Even in a global pandemic, Big Oil continues to shape the global economy. How can we fight against it and create a sustainable alternative?
Every so often, against the usual darkness and gloom of daily news, there emerges a glimmer of hope in the form of a successful environmental campaign. More than a half of UK universities have divested from fossil fuels, the third Heathrow runway has been ruled illegal, and the Dakota pipeline has been suspended (for now). These victories are essential, because they serve as blueprints for environmental activism. They also get to the heart of the climate crisis: the global economy’s reliance on Big Oil.
The interests of fossil fuel companies have been shaping economic policy for decades. Last year, the oil and gas sector made up almost 4% of the global GDP. Combined with the stranglehold oil prices have on the stock market, Big Oil can exert financial power like no other sector – and it does. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, fossil fuel companies received $2.7 trillion in financing from the world’s biggest banks. As if the Agreement, with its promise of ‘global temperature goals’, never happened. The asset-management giant BlackRock, despite recent talks of divestment, continues to be one of the largest investors into non-renewable energy. Oil companies have managed to seep into every facet of Wall Street decision-making in order to become indispensable to the status quo. Consequently, Big Oil is not a destructive anomaly in an otherwise sustainable economic system. Big Oil is the system.
Big Oil is not a destructive anomaly in an otherwise sustainable economic system. Big Oil is the system.
The Covid-19 response has shown just how instrumental the oil industry is in the eyes of politicians and donors. Due to a virtually international lockdown leading to an abrupt halt in transport, oil prices were in free fall. At one point, they even fell below zero for the first time. Two US oil corporations, Exxon Mobil and Chevron, lost more than $9 billion in the span of three months. Such blows to the world’s biggest polluters provided policymakers with a once in a generation opportunity to weaken the dependence on fossil fuels by investing into renewable energy and green infrastructure. Instead, the US government is spending billions of dollars to bail Big Oil out. With six million confirmed Covid cases and more than fifty million unemployed, American relief money is being spent to help the wealthiest few. After a brief period of hope in just recovery comes a relapse to an unequal, oil money-controlled ‘normality’.
Fossil fuels have been an integral part of global trade for so long it is difficult to imagine an economy without them. To many they are as natural as every other commodity, and a complete fossil fuel phase-out appears irrational, irresponsible, or impossible. This mindset has been encouraged and upheld by the oil lobby, which has for decades blocked bold environmental ideas. It is no coincidence that even though climate change has been a widely discussed political issue since the 1990s, truly transformative Green New Deal-style policy proposals entered the political mainstream only a few years ago. Stopping oil (and oil money) is as much a matter of policy as it is a matter of imagination. Some imagine a network of cooperatives based on worker democracy, others envision a fully automated economy of abundance. There is no definitive version of a fossil-free world, but we must believe in one in order to win it.
There is no definitive version of a fossil-free world, but we must believe in one in order to win it.
Of course, the other part of winning a sustainable economic system that is equitable and just is going out and fighting for it. It is joining the ‘Stop the Money Pipeline’ campaign. It is pressuring institutions to divest from fossil fuels. It is voting and demanding more of elected officials. It is doing everything one can to undermine the Big Oil economy. Because as of now, despite some recent environmental wins, the biggest polluters are still at large.
Art by Nadja Vitorovic