The major investor-owned fossil fuel companies did not follow this path. On the contrary, they took essentially the opposite path, denying the reality of the problem of climate change, working to ensure that fossil fuels would remain central to global energy production and that emissions would continue unabated. Indeed, more than half of all industrial emissions of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution have been emitted since 1988. (Fig. 3).
Browne’s call for corporate responsibility on climate was rejected by the major industrial carbon producers, and ultimately by BP itself. Instead, many of the largest fossil energy companies pursued a business model that coupled doubt-mongering about climate science with political advocacy against carbon regulations and in support of aggressive development of new sources of fossil fuels. Industry lobbying factored heavily in the 2001 rejection of the Kyoto Protocol by the U.S. administration under President George W Bush (Vidal 2005) and in the failure of the U.S. Senate to take up federal climate legislation after a comprehensive cap on emissions passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009 (Mackinder 2010; Grandia 2009; Oreskes 2010). In effect, the industry created a self-fulfilling prophecy: The absence of carbon regulation would ensure that fossil fuels would continue to be a good investment, and the companies would maximize profits for their shareholders to the detriment of the world at large by continuing to expand fossil fuel discovery and development.
Between 1988 and 2005, ExxonMobil invested over $16 million in a network of front groups that spread misleading claims about climate science (leading to strong public condemnation from the British Royal Society: Ward 2006). It also exploited its close relationship with the administration of President George W. Bush to pressure the administration to remove top scientists from leadership roles in the IPCC and the US National Climate Assessment and to promote federal policies driving further reliance on fossil energy (UCS 2007; Brulle 2014). In 2009, Chevron provided transportation for its employees to attend faux “Energy Citizens’” rallies organized by the American Petroleum Institute (API), purporting to demonstrate grassroots opposition to climate policies (Grandia 2009). As of 2010, many of the largest fossil energy companies were failing to comply with U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission guidance to disclose to their shareholders the material risks posed to their business by climate change (Coburn et al 2012). Several companies, including Chevron and BP, also ran misleading advertising campaigns highlighting their commitment to renewable energy (Juhasz 2013).
Major fossil fuel companies have maintained leadership roles in influential U.S. trade associations and lobbying groups, including API, American Coal Council, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that continue to cast doubt on climate science and oppose regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2012, Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP America, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Total, Anadarko, Occidental, Hess, Devon, Apache, and Marathon all served on the Board of Directors of API (American Petroleum Institute 2012).
In 2011 API brought suit with other parties against the EPA over its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, stating that “EPA professes to be 90 to 99 % certain that ‘anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are primarily responsible for ‘unusually high planetary temperatures’, but the record does not remotely support this level of certainty” (Goldman and Rogerson 2013), a statement that flew in the face of the prevailing scientific consensus (IPCC 2007).
Peabody Energy and ExxonMobil serve on the corporate leadership “Enterprise Council “of ALEC, and Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips are members of ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force. This task force is the source of ALEC’s model legislation aimed at repealing renewable energy standards and regional climate policy initiatives in US states. ALEC characterizes climate change on its website as “a historical phenomenon” for which “the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions” (American Legislative Exchange Council 2010, 2014; SourceWatch 2014).
Industrial carbon producers have done all this not only to be able to exploit existing reserves of oil, gas, and coal, but also to develop new ones. The depletion of older, accessible forms of oil and gas has led industry to develop new oil fields in technologically difficult and environmentally risky environments such as the deep Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and the Arctic. It has also led them to explore for and develop more carbon intensive unconventional fossil resources such as tight oil, with associated increases in emissions from flaring; thermal enhanced oil recovery, with increased emissions associated with producing steam, and oil sands, with increased emissions associated with extraction, upgrading and refining (Brandt et al. 2010). The oil and gas industry has also been dramatically expanding production of natural gas from shales in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere (Council of Canadian Academies 2014).
These activities are consistent with the assumption that there will be no substantial constraints on the production and use of fossil fuels in the near to medium term, and with the determination to ensure that there will be no such constraints.
If the industrial carbon producers had accepted the need for a substantial price or cap on carbon, they would have made different business bets. Instead, they engaged in a set of activities designed to prevent the implementation of any substantial constraint on carbon, and they did so in part by repeatedly misrepresenting the state of scientific knowledge.