It wasn’t just Big Oil that misled the public for decades

We have wasted so much time. Despite decades of urgent warnings from scientists about a looming climate crisis, global carbon emissions have continued to climb year after year, amplifying and compounding the challenge the world faces to avert catastrophe. A new UN report reveals that global temperatures are now on track to rise by 3.9 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. To avert climate chaos, the report suggests, global emissions need to fall by 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020. That is to say, by next year, carbon pollution needs to start falling five times faster than it has been rising. Possible? Yes. But about as likely as reversing gravity.

Why have we waited so long to deal with this crisis? Lots of reasons, from the sheer scale and inertia of our energy systems to the psychology of denial. But the fossil fuel mafia played a big part in it. Thanks in part to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting a few years ago by InsideClimate News, we now know that ExxonMobil and Shell and other Big Oil companies knowingly misled the public and their shareholders about the risk that climate change poses to their assets, as well as to the habitability of the planet. In internal memos dating back to the 1970s, Exxon predicted that the effects of fossil fuel pollution could “indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the world’s population).” In 1982, it estimated that the atmosphere would contain 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide in 2019 – a stunningly accurate prediction. As a recent New York Times editorial pointed out, “The parade of horribles foreseen by the company — sea level rise, more intense rain and snow, inundation, hotter temperatures, desertification, agricultural disruption — are now regular features of the nightly news. And it will only get worse.”

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