The video begins by evoking an image of a lovable underdog: “Once there was an organism so small, no one thought much of it at all.” The background music hints at a childhood fairy tale. The text recalls a hero’s journey. The advertisement tells the story of how slimy, unpopular green algae is becoming a delightful zero-carbon biofuel hero … all thanks to ExxonMobil.
This video epitomizes the fossil fuel industry’s approach to public relations since the Paris Agreement came into force in 2016. If your only source of information was television, it would be easy to conclude that ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and others had made the decision to transform themselves into renewable energy saviors.
Two recent reports laid that delusion to rest. The first, issued by climate, indigenous and environmental organizations, documented that “33 of the world’s largest banks have financed fossil fuels with $1.9 trillion since the Paris Agreement was signed, with financing on the rise each year.” Four US banks—JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi, and Bank of America—top this alarming list. Four Chinese banks make up the majority of the world’s finance for the coal industry. Many other banks with household names, such as Barclays and RBC, also play substantial roles.
This is particularly alarming because the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC showed with unmistakable clarity that coal emissions must drop by 78% by 2030 to give the world a chance to meet this critical target. In addition, the Paris Agreement, which most of these banks claim to support, stated the obvious by emphasizing that financial flows need to be “consistent with a pathway toward low greenhouse gas emissions.” Meanwhile, the reality is that “most big banks’ grades on their policies to rein in fossil fuel financing remain abysmal.” And what the banks provide, the industry is happy to consume; fossil fuel companies keep slurping from the financial firehose with no end in sight.
Pause for a moment and let this settle in. Since the Paris Agreement, the fossil fuel industry has not been transitioning to become a renewable energy industry. It has not been entering a “managed decline” for its oil and gas operations. It has, instead, been planning and investing with support from the world’s most powerful banks to grow those businesses with no apparent regard for the devastating humanitarian and ecological consequences.
But it doesn’t stop there. A second report, developed by UK-based InfluenceMap, showed that while oil and gas companies have been searching for new reserves and developing new production facilities, they’ve also been lobbying aggressively to weaken or block climate legislation, and simultaneously coordinating big PR campaigns to convince the public that they really, honestly take the climate crisis seriously. The report shows how ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total spend “around $195 million each year on branding campaigns that suggest they support an ambitious climate agenda but mislead the public on the extent of their actions.” These same five firms have spent more than $1 billion since the Paris Agreement “lobbying to protect and expand their fossil fuel operations.” Even Shell, the self-styled white knight of the fossil fuel industry, still actively supports industry trade associations that are hell-bent on killing progress on climate change.
These two reports make clear what experts have shown repeatedly: fossil fuel companies are not trying with any real level of commitment to transition into renewable energy companies; at least not within the next century or longer. Instead, they are making an intentional effort to deceive the public about their intentions while doubling down on the very activities that are killing the planet.
In response to this appalling immorality, what should religious institutions do? I have three suggestions.
First, religious leaders need to share publicly about the bad news contained in these two reports. They must call out banks and fossil fuel companies by name for their destructive, sociopathic dishonesty, preferably in sermons or other spoken teachings where they can bring the moral weight of their office to bear. Many clergy will hesitate to do this for fear of pushback from their congregants. For spiritual leaders in this situation, I’m afraid there is no easy answer. The consequences of silence are extraordinarily high.
Second, religious institutions need to align their own finances with their life-protecting values. This means that they should divest from fossil fuel holdings, joining more than 200 other religious institutions and hundreds of foundations, colleges, municipalities, and NGOs that have already committed to divest. In addition, faith investors need to identify how they can invest in ways that accelerate the development of renewable energy supplies, particularly for the more than 1 billion people who lack access to modern forms of energy, as well as the more than 2.5 billion people who lack access to clean cooking facilities. Energy poverty takes a terrible toll on its victims. Thankfully, the Shine Campaign is mobilizing faith, philanthropic and NGO investors to address these crises.
Third, people of faith need to get involved in climate change activism and advocacy with a fierce new level of commitment. Together, we need to support and participate in Fridays for Future, the global movement that’s mobilizing children to step out of school to protest climate inaction. For those in the US, we need to support the Green New Deal, a values-based proposal that marries our core values—love, justice, and compassion—with the urgency and ambition demanded by the crisis we face. Timid half-steps will not even come close to solving the problem; we now require a massive mobilization of cultural and political will. There’s only one way that the world’s political classes will acquire that will ... they need to feel pressure and see huge numbers of people in their society unwilling to accept anything but a full-fledged response.
In case you think this is an overstatement, just remember the “inspiring” green algae video. Here’s what InfluenceMap has to say about that. “Exxon’s goal of reaching 10,000 barrels of biofuel a day by 2025 would still only equate to 0.2% of its current refinery capacity, essentially a rounding error.”
We need far more than a rounding error to save the planet. We need a real change by the fossil fuel companies, bankers, and politicians standing in our way. And we all need to let them know, united together, that the time for action is now.