Yes, human civilization is facing one of the greatest threats it has ever faced and no, we aren’t going to do anything about it. Or so says ExxonMobil in their latest report issued coincidentally on the same day as the latest IPCC report on the dangers of climate change. The report marks a rhetorical turning point of sorts where the fossil fuel industry accepts that climate change does pose significant risks.

Apparently ExxonMobil did not get the memo that climate change is a hoax as the world’s largest energy corporation acknowledged that the carbon being pumped into the atmosphere posed serious risks.

“We know enough based on the research and science that the risk (of climate change) is real and appropriate steps should be taken to address that risk,” Ken Cohen, Exxon’s government affairs chief, said in an interview. “But given the essential role that energy plays in everyone’s lives, those steps need to be taken in context with other realities we face, including lifting much of the world’s population out of poverty.”

97% of scientists might have a point.

But before anyone starts celebrating a new enlightened fossil fuel industry, recognize this public acknowledgement of the danger does not translate into a commitment to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, ExxonMobil sees the climate change issue as part of a larger calculus that still favors their current business model. One that reasonable governments will be “highly unlikely” to mess with.

Exxon says that renewable energy sources are not now cheap enough nor technologically advanced enough to meet growing demand for energy, let alone also replace oil and gas. Governments therefore face a choice between restricting access to energy or raising the cost of energy significantly. In Exxon’s view, governments will chose to raise the cost of fossil fuels to encourage alternatives somewhat, but stop well short of enacting policies that will sharply curtail consumption, especially in developing countries, because populations would resist and social upheaval would result.

Now that is some impressive rhetorical jujitsu. Unlike Koch Industries which just lobs crazy people at Congress, ExxonMobil takes the warnings that climate change will cause social unrest and political instability and turns them on their head. Regulating carbon consumption, not climate change, becomes the real threat to social stability.

We seem to be at the end of the fact finding part of this struggle. As Bill McKibben points out “[R]egular analyses have been conducted since 1995 under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – by now the papers, indexes, footnotes and drafts would fill the Superdome.” The evidence has been presented, the case well made.

So at the this point it is a question about doing something or not. ExxonMobil is betting on the latter.

Photo by Ildar Sagdejev under Creative Commons license.