Never has holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for driving the climate crisis been more urgent. And never in my seven years at the Union of Concerned Scientists have the prospects for accountability been brighter. Major oil and gas corporations recognize that their social license is crumbling, and they are desperately trying to piece it back together. What ExxonMobil Chair and CEO dismissed as a “beauty competition” among oil and gas companies over glossy climate pledges a few years ago is in full swing.
Science plays a vital role in assessing fossil fuel companies’ climate claims, including their pledges to be aligned with net zero global warming emissions by 2050—the level science says is needed if we are to limit the worst effects of climate change. Science can and must also inform society’s consideration of how to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the heat-trapping emissions associated with its products and operations, the resulting impacts on people and the planet, and its concerted campaigns to deceive the public and block climate action.
Here are six ways that science has helped advance fossil fuel company climate accountability over the past year—and six key levers for science-driven action in 2023. For a more in-depth look at the prospects for climate accountability litigation in 2023, read this blog by my UCS colleague Dr. Delta Merner. For a deeper dive into what’s in store for major investor-owned oil and gas companies, read this blog by my UCS colleague Laura Peterson.
Science advances corporate climate accountability
- Exposing oil and gas industry greenwashing and deception. Informed by UCS and other experts, the US House Oversight and Reform Committee held hearings, published reports, and released internal fossil fuel company and trade association documents through its investigation into Big Oil’s past and ongoing climate disinformation. The investigation revealed that the companies’ climate pledges and professed solutions cannot deliver swift and deep cuts in global warming emissions and will further delay the necessary transition to clean energy—and corporate leadership knows it. In fact, decisionmakers at BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell oversee deliberate greenwashing campaigns. Meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee highlighted how PR firms are complicit in these efforts to mislead the public, investors, and policymakers.
- Strengthening corporate climate disclosure. Last March, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed a new rule that would mandate and standardize corporate climate disclosure. Importantly, the rule requires corporations to disclose Scope 3 global warming emissions, which include emissions from use of their products—which represent the lion’s share of the fossil fuel industry’s responsibility for climate change.
- Breaking new ground in climate litigation-relevant science. 2022 highlights included a peer-reviewed paper by my UCS colleague Delta Merner and collaborators outlining research priorities for climate litigation and an event at Harvard University on Accountability for the Deception Industry. 2023 began with an important peer-reviewed publication by Dr. Geoffrey Supran and colleagues demonstrating that ExxonMobil’s scientists were conducting and contributing to robust climate science as far back as the 1970s. My UCS colleague Dr. Shaina Sadai breaks down the significance of that paper here.
- Informing dozens of climate accountability lawsuits. Citing climate attribution science and social science research into past and ongoing climate disinformation campaigns, more than 40 cities, counties and states across the US and its territories are suing the fossil fuel industry over climate damages and/or deception. Federal courts have unanimously ruled that these cases belong in state courts, where they were filed, and where the concerns of communities affected by climate harms are front and center.
- Supporting investor demands for climate action. Thanks to concerted pressure by activists, experts, shareholder advocates, and the investment community as a whole, major oil and gas companies including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell claim to be aligned with net zero global warming emissions by 2050. Yet these companies took advantage of Russia’s unjust war on Ukraine to double down on fossil fuel extraction and pad their profits.
- Documenting loss and damage from climate change. For the first time, loss and damage from climate change—which disproportionately affects low-income countries that have benefited least from our fossil fuel-based economy and energy system—was on the formal agenda at the United Nations’ annual climate meeting (known as COP27) in November. Nations agreed to set up a financing mechanism. For high-income countries such as the United States, paying our fair share of climate damages means holding accountable the fossil fuel companies that are based here and chartered in our names.
Looking ahead: Levers for science-driven climate action
- Following through on investigations. The US Senate and the Department of Justice have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to follow up on the House Oversight Committee’s investigation by bringing additional evidence to light and acting to prevent further misconduct by the fossil fuel industry and its surrogates.
- Finalizing and enforcing science-based corporate climate disclosure requirements. Facing a fossil fuel industry-driven backlash against Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing (read more here and here), the SEC must issue a final rule promptly, resisting pressure to water it down.
- Building the field of climate litigation-relevant science and the community of scientists doing this work. UCS’s Science Hub for Climate Litigation is part of a vibrant and growing network of physical and social scientists, legal experts and litigators who are anticipating and developing evidence to inform cases that aim to hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for climate harms.
- Calling for timely access to justice. More than five years after the first of this wave of climate accountability lawsuits was filed, fossil fuel defendants have managed to keep them from being heard on their merits, using their deep pockets to pull out all the procedural stops. The Biden administration and the Department of Justice must back up President Biden’s campaign pledge to “strategically support” climate litigation against polluters by weighing in on the side of the plaintiffs in the jurisdictional dispute.
- Wielding investor leverage to accelerate climate action. Some climate-conscious investors are ready to step up the pressure on fossil fuel companies to move beyond empty pledges to meaningful climate action between now and 2030, when deep cuts in global warming emissions are urgently needed. Science can help guide the investor community to identify laggard companies to challenge (for example, by voting against board members) and to hold financiers accountable for their role in the climate crisis.
- Making polluters pay. With US federal data showing that 2022 was one of the hottest years on record, and one of the most deadly and costly in terms of climate and extreme weather disasters, it is past time for fossil fuel polluters to internalize the costs of their climate-destroying business. Climate impacts are hurting marginalized communities first and worst, exacerbating inequities around the globe. Paying their fair share also includes investing in diversifying economic opportunities for fossil fuel-dependent workers and communities in the US and around the world.
In coordination with a range of partners, UCS will be organizing our experts and supporters to ensure progress on all of these fronts this year. As the climate crisis accelerates, so too must the momentum for fossil fuel industry climate accountability. For decades, the scientific community has documented climate impacts. Now scientists are building a robust evidence base that can support various strategies to hold the companies most responsible for climate change accountable for the damage they’ve caused through their pollution and their lies—and limit further harm.