What is stan­ding in the way of effec­tive cli­mate action? The recent IPCC report points to the resis­tance of fos­sil fuel indus­tries. This article reviews the evi­dence about the early know­ledge that fos­sil incumb­ents had about the dis­as­trous effects of their busi­ness model, and the tac­tics they deve­lo­ped to secure their pro­fits nonetheless.


n 2019, change see­med to loom. All around the world, citi­zens were on the streets by the mil­li­ons asking for effec­tive cli­mate action. And then – not much hap­pened. Dra­sti­cally redu­cing fos­sil energy use is tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble and com­pa­ti­ble with human well-being (Gru­b­ler et al. 2018; Kiks­tra et al. 2021; Mill­ward-Hop­kins et al. 2020). For effec­tive miti­ga­tion, we do not need to wait for nega­tive emis­sion tech­no­lo­gies, which remain spe­cu­la­tive at scale (Minx et al. 2018); there are bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties to burn state money than pay­ing fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies to add fur­ther car­bon.1 We also know that there have been cases in the past when socie­ties adapted quickly to dis­rup­tive change, finance was mobi­li­zed on a vast scale and sta­tes used their capa­ci­ties to steer the deli­be­rate pha­seout of entire sec­tors of the eco­nomy (Newell and Simms 2021). So why are we still stuck with high and incre­asing levels of car­bon emissions?

Fossil fuel companies knew about the disastrous effects of their business already in the 1950s

Sci­en­tists war­ned petro­leum indus­try lea­ders about the poten­ti­ally dis­as­trous effects of fos­sil fuels bur­ning on glo­bal tem­pe­ra­ture as early as the 1950s (Franta 2018). For ins­tance, Total was war­ned about the con­se­quen­ces of expan­ding their fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion by a gro­wing – and ex-post lar­gely accu­rate – body of evi­dence in 1971 (Bon­neuil et al. 2021).

Die Autorin

Vera Huwe ist Sti­pen­dia­tin im Pro­mo­ti­ons­kol­leg „Poli­ti­sche Öko­no­mie der Ungleich­heit“. Ihre Schwer­punkte: sozial-öko­lo­gi­sche Ver­kehrs­po­li­tik, inter­sek­tio­nale Per­spek­ti­ven auf Ungleich­heit, Phi­lo­so­phie der VWL.

ExxonMobil’s own sci­en­tists had gathe­red all the rele­vant infor­ma­tion in an inter­nal report in 1982 (Exxon Rese­arch and Engi­nee­ring Com­pany 1982). By com­pa­ri­son, the Inter­go­vern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC), the sci­en­ti­fic body to pro­vide infor­ma­tion about the cli­mate cri­sis to policy-makers and the public, was not estab­lished until 1988.

Fossil fuel companies carefully crafted ignorance about global heating

The inter­nal Exxon report expli­citly sug­gests that “the CO2 pro­blem may curtail fos­sil fuel use before phy­si­cal deple­tion”. Yet Exxon deci­ded to fight tooth and nail to obscure this incon­ve­ni­ent fin­ding. His­to­ri­ans like Naomi Ores­kes or Ben­ja­min Franta incre­asingly unco­ver the full set of stra­te­gies fos­sil incumb­ents used to secure their busi­ness model against all odds. As a core stra­tegy, fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies denied the sci­en­ti­fic basis of cli­mate sci­ence in order to create and nur­ture igno­rance about glo­bal hea­ting (Far­rell et al. 2019; Ores­kes and Con­way 2011).

„I Don’t Believe in Glo­bal Warm­ing“ von .Mar­tin., CC BY-ND 2.0, via flickr.com.

Even more than the tob­acco indus­try before them, they quickly moved to the deli­be­rate pro­duc­tion and dis­se­mi­na­tion of mis­in­for­ma­tion in sophisti­ca­ted and inter­na­tio­nally coor­di­na­ted cam­paigns. Indus­try-fun­ded eco­no­mic con­sul­tants, dra­wing on eco­no­mic metho­do­lo­gies bia­sed towards miti­ga­tion costs while over­loo­king the bene­fits, have played a key role in legi­ti­mi­zing the industry’s inac­tion (Franta 2021). Yet as Bon­neuil et al. (2021) unpack for the case of Total, their stra­te­gies to block and water down regu­la­tion are multi-dimen­sio­nal and tran­s­cend the dicho­tomy of denial ver­sus accep­tance. Their stra­te­gies have also pro­ven ver­sa­tile enough to respond to chan­ging poli­ti­cal environments.

As climate action becomes more urgent, fossil incumbents hide their opposition behind multi-faceted tactics of delay

As pres­sure for an energy tran­si­tion mounts, fos­sil incumb­ents reco­gnize the rea­lity of cli­mate change on the face of it, and even rhe­to­ri­cally endorse cli­mate action while at the same time working behind the sce­nes to oppose or water down effec­tive regu­la­tion. This holds true not only for energy com­pa­nies, but also for indus­tries where fos­sil fuels are directly con­nec­ted to their busi­ness model, like the auto­mo­tive and avia­tion indus­try (Influence Map Report 2021a, 2021b). Fos­sil incumb­ents also leverage their alle­ged sup­port for exis­ting poli­cies to fend off regu­la­tion that would be more effec­tive but dis­rupt their busi­ness model. In the EU, Mar­kard and Rosen­bloom (2020) find that key actors in the energy sec­tor “appear to sup­port the ETS [emis­sion tra­ding sys­tem, author’s note] not because it will drive a low-car­bon tran­si­tion but because it will not. That is, these actors wield the ETS as a Tro­jan Horse, both diver­ting atten­tion away from, and under­mi­ning the pro­s­pects for, more effec­tive poli­cies” (p. 1093). Energy incumb­ents also try to extend the sta­tus quo by sha­ping an ina­de­quate policy response in their inte­rest (Haas 2019). For ins­tance, the gas indus­try resorts to dis­cur­sive power on top of infra­struc­ture con­trol and insti­tu­tio­nal ent­rench­ment for buil­ding a nar­ra­tive that would secure their place in the energy tran­si­tion (Szabo 2022). It appears that the gas indus­try has suc­cee­ded in estab­li­shing a dis­course of gas as a neces­sary “bridge fuel”, in con­trast to the evi­dence that the expan­sion of gas infra­struc­ture is not com­pa­ti­ble with 1.5 degrees (Brau­ers et al. 2021). Loo­king at their sus­taina­bi­lity reports, fos­sil incumb­ents no lon­ger deny the rea­lity of cli­mate change, but detract from its root cau­ses, green­wash their acti­vi­ties with sus­taina­bi­lity rhe­to­ric and reify the sta­tus quo as neces­sary (Megura and Gun­der­son 2022). These stra­te­gies can be clas­si­fied as “change is impos­si­ble” and “fos­sil fuel solu­tio­nism”, and blend in a lar­ger set of popu­la­ri­zed dis­cour­ses of cli­mate action delay (Lamb et al. 2020).

State capture explains why our societies have still not shifted to climate emergency mode

Fos­sil incumb­ents draw on an ela­bo­rate insti­tu­tio­nal net­work of trade asso­cia­ti­ons, think tanks, phil­an­thro­pic asso­cia­ti­ons, and lobby groups. Tog­e­ther, this coali­tion forms a veri­ta­ble cli­mate change coun­ter-move­ment, which is by now best unders­tood for the case of the US (Brulle 2021). Fos­sil inte­rests were ent­ren­ched in poli­ti­cal decis­ion-making by a set of overt and covert means like lob­by­ing, the pro­mise of poli­ti­cal dona­ti­ons and lucra­tive post-office career oppor­tu­ni­ties to poli­ti­ci­ans who com­ply with their inte­rests (‘the gol­den escala­tor’) and the capa­city to dis­qua­lify those who do not (Lucas 2021). Hid­den behind an apo­li­ti­cal façade and backed up by cross-par­ti­san sup­port, a cap­tu­red state keeps expan­ding fos­sil infra­struc­ture in the name of gene­ral inte­rest (also see Mat­tioli et al. (2020) for road infra­struc­ture). As a recent exam­ple, lea­ding Ger­man poli­ti­ci­ans were quick to announce the expan­sion of gas infra­struc­ture to com­pen­sate for the poten­tial loss of Rus­sian energy imports but remain silent about the large poten­tial of demand-side miti­ga­tion for redu­cing energy con­sump­tion (Creut­zig et al. 2021; Iva­nova et al. 2020).

Die Politische Ökonomie der Ungleichheit

Das Pro­mo­ti­ons­kol­leg „Die Poli­ti­sche Öko­no­mie der Ungleich­heit“ unter­sucht Aus­maß, Ursa­chen und Fol­gen stei­gen­der sozio­öko­no­mi­scher Ungleich­heit. Mate­ri­elle Unter­schiede ste­hen dabei im Mit­tel­punkt, wer­den aber stets in Zusam­men­hang zu poli­ti­schen, sozia­len und öko­lo­gi­schen Aspek­ten gesetzt. Die For­schungs­pra­xis ist von einem inter­dis­zi­pli­nä­ren und anwen­dungs­ori­en­tier­ten sozio­öko­no­mi­schen Ansatz geprägt. Zur Über­sicht aller Blog­bei­träge der Mit­glie­der aus dem Promotionskolleg

There are region-spe­ci­fic dif­fe­ren­ces in stra­te­gies, of course. The US cli­mate change coun­ter-move­ment has strong orga­niza­tion and finan­cial ties with con­ser­va­tive foun­da­ti­ons (Brulle 2014), but also rea­ches into mode­rate-con­ser­va­tive insti­tu­ti­ons not overtly hostile towards cli­mate sci­ence and policy (Wis­hart 2019). In the EU, by con­trast, oppon­ents pre­fer less visi­ble inside lob­by­ing over media atten­tion, crea­ting a “quiet oppo­si­tion” that is infor­med by pro-eco­nomy con­cerns over com­pe­ti­ti­ve­ness rather than anti-cli­mate sci­ence rhe­to­ric (Vesa et al. 2020).

The main take-away from this lite­ra­ture is: Oppo­si­tion to cli­mate action is multi-face­ted and no lon­ger atta­ched to cli­mate denial. Today, ‘soft’ forms of cli­mate delay have become pro­mi­nent but are no less effective.

How to make social power relations tip is now the crucial question of climate policy

To make sense of incum­bent resis­tance and to under­stand how it can be undone, an emer­ging strand of lite­ra­ture lever­a­ges a neo-Gramscian frame­work. From a neo-Gramscian ana­ly­ti­cal lens, using mate­rial, orga­ni­sa­tio­nal, and dis­cur­sive power to resist and accom­mo­date pres­sure for change is the ratio­nal response of hege­mo­nic incumb­ents (see for ins­tance Ford and Newell (2021) for an intro­duc­tion). Hegem­ony, howe­ver, is never given but needs to be actively sta­bi­li­zed and repro­du­ced against the threat of con­testants. Dra­wing on hegem­ony theo­rist Chan­tal Mouffe, we may con­clude that re-poli­ti­ci­zing ques­ti­ons about how the eco­nomy should be orga­ni­zed and deve­lo­ping coun­ter-hege­mo­nic pro­jects about how to “live well within limits” (Julia Stein­ber­ger) are nee­ded to change what may now seem immu­ta­ble (Huwe and Frick 2022). Yet, as the evi­dence on incum­bent power demons­tra­tes, scale is key to coun­ter and ulti­m­ately tip social power rela­ti­ons and, with it, our social sys­tems into ano­ther sta­ble but more sus­tainable state.

Bitte beach­ten Sie auch den hier­mit ver­bun­de­nen Bei­trag „Asset Mana­ger Kapi­ta­lis­mus. Das Ende der fos­si­len Ära?“ von Vera Huwe und Ste­phan Stuck­mann auf makronom.de.

1 https://www.theenergymix.com/2022/01/24/shells-milestone-ccs-plant-emits-more-carbon-than-it-captures-independent-analysis-finds/ This fun video shows how fos­sil fuel firms ‘cap­ture and store’ state money rather than car­bon, how they have fai­led their imple­men­ta­tion tar­gets year after year and are still car­bon-addi­tive today: https://twitter.com/thejuicemedia/status/1433573878383591435?s=20&t=VdWzF6VCF3eAstV735fakQ

Bon­neuil, C., P.-L. Cho­quet, and B. Franta. 2021. Early war­nings and emer­ging accoun­ta­bi­lity: Total’s respon­ses to glo­bal warm­ing, 1971–2021. Glo­bal Envi­ron­men­tal Change 71: 102386. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102386.

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Brulle, R. J. 2021. Net­works of oppo­si­tion: A struc­tu­ral ana­ly­sis of U.S. Cli­mate change coun­ter­mo­ve­ment coali­ti­ons 1989–2015. Socio­lo­gi­cal Inquiry 91 /3: 603–24. doi:10.1111/soin.12333.

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This article reviews the evi­dence about the early know­ledge that fos­sil incumb­ents had about the dis­as­trous effects of their busi­ness model, and the tac­tics they deve­lo­ped to secure their pro­fits none­thel­ess. Sci­en­tists war­ned petro­leum indus­try lea­ders about the poten­ti­ally dis­as­trous effects of fos­sil fuels bur­ning on glo­bal tem­pe­ra­ture as early as the 1950s. His­to­ri­ans incre­asingly unco­ver the set of stra­te­gies fos­sil incumb­ents used to secure their busi­ness model. A core stra­tegy at the begin­ning was to deny the sci­en­ti­fic basis of cli­mate sci­ence and to pro­duce and dis­se­mi­nate mis­in­for­ma­ti­ons in coor­di­na­ted cam­paigns. But the stra­te­gies tran­s­cen­ded the dicho­tomy of denial ver­sus accep­tance soon: Fos­sil incumb­ents now rhe­to­ri­cally endorse cli­mate action while at the same time work behind the sce­nes to oppose or water down regu­la­tion. They no lon­ger deny the rea­lity of cli­mate change, but detract from its root cau­ses, green­wash their acti­vi­ties and reify the sta­tus quo as neces­sary.  To achieve their goals, they draw on a net­work of trade asso­cia­ti­ons, think tanks, phil­an­thro­pic asso­cia­ti­ons, and lobby groups, which forms a cli­mate change coun­ter-move­ment. Today, ‘soft’ forms of cli­mate delay have become per­va­sive. For an effec­tive change, re-poli­ti­ci­zing ques­ti­ons about how the eco­nomy should be orga­ni­zed and deve­lo­ping coun­ter-hege­mo­nic pro­jects is necessary.