The Role of a Fossil Fuel Lobbyist: Reflecting on the Mock UN Climate Talks

Today, I assumed the role of a fossil fuel industry lobbyist for a mock simulation of the UN climate talks in ENVS 326: Climate Change & Society Course.  Let’s just say, this experience reaffirmed that I am much more likely to become a solar energy lobbyist than a Chevron lobbyist in my career. Regardless of my own hangups with the fossil fuel industry, it was both helpful and challenging to assume this mindset. I took on the role and became driven to preserve the profitability of the oil, coal, and natural gas sectors.

In preparing for the simulation, I read about how fossil fuel lobbyists use similar strategies and tactics to the tobacco industry. I amassed evidence (much of which I consider pretty flimsy) that lobbyists actual use to support continued use of these dirty and harmful fuel sources. I learned that the monetary incentive in this industry drives lobbyists to promote their interests and delay progress on climate action, often at the expense of the health and well-being of citizens.  In the US alone, $27 trillion is tied up in exploring oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. An argument that is used to support this profit-hungry enterprise is that warming could actually be beneficial, because it makes Arctic oil and gas reserves more accessible. The fact is that fossil fuels are the largest contributor anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. They are a direct and severe contributor climate change, which causing the awful but classic consequences that you are all aware of:

  • Sea Level Rise
  • Erosion
  • Extreme weather events
  • Drought

Despite these clear links, lobbyists exploit uncertainty in the data in order to delay and halt climate action and international agreements…in clear disregard of the fact that uncertainty is intrinsic to the scientific method.  I found myself questioning my classmates (country delegates) on why they would want to invest in “unreliable” clean energy. I shared that fossil fuels could supply 80% of the world’s energy needs and provide 2 million jobs in the US. When we provided a supporting fact, representative were more likely to believe us.

It was interesting to observe the impassioned responses of my classmates to my “pro-fossil fuel” arguments. Many of them responded in open and nearly hostile disagreement to my words. This response most likely manifested itself because most students in Emory’s environmental science department consider themselves environmentalists, which is an identity that is almost always associated with an “anti-fossil fuel mentality. If they reconsidered their response, I think that they would discover that for some developing nations it is enticing to stick with “business as usual” scenarios over risking the shift to renewable sources.

At the end of the talks, we pushed for a space to speak and demanded a payout for the money last in failed investments as a result of the emissions reduction goals. Though I don’t believe this agreement would fly at an international climate conference, I enjoyed having the chance to passionately share my interests.

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Fig 1. An intense conversation with the U.S. delegation. Fossil fuel lobbyists hover over the conversation, waiting to interject and promote our interests.

This exercise made me very excited to attend the real international climate negotiations with the Emory delegation in Bonn, Germany. I look forward to observing how countries can overcome differences to create an agreement that is in the best interest and well-being of future generations as well as in our planet. This time, i’ll be advocating that fossil fuels are not part of the plan.


Emory’s COP in the classroom

For our Mock UN Climate Change Conference, I was assigned to represent a fossil fuel lobbyist. Many would probably consider this the “bad guy” role, as I must represent the actors seeking to delay the capacity of nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are mainly the result of burning oil, coal, and natural gas. The primary goal of the climate talks, to limit global warming below 2 ̊C, runs counter to the goals of the fossil fuel industry. Thus, it is in their best interest to slow progress on global climate agreements that promote clean, renewable energy in place of “traditional” sources.

Many lobbyists represent big names in the fossil fuel industry; including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP. Many of these corporations, often referred to as Big Oil by impassioned environmental advocates, are among the top polluters in the United States.[1] Each of these groups spend around $8 million annually on lobbying congressional representatives to vote in line with their interests .[2] Of the major oil companies, Exxon Mobil is the most active in the climate change discussion. They have transformed the climate debate by using tactics once employed by tobacco companies to introduce confusion on the connection between smoking and lung cancer.[3]  Their lobbyists influence foreign diplomats to dilute progress on global climate agreements and progressive climate policies that affect their industry.

For example, because much of the evidence for climate change and the negative effects of burning fossil fuels are based in science, lobbyists aim to introduce distortion and exploit scientific uncertainty to support the continued use of fossil fuels. Because they have $27 trillion invested in finding and exploiting oil reserves, they seek to ensure a return on investment.[4] Thus, they are incentivized to undermine global scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change to preserve their profits. Many groups advertise a positive externality of global warming by linking the melting ice to the enhanced accessibility of profitable Arctic reserves.[5] Additionally, when the IPCC released its first report, lobbyists and oil executives called the findings “premature,” and advocated to preserve the 200,000 fossil fuel jobs.[6] This past May, when parties to the Paris Climate Agreement met in Bonn, developing countries pressured to require corporate observers to disclose their “conflicts of interest.”[7] Many other countries argue that the profit incentive prevents oil companies from valuing the environment.Fossil Fuel Lobbying(1)

Fig 1. This infographic addresses some of the simple arguments that fossil fuel lobbyists might use to back up their arguments. It is deliberately formatted and designed in a way that is reminiscent of political propaganda.


Climate Justice in Prisons

Hurricane Harvey, intensified by climate change?!?

Headlines similar to this one popped up all over the news recently in response to the climate disasters in Houston, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean islands, and Florida. Many scientists have explored and seek to further understand the connection between climate change and extreme weather events.

You may be wondering how a warming planet impacts the intensity of hurricanes. Put simply, the planet warms as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide and methane.

The warming effect of greenhouse gases is similar to the warming effect of layers of clothing, which trap heat to regulate body temperature. The more shirts, pants, and jackets that are added to your body, the more sweaty and uncomfortable you become.

Just like clothing layers can affect your movement and even cause you to sweat, a warmer planet affects rainfall and wind speeds, because of increased energy circulating in the climatic system. Both rainfall and wind speed are key characteristics that influence the intensity of hurricanes[1].

As demonstrated by the tragedy and destruction brought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, increasingly severe natural disasters will inevitably have a negative effect on people and communities that live in the wake of their destructive power.

Communities of color are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, like the increase in extreme weather events. After Hurricane Katrina, while 71% of Caucasian Americans returned to New Orleans, only 51% of African Americans returned. Pre-existing vulnerabilities and systemic barriers made it more difficult for communities of color to respond to these impacts– such as having their homes built in the flood plain, being underinsured for housing and health, and being less mobile.

Climate justice is the resulting idea that people from all backgrounds deserve to be included and supported in the fight against climate change.

Many people are committed to moving the needle on this issue.

However, few have thoroughly explored the link between intensifying hurricanes and their consequences for people in prisons. For our podcast, my team delved into this topic, specifically by interviewing experts and collecting testimony about the effects of Hurricane Harvey from people who are currently incarcerated.

A prominent advocate on this issue is Panagioti Tsolkas, the director of the Prison Ecology Project an initiative that maps the intersection between environmental issues and mass incarceration. We had the privilege to interview Panagioti about the effects of climate change on people in prisons. His stories highlight the horrors faced by people who are incarcerated in the event of extreme weather events; including, being denied medical treatment, being forced to drink toilet water, and watching the water rise around them while trapped helplessly in their cells.

Uncertainty demonstrated in climate models with the link between climate change and intensifying hurricanes does not justify the lack of effective disaster management plans at the federal and state level. In fact, the precautionary principle of environmental policy tells us that we should introduce regulations regardless of uncertainty to lessen consequences.  It is our imperative to organize disaster management protocols to protect exposed and suffering communities.

The podcast below sheds light on stories of imprisoned climate warriors affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please listen and share this story with your own network to build understanding for the urgency of responding to climate change. It is time to take action to shed light on the struggle of those behind bars.

[1] Burch, Sarah L. and Sara E. Harris. “Understanding Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Practice.” University of Toronto Press. Buffalo, NY. 2014. pg 206.

The narrator in the podcast is my colleague, Emily Sullivan. I wrote the script and edited the audio.


Clearing Clouds on Climate: Blogging with YaleE360

I am particularly fond of the way in which Yale Environment 360 approaches climate  blogging. This blog, from Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, aims to offer “analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues.” Yale Environment 360 frames climate change in an exciting way. An interview with Kate Marvel, a physicist at Columbia University cogently explains the mystery of the relationship between clouds and climate change.

This narrative engages readers through a versatile format, in this case through an interview with a climate expert.  The Q&A structure enables creative and accessible techniques for explaining climate science. The conversational responses present a unique approach to science writing and communication. Dr. Marvel starts with a clear explanation of the relationship between clouds and warming as well as their impact on climate modeling. Rather than employing technical jargon, Dr. Marvel uses terms like “juicy” to describe clouds made of water droplets.  In explaining the simple process of cloud formation, she relates water droplets to grains of sand on a beach. The frequent use of metaphor and conversational language allows readers to understand more clearly. The regular use of pull quotes highlights main ideas and enables quick reading. Communicating climate science through interviews is a unique way to present complex information.



“Current” events!

 You are at the beach, standing at the edge of the water. Suddenly, you notice red flags waving, indicating danger offshore. The lifeguard warns you not to swim because of the hazardous currents. You wonder about the origins of this effect that prevents you from swimming.


Currents are found throughout the ocean—from its surface to the greatest depths of the sea. What are ocean currents? Why do they happen? How do they affect our climate?


The movement of a current is the result of “continuous and directed movements” of ocean water.

Even more simply, a current is the movement of water within water.

Currents are affected by several factors:

  • variations in wind
  • water density (due to changes in salt content or temperature)
  • gravity
  • tides
  • earthquakes.

Similar to riding a merry-go-round while throwing a baseball, ocean currents must follow a curved path as they travel across our continuously rotating planet.crls1

The rotation of Earth on its axis, known as the Coriolis effect, causes currents in the northern hemisphere to flow clockwise and counter clockwise in the southern hemisphere. Some currents are short and temporary. Other oceanic currents are enormous flows of water that circle the globe for hundreds of years.

Currents are classified into two main categories: surface currents and deep ocean currents. Surface currents and deep-water currents interact to create the global conveyor belt. Currents are an essential part of Earth’s climate and play a key role in many important biological cycles.

Surface currents are influenced by wind systems that are driven by the sun’s energy. They transfer heat from the warmth of the equator to cold regions of the globe.

Deep ocean currents result from differences in temperature and salinity, known as thermohaline circulation.

As water becomes heavier with saltiness and cold, it sinks to the bottom. This water is replaced by additional surface water, which cools and sinks to the ocean floor. Ocean_circulation_conveyor_belt

Credit: US Global Change Research Program, Wikimedia Commons  Ocean circulation works like a conveyor belt. Cold and salty currents sink to the bottom and warm shallow currents rise in a continuous cycle. The interaction of surface water and deep water creates the conveyor belt system.

Like a conveyor belt at a factory transports products, oceanic currents carry nutrients. Some oceanic currents flow short distances, while others flow very far to deliver nutrients. When parts and products are added to the conveyor belt, they are pulled through the machine and presented for further processing. In a similar way, currents deliver oxygen, heat, nitrogen, and other life-sustaining elements throughout the ocean.


However, the effects of climate change threaten these essential processes. Global warming is likely to increase rainfall in the North Atlantic as well as accelerate glacial melting. Increasingly warm freshwater added to the sea surface could inhibit the formation of sea ice, which prevents the changes in salt content that cause water to sink to the ocean floor. Consequently, the temperature of water carried by the currents would be altered. For example, the essential Gulf Stream which brings northwest Europe its unique temperate climate, would be affected.ocean.currents.jpg

A representation of the main cold and warm currents that regulate global climates is shown above.

Warming would have devastating effects on oceanic circulation and drastically alter global climates. Take action now to mitigate emissions and have a positive impact on “current” events!