Johann Hari: Global warming is good news - for oil companies

There is a remarkable, untold story unfolding in one of the darkest parts of the planet

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The Stern warning that our frenetic burning of fossil fuels is unleashing Weather of Mass Destruction across the world has been slowly seeping into Britain's mental atmosphere over the past week. On cue, the oil corporations have renewed their PR campaign to promote themselves as the solution rather than the petrol-scented problem. They pump out adverts looking like Greenpeace brochures, pledging to be "at the forefront of action against global warming."

Behind this greenwashing there is a gloopy black reality. Shell is spending 0.06 per cent of its global sales on renewable energies, less than a tenth of the sum it spends on finding new sources of fossil fuels that will warm the planet yet further. But beyond even the hard figures, there is a remarkable untold story unfolding in one of the darkest parts of the planet, showing that Big Oil is actually banking on runaway global warming.

The Arctic is the world's early-warning system, warming twice as rapidly as the rest of the world because of a swirl of climatological bad luck. In the past 50 years, half of the Arctic ice cap has simply melted away, and in the winter of 2004-05, an area the size of Turkey simply cracked up and fell into the sea. By the end of my lifetime, unless there is drastic political action, all the perennial sea ice in the Arctic will be gone leaving a watery absence at the top of the world.

This is a disaster for the Inuit, who are having to abandon their continent. It is a disaster for humans in low-lying countries - from Bangladesh to the South pacific - who will be rendered environmental refugees by rising sea levels. But for the oil companies - in practice, if not in their press releases - it is a glorious moment. The US Geological Survey says that a quarter of all the remaining oil and gas in the world - cher-ching! - is lying beneath Arctic ice. The oil companies who publicly claim global warming causes them pain are now spending billions to scavenge through this melting land for profits.

Fifteen oil companies have appealed to the US Department of the Interior alone to explore the American-controlled patches of thawing Arctic. Shell has spent $44m on leases to explore for oil in the melting Beaufort Sea, and Lawson Brigham of the US Arctic Research Commission explains, "BP obviously [has also] made this part of the strategy, to look at how the climate change will benefit them." One Arctic scientist, Robert Huebert, says, "You can't book a room in Inuvik. They're all being taken by the energy companies." For them, it's a beautiful cycle - burning fossil fuels causes the Arctic to melt, releasing yet more fossil fuels to burn. Profits cascade in at every stage.

This corporate interest in Arctic oil is now being matched by military interest. Where there is petrol, there is power. Stephen Harper, Canada's new conservative Prime Minister, is spending £2.58bn developing his country's Arctic coast with a built-up military presence that can claim any new discoveries. Russia and Denmark are both beefing up their spending, and the US is refusing to sign up to the international Law of the Sea that would grant the nearby countries the rights to oil discovered there.

Instead, the Bush administration is actually encouraging US oil companies to seize it first. (If you prick these people, do they bleed petrol?). Bush has waived the royalty fees oil companies are supposed to pay on Arctic finds, and has transformed the US Geological Survey by appointing to its head not a respected scientist from within the USGS, as all former Presidents have, but instead placing at its helm Mark Myers - a former BP oilman.

So what should we make of the disjunction between Big Oil's PR and Big Oil's behaviour? It demonstrates yet again that "corporate social responsibility" was always a moribund gimmick. Corporations are accountable to their shareholders, and shareholders demand profit. If a CEO decided to put the interests of the environment above the interests of his shareholders, they would swiftly sack him. Corporations are profit-generating machines; to expect them to be anything more is naïve. The only way to prevent the corporate pursuit of profit burning into areas where it will cause disaster is to impose hard, binding legal regulations, enforced with singeing fines.

Our governments will not do this spontaneously. Only a mass movement of the sane - you - can force them. Across the world this weekend, as Big Oil's representatives gazed greedily at the Arctic thaw, tens of thousands of people protested to demand urgent restraint. As I watched many of them gather in Trafalgar Square this weekend, I felt reassured that at least this crowd would not allow the perfume of corporate PR to overwhelm the stench of petrol hanging over us all.

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