Big Energy is not to blame for global warming – we are

Tim Worstall
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Fossil fuel suppliers are not responsible for the emissions that we consumers have insisted upon making (Source: Getty)

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an American science advocacy group known for its stance against global warming, would like to inform us all of the dastardly behaviour of the fossil fuel companies.

The UCS’s recent paper links global climate changes to the product-related emissions of fossil fuel producers, focusing on the oil, gas and coal producers as well as cement manufacturers. The paper criticises those companies for their impact on climate change, such as the rise of sea levels and the increase in global temperatures.

The point of the paper is to assign responsibility – and thus the potential job of clearing it all up – to those who dug and pumped up those fuels.

Read more: Why can’t we confront climate change? Behavioural economics explains

The problem with this is that the basic contention is tosh. For whatever responsibility there is for emissions lies not with those who made the supply, but with those who demanded it. It’s you, me and our grandparents and our selfish desires for transport and warmth in winter to blame here. Which is, when you think about it, something of a conceptual problem for the calculation.

The UCS’s basic number crunching appears just fine.

We know very well that lots of fossil fuels have indeed been torn untimely from Mother Earth, and that they have then been used. It’s not that difficult to go through historical production records and work out who dug what up. We can indeed – as they do – then say that Exxon drilled this portion of it, BP that, and so on.

The UCS is right to look at state-owned companies (or even states themselves) as well as private investor-owned companies. But it’s the subsequent logic where matters go awry.

For if I buy my petrol from BP and then drive my car, who is responsible for those emissions? Is it the fuel company enabling me? Or is it my demand that I be able to get to work that day? Or even my boss’ insistence that I do get to work that day?

My insistence is that I am responsible – however we want to define that and whatever we want to do about it – for the emissions I am making. I am, after all, the person gaining the benefit from their having happened, That is, the responsibility for emissions must rest with us doing the emissions. I am not a fatty lardbucket because Greggs puts sugar in its doughnuts. I am one because I eat too much of them.

We also need to consider who has particularly benefited from those emissions having happened.

That again would be us, for we have had the joys of an industrial civilisation to grow up in, rather than one fired by dung, wood and muscle power. (You know, one in which all too many don’t grow up as one in four children die by their fifth birthday, along with all the other miseries of abject poverty that we’ve left behind.)

Sure, we can all argue about how much damage those emissions will or won’t do (I’m happy to take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s word for it myself), just as we can shout over what to do about it (I’m happy again, personally, to accept every economist in the land’s insistence that a carbon tax is what we need).

But what we cannot – or, at least, should not – do is follow this faulty logic from the UCS.

In its supporting documents, there’s a lot about “responsibility”, “accountability”, and, obviously “who should pay for its related costs”.

The implication of this study is that we can and should just ding the fuel companies, because look what they made us do. But of course no producer or supplier has ever made us do anything – that’s rather the joy of a market-based economic system. It is us consumers who call supply into being through our expressed desires.

My prediction is that the desire to make someone pay will weaken somewhat when people realise that it’s only ever going to be us – the populace – that can pay, as we’re the people to blame.

For it is just not true that fossil fuel suppliers are responsible for the emissions that we consumers have insisted upon making.

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