The House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing last week to investigate Big Oil’s involvement in the promotion of campaigns that prevented strong climate action in order to maintain their profits from fossil fuels. While the CEOs and Presidents of companies such as ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell vehemently denied the claims that hold them responsible for the spread of misinformation, House representatives held enough evidence to prove that efforts from their corporations have slowed down the amount of substantial action on climate change.
Such companies present a hypocritical public image, publicly appearing to support the shift to a more climate-conscious standard of living when it benefits them, while lobbying behind the scenes to suppress scientific information about the consequences of fossil fuel usage and extractions — ensuring that they profit while exploiting the earth. The hearing lasted six hours, with each side debating on the responsibility such corporations hold in the blame for climate change.
“Some of us actually have to live the future that you all are setting on fire for us,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said.
When chief executives of each company were asked if they would stop their support of trade groups and lobbying firms that push to reduce targeted advertisements for electric vehicles and climate policies, all four refused. Reminiscent of the 1990s crackdown on Big Tobacco, Big Oil funded external organizations to ensure that the current administration’s climate proposals would receive weak support. However, today’s oil corporations are unlikely to face anywhere near the same consequences that tobacco corporations faced before.
Despite their similarities in the tactics, presentations and intentions, the effect that oil and tobacco executives have on the world is vastly different. Climate change and the immediate need for concrete action are ideas that have yet to be embraced by a large number of Americans; whereas the negative effects of extreme tobacco usage were clearly visible in people. Cigarette users showed clear detrimental effects on their bodies that made it nearly impossible for the larger part of the nation to ignore, but climate change and the shift toward sustainability is a completely different story.
Although extreme weather conditions and resulting humanitarian crises from the past decade can be attributed to global warming and the increase in greenhouse gases, the effects are often felt in areas that don’t affect those CEOs. They can simply refuse to acknowledge the increase in California wildfires and the ever-intensifying hurricanes on the east coast and argue that they can’t control natural phenomena.
Additionally, these corporations will continue to be celebrated by the right-wing of the political spectrum for stimulating the economy through increased fossil fuel exports, extraction jobs and even technological consumption. They will continue to make a profit from the sidelines because they have made it so there is no concrete way to link their work to a direct impact on an individual.
In fact, a majority of private citizens would not even be concerned about the result of the hearing since it is focused on investigating how their lobbying and extraction investments are affecting the progress of climate policies through advertisements. They are likely to only throw their support towards the hearing if they see a form of change or compensation coming to them as a direct consequence. For public rage, a public impact needs to be defined. The CEOs might even try to shift the blame towards the people in the future, mentioning how their concern for the environment should be reflected in their own choice of vehicle instead of their business model. They will fail to realize that awareness and guilt work hand-in-hand.
Although this is a pessimistic viewpoint to support, it is an obvious path that the government is following. The support for climate policies is weakening as the rifts in the Democratic party increase, giving Republicans the space to create a split and stall the passage of effective laws. Big Oil may end up paying fines for their attempts to hide the negative consequences of their work, but this hearing will not guarantee an entire shift of public perception — at least not for another decade — until the repercussions of unsustainable living are clearly visible. After which, defining the responsibility for the climate’s downward spiral will become an easier task for the authorities. Until then, the public may have to wait for corporations to even understand the results of their actions.
Nandini Sharma is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.