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As the World Burns

How Big Oil and Big Coal mounted one of the most agressive lobbying campaigns in history to block progress on global warming

David McNew/Getty Images
January 21, 2010

This was supposed to be the transformative moment on global warming, the tipping point when America proved to the world that capitalism has a conscience, that we take the fate of the planet seriously. According to the script, Congress would pass a landmark bill committing the U.S. to deep cuts in carbon emissions. President Obama would then arrive in Copenhagen for the international climate summit, armed with the moral and political capital he needed to challenge the rest of the world to do the same. After all, wasn't this the kind of bold move the Norwegians were anticipating when they awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize?

The Dark Lord of Coal Country

As we now know, it didn't work out that way. Obama arrived in Copenhagen last month without any legislation committing the U.S. to reduce carbon pollution. Instead of reaching agreement on how to stop cooking the planet, the summit devolved into bickering over who bears the most blame for turning up the heat. The world once again missed an opportunity to avert disaster — and the delay is likely to have deadly consequences. In recent years, we have moved from talking about the possibility of climate change to watching it unfold before our eyes. The Arctic is melting, wildfires are turning into infernos, warm-weather insects are devouring forests, droughts are getting longer and more lethal. And the more we learn about climate change, the more it becomes apparent how enormous the risks are. Just a few years ago, researchers estimated that sea levels would likely rise 17 inches by 2100. Now they believe it could be three feet or more — a cataclysmic shift that would doom many of the world's cities, including London and New Orleans, and create tens of millions of climate refugees.

Our collective response to the emerging catastrophe verges on suicidal. World leaders have been talking about tackling climate change for nearly 20 years now — yet carbon emissions keep going up and up. "We are in a race against time," says Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington who has fought for sharp reductions in planet-warming pollution. "Mother Nature isn't sitting around waiting for us to get our political act together." In fact, our failure to confront global warming is more than simply political incompetence. Over the past year, the corporations and special interests most responsible for climate change waged an all-out war to prevent Congress from cracking down on carbon pollution in time for Copenhagen. The oil and coal industries deployed an unprecedented army of lobbyists, spent millions on misleading studies and engaged in outright deception to derail climate legislation. "It was the most aggressive and corrupt lobbying campaign I've ever seen," says Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic consultant.

The Vanishing Ice Sheets

By preventing meaningful action in Copenhagen, the battle to kill the climate bill provided the world's biggest polluters with a lucrative victory — one that comes at the rest of the world's expense. "In the long term, the fossil-fuel industry is going to lose this war," says Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But in the short term, they are doing everything they can to delay the revolution. For them, what this fight is really about is buying precious time to maximize profits from carbon sources. It's really no more complicated than that."

Q&A: Bill Gates on How to Stop Global Warming

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