Big Oil and Civilization Don’t Mix

A graph showing the amount of carbon dioxide in the sun Description automatically generated

Constant increase of the heat trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 1960 to 2010. CO2 in 2010 was 400 parts per million. In 2024, CO2 is 425 parts per million. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide raise the temperature of the planet. NASA.

Prologue

On May 10, 2024, my friend Jay Jones, emeritus professor of biology at La Verne University, invited me to see a documentary he was presenting to his students and colleagues. The documentary, The Oil Machine, was done in 2022 by BBC. It is one of the best films I have watched on the origins of climate change. That is, the film explains the massive technologies necessary to extract oil from dangerous water like those of the North Sea. The film shows how oil companies drill the seas for petroleum. They then sell petroleum to the business and population of the planet, thus triggering the chaos and emergency of a warming planet.

History of oil

Petroleum companies knew of the planetary climate warming effects of the burning of their product. Martin Hoffert, professor emeritus, New York University, said to FRONTLINE that while working for NASA in the mid-1970s, scientists figured out that the atmosphere of the planet Venus was pure carbon dioxide. This made the planet very hot. The temperature of its atmosphere, according to the latest science, is more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit and capable of melting lead. “It was a kind of unified idea,” Hoffert said, “in the terrestrial planets of our solar system that greenhouse gas warming was caused by high concentrations of carbon dioxide. At the same time, some research scientists were making observations of carbon dioxide in our own atmosphere. And we have seen this curve of increasing carbon dioxide—it’s become a classic icon of the carbon dioxide problem—where CO2 keeps going up and up a few parts per million every year. And we can attribute that to greenhouse gases, primarily fossil fuel burning.”

Not merely NASA scientists but Exxon Mobil scientists agreed that burning fossil fuels was bad for the climate of the planet. One of the Exxon scientists, Edward Garvey, said to FRONTLINE that “If we didn’t reduce fossil fuel consumption in a significant fashion, we were going to be facing significant climate change in the future…. we knew that changes were going to be necessary. But I think Exxon was afraid we would change too fast. You just can’t shut off the fossil fuels because all of society depends on… [them].”

Exxon Mobil abandoned its research on climate change. It decided to keep making money and ignore the deadly consequences of manufacturing heat for the planet. It has been raising doubts on the cause and effect connecting fossil fuels and climate change. It sent a written message to FRONTLINE, saying: “Exxon Mobil has never had any unique or superior knowledge about climate science, let alone any that was unavailable to policymakers or the public.”

Despite the deceptions of Exxon Mobil, the idea of global warming was catching up with American politics. In a 1988 Senate hearing, James Hanson, director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, left no doubt that burning fossil fuels harmed the planet. “I would like to draw three main conclusions,” he said to the Senators. “Number one, the Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements. Number two, the global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe, with a high degree of confidence, a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect. And number three, our computer climate simulations indicate that the greenhouse effect is already large enough to begin to affect the probability of extreme events such as summer heat waves. Altogether, this evidence represents a very strong case, in my opinion, that the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Hansen confirmed the early scientific finding from the mid-1970s that human actions, namely the burning of fossil fuels, cause higher temperatures. So, climate change was anthropogenic. The 2022 BBC documentary was more powerful evidence that oil drilling was a perpetual political and technological process of planetary destruction. I was astonished by the gigantic machinery put to work for oil extraction. Humans looked like insects invading a nest through large cylindrical tubes. Yet these engineers are capable of establishing tiny metal stations in the middle of the vast and angry seas. They send their sophisticated drills and pipes to the buried oil, where they suck it to fill their infinite barrels. The barrels of oil sell and their oil burns to power factories producing goods and electricity as well as power countless machines: cars, trucks, busses for civilians and the military, leaf blowers, tractors, harvesters, ships, ferry boats, fishing boats, yachts, civilian airplanes and warplanes, helicopters, tanks, submarines, warships, etc.

Greenhouse gases

The burning of petroleum gives off greenhouse gases like heat-catching carbon dioxide and methane. Those gases capture and contain solar heat, which otherwise would have escaped into space. Greenhouse gases slowly release the energy they captured from the Sun, thus increasing global temperature with all that entails. Rising temperatures unsettle ecosystems and societies with dire consequences: flooding, rising sea levels, heat waves through land and seas, melting of ice, and droughts. These violent weather phenomena threaten life and civilization. For example, Bangladesh and its more than 170 million people find themselves almost under water.

A helicopter flying over a river Description automatically generated

Damage to villages and infrastructure from Cyclone Sidr, southern Bangladesh, 2007. Public Domain.

Millions of human beings will become environmental refugees. The Oil Machine documentary warned that about 250 million refugees will be moving from the tropics to northern countries. Where are these refugees supposed to go for shelter and food and work?

Wildlife faces extinction. Humans have taken over most of the lands, wetlands, rivers, lakes, seas and mountains and coasts that housed and fed birds, fish, mammals, insects, and amphibians. Rising global temperatures multiply the human and natural enemies of wildlife and increases its rate of disappearance forever.

The Oil Machine did not say much about the unpleasant ecological effects of oil drilling, though looking at the expressionless face of a young boy looking into nothingness said it all.

Why should our youth come to grips with the monstrous nemesis irresponsible old people, billionaires, and corporations built? And what can a young person do — in 2024? Why should millions of innocent young boys and girls the world over have to think of heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, and floods and fires? They never had a chance to shape the future, exactly like facing instant death from a potential explosion of a nuclear weapon. These facts drop us from civilization to another dark age.

What are we doing in the next 5 years?

One of the scientists interviewed for The Oil Machine was Sir David King, UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, 2000–2007. “I believe,” he said, “that what we do over the next five years will determine the future of humanity for the next millennium.” King is probably right, though he did not explain what it was necessary to be done in the next 5 years. Climatologists have warned repeatedly we must start by eliminating 50 percent of the fossil fuels no later that 2030. The global climate forum in Paris, in 2015, urged governments to get rid of 50 percent of their fossil fuels by 2030. Yet almost no government has kept that promise. In fact, oil-rich countries and giant oil companies are expanding their drilling. Such irresponsible behavior is unlikely to keep the global temperature bellow 1.50 Celsius above the temperature of the pre-industrial age of mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the largest polluters, China, the US, India, Russia, and the EU countries, have not promised to cut their greenhouse gases by 50 percent before 2030. And the wars in Ukraine and Israel-Palestine are rapidly increasing the fossil fuel footprint on the planet. Thus, if the next five years continue to be engulfed by the lies of the fossil fuel industry, denying climate change, and increased greenhouse gas emissions, the next millennium will be a millennium of darkness and possible human extinction.

The oil octopus

The Oil Machine directed the attention of the viewer to the power, hubris, and giantism of the petroleum conglomerate. At the same time, it left no doubt how pervasive petroleum has become in human lives, from our reliance on petrochemicals (pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) for food production; powering the armed forces; and taking the infinite forms of plastics. These immortal products are nearly everywhere; from children toys to the packaging of our food, to plastic water and soft drink bottles, to a myriad little plastic drug bottles, to plastic covers for newspapers delivered at homes, to plastic dog poop bags, etc. The list is very long.

Epilogue

Big oil is chemical and political power that threatens civilization and our Mother Earth. We need to wake up and say no more. Young and old must join hands to protest the invisible tyranny of the concentrated power of fossil fuel billionaires. They don’t belong in a democracy with claims to civilization. Violent storms, hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves are “wreaking havoc and pushing millions of Americans out of their homes each year.” Even home insurance is failing all over the country. Science is on our side, however. Astronomers see the connections between the atmosphere of the stars they study and the atmosphere of the Earth. They express grief and disappointment with rising temperatures on our planet. Raisa Estrela, a NASA astrophysicist, is heartbroken over the degradation of wildlife. She said: “We have this beautiful diversity of life that took us more than 2.5 billion years to reach.” Scientists like Raisa should join in a national and international campaign to abandon fossil fuels and move fast towards energy alternatives like the Sun and wind. Elect politicians who are committed to sustainable public electric transport for livable cities and towns. The first time in my life I travelled by bullet train was in Chine in 2019. Why is the United States not constructing bullet trains? And fill towns and cities with electric trams? Are car companies still in charge of transportation? Protected bike lanes would also diminish polluting cars in the streets. And like Singapore, expand or build new electric subways to serve all neighborhoods. Owners of conventional petroleum-powered cars and trucks who insist on driving their vehicles should pay high fines, up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Install solar panels on the roofs of all homes, parking lots, and all buildings, private and public. If “public” utilities are unhappy with solar power, tell them to reform or go out of business. State and federal governments can rapidly build the carbon-free transportation and electrification infrastructure.

These measures would start a broad dialogue on the purposes of science, democracy, and life in a changing climate and world. We certainly don’t want to move the Earth on the path of planet Venus. High levels of carbon dioxide in Venus made that planet inhospitable to life. We don’t want to see the same misfortune strike planet Earth, our only home in the universe.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.