Five of 2020's Top Climate Grifters

Congrats to Elon Musk, one of 2020's top environmental grifters.
Congrats to Elon Musk, one of 2020's top environmental grifters.
Photo: Britta Pederson (Getty Images)
Year In ReviewYear In ReviewWe look back at the best, worst, and most significant moments of the year, and look forward to next year.

Amid the life-threateningly urgent climate crisis, it’s bad enough to pollute the planet with greenhouse gases. But to add insult to injury, some of the people and firms responsible for that pollution have tried to dress themselves up as climate heroes. You know the type: the ones who spent 2020 hiding behind gentle, Earth-friendly language to hide their Earth-destroying agendas. These are some of the biggest climate grifters of 2020.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon

Ah, Amazon, a true climate hero. Most recently, the company signed onto a letter demanding the U.S. rejoin the Paris Climate Accord—not exactly a bold move, considering Biden’s already said he would do that. But let’s be generous: Earlier this year, the company also announced shiny new commitments to phase out its carbon pollution and ponied up $2 billion for what’s essentially a clean energy venture capital effort. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, started a $10 billion climate fund, which would virtually double the amount American philanthropists spend on climate efforts. It even named a hockey arena the “Climate Pledge Arena.” Wow!

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Here’s the thing, though: these efforts are pretty garbage. For one thing, while Amazon and Bezos boast about how sustainable they are, Amazon is continuing to help oil and gas companies more efficiently extract fossil fuels with its technology.

Bezos’ climate fund is problematic, too. As I wrote back in February, we shouldn’t be relying on billionaires to fix the climate for us. They should just pay their taxes so we can democratically address climate change. Meanwhile, the company’s venture capital fund is going to companies that might do some good things, but those moonshots could end up sequestering more wealth in a few hands. Ultimately, real climate action requires ending the fossil fuel industry, but since Amazon does business with those firms, it’s pretty unlikely that anything its founder puts money into will run counter to the interests of the oil and gas industry.

Amazon is also in the top 200 most polluting firms in the world, but you’d never know that from reading one of its press releases. And when its employees have tried to point out that contradiction, Amazon has been extraordinarily hostile toward them. Please take money and power away from this climate grifter.

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ExxonMobil

Exxon’s having a no-good year. This autumn, Chevron overtook Exxon as the biggest energy company in the U.S. Soon after, Exxon analysts said it was facing financial losses for the third quarter in a row, and leaked documents showed that analysts think it may never recover from the damage wrought by the covid-19 oil crash. It almost feels wrong to kick the company while it’s down, but honestly, they deserve it. The firm has protected its shareholders while cutting its workforce.

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It is true that, for the first time, the company acknowledged this year that “the risk of climate change is real” and said it is “committed to being part of the solution. It even promised to cut its methane emissions and reduce its gas burning. But the company’s actions tell a wholly different story.

Internal documents leaked in October showed that in the next five years, the oil giant plans to up its carbon pollution by 17%. The additional pollution would be equivalent to the annual emissions of all of Greece. Exxon’s 2020 grant-making report also shows that it gave $690,000 to eight climate science denier groups in 2019, just a 10 percent drop from 2018. The right amount of donations should, of course, be $0.

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Of course, no oil company is a net-good for the climate—fossil fuels are warming the planet in the first place. But even as far as energy majors go, Exxon sucks. A September study showed that its climate plans were among the worst of any major fossil fuel firms.

“ExxonMobil’s core business is drilling, digging, and selling the fossil oil and gas that is causing the climate crisis—and there are no signs that the company’s leadership has any plans to change this any time soon,” David Tong, senior campaigner in the energy transitions and futures team at Oil Change International who was an author on that report, said. None of the oil companies came close to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, but as Tong says, “ExxonMobil was [among] the worst of a bad bunch.”

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Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is an environmental nightmare. It churns out some 3.3 million tons of plastic packaging per year, the production and disposal of which both put hundreds of millions of tons of planet-warming and health-threatening pollution into the atmosphere and in waterways around the world. But this year, it tried hard to cover up for that fact.

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At the start of 2020 at the World Economic Forum—perhaps the leading venue for climate grifts—the company’s sustainability chief said that it will continue to sell its products in single-use plastic containers. Rather than admitting that decision is to preserve their business model, dude had the audacity to say that it was because people just loooove plastic, despite the fact consumers everywhere are actually increasingly demanding companies move away from the material.

Since then, Coca Cola has been hard at work on the half-measures. It boasted that it rolled out 100% recycled plastic packaging in 18 markets globally and switch to paper holders for cans and bottles in all EU markets and Switzerland by 2022. That’s all nice, but it doesn’t get to the core problem: The world simply can’t handle any more plastic.

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“The company is still increasing the number of plastic bottles it produces, at a time when the science is clearer than ever that we must move away from single-use plastic to protect the health of our oceans and our communities,” John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at environmental advocacy organization Greenpeace USA, wrote in an email. “Coke produces about 110 billion plastic bottles a year, all designed to be used for a few minutes and then discarded.”

Most of those plastic bottles are tossed into incinerators or landfills, which produce planet-warming and health-threatening emissions. Those that don’t get landfilled or burned up often end up as litter anywhere from the side of the highway to the middle of the ocean. In December, Coca-Cola was named the world’s most plastic-polluting brand for the third year in a row in an audit led by the Break Free From Plastic coalition. For the audit, the group counted and documented the brands on plastic waste found in communities across the globe. Of the 346,494 pieces of plastic from 55 countries they collected, they found 13,834 branded Coca-Cola plastics in 51 countries, which is more plastic than the next two top global polluters combined.

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This model is the reason the company has ranked as the planet’s worst plastic polluter for three years in a row in audits of trash collected from beaches and communities around the world. As of last October, Coke had about 9% recycled content in their plastic bottles, and that figure does not appear to have changed much since then. Even for plastic bottles that do get recycled, it is just a brief pause on the way to being dumped or burned. Single-use plastics are very rarely recycled more than once.

Environmentalists are fighting hard to rein in Coke’s plastic pollution. In February, environmentalists sued it, along with other major plastic polluters like Pepsi and Nestlé, in hopes that a court will order those companies to pay to clean up polluted areas and to stop labelling products as “recyclable” since many are not actually recycled.

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Tesla and Elon Musk

Tesla has a green vibe thanks to producing solar panels and electric vehicles. But that doesn’t make it an environmentally friendly company. In fact, it’s the definition of a climate grifter.

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To be clear, we absolutely need clean power. But we need to be careful that producing it doesn’t harm biodiversity or people, and Tesla simply hasn’t been doing its due diligence. A 2016 Washington Post story found that Tesla’s supply chain relies on polluting sources of graphite from China and lithium and cobalt mines in Argentina and the Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively, that have both been accused of horrific human rights and labor abuses. That is not a sustainable way to run a company.

Then there’s electric vehicles. Yes, EVs are better for the planet than traditional diesel cars. But they still run on the grid, the vast majority of which still runs on fossil fuels. So the most sustainable way to use EV technology would be for public transit, to lower the amount of energy necessary for each trip.

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Musk is not down with public transit. He has, in fact, criticized it. Sure, Tesla is developing something that looks like public transit: It’s tunnel goes a short distance under Los Angeles. The company received almost $50 million to produce it. But the thing is designed for cars, meaning it’s basically encouraging people to drive instead of taking a more planet-friendly bus or train.

By furthering the use of personal vehicles, Musk is also implicitly endorsing making more roads to drive those cars on. And studies show that when you build new roads, people will fill them. That will create more emissions of planet-warming carbon and air pollution from cars. Research also shows that roads themselves create air pollution, so this is doubly bad.

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Then there’s the question of Tesla’s awful treatment of workers. Earlier this year, Musk defied lockdown orders to keep Tesla factories open amid the rapid spread of covid-19. The firm also has a history of above-average rates of workplace injuries and though it says it’s cleaned up its act in that regard, reporting tells a different story. Tesla workers have tried to advocate for themselves to prevent all this mistreatment by forming a union, but Musk has fallen all over himself to stop them. It’s simply not sustainable to treat people that badly.

Google

Google really wants you to think it’s environmentally friendly. Its executives speak on glitzy panels about sustainability in the tech industry. It signed onto a recent letter to government officials urging them to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and enact climate policy. And in September, the company claimed that it’s now “carbon neutral.”

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But behind the scenes, Google is still producing millions of tons of greenhouse gas pollution. So how does it call itself carbon neutral and claim it’s sustainable? It offset those emissions, meaning it funds green projects in other places—mostly capturing methane gas where it leaks out of pig farms and landfill sites—to make up for its own pollution and maybe assuage a little of its climate guilt. Methane is a problem, yes. But reducing it in one place doesn’t change the fact that Google is producing it or other greenhouse gases elsewhere.

In its September plan, Google also said it wants to help cities and corporations to lower their environmental impacts by, you guessed it, selling them Google produces. That means the firm will get to profit from the transition to renewables.

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Call me old fashioned, but I simply don’t think that the clean energy revolution should put more money into the pockets of our tech overlords. Let’s tax them instead. That way we can decarbonize in a way that’s more democratic.

Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Upon googling, a grift (noun) appears to be defined as a petty or small scale swindle. To grift (verb) from same source is defined as engaging in petty or small scale swindling. So there’s that.