The question of who has accelerated climate change the most isn’t that complicated. It was just a few dozen companies that extracted the majority of our oil, gas, and coal over the last 150 years, allowing the fuel to be burned, and the emissions to cause havoc in the atmosphere.
A recent paper by Richard Heede, from the Climate Accountability Institute, in Colorado, shows that just 90 companies produced two-thirds of the fossil fuels burned in the industrial era. That includes 50 investor-owned companies like Chevron and Exxon, 31 state-owned companies like Mexico’s Pemex, and nine government-run entities from the ex-Soviet Union, China and other countries.
In the slide show above, featuring graphics created by a U.K. design firm called Carbon Visuals, you can see how the companies stack up.
Heede wants us to reframe our thinking about climate responsibility. Instead of governments, he asks us to point a finger at the major corporations. “You can look at this as coming from 7 billion people or 200 countries, or you can look at it as coming from these institutions, the heads of which could all fit on a bus together,” he says in a press release.
Heede spent years combing through libraries, stock-market filings, and other sources. He took account of when companies merged or formed partnerships, and disregarded businesses that didn’t “produce” 8 megatons worth of emissions in a single year.
Personally, I find it a bit unfair to blame companies for creating products we all use regularly, (as others have noted). But this study may be as much about the future as it is accounting for the past. If we’re going to avoid catastrophic global warming, these companies at some point will have to stop digging and pumping. It’s not fair to blame them for what happened in 1850, when nothing was known about heat-trapping gases. It will be possible to blame them in 2050, when the planet’s warmer than ever.