Apparently, Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions? was so popular that it gets a retread. Despite the original being published in 20133, we’re now being told that Researchers have for the first time tied a group of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, and their products to specific increases in greenhouse gases, global warming and sea level rise. A study published Thursday in the journal Climatic Change concludes that since 1880, 90 of the largest carbon producers are responsible for up to 50 percent of global temperature rise, 57 percent of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and between 26 and 32 percent of global sea level rise. Don’t worry, people have memories like goldfish, and the meeja even less, no-one will notice or think to complain1.

The original – not that it was terribly original – was Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010 by Richard “just call me Dick” Heede2. The retread is The rise in global atmospheric CO2, surface temperature, and sea level from emissions traced to major carbon producers by a pile o’ people, include R Heede, but also Myles “seminal” Allen.

Just to remind you of why the whole thing is bollocks: customers emit CO2, not producers. Don’t blame the people that sold you a thing for your using it. Hopefully that’s bleedin’ obvious4.

The article in climateliabilitynews is unusually explicit in positively vaunting the political motives of this “science”: The research could open the door for those who have suffered losses due to climate change to sue major oil companies for damages. The study also links each individual company to its percentage impact on climate change. “This study could inform approaches of juries and judges who are looking to monetize damages,” said study lead author Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Not even a pretence of that ivory-tower impartiality so notable in the usual caricature of scientists.

1980 or 1960?

There’s a detail of the analysis worth snarking about. From the article: In the century prior to 1980, companies may not have been aware of the harm their products cause, Ekwurzel said. After 1980, the firms had sufficient scientific data showing carbon dioxide from burning the fossil fuel they produce was harmful. [Obligatory Exxon drivel elided] “Once it became clear no later than the 1960s that continuing CO2 emissions would progressively undermine the climate, the major carbon producers could see that they were marketing harmful products,” said Henry Shue, a professor emeritus of politics and international relations at Oxford University, wrote in a commentary published alongside the study.

So, what’s it going to be: 1960 or 1980? In the (IMHO unlikely) event that this nonsense ever turns into money, two decades will be a pile of dosh and lawyers fees and doubtless the expert witnesses can expect some, too. The “1960s” claim is by one “Henry Shue” in a commentary. I think it is bollox. Admittedly, he is emeritus, but really? OK, I suppose I’m obliged to find out who this old geyser is. He sort-of makes wiki, in the “Negative and positive rights”. Ah, he’s at Merton. Lovely place, but no real history of understanding climate science5.

Can I prove that “1960s” is bollox? Of course. Just consider the 1975 NAS report. Recall that I wrote that summary many years ago, when showing that the “global cooling” stuff was, also, bollox; so if anything I had an interest in exaggerating its “warming” credentials. And as I quote from the foreword, we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate. Which I gloss: “I believe that this is an accurate assessment of the state of knowledge at the time”.

One of the sources quoted by this idiot Shue (“Later in 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee issued a report treating CO2 as a pollutant, with an appendix on “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide””) is (US, White House 1965). And the report (well, the little bit of it that deals with CO2; notice, tellingly, that it is shuffled off to an appendix) says:

I’m not sure I’d say 1980s is right, either. But it would depend on what you meant. By then, IPCC were saying Based on current models, we predict: under [BAU] increase of global mean temperature during the [21st] century of about 0.3 oC per decade (with an uncertainty range of 0.2 to 0.5 oC per decade); this is greater than that seen over the past 10,000 years; under other … scenarios which assume progressively increasing levels of controls, rates of increase in global mean temperature of about 0.2 oC [to] about 0.1 oC per decade so certainly predicting future warming. But they weren’t signing up to attribution at that point: Our judgement is that: global mean surface air temperature has increased by 0.3 to 0.6 oC over the last 100 years…; The size of this warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability. Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.


0. Pic: seracs, Barre des Ecrins. One day I must learn how to do captions.

1. Other than a few grumpy old men, but they can just be ignored.

2. I know, I know. Forgive me. Also I used the same “joke” last time.

3. The published date is 2014 but my blog is from 2013; doubtless in the usual tedious way it was trailed but glowing clouds of PR.

4. I see form the comments last time that it isn’t; so I’ll say in advance: trying to palm our responsibilities off on other people is pathetic evasion. You buy and burn oil, that’s your decision. Don’t blame the guy you bought it from.

5. The they did some good early work on physics.


  1. #1 KenH

    As I see it there are three parties responsible for the CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels – the fossil fuel producers, the manufacturers of internal combustion engines, and the consumers. It’s a joint responsibility. All three contribute. I don’t understand how blaming and demonizing one of the three and giving a free pass to the others helps – how does it move us forward. All three are required for a solution. A quote I heard – “Men with beer bellies blaming the brewer”.

    [Many people are required for a solution. I don’t think I’m demonising anyone – I’m trying to lay the blame where I think it lies, and to some extent I’m reacting against the propaganda from the other side. I notice you don’t criticise People like Heede for “demonising” only one of the side -W]

    Nice pics. You should come to the Canadian Rockies some time.

    [Thanks. They’re on my list :-) -W]

  2. #2 scatter

    I probably said this last time round but people don’t want petroleum products, gas and coal; they want mobility, heat and power.

    Fossil fuels happen to be the incumbent energy carrier, not because people demand fossil fuels, but because that’s what the largest energy companies happen to supply.

    Thankfully other companies are starting to supply low carbon mobility, heat and power at scale, and I expect that the vast majority of people would prefer to use that over fossil fuels given half a chance.

    The end user doesn’t have much agency over the type of energy available but does have considerable of agency over the quantity of energy consumed, so I’d call it joint responsibility: people can consume less energy, the energy suppliers can supply clean energy.

    [I think that’s largely true, but it is also largely true on the producer side, too -W]

  3. #3 KenH

    I phrased part of that poorly. I wasn’t criticizing you. The ‘demonizing’ I was referring to was by Heede. I actually work in the oil industry. My intent was to support your criticism of Heede.

    [Oh, thanks :-) -W]

  4. #4 crandles

    >”Don’t blame the people that sold you a thing for your using it. Hopefully that’s bleedin’ obvious4″

    Is it that obvious?

    If you have to blame one or the other, producers or consumers, then I am with you it should be consumers that get the blame. But should it be one or the other? There seems a good case that both deserve to be held responsible, perhaps primarily consumers but this does not let producers off the hook (at least not completely).

    [Possibly; see end. As I hope is obvious, I’m mostly reacting to the nonsense Heede and Oreskes are spouting, apparently unchallenged and even encouraged by those who should know better, such as Stephan Rahmstorf -W]

    Producers may not only have some moral responsibility but also legal liability for use of product as intended. I mentioned Grant v Australian Knitting Mills (1936) last time. A clear case where you could blame the people who sold it to you for use of the item as intended.

    [I don’t see the relevance of that. In that case, there were facts know about the product to the manufacturer – that they required washing before use, effectively – and not to the purchaser. There are (despite Oreskes nonsense) no similar facts in the case of fossil fuels -W]

    Is this a ‘joint responsibility’ or each being (fully?) responsible for the same thing with a slight different nuance? Maybe that still amounts to a ‘joint responsibility’? But there is potentially a difference in that with joint responsibility you would allocate damages to share of the blame. With full responsibility for a different aspect, that may not apply. If it doesn’t apply, then not allocating a large share of the responsibility to consumers might be justifiable and not a case of failure of ivory tower independence.

    I am no expert, but this looks complicated rather than highly obvious.

    [There is something to your view; I’m prepared to concede it requires thinking about; but having done so, I’m still mostly / largely / essentially blaming the consumers. Apart from anything else, if Exxon or Chevron of BP doesn’t drill up the fossil fuels, someone else would do it instead. If I don’t drive my car, no-one else will do it for me -W]

  5. #5 crandles

    >”In that case, there were facts know[n] about the product to the manufacturer – that they required washing before use, effectively”

    Do you know that? Got a ref? Are you sure it wasn’t a case of this being established after the complaint?

    [I read the wikipedia article. It was a guess -W]

  6. #6 crandles

    “Evatt J dissented, holding that Dr Grant’s dermatitis was caused by sulphur compounds and that the manufacturer had failed to fully or completely carry out its washing process”

    Sounds like there was a manufacturer washing process that was somehow omitted or failed to be adequate. My guess would be that had they known, they would have sent them round the washing process again so in absence of any evidence of it being deliberate negligence, the assumption presumably would be that they did know washing was required but in this case as far as they knew, thought they had been adequately washed.

    The sale of goods act created the duty of care that was broken, not a negligence tort.

    So it seems established that selling goods can create a duty of care to ensure that if goods are sold and used as intended they are safe to use in that manner. What makes ff producers and/or retailers not liable in this way?

    [I’m not really sure I follow your logic. But FF *are* safe to use in the way they’re intended. The harm is long-term. It is also well-known to all govts, which choose to continue to permit that use, and all consumers, who choose to continue use even though they know the harm they are doing. So i don’t see why producers are special in this regard -W]

    Emotionally, I agree that consumers are more responsible than producers. However, if you want to use the law then you have to follow the law. AFAIK, there was no step in the assess the damages stage that said, Dr Grant could have washed them at the first hint of irritation so we will assign some proportion of the fault to him and reduce the damages to the remaining portion of the fault.

    Are you claiming that in law, ff situation is somehow different and there should be such an apportion of damages according to blame step?

    [The law is ambiguous and I don’t really see any point pretending otherwise. So analysing possible outcomes on strict legal terms is not very useful, I think. I would be unsurprised if govts resorted to, effectively, banditry-within-the-law -W]

  7. #7 Dunc

    Apart from anything else, if Exxon or Chevron of BP doesn’t drill up the fossil fuels, someone else would do it instead. If I don’t drive my car, no-one else will do it for me -W

    Where are we apportioning the blame for constructing a society in which it is very difficult to function “normally” without burning a lot of fossil fuels (either directly or indirectly)?

    [Per Hayek, society isn’t constructed, it grows. If we were in a command economy like the USSR, then the central planner would bear the blame. For the West, the “construction” is so diffuse that no-one can be meaningfully blamed more than anyone else -W]

  8. #8 crandles

    >”[I’m not really sure I follow your logic. But FF *are* safe to use in the way they’re intended. The harm is long-term.]”

    That seems pretty weird. They “*are* safe” followed immediately by admitting there is long term harm???? In what way is long term harm not a breach of being safe? Forgive me, if I throw ‘I don’t follow your logic’ straight back at you.

    [You use them. They don’t damage you -W]

    I don’t know the law well enough to try to second guess what it will do, but I suspect neither are you. Perhaps a different knowledge set for govt, consumers and vendors is enough to differentiate the case, I am not going to guess.

    What I am trying to get at is that the following was ambiguous.

    “There is something to your view; I’m prepared to concede it requires thinking about; but having done so, I’m still mostly / largely / essentially blaming the consumers.”

    You could be just saying my emotional assessment of the case is that it is mainly consumers to blame and if the law doesn’t work in that way then the law is an ass.

    Or you could be saying that you have thought about it, accepted there is an emotional case where consumers are mainly the ones to blame but there is also a legal safety case where vendors are responsible for the safety of their products when used in the way intended. You have considered this legal aspect and concluded this does not apply or will get distinguished in some way.

    I think you have now clarified that you are just taking the first approach. So there is something to my view, that requires thinking about, but there is no point in pretending other than you don’t want to discuss it.

    [I don’t know where you got “emotional” as the opposite or alternate of “legal” from. I would use “logical” or perhaps “moral” -W]

  9. #9 Russell

    Scatter, is correct but a lot of climate policy pundits don’t want to hear of , much less act upon the mere fact that coal CO2 emissions could be cut as readily by hydrogen content incentives as carbon taxes-

    The superabundance of cheap coal that is accelerating radiative forcing includes massive reserves that get a large fraction of their heat of combustion from H rather than C

    Policies promoting high volatile coal to the exaclusion of high carbon varieties like anthracite could lower thermal plant per BTU emission ~10-20%

    Why isn’t the IPCC on the case?

    [What reaction are you proposing? And why would it not also be promoted by a carbon tax? -W]

  10. #10 Mal Adapted
    looking for shade and casting it too

    WC, inline to #4:

    I’m still mostly / largely / essentially blaming the consumers. Apart from anything else, if Exxon or Chevron of BP doesn’t drill up the fossil fuels, someone else would do it instead. If I don’t drive my car, no-one else will do it for me

    If this is tl;dr, sue me. I’d rather say too much than not enough on this blog.

    William, I’m basically with you on blaming us fossil fuel consumers for AGW, but it’s a Tragedy of the Commons only because the energy market is ‘free’. Our marginal climate-change costs are socialized at the point of sale, i.e. during the transaction between producer and consumer.

    Let’s not forget that producers are the guys who actually dig the stuff out of geologic sequestration and sell it for as much profit as the traffic will bear. If the producer doesn’t have to count climate change as a cost of production, he can charge me less without losing profits. As a consumer, I’m already paying more than I want for the benefit of a tankful of gasoline; why would I pay for my carbon emissions if ExxonMobil doesn’t charge me for them at the pump, especially if nobody else is paying for theirs?

    There’s no need to judge culpability, though. You’ve all heard the market-oriented argument for a carbon tax: taxing producers per tonne of fossil carbon at the source, and letting them decide how much to raise their prices, means producers and consumer both pay more per transaction, but still no more than is cost-effective compared with doing something else with their money. Everyone not party to the transaction pays, in aggregate, that much less. The tax need only be high enough to eliminate the unfair price advantage FFs currently have over carbon-neutral energy sources with their full marginal costs internalized. A lower-bound estimate of marginal climate-change costs by carbon content of fuels will be enough to drive the build out of the carbon-neutral economy with optimum ‘efficiency’ and no recrimination. That’s the theory, at least.

    Producers aren’t actually prohibited from acting collectively as responsible citizens, either. I’m aware of growing corporate support, including ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, for a US Carbon Fee and Dividend with Border Adjustment. Meanwhile, investors large and small are divesting themselves of FF securities, leading to producer bankruptcies (albeit with little penalty for certain privileged officers and creditors).

    As for “If I don’t drive my car, no-one else will do it for me”, you may be saying “I enjoy the full marginal benefit of my FF purchases, so I should pay for the full marginal costs”, which is pretty much my view too. OTOH, it’s not hard for me to imagine my hypothetical Trumpist neighbor gleefully rolling coal as I peddle painfully off on my bicycle, nor my satisfaction at seeing him trade his F-350 dually for a Prius when he can’t afford the gas any more ;^D.

    [That wasn’t quite what I was trying to say; I was trying to contrast my and the producer’s responsibility. Given a need – say, my desire to drive to work rather than cycle – there will likely always be companies ready to step up and meet that need, thereby causing fossil emissions (leaving electric vehicles aside for the moment). So I’m suggesting that if some morally pure company refused to meet my need, that wouldn’t actually do much good, because someone else would. But if some morally good person – say, myself – decided virtuously to cycle, then the emissions wouldn’t occur. Thus, I am responsible for the emissions, if they do occur. So I’m talking about responsibility, not payment.

    Tragedy-of-the-commons doesn’t get the consumer off the hook, though, because it doesn’t explain lack of support for a carbon tax. This goes all the way back to Hobbes but is explicit in Hayek (not for carbon, of course, but for other matters): even if you won’t voluntarily pay a cost (because of the risk of free riders, as you point out), it can be entirely rational to want everyone in society to be forced to pay the cost, perhaps via taxes. So it could be entirely rational for USAnian voters to want lower priced fuel, but to be keen for a carbon tax. What isn’t rational is for them refuse that carbon pricing -W]

  11. #11 rzp

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    [Welcome -W]

    My opinion posted below is probably pretty trite, and while my point is touched on above, though not I think in this form.

    I will agree that customers do clearly share a good deal of the blame. Your blog has made me more sensitive to this than I think I’d otherwise be. This argument has been discussed at length above, so I need not go into detail here. But I do agree.

    On the other hand, some of these specific oil companies do share a special blame. Not because they provided the product*, but because they spent so much time lying about the product. It’s well-known that Exxon and other oil giants funded a decades-long misinformation campaign. Even if they no longer support that campaign, which Exxon at least has promised, they helped create the denalist machinery which is still in operation. They built it, but they’ve played very little role in dismantling it, tepid statements in support of future taxes notwithstanding.

    If a product is dangerous, we expect warning labels. Everyone knows that hydrochloric acid is dangerous, but we’d still be mad at an acid manufacturer that didn’t put a label on a bottle if someone got hurt. The public is full of ignorant people after all, which is not always blameworthy since we’re all ignorant of many things. What we would __not__ expect is for that acid manufacturer to produce reams of propaganda about how healthful their hydrochloric is and about how materials safety datasheets are government-sponsored anti-acid anti-progress hoaxes. You often write that everyone “should” have known that CO2 was harmful from the 80’s on, but any public poll will show that to this day a great number of people have built their political identity around denying that fact**. Exxon and others do play a role in creating that confusion, and to that extent they are morally culpable. Though it may not be a legal principle, it is my view that an honest company _must_ be upfront about the reasonable potentials for harm of their product, and that includes long-term harm. Again, to be clear, this is a moral judgement, not legal pontification. If Exxon had been honest from the start, then they would have to be guiltless.

    *Though as an aside, one wonders how much willpower a society, in which responsibility is diffuse, (rather than an individual), can be expected to have.

    **Ironically, as consumers, I think that makes people who believe and care about the climate change more culpable than people who deny it. Oh well, since culpability is tied to awareness that one is doing wrong.

    [I think those who lied, like Exxon, must get blame for that; they certainly intended to influence public opinion. But they were only one or a few of many sources of information for people; I still reject the Oreskes-type narrative that poor dear Joe Public had nothing else to believe, which is clearly false.

    Or, phrased better, you’re responsible for your emissions but you’re also responsible for your opinions, too -W]

  12. #12 crandles

    >”[I don’t know where you got “emotional” as the opposite or alternate of “legal” from. I would use “logical” or perhaps “moral” -W]”

    I don’t think the emotional tag is a very good tag for the aspect I am referring to either. However I needed some tag to refer to this view of there wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t so much demand. Who is responsible for the demand, the consumers obviously. But there are other aspects like safety where the vendor carries some responsibility. Using a tag like logical might imply this is the one and only view that really should matter. ‘Moral’ could be a little better or maybe ‘excess demand caused the problem aspect’ would be better, I don’t particularly care.

  13. #13 Hank Roberts
    if the mountain won't come to you ....

    No need to keep moving mountains to get at carbon fuel.
    Now can a carbon tax run in reverse to fund this approach?
    ______quote follows______
    Researchers Make Alcohol Out of Thin Air |
    | from the were-they-in-Denver? dept. |
    | posted by Fnord666 on Tuesday September 12, @04:53 (Science) |
    | |

    [0]Phoenix666 writes:

    It may sound too good to be true, but TU Delft PhD student Ming Ma
    has found [1]a way to produce alcohol out of thin air. Or to be more
    precise, he has found how to effectively and precisely control the
    process of electroreduction of CO2 to produce a wide range of useful
    products, including alcohol. Being able to use CO2 as such a resource
    may be pivotal in tackling climate change. His PhD defence will take
    place on September 14th.

    […] For mitigating atmospheric CO2 concentration, carbon capture
    and utilization (CCU) could be a feasible alternative strategy to
    carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The electrochemical reduction
    of CO2 to fuels and value-added chemicals has attracted considerable
    attention as a promising solution. In this process, the captured CO2
    is used as a resource and converted into carbon monoxide (CO),
    methane (CH4), ethylene (C2H4), and even liquid products such as
    formic acid (HCOOH), methanol (CH3OH) and ethanol (C2H5OH).

    The high energy density hydrocarbons can be directly and conveniently
    utilized as fuels within the current energy infrastructure. In
    addition, the production of CO is very interesting since it can be
    used as feedstock in the Fischer–Tropsch process, a well-developed
    technology that has been widely used in industry to convert syngas
    (CO and hydrogen (H2)) into valuable chemicals such as methanol and
    synthetic fuels (such as diesel fuel). The figure attached describes
    these three processes and the way electroreduction of CO2 could
    potentially close the carbon cycle.

    Beer, from air. Others use barley as an intermediary.

    Publication: Aula TU Delft, PhD defence Ming Ma, Selective
    Electrocatalytic CO2 Conversion on Metal Surfaces.


    [2]Original Submission

    Discuss this story at:


    [File under CCS I guess; but it is going to be energy-inefficient and low-volume I think -W]

  14. #14 GregH

    > [For the West, the “construction” is so diffuse that no-one can be meaningfully blamed more than anyone else -W]

    There’s a happy coincidence.

    [It isn’t obvious why it is a “coincidence”. What does it coincide with? A generally free society, perhaps? I think it is at least part true that a society that grows is more likely to be free than one that is constructed -W]

  15. #15 Hank Roberts

    Well, as I understand the ‘ibertarian notion, sue the bastards is the appropriate remedy for anyone burdened with someone else’s externalized costs. Tho’ there are accounting problems …..

    “San Francisco and Oakland are suing to get five oil companies, including San Ramon-based Chevron, to pay for the cost of protecting the Bay Area from rising sea levels and other effects of global warming.

    “These fossil fuel companies profited handsomely for decades while knowing they were putting the fate of our cities at risk,” San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera said in a statement….”

    [Sue is one remedy. The hard-core Libs will, I think, try to tell you that works in all circumstances, but I don’t think that is believable. The case you point to is an obvious example: it is hard to see how it could succeed, for a number of reasons: (a) per this post; (b) those companies are hardly the only ones; (c) the handsome profits are no longer with the companies, but distributed as dividends to the shareholders. It is weird the way people seem to look upon companies as though they were real people – presumably the same people who are most opposed to the companies-as-legal-people legal fiction -W]