Climate Change Hits the Oil Industry

Elizabeth Sawin
September 4, 2003


Never mind the polar bear, migratory sea birds, and residents of low-lying islands. Climate change is now affecting the oil industry.

Finally. A closed feedback loop in the human-climate system.

The first part of this story is familiar and isn’t a feedback loop at all. It’s a chain of cause and effect that starts with human beings burning fossil fuels and adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The additional CO2 traps heat, which cause global temperatures to rise.

Nowhere is the evidence of climate change more obvious than in the Earth’s northern regions. In Alaska, for instance, winters have warmed by 8 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s. Migratory birds are arriving earlier each spring. More permafrost melts each summer.

The north may be warming, but so far the warming has not “fed back” to trigger concerted action to reduce CO2 emissions.

A system without feedback is a system out of control. Think of the thermostat that measures the temperature of your house and turns on the furnace at 65 degrees. Clip the wire that runs from thermostat to furnace and you’ve broken a feedback loop. It doesn’t do much good to know the temperature of the room if the furnace can’t respond, and it doesn’t do much good to record the thawing of the permafrost if we aren’t able to reduce our CO2 emissions in response.

But, a news story from Alaska reports that climate change is making it harder to extract Alaskan oil. Regulations prevent oil companies from hauling their heavy equipment across the fragile arctic ecosystem unless the ground is deeply frozen. In 1970, there were more than 200 days that met this condition. Last winter there were 103. The burning of fossil fuels is making it difficult to extract more fossil fuels – and that, finally, is a feedback loop.

Of course this isn’t a strong enough feedback loop to stabilize global CO2 levels. Only a fraction of the fossil fuels burned in the world come from Alaska. A little less oil extracted from Alaska would be replaced easily by a little more from Venezuela or Nigeria or Saudi Arabia.

But even if it is a puny little feedback loop in absolute terms, symbolically it is huge. It makes apparent what has always been clear to those who took the long view: there isn’t any real conflict between the best interests of ordinary people and the best interests of the energy industry. A world without a stable climate is no place to raise children, and now it turns out it’s no place to run a business, either.

Now that climate change is beginning to affect the fossil-fuel industry directly, maybe a shift in how that industry behaves is just around the corner. Maybe the industry will transform its mission from extracting fuel from the ground to providing clean energy. Maybe our government will be able to get to work on creating incentives for renewable, alternative, and efficient energy.

But if any of this is about to happen, there are no signs of it from people in the oil industry, the Alaskan Department of Natural Resources, or the U.S. Energy Department interviewed in news accounts of the situation. “With global warming, we have actually lost half our winter work window,” said a manager at the Department of Natural Resources. “We need to be able to determine when the tundra is resistant to destruction more precisely.” Instead of addressing the root cause of climate change, the industry is focused on changing environmental regulations to be able to continue with, or at least approximate, business as usual.

And really, this is not so surprising. For people trying to function in a system that operates based on short-term goals, such as year-end profits and shareholder returns, factoring in the long term can seem like professional suicide. The same applies to any elected official who wants to stay in office for another term, and is, likely as not, beholden to industry interests for campaign financing.

That’s a sobering fact, and one that puts the responsibility for action on climate change right back on ordinary people.

If you are like me, you don’t wake up each morning feeling powerful and free. You seem to have a small voice. You know all your own compromises — you drive a car more than you should, you turn on your AC on the hot days. Who are you to do anything about climate change? But try looking at it another way.

Realize that no one has financed your election. No one is paying your children or your spouse a “consulting” fee. You’re not a corporate officer, and your self-esteem has nothing to do with the level of the oil industry’s quarterly profits. You don’t have to set aside your connection to nature and people in order to do your job. Compared to the folks trapped by narrowly defined corporate purposes, you are powerful, you are free.

There are as many ways to use this freedom as there are people to claim it. There is the whole realm of individual and local action — everything from carpooling to convincing the school board to buy electricity from renewable sources. By claiming your freedom in this way, you will free yourself up a little more: from guilt, from passivity, from helplessness. Now, in addition to not being a compromised politician or a trapped CEO, you also are not a fossil fuel consumer — or at least not so much of one. Like more and more progressive and responsible businesses here and abroad, you are doing what you can to limit or offset your own emissions.

You can also use your freedom to create other islands of freedom in strategic places. Join the movement toward campaign finance reform. You will help give the politicians back their freedom to listen to their conscience and their constituents. Or work to reform the corporate charter laws of your state so that corporations have responsibilities to society and nature as well as to investors. Think of it as giving CEOs the freedom to bring their love of their grandchildren into the boardroom.

We face a predicament. Even as the feedback from the Earth becomes stronger — as the tundra thaws and the coral reefs bleach — many people at the highest levels of governments and industry remain trapped within rules and goals that prevent them from acting on that feedback. Pragmatism and compassion both suggest the same response: we must use our freedom to secure theirs.