation.  This time, the call by Hugh Helferty and Jessica Nacheman, is for “Big Oil” to “Pay for the US to Reach Net Zero.”  Instead of being directed at the US Congress, the call, which treats the government as some sort of neutral go between business and citizens, requires Big Oil to foot the bill rather than expecting the public to do so via increased taxation.  

If the US is to reach net zero without massive personal tax increases, they write, government regulation of Big Oil is essential.  Instead of regulation and without any awareness of the contradiction, they then inform us about the US Department of Energy’s “award” of $6 billion to support 33 projects to reduce emissions.  A $332 million beneficiary of this ‘award’, an ExxonMobil project to reduce US emissions by a mere 0.04%, came only after the oil giant warned that it might not continue the project due to unsatisfactory government incentives!  ExxonMobil’s net profit in 2023 was $36 billion.  

The main government incentive to US industry came in 2022 in what Helferty and Nacheman call the “carrot” of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).  The White House described the IRA’s incentives to private industry as:  

“the most significant action Congress has taken on clean energy and climate change in the nation’s history” 

The size of the carrot?  More than $800 billion of over 10 years, according to the US Treasury.  

US industry is mainly happy with taxpayers paying for industrial pollution.  Their only complaint, write Helferty and Nacheman, is that the incentives are not large enough.  For Helferty and Nacheman

“It is time for the IRA’s carrots to be followed by a regulatory stick”

Like most of the other economists, academics, analysts and commentators, Helferty and Nacheman don’t ask what ought to be the two most obvious questions:  

  • Why do they think it necessary to ask the politicians for the ‘regulatory stick’?  Do they think our political leaders are so thick that they don’t know about the polluter pays principle or that our leaders everywhere and for a very long time all suffer from Alzheimer’s and therefore need reminding?  
  • Why don’t they dare ask why the political leaders avoid directly taxing the polluting corporations?  Indeed, why don’t they ask why the opposite happens; why corporate taxation – beginning with legally set levels of taxation – have everywhere been reduced during the previous almost half century?  Tax dodges and profit shifting is sufficiently ubiquitous to be given a name that it recognised worldwide:  Illicit financial flows (IFFs).  Small steps have begun being taken but why is it taking so long to implement even these small steps? In a word, why does progressive taxation remain a fairytale?

3. Global fossil-fuel advertising ban

Using the occasion of a major speech while delivering dire new scientific warnings of global heating, António Guterres, UN secretary general, accused the fossil-fuel industry of being “godfathers of climate chaos”.  Noting that: “Many governments restrict or prohibit advertising for products that harm human health, like tobacco,” he 

“urge[d] every country to ban advertising from fossil-fuel companies. And I urge news media and tech companies to stop taking fossil-fuel advertising.”

Calling for such a ban shows that even this unique teller of undiplomatic truths sometimes calls for fairytales.  

It’s his conclusion, however, that is most revealing for present purposes:  

“It’s ‘we, the peoples’ versus the polluters and the profiteers. Together, we can win. But it’s time for leaders to decide whose side they’re on.” [Emphasis added]

The incestuous marriage between the politically and economically powerful

The politically powerful have always known which side they’re on.  It’s us, ‘the people’, for whom this reality is seemingly lost in fairytales.  The necessary marriage between economics and politics is both old and global. 

The constrains on this article allow for nothing more than a few paragraphs in a somewhat didactic race through human history.  

The marriage between those privileged by both the economies and politics of their specific time and place has been a necessity ever since groups of people became sufficiently productive to achieve a surplus of basic goods, beginning with food.  The surplus made possible a division of labour within the group such that, other than the constant of childbearing and caring, some members could specialise in activities other than food related.  Being a leader was one of these non-basic specialisms.  

With growing productivity, the groups became larger and more integrated to form city-states or increasingly large regions.  Discernible states with their own forms of government emerged.  Today’s world is but an almost unimaginably more complex development of these beginnings.  The stability of each group, state, empire, nation, depends, in the first instance, on the symbiotic unity between the economic and political spheres within the ruling group or class.  

Hence the introduction in the 18th and mid-19th centuries, mainly in Britain, of the widely accepted twin of political economy.  It fell out of favour when used by Karl Marx as a key to his understanding of the State and what he called the class struggle.  The success of these counters to Marx and his successors is that even such a person as UN Secretary-General António Guterres should ask the political leaders to decide which side they are on!

Making sense of the three fairytales I’ve covered above is the (often implicit) idea that governments somehow don’t know what is needed to stop – let alone reverse – climate change.  We hang on to this idea despite successive generations of the world’s political leaders saying they accept the reality of climate change and the science that explains the complexities of what is happening.  

For practical reasons, I’ve perforce focused exclusively on the fossil fuel industry.  But that industry is only one sector of an integrated economic system premised on profit maximisation.  It is the societal whole – its institutions, ideas, values, understanding, expectations, hierarchical structures – congruent with its economic imperatives that the political leadership protects as its ultimate responsibility.  

This does not exclude exceptions when public pressure can no longer be ignored, like with the tobacco ban.  The South African Canegrowers provide the most recent example of the ubiquitous primacy of profit maximisation, regardless of consequences.  Having lost the battle against the public health-inspired tax on sugar – notwithstanding the concession of the first 4g being currently tax-free – they haven’t given up on the war.  In defence of the tax concession, they are currently – and falsely – claiming that the tax has already cost 16,000 jobs. People’s health, including large scale deaths, are, like with climate change, of no consequence in such amoral matters.  

A large transition away from fossil fuels – even if it were to happen – would still leave that political economy intact.  Fossil fuels are a symptom, not a cause, of why we are fast losing the battle against climate change.  

A sobering though not hopeless conclusion

If humanity is to have a future, it is system change that must happen. Fast.  Not seeing the political side allows for the power of the fairytales.  Faced with the choice between system change or death, our economic and political leaders have (implicitly) chosen death.  Unfortunately for humanity that unilateral choice also means death to everyone else.  

And there’s no succour to be found in the immediate future.  Even before any of the urgent – not to say drastic – steps that need taking, there’s a growing backlash against the pathetically inadequate climate change measures being taken in some countries. 

Is there anything that can still be done?  Yes. Lots. Beginning with abandoning the idea of politicians being ignorant or bought by the fossil fuel lobby.  Followed by recognising that the leaderships of Europe, North America and Japan consider climate change to be, at best, a nice to have optional extra.  This was even before the emergence of the right-wing parties now sweeping Europe that are committed to Trump-like measures to counter climate change.

Climate change considerations – being low on the agenda – were unceremoniously dispatched by the immediate sanctions on Russian oil and gas following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, without thought of climate change is the readiness of the US, Britain, and the EU to fight the Russians to the last Ukrainian. Their enormous military and financial support to that unfortunate country is, via vastly increased demand for killing machines, good for the military-industrial complexes President Eisenhower warned against but a disaster for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions.  This additionally applies to the endless supply of military equipment being given to Israel, albeit on a smaller scale.

Democracy allows for the possibility of political parties opposed to the status quo being in the Parliaments around the world.  However, in the absence of such parties, it is necessary to see elected political leaders as central to the problem, not the solution. By extension, this applies even more so to those institutions of the UN supposedly committed to tackling climate change, starting with the annual meetings of world leaders at the mystery-evoking events called COPs.  

Where does all this leave climate activists?  

The biggest of the immediate challenges, in my view, and, as a consequence of the on-going need to deepen our understanding of events, is to reach the largest possible worldwide consensus of system change being the only viable response to climate change.  Where that consensus leads and the form it takes are challenges for the future.  

The most urgent challenge for now is to ensure that humanity will have a future. Probably not for most of those reading this article. But for our children and grandchildren and their children. 

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