Everyone on earth today lives at the scene of a crime.
This crime has been going on for decades. We saw its effects in the terrible heat and wildfires that unfolded in the western United States this summer; in the 2020 superstorm, scientists exhausted their names; in global projections, sea levels will rise by at least 20 feet (6 meters). Our only hope is to slow this relentless rise so that our children can find a way to cope.
This crime has displaced or killed countless people around the world, caused billions of dollars in economic losses, and destroyed important ecosystems and wildlife. It has had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities around the world, from farmers in the coastal areas of Bangladesh (where the rapidly rising sea water is salinizing the soil and reducing rice production) to those in Houston, Chicago and other cities. Low-income residents, the communities of these residents suffer from higher temperatures than the prosperous areas of the entire town.
This crime threatens today’s young people and questions the survival of human civilization. However, the criminals responsible for this destruction are still at large. In fact, they continue to commit crimes and even profit from them, especially because most of the public still do not know their crimes.
This is enough to make your blood boil, especially if you are a parent. My daughter has just turned 16, and since she was a baby, I have been thinking about the safest place for her to spend her adult life, and for the first time I started writing articles about adapting to climate change. After the record wildfires last summer, the orange sky enveloped her hometown of San Francisco, which is a heartbreaking and outrageous sign that California will no longer be that safe haven.
The offense in question is the fossil fuel industry’s 40-year lie about climate change. Arguably the most important corporate deception in history, the industry’s lies have weakened public awareness and the government’s actions on what scientists call a full-scale climate emergency. As a candidate for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden said that he will support the prosecution of oil giants for lies. Whether he will keep this promise remains to be seen.
The reporter has been working on recording evidence at the crime scene for many years. In 2015, an investigation by the Columbia Journalism School and the Los Angeles Times kicked off the case by tracing a criminal connection with Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company at the time.
Internal records show that by the late 1970s, ExxonMobil’s own scientists notified its senior management that man-made global warming was real and could be catastrophic, mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Climate activists seized these revelations and launched the hashtag #ExxonKnew.
Further investigation found that Chevron, Shell and other oil giants also knew that their products might make the earth’s climate uninhabitable. In short, it’s not just Exxon Mobil who knows. They all know.
They all choose to lie.
Since the 1990s, oil companies have spent millions of dollars on public relations activities to confuse the media, the public, and policy makers about the dangers of burning fossil fuels. A planning document stated that their goal is to “reposition global warming as a theory, not a fact.” Front-line groups and friendly politicians spread the company’s lies. The news media, especially in the United States, hesitated these lies to the unsuspecting public.
Mankind finally wasted precious decades of time arguing whether global warming is real, rather than defusing the threat. The consumption of fossil fuels has increased instead of starting the transition to renewable energy. More than half of the total greenhouse gases that are now overheating the planet were emitted after 1990-after Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel giants privately knew what destruction they were sowing.
Exxon Mobil “could have ended the pretend debate on climate change as early as the 1980s,” author and activist Bill McKin wrote later. “When scientists like NASA’s Jim Hansen raised public awareness of climate change for the first time [in 1988], Think about what would happen if the CEO of Exxon Mobil also went to Congress and said their internal scientific efforts showed[ed] Exactly the same thing. “
Although a small part of the American public may already be aware of the crimes of large oil companies, the vast majority of victims almost certainly do not. How could they? The lie records of major oil companies have never been part of the public narrative about climate change, mainly because most news media do not include them in their ongoing reports on climate change.
In 2015, the original “ExxonMobil Knows” disclosed the news, except for the media that released the news, and received relatively few follow-up reports. Television, even in the Internet age, is still the main news source for most people, completely ignoring these revelations. There were some reports in the commercial and independent media, especially after a few years, New York State and other local governments began to sue oil companies for compensation. But the entire media seems to have forgotten that Big Oil’s climate lie ever happened.
The era of correcting these errors has long passed. So far, the oil companies, their executives, the propagandists they hired, and the politicians they funded have largely escaped the blame, not to mention having to pay for the huge losses they inflicted—whether through financial penalties. Still imprisonment-over. The news media also owes the public an apology for mishandling this story and promises to report it more clearly in the future.
Mankind cannot recover the 40 years lost due to the climate lies of the big oil companies. Now, rich and poor countries are abandoning fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy and other climate-smart practices, which is imminent. It is also important that we strengthen our communities against terrible climate impacts, which can no longer be avoided due to our decades of delays.
All of this will cost money—a lot. From now on, to the success or failure of the United Nations Climate Summit in November, governments around the world will debate who pays how much. Restoring the lies of the oil giants to their rightful place at the heart of the climate story will provide an answer to this riddle, and Biden should answer the riddle: The oil giants know that-should the oil giants not pay the price?
This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is now republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global news collaboration aimed at enhancing coverage of climate stories.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.