Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions?

That's what the Graun says.

Timmy says Complete and total bollocks here. Or, if you prefer a more measured version he says Fossil Fuel Companies Do Not Cause Carbon Emissions, We Consumers Do.

Timmy is right. The Graun is wrong.

The Graun says

Climate change experts said the data set was the most ambitious effort so far to hold individual carbon producers, rather than governments, to account.

But it isn't. Its an attempt to shift the blame off us lot so we can all relax and spew out yet more CO2 and say "oh no, its not our fault, look, the Graun says its all the fault of those nasty fossil fuel companies over there".

[Update: the paper is Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010 (as you expect from the pile-of-poo referencing standards of a newspaper, the Graun doesn't provide a link: they want you to read their words, not the original source). It says (my bold) The purpose of this analysis is to understand those historic emissions as a factual matter, to invite consideration of their possible relevance to public policy, and to lay the possible groundwork for apportioning responsibility for climate change to the entities that provided the hydrocarbon products to the global economy. And later While not disputing the logic of the UNFCCC, the analysis presented here suggests a somewhat different, and perhaps useful, way to consider responsibility for climate change

So its clear to me that the Graun has no distorted their words: "Dick" Heede really is talking bollocks; he hasn't been misrepresented.]


* It won't be long before the victims of climate change make the west pay, Chris Huhne.

More like this

You and Timmy (no surprise) miss the point. This paper identifies choke points, if we can have an effect on how these companies deploy or better put don't deploy their resources it can make a major difference.

OTOH, it has always been completely obvious that the oil and large coal companies would go on such a list.

[Nope, the one who has missed the point is our favourite lagomorph. For a the obvious reasons that I really didn't think I'd have to spell out, but here goes:

* 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.
* the idea that all you have to do is convince 90 people is just silly. If you convinced the CEO of Exxon to stop pumping oil, all that would happen is that he'd be sacked. Simple as that.

Have a word with Brian, he'll put you straight -W]

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 21 Nov 2013 #permalink

I was making the same point to a colleague this morning (that consumers are the other side of the supply/demand equation). He replied, rather neatly: yes, but changing the behaviour of 6 billion fossil fuel consumers is much MUCH harder than changing the behaviour of two bus-loads of CEOs.

Which I thought was rather a good point. It also occurs to me, if you want to follow that line of argument, tobacco companies or arms dealers are only doing the same thing: providing what the market demands. I'm not saying that argument's necessarily wrong, but it certainly isn't as simple as pinning all responsibility on the demand side.

[Nope, its a very silly point. See my reply to Eli, above -W]

If all the externalities were accounted for on the production side, then I'd agree we could dump most of the blame on the consumers. As it stands, consumers really don't have much of a choice unless they're very informed and wealthy.

[Of course consumers have a choice. You can choose not to fly. You can choose not to drive. You can choose not to over-consume -W]

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 21 Nov 2013 #permalink

But why should choices be restricted to strict yes or no? the simplest example would be the US car industry and oil consumption. How much better off would we all be now if the US had led the way on fuel consumption/ vehicle efficiency rather than going in the opposite direction to Europe and Japan for 30 years?

[It would have been better. But, again, that can't be blamed (more than a little bit) on the car companies. It is consumer choices that matter (and, arguably, stupid regulation; the SUV nonsense can be blamed squarely on regulation) -W]

More importantly, how differently would we be positioned now to move forward with much tighter fuel and emission limits? Because it's not just us and our own personal or commercial choices. All those new consumers and users in developing economies would be working from a much wider range of much better options had we done better in developing and expanding our own markets for fossil conserving or avoiding technologies that we already had 30 years ago. (It's all very well to point the finger at China and India for their cack-handed power generation practices - but they would have taken a different path if the other options had been well established in advanced economies. And we have to wear some responsibility for that.)

There are far more options than yes or no. There are good, better, best, bad, worse and worst options. And industries and their marketing arms have a lot to do with which are available and how easy it is to get a better rather than a worse option.

Let's start with the Gaurdian's lead sentence:

"The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests."

That is just wrong. Abysmally wrong. The climate crisis has been caused by the joint actions of all (or very nearly all) people in the Western world, and to a lesser extent the former Soviet block by massive consumption of fossil fuels well in excess of the mean per capita emissions of the rest of the world. It is no more sensible to sheet that blame home just the corporation than it is to sheet home to China the blame for its excess emissions in products made for the US market at the behest of US corporations.

On the other hand, for most products and services, it is very difficult to find the carbon footprint of the product. Therefore consumers are constrained to ignore the carbon footprint of their choices (with a few obvious exceptions) by the labeling choices of corporations. You cannot both conceal relevant information on the label, and blame consumers for not making their choices on the concealed information.

In an analogy, the factory system in poultry production cannot be blamed on consumers. It was introduced without consumer consultation, and at no stage did poultry farmers, egg marketers or chicken (meat) marketers advertise the introduction of the system and its deleterious effects on poultry. It was not, therefore, a choice made available to consumers to use factory, or not factory poultry products.

In Australia, at least, that has changed. Now eggs and chicken meat are clearly labelled as barnyard, or free range and consumers are making their choice so strongly that at least one supermarket is switching to exclusively free range eggs.

So, until carbon footprint labeling is standard, simply blaming consumers is as simplistic and as much "total bollocks" as blaming the 90 largest suppliers of fossil fuels.

[Nope, don't agree. There is no need for carbon labelling for petrol, for example. What you're saying is sounding rather similar to what a number of people say about tobacco: that somehow they didn't know it was bad for them, despite all the information to the contrary that was widely available -W]

If you want to sheet home blame, it belongs at a political level. It is the fault of voters for not adequately holding their representatives to account. It is more strongly the fault of representatives for not acting on the scientific information they are given, and for confusing the issue. It is the fault of corporations for buying representatives votes, and for paying people to deliberately confuse the issue in the minds of the public. And it is the fault of media for playing false balance on matters of science, and in many cases (quite frankly) deliberately propogandizing to ensure nothing effective is done on global warming.

[Again, no: xferring the blame to the representatives rather than the voters is almost always wrong; and certainly wrong in this case -W]

By Tom Curtis (not verified) on 21 Nov 2013 #permalink

Because if consumers are offered a choice in the marketplace between a short-term less inexpensive product with external costs, and a short-term more expensive product with external benefits, they will ....

[...think carefully about what it is they want, and what it is they need, and balance their needs with the long-term future? No? Why not - why do you or they think this task should be palmed off on someone else? -W]

Oh, wait.

That choke point thing, you know, it's how we handle salmonella, and DDT, and mercury, and PCBs, and ... oh, but I do go on.

Say, did you know you can save a whole lot of money on sweetener if you just keep your wine in leaded glass?

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 21 Nov 2013 #permalink

More to the point, it's not an effort to shift the blame -- it's an effort to prepare the citizens for the effects of a carbon tax -- which can be implemented far easier at the producer end and passed on to these newly informed consumers.

[A carbon tax would be spiffy, and as you know I think it would be an excellent idea. I don't see that making this particular exercise any more sensible, though -W]

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 21 Nov 2013 #permalink

Nice consistent response there W, but I'm not sure just calling us silly is much of an answer.

[I didn't call you silly. I called your point silly -W]

"People should just be better people". Uh huh. Maybe you can blame the fact I've been imbibing too much economics recently, but the idea that the demand side is purely responsible for all consumption is *at the very least* open to debate and... well, wrong.

[I didn't say people should be better people (though it would be good). I said people are responsible for their actions and their choices -W]

What do you think has happened with Chinese trade in the past 15 years? Were we all hammering at their gates demanding their products? Or what about the housing boom that led to the financial crash? Is that driven purely by people just watching too many property programmes (actually, I think that is a small factor!) or might it have had something to do with the availability of cheap credit (supplying cheap money...)?

I'm not sure anyone's denying the role of demand. Well... obviously not. It's one of the tricksiest elements of decarbonisation - everyone asks, "how can we reduce demand?" Answers any more detailed than "people should just be better people" are rare. The next question is exactly the one my colleague asked: "how do you shift millions/billions of people's behaviour?" People seem to have this weird resistance to being told what to do, damn them.

Aside from which - how much of this do you think is really solveable through "consumer choice"?

[Not sure I understand the question, but the answer is it all needs to be solved by "consumer" choice, there is no other way, since we don't have (or want, nor would we tolerate) a dictatorial government capable of enforcing "choices" on us -W]

No-one's denying the role we have (as consumers, voters, activists, people who might buy shares and go and shout about climate change at AGMs etc).

The other obvious point: taking the legislative route, you'd want to target the biggest emitters, wouldn't you? (Not necessarily just for a carbon tax). So just on that basis, it seems a useful question to ask.

[Certainly you're interested in the biggest emitters. But the point is that the fossil fuel companies aren't the emitters; the people who buy and then burn their fuel are -W]

The article struck me very much in the same way as it appears to have hit you: as expressed in the Graun it makes no sense. It does very much look like a 'blame game', but otoh, I didn't feel that the logical consequence was for the reader to feel 'oh that's okay, it's not my fault'.
Generally, responsibility for emissions lies with the emitter, not the producer of the means (a coal mine produces emissions, but not the emissions from the coal it sells).
Having said all that, I'm still not sure what the point of the article is meant to be.

By Fergus Brown (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

Though: "The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies" is a stupid way to phrase it. People should use the word "cause" very carefully - you'd think the gruaniad would have learned. The language in the paper's abstract is fine.

... though maybe the paper itself is saying the same thing in a slightly muffled way: "... invites consideration of the suggestion that some degree of responsibility for both cause and remedy for climate change rests with those entities that have extracted, refined, and marketed the preponderance of the historic carbon fuels."



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.

Sounds reasonable and I’d have a lot of sympathy with that. But it’s also evading the real issue, which is the environment people make decisions in.

Let’s take one example: transport. In Holland, far more people choose to cycle rather than burn oil in their cars compared to the UK. Is that because the British are pathetic and the Dutch noble? No. It’s just that the environment an individual finds themselves in Holland tends to encourage them to cycle overall, for many different reasons – infrastructure, convenience, culture and geography to name a few.

In the same way we try to blame obesity on a lack of personal responsibility, whereas in reality the environment we find ourselves in makes staying fit far more difficult than it was 50 years ago; individuals are no less or more lazy or feckless.

We need to forge an environment which encourages the right decisions. Some form of carbon pricing/tax, regulation, information, infrastructure investment etc are all necessary parts of this. Pinning blame on individual consumers as you appear to stray into is futile and misses the point.

The 90 organisations can be a part of changing that environment.

[I agree that the environment you live in matters. But people create and change that environment. The Dutch made certain decisions; they aren't all noble. You can just as well argue that fossil fuel companies exist within an environment. I'm not blaming individual consumers; I'm blaming all of them, including me. Well, "blame" is perhaps the wrong word. I'm saying we're responsible for our choices -W]

By verytallguy (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

So there’s something here about the balance between individual responsibility and societal action.

Let’s look at another example – reducing smoking rates.

How have we gone about that? It’s a multifaceted approach, helping people make the “right” decisions.
-information (labelling, advertising ban)
-culture (acceptability of smoking in TV and films, workplace bans)
-regulation (availability to U16s, tar levels)
-subsidy of alternatives (healthcare for giving up)
-pricing (very high tax rates)

All of this makes it easier to make the right choices, and smoking rates are reducing.

[Smoking I think is an interesting comparison, but it leads me in a somewhat different direction.

Smoking was heavily, massively advertised. I don't think fossil fuels are. I've never seen an oil company say "use more oil!" (I don't have a TV, and I ignore most advertising, so its quite possible I'm missing stuff). This isn't because oil companies are noble whereas fag companies are evil: its because no-one needs to advertise to say "use more oil!". Its been obvious for years that smoking is dangerous and damages your health and will probably kill you early; no-one anymore (well, certainly in the West) has any excuse for believing otherwise. On CO2 emissions, its clear that many people *do* believe otherwise (and the pols react to that). Do they have an excuse for this? Not if they get their advice from the gummint, or sci orgs. But if they get their opinions from people around them, or the meeja? Well, they're responsible for their choice of where to get their info -W]

That's advertising. What about political lobbying? We know that both fag and oil companies lobbied pols; I really don't know what the balance was; at a guess, I'd say they probably spent comparable amounts. I'm not sure how relevant that is to the discussion, though -W]

Whereas for obesity
-information is poor (routine advertising targeted at children)
- culture (high acceptability of fast food outlets)
-regulation (essentially none, although brought back in to school dinners)
-subsidy of alternatives (none)
-pricing (cheap high energy density foods)
the environment drives the wrong choices and obesity rates are rising.

There’s no reason why individual responsibility in both cases would drive in different directions.

So personally, on carbon above all, I believe we need to be driving societal action to change the environment, not focussing on personal responsibility.

By verytallguy (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

Well, William, you have said enough to convince me that you will not be convinced, even if you have to ignore what I write to maintain you ideological purity.

[I read what you wrote. Claiming that I ignored it because I didn't agree with it is not honest of you. Please don't descend to rhetorical trickery -W]

Timmy would be proud. Just for the record, however, how is blaming voters and representatives (and media) transferring blame onto the representatives.

[You said ''It is more strongly the fault of representatives''. You did acknowledge some blame for the voters, but you apportion "more strongly" fault to the representatives. We are responsible for our representatives -W]

Must they be considered blameless regardless of how they lie, and stitch up deals to satisfy your individualist mantra? (I'll leave aside your brilliant argument of, when I exempt obvious exceptions, of bringing up the most obvious as though it is a rebutal. Shere brilliance that)

[Saying "I leave aside" and then bringing a point up is rhetorical trickery. If you want to leave something aside, do so, don't mention it.

Representatives are not blameless. We would hope that they are honest. But if they aren't - if they lie, and take money from special interests - then that can only be fixed if the citizenry take an active and informed interest in their government. If your citizenry are a bunch of couch potatoes who sit back and watch "the game" and ignore their pols, they'll get the pols they deserve -W]

By Tom Curtis (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

Hum. I think this might be an example of how blog comments aren't always conducive to advancing critical discussion! Rather too much care is required with the terms we're using to make any progress.

So e.g. "individuals buy cars". Does that mean "individuals in cars are responsible for congestion?" Or "individuals in cars cause congestion?" (not quite the same thing). As verytallguy mentions, it might be better to say "the collective effect of individual actions leads to congestion". Addressing it might involve a legislative decision like London's congestion charge.

[Well, yes: clearly any one individual doesn't cause congestion by itself; and more than any one emission of CO2 is a problem. But equally clearly the people in the cars, collectively, are causing the congestion; not the car manufacturers -W]

That's what I'd like to hear more about, maybe. When you're saying: "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"... Individually rational choices can lead to collectively bad outcomes.

[Yes, agreed -W]

So when you say "I didn't say people should be better people (though it would be good). I said people are responsible for their actions and their choices" - what are you saying here? People are responsible for their choices... and? What happens next? What if those choices are individually rational / collectively dumb? It's unclear to me what you think should happen. Without a statement about that, can you see how it appears you're just berating people for making poor choices?

[Oh, well, going on to "what to do about it" is another step. But to try to proceed to that, we're going to need to be better informed. If we decide to try to solve our problems by focussing on the oil execs, for example, we'll get nowhere -W]

I personally think it's entirely acceptable for a collection of people to realise they can't manage a large-scale problem by changing their individual choices, so they work out a collective solution that binds everyone - because it's possible to deliberate your way to that collective decision and accept it as a mandate, where trying to alter your *own* behaviour in an environment that's doing the opposite is next-to-impossible.

[Well, yes, again, agreed. But I wonder if there is a tendency to say "and the focus of that collective action is politics; and the pols aren't choosing as *I* would choose; and therefore they must be wrong / corrupt". And forgetting that the pols may well be choosing as the bulk of their electorate directions, not *I* -W]

On advertising: oil companies are background companies. You don't see Land Securities advertise much, but they're the UK's biggest property developer, responsible for huge swathes of massive shopping centres.

[Yup. And in exactly the same way, they aren't responsible for ugly shopping centres -W]

We're not their target market - but they enable a massive amount of trade that *is* targeted at us. Same with oil - you see the advertising knock-on effects, though, just the same as with shopping centres, through things like car ads. *Especially* car ads: I'd argue they're (currently) the public face of oil, completely ubiquitous on billboards, TV, cinemas.

Random note: verytallguy again, the Dutch may cycle a lot but one of my colleagues has just done some work that suggests they actually use more carbon commuting overall than we do in the UK. (I currently have no link to provide for this assertion!)

“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”

What about the case where the guy you bought the oil from knowingly funded a misinformation campaign to convince you there was no good reason to try to reduce and eventually eliminate your need to buy oil? I agree the Guardian's language is problematic but the fossil fuel industry has, in fact, done a fair bit to claim moral responsibility for the emissions caused by using their output.

[I agree with that, partly but weakly. The oil companies - well, at least some of them - have done their bit to disinform. But... that disinformation is falling on very ready ears. If you want the truth, its available and very easy to find. On a very rough scale of blame, I might give them perhaps 5-10% for trying it on, but people get 90-95% for believing what they want to -W]

The biggest problem with climate action and sustainability in general is that the pols, who have the means to institute/support cociety-wide changes, have no incentive as yet and are basically useless. Which means that action defaults to the individual level. As David Mitchell says; what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? So, let's see end-user action drive change (it's happened before); buy less spit, use less spit, find a second life for spit which is no longer useful to you (eg, freebay). don't use plastic bags. Cycle if you can, etc etc... Friends in some parts of the country have this down to a fine art; they don't make lazy food choices for their children, even though they are very busy, they have clothing 'swaps', baby-gear 'pass-ons' and trade labour for goods. They are relatively carbon-efficient. I think William's point is that we share responsibility ofr the state of the planet and other people's inertia is not an excuse for us to be inert - the point being that the Graun article seemed to be promoting this kind of laissez-faire mentality.

[Yes, agreed -W]

By Fergus Brown (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

"[I read what you wrote. Claiming that I ignored it because I didn't agree with it is not honest of you. Please don't descend to rhetorical trickery -W]"

Let's parse that shall we.

Example 2) I indicate that information on carbon footprints is not readily available with a few obvious exceptions, and that this limits a consumers ability to choose on carbon footprint. You respond with counter example of the most obvious exception there is (Petrol). Now, either when you did that you had not bothered reading for comprehension, and not noted that I had admitted the existence of exceptions. Well, we can exclude this case because you claim "I read what you wrote". So the alternative is that you knowingly presented as a counter example the most obvious bloody exception there is, even though you knew I admitted the existence of exceptions. Strikes me as pretty low rhetoric to me.

Example 2) I indicate blame lies with voters, and "more strongly" on the representatives. You respond that "xferring the blame to the representatives rather than the voters is almost always wrong; and certainly wrong in this case". But, again, I did not transfer blame. I apportioned more blame to those with the most power, and the most responsibility. Your point turns out to be that you think my balance is wrong, not that I have transferred blame. So, again, either you read what I wrote, and knew you were implicitly misrepresenting my claim in your response (again a rhetorical trick), or you didn't bother reading for comprehension.

It is because your responses clearly indicated that you had not bothered reading my comment that I considered your mind to be closed. But if you want me to believe you are simply resorting to empty rhetoric (on top of your standard debate tactic of pronouncement ex cathedra), well I'll accept that by all means.

By Tom Curtis (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

A specific question, W: do you think the EPA in the US is wrong to be doing this kind of thing? That's the only way I can read what you're arguing - the EPA are "blaming the company" and making them responsible. The demand for this policy didn't come directly from consumers.

[But those emissions come from the companies own plants, so yes of course they are responsible for them. Just as Exxon, for example, is responsible for the emissions in its own operations. But Cabot isn't responsible for the emissions arising from other people's use of its products, just as the steel industry that supplied the steel to build Cabot's plant isn't responsible for Cabot's emissions -W]

There is at least one respect in which the list is very relevant, and has perhaps been lost in the above: fossil carbon is the only carbon that matters for the long term. The "carbon budget" that's been talked about is fossil carbon, not carbon from the biosphere. How do we limit the quantity of active carbon in Earth's atmosphere, surface, and oceans? The only reasonable way is to stop pulling this anciently sequestered carbon out of the ground.

And these 90 organizations are the ones doing precisely that activity (or most of it, at least) which has to stop. Well, most of them are still doing it (former Soviet Union is thankfully not any more). One way or another, by consumer action or investor action or government regulation or international treaty, they must stop pulling carbon out of the ground. Having a list like this focuses the mind and efforts of organizations like 350.org.

By Arthur Smith (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

"But Cabot isn't responsible for the emissions arising from other people's use of its products, just as the steel industry that supplied the steel to build Cabot's plant isn't responsible for Cabot's emissions"...

What about a coal-fired power station? I consume electricity from it, but by your argument, it's the station doing the emitting, so I bear zero responsibility? Whereas if I'm buying and burning petrol, I bear full responsibility? It's just down to who does the actual setting-fire-to-stuff? It's that straightforward, is it?

[Not when the connection is that direct. You're responsible for the CO2 emissions from the coal burnt to generate your electricity -W]

To backtrack slightly, then: "Oh, well, going on to "what to do about it" is another step. But to try to proceed to that, we're going to need to be better informed. If we decide to try to solve our problems by focussing on the oil execs, for example, we'll get nowhere".

I'm not sure spending a long time attempting to apportion blame without also discussing "what to do" can be producitve. It's like with the tax system - the set of tax approaches consistent with any number of ethical outlooks is much larger than the set of actually practicable ways to collect the money.

I don't agree the solution lies in firmly pinning responsibility on consumers. That goes against all economic sense. For example, all other things equal, carbon emissions will increase in a situation where you increase the supply of cheap money. This might be where we differ: people's propensity to consume vs save or hide money in socks is affected by the amount of capital available to them. I'm unsure how saying "the carbon is their responsibility" changes the basic fact of how spending, on aggregate, will happen.

But you seem to agree that it's a collective problem, at least, not solveable solely through individual consumer decisions...?

[I didn't quite say that. No one individual can significantly affect the global total. But if we all, individually, started to consume less then that would shift the environment. Or if we all started voting that way -W]

Note, the approach of territorial responsibility policy tends to default to doesn't address any of this very well anyway.

Though not overt in the original research, the article strongly implies that 'blame' be pointed at these companies, amongst others. To me, this is an extension of the 'Who's going to pay to clear up all this mess?' debate.
I entirely agree that the 'blame' mentality is non-constructive. OTOH, we've been watching international (not universal) inertia and political self-interest for more than twenty years and it's clear that politicians will not lead on this issue, only follow.
As individuals, we are not to blame for our larger social ills, but as with all such (like littering), we can choose to act responsibly and not create litter, or we can choose to pretend the problem doesn't exist.
If politicians won't act without a lead, who is to provide this? It has to be the electorate. In our market-driven society, politics responds to supply/demand patterns, so large scale self-opting to buy less spit produces results.
We used to eat a lot of squirrels and rabbit in the past. Try to find some in a shop today. Demand changes produce supply effects, and political will.

By Fergus Brown (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

"Or if we all started voting that way".

What would voting achieve? What are our elected representatives empowered to do in your version of who's responsible?

This just crossed my path, seemed relevant as regards who's responsible for finding more of the stuff. Plenty of research money out there for doing so. Who's responsible for that?

"OTOH, we’ve been watching international (not universal) inertia and political self-interest for more than twenty years and it’s clear that politicians will not lead on this issue, only follow."

True. It often occurs to me, I could have had much more impact if I'd had the guts to actually tell friends and family how bad things are and actually question whether we shouldn't be doing more - starting by talking about it. But everyone's busy, bogged down in day-to-day life - ironically, those with kids have the least mental space to deal with this stuff (and are the most reliant on cars).

"We used to eat a lot of squirrels and rabbit in the past. Try to find some in a shop today. Demand changes produce supply effects, and political will."

Um, I'd take that as an example of the opposite: the process of new products appearing on food shelves hasn't been driven mainly by consumer demand but by supermarket supply and logistics networks. Even going back to the arrival of bananas in the UK - that didn't happen because people were petitioning their local greengrocers for bananas.

The choice, by consumers, to use carbon sources freely and to excess is their choice. No one forced them into it. It's very much like the paradox of thrift, the tragedy of the commons.'

More often than not, doing what's "best" for yourself is very much not in the best interest of society as a whole.

The oil companies are no more, or less, responsible for the mess than any of us as consumers are.They just profit more obviously from it.

Oh, and you know what's worse than fossil fuel? Antibiotics.

Same problem. Overproduction, overmarketing, and costs that are so external they come 'round the long way and bite your grandchildren.

Seriously. There are some kinds of stupidity that can only be throttled at the sources, if at all. Antibiotics was one that could have been, but wasn't. Get ready for the past, it's coming back.


By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

Have just been introduced to one Parenti, whose thoughts seem of value in this gallimaufry:



The quote that got me was this:

"Societies, like people, deal with new challenges in ways that are conditioned by the traumas of their past. Thus, damaged societies, like damaged people, often respond to new crises in ways that are irrational, shortsighted, and self-destructive. In the case of climate change, the prior traumas that set the stage for bad adaptation, the destructive social response, are Cold War–era militarism and the economic pathologies of neoliberal capitalism. Over the last 40 years, both of these forces have distorted the state’s relationship to society – removing and undermining the state’s collectivist, regulatory and redistributive functions, while overdeveloping its repressive and military capacities. This, I argue, inhibits society’s ability to avoid violent dislocations as climate change kicks in."

By Susan Anderson (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

Fair do's, skip the squirrel nonsense. My tired brain failed to come up with an adequate example mid-flow.

Strangely, it was the busy parent types I was referring to; they seem to be able to cycle the vegetables to the school round the corner, re-lag the boiler and use energy-efficient lightbulbs whilst juggling a social network whose program would overwhelm a music industry ligger.
makeinu: its hard to go over in a post, but basically, if we think social interest is in contradiction to self interest, as often as not we're just making excuses for ourselves. Which is allowed. Nobody's perfect.
Re the original post - might as well argue that the Industrial Revolution (ergo, the British Empire) is the 'cause' of most emissions, since it was the availability of coal to smelt iron which started the whole 'progress' thing, and rapid global industrialisation which set the precedent for exploiting fossil fuels on a relevant scale.
If the Graun had used 'source' rather than 'cause' I'd have argued little with the piece.

By Fergus Brown (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

I with William and Timmy on this.

One thing that surprised me about this report was how unconcentrated the energy supply market is. Unlike, say, pharma, or automobiles or aeroplane manufacturing, supply is not concentrated in a handful of companies.

If you want to focus pressure on a smaller target of decision makers, then go after the heads of the dozen or so governments responsible for the lions share of emissions. They can actually do something through carbon taxes and regulations. The solution requires FF companies to go out of business and it is unrealistic to expect them to do that voluntarily. Turkeys, Christmas.

In any case, there is no reason to expect oilcos to have the expertise to provide alternative solutions, CCS excepted. And CCS does not have a prayer as a business until there is a hefty carbon price.

There does seem to be a lot of blame shifting going on here. Maybe I should start a campaign to tell my local brewery to do something about my waistline problem. There's no disclosure on their bottles about calorie content and they should be forced, at least, to pay for my gym membership or new clothes.

By Andy Skuce (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

Surprised at the bile in the Tim piece. Not a productive line, it seems. It biases me against what is otherwise a reasonable point.

[Timmmy is vigourous; you have to take him as you find him. But on economics he is valuable: don't let the rude words put you off -W]

By Susan Anderson (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

#21, you underestimate the amount of emissions from the extraction, refining and transportation of fossil fuel.

Other than that, you and your guru seem to ignore the role that advertising plays in consumer choice. Oh well, Eli chalks that up to your playing too much at silly point in your misspent youth.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 22 Nov 2013 #permalink

I'm not buying the idea that this is a productive discussion: blaming consumers or suppliers for the current energy/economic system is simplistic and pointless. I'm 57, and grew up in a world where gasoline and cars cars cars! fueled the American Dream and FREEDOM. I would rather be living in the forest and heating my house with a wood stove, but our system is such that you go to university, study, get a job and at least pretend to be a good consumer. I don't think we have had the kinds of choices that would allow us to easily opt out of any of: transportation, home heating (I live in Canada), or electricity. I could have opted out of one of those things (and in fact I've been a bicycle commuter for most of my adult life, in cities where a car is generally a requirement unless you live downtown - although that's improving). I'm working on getting solar (pv) for my house, but it's looking very expensive. My point is that it's arguably very expensive to try to live outside of the system.

Meanwhile, the auto industry and the oil industry are such large players in our economies that they can easily influence governments. I'd say, for example, that the Canadian government is the mouthpiece for the oil industry in Washington these days, and there's at least some evidence that they've allowed industry lobbyists to re/write environmental policy to allow companies expanded access and reduced responsibilities for environmental protection. Because jobs, right? Gotta keep the economy up and running until everyone gets a piece of the pie.

These are part and parcel of the same problem, and making one side or the other the "cause" of carbon emissions seems counterproductive to me. I accept responsibility for my part in the problem, and I'm trying to change my behaviour. I am not optimistic that our politicians and the captains of industry share my belief that reduced economic freedom in return for lowered CO2 emissions is the way forward.

"The bottom line for policymakers is clear: If you want people to consume less of something, make the tax more obvious. If you want to just collect more money, make it less obvious."

So which does this Timmy person want?

[That's the traditional "false dichotomy". But if you're talking about CO2, Timmy has made it perfectly clear that the conventional economic answer is a carbon tax -W]

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 23 Nov 2013 #permalink

It is probably not very productive to speak of blame. The problem is much more complex than that.

And it might be better to substitute "consumers" by "people". People have more roles as just consumers and only using our power as consumers we will not solve the climate problem. There is such a thing as a society if if the Thatcher voters do not believe that.

I do not have a car, but I do not think that that will solve the problem in any way. It will entice my neighbours to buy a bigger one or it will delay the moment we will start taking action. The main positive contribution may be that other see you can have a good life without a car and thus reduce the opposition to change.

I fully agree with you if you just wanted to write that the producers are mainly traded companies and thus amoral, only interested in making money and survival and that they will thus not solve the problem, that the people will have to do that. In their various roles, while the companies in question will fight back.

I do hope that the people who blame the consumers, at least stop claiming that China is the biggest CO2 emitter. That would then be the consumers in the West consuming Chinese products.

Dan, #25, your link does not work.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 23 Nov 2013 #permalink

The Carbon Footprint of Everything.
The electric version, of course.

Anonymous n, again.


" Historically, progressives were seen as partisans for the people, eager to help the working and middle classes achieve upward mobility even at expense of the ultra rich. But in California, and much of the country, progressivism has morphed into a political movement that, more often than not, effectively squelches the aspirations of the majority, in large part to serve the interests of the wealthiest. "

" Primarily, this modern-day program of class warfare is carried out under the banner of green politics. The environmental movement has always been primarily dominated by the wealthy, and overwhelmingly white, donors and activists. But in the past, early progressives focused on such useful things as public parks and open space that enhance the lives of the middle and working classes. Today, green politics seem to be focused primarily on making life worse for these same people. "

[Bold by Ed.]

Carbon tax, yes.
Imposed at the mine/wellhead/refinery, I trust, so it's propagated as a price signal -- so it serves to actually reduce use, as that article I linked describes: where the purely economist rational behavior isn't observed -- people behave differently if the price increase is built into the product, reducing their use --- versus when the price is added at the cash register -- not reducing their use.

[At the source would be the obvious way, agreed -W]

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 24 Nov 2013 #permalink

"The solution requires FF companies to go out of business and it is unrealistic to expect them to do that voluntarily. Turkeys, Christmas...In any case, there is no reason to expect oilcos to have the expertise to provide alternative solutions"

Valero is an interesting example in this regard. As the largest non-integrated oil refiner in North America they are in the business of selling liquid energy not necessarily oil. One need only look at the Diamond Green renewable diesel refinery in Louisiana (which produces 9000 barrels a day of renewable diesel from animal fats and used cooking oil) to see how the distinction between integrated and non-integrated companies can affect business decisions. I would also note that Valero is the only oil refinery in Canada that is not a member of the downstream oil industry association.

It's hopelessly naïve to ignore the impact that advertising budgets impact consumer choices. Are we really to believe that '0 to 60 in two seconds' is a natural desire of human beings and that we all want to drive tanks with leather bucket seats? The idea that consumers preferences are somehow fixed and independent of marketing strategies ignores a very, very large body of evidence. The whole point of advertising is to convince people to buy things not that they need but that the company selling the product wants them to buy.

[Well yes. But you're describing a car advert, not an OilCo one -W]

By Marlowe Johnson (not verified) on 24 Nov 2013 #permalink

I don't agree that it's entirely (or mostly) the people who are to 'blame'.

People don't want to burn fossil fuels - they want to heat their homes, power their devices and move around. The fact is that fossil fuels provide virtually all of the energy to achieve these goals.

Surveys clearly show that the majority of people want alternatives to fossil fuels but at the moment there is effectively no alternative.

So all people can realistically do is buy less stuff and reduce their energy demand. And this is happening, at least in the developed world, slowly but surely, although driven more by energy prices and the state of the global economy than by environmental concern at the moment.

In my view a good chunk of the 'blame' is down to the people who develop and maintain our energy system. This ranges from politicians to regulators to energy companies, including of course the fossil fuel companies.

The fossil fuel companies could be taking a lead and investing the bulk of their hundreds of billions of profits on starting the long process of reconfiguring our energy system so that it becomes more sustainable, but they're not. They're spending the bulk of it on increasingly expensive, hard to extract and damaging fossil fuels and a small part of it on trying to prevent that inevitible transition through lobbying and disinformation.

In my book that means the fossil fuel companies shoulder a large chunk of 'blame'.

[The fossil fuel companies could be... - they could be doing many things. But quite properly, what they are actually doing is what their shareholders want them to do. They are commercial companies; they exist to do what they are told by their shareholders (except for the state ones, of course; but those obey their states). Once again, it comes down to what people want -W]

"Once again, it comes down to what people want"

Except it's not what people in general want, it's what a small minority of wealthy fossil fuel company shareholders want.

Although again, it's not that those shareholders want the company to produce fossil fuels, they want the company to make them money. It doesn't have to be in fossil fuels and there's lots of money to be made in sustainable energy solutions. The fossil fuel companies could be coming up with compelling strategies to move over into sustainable energy which they could sell to their shareholders but they're not so once again we're back to them shouldering a good chunk of the blame.

{they want the company to make them money. Precisely. And they've decided that the best return (or some other combination or return, risk, whatever) will come from that company. But if they want to put their money in sustainable energy, I would argue that they should sell their OilCo shares and buy sustainable energy shares. That's easily done. They could try getting the OilCo's to change, but (a) that's hard, and (b) its not obviously sensible. OilCo's are good at extracting oil: why should they be good at making solar panels? -W]

Hmm, methinks William has a rather simplistic view of how the system works related to what people want.
Exhibit A - the ConDem coalition, which raised tuition fees and is dismembering all sorts of things which nobody in the country actually wanted dismembered (did you vote for privatisation of the probation service? Or huge handouts to some company to build a nuclear power station? Or the massive and dangerous re-organisation of the NHS?)

[You can't complain about me being "simplistic" and then follow up with "huge handouts to some company to build a nuclear power station?" -W]

Sure, most people are against these things, but the problem is, who to vote for and how to trnaslate the opposition into actual governmental outcomes, given that each party is a network of ideas and special interests. It's simply not as simple as saying "It's what people want", you have to consider the many other pressures and interests, the regulatory capture, and so on.

[I certainly agree that "just voting" isn't good enough. I've repeatedly emphasised the need for an informed and active electorate, so I'm unsure how you've managed to misread me so badly -W]

Meanwhile, people like me have insulated our houses as much as we can, don't fly, try not to drive, much of my furniture is more than 10 years old and I have no desire to replace it, etc; the biggest way I can improve my carbon footprint is by the electricity generator going green, and, in a few years, switching to electric heating. The former taking pressure from the government, which at least here in Scotland seems to be granting renewables licences on an appropriate scale.

[There comes a point where you own personal choices can't be significantly improved within our current structure. Likely, you've got to that point. And so your obvious next step is advocacy -W]

The fossil fuel companies should be well on the road to shifting their business model because a transition away from fossil fuels is coming and it will take a long time to achieve it. They have vast financial resources and engineering know-how so I'm sure they can find a place for themselves (and if they're struggling for ideas they can always acquire other companies).

Either they will actively take a lead on this or they will be forced into it. They're not going to be allowed to burn all that carbon

[Sez who? -W]

and they're not going to wither away and die,

[Sez who? -W]

so what other option do they have?

In the meantime they'll do their utmost to confuse the people and delay the inevitable and as long as they do that a substantial amount of blame for our predicament is sitting squarely on their shoulders.

[I think your economics is all wonky. If people with huuuuge pots of money invested in OilCo's genuinely believed that their future was poor (and hence, unprofitable) they would sell. These people aren't stupid (they might be greedy by your standards, but not stupid; or if they are stupid, they've got smart money managers) -W]

Companies of that size and rapaciousness generally don't allow themselves to wither away and die - it's just not their style. Of course a few might fail or be absorbed, but most will adapt and survive.

And if they are allowed to burn all the carbon that they have at their disposal then we're fucked so I'm going to work on the assumption that humanity is not going to allow that (I
don't think that's unreasonable?).

Of course we still have quite a way to go before the seriousness of our predicament is sufficiently well understood in order to take serious action and a lot more carbon will be burnt in the meantime and for that reason the shareholders aren't selling up. But given my two not unreasonable assumptions these companies will have to change direction.

The fact is that these companies (and their shareholders) are doing everything they can to maintain the status quo. As I mentioned up thread the people want alternative options to deliver the energy services that they want but they are not being adequately provided to them. Until they are, blame will be shared and to suggest otherwise is, in my view, perverse.

I must admit to being rather bemused by most of the comments posted here.

0) Mostly agree with William on this one.

1) It's called people pollution (e. g. unrestrained population growth aided by technology (FF and machines that run on predominately relatively easy to obtain FF)). FF companies did not spring up in the absence of people and technology, don't you all know?

2) Just like you don't get to choose your parents, you also (for the vast majority of people) don't get to choose which country you were born/live in. It's called FF baggage, and we all get a set of that luggage at birth.

3) Similarly, the countries where the FF natural resources are located didn't choose their national boundaries based on that knowledge (for the most part). So in the past, using the Middle East as an example, there were the Seven Sisters until those nation states took over control of their own natural resources. Hooray for them, seriously.

4) Someone mentioned FF taxation at the source of the FF, good luck with that one, very much easier to implement a carbon tax at the other end at the nation states where the actual consumption occurs, just as long as that tax base is used only for carbon neutral technologies in those respective nation states in addition to those 3rd world countries that don't have a significant carbon tax base to transition fully to carbon neutral technologies. Shiploads of Somali-like corruption/piracy/outright rejection waiting to happen no matter how carbon taxation plays out.

5) Last time I checked, the above mentioned 90 companies were run by people too, just the same as you and me, whodathunk? Pointing the finger at them is just the same as pointing the finger at ourselves. Enough with the blame game, we're all in this together, like it or not, and if you don't think so, then you're part of the problem and not it's solution.

6) 99+% of the world's population doesn't give a damn about AGW. Why? Because it's currently just such a slow effin' process that does not directly affect those 99+% on a real time daily basis. You need to stop living in the blog-o-sphere and/or internet, get out into the real world, talk to average people, from my experiences in doing so, even those that fully accept the science, well they havn't changed their FF behaviors one iota. And please, do stop with the informal logical fallacy of appeal to emotion when you mention something to the effect of: "What will your long distant offspring think of us for doing what we all are presently doing and will continue to do for the foreseeable future."

7) The Onion satire article was perhaps the most accurate reporting of said research paper, like it or not;


8) I live in a cave (which I dug myself with my own bare hands) in the poorest 3rd world nation, I eat my own shit and drink my own piss for food, I use already dead vegetation for my cloths, my own two feet are my only transportation, I only breath when I have to and I have no offspring, my entire CO2 footprint consists of the air which I inhale/exhale once per annum. Cue the Four Yorkshiremen. What about you, are you doing your on part, like I am?

9) So go ahead, stand on your soapbox, proclaim the end of the world, tell us all it's not our fault, but that it's the fault of our long ago walk on two feet tool bearing ancestors whodunit.

10) Talk is cheap (see non-binding IPCC, see people 'wishing' for alternatives to FF), reality, not so much.

10) Now a poem:

Those who write on shiphouse blogs
Roll their ship into little logs
Those who read these lines of wit
Eat those little logs of ship

11) All in all you're just another brick in the wall (my butnugget philosophy wrt humanity)


By EFS_Junior (not verified) on 25 Nov 2013 #permalink

"[Well yes. But you're describing a car advert, not an OilCo one -W]"

my dear weasel, if you can't see that they are one and the same then i'm at a loss. every drug dealer knows that you sell your product on the basis of *immediate* pleasure not and not on the minutia of your supply chain, no matter how virtuous it might be....

the other thing point that you conveniently gloss over is the grossly undemocratic nature of the market. if i didn't know better i might think that you're resorting to low rhetorical ploys by suggesting that the market is an expression of democracy.

surely you jest?

[The market is an expression of individualism. But since it isn't a method of rule, it can't be any sort of -ocracy -W]

we don't all get equal shares when we're born. some have more shares than others and actively seek to maximize their profits. why wouldn't they? but therein lies the problem. the interests of the few (who own most of the shares in oil and other corps) does not in this instance (as in many others) coincide with the broader interests of the public. the plebes can only buy what is offered. climate change policy, like so many other pressing matters, is about changing the rules of the game. identifying choke points is, as the rabett points out, a useful step in thinking about strategy.

[But you know that I'm in favour of non-market intervention: viz, a carbon tax. I've said so many times. the plebes can only buy what is offered isn't true anyway: they can chose to not buy. But also there is a huge choice of what is offered, and it doesn't all come from OilCos -W]

By Marlowe Johnson (not verified) on 25 Nov 2013 #permalink

In related news a study has found that 2/3rds of the stupidity is published by only 90 media outlets. But its not their fault as that is what the readers/viewers/listeners want.

By Michael Hauber (not verified) on 26 Nov 2013 #permalink

But did you like it? ;-)

#46 "the above mentioned 90 companies were run by people too, just the same as you and me, whodathunk"

As F Scott said, the rich are not like you and me.

For one thing they are a lot greedier.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 26 Nov 2013 #permalink

I see Policy Lass has poked a few holes in Timmy's arguments, & WC gets a dishonourable mention too...


"Claiming that global warming is due to consumers of products rather than the producers of those products — that fossil fuel companies wouldn’t dig without demand — is only partially true. We know that fossil fuel producers have over the years manipulated demand through a number of means, including price and advertising, through lobbying and other means. They have a product that is very profitable and they want to make sure they can keep selling it and that we keep using it."

By Quiet Waters (not verified) on 02 Dec 2013 #permalink

I agree that it is mainly all of us consumers that are to blame.

However, I am not sure that there being a certain amount of blame to allocate is correct. Does this mean that emissions pre 1965 are blameless as gw theory was not well established by that time? Or maybe 1990?

But do the companies deserve just a little bit of the blame and if so does this offer a route to partially dealing with some of the problem?

It can also work the other way with blame on both parties without there necessarily being an apportionment of the blame as far as legal liability goes:

In Grant v Australian Knitting Mills (1936) the undies were fine provided they were washed before they were worn but the mill was still liable for a product sold and used as intended or reasonably. Coal, oil, gas, electric and other ff are being used as intended by these 90 vendors.

A class action - 7 billion plaintiffs vs 90 companies? I doubt it for quite a while as a lot of emissions are pre 1990.

Blame isn't the most useful measure but can it be in any way useful? We have a major problem and we need ways of tackling it. Politics is the art of the possible.

If the best way forward is to do a deal where the all companies are exempted from being sued for past emissions of CO2. In return for which an increasing proportion of CO2 emissions has to be safely sequestered in future by the 90 companies.

[But being offered "exempted from being sued for past emissions of CO2" as a deal implies that is blameworthy. I wouldn't accept that, and I doubt they would. There also appears to be an illusion in some quarters that vast quantities of cash are available for free distribution from these companies, which is nonsense -W]

I guess the 90 companies will lobby hard against such a deal being legislated on to them preferring to take their chances in court where they can afford the best lawyers to confuse a jury. So I am not expecting it to be easy to push through. Maybe politicians are too easily bought for this to have any chance in the US.

Still there is a glimmer of a hope of it being a useful way of seeing if there is adequate blame on those 90 companies.

A carbon tax may be a more efficient way of achieving the goal but if we are not seeing that happen I don't think we should ignore other methods/routes to possible partial solutions.

>"There also appears to be an illusion in some quarters that vast quantities of cash are available for free distribution from these companies, which is nonsense -W]"

I fully expect the extra costs to be incurred by these companies to be passed on. That higher cost reduces their demand a little and hence they are not as profitable but I expect them to stay profitable with the extra cost being passed on. Hence I don't expect the 90 companies to like it and lobby against it. I am offering them something in return -removal of an existential threat, though I doubt they will value that as much as the reduction in profits.

[Ah, that could be defended, but isn't really compatible with your suggestion that they are responsible for past emissions -W]

Hope that is enough to show I am not in the 'some quarters' talking nonsense about there being vast quantities of cash for free distribution. This imposes extra costs on consumers the same as a carbon tax. In this version, the 90 companies get something in return whereas with a carbon tax they don't get anything in return.

If we are not getting towards a carbon tax fast enough should we consider sweetening the deal for these 90 companies? OK this probably doesn't offer enough to make it sufficiently more likely to come about. Nevertheless do you think such deals should be considered as a way to get things moving even though you prefer the efficiency of a carbon tax?

[I think we should try to do the right thing, which is a carbon tax. Not yet another bodged wrong thing with yet more sweeteners -W]

I am inclined to think we will need both a requirement on companies to sequestrate some portion of their emissions, and a carbon tax and other measures.

Can a carbon tax ever be enough on its own? If we get wealthier and wealthier the tax persuades us to prefer other things but if we are wealthy enough we will still do some ff use. So some of the carbon tax has to be used to sequestrate carbon rather than return it to the population. I think I would prefer to leave such decisions to businesses to find the cheapest way than for politicians to meddle with.

So I am more inclined to consider whatever gets things moving in the right direction and consider all options rather than ruling out something which might be good but not the best..