Structural Racism Has Big Oil’s Dirty Fingerprints All Over It

by Steve Rushton

4 December 2016

Tommaso Galli/ Flickr.
Tommaso Galli/Flickr.

Climate change has long had its heaviest impact on people of colour. Were it not for structural racism that dehumanises them, and the interconnections between big oil and the arms industry, the world would have taken action to protect the climate long ago.

The Philippines has opened a new chapter in the fight against climate change. The south-east asian nation has initiated legal proceedings to summon the 47 worst polluting corporations to its Commission on Human Rights. The case asserts these major polluters should be held to account for climate change and its impact upon the human rights of Philippines citizens; notably the death and destruction that resulted from ‘super typhoons’ linked to climate change. The lawsuit is being brought by the survivors of these intensifying super typhoons, which batter the archipelago annually. These kill people thousands, and displace people in their millions. Defending against the effects of these unprecedented storms, and clearing up afterwards, consumes an increasing proportion of the nation’s GDP. To continue with this destructive business as usual, big oil conglomerates must both deny the destruction and deny the worth of those being annihilated.

The legal case marks a watershed moment in the fight against climate change. Long gone are the days when climate change was an abstract danger. Countries of the Global South who are already facing the worst impact are seeking justice. Using the pre-established channels such as the COP (Conference of Parties) international climate negotiations, they are galvanising to assert that the historically largest polluters bear the most responsibility in mitigating the damage. In this fight, many parallels can be drawn to the first legal cases against the tobacco industry, where people were willing to take on a litany of corporate lawyers to hold the sector to account. In these David vs. Goliath cases, starting in the 1950s, the tobacco industry looked invincible until the weight of scientific evidence combined with some ferocious campaigning undermined the status-quo. Eventually, even the most committed propaganda campaign on the part of Big Tobacco could not hold back the gathering tide of scientific consensus.

It is beyond doubt that smoking damages health. It is similarly clear that pumping carbon into the atmosphere is destroying the global ecosystem. In both instances a few profit massively, and they have tried unsuccessfully to corrupt science to prop up their right to carry on their business as usual. But of course, the comparison between smoking and fossil fuels cannot be stretched too far. Unlike smoking, man-made climate change often impacts worst on people the opposite side of the planet to where the industry based its operations (and reaps its profit). Peer-reviewed research from 2013 shows how just 90 corporations, (both state and private entities) are responsible for 63% of all cumulative man-made greenhouse gases. This case challenges the current system to its capitalist core: it claims that the daily operation of some of the world’s biggest corporations is an affront to human rights.

The case foregrounds the issue of ‘’climate debt’, owed by polluting corporations to the rest of humanity. This is the idea that those who have profited from polluting the sky should compensate those who cannot burn their fair share. As both an ethical standard and a potential policy programme, it is intended to recoup compensation that can be used to enhance green technology and renewable systems to prevent further carbon emissions. It also seeks to transfer carbon profits into mitigation strategies: for instance, to strengthen coastal defences or to compensate climate refugees. Again, this political discourse reflects the urgent reality of climate disaster: the term climate refugee was not in use until this decade.

Fossil fuel imperialism.

Carbon-intense industries have colonised the sky, a process that began by the coal mining industry in the 18th century, powering the industrial revolution. It could be argued that only the latest owners of these industries – who inherited the spoils from earlier carbon capitalists – would have known their climate impact. But, it is obvious that even the earliest profiteers were aware that their profits were being made from of exploitation and annihilation. If you look at the billionaires of today, it is all too easy to connect them to the colonial establishment of the past. Their wealth was built not only off the back of tons of burning carbon. The seed capital for the companies of today’s super-rich was first gathered in by slaves, plundered in imperial wars and grafted in sweatshops by exploited labourers. This wealth continues to exist in offshore tax havens; the unofficial continuation of empire.

The continuity between the racist exploitation at the roots of capitalism, and the ceaseless pollution that characterises its modern form is no accident. Racism underpins capitalism, (both presently and historically), and racism allows to dismiss the urgency of climate disaster as something that happens to other, less valuable bodies. It was racist white superiority that justified enslaving people not considered human. Where imperialism took root, it routinely erased indigenous peoples from the face of the earth: they were victims of relentless genocide – and in the United States of America, their land was declared terra nullius: nobody’s land. Sadly, these exploitative practices continue today – creating a feedback loop where the profits from racist exploitation are driven into industries which hit people of colour hardest. Seven out of the ten most affected countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, the oil industry’s track record of creating sacrifice zones – land and waters decimated by extractive industries – impacts predominantly people of colour. The determined venture to add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is inherently racist.

In these areas, the pursuit of profits trumps environmental protection and the human rights of the inhabitants. The current protection camp at Standing Rock in North Dakota that stands in the way of the Tar Sands pipeline that is being built over indigenous lands is the latest case where indigenous peoples are on the front line of ecocide. The pipe was re-routed through Standing Rock when residents of a nearby town – the 92% white Bismark – raised concerns that it could poison their water supply. Other well-known recent examples are the devastation of the native Canadians’ land and water by the tar sands, the lands of the Ogoni of Nigeria by Shell and BP and the part of Ecuador, so ruined they have been dubbed the “Rainforest Chernobyl”. If you imagine a global system not standing on the foundations of structural racism, it seems reasonable that these crimes against humanity would have caused more outcry. In impact, the oil industry has long relied on violating the principle that black lives matter.

The military industrial complex is one of the other most racist profit driven human ventures, as the victims of today’s wars are again overwhelmingly people of colour. The war machine is also essential for the fossil fuel industry. Research shows that since 1973 half of all wars are fought for oil. War not only secures oil, it also uses oil like there is no tomorrow. The third connection between oil and war is complete as oil-rich states are often substantial customers for the arms industry, where arms become the product traded to balance payments. These arms suppress populations and keep the oil flowing. And to re-emphasise a point: wars and imperial domination rely on racism to dehumanise the enemy.

Racism is a human construction.

It is obvious that big oil today both benefits from and extends structural racism. But this raises the question of whether the industry creates these structures. Within capitalism, racism seems so embedded it almost seems inexicable. But every human construction comes from somewhere, and it is illuminating to analyse the attempts to constantly re-construct racist policies, building on longstanding historical foundations. To follow the money, people and ideas behind racist climate denial can also show us that it is possible to dismantle their structural power.

The US American Tea Party movement that began just over five years ago was clearly racist, and unabashedly so. Without the Tea Party movement, Donald Trump would not now be President-elect. The Tea Party supporters are renowned for pushing racist slurs, particularly focused on attacking Barack Obama, starting almost immediately after he became the first black president of the US. Its connection to big oil is important. The Tea Party may posit itself as people-led movement swelling from the grassroots up, but dig below the surface and it has clearly been astroturfed: the process where the rich pump money to create a synthetic grassroots movement.  It has been bank-rolled and encouraged by two of the world’s biggest oil owners the Koch Brothers. They are also renowned for sponsoring climate denial. You could suggest that they want to bankroll the movement not because of any overt racism on their part, but due to its other aims such as its anti-deregulation stances. But if they felt uncomfortable with their racist rhetoric, surely they would stop pumping cash into the party.

The multi-million pound climate denial industry promotes racist consequences. It manufactures pseudo-science in the same way false-science helped the tobacco lobby. But its intention is not only to deceive unsuspecting customers – as if this was not malevolent enough. Climate denial contradicts the notion that the system is destroying the planet, denying destruction that will impact most severely on people of the global south and cause more extreme super storms, more famines, droughts and other disaster. This is why climate denial equates with genocide denial.

Significantly, there are links between the mass corporate lobby pushing the false science and the oil and connected industries sponsoring these projects. A recent investigative report by the climate change researchers Desmog lifted the lid on the British climate denial industry. It showed how a large chunk of it is being organised only a few hundred metres southwest from Westminster Palace.  

At 55 Tufton Street you can find the Vote Leave campaign and Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation: the UK primary climate denial think-tank. As Novara has previously reported, the institution plays a key role in pushing pseudo-scientific views into the mainstream media. One reason for the cosy alliance between eurosceptics and climate-sceptics is that the EU has curtailed UK emissions; a point perfectly encapsulated by simultaneous climate denier and Eurosceptic Daily Mail columnist James Delingpole:

“Euroscepticism and climate scepticism often go hand in hand, first because many of the very worst, most destructive environmental policies (such as the commitment to “decarbonise” the economy, which led to Bryony Worthington’s 2008 Climate Change Act) are originally dreamed up by EU apparatchiks. And second because to express such views in public life requires a fearless, cussed, contra mundum temperament, the product of an intellectual self-confidence and independence many if not most of our craven political class lack.”

Ukip hold a similar stance: they pledge to ditch the 2008 Climate Change Act, scrap many renewable projects and often express a hatred for wind turbines, contrasting with their love affair with fracking. In rhetoric and action, these policies are also pushed by the Conservatives.

Another aspect of eurosceptical ideology useful for climate denial is its racist anti-immigrant narrative, attacking the European Union for giving both refugees and economic migrants human rights: even though the EU policy is a draconian organisation that is turning the continent into a barbed wire fortress. The fossil fuel and war industry until now has relied on racism, to justify sacrifice zones and imperial wars; and will rely on racism to enable it to continue to colonising others fair share of the atmosphere. It stands to reason that it also needs to dehumanise those fleeing from both the war and sacrifice zones. In this sense, there is an unwritten pact between the interests of climate deniers and eurosceptics. One denies that the global system is ruining the future for the majority, the other denies those same people the safe passage away from the fossil fuel-induced devastation.

Made in Westminster.

Some might contend that the connection between racist climate change policy and eurosceptcism seems more than correlation or joint motivations. But their interests are deeply enmeshed – and so it’s not surprising that these constituencies find allies in one another. There are other campaigns – also ran out of  55 Tufton Street – that connect climate denial industry to projects that push white supremacy. In the same way that they work out of the same location, they also spiral out from a few politicians, business leaders and lobbyist. The Conservative Lord Vinson could be said to have his fingers in many pies. He has donated to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, he founded and directs the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) and is the life president of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). The CPS is a free-market think tank particularly influential during the Thatcher’s time as PM. Its director Ruth Lea was widely criticised in 2006 for suggesting climate change originally gave way to civilisation. The IEA touts itself as the original free-market think-tank.

“Journalists and campaigners have uncovered that many of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) donors have links to right wing lobby groups, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs,” wrote climate scientist Bob Ward last year in the Guardian. Kyla Mandel, the author of the Desmog research into 55 Tufton Street, explains the CPS and IEA have a history of receiving oil and tobacco funding.

Two other Conservative members of the House of Lords tie the web of climate denial together. Former Chancellor Lord Lawson is one of the key faces of climate denial. He is founder and chairman of the GWPF and a campaign committee member of Vote Leave. He often appears on the news to deny climate change. The other is Viscount Matt Ridley: Desmog’s Mandel describes him as a “powerhouse of climate denial”. Ridley input includes sitting on the Advisory council for the GWPF, involvement in two Eurosceptic campaigns: Vote Leave and Business for Britain. He is also a columnist for the Times. Telegraph Columnist Ruth Lea is another notable figure, discussed earlier as the former director of the free-market CPS. She is also a vocal eurosceptic and involved in many other climate denial groups, including Politics and Economics Research Trust (PERT).

There are allegations sent to the charity commission that PERT illegally funded Brexit groups during the referendum campaign. PERT is the charitable arm of the Tax Payers’ Alliance, the Desmog research suggests it directs money to organisation including the CPS, Business for Britain and the New Culture Forum. (We’ll return in a moment to the latter organisation later.)

The former director of PERT, Richard Smith also stands out as another lynchpin. Smith is a member of the European Foundation, a think-tank that published “100 reasons why global warming is natural” and he is advisory member to the New Culture Forum. Smith is also a donator to the Labour Leave Eurosceptic campaign, and is managing director of H.R.Smith Group, an aerospace industry whose business includes military hardware.

Looking at the scope of all organisations ran out of 55 Tufton Street is too large an undertaking, even for a long read. But what is interesting is how even organisations that from their remit might not seem like they are supporting climate denial or perpetuating the oil and war industry, are doing just that. The New Culture Forum sets itself out as a think-tank that wants to shift cultural debates. Its members include Richard Smith, Lord Vinson and Michael Gove MP. The organisation creates reports and lobbies the government to challenge ideas such as political correctness. On its website it asserts:

“At a time of threat from extremism, the West finds itself besieged from within and without. Too often our enemies and our opinion formers appear to agree that Western culture is an indefensible horror. This is nonsense. The West is in fact a unique bastion of reasoned freedom. Britain in particular should be proud of the great role it has played in Western education, art and culture.”

The charity Civitas has a similar message, but focused in the educational and other public sectors. It creates reports and learning resources designed to push the ideal of that “Britain as a fortress for liberal civilisation”. Its report corruption of the curriculum attacks moves to push gender equality and studying global warming or learning about the slave trade – and that’s just for starters. It then takes aim at the English curriculum for including too many women and non-indigenous writers, and at geography for including how the world should be about issues of the natural environment, cultural tolerance, social justice and equality and so on.

Civitas again is run by a who’s who of 55 Tufton Street. Ruth Lea and Lord Vinson sit on the board, alongside a Eurosceptic donor, Patrick Barbour and Sir Alan Rudge – who also sits on the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The crossover in the work of Civitas and the New Culture Forum is clear. In many senses this fits with the regressive push of climate denial. They want to reimagine the world as defined by the British Empire; a world where political correctness did not matter and racism was both dominant but ignored. They want a world where the cultural and educational focus is not on how the British establishment is responsible for climate change, slavery, imperial wars: they want to retain the imperialist status-quo unquestioned.

Opposing that stasis, the Philippines case to hold the biggest polluters to account takes aim to shatter this situation. No wonder Lord Lawson from the Global Warming Policy Foundation appeared on the BBC Question Time to assert that there is no link between climate change the world’s largest ever Typhoon Haiyan.

Cracks in the structures of power.

With 97% of peer reviewed scientists disagreeing with climate denial, its position today is untenable. What is clear is that it relies to a large extent on pseudo-science, sponsored by big oil and published in sympathetic newspapers, also owned by billionaires with interests in maintaining business as usual. What is murkier, but equally essential, is how climate denial, the oil industry and the war machine all rely on structural racism and white supremacy. This all works on foundations built in imperial times and stands on billionaires today – whether they built their fortunes on oil, war or other carbon intense ventures – who are clearly pumping money into projects to scaffold and restructure such xenophobic projects.

But these foundations are being shaken by actions against them. From the shutdown of London City airport by Black Lives Matter activists who highlighted aviation industry’s impact on people of colour to the Philippines’ climate debt case, it is not just the oil industry’s profits that are being threatened. These actions point the way to a path beyond colonialism and its devastating legacy.

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