The global movement to delegitimise fossil fuels received a boost in recent days with the passage through Dáil Éireann of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill. This historic Bill, introduced by the Independent TD Thomas Pringle, directs the State's €8 billion strategic investment fund to avoid investments in oil, coal or gas. The Republic of Ireland is the first country to make such a bold move.
This decision is by itself unlikely to make even a dent in the trillion-dollar hydrocarbon-energy business. Its real significance is symbolic, sending a political and economic signal that the fossil-fuel industry is to be regarded as a necessary evil, to be tolerated only until viable, safe alternatives can be brought on stream.
This might sound harsh for an industry that has fuelled the world for the past century and more. In reality, however, the sector has been the author of its own misfortune.
The oil giant Exxon, for example, first became aware of the dangers posed by climate change four decades ago, in 1977, when its senior scientists warned the board that continued burning of fossil fuels would in time dangerously destabilise the global climate.
Faced with clear evidence of catastrophic future harm from its business model, Exxon did not simply decide to hush up the scientific evidence and keep drilling. Instead it teamed up with other industry players and invested millions of dollars in funding doubt and disinformation about climate science in the media, in politics and among the general public.
It worked. Simply creating the impression of doubt and controversy was enough to muddy the waters.
Exxon followed a playbook pioneered in the 1960s by cigarette manufacturers to downplay the dangers of smoking. That strategy was hugely successful, shielding vast corporate profits for decades while millions of smokers died of a habit they had been conned into believing was largely harmless.
The US government eventually prosecuted the entire industry, culminating in fines totalling more than $200 billion in 1998.
The appointment of the former Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state paradoxically underlines the weakness of the hydrocarbon industry, as well as its desperate attempts to hijack the political process to prop up its precarious, reality-denying business model by enabling a reality-denying president.
Mainstream businesses, mindful of their reputations, are slowly backing away from the energy dinosaurs. In 2014 the Danish toymaker Lego cancelled an €80 million deal with Shell to distribute its toys at fuel stations. In 2015 the UK Science Museum announced that it would not renew a bizarre sponsorship deal with Shell for its climate-change exhibition.
Ireland's longest-running sponsorship programme involving this industry is the Texaco Children's Art Competition, which has operated since 1955 and done much to promote and encourage young artists. Entries for this year's competition close on February 28th.
In 2007 my then four-year-old daughter was a prize winner in the competition, and it was a proud day out for the family. At that time Texaco was owned by Chevron. Its chief executive this week praised Donald Trump’s plans to demolish life-saving environmental regulations.
In a 2012 report Texaco Ireland’s new owner, Valero Energy, was rated by the US Union of Concerned Scientists as among the three most “obstructionist” energy corporations on climate change. The UCS found that Valero’s corporate PR was “pro-climate” while its all-important “corporate actions” were strongly anti-climate.
I realise now what I failed to notice in 2007: the real climate radicals are not the handful of eco-activists battling impossible odds. The true radicals are in fact fossil-fuel companies and their senior executives and shareholders, whose science denial and cynical profiteering have taken us to the brink of an unfathomable global catastrophe.
Ignorance of the consequences of their actions is no longer tenable. The hydrocarbon industry has done this knowingly, and continues to collude with rogue politicians and corrupt regimes, from the Middle East to the Niger Delta to Washington. Radicals indeed.
For all its history, the Texaco Children’s Art Competition is ultimately a clever distraction from the true nature of its sponsor and from an industry’s reckless disregard for the future these children must face. In hindsight we as a family were wrong to participate.
Therefore I call, reluctantly, for a boycott of the competition, given that today’s children are going to bear the brunt of environmental changes in the coming decades.
Texaco, as sponsor of the competition, was invited to respond to the arguments made in this article. (I asked it: “How does Texaco Ireland justify sponsoring a children’s art competition while openly engaging in business practices that threaten those very children’s future?”) At the time of going to press Texaco had not responded.
The tobacco company PJ Carroll sponsored the GAA All Stars until 1978. Who today would find acceptable a tobacco firm sponsoring a sporting event or a children’s competition? We as individuals may feel powerless, even complicit. After all, so many aspects of our lives, from home heating to transport, depend on these same fuels.
Yet, despite the industry’s tireless lobbying efforts, change is possible. Passive-house technology for new homes is already here, while retrofitting would save billions in imported-fuel costs. A national electric fleet is set to break our dependence on liquid fuels for public and private transport and lead to cleaner, safer air.
The missing ingredient is political will.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator. He tweets @think_or_swim