Opinion guest column

Fossil fuel companies fall short on climate pledges

Federal hearings reveal that the fossil fuel industry is still misleading the public about its role in climate change

Hearings held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in September reveal the failures of fossil fuel companies to live up to their pledges on reducing their environmental impact — and why we still have work to do.

The hearings follow a year-long investigation by the Committee regarding the role of the fossil fuel industry in driving climate change. Before the hearings, the Committee released a memo documenting internal emails and guidance from several Big Oil companies — including BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Shell — that demonstrate their campaign to mislead the public while they fall  short of reaching their climate goals.

Among the discoveries revealed in the memo, these companies made it clear that they are “devoted to a long-term fossil fuel future” and instructed employees to use intentionally misleading language when broaching the topic of climate change. For example, “Exxon and Chevron sought to water down statements by the industry-led Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) to ‘remove language that potentially commits members to enhanced climate-related governance, strategy, risk management, and performance metrics and targets’” in an apparent effort to avoid binding themselves to any climate commitments, despite each publicly stating the opposite. Additionally, internal messaging guidance from Shell “calls on employees to emphasize that net-zero emissions is ‘a collective ambition for the world’ rather than a ‘Shell goal or target,’” directly contradicting their own publicized climate target. These contradictions should come as no surprise, as they continue a long tradition of Big Oil companies lying to the public about their role in worsening the climate crisis.

“My Committee’s investigation leaves no doubt that, in the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform. “These companies claim they are part of the solution to climate change, but internal documents reveal that they are continuing with business as usual.”

Following the investigation and the release of the memo, the Committee held a hearing to examine the adequacy of the companies’ climate pledges and to hear testimony from survivors of climate change-induced severe weather events.

Testimony from Raya Salter, Esq., founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center and member of the New York State Climate Action Council, emphasizes the failure of fossil fuel companies to hold true to their climate pledges. Salter states that “the fossil fuel company commitments are just frankly disingenuous. The fossil fuel lobby combats climate action on every single level — global, national, state, and regional.” Her statement supports the findings revealed in the memo, reinforcing the fact that Big Oil companies are lying about their climate commitments and failing to act on the issue of climate change.

The hearing also sought to emphasize that marginalized communities throughout the U.S. — particularly low-income communities and communities of color — bear the brunt of climate change and feel the strongest effects of the inaction of the fossil fuel industry. At the hearing, Dr. Isabella M. Weber, Assistant Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts Amherst, stated, “Low-income households are clearly the ones that are hit hardest by the energy price explosion. They are the ones that have least means to weatherize their homes. Black and Brown communities face, on top of this, discrimination in the housing market, which means that they typically end up living in homes that are less well insulated or less energy efficient.” Another witness, Jasmin Sanchez, a survivor of Hurricane Sandy and public housing resident, stated, “Climate justice is a racial justice issue. Sandy showed the inequities in our city. If you didn’t have a car, you couldn’t leave.  If you didn’t have financial means, you couldn’t relocate … I, along with many of my neighbors, were in survival mode.” Sanchez’s testimony demonstrates that the effects of climate change aren’t something far off in the distance — they are happening right here, right now, to real people. And the fossil fuel industry is intentionally making the climate crisis worse and harming the communities most at risk.

These recent hearings made clear that the fossil fuel industry has not only fallen short of its climate pledges but has also spread misinformation and misled the public on its actions while continuing to contribute to the climate crisis and perpetuate violence against marginalized communities. Despite this, Big Oil companies continue to post record-breaking profits, with BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies producing a combined profit of $51 billion in the second quarter of 2022. While the effects of climate change grow worse each year, fossil fuel companies continue to profit off of the crisis that they helped create.

So, why should we as MIT students care? The answer is simple: the MIT Corporation’s refusal to divest from the fossil fuel industry means that as these companies profit off of the climate crisis, so does MIT. If MIT wants to uphold its values and take responsibility for tackling the climate crisis, it must divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Lauren Higgins is a first-year undergraduate student and a member of MIT Divest.