Bill McKibben: Exxon’s power is ‘weakening daily’

Probe of oil major’s alleged climate denial shows fossil fuel industry has ‘done nothing but deny and deceive for a generation’, says 350 founder

By Alex Pashley

Claims Exxon Mobil deceived the public and investors about climate change lay bare an industry that has wasted 25 “crucial” years to tackle global warming, according to veteran campaigner Bill McKibben.

In an interview on the sidelines of COP21 in Paris, the 350 campaign group founder said the best defence offered by the world’s leading oil explorer was that it wasn’t criminal, just “morally reprehensible.”

New York’s top lawyer is investigating the American oil major to find out what it knew and when.

“I don’t know whether we will get people behind bars,” McKibben told Climate Home.

“Rich people write laws and there’s nobody richer than Exxon, but I think the result is already clear… the best defence anyone has offered is maybe that isn’t actually criminal, only morally reprehensible. This is weakening their power daily.”

Fossil fuel executives are learning the game is up as the intellectual battle to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground to nix global warming has been won, he said.

It came as over 500 institutions including large insurers, funds and banks managing US$3.4 trillion of assets had now pledged to move out of fossil fuels, Divest-Invest revealed on Wednesday.

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Launched on university campuses, the divestment campaign bids to blacklist the fossil fuel industry, in similar fashion to movements against big tobacco or South Africa during the apartheid era.

Commitments have jumped from $50bn in September 2014 with top insurer Allianz, Norway’s $900bn sovereign wealth fund and universities dumping coal and tar-sands investments.

That figure is the total assets these funds have under management. The sum actually withdrawn from fossil fuel companies is hard to track due to limited disclosure by companies, campaigners say.

“It’s no longer me writing in Rolling Stone,” said McKibben, referring to his July 2012 article that kick-started the movement.

“It’s now the Bank of England, Deustche Bank, the World Bank, the IMF. Everybody is using the same math.”

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Over two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves have to remain unburned to prevent global temperatures rising above 2C this century – the internationally-agreed goal.

But coal remains an important energy source – especially in fast-developing nations – accounting for 40% of the world’s electricity according to the International Energy Agency. Its share is projected to shrink – but to only 30% by 2040.

McKibben said the global warming pact set to be signed in Paris next week was “completely unacceptable”, as it was expected to put the world on a path to dangerous warming.

“I think we’re probably at the point where we’re not going to get in the near future a lot more out of governments. We’re actually going to have to go for the people who own the governments: the fossil fuel industry, for the next pound of flesh.”

“This is an industry that’s done nothing but deny and deceive for a generation, and they’ve wasted 25 crucial years of the planet’s time.”

Read more on: 2C | Fossil Fuels | UN climate talks