The debate over what Big Oil knew about climate change — and when — has very real ties to our local fossil-fuel industry. Shell, Texaco and BP are local fossil-fuel providers that helped to fund the climate-denial “science” that has derailed efforts over the last 30 years to show fossil fuels to be the primary cause of climate change.
Internal documents reveal that scientific models delivered to fossil-fuel executives in the 1960s predicted today’s global temperatures with astonishing accuracy. But instead of acting morally and leading the world to an alternative-energy future, these industry executives launched one of the most effective disinformation campaigns in history — and certainly the most consequential.
In 1959, physicist Edward Teller gave the petroleum industry the first warning of the dangers of global warming, at a Columbia University symposium. Teller described the need to find energy sources other than fossil fuels to mitigate these dangers, stating, “a temperature rise corresponding to a 10 percent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the ice cap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and … a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions.”
Royal Dutch Shell PLC (Shell) published a report in 1988 that recommended the consideration of policy solutions to climate change as soon as possible. But by 1994 their reports pivoted to the theme of scientific uncertainty, noting that “the postulated link between any observed temperature rise and human activities has to be seen in relation to natural variability, which is largely unpredictable.”
Shell, Texaco, and dozens of other “carbon majors” joined in funding the American Petroleum Institute and a slew of faux think tanks like the “Global Climate Coalition” to manufacture a message of uncertainty, aimed at undermining the scientific consensus on global warming. It helped to kill any chance of meaningful action to address the problem.
Had these climate polluters acted responsibly when they first concluded climate change “will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population),” we would have a far-less-daunting task ahead of us. But they did not. So now we must act with all the force government can muster to address this crisis.
Like the Roman god Janus looking both forward and back, Hawaii must quickly adapt to unavoidable future impacts without losing sight of how we got here. Dozens of oil and gas companies like Exxon, Shell and Texaco, created this mess. They need to help us clean it up.
And time is short. We are already seeing extreme weather events, rising seas and warming temperatures, drastically reduced fishponds and freshwater availability, with a significant effect on aquaculture in the state — an important source of sustenance, jobs and economic growth in the islands. And we know the impacts we have seen on Kauai with the deluge of 2018.
Warming is degrading ocean ecosystems around the islands. Between 1999 and 2012 rising ocean temperatures killed 36% of cauliflower coral around Hawaii. That figure is expected to rise dramatically by 2050. This will take an enormous toll on ocean biodiversity and on our tourism and recreation industries, as scuba divers spend $520 million in Hawaii each year.
Coral-reef ecosystems are vital for local subsistence, tourism and coastal protection. Without them, Hawaii’s coastline will erode over time. According to the fourth National Climate Assessment, in a ‘worst-case scenario,’ sea-level rise across the state by 2060 would flood or erode nearly 550 Hawaiian cultural sites, chronically flood 38 miles of major roads, and render more than 6,500 structures and 25,800 acres of land located near the shoreline unusable or lost, displacing approximately 20,000 residents. And it could be worse.
The impacts of climate change put critical Hawaii infrastructure, homes and lives in peril.
The country and state are flush with climate solutions, but nearly devoid of chances to deploy them, because oil and gas companies still operate with impunity in spite of their clear responsibility for the current crisis.
Hawaii’s political leaders can take action right now to hold these companies accountable by filing suit against their campaign of deception and misinformation to local customers and policymakers.
The Honolulu County Council voted unanimously last week to sue Big Oil to help secure funds that will be needed to build resilience, address damage done and take positive steps towards mitigation.
Kauai can join this lawsuit and reap the benefits at little expense to our own pocketbook but will need the support of our county attorneys.
Climate change is the existential challenge of our time. It is also an unprecedented opportunity to transform our economy and lead the world toward a more just and sustainable future. Using the court system to legitimately hold the bad actors to account is one more thing we can do to bring us closer to a brighter future.
Laurel Brier is an Anahola resident.