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Report: Trump Officials Helped Meatpackers Thwart Covid Safety Measures

Workers at a Missouri pork-processing facility in 2017, prior to the pandemic.Preston Keres/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

This investigation was originally published by the Guardian. It is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Trump officials “collaborated” with the meatpacking industry to downplay the threat of Covid to plant workers and block public health measures which could have saved lives, a damning new investigation has found.

Internal documents reviewed by the congressional select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis reveal how industry representatives lobbied government officials to stifle “pesky” health departments from imposing evidence-based safety measures to curtail the virus spreading—and tried to obscure worker deaths from these authorities.

At least 59,000 workers at five of the largest meatpacking companies—Tyson Foods, JBS USA Holdings, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and National Beef Packing Company which are the subject of the congressional inquiry—contracted Covid in the first year of the pandemic, of whom at least 269 died.

According to internal communications, the companies were warned about workers and their families falling sick within weeks of the virus hitting the US. Despite this, company representatives enlisted industry-friendly Trump appointees at the USDA to fight their battles against Covid regulations and oversight.

In addition, company executives intentionally stoked fears about meat shortages in order to justify continuing to operate the plants under dangerous conditions. The fears were baseless—there were no meat shortages in the US, while exports to China hit record highs.

Yet in April 2020, Trump issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat plants open following a flurry of communication between the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, the vice-president’s office, USDA allies and company executives.

The order, which was proposed by Smithfield and Tyson (whose legal department also wrote the draft), was an overt attempt to override health departments and force meat plant workers—who are mostly immigrants, refugees and people of color—to keep working without adequate protections while shielding the industry from lawsuits.

James Clyburn, chairman of the subcommittee, condemned the conduct of the industry executives and their government allies as “shameful.”

“Trump’s political appointees at USDA collaborated with large meatpacking companies to lead an administration-wide effort to force workers to remain on the job during the coronavirus crisis despite dangerous conditions, and even to prevent the imposition of commonsense mitigation measures. This coordinated campaign prioritized industry production over the health of workers and communities, and contributed to tens of thousands of workers becoming ill, hundreds of workers dying, and the virus spreading throughout surrounding areas.”

The meatpacking industry, which includes slaughterhouses and processing plants—is one of the most profitable and dangerous in the US. It is a monopoly business, with just a handful of powerful multinationals dominating the supply chain which, even before Covid, was bad news for farmers, workers, consumers and animal welfare.

As Covid spread, the industry was warned about the high risk of transmission in their plants. For example, a doctor near the JBS facility in Cactus, Texas, wrote to a company executive in April 2020 saying “100 percent of all Covid-19 patients we have in the hospital are either direct employees or family member[s] of your employees,” warning that “your employees will get sick and may die if this factory continues to be open.”

In late May 2020—well after the importance of prevention measures such as testing, social distancing and personal protective equipment was widely recognized—an executive told an industry lobbyist that temperature screening was “all we should be doing.” The lobbyist agreed, replying: “Now to get rid of those pesky health departments!”

The report, Now to get rid of those pesky healthy departments!, reveals how USDA Trump appointees did the industry’s bidding in order to carry on with business as usual. The report is based on more than 151,000 pages of documents collected from meatpacking companies and interest groups, as well as interviews with meatpacking workers, former USDA and CDC officials, and state and local health authorities among others.

The documents show that:

  • In March 2020, the industry aggressively lobbied USDA officials, who in turn escalated their wishes to Vice President Mike Pence’s office, to ensure states were advised to designate meatpacking workers as “critical infrastructure” employees who could be exempt from social distancing and stay at home orders. This conduct was “particularly egregious considering that the nation’s meat supply was not actually at risk,” the subcommittee found.
  • Mindy Brashears, the undersecretary of food safety, was considered the go-to fixer, who could stop health departments enforcing Covid safety measures at local plants. Brashears “hasn’t lost a battle for us,” said one lobbyist.
  • Career USDA staff told the congressional subcommittee how they were sidelined, while Brashears and her deputies communicated with industry officials on their personal phones in order to avoid leaving a paper trail.
  • Meatpacking companies also successfully lobbied USDA officials to advocate for Department of Labor policies that deprived their employees of benefits if they missed work or quit, while also seeking insulation from legal liability if workers then fell ill or died.

As reports of Covid clusters at meatpacking plants increased, industry officials and the USDA jointly lobbied the White House to dissuade frightened workers from staying home or quitting. For instance in April 2020 the CEOs of JBS, Smithfield and Tyson among other companies asked the secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, during a call to “elevate the need for messaging about the importance of our workforce staying at work to the POTUS or VP level.”

It worked. At a press briefing soon after, Mike Pence told meatpacking workers that “we need you to continue … to show up and do your job,” admonishing recent “incidents of worker absenteeism.”

The report concludes: “Meatpacking companies knew the risk posed by the coronavirus to their workers and knew it wasn’t a risk that the country needed them to take. They nonetheless lobbied aggressively—successfully enlisting USDA as a close collaborator in their efforts—to keep workers on the job in unsafe conditions, to ensure state and local health authorities were powerless to mandate otherwise, and to be protected against legal liability for the harms that would result.”

The trade association for meat and poultry packers and processors rejected the report’s findings and accused the subcommittee of “cherry-picking data.”

“The report ignores the rigorous and comprehensive measures companies enacted to protect employees and support their critical infrastructure workers,” said Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute.

In addition, a spokesperson for JBS said the company “did everything possible to ensure the safety of our people who kept our critical food supply chain running.” In a statement Cargill said: “We’ve worked hard to maintain safe and consistent operations to feed families during the pandemic, yet we did not hesitate to temporarily idle or reduce capacity at processing plants in the interest of our employees’ wellbeing.”

A spokesman for Smithfield said: “The concerns we expressed were very real and we are thankful that a food crisis was averted and that we are starting to return to normal…Did we make every effort to share with government officials our perspective on the pandemic and how it was impacting the food production system? Absolutely.”

Tyson said collaboration with the government was crucial to the supply chain and for worker safety: “Over the past two years, our company has been contacted by, received direction from, and collaborated with many different federal, state and local officials—including both the Trump and Biden Administrations—as we’ve navigated the challenges of the pandemic.”

The subcommittee investigation into the meatpacking industry’s response to the pandemic was launched in February 2021 following reports that meat companies had refused to take adequate safety measures precautions to protect workers during the first year of the pandemic. Last year, the subcommittee found that the illness and death toll at plants owned by the five big meatpackers had been grossly underestimated, and that the companies put profits over worker safety.

The Guardian has contacted the USDA and former Trump administration officials for comment.


The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Expansion Plans Will Be the Death of Us

This investigation was originally published by the Guardian. It is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts, a Guardian investigation shows.

The exclusive data shows these firms are in effect placing multibillion-dollar bets against humanity halting global heating. Their huge investments in new fossil fuel production could pay off only if countries fail to rapidly slash carbon emissions, which scientists say is vital.

The oil and gas industry is extremely volatile but extraordinarily profitable, particularly when prices are high, as they are at present. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron have made almost $2 trillion in profits in the past three decades, while recent price rises led BP’s boss to describe the company as a “cash machine.”

The lure of colossal payouts in the years to come appears to be irresistible to the oil companies, despite the world’s climate scientists stating in February that further delay in cutting fossil fuel use would mean missing our last chance “to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned world leaders in April: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us.”

Details of the projects being planned are not easily accessible but an investigation published in the Guardian shows:

  • The fossil fuel industry’s short-term expansion plans involve the start of oil and gas projects that will produce greenhouse gases equivalent to a decade of CO2 emissions from China, the world’s biggest polluter.
  • These plans include 195 carbon bombs, gigantic oil and gas projects that would each result in at least a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes, in total equivalent to about 18 years of current global CO2 emissions. About 60 percent of these have already started pumping.
  • The dozen biggest oil companies are on track to spend $103 million a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas that cannot be burned if global heating is to be limited to well under 2C.
  • The Middle East and Russia often attract the most attention in relation to future oil and gas production but the US, Canada, and Australia are among the countries with the biggest expansion plans and the highest number of carbon bombs. The US, Canada, and Australia also give some of the world’s biggest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita.

At the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in November, after a quarter-century of annual negotiations that as yet have failed to deliver a fall in global emissions, countries around the world finally included the word “coal” in their concluding decision.

Even this belated mention of the dirtiest fossil fuel was fraught, leaving a “deeply sorry” Cop president, Alok Sharma, fighting back tears on the podium after India announced a last-minute softening of the need to “phase out coal” to “phase down coal.”

Nonetheless, the world agreed coal power was history—the question now was how quickly cheaper renewables could replace it, and how fair the transition would be for the small number of developing countries that still relied on it.

But there was no mention of oil and gas in the Cop26 final deal, despite these being responsible for almost 60 percent of fossil fuel emissions.

Furthermore, many of the rich countries, such as the US, that dominate international climate diplomacy and positioned themselves as climate leaders at the conference, are big players in new oil and gas projects. But unlike India, they avoided criticism.

That lack of scrutiny prompted the Guardian to spend the months since Cop26 piecing together the clearest picture possible of forthcoming oil and gas exploration and production.

The world’s scientists agree the planet is in deep trouble. In August, Guterres reacted strongly to a stark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science. “[This report] is a code red for humanity,” he said.

The IPCC states carbon emissions must fall by half by 2030 to preserve the chance of a liveable future, yet they show no sign of declining.

Experts have been warning since at least 2011 that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves could not be burned without causing catastrophic global heating.

In 2015, a high-profile analysis found that to limit global temperature below 2C, half of known oil reserves and a third of gas had to stay in the ground, along with 80 percent of coal.

Today, the problem is even more acute. A better understanding of the devastating impacts of the climate crisis has led to the internationally agreed limit for global heating being lowered to 1.5C, to cut the risks of extreme heatwaves, droughts, and floods.

In May 2021, a report from the International Energy Agency, previously seen as a conservative body, concluded there could be no new oil or gas fields or coalmines if the world was to reach net zero by 2050.

More warnings soon followed. An updated scientific analysis found the proportion of fossil fuel reserves that would need to stay in the ground for 1.5C jumped to 60 percent for oil and gas and 90 percent for coal, while the UN warned that planned fossil fuel production “vastly exceeds” the limit needed for 1.5C.

In April, shocked by the latest IPCC report that said it was “now or never” to start slashing emissions, Guterres launched an outspoken attack on companies and governments whose climate actions did not match their words.

“Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic,” he said. “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”

The reaction to Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed oil and gas prices even higher, further incentivizing bets on new fields and infrastructure that would last decades.

The failure of countries to “build back greener” after the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2008 financial crash was not a good omen, and Guterres said: “Fossil fuel interests are now cynically using the war in Ukraine to lock in a high-carbon future.”

Assessing future oil and gas developments is challenging: the sector is complex and often secretive, public information is scarce and hard to find and assess. But a global team of Guardian environment reporters has worked with leading thinktanks, analysts and academics across the world over the past five months and now we can answer a series of questions that reveal the scale of the sector’s plans.

First, how much production is due to come from the projects that are likely to start drilling before the end of this crucial decade?

Next, where exactly are the biggest projects around the world, the so-called carbon bombs that would explode the climate?

We also followed the money: how much is going to be spent on oil and gas that cannot be burned safely, rather than invested in clean energy? And who benefits most from the fossil fuel subsidies that hide the true damage they cause?

The answers to these key questions lead to an inescapable conclusion: if the projects go ahead, they will blow the world’s rapidly shrinking cap on emissions that must be kept to enable a liveable future—known as the carbon budget.

For all the promises made by many oil companies, the data shows they remain committed to their core business despite the consequences.

The short-term expansion plans of oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil and Gazprom, are colossal. The Guardian’s investigation has found that in the next seven or so years, they are likely to start producing oil and gas from projects that would ultimately deliver 192 billion barrels, the equivalent of a decade of today’s emissions from China.

This estimate was provided by analysts at Urgewald, who used data from Rystad Energy, the industry standard source but not publicly available. Their Gogel database includes 887 companies that explore for and produce oil and gas, and covers 97 percent of short-term expansion plans.

The companies have made a final financial commitment to projects that will deliver 116 billion barrels, more than half of the 192 billion barrel total.

They have also invested heavily in the rest, including final development, engineering and operation plans. Such investment makes these projects likely to go ahead, barring drastic government action, Urgewald says.

A third of the short-term expansion plans of oil and gas would come from “unconventional” and riskier sources. These include fracking and ultra-deep offshore drilling, which are inherently more dangerous—as the oil and gas companies drill deeper, the number of spills, injuries, and blowouts increase.

The 192 billion barrels are split roughly 50:50 between liquids, including crude oil, and gas. Burning this would produce 73 billion metric tons of CO2. But methane routinely leaks from gas operations and is a powerful greenhouse gas, trapping 86 times more heat than CO2 over 20 years. Including this impact, at a standard supply-chain leak rate of 2.3 percent, means the equivalent of 97 billion metric tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere and driving us faster towards climate hell.

State oil companies lead the Urgewald short-term expansion list, with Qatar Energy, Russia’s Gazprom and Saudi Aramco the top three. Half of Gazprom’s projected expansion is in the fragile Arctic, though the long-term implications of Russia’s war in Ukraine on its fossil fuel plans remain to be seen.

The listed oil majors ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron, Shell, and BP are all in the top 10. Unconventional and risky oil and gas production accounts for about 70 percent of the US majors’ totals, while the proportion of fracking and ultra-deep water ranges from 30 percent to 60 percent for the European companies.

“Most oil and gas companies are just proceeding with business as usual,” Nils Bartsch at Urgewald said. “Some just do not care. Some do not see their responsibility because governments around the world let them proceed, although of course these governments are often influenced by the industry.”

Two-thirds of the 116 billion barrels of oil and gas projects companies are financially committed to are in the Middle East, Russia and North America, according to data provided by Rystad Energy.

Australia is anticipated to be a big contributor with 3.4 billion barrels, more than from the whole of Europe, where fields are relatively depleted.

A separate analysis for the Guardian by Urgewald on the average annual investment in oil and gas exploration over the past three years shows that, along with Shell, three large but rarely scrutinized Chinese companies occupy the top four slots: PetroChina, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, and Sinopec. Seven of the top 10 of these explorers are relying on fracking, ultra-deep water Arctic, and tar sands developments for more than half of their expansion.

Daniel Ribeiro has been fighting plans for a massive offshore pipeline and liquefied natural gas plant in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, since it was mooted more than 15 years ago.

The scheme, which would lead to a huge increase in carbon emissions in one of the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries, is backed by more than £1 billion ($1.2 billion) from the UK government and has some of the biggest oil and gas corporations circling, scenting another huge payday.

“It is already creating a massive amount of disruption for the local fishing and subsistence farmers who are being moved off their land,” said Ribeiro, from the local Justiça Ambiental campaign group. “But if it goes ahead and countries like Mozambique are set off on a fossil fuel track, it will be a global disaster. We can forget tackling the climate crisis…we will all suffer.”

Research shared exclusively with the Guardian has identified the Cabo Delgado development as one of 195 carbon bombs, which—unless stopped—will drive catastrophic climate breakdown around the world.

The term carbon bomb has been widely used in climate circles for the past decade to describe large fossil fuel projects or other big sources of carbon. The new research sets a specific definition: projects capable of pumping at least 1 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes.

Projects identified include the new drilling wells springing up in the Canadian wilderness as part of the vast Montney Play oil and gas development, and the huge North Field gas fields in Qatar—named in the study as the biggest new oil and gas carbon bomb in the world.

The study, led by Kjell Kühne from the University of Leeds in the UK and due to be published in the journal Energy Policy, found that just a few months after many of the world’s politicians positioned themselves as climate leaders during the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, they were giving the green light to a massive global expansion of oil and gas production that scientists warn would push civilization to the brink.

Asad Rehman, a leading climate justice activist in the UK who was at the forefront of a global network of indigenous activists and civil society campaigners in Glasgow, accused the US, Canada and Australia of “rank hypocrisy.”

“These countries are single-handedly undermining efforts to curtail global emissions and ignoring their responsibility to phase out fossil fuels rapidly and justly.” He said it was the poorest and most vulnerable who were suffering.

“Only the colonial mindset of political leaders in rich countries can make the brutal calculation that the interest of fossil fuel giants and their billions in profit is more important than the lives of people who are overwhelmingly black, brown and poor.”

Together these projects would produce 646 billion metric tons (or gigatonnes) of CO2 emissions, the study says, swallowing the world’s entire carbon budget. More than 60 percent of these schemes are already operating.

Kühne, the director of the Leave it in the Ground Initiative, said in the first instance, the 40 percent of projects that had not yet started production must be stopped if the world was to avoid sliding ever more quickly towards catastrophe, adding they should be a prominent focus of the global climate protest movement in the months and years ahead.

“The oil and gas industry is continuing to plan these huge projects, even in the face of a burning planet. The ambitious targets of the Paris agreement were apparently not enough to make them question their business case. These carbon bombs are the single biggest indicator that we are not trying hard enough.”

The study is based on data from Rystad Energy but, rather than focusing on total barrels, it identifies the mega projects potentially responsible for the biggest emissions.


According to the research, the US is the leading source of potential emissions. Its 22 carbon bombs include conventional drilling and fracking, and span the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the foothills of the Front Range in Colorado to the Permian basin. Together they have the potential to emit 140 billion metric tons of CO2, almost four times more than the entire world emits each year.

Saudi Arabia is the second biggest potential emitter after the US, with 107 billion metric tons, followed by Russia, Qatar, Iraq, Canada, China and Brazil.

Australia, widely condemned by international leaders as a laggard in addressing the climate crisis, ranks 16th.

Robyn Churnside, a Ngarluma elder on the Burrup peninsula in remote north-west Australia, has been fighting fossil fuel and mining developments since the 1970s. She is part of a campaign trying to stop Woodside’s $12 billion Scarborough gas project, one of the biggest fossil fuel developments in the country in a decade.

Churnside said dissenting Indigenous voices were too often ignored when decisions were made about new oil and gas infrastructure that could lock in emissions for decades and desecrate culturally significant sites, which in some cases had stood for tens of thousands of years. “It’s about time the world listened to First Nations people because we have been here a long, long time,” she said. “Our spirit in this land will never rest. It needs protection.”

Prof Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre of Climate Research, University of Manchester and Uppsala University, Sweden, said the scale of planned production in the face of all the evidence suggested big oil and its political supporters either did not believe the climate science or thought their extreme wealth could somehow protect them and their children from the devastating consequences.

“Either the scientists have spent 30 years working on this issue and have got it all wrong—the big oil CEOs know better—or, behind a veil of concern, they have complete disregard for the more climate vulnerable communities, typically poor, people of color and far away from their lives. Equally worrying, they are disinterested in their own children’s future.”

When BP reported its quarterly earnings in a presentation to financial institutions in February, one analyst said he “really enjoyed the camaraderie and the positivity that you’re generating,” before asking about the company’s cash position.

“We’ve given you a lovely little chart,” said Murray Auchincloss, BP’s chief financial officer. “Certainly, it’s possible that we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with. For now, I’m going to be conservative and manage the company as if it’s $40 [a barrel] oil. Anything we could get above that just helps, obviously.” At the time, the oil price exceeded $90; today it is $106.

The oil industry is awash with cash. The money companies have belongs to shareholders, including pension funds, or in the case of national oil companies, to governments and, in theory at least, citizens. But the investment plans of the biggest oil companies are sharply at odds with the goal of halting the climate crisis.

Data obtained by the Guardian from the think tank Carbon Tracker shows a dozen of the world’s biggest companies are on track to commit a collective $387 million dollars a day of capital expenditure to exploiting oil and gas fields through to 2030.

A significant portion of this is for maintaining production at existing projects—some oil and gas will still be needed as the world weans itself off fossil fuels—but the exact amount is not publicly available. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least a quarter of this investment—$103 million a day—is for oil and gas that cannot be burned if the worst impacts of the climate crisis are to be avoided, money that could instead be spent ramping up clean energy.

Even more worryingly, the companies have developed further project options that might lead them to spend an additional $84m a day that would not even be compatible with a devastating 2.7C of global heating.

The world’s governments agreed in the Paris climate accord to limit global heating to well below 2C, and pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5C. For the latter, stricter goal, no new oil and gas projects are possible.

The Carbon Tracker data, compiled in September, uses a temperature of 1.65C to represent the well below 2C target and finds that 27 percent of the companies’ projected investments are incompatible with this.

ExxonMobil has the largest of these climate-busting investment plans at $21 million a day through to 2030, followed by Petrobras ($15 million), Chevron and ConocoPhillips (both $12 million), and Shell ($8 million).

In terms of the most dangerous investments—those that could help drive temperatures beyond 2.7C—Gazprom accounts for $17 million a day of this, ExxonMobil $12 million, Shell $11 million and PetroChina $9 million.

If governments act on the scientific advice to rapidly reduce carbon emissions by boosting clean energy and cutting fossil fuel burning, the companies would have to write off these colossal sums as losses, hitting shareholders, pension funds and public finances. If governments do not act, the companies could cash in as the world burns.

Overall, the international oil companies are making the biggest bets, with almost 40 percent of their projected investments incompatible with 1.65C. ExxonMobil is particularly high, at 56 percent. The national oil company average is 17 percent, although 56 percent of Petrobras’s planned capital expenditure is incompatible with 1.65C.

“Companies that continue to develop projects based on business-as-usual demand are betting on the failure of policy action on climate and underestimating the disruptive potential of new technologies, such as renewables and battery storage,” said Mike Coffin at Carbon Tracker. “Such projects are either not needed or they lead to warming well in excess of Paris goals.”

A separate recent analysis based on Rystad Energy data from April, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, found that 20 of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies remained on course to spend huge sums—$932 billion—by the end of 2030 developing new oil and gas fields.

Freeing the world from the grip of fossil fuels is made far harder by huge ongoing subsidies for the fuels, making them far cheaper than their true cost when the damage they cause is included—especially air pollution, which kills 7 million people a year. The G20 group of leading economies pledged in 2009 to phase out the subsidies but little has been achieved.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in direct financial support is received by the producers and consumers of fossil fuels every year—but they benefit from far larger subsidies by not paying for the harm burning fossil fuels causes. When the damage from the climate crisis and air pollution is accounted for, the fossil fuel subsidies reach $6 trillion a year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Guardian analysis shows this is equivalent to $11 million a minute globally, $4 million a minute in China and more than $1 million in the US.

The Guardian analysis of more detailed IMF data shows drivers in the US, Canada, and Australia, along with Saudi Arabia, are the world’s biggest beneficiaries of subsidies for road fuels, with some governments under pressure to increase these during the current energy crisis.

The per capita-subsidy for petrol and diesel across the population of Saudi Arabia was more than $1,000 a year in 2020. In the US, the road fuel subsidy per capita is $644 and about $500 in both Canada and Australia.

Japan and Germany also appear in the top 10 of the road fuel analysis, which focused on the 54 large countries with more than 25 million people and that account for 90 percent of global population and subsidies. The UK per capita subsidy for road fuels was only $10 a year, indicating taxes on petrol and diesel in 2020 were close to the level of the damage burning the fuels causes.

The US is also high on the list of the biggest per capita subsidies for all fossil fuels with $2,000 a year, behind only Saudi Arabia ($4,550) and Russia ($3,560). After these countries, only Iran ($1,815) is ahead of Australia ($1,730) and Canada ($1,690).

“Taking the Paris agreement seriously requires a rapid shift away from fossil fuels,” said Simon Black, a climate economist at the IMF. “Getting fossil fuel prices right will help enormously in accelerating this transition.”

The shift from burning oil and gas cannot happen overnight, and a declining amount will still need to be burned during the transition to a net zero emissions global economy in 2050. The question is whether companies and governments are moving fast enough.

The Guardian wrote to the oil and gas companies named in its analysis and asked for their response.

“Under the IEA net zero emissions scenario, and all Paris-aligned scenarios, all energy sources remain important through 2050, and oil and natural gas remain essential components of the energy mix,” said a spokesperson for ExxonMobil.

However, the role of oil and gas would be vastly reduced in 2050, and the IEA said: “Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development [in our net zero scenario].”

ExxonMobil planned to invest more than $15 billion on initiatives to lower greenhouse gas emissions over the next six years, the spokesperson said, including carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and biofuels. The company aimed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 but only from its own operations, not the fuels it sold, therefore covering only a small fraction of the emissions from the oil and gas it sells.

A spokesperson for Shell cited recent company statements: “As a result of [our] planned level of capital investment, we expect a gradual decline of about 1-2 percent a year in total oil production through to 2030, including divestments.

“By 2025, Shell expects its expenditure on [low and zero-carbon] products and services across its businesses will have increased to around 50 percent of its total expenditure,” a recent report by the firm states. In 2022, the proportion is expected to be more than 35 percent. In 2021, “Shell achieved its annual investment targets in renewables and energy solutions of $2bn-3bn,” the report says.

ConocoPhillips also cited a recently published net zero emissions plan: “Our goal is to support an orderly transition that matches supply to demand and focuses on returns on, and of, capital while safely and responsibly delivering affordable energy.”

The document states that profits from oil and gas projects are significantly higher than from investments in renewable energy.

ConocoPhillips has allocated $200 million in 2022 to reduce emissions from its operations. To reduce emissions from the burning of the fossil fuels it supplies, the company advocates an “economy-wide price on carbon that would help shift consumer demand from high-carbon to low-carbon energy sources”.

“Petrobras plans its investments considering that the Paris agreement will be successful and global temperature will be kept below 2°C,” a spokesperson for the company said. “Oil will remain important in the coming decades, even in accelerated transition scenarios.”

The spokesperson said the IEA’s scenario for 1.65C indicated some investment in upstream projects was needed. “We are planning for highly resilient assets competitive in scenarios aligned with Paris due to their low production cost and low emissions. Petrobras is following its strategy of maximizing the value of its portfolio, [with 99 percent of the investment on exploration] focusing on deepwater and ultra-deepwater assets.”

TotalEnergies pointed to its recent sustainability report, which it said “showed our stakeholders that we are already on the right track.” The company has a target of a 30 percent cut in emissions from oil and gas sales by 2030 and to increase the proportion of its energy sales that are renewable from 9 percent in 2021 to 20 percent in 2030.

Saudi Aramco and Eni responded to the Guardian but declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to the Guardian’s request.

The Guardian’s investigation has provided an answer to the question of how great a danger the plans of oil and gas companies pose to the climate. But there is another set of questions, those for politicians and governments, that will ultimately affect the course of the climate emergency.

Will the world’s governments act to close the book on the oil companies’ giant climate gamble? Will richer countries, historically most responsible for emissions, support a just transition for developing countries on the frontline of the escalating crisis?

Would strong, immediate action lead to a financial crash, as billions of dollars are wiped off the value of some of the world’s biggest companies? Or will more steady but concerted action wean us off fossil fuels rapidly, close the oil companies’ cash machine and lead us into a clean energy future with a liveable climate? Only time will tell. But, unlike oil and gas, time is in very short supply.

“The world is in a race against time,” said Guterres. “It is time to end fossil fuel subsidies and stop the expansion of oil and gas exploration.”

Reflecting on the war in Ukraine, he said: “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use. This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

Additional reporting by Jillian Ambrose, Adam Morton, Nina Lakhani, Oliver Milman, and Chris McGreal.


There’s Something Very Disturbing About Australia’s Very Normal 2022 Elections

Editor’s note: This article first appeared as a guest column in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land, a twice-weekly dispatch about politics and media. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out.

As an Australian living in the US, I’ve realized that nothing makes me pine for home more than our relatively snoozy elections. Seriously.

The comparisons are stark: While American elections never end, Australia preserves the fantasy that a “campaign,” including the one happening right now, comprises a few weeks of awkward photo-ops, flagrant pork-barreling, and media hyperventilation over minor gaffes. So far, so comforting.

America’s democratic system, attacked on every level from within, is backsliding. Federal elections are enacted through a vulnerable patchwork of state laws; the way things have been going, a willing coup participant could be sitting on your election board. By contrast, behold the Australian Electoral Commission, a trusted, nonpartisan body that quietly administers every election to exacting standards. American elections hinge on turnout, sometimes down to the street level, amid relatively poor national engagement. Australian elections enjoy vast participation, among the highest in the world. The AEC recently announced record enrollment—hailed by its boss as nothing short of a “democratic miracle.” But it is compulsory to vote in Australia, enforceable by fines, so that’s not much of a surprise, and anyway, is a miracle really a miracle if it barely makes the news? Insert shruggy emoji: It all just works.

In Australia, voting is a national celebration. On a Saturday. An entire country throws a “democracy sausage” cookout.

And then there are the candidates. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, is battling to hold on to a one-seat majority and therefore his job. “ScoMo,” as he is known without much affection, leads the governing conservative coalition. Because this is Australia, ScoMo is up against a guy whose nickname also ends in “o”—a bit of humanizing marketing that Aussie politicians enjoy as the equivalent of eating a corndog at the Iowa State Fair. Anthony “Albo” Albanese is the opposition leader and head of the center-left Labor party. Despite being a fixture of Australian politics for decades as a footy-loving bloke, he is mainly drawing attention for his recent “glow-up” weight loss and new suits.

ScoMo, right, and Albo meet for a televised prime-ministerial debate on Murdoch’s Sky News in April.

Jason Edwards / AP

Of course, the leaders have significant policy differences and backgrounds. ScoMo is a pious evangelical who once, as the nation’s treasurer, extolled the virtues of coal by clowning around with a lump of it on the floor of parliament. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you,” he said. “It’s coal!” He rose to the prime ministership not through an election, but as an internal candidate of last resort after his bitterly divided party, while in power, threw out its leader amid a factional dispute.

Albo, on the other hand, is a backroom powerbroker and member of the party’s progressive wing, perhaps even a shade more Bernie than Biden. “I like fighting Tories,” he once said. “That’s what I do.” After a humiliating defeat for his predecessor three years ago, the uninspiring rationale for Albo, at least to casual observers like me, appeared to be “It’s his turn.”

The campaign has flattened these characters, extruding them of color and history: ScoMo vs. Albo, two familiar white men in their 50s, veteran politicians, performing the norms and rituals of campaigning with the flair of community theater. Just how we like it.

There is one important similarity between our democracies that American readers will immediately recognize: the powerful media influence of Rupert Murdoch. It’s true there is no TV equivalent to Tucker Carlson in Australia. Murdoch’s Sky News remains boutique in comparison to Fox News. Sky’s lineup is a life raft for washed-up culture warriors and other News Corp hardliners who eye America’s divisions with envy. However, Murdoch’s formidable press outfit is far more dominant per square inch of newsprint in Australia and is currently amplifying attacks on Albo as a boring inner-city big spender who is dangerously soft on China. Sound familiar? Murdoch is, after all, Australian, and perfected this sort of mendacious attack long ago, back home. The virus that is Murdoch’s News Corp was lab-leaked from an Adelaide tabloid in the ’50s.

“I’ve never met Rupert Murdoch in my life,” Albo insisted in an extensive February profile in The Monthly, the Australian political magazine. But he can’t avoid pandering to the mogul’s dailies. He recently sat for an interview with Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph to position himself as a “friend to business and aspirational Australians,” squarely in the mainstream. “Albo vows to swerve away from the left,” the front page blared. Then, in case we missed the point, in all-caps: “I AM NOT WOKE.”

Amid all this predictability, here’s the disturbing part. The “campaign”—the breathless horse-race coverage, the basic block-and-tackle of it all—is obscuring what could be a pivotal moment for the future of the nation, and in some respects, for the world.

I’ve written before of climate change as the killing fields of Australian politics, to borrow a phrase from Guardian Australia‘s Lenore Taylor. Dubbed the “climate wars,” disagreements, in part over climate policy, have killed off four sitting prime ministers and contributed to an extraordinary run of leadership chaos over the past decade. The most extreme effects of global warming are already happening in Australia. Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem “My Country,” first published in the early 1900s and taught to Australian children everywhere, romanticizes the “sunburned country…Of drought and flooding rains.” Her quaint vision of a nation held together against the elements has morphed into a biblical horror cycle of extreme fires, record-setting floods, and actual plagues. As long-term costs to Australia’s roads and infrastructure become fixtures of national budgets, the conservatives in power are still low-balling climate commitments while winking at the far-right flank: It’s not really that bad.

“The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought,” the PM said during Australia’s 2019–2020 bushfire season, the worst on record. “We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed, we have overcome.”

Don’t mind the flaming koalas.

Australians know what it’s like to live on these frontiers, and that’s reflected in national sentiment. A growing majority of Australians say climate change is a pressing concern, according to a 2021 poll. In an eight-point jump since 2019, the same survey reported that 55 percent of Australians now say the government’s top priority for energy policy should be “reducing carbon emissions.” Six out of 10 eligible voters think ScoMo’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 won’t be enough, according to a recent YouGov poll. So, one theory goes, there must be conservative voters who are on the hunt for alternatives to the climate hardliners. Can they be picked off?

Deadly, record-setting floods hit Australia’s east in February and March, devastating towns like Lawrence, in rural New South Wales.

A massive injection of cash (by Australian standards) from the group Climate 200, reportedly around $10 million, is helping to test that theory, backing a slate of so-called “teal independents” contesting wealthy blue-ribbon seats. The idea is to direct voters to business-minded, climate-friendly candidates with the goal of putting whomever ends up running parliament on notice. This could fracture the conservative vote—an “existential threat,” warned one freaked-out Murdoch columnist last week. (A Climate 200–backed Melbourne independent, Zoe Daniel, has opened up a whopping 24-point lead over a conservative incumbent, according to one poll.) The Labor party may possess more aggressive climate pledges, but Albo, cautious of alienating anyone, is wary of making climate the centerpiece campaign issue. If his party doesn’t win a majority, it too will be beholden to these independents.

Meanwhile, the smaller, climate-first Greens party is enjoying a recent bump in popularity, which, given Australia’s ranked-choice voting system, could make the final picture even more complex.

The election is two weeks away. Unlike in America, there are no fancy FiveThirtyEight-style modelers tinkering with projections and fueling Election Day nightmares. The most prominent weekly poll has remained pretty consistent, showing Albo’s Labor poised to win. (Other polls show the same.) Of course, the last election also predicted a Labor win, and ScoMo, the conservative, eked out a victory. But his lackluster response to Australia’s drumbeat of apocalypse appears to have had a lasting impact, and, like Ted “Cancun” Cruz, he’ll be remembered for skipping town for Hawaii during the country’s worst bushfire crisis. He was lucky that the state governments controlled the basic mechanics of the coronavirus pandemic, sparing Australians the worst outcomes—but voters remember ScoMo’s bumbling excuses for what he could control, the country’s painfully slow vaccine rollout. His reaction to the pandemic can be seen as a scaled study of his government’s response to the bigger and more relentless assault of climate change across the continent.

If nothing else, Australians love to turf out a mob that has overstayed its welcome.

Right now, everything may seem typical, boring almost, but there are fractures in what former conservative PM John Howard once described as his ideal citizenry: a “relaxed and comfortable” electorate. Zoom out from the campaign, and Australia is a nation facing a signal moment. Will its people vote against the rising waters and the darkening skies? As Australians feast on their democracy sausages, will indelible memories of barbecued koalas be enough?


Drought in Ethiopia Is Fueling a “Dramatic” Rise in Child Marriage

A 15-year-old girl with her husband to be in Mozambique, east Africa.Shiraaz Mohamed/AP

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Drought-afflicted areas of Ethiopia are seeing “dramatic” increases in child marriage as the worst climate-induced emergency for 40 years pushes people to the brink, the head of Unicef has said.

Three consecutive failed rainy seasons have brought hunger, malnutrition, and mass displacement to millions of people in the Horn of Africa, including parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Djibouti.

Many girls in Ethiopia now face being married at a young age as their parents seek to find extra resources through dowries from the husband’s family, and hope their daughters will be fed and protected by wealthier families, warned Catherine Russell, Unicef’s executive director.

Some areas of the vast Oromia region have seen steep increases in the practice, the UN children’s agency said, citing local government data. In the East Hararghe zone, home to 2.7 million people, child marriage cases increased by 51 percent, from 70 recorded during a six-month period in 2020-21 to 106 in the same period a year later.

It was just one of six drought-affected areas in Oromia to have seen a sharp rise in child marriages, Unicef said. Across those zones, cases have almost quadrupled. According to data received by Unicef this week, 672 cases of child marriage were recorded between February and August last year, whereas in the six months from last September to March this year, that number leapt to 2,282, local government figures showed.

“We’re seeing increases in child marriage that are quite dramatic,” Russell said, noting that more than 600,000 children are thought to have dropped out of school as a result of the drought.

She added that when girls were not in education and were forced to leave their homes, the risks of gender-based violence and of child marriage almost always increased.

“These people [have their daughters married] because they’re desperate for one reason or another: they’re afraid of violence; they’re afraid for the safety of the girls; they need resources; they can’t afford to feed them,” Russell said.

The impact was “debilitating” for the girls in the long term, she added. “It really cuts off all of their opportunities and ends up in a situation where they are more likely to start having children early; they are more likely to have children closer together; they’re young, so they’re not in a position to negotiate safe sex with their partners. It’s just one problem after another for these girls.”

The drought threatens to set Ethiopia back in its attempts to lower its levels of child marriage, which are among the highest in the world. According to demographic data from 2016, 40 percent of girls in the east African country are married before the age of 18 and 14 percent are married before their 15th birthday.

Russell, who this week visited drought-hit areas, said she had discussed the issue with the country’s president, Sahle-Work Zewde, who said it was a priority area for her.

The drought is also pushing up the rates of severe acute malnutrition in the affected areas, with admission rates for children under five years old 15 percent higher in February this year than February last year. Russell, who visited sites where Unicef is treating malnourished children, said people were also being forced to drink contaminated water, putting them at risk of various diseases including cholera.

“We haven’t seen it yet,” she said, “but everyone’s very worried about cholera.” As a result of lagging vaccination rates, measles has already made a return, with more than 1,000 cases in the Somali region of Ethiopia and 16 confirmed deaths.

Like many in the humanitarian community, Russell said she was concerned that the huge global focus on Ukraine was sucking attention—and vital funds—away from other conflicts and crises around the world.

“I’ve been to that region, and I know how difficult it is there. I don’t begrudge anybody in Ukraine the coverage, because they need resources as well, but I think the international community’s not great at doing two things at once,” she said.

Unicef’s emergency drought appeal for the Horn of Africa had so far raised about 20 percent of its $250 million target, she added. While welcoming the UK government’s £17 million ($21.2 million) pledge, made in January and targeting the same region, she said it was “not close to enough.”