Carbon Majors, Finger Pointing and Responsibility

new study in Climatic Change linking most of the fossil fuels extracted in the last 150 years to 90 producers has garnered a bit of interest in the climate change world. One of the issues raised in the study is responsibility, and the coverage in the media has led to debates about pointing fingers and just who is really responsible for climate change.


Here’s a sample from Tim Worstall’s blog, who calls the article “complete and total bollocks”:

The fault is not in the companies but in us the consumers. Not one single one of the fuckers would have dug up or pumped a single kilo of carbon if we hadn’t wanted to use it.

We have been warm, well fed and mobile for a century because of fossil fuels. We wanted it, we enjoyed it and if there is any blame to be passed around then it is to us, the people who enjoyed the products of which the emissions are a by product.

His article in Forbes is as follows:

Fossil Fuel Companies Do Not Cause Carbon Emissions, We Consumers Do

Do I have to mention a similar cause-effect guilt-culpability claim by an infamous organization?

Guns don't kill people they make it easier dr heckle funny wtf memes

And there’s more where that came from:

According to William M. Connolley,

Its an attempt to shift the blame off us lot so we can all relax and spew out yet more CO2 and say “oh no, its not our fault, look, the Graun says its all the fault of those nasty fossil fuel companies over there”.

Not to miss an opportunity, The Onion has this article out in response: New Report Finds Climate Change Caused By 7 Billion Key Individuals:

From the article:

“Our research has proved conclusively that, year after year, the acceleration of the rate of global warming and the damage caused by this man-made acceleration can be clearly linked to 7 billion main culprits,” explained lead author Dr. John Bartlett, noting that many of these individuals have links to climate change going back nearly a century. “Worse, the significant majority of damage was done within the past two decades, when the consequences of climate change were widely known and yet these specific individuals did nothing to curb or amend their practices.”

“Now that we’ve done the hard work of identifying the key players responsible for this crisis, we can move forward with holding them accountable,” Bartlett added. “And it is my opinion that we need to regulate these individuals swiftly and decisively before they do any more damage.”

Yeah, it’s a good yuk and I do love the Onion, and I do hate to appear to lack a sense of humour, but satire runs the risk of minimizing the real issues while poking fun. In this case, it runs the risk of doing a serious disservice to those among the 7 billion who have not contributed to global warming in any appreciable amount but who are suffering as a consequence of those who have.

Are all humans equally culpable for the CO2 and land use changes that are causing global warming?

Of course not.

A small proportion of those alive today and in the past is largely responsible for the majority of the emissions. Do we, the individuals, really have a choice about those emissions? After all, if consumers didn’t want to buy gasoline to fuel their cars and heat their houses and air condition their condos and make their plastic products, they could choose to buy some other form of energy, right? Oh, wait…

So it looks as if this report has received quite the mixed response.

While reading the point-counterpoint is amusing and mentally invigorating, after you clear away all the hot air, this is an important question. Who is responsible for global warming? What do we mean by responsibility? Why do we want to assign responsibility and culpability? What good will it do to name names? Point fingers?

Here’s the abstract of the Heede paper:

Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854 – 2010

This paper presents a quantitative analysis of the historic fossil fuel and cement production records of the 50 leading investor-owned, 31 state-owned, and 9 nation-state producers of oil, natural gas, coal, and cement from as early as 1854 to 2010. This analysis traces emissions totaling 914 GtCO2e—63 % of cumulative worldwide emissions of industrial CO2 and methane between 1751 and 2010—to the 90 “carbon major” entities based on the carbon content of marketed hydrocarbon fuels (subtracting for non-energy uses), process CO2 from cement manufacture, CO2 from flaring, venting, and own fuel use, and fugitive or vented methane. Cumulatively, emissions of 315 GtCO2e have been traced to investor-owned entities, 288 GtCO2e to state-owned enterprises, and 312 GtCO2e to nation-states. Of these emissions, half has been emitted since 1986. The carbon major entities possess fossil fuel reserves that will, if produced and emitted, intensify anthropogenic climate change. The purpose of the analysis is to understand the historic emissions as a factual matter, and to invite consideration of their possible relevance to public policy.

It bears repeating the purpose of the analysis for the author — “to understand the historic emissions as a factual matter, and to invite consideration of their possible relevance to public policy”.


Of interest to this writer is the following:

The analysis highlights the fact that major producers of fossil fuels are not all located in Annex I nations: Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, India, Venezuela, Mexico, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and Algeria appear on the list of top twenty producers (Table 3). Of the 85 extant entities, 54 are headquartered in Annex I countries, and 31 in non-Annex I nations. Considerable benefits have accrued to these carbon majors, and to their state-sponsors and investors. Given this, it seems reasonable to argue that they have an ethical obligation to help address climate destabilization (Gardiner et al. 2010; Gardiner 2011). Moreover, many of these entities—both state- and investor-owned—possess the financial resources and technical capabilities to develop and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

So the point is to identify responsibility for those corporations and entities who did the extraction of fossil fuels.These entities have made a lot of money off the extraction and sale of greenhouse gas producing materials and are largely able to assist in mitigation and adaptation. The paper identifies a potential risk for public policy makers to address in any policy they make regarding global warming.

Without minimizing the responsibility of Annex I nations, nor of China and India, often discussed, this analysis highlights the role of some non-Annex I nations, such Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, Iran, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Libya, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, and other countries that have not been at the center of discussions regarding responsibility for controlling emissions. Some of these nations are, in their role as carbon producers, as important contributors to climate change as the Annex I nations who until now have been the focus of attention.

Most analyses to date, as well as the UNFCCC structure, consider responsibility for climate change in terms of nation-states. Such analyses fit the framework of international law, insofar as treaties and conventions are based on agreements between nation-states. However, responsibility can be understood in other ways as well, as done in the present analysis tracing emissions to major carbon producers. Shifting the perspective from nation-states to corporate entities—both investor-owned and state-owned companies—opens new opportunities for those entities to become part of the solution rather than passive (and profitable) bystanders to continued climate disruption.”

The identification of agents and corporate entities rather than nation states is a strategic one. Since they bear a share of the responsibility, and since they control the reserves of fossil fuels, identifying them prevents them from disappearing from the discourse on paying the cost of mitigation and adaptation.

Ultimately, all of us alive today and our descendents will pay for the carbon released into the environment, regardless of our responsibility for those emissions. The impoverished third-world farmer whose crops and herds struggle to survive due to either excess heat or heavy rains as well as the first-world fat cat living in luxury and driving a Hummer four blocks for a latte.

But who should pay? Who is responsible?

The Love Canal public health disaster of the 70s is a small example that can be used to illustrate a few points about responsibility and culpability. In that example, Hooker Chemical had a permit to dump toxic wastes into the canal on property it leased. It even had a limited liability clause in the lease to protect itself from litigation in the event of damages due to contamination. When the site closed in the 50s, it was covered over and soon grass grew there was no indication that a toxic waste dump existed below. Over the years, schools were built in the land purchased from Hooker, and communities arose in the area. For two decades, people lived around the Love Canal, grew vegetables in gardens in their backyards, the children splashed in puddles after rainstorms and played on the site, close to sources of   carcinogens like benzenes and dioxins.

In the 1970s, investigative reporters wrote about the existence of the dump and linked it to health concerns, such as increased miscarriages, birth defects and other problems.

So who bears responsibility for the Love Canal? Was it Hooker Chemical, who, after all, did the dumping? They profited for years by having the easy access to a dumping ground. What about the municipal government who permitted this dumping? How about the school board, which bought the land fully aware of the existence of the dump and built schools adjacent to the dump regardless? Was it the builders and homeowner groups who built their homes there? What about the municipal government whose approval of building permits and projects resulted in undermining the containment of the toxic chemicals? What about the consumers who bought products produced using Hooker Chemicals? The pregnant mother who lost her pregnancy? What about the children who developed health problems as a result of playing around carcinogens?

Few, if any of the people harmed by the disaster, either through impacts on their health or loss of their homes, were responsible for dumping the toxic chemicals or damage to the containment structures. Maybe some of them used goods made with Hooker Chemical’s products, but they did not dump the toxic wastes in inappropriate containment. Nor did they knowingly build on land that they knew was a toxic disaster waiting to happen. Yet, they lost the most — their health, some of them their lives, and many of them their homes.

Who did know?

Hooker Chemical knew and took measures to limit its liability when it sold the land to the school board. The school board knew, but forged ahead anyway, in need of land for schools to serve a growing population. The builders and architects knew and warned the school board. The municipal governments knew but apparently, disregarded the risks or misunderstood them. People who built on adjacent land had no knowledge of the dump’s existence or the fact containment had been breached over the years due to building in the region.

There was inadequate protection in place in the original dump site. There was inadequate monitoring of the site after it was closed. There was negligent behavior on the part of major players, the school board, the municipal government, etc.

When we look at the issue of environmental pollution, it would be easy to say that we all bear responsibility for pollution — after all, we all use products that come from toxic chemicals. There are probably very few people in industrial societies who use no plastic products or products made with some kind of toxic chemicals. But, as the Love Canal example illustrates, there are different degrees of responsibility and culpability.

The government of the day paid $101M to clean up the site. It took close to two decades to get that back from the company responsible, using new legislation that makes the polluter pay.

Yes, there was a time when our societies were blissfully unaware of the dangers posed by exposure to toxic chemicals. I highly doubt that chemists working for the chemical companies like Hooker Chemicals were unaware. The company took some pains to protect itself and limit its liability for any contamination resulting from its toxic dump, so it must have known the potential dangers. Municipal politicians should have known and should have done more to ensure that the chemicals were safely stored, both short term and long. The School Board should have been more conservative when deciding on building sites because it did know about the dump. Builders should have warned homeowners about the existence of the dump.

Should have, could have, would have. None of those make the people who were harmed less injured.

To simply point to “consumers” of manufactured products that use toxic chemicals in the production process as having some collective guilt or responsibility is too facile. It ignores the complex web of responsibility and the unequal distribution of power and agency in our societies.

The same applies to climate change.

There was a time when we were blissfully unaware about the effects of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels on our climate.  At worst, the toxic fog from burning coal was seen as a health issue. Leaded gasoline was seen as a threat to our health. Our economies grew rapidly, fueled by the availability of cheap fossil fuels, including coal, petroleum products, natural gas, etc. We use countless products made from petroleum products, and the availability of cars and planes, trains and trucks has revolutionized our way of life.  Our civilization as a whole has benefited from our fossil fuel use.

So, yes, the modern lifestyle of those of us in the developed world has led directly to global warming. This is beginning to show negative consequences for the world’s inhabitants and the science suggests there is much worse in the pipes, if we forge on BAU. It is perhaps the greatest threat to our civilization yet encountered. Something must be done about it. It will cost a great deal to address the problem.

But not all of the world’s inhabitants have contributed equally to the problem. Not everyone has participated equally in this industrial world premised on a carbon-based energy bonanza. And half of the emissions were produced in the last twenty years — in other words, since we knew about the link between carbon emissions and global warming.

When we look at per capita emissions, we can clearly see that some countries have a greater responsibility for putting those emissions into the atmosphere. This image shows emissions in 2007:


When we look at emissions, we can see that while China may be first in emissions based on sheer quantity in 2007, historically, the picture is different. The Gulf States, US and EU bear the brunt of responsibility for those emissions both in absolute number and per capita production:


Small Island States have very little responsibility for CO2 emissions historically or today, but as we know, they are being affected. The African Union bears little responsibility for total emissions or per capita emissions but they are expected to be highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the next century, according to the IPCC.

Here’s another graphic that shows carbon emissions in tonnes per capita (2002) by nation state:


Quite telling. Not all nations are equally responsible. The share of emissions increases with increasing income, GNP per capita,  PPP. So merely claiming “it’s us, stupid” is misleading. It’s not “us”. It’s a particular portion of “us”. And us definitely includes fossil fuel companies.

Face it — our entire civilization is premised on fossil fuels. Industrial society only developed to be the consumerist car-driving travelling sprawling suburb dwelling bountiful picture of modernity largely because of cheap abundant easily accessible fossil fuels and the infrastructure that was put in place to extract it, process it, transport it and distribute it to consumers. Ford knew that if he wanted to really sell a lot of cars, he had to make them affordable for the average worker, hence the average worker had to earn enough money to buy his cars.

Claiming that global warming is due to consumers of products rather than the producers of those products  — that fossil fuel companies wouldn’t dig without demand — is only partially true. We know that fossil fuel producers have over the years manipulated demand through a number of means, including price and advertising, through lobbying and other means.  They have a product that is very profitable and they want to make sure they can keep selling it and that we keep using it.

Now, as a result of the new report, we have even more detail about precisely which corporate and state entities were involved in extracting the fossil fuels that have contributed the most to climate change.


The graphic shows the 90 entities that extracted most of the fossil fuel responsible for the emissions leading to climate change.

Easy targets? Or responsible agents, who, in large part, must shoulder the cost of mitigation and adaptation?

Who do we blame for climate change? If we blame everyone, equally, is that honest? Is that accurate? More importantly, can blaming “us all” really help solve the problem?

I don’t think it is accurate or honest. It certainly doesn’t lead to any justice for those who will suffer in the future because of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels that was done before they were born.

The science makes it clear that fossil fuels were largely the cause of global warming in the past fifty years. Politicians who have failed to act because of their own vested interests, and due to their reliance on $$ from big oil bear a lot of responsibility for any damage resulting from climate change. Those who have denied the science, who have a vested interest in continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels, and who are preventing action to mitigate climate change are even more culpable for any damage resulting from the continued unmitigated burning of fossil fuels because they give politicians ample reason to dither and delay.

Ultimately, those bear the most responsibility for producing greenhouse gasses are not necessarily the ones who are currently feeling these effects. We’re also more able to pay to mitigate and adapt. Those of us with the greatest responsibility should also be the ones who are most responsible for paying to mitigate and adapt.

Knowing who is responsible for extraction and selling of fossil fuels is an important fact, and part of the information we need to assess and address climate change. Unless we know who, and how much, we can’t begin to address climate change in a just manner.

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

22 Responses to “Carbon Majors, Finger Pointing and Responsibility”

  1. Why use 2007 data for emissions 2002 data for emissions per capita and when 2012 data is available? See
    China accounts for more than half world coal consumption, nearly half world coal production and more than one-quarter of all CO2 emissions. Between 2007 and 2012 China increased emissions by more than 40% while the Eu decreased them so even on a per capita basis China is worse than the EU.
    If you want to apportion blame to anyone, try looking at the Chinese Communist party and its appalling record of coal mining casualties. Adding 2007-12, during which China emitted 46 billion tonnes of CO2 to your dubious 1751-2006 data (who on earth claims to have data for wood-burning 1751-1945?) would change your picture
    Your graphic omits the elephants that are China and Gazprom and wrongly includes British Coal whose cumulative production is negligible – if you wanted to include the National Coal Board, why not name it?
    You have mis-stated the situation regarding Love Canal – according to Wikipedia Hooker didn’t want to sell the site because of the safety issue and when forced to sell under the threat of expropriation “Hooker stated that the area should be sealed off “so as to prevent the possibility of persons or animals coming in contact with the dumped materials.”[10]” and inserted a clause into the sale conditions that not only the school board but any future owner had to accept full responsibility for any damage that they permitted to occur. Hooker had sealed in the toxic waste prior to closing the site. The school board were culpably negligent in ignoring the warnings not only from Hooker but also from building workers. Even worse “Specifically, the local government removed part of the protective clay cap to use as fill dirt for the nearby 93rd Street School, and punched holes in the solid clay walls to build water lines and the LaSalle Expressway. This allowed the toxic wastes to escape”
    No wonder “The free market environmentalist movement has often cited the Love Canal incident as a consequence of government decision-makers not taking responsibility for their decisions”
    Your argument that most of the 6 billion members of the human race have done little to cause global warming deserves better research and less blame-shifting to “corporate entities” as if they operated in a power vacuum.

    • Why use 2007 data for emissions 2002 data for emissions per capita and when 2012 data is available?

      Absolutely right. Laziness on my part.

      The graph is old but the point I wanted to make with it wasn’t to give the most updated data, but to show how the claim that “we” are guilty and “corporations” aren’t is wrong. Clearly, we are not all equally guilty, no matter what graphic I post. Data from 2007 or data from 2012 — it is the same. Not all nation states, not all individuals within those nation states, produce the same level of carbon emissions. Therefore, simplistic claims about “all of us” being implicated in global warming while corporations are lily-white is simply wrong.

      If you want to apportion blame to anyone, try looking at the Chinese Communist party and its appalling record of coal mining casualties. Adding 2007-12, during which China emitted 46 billion tonnes of CO2 to your dubious 1751-2006 data (who on earth claims to have data for wood-burning 1751-1945?) would change your picture.

      You’re changing the terms of the discussion from CO2 emissions to coal miner deaths. I’m always happy to talk about the horrors of coal for workers and consumers. Besides being dangerous for the workers, it is toxic. Each yard to coal mined puts radioactive material into the environment and so it is dangerous is so very many ways.

      If you want to talk about deaths, there are many coal miner deaths in the US, GB, and elsewhere if we want to go back in history a bit farther. Some very recent. Coal is filthy and dangerous to workers, yes. It should stay in the ground, no doubt for many reasons, and climate change is one very big one. Per capita, China still produces less than the developed world, although in absolute terms, it does produce more. That will change in the next few years if their production of new power plants increases at the current rate, but historically, China was not even a player until very recently when it comes to global emissions levels.

      But China is a good example for my argument because we have witnessed an amazing increase in emissions over the past decade or two so that now, China leads the world in percentage increase and absolute emissions. What led to this huge increase? Was it just that, all of a sudden, all those consumers decided to buy fossil fuels to heat their houses and power their cars and produce their consumer goods? Is it a result of consumer choice and therefore, China’s new consumers bear the brunt of the responsibility for carbon emissions and global warming?

      In China’s case, it is a clear example of a policy decision on the part of the Chinese government to lessen its control over the economy, allowing more free market rules and practices to hold sway. China is a bit like the Wild West of Capitalism — the way the Western Industrial nations were a hundred years ago. In allowing this loosening of control, the Chinese government illustrates the importance of state influence over economic behavior and the economy, through regulation and public policy. If this holds true in China, it holds true where ever there is a functioning government. In other words, this world the consumer finds itself in is shaped by the decisions of its governors and those in its society with the power to influence those governors. It is not merely the decisions of one, ten million, 100 million or billions of consumers that has led to CO2 emissions and global warming.

      The point I was trying to make was that there is no “we” or “us” who anyone can point to and claim “we” are responsible. My intent was to respond to claims in the climate blogosphere — among those I consider allies — about “all of us” being responsible, while fossil fuel companies are blameless for the CO2 that has been released in the atmosphere. This idea that fossil fuel companies are merely fulfilling their mandate to extract fossil fuels and it is we, the customer, who is to blame for our individual choices is simplistic. I find that argument to be both facile and incorrect. It simply misrepresents the reality of a world that is prebuilt when we enter it, with a reality that is historic, and reproduced by powerful actors. The only time the individual has much power to change things is when enough of us get together and say — this far, no farther and try to en mass, influence the policy makers and market through our choices.

      But this action on the part of individuals is not something that is a simple matter either. Those same fossil fuel companies have been busy trying to influence the behavior of individual consumers for years. The denial industry shows how powerful corporations can be in shaping the public discourse and influencing public policy. The creation of enough doubt about the link between CO2 emissions and climate change has been responsible for a lot of inaction on mitigation. The denial industry knows this and had practice with tobacco. Find that sliver of uncertainty, find the few contrarian scientists who reject the consensus, use it to create doubt and thus allow policy makers to shuffle their feet and stall. So it is even harder for those separate individual consumers to have an effect, what little effect they can have, to change things. They’re faced with lies and smoke screens and greenwashing and obfuscation. It is intentional on the part of the denial industry and their corporate paymasters.

      As long as the laws allow this kind of behavior, as long as the law allows corporate entities to use their billions in profits to create doubt, the individual consumer is really powerless, and it is all the harder for the truth to filter down through the effluent of the denialosphere to inform the consumer about choices and about risks and about appropriate actions.

      Simply blaming the consumer for global warming is just plain ignorant.

      As to Love Canal — yes, Hooker tried to avoid selling the land but it did and it made sure to cover its ass to protect itself from exactly what happened — the site leaked due to building around it and caused damage. In other words, instead of safely disposing of the materials, it disposed of them in an inadequate containment structure, which, if the municipal government was more risk-averse, would not have toyed with. I pointed out how the municipal government and the school board were at fault in the eventual crisis, but Hooker was not off the hook.

      Certainly, I am not implicated in the Love Canal crisis. Nor are most of the consumers in the 50s and 60s and 70s who used the consumer goods made with Hooker Chemical’s products.

      Again, the point was to show how there is a complex web of blame and responsibility for Love Canal and global warming.

      It is not just the collective “us” or “we” who are responsible. That’s far too lazy so while I may have been lazy for not finding the most recent graphic to use, the argument that consumers and not producers are responsible for global warming is lazy reasoning, and at least from my point of view, is far more egregious.

      • Apologies on one point – I wasn’t trying to change the argument over to coal miners’ deaths: I just find it difficult not to mention them in climate change debates since the Chinese Communists have killed several times as many coal miners through culpable negligence in my lifetime than nuclear power has killed in the whole of history (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). .
        However, despite my personal dislike for Oxy, I do not agree that Hooker’s containment was inadequate: there was no reason for them to anticipate sabotage and while they owned the site no-one was going to open it up; and when they were effectively forced to sell it they laid down conditions to prevent as far as they could. anyone building on or disturbing it. Hindsight suggests that Hooker was well advised to cover its ass – it may have been required to do so by its insurer – because in the ’90s highly selective reporting led masses (including me) to believe that Occidental Petroleum had dumped waste in an actual canal rather than that a company later acquired by Oxy had used a disused canal bed in which to seal a dump of toxic waste. Chance of a fair trial by jury (especially in the USA) = cat’s chance in hell.
        I have never said that corporations are lily-white* – of course Esso and Shell encouraged people to buy their products (the Tiger in the Tank ad campaign was second to the Toucan) – nor actually did Tim Worstall, who said that the Guardian was being simplistic in claiming it was all the fault of 90 entities. However, it is too lazy to blame “corporations” – firstly because any decision is actually made by a human being and secondly because all the marketing in the world cannot make as much difference to oil consumption as rising real incomes. When I started work (as a trainee computer programmer) I caught the “works bus” – one of many run by the local council to take workers to a particular factory or shipyard; my father cycled; the firm did have a car park but it also had a “senior staff cycle rack”, which he and several friends used. There are no “works buses” any more because factory workers choose to drive rather than wait at a bus stop on a cold or wet morning. That is not down to Esso’s “Tiger in the Tank” advert.
        China’s consumers are NOT the main cause for increase in emissions – it is the state-owned enterprises using coal to fuel power stations and smelt iron that are the main causes of the increase. Some years ago Australia’s main export was wheat to China to feed the millions starving as a result of Mao’s policies but post-Mao its largest export is metallurgical coal to China. So, NO it is not the result of relaxing state control and allowing consumers to burn coal fires – it is state-owned enterprises digging up and burning more coal because the delays in getting bureaucratic permission and then allowing greedy foreign capitalists like BP to build more import terminals for natural gas meant that they could not meet the five-year plan dictated by the state if they used the less polluting and lower-CO2-emitting natural gas from Oz or Indonesia.
        “Per capita, China still produces less than the developed world, although in absolute terms, it does produce more.” China produces 47.5% of the world total (and consumes more than half); China has less than 25% of the world’s population. I sent you the link. I can see no reasonable way to define “the developed world” to justify that claim.
        “This idea that fossil fuel companies are merely fulfilling their mandate to extract fossil fuels and it is we, the customer, who is to blame for our individual choices is simplistic.” Well, yes I agree but “It simply misrepresents the reality of a world that is prebuilt when we enter it,”: no – every decision that I make to walk to the local shop rather than drive once a week and stock up the freezer or to commute by train since I discovered that it is actually cheaper to drive into London and use a NCP car park that to pay the standard train fare is proof that I CAN affect reality (and offsets my choice to drive to most “away” races).
        Quite frankly I do not understand “Each yard to coal mined puts radioactive material into the environment” – coal puts pollutants into the atmosphere but radioactivity in material that has been converted from vegetation to coal over hundreds of millions of years must be negligible. Silicosis, SO2 emissions creating sulphuric acid, miners’ deaths, CO2 are all terrible but radioactivity?
        *A few years ago there was a a group who thought that Proctor & Gamble’s corporate logo was proof that they were evil: their marketing of “Sunny Delight” seemed designed to feed that belief.

        • I’m not going to reply to everything primarily because I will not get drawn into the meme of carbon footprint moralizing but I did want to respond to your comment about coal and radioactivity.

          Like other rocks and crustal materials, coal contains uranium and thorium, usually between 1 – 4 ppm up to 10 ppm. When it is burned, the byproducts include radon gas, uranium and thorium, with the uranium and thorium about 10x the concentration of the original coal. So, between 10 – 40 ppm. The ash produced from a coal-fired electricity plant is usually caught by the plant’s scrubbers, but about .5% is released to the environment as ash.

          According to the ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) (and I couldn’t find a more recent data source):

          “For the year 1982, assuming coal contains uranium and thorium concentrations of 1.3 ppm and 3.2 ppm, respectively, each typical plant released 5.2 tons of uranium (containing 74 pounds of uranium-235) and 12.8 tons of thorium that year. Total U.S. releases in 1982 (from 154 typical plants) amounted to 801 tons of uranium (containing 11,371 pounds of uranium-235) and 1971 tons of thorium. These figures account for only 74% of releases from combustion of coal from all sources. Releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium.”

          I’ve read comments and articles that claim the level of radioactive materials in coal are on par with other rocks in the environment, but they are not burned and the byproducts released into the atmosphere to fall as dust around our communities. I guess given I have thyroid cancer, a cancer that is highly linked to ionizing radiation exposure, and I have lived in very highly polluted areas in my life, I am sensitive to this issue. There are many reasons to keep the coal in the ground and the radioactive component of the combustion by-products is just one.

          • Thank you
            I wasn’t aware that it was a noticeably, let alone, significant problem, despite having grown up either in, or on the edge of, coal-mining areas. Over here the main radiation problem is seepage of Radon gas from old rocks in Cornwall and the standard advice is that living within 1 mile of a coal-fired power station increases background radiation by 0.16%. We use fly ash in some concrete products without anyone seeming to worry. US coal seems to be a lot worse than British coal, both in mineral content and, more importantly, in pollution control (although until our electricity industry was privatised, and an independent regulator was appointed, Sweden used to complain about the “acid rain” from the SO2 emitted by our coal-fired power stations).
            I shall add that snippet that US coal-fired power stations emit more radioactivity per MWh than nuclear power stations to my repertoire of replies to use if faced by someone who makes a fuss about the level of radiation from nuclear plants.

            • Coal is extremely dirty. I’ve seen similar comparisons for mercury, showing that incandescent lamps powered by US coal-fired plants actually release more Hg into the environment than the compact fluorescent lamps that would replace them… and in a way that cannot be managed by collecting them as toxic waste.

        • Neat little evasion there about ” the Chinese Communists have killed several times as many coal miners through culpable negligence in my lifetime than nuclear power has killed in the whole of history (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). .”

          Well, not just an evasion, but several times is a load of bull.

          The Hiroshima bombing killed about 90,000 people in the first year. The Nagasaki bombing killed about 60,000. Estimates vary. These are towards the low end. Google is your friend in such things

          Deaths of coal miners in China from mine accidents are about 5000 per year, so in 50 years that is 250,000, more than from the bombings. By no means several times, but illustrating the point that given enough time, a relatively low number of deaths per year (in a population of a billion or so) adds up. There are also issues with the scale and operation of the mines, with many of them being small scale and “wildcat”, thus extremely unsafe. (See also India for similar problems)

          But allow Eli to ask how many coal miners did British capitalists kill over the years, not only in Britain, but in mines throughout their colonies? And yes, what happens if we add in the effects of black lung disease everywhere?

          • “Google is your friend” so we find that the *reduced* modern rate of death in China is FOUR times the figure you try to apply to the last 50 years
            “The People’s Republic of China is by far the largest producer of coal in the world, producing over 2.8 billion tons of coal in 2007, or approximately 39.8 percent of all coal produced in the world during that year.[11] For comparison, the second largest producer, the United States, produced more than 1.1 billion tons in 2007. An estimated 5 million people work in China’s coal-mining industry. As many as 20,000 miners die in accidents each year”
            Incidentally 1949 was 64 years ago.
            I don’t know how many miners have been killed in mines owned by British capitalists – not many in my lifetime but each one is one too many. However that unknown number would add only a little to my argument that the first things to tackle are reducing wasteful use of energy and switching necessary production away from coal to cleaner fuels.

      • I tend to disagree with the “corporations are guilty” position. But lets skip over that point….my answer then becomes “so what?”. If you start proposing backward dated punishments or compensation you will lose every time. Do you know why? Because there are many of us with compensation claims we know we will never get no matter what, which have nothing to do with CO2 and the climate. And you won’t get to skip to the front of the line. The whole issue is meaningless. It doesn’t matter, and you are wasting your time.

  2. From the paper:

    “… the present analysis focuses on the world’s largest investor-owned and state-owned carbon producers, whether situated in Annex I or non-Annex I nations, and invites consideration of the suggestion that some degree of responsibility for both cause and remedy for climate change rests with those entities that have extracted, refined, and marketed the preponderance of the historic carbon fuels.”


    Connolley demonstrates the depressing truth of how easily even a trained scientist flips to denial mode when someone steps on a cherished dogma.

    • Yeah, I was surprised at the level of vitriol towards the article from some, since it seemed eminently reasonable to me. Of course those who have mined and processed and transported and retailed fossil fuels bear part of the responsibility for CO2 emissions… It seems a no-brainer to me. So do consumers. Apportioning responsibility seems like a task that will require good sound data. This paper tries to add to that, IMO.

      • Well, most of the vitriol was aimed at “The Guardian”‘s article which grossly distorted the reasonable original article and claimed that only these 90 enterprises were to blame – and attributed to them two-thirds of *all* – yes, all – greenhouse gas emissions rather than two-thirds of fossil-fuel-originated GHG emissions, which are a minority of that total. Being The Guardian, it also stated in the headline that 90 companies were responsible and later that the biggest investor-owned companies contributed a disproportionate amount when states and state-owned enterprises contributed two-thirds of the total.
        The original article said, as you do, that these enterprises need to share the blame – The Guardian article stated that they were solely responsible – very different..

        • I agree that the Guardian article overstates the findings of the article, which traced 2/3 of industrial CO2 emissions since 1750 to 90 entities involved in extraction.

          Here’s the Guardian lead:

          Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions

          Chevron, Exxon and BP among companies most responsible for climate change since dawn of industrial age, figures show

          I think if I was the editor, I’d rewrite it to this, but it’s probably not very catchy.

          Two-thirds of industrial CO2 and Methane emissions traced to just 90 public and private entities

          Chevron, Exxon and BP the top investor-owned entities linked to industrial greenhouse gas emissions, figures show

          Here’s the abstract:

          This paper presents a quantitative analysis of the historic fossil fuel and cement production records of the 50 leading investor-owned, 31 state-owned, and 9 nation-state producers of oil, natural gas, coal, and cement from as early as 1854 to 2010. This analysis traces emissions totaling 914 GtCO2e — 63% of cumulative worldwide emissions of industrial CO2 and methane between 1751 and 2010 — to the 90 “carbon major” entities based on the carbon content of marketed hydrocarbon fuels (subtracting for non-energy uses), process CO2 from cement manufacture, CO2 from flaring, venting, and own fuel use, and fugitive or vented methane. Cumulatively, emissions of 315 GtCO2e have been traced to investor-owned entities, 288 GtCO2e to state-owned enterprises, and 312 GtCO2e to nation-states. Of these emissions, half has been emitted since 1986. The carbon major entities possess fossil fuel reserves that will, if produced and emitted, intensify anthropogenic climate change. The purpose of the analysis is to understand the historic emissions as a factual matter, and to invite consideration of their possible relevance to public policy.

          So, as I read it, what the article does is trace CO2 and methane emissions to the entities that extracted the fossil fuels. Without extraction, these fossil fuels would not be consumed, and therefore their CO2 emissions would not be released into the environment. Without consumers purchasing the fossil fuels, the same could be said. Obviously, both producers and consumers share the responsibility for the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels (and cement production). The claim that fossil fuel corporations don’t produce CO2 emissions is not only incorrect (they use fossil fuels to extract fossil fuels, to process fossil fuels, to transport fossil fuels, and to retail fossil fuels after all), it is ridiculous to claim they are not responsible for the CO2 that is released into the environment through the consumption of their product! What kind of reasoning is that? I mean, if we applied that to the food industry, and producer A sells 1 million bags of tainted spinach that kills 300 people from E.coli 0157, is the company off the hook? We just sold it, Sir. It’s not our fault if it kills people!

          Imagine if I said “Spinach Manufacturers do not kill people through their spinach tainted with E. coli 0157 — consumers of contaminated spinach do! After all, they consume the tainted spinach leading to deaths from E. coli! If consumers didn’t want to eat spinach, the spinach growers would not grow it!”


          The fact is that fossil fuels pollute the environment with CO2 and methane, sulphur, lead, uranium, thorium, etc. These substances are harmful to the environment, to individuals and to the climate. Fossil fuel companies have never been forced to clean up the CO2 and methane their products release into the environment. Their products are priced below their real costs and are subsidized to encourage consumption. When it comes time to mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change — like, NOW — they must bear their share of the responsibility and cost.

          This article helps identify those ‘carbon majors’ who have been involved in extraction of fossil fuels and what share of industrial CO2 and methane emissions are linked to their products.

          Necessary information.

          • Yeah, well who takes newspapers seriously anyway (rhetorical question, if you didn’t guess)

          • > which are a minority of that total.

            Huh? Then what makes up the majority?

            • Respiration by animals, including humans, forest fires, wood fires,burning dung, fermentation processes, applying acid to CaCO3 (aka removing limescale) and various others.

              • I was afraid you would say that. You understand the difference between a natural cycle and an accumulating release, don’t you? All those biological emissions are matched by opposite and equal absorptions, so they net out to zero (though deforestation and arable land degradation violate that rule). It’s about the profit margin, not the turnover. If you don’t understand this, I see textbooks in your future 🙂

                You forgot BTW to mention the release of CO2 from the oceans, which is also huge. Of course it too is balanced by an equal and opposite (in fact, slightly greater) absorbtion.


                • You were afraid that I should tell the simple truth?!?
                  Are you seriously attempting to say that you expect me to invent a lie?
                  Your statement “All those biological emissions are matched by opposite and equal absorptions, so they net out to zero” is firstly incorrect since they are all releasing CO2 that had been sequestrated in the past (sometimes very recent past, sometimes hundreds of years, sometimes millions of years) so are exactly equivalent to burning fossil fuels. If peasants did not burn wood, dung or peat, then the CO2 would remain sequestrated and if ranchers did not clear rainforest to raise cattle for beefburgers then more CO2 would be absorbed.
                  I see an omission in the textbooks in your past

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  1. Another Week of Global Warming News, November 24, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered - November 26, 2013

    […] 2013/11/22: TPL: Carbon Majors, Finger Pointing and Responsibility […]

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