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The Green Transition Derailment

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at elements that could derail the Green Transition.
Abigail Bassett
Oct 20, 2023 11 min read
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Last week, my colleague wrote about the "Green Relapse" taking place across the climate space–as everyone from governments to major corporations start backpedaling everything from emissions commitments to decarbonization.

Of course, as companies and governments backslide and renege (or, as they would like to call it, “reframe”), their commitments to going greener on the timelines that they set, the conversation has once again become about politics and profits. That’s no surprise, but it’s a disappointing turn of events as the globe struggles with the widening climate crisis and the advent of not just one but two major wars.

Big Oil is Prioritizing "Energy Secruity" Over the Green Transition

A few weeks ago, Exxon Mobil agreed to pay more than $59 billion for one of their chief rivals, Pioneer Natural Resources, a major fracking company with a stronghold in the Permian Basin, one of the largest oil-producing areas in America. The Basin produces 5.8 million barrels of crude per day, which is just under half of the estimated 12.76 million barrels of oil produced daily in the U.S. The region stretches from Texas to New Mexico. That production represents around 40% of the U.S.'s oil supply and 15% of natural gas. To put it lightly, it's enormous.

According to Fortune Magazine, if the deal passes federal antitrust scrutiny, it would represent the largest deal since Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999. That same story argues that one of the major takeaways from the potential agreement is that oil and gas companies are currently prioritizing "energy security" over making strides toward their stated climate goals. Exxon Mobil committed in 2022 to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Analysts that Fortune magazine spoke to argue that Exxon Mobil's move into the Basin represents a shift and "derisking" of their supply: The company relies heavily on offshore drilling for most of its production. Those rigs are expensive to build and maintain, plus they take a long time to create a positive cash flow for the company. ExxonMobil is looking for a way to ramp production without having to invest in a lot of infrastructure. As this release points out, the demand for offshore rigs is rising in the Middle East and Africa.

In addition to diversifying its portfolio, most major oil producers are facing increasing issues as two wars around the globe begin to disrupt drilling and transport operations. As Fortune points out, Israel recently asked Chevron to shut down its drilling operations off the coast of Gaza due to the continuing and escalating conflict in the area. The continued war in Ukraine centers (at least somewhat) around Russian natural gas and the EU's access to it, which is particularly relevant as we enter the winter season in the northern hemisphere.

The Israel-Gaza war has triggered concerns about rising oil prices as high as $115 per barrel, as more oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia continue to keep a close eye on the evolution of the conflict. That kind of price hike could derail the U.S. economy’s hoped-for “soft landing,” especially as the Fed continues to indicate that it will keep interest rates high for a longer period. Derailing a soft landing in the U.S. could further destabilize other economies and lead to more uncertainty all over the globe.

Both the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza are likely to put more pressure on major oil producers to "friend-shore" and on-shore as much of the oil and natural gas production as they can as a derisking move, prioritizing "energy security," over the green transition. 

The Rise of Fake Climate News

This all comes at a time when climate change has become increasingly politicized. Former president Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords during his time in the White House, and he has continued to echo his stance as a climate denier as he runs for a second term. There's an entire cadre of conservative groups that, according to Politico, have essentially written a plan to wipe climate action out of the federal government.

Recently, The Economist published a story about the "growing global backlash against climate policies." The story cites everything from the small but vocal group of hyper-conservative Republicans who are notorious for spreading their brand of outlandish, extreme, fake news, the current slate of Republican presidential contenders who danced around the issue during the latest debate, to the global backsliding on green commitments by multiple countries, (the same that my colleague enumerated in this newsletter, last week.)

The piece points out that voters are suddenly realizing that shifting away from fossil fuels will be difficult, expensive, and potentially disruptive to their typical way of life. As The Economist points out, the politicization of climate change has dire implications both for the climate change world and democracy as a whole. "In democracies, such divisions have consequences. (Public opinion matters in dictatorships, too, but that is beyond the scope of this article.) In rich democracies, especially, divisions over climate are aggravated by populist politicians, who take real problems (such as cost and disruption) and exaggerate them, while claiming that the elite who impose green policies don't care about ordinary motorists because they cycle to work."

As the U.S. enters an election year and the rhetoric heats up, climate change is at the top of voters' minds, especially as we close out the hottest summer on record. Yet, right-wing Republicans, especially those known as the "Chaos Caucus," continue to deny, delay, and deflect ideas around climate change. Pew Research published a study back in August that shows that Democrats and Republicans have grown further apart on just how much of a threat climate change poses to life on this planet, which, as The Economist points out, is not conducive to dealing with climate change in a comprehensive or cohesive way.

Watching as the World Burns

While the politicization and profit prioritization of climate change seem acute today, this is not the first time climate change denial has increased. There is a relatively long history of zombie theories and outright falsehoods getting attention in major media outlets, as this story from The Grist points out. Everyone from the oil companies to the politicians financially supported by them has played a role in the rise of climate denial.

For example, In the 2000s, The New York Times uncovered documents that showed that major players like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Southern (another oil company) were planning to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours on Congress, the media, and other key audiences." Today, as global turmoil rises, inflation continues to plague countries, deglobalization rises, and war stretches on, it's not hard to imagine that the same anti-climate change rhetoric won't grow and spread rapidly again, especially in our post-social media world. This time, it will come down to how educated the public is and whether they can see through the fake news and zombie theories.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett