Let them drink oil

Contrary to fossil fuel industry’s claims, the net-zero transition will not lead to a fall in living standards. The green transition is not a compromise; it is a promise.

A protest against TotalEnergies in Africa
"If there's no water, let them drink oil!" is written on the dry bed of the Agly River in France. Image: Greenpeace

As a long-time advocate for human and environmental rights, I am terrified by the unprecedented frequency of extreme weather events. With each passing day, it becomes increasingly evident that we are in the midst of an escalating climate emergency. Disasters that past generations would have viewed as biblical or apocalyptic have become our new normal.

This includes the devastating floods and severe droughts that claimed hundreds of lives and displaced millions of people in Uganda and across the Horn of Africa, and the recent floods that wiped out entire cities in Libya. These events were not mere acts of nature. We have known for more than half a century that burning fossil fuels increases the planet’s temperatures and that climate change would have catastrophic consequences. We persisted in burning them anyway.

But the striking image of a recent climate protest in southern France, in which climate activists painted a giant slogan condemning French oil giant TotalEnergies in the dry bed of the Agly River, is a stark reminder that some bear more responsibility for our current predicament than others – namely, the handful of rich countries that account for most of the world’s global greenhouse-gas emissions.

But the real culprits are the fossil-fuel companies that have plundered Earth’s resources and hooked our societies on their products. After all, oil companies knew about the environmental implications of their activities since the 1970s, but opted to conceal these findings and churn out disinformation about climate change. The record-breaking temperatures and unprecedented calamities we are seeing all over the world are a consequence of those choices.

To halt global warming, we must reduce and eventually eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. As both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have stressed, the only way to do so is to end all fossil-fuel exploration immediately and without exception.

Ultimately, it is clear that the longer we wait to reduce emissions, the greater our collective suffering will be. But fossil-fuel companies have a different perspective. In a recent regulatory filing, ExxonMobil asserted that “it is highly unlikely that society would accept the degradation in global standard of living required” to achieve net-zero emissions. Despite being well-informed about the calamitous effects of their operations, these companies have ignored their own climate scientists to protect their vast profits – US$56 billion in 2022 for ExxonMobil, whose CEO pocketed US$36 million. TotalEnergies, whose Tilenga project in Uganda wreaked havoc on local communities and flooded farmlands with contaminated water, earned Us$36 billion last year.

The green transition is not a compromise; it is a promise.

This is why the phrase accompanying the French river painting – “If there’s no water, let them drink oil!” – is a powerful rallying cry. Oil companies’ extravagant and reckless behaviour over the past few decades evokes parallels with France’s Ancien Régime. Just as the aristocracy resisted change in the lead-up to the 1789 French Revolution, the fossil fuel industry is unwilling to relinquish their power and influence, regardless of how their actions affect everyone else.

Contrary to the industry’s claims, the net-zero transition will not lead to a cascading decline in living standards. Crucially, no one is calling for an abrupt halt to all fossil fuel use. Climate models have shown that the best solution is to ban new exploration and shift to a more efficient system that uses only a fraction of the existing reserves while we build the infrastructure needed to maintain current living standards through clean energy.

The green transition is not a compromise; it is a promise. As numerous studies have shown, renewables and energy efficiency can power our homes, offices, cities, and industries, including for the billions of people in developing countries. This shift will create millions of new jobs, improve the quality of our air and water, and help mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Moreover, it will enable vulnerable countries and communities to adapt and build resilience against the growing threat of extreme weather events.

To be sure, financing this energy transition is a daunting challenge that will require a combination of strategies and mechanisms. Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s Bridgetown Initiative, for example, advocates urgent reform of the global financial architecture. Similarly, the recent Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi concluded with a joint call for a global carbon tax.

Another promising idea, promoted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and several prominent economists and activists, is to cover the costs of climate-driven damages and the green transition by taxing fossil-fuel companies’ windfall profits. As world leaders prepare for November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates, this proposal merits serious consideration. Holding the world’s biggest polluters accountable is both morally justifiable and economically sensible.

Amid today’s myriad political and economic shocks, the climate protest in the Agly River understandably received very little attention. But I hope that this powerful image will resonate with others as it has with me. After all, this planet is our only home. Given the existential threat posed by climate change, we have no choice but to fight for its survival.

Dickens Kamugisha is chief executive officer of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO).Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.www.project-syndicate.org

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