Raise a glass to Gilbert Plass

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Yes, it’s true.  It was a Canadian who figured it out first. In 1953, Time magazine wrote a story about a Canadian scientist named Gilbert Plass, then working at John Hopkins University, and  his claim that the spreading envelope of carbon dioxide around the Earth would serve as a ‘great greenhouse’. Plass had published his ideas in a paper titled: The carbon dioxide theory of climate change.

Over the next decade, the scientific basis for Plass’ theory came to be accepted as sound science. Even President Johnson was persuaded. In a special message to the US Congress in 1965, he said: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

For the major oil companies this was not a welcome message.  They couldn’t shoot the messenger, but could the message be lost in translation?  So began a concerted campaign by the oil companies of manufacturing uncertainty and doubt about the science of global warming that has lasted until the present day. Baffled by the conflicting scientific assessments, many of which were being published by front organisations in the pocket of the oil companies and their petrochemical allies, public opinion never fully grasped the real reasons behind global warming. Politicians delayed any action until the science was ‘settled’.  Which of course companies like Exxon ensured it never was.

The top 20 companies have emitted about 480 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases since 1965. That’s a third of all emissions during the period

Recently published  analysis has named and shamed the top 20 companies that are the worst global emitters of the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet and driving climate change. And guess what? Every single one of them is in the business of mining, drilling, processing, transporting and selling fossil fuels—oil, gas, and coal.

Saudi-owned Aramco tops the list, but of the eight investor-owned companies, Chevron and Exxon-Mobil are about tied for first place.  BP and Shell follow close behind.

Did we say shamed? No, it doesn’t look like it.

The largest five publicly-owned oil and gas companies spend about $200m a year lobbying to delay or block government policies to tackle climate change.  It’s the usual suspects: BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron lead the field.  At the same time, these companies are spending an equal amount greenwashing their image to try and fool  the public into believing that they support action against climate change. A couple hundred million is chump change for these companies. In 2019, their spending on oil and gas extraction is estimated to increase to $115 billion with only about 3% of that amount invested  in low carbon programs.

CAPP and trade anyone?

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is no slouch when it comes to lobbying. The organisation represents companies that produce about 80% of Canada’s oil and natural gas, as well as service companies that support the industry. About half of CAPP’s personnel are full-time lobbyists. The organisation represents an industry which is the fastest rising source of carbon pollution in Canada and which is almost single-handedly preventing Canada from achieving its emissions target set under the 2015 Paris Agreement.  

CAPP’s brazen manipulation of Canadian government policy is impressive even by American standards. A new report by  Environmental Defence reveals that CAPP has consistently opposed carbon pricing mechanisms in Canada even though this is one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the organisation has successfully delayed implementation of federal policy regulating methane—a strong and dangerous greenhouse gas.  CAPP also opposed the government’s clean fuel standard, perhaps understandably so, when you consider that the Alberta tar sands are one of the dirtiest sources of petroleum fuels on the planet.

CAPP has good friends in high places. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund estimated Canada’s subsidies to the energy sector, including the costs of air pollution and environmental deterioration at $43 billion a year. Canadian government subsidies to the oil and gas sector are the highest among the G7 countries on a GDP basis. Given these incentives, it’s no surprise that Canadian per capita greenhouse gas emissions are the highest in the world. 

As Canadians prepare to vote on October 21, surveys show that climate change is a top ballot issue. But recent reports have documented how Conservative party leaders are collaborating with the oil and gas industry to elect a Conservative government that will scrap the carbon pricing mechanism, roll back environmental regulations, and provide more subsidies for fossil fuel industry and tar sands production.  

Promoting an industry that heavily pollutes the environment, damages human health, and undermines the future welfare of our children is simply immoral. Especially when renewable and inexhaustible clean energy technologies are now less costly, fully functional at gigawatt scale, and already employ more people than the fossil fuel industries they will replace. The sole motivation for the fossil fuel industrialists and the politicians in their pocket is money.   

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Martin Bush

Martin Bush graduated from the University of Sheffield with a PhD in chemical engineering and fuel technology. He has spent the last 30 years leading natural resources management, renewable energy, and climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He can be contacted at climatezone.central@gmail.com. He is the author of a new book: Climate change and renewable energy--How to end the climate crisis. Published by Palgrave-Macmillan in October 2019.

3 thoughts on “Raise a glass to Gilbert Plass

  • 10/19/2019 at 6:04 pm
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    Another excellent post. But the oil companies are more than just immoral. They are knowingly and wilfully pursuing a business that creates great wealth for the few but great hardship for the many. Some might say this is evil. Many people might think that this is too strong a word but consider the facts. The biosphere on which all human sustenance depends is being irrevocably harmed. It’s irrevocable because emissions of greenhouse gases are still rising. Global heating cannot be stopped if oil companies continue to extract petroleum. The oil and petrochemical companies know this. They have know this since before 1970. That’s half a century. The men than lead these companies decided that great wealth for a few was more important than the inevitable hardship and misery for almost everyone else. The number of people who will soon suffer increased poverty, deprivation, and eventual death is in the tens of millions. This is not an exaggeration. Renewable energy is inexaustible. It cannot be shut down or stopped. It is available every day for every single person on the planet, rich or poor, no matter where you live. The oil oligarchs have systematically blocked this transition to renewable energy for one and only one reason: they cannot capture profit from the sun and the wind. If this is not evil, tell me what is.

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  • 10/20/2019 at 4:33 pm
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    We won’t make real progress until we examine the alternatives much more closely. Switching to renewable energy is not just a matter of generating the same amount of energy from a different set of sources. In particular, our power grid has huge summer and winter demand peaks that will disappear if we switch to heating and cooling systems that do not contribute to those peaks. The peak values will decrease by 71,000 MW in Canada and by 596,000 MW in the US, and together with the potential reductions from the transportation sector resulting from a switch to EV’s the potential reductions in GHG emissions could be 74% in Canada and 69% in the US – starting from only two energy source changes!

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  • 10/22/2019 at 2:06 pm
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    Canada’s election results might hopefully encourage the political parties to consider new approaches like clipping the wasteful electricity demand peaks. The average cost of GHG-free generation stations is something like $4664 per kW which works out to 331 billion dollars for the estimated 71,000 MW generation reduction. We could get rid of most of the GHG and also free up funds to create new services like a national pharmacare program, but any revolutionary approach is likely to cost conventional jobs so it needs to be paired with a program that creates alternative jobs. That is basic to any climate change solution.

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