Exxon Mobil, Apocalypse, End Times
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Michael Rivera / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0) and Jean-Louis SERVAIS / Pixabay.

New research shows that the time to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change is quickly running out. The new earnings reports of Exxon and Shell show that we don’t care.

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A while back, we wrote that Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter “is the most powerful argument for aggressive wealth distribution since some French princess, upon being told that the peasants had no bread and were starving, reportedly responded, ‘Let them eat cake.’”

Well, apparently the lads at Exxon read that piece and said: “Hold my barrel of sweet crude; we can do better.” And they did.

With its earnings report earlier this week, the oil giant impressively made the case that our system of unfettered capitalism is broken beyond repair and will be the end of us all (fine, that last part is hyperbole. It’ll only be the end of millions of people while drastically changing how the rest of us live).

Let’s briefly recap what happened: On Monday, researchers announced the results of a study that used artificial intelligence to project when our planet will exceed the critical threshold of warming 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. When that mark is reached, sea levels are expected to rise 10–30 inches, extreme weather events will become more frequent and severe, and entire ecosystems will change.

That’s precisely why governments across the globe continue to pretend that they will take the necessary steps to prevent this from happening.

Sadly, lip service will not cool the planet — and maybe all the hot air politicians keep spewing has even accelerated the warming process. Instead of crossing that 1.5 degree Celsius threshold by the middle of the century, as was previously assumed, the AI calculated that it will likely happen in the next 10–15 years… and that things will get worse from there.

On Tuesday, Exxon served a powerful reminder of why we are in this predicament — and it takes neither artificial intelligence nor a genius to connect the dots here: The oil giant announced that it had posted a record profit of $56 billion in 2022. This means that, in the time it takes you to finish this paragraph, Exxon will have made $50,000… from killing the environment.

To add insult to injury (at least if you think that making the planet uninhabitable is bad), the one damper on this excellent earnings report, at least in Exxon’s view, was that the European Union imposed a windfall tax of $1.3 billion on the company’s fourth quarter earnings.

The oil giant thinks that such a tax is “unlawful and bad policy.” We, on the other hand, believe that tax should be much higher and that the executives whose greed is killing the environment should be held to account.

To drive home the point of why all of this is really, really bad, another study published Wednesday said that the problem isn’t a lack of technologies that could prevent global warming but rather that we — both as countries and individuals — just don’t care enough about this problem.

Finally, on Thursday, Shell also announced that it posted a record profit, of $40 billion. In the story on this historic haul, the BBC included this nugget: “Despite the move, Shell had said it did not expect to pay any UK tax this year as it is allowed to offset decommissioning costs and investments in UK projects against any UK profits.”

And that really sums up the problem. As a society, we have made killing profitable. In this case, “we” refers to the lawmakers who have been bought and paid for by the dirty money of oil companies and other polluters, arms manufacturers, and the tobacco industry (a study published in 2019 showed that the latter, as well as the coal industry, kills more people annually than it employs). There are plenty of others, such as social media companies, who are profiting from creating misery while escaping any semblance of accountability.

Together, they have ensured that making products designed to kill people, destroy the environment, or create divisiveness is good business.

Perhaps the most obscene aspect of this week’s news is that Exxon’s stock went down. Clearly, investors felt that the company hadn’t harmed the environment enough. Maybe next time, gents!

The one positive is that this corporate (and personal) greed, combined with a total disregard for the common good, can’t go on forever. Allowing so few to profit off the suffering of so many is simply not sustainable.

Unfortunately, neither is our environment. And, as the studies show, the clock is not only ticking, it’s skipping ahead. Chances are that we won’t fix these issues before millions of people lose their homes and livelihoods because of climate change.

But at least the 1 percent will be a bit richer.

By the way, this isn’t a plea to abandon capitalism per se. The innovations that a rewards-based economic system can spark will be sorely needed in the future. It is only fair that the people who can come up with solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems should be rewarded… and then those rewards should be taxed heavily.

That’s a system that would work.

What clearly isn’t working, however, is the inhumane, cruel capitalism that is being practiced now. It rewards those who have and not those who can. And it does so at the expense of the only habitat we have.

It seems inevitable that the many will demand change at some point. Sadly, it seems just as inevitable that it will be too late.


  • Klaus Marre

    Klaus Marre is a writer, editor, former congressional reporter, and director of the WhoWhatWhy Mentor Apprentice Program. Follow him on Twitter @KlausMarre.

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