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The 90 Companies That Changed Earth’s Climate

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Just 90 private and state-run fossil energy companies contributed—directly or indirectly—63% of all the greenhouse gases humanity emitted between 1751 and 2010, an admittedly somewhat obsessive Norwegian-American geographer has calculated.

Richard Heede, “who works on his own aboard a rented houseboat on San Francisco Bay in California,” Science reports, “spent years piecing together the annual production of every major fossil fuel company since the Industrial Revolution and converting it to carbon emissions.”

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His research showed that “nearly two-thirds of the major industrial greenhouse gas emissions (from fossil fuel use, methane leaks, and cement manufacture) originated in just 90 companies around the world, which either emitted the carbon themselves or supplied carbon ultimately released by consumers and industry.”

That attribution of responsibility doesn’t sit well with all analysts. UC San Diego political scientist David Victor, a co-author of the 2015 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, told Science that Heede’s numbers may be accurate, but his approach is “wrongheaded.”

“It’s part of a larger narrative of trying to create villains; to draw lines between producers as responsible for the problem and everyone else as victims,” Victor said. “Frankly, we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty.”

Others see Heede’s work as laying the ground for a future generation of liability [4] suits [5] for loss and damage brought on by climate change.

“For decades, there’s been a persistent myth that everyone is responsible, and if everyone is responsible then no one is responsible,” said Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., and a director of a foundation Heede founded. “Rick’s work for the first time identifies a discrete class of defendants.”

By Heede’s count, just eight companies have collectively contributed a fifth of all of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. They are Saudi Aramco, Chevron, ExxonMobil, British Petroleum (BP), Russia’s GazProm, Royal Dutch Shell, National Iranian Oil Co., and Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

According to a Friends of the Earth calculation based on his data, ExxonMobil and its precursors alone produced 4.7 to 5.3% of humanity’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1882.

“Half of those emissions,” Science notes, “took place after 1988—the year James Hansen of NASA testified to Congress that there was no longer any doubt that global warming had begun.”