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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.

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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.