Exposing the World’s Biggest Carbon Emitters: US oil and gas and trade associations failed the country by ignoring the foreseeable and foreseen impacts of their carbon products, which the industry has been aware of for decades

“Energy accountant” Richard Heede does research needed to hold major polluters accountable for their actions

“The industry (particularly US oil and gas companies and trade associations) failed the country by ignoring the foreseeable and foreseen impacts of their carbon products, which the industry has been aware of for decades (Franta 2018; CIEL 2017; ICN 2015), with lobbying for legislative and regulatory relief to perpetuate the use of carbon fuels (Brulle 2018), and by misinforming citizens and lawmakers about climate science (Supran & Oreskes 2017; Oreskes & Conway 2010).”

By John Horgan on June 2, 2020 3 in Scientific American

Exposing the World's Biggest Carbon Emitters
Richard Heede: Americans “are innovative, we are capable, and we are fundamentally moral beings. We aspire to create a better world. We have not, however, faced the climate crisis squarely.” Credit: Santiago Ardila Dejusticia

Last October, The Guardian published a blockbuster article on “the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions,” including giants like Saudi Aramco, Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP. The data had been compiled by Richard Heede, whom The Guardian called “the world’s leading authority on big oil’s role in the escalating climate emergency.” Reading the article, I felt a burst of irrational pride. Richard Heede, or Rick, as I’ve always known him, has been my friend since the early 1970s, when we went to the same high school in Connecticut. Co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute, a tiny think tank, Rick has attracted widespread attention for his research on carbon extraction and emissions. “Working alone, with uncertain funding,” Science reported in 2016, Heede has “spent years piecing together the annual production of every major fossil fuel company since the Industrial Revolution and converting it to carbon emissions.” Rick’s research has been crucial to efforts by Greenpeace and other groups to hold fossil-fuel companies accountable for their actions. His fans include other scholar-activists, like climatologist Michael Mann and historian of science Naomi Oreskes. My old pal recently answered a few questions about climate change, the pandemic and other issues. – John Horgan

Horgan, John (2020) Exposing the World’s Biggest Carbon Emitters: “Energy accountant” Richard Heede does research needed to hold major polluters accountable for their actions, Scientific American, 2 June. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/exposing-the-worlds-biggest-carbon-emitters/ Link to CAI here: https://climateaccountability.org/news.html

Horgan: Were you green as a kid?

Heede: More blue than green: always in search of water, whether liquid, or gas, or solid: on the ocean, exploring the bays and rocky coast of the islands in southern Norway with my wooden rowboat, swimming in chilly water, and skiing into the quiet forest. A deep awe of the natural world fostered my sense of stewardship.

Horgan: When did you first start taking global warming seriously?

Heede: From my first undergraduate encounters with early thinking on climate change (Matthews et al. 1971) in the mid-1970s while I was canvassing humanity’s most intractable threats. This crystallized into a focus on climate variability and human impacts in my graduate work under Gilbert White, Will Kellogg, Mickey Glantz, and Roger Barry. In my thesis I quantified and mapped the global geography of recoverable fossil fuel resources, in which I concluded that 4,000 gigatons of recoverable carbon far exceeded the remaining carbon budget under CO2-doubling (Heede 1983). This meant that humanity had to manage the production and use of fossil fuels. Given the political and economic power of the oil and gas and coal industries and the public clamor for cheap fuel steered me to seek out Amory Lovins’s radically sensible ideas on least-cost ways to provide energy services rather than commodities — people want hot showers and cold beer, not lumps of coal or gooey oil, he used to say — as a path to solving the climate problem (Lovins et al. 1982; Lovins 2018). At Rocky Mountain Institute from 1984 to 2002 I quantified Federal subsidies to the US energy sector (which perversely favored fossil fuels and nuclear power (Heede & Lovins 1985)), studied energy efficiency in buildings and office equipment, investigated strategic materials, wrote a book on home energy savings (Heede 1995), co-authored a cost-effective plan to reduce a liberal arts college’s emissions to net zero (Heede & Swisher 2002), and wrote a brief on saving carbon in the home (Heede 2002).

Only later did I pivot to the oil and gas and coal companies and their contributions to climate destabilization.

Horgan: How did you become a “carbon accountant”?

Heede: I have always appreciated Peter Drucker’s maxim that “what’s measured improves.” I started a consultancy in 2003 to measure emissions of greenhouse gases for municipalities, corporations, government agencies, and environmental organizations. My Climate Mitigation Services (a sole practice) quantified emissions attributable to communities, supply chains, oil and gas production, carbon production on Federal lands, liquified natural gas (LNG) supply chains (helping to derail BHP’s proposed Cabrillo LNG terminal off Los Angeles; Heede 2008), package delivery, aviation, shipping, industrial facilities, households, and everyday activities — “from grams to gigatonnes” — in order to prioritize options for reducing emissions. I also did a carbon inventory of the energy portfolios of the Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corp., quasi-public agencies of the U.S. government, on behalf of NGOs (Heede 2004).

Then a friend in London called me up in 2003 and asked me to research the emissions attributable to a single fossil fuel company over its history. We chose John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co., documented the company’s production of crude oil, natural gas, and coal over its history from 1882 through its dissolution in a 1913 Supreme Court antitrust ruling to its recombination as ExxonMobil in 2002. I developed a model to quantify emissions from fossil fuel production (deducting net non-energy uses, accounting for the carbon content of various fuels and ranks of coal), and estimated emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from its operations and, more importantly, from its extraction, refining, and marketing of its carbon fuel products to global consumers using the fuels as intended. Friends of the Earth published a report of our findings (FOE 2004). In 2005 I was commissioned to expand the dataset to cover the historical emissions attributed to over one hundred oil, gas, coal, and cement producers from as early as 1864 to 2018 (Heede 2014; Taylor & Watts 2019). This database underpins scientific analyses of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration, radiative forcing, surface temperature, and sea level rise attributable to each of these globally dominant companies responsible, in aggregate, for 70% of all fossil fuel and cement emissions since 1750 (Ekwurzel et al. 2017). Colleagues and I have modeled the impact of these fossil fuel companies on acidification of the oceans (Licker et al. 2019). The legal community has taken notice, and most of the lawsuits and human rights investigations of oil, gas, and coal companies regarding their impact on climate and damages rely on our peer-reviewed results (Hasemyer 2019).

Horgan: What’s the best application of your research?

Heede: That depends on who is asking.

  • If it’s an oil and gas company, our data can be used to gauge the company’s cumulative impact on carbon dioxide emissions and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 and methane, or to evaluate precautionary strategies for protecting its brand reputation and to shore up its vulnerable social license to operate by aligning future production with the Paris Agreement.
  • A climate analyst can use the data to model the sea level rise attributable to the historical emissions of several top fossil fuel companies.
  • A climate diplomat can use the data to negotiate a Loss and Damage agreement that calls for contributions from fossil fuel companies, whereas
  • International lawyers may use the results in establishing an Atmospheric Recovery Trust Fund (Wood & Galpern 2015).
  • Human rights investigators can identify the companies that have contributed the lion’s share of anthropogenic emissions (Amnesty International 2019).
  • A philosopher or an historian may look to the data in weighing responsibility for climate change between carbon producers, consumers, and nations, and
  • A geographer might chart coastal land submergence attributable to oil producers (Shue 2017; Frumhoff et al. 2015).
  • Economists might use the results as a basis for calculating the financial damages attributable to leading fossil fuel companies, whereas
  • An attorney will use the data in formulating a strategy for litigation against carbon producers. In fact, most of these issues are already being explored. 

Fossil fuel producers are betting their companies if they fail to exercise duty of care with respect to the climatic and societal consequences of extracting and marketing carbon fuels.

Horgan: Critics in the fossil-fuel industry have accused you of bias. What’s your response? Can you be a researcher and activist?

Heede: Industry and trade associations accuse me of bias in order to deflect from the notion of their culpability (Walrath 2019). I am opinionated, I work openly on corporate accountability, my positions are well known, and my publications are all publicly available. At the same time, I practice sound science, and I clearly state my assumptions, methodology, and caveats. My research is robust and the model has been thoroughly peer-reviewed. The data is chiefly based on companies’ self-reported annual production of fossil fuels, as required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission since 1934.

The fossil-fuel interests and their paid supporters can impugn my motives, but they fail to discredit my scientific integrity. None of the companies, industry trade associations (such as the National Association of Manufacturers (Manufacturers’ Accountability Project 2020), or the Independent Petroleum Association of America), conservative bloggers, the House Science, Space & Technology Committee (which subpoenaed my communications in 2016), or oil company defense lawyers have challenged my results other than by innuendo or by documenting that the Climate Accountability Institute receives funding from foundations. 

Industry critics accuse me of being motivated to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for costly climate impacts of their carbon fuel products and for my position to eliminate market-distorting subsidies to fossil fuel companies (Heede 2019). I also support internalizing climate costs by putting a price on carbon in a gradual and predictable carbon taxation scheme.

Understand that the fossil fuel industry is at a crossroads: demand is falling sharply, there is rising pressure to reduce global emissions to net zero by mid-century, oil, gas, and coal companies have a vital part to play (or face pressure on their social license to operate), and there is a rising threat of successful litigation for climate damages. 

The industry (particularly US oil and gas companies and trade associations) failed the country by ignoring the foreseeable and foreseen impacts of their carbon products, which the industry has been aware of for decades (Franta 2018; CIEL 2017; ICN 2015), with lobbying for legislative and regulatory relief to perpetuate the use of carbon fuels (Brulle 2018), and by misinforming citizens and lawmakers about climate science (Supran & Oreskes 2017; Oreskes & Conway 2010).

A sound global decarbonization plan must include the participation of the oil & gas and coal companies — both investor-owned and state-owned — and other corporate contributors to global emissions, such as forest products companies, cement manufacturers, agricultural interests, and the animal and meat industry. Successful companies will chart a course that aligns with the Paris Agreement, and I support such efforts.

Horgan: Environmental writer Michael Shellenberger claims that some climate-change activists—like Bill McKibben and Greta Thunberg–are excessively “apocalyptic.” What do you think?

Heede: Broadly speaking there is no need to fault activists for ringing the alarm, loudly. We have ignored climate change for decades, concerned citizens and activists have been ridiculed, scientists have been harassed, and sensible politicians have been railroaded out of office — all for urging rational action to reduce climate-altering emissions. 

Should activists parse their language? Yes; exaggeration is not useful: there is plenty to be concerned about that is real and present. We glibly speak of “stopping global warming” when that train left the station decades ago. When it comes to prognosticating what might happen, some commentators get, shall we say, too animated. There is no scientific basis for arguing that humanity is facing extinction. But extinction of life as we know it — cultural changes, reduced agricultural productivity, malnutrition and starvation, crippling loss of biodiversity (Trisos et al. 2020), migration of peoples and species, droughts, increased flooding, loss of natural capital, deadly extreme weather, unstoppable sea level rise, threatened cities, submerged island states, shrinking winters, deglobalization of trade, and the rise of insufferable populists — are all likely. Lots of developments alter life as we know it — smartphones, novel viruses, scientifically illiterate Presidents — yet we adapt.

Horgan: What do you do to reduce your carbon footprint? What should the rest of us do? Should we give up eating meat?

Heede: I work at home, eliminating a typical commuter’s carbon emissions, I eat lower on the food chain (though not a vegetarian), I chase down energy-wasteful behavior, minimize hot water use, and buy wind power from my electric utility. I am allergic to consumerism, but I enjoy good food, travel, and interesting experiences. I designed and built a passive solar rammed-earth home high in the Rocky Mountains that emits three-quarters less carbon per square foot than my neighbors (solar orientation, efficient appliances, gas-filled low-e windows, super insulation, and other off-the-shelf techniques). The passive solar design is backed up with in-floor propane heating when needed. I hop on the bus when going skiing. I fly a lot, which is my most carbon-intensive activity, and I drive a gas-powered car (though <5,000 km/yr). My retirement funds are chiefly invested in technology and I avoid carbon-intensive companies. In my writings I urge individuals to do their part to reduce emissions at home and in their daily activities, but the climate crisis requires government and corporate action and deep structural change, as well as accelerated international climate diplomacy. I also believe that well-educated wealthy elites have a moral responsibility to lead with personal action to measure and reduce their emissions, many of whom have two or more estates, a personal jet or two, perhaps a helicopter for short hops, a yacht, and a host of carbon-intensive habits and widgets. Such carbon profligacy begs for climate mitigation (Chakravarty et al. 2009). Lest I forget: I vote for climate-literate candidates.

Climate saintliness is not required; climate sanity will do. We need to walk our talk (Foley 2020).

Horgan: If you were the U.S. Environment Czar, what policies would you recommend? Would you push for more nuclear energy?

Horgan: I possess none of the skills required for this job. A few guiding principles and opinions: governments should steer, not row, not choose favorites; markets should be fair; corporate welfare should be minimized; wealthy individuals who have accumulated the lion’s share of economic gains from tax reform should pay higher taxes (and higher rates for carbon emissions above a per capita average — though I have no idea how this can be equitably accomplished). Carbon production and emissions should be taxed. Energy subsidies should not distort a level playing field and should preferably be eliminated. A moratorium on fossil fuel leasing on Federal lands on- and offshore should be passed. Opportunities to absorb carbon from the atmosphere with a focus on building soil carbon in forests and agriculture and other means of drawing down carbon should be promoted (Hawken 2017), although a well-regulated and rising cost on carbon will foster appropriate solutions.

I am convinced that “solving” the climate crisis can be profitable, restore jobs, and avoid deep climate mayhem. It must be led by competent politicians and progressive industry leaders. 

With respect to nuclear power as a climate solution, let me point out that it is far cheaper, safer, and without the proliferation risk to invest in saving carbon and in renewables and innovative technology than in nuclear power. If modular reactors can be proven safe and cost-effective, then I’ll support their deployment. Meanwhile, let’s unleash the market on safe and cost-effective solutions rather than throw subsidies at another capital-intensive energy technology that our children have to clean up.

Horgan: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will affect efforts to curb carbon emissions?

Heede: Global demand for transportation fuels is in a nosedive, and daily carbon emissions have declined by 17% compared to a year ago, ~half from surface transportation (Le Quéré et al. 2020). Global trade and capital flows will diminish. Working from home and video conferencing will endure and will reduce fuel used for commuting and air travel for meetings and conferences. Commercial energy demand will contract as more employees work from home. A rebound is inevitable but may not recover previous levels. Smart policy in rebuilding the global economy based on energy efficiency, innovation, and new technology will assure continued decline in greenhouse gas emissions in every sector.

It’s evident that anti-scientific policymaking and lackadaisical preparedness by the Trump administration exacerbated the infection and mortality rates of this pandemic. It is also clear that a similar anti-science position with respect to climate policies is hazardous to our welfare. We can, as Kim Stanley Robinson suggests, flatten the coronavirus and the carbon curve if we get off the “multigenerational Ponzi scheme” of exhausting the planet (Robinson 2020). Clearly, there are ways to leverage responses to COVID-19 that also benefit the climate recovery agenda (Rosenbloom & Markand 2020). That said, dealing with climate change challenges the power of a trillion-dollar interests seeking what Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay” by blocking needed change (Westervelt 2020).

Horgan: I wrote recently that the pandemic might push us leftward. What do you think?

Heede: The anti-science attitude of the administration and its sycophants, its defunding of sensible programs to protect the American public, and its cynical sundering of our international programs and leadership will put Mr. Trump’s depravity on display in this year’s presidential and congressional elections.

I agree with Naomi Klein that the pandemic “is laying bare the extreme injustices and inequalities of our economic and social system.”

Horgan: I’ve been veering back and forth between optimism and pessimism lately. How are you feeling about the future?

Heede: I am an optimist by choice. We have tremendous capacity for resolving serious issues once we address them head on with truthfulness and commitment. American drive and ingenuity put a man on the moon “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” We are innovative, we are capable, and we are fundamentally moral beings. We aspire to create a better world. We have not, however, faced the climate crisis squarely, and we have not yet built public awareness and support for action on climate change. Political leaders have filled the void with lies and delays, with subsidies and regulatory easing, with false choices, and with vacuous support for Big Oil and Big Coal over climate stewardship. It is time for America to rise to the challenge after decades of dithering.

Horgan: What’s your utopia?

Heede: That’s easy: a world in which the invisible heart rather than the invisible hand of the market place motivates thought and behavior with compassion for all humanity and our common future on our precious planet.


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Center for International Environmental Law (2017) Smoke & Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Oil Companies Accountable for Climate Changehttps://www.smokeandfumes.org

Chakravarty, Shoibal, Ananth Chikkatur, Heleen de Coninck, Stephen Pacala, Robert Socolow, & Massimo Tavoni (2009) Sharing global CO2 emission reductions among one billion high emitters, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sciences, vol. 106:11884-11888.

Ekwurzel, B., J. Boneham, M. W. Dalton, R. Heede, R. J. Mera, M. R. Allen, & P. C. Frumhoff (2017) The rise in global atmospheric CO2, surface temperature, and sea level from emissions traced to major carbon producers, Climatic Change, vol. 144:579-590; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-017-1978-0

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Franta, Benjamin (2018) Early oil industry knowledge of CO2 and global warming, Nature Climate Change, vol 8:1024-25, 19 Nov. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0349-9

Friends of the Earth International (2004) Exxon’s Climate Footprint: the contribution of Exxon-Mobil to climate change since 1882, London, 16 pp. http://sustainabilitynow.com/Docs/exxons_climate_footprint.pdf

Frumhoff, Peter C., Richard Heede, & Naomi Oreskes (2015) The climate responsibilities of industrial carbon producers, Climatic Change, vol. 132(2):157-171. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-015-1472-5

Hasemyer, David (2019) Fossil Fuels on Trial: Where the Major Climate Change Lawsuits Stand Today, InsideClimate News, 22 July 2019 https://insideclimatenews.org/news/04042018/climate-change-fossil-fuel-company-lawsuits-timeline-exxon-children-california-cities-attorney-general

Hawken, Paul, editor (2017) Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, Penguin, 256 pp.

Heede, Richard (2019) It’s time to rein in the fossil fuel giants before their greed chokes the planet, The Guardian, 9 Oct. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/09/fossil-fuel-giants-greed-carbon-emissions

Heede, Richard (2014) Tracing anthropogenic CO2 & methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers 1854-2010, Climatic Change, vol. 122(1): 229-241; http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-013-0986-y?view=classic

Heede, Richard (2006) LNG Supply Chain Greenhouse Gas Emissions for the Cabrillo Deepwater Port: Natural Gas from Australia to California, commissioned by California Coastal Protection Network & Environmental Defense Center, May, 28 pp.

Heede, Richard (2004) Declaration and greenhouse gas emissions estimate of the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation energy portfolios 1990-2004, for Shems Dunkiel Kassel & Saunders PLLC, Burlington, 76 pp.

Heede, Richard (2002) Cool Citizens: Household Solutions, Brief #1, Rocky Mountain Institute, 18 pp. 

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Heede, Richard (1995) Homemade Money: How to Save Energy and Dollars in Your Home, Brick House Publishing, Amherst, NH, 76 illustrations, 276 pp.

Heede, Richard, & Amory B. Lovins (1985) Hiding the True Costs of Energy, Wall Street Journal, 17 September, p. 2.

Heede, Richard (1983) A World Geography of Recoverable Carbon Resources in the Context of Possible Climate Change, Cooperative Thesis CT-72, National Center for Atmospheric Research & University of Colorado, Boulder, 135 pp., 5 maps.

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Matthews, William H., William Kellogg, & G. D. Robinson (1971) Study of Man’s Impact on Climate, MIT Press, 308 pp.

Oreskes, Naomi, & Erik Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury, 355 pp.

Robinson, Kim Stanley (2020) The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations, New Yorker, 1 May. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future?

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The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


By Kate Aronoff, spring 2020. This article is part of Jacobin‘s Green New Deal series. The rest of the pieces in the series can be read here.

The fossil-fuel industry is lawyering up.

To date, nine cities have sued the fossil industry for climate damages. California fisherman are going after oil companies for their role in warming the Pacific Ocean, a process that soaks the Dungeness crabs they harvest with a dangerous neurotoxin. Former acting New York state attorney general Barbara Underwood has opened an investigation into whether ExxonMobil has misled its shareholders about the risks it faces from climate change, a push current Attorney General Leticia James has said she is eager to keep up. Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey opened an earlier investigation into whether Exxon defrauded the public by spreading disinformation about climate change, which various courts — including the Supreme Court — have refused to block despite the company’s pleas. And in Juliana vs. U.S., young people have filed suit against the government for violating their constitutional rights by pursuing policies that intensify global warming, hitting the dense ties between Big Oil and the state.

These are welcome attempts to hold the industry responsible for its role in warming our earth. It’s time, however, to take this series of legal proceedings to the next level: we should try fossil-fuel executives for crimes against humanity.

Guilty Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Just one hundred fossil fuel producers — including privately held and state-owned companies — have been responsible for 71 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions released since 1988, emissions that have already killed at least tens of thousands of people through climate-fueled disasters worldwide.

Green New Deal advocates have been right to focus on the myriad ways that decarbonization can improve the lives of working-class Americans. But an important complement to that is holding those most responsible for the crisis fully accountable. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes clear to fossil-fuel executives that they could face consequences beyond vanishing profits.

More immediately, a push to try fossil-fuel executives for crimes against humanity could channel some much-needed populist rage at the climate’s 1%, and render them persona non grata in respectable society — let alone Congress or the UN, where they today enjoy broad access. Making people like Exxon CEO Darren Woods or Shell CEO Ben van Beurden well known and widely reviled would put names and faces to a problem too often discussed in the abstract. The climate fight has clear villains. It’s long past time to name and shame them.

Left unchecked, the death toll of climate change could easily creep up into the hundreds of millions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in turn unleashing chaos and suffering that’s simply impossible to project. An independent report commissioned by twenty governments in 2012 found that climate impacts are already causing an estimated four hundred thousand deaths per year.

Counting a wider range of casualties attributed to burning fossil fuels — air pollution, indoor smoke, occupational hazards, and skin cancer — that figure jumps to nearly 5 million a year. By 2030, annual climate and carbon-related deaths are expected to reach nearly 6 million. That’s the rough equivalent of one Holocaust every year, which in just a few short years could surpass the total number of people killed in World War II. All caused by the fossil-fuel industry.

Knowing full well the deadly consequences of continued drilling, the individuals at the helm of fossil-fuel companies each day choose to seek out new reserves to burn as quickly as possible to keep their shareholders happy. They use every possible tool — and they have many — to sabotage regulatory action.

That we need to instead strip fossil fuels from the global economy isn’t up for debate. Without the increasingly distant-seeming deployment of speculative, so-called negative emissions technologies, coal usage will have to decline by 97 percent, oil by 87 percent, and gas by 74 percent by 2050 for us to have a halfway decent shot at keeping warming below 1.5 degrees celsius. That’s what it will take to avert pervasive, catastrophic climate impacts that will destabilize the very foundations of society. (Keeping warming to a more dangerous 2.0 degrees celsius will require decarbonization that’s almost as abrupt.)

recent report by Oil Change International detailing the climate costs of continued drilling lays the problem out in simple terms: either we embark on a managed decline of the fossil-fuel industry, or we face economic and ecological ruin. Simply put, the business model of the fossil-fuel industry is incompatible with the continued existence of anything we might recognize as human civilization.

Barring a major course correction, that business model — and more specifically, the executives who have designed and executed it — will be responsible for untold suffering within many of our lifetimes, with the youngest and poorest among us bearing a disproportionate burden, along with people of color and residents of the Global South.

As recent research and reporting have documented, some of the world’s biggest polluters have known for decades about the deadly threat of global warming and the role their products play in fueling it. Some companies began research into climate change as early as the 1950s. These days, none can claim not to know the mortal danger posed by their ongoing extraction.

Literally a Crime Against Humanity

Technically speaking, what fossil-fuel companies do isn’t genocide. Low-lying islands and communities around the world are and will continue to be the worst hit by climate impacts.

Still, the case against the fossil-fuel industry is not that their executives are targeting specific “national, ethnical, racial, or religious” groups for annihilation, per the Rome Statute, which enumerates the various types of human rights abuses that can be heard before the International Criminal Court. Rather, the fossil industry’s behavior constitutes a Crime Against Humanity in the classical sense: “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack,” including murder and extermination.

Unlike genocide, the UN clarifies, in the case of crimes against humanity,

it is not necessary to prove that there is an overall specific intent. It suffices for there to be a simple intent to commit any of the acts listed…The perpetrator must also act with knowledge of the attack against the civilian population and that his/her action is part of that attack.

Fossil-fuel executives may not have intended to destroy the world as we know it. And climate change may not look like the kinds of attacks we’re used to. But they’ve known what their industry is doing to the planet for a long time, and the effects are likely to be still more brutal if the causes are allowed to continue.

The Evidence Stacks Up

In September 2015 InsideClimate News broke the story that Exxon scientists first started looking into climate change in the mid-1970s. It didn’t take them long to find out both that it was a real problem and that their bread and butter was a chief cause. When the rest of the United States learned of these dangers — thanks in part to James Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1988 — Exxon and friends began pouring millions of dollars into elaborate disinformation campaigns casting doubt on findings their own scientists had validated.

Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers has unearthed many incriminating documents about similar actions taken by Shell, including a 1988 report showing that their executives were fully aware of the danger that climate change posed and the company’s own role in it. The report’s authors found that their own products accounted for an estimated 4 percent of the world’s carbon emissions in 1984. “With very long time scales involved,” company scientists recommended, “it would be tempting for society to wait until then to begin doing anything. The potential implications for the world are, however, so large, that policy options need to be considered much earlier. And the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part.” In response to the documents revealed in Mommers’s article, Friends of the Earth Netherlands has announced it will bring a suit against Shell to rapidly begin winding down its oil and gas production.

Industry-funded disinformation campaigns would shape the United States’ national conversation on climate politics for the decades after Hansen’s testimony, and still do. But sensing a change in the political weather, fossil-fuel companies have taken on a new double identity. With one hand — or maybe just a few fingers — they espouse their commitment to climate action and even documents like the Paris Agreement. With the other they continually hunt for new markets and planet-wrecking reserves, sending legions of lobbyists into Washington to beef up subsidies and tear up regulations, and fighting even modest policies to rein in their actions.

Despite clear culpability, the industry’s attempts to present itself as a good-faith actor in the climate fight are largely succeeding. Industry shills stalk the halls of the United Nations’ annual climate talks, appearing at side events alongside respected environmental NGOs and UNFCCC officials, and chatting freely with national delegations.

At COP 24 last year in Poland, GasNaturally cohosted a cocktail hour with the European Union, and Shell bragged about its influence in grafting a whole section onto the Paris Agreement. The Polish coal sector was a main sponsor of the whole event.

Stateside, advocates of certain forms of carbon pricing — like one plan drafted up by former Bush and Reagan cabinet officials— have boasted of garnering support and funding from the likes of Exxon and BP, apparently a marker of their respectability. When one such policy actually came up for a vote in Washington State last year, though, BP and other oil producers spent tens of millions of dollars to crush it. We’ve let them get away with it for too long.

The Nuremberg Precedent

Let’s call this what it is: an atmosphere of impunity for atrocity. At the very least, the fossil-fuel industry should be barred from international climate negotiations and any national-level climate policymaking discussions, just like the tobacco industry and its emissaries are barred from World Health Organization talks. In the US, that ban should include the congresspeople on both sides of the aisle that the industry deputizes to act on their behalf with hefty campaign contributions. There were more than a few good reasons, after all, that the Allies didn’t invite Hitler to weigh in on their strategy for crushing the Nazis.

After the war, though, the ensuing Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals wrote an important precedent into international law, establishing that “crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.” At that point, there was no legal framework to understand violence on the scale of those that Hitler’s regime had just carried out, let alone to punish it. To remedy that the international community came together to create and implement one.

On climate, the precedent set in Nuremberg offers other lessons as well. It’s hard to think of a problem more widely attributed to “abstract entities” than global warming, allegedly the product of some unquenchable, ubiquitous human thirst for new stuff. That old Pogo cartoon still holds sway in the popular imagination: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

There’s some truth to that — we do all create demand for fossil fuels, after all. But supply creates demand. And while free market dogmatists may think otherwise, there’s no reason why the popularity of a product means it should exist in perpetuity when the risks are so colossal and there are alternatives at the ready.

One of the best parallels for trying corporate executives for crimes against humanity might be the so-called IG Farben Trials, in which executives of the IG Farben Company — which worked with the Nazis to produce Zyklon B gas, a pesticide used extensively to kill Jews in the Holocaust — were tried before US Military Courts in Nuremberg. The company also developed several processes that aided in the Nazi war effort, like synthesizing rubber and oil out of coal. They employed slave labor provided by the Nazis, even constructing a factory just outside of Auschwitz so they could put prisoners to work.

Farben executives and plant managers were tried on these and other charges. Just thirteen of the twenty-four indicted were found guilty, and the longest sentence anyone of them served was eight years, including time served. After prison, several went on to lucrative consulting gigs and board positions for German chemicals companies, including former subsidiaries of the now-disbanded IG Farben, and companies like Dow Chemical. After serving his four-year prison term for the “plundering and spoliation of occupied territories,” IG Farben CEO Hermann Schmitz went on to take a senior post at Deutsche Bank.

The head of the company that would become the war’s largest distributor of Zyklon-B — Bruno Tesch — fared less well. He was tried separately before a British military tribunal and executed, alongside his second-in-command. Court documents detailed precisely how much money he and his main business partners had made from selling the agent to the Nazis.

Start With Tillerson

In the case of the climate crisis, it’s the industry itself that is driving crimes against humanity, and states that are complicit in issuing everything from drilling and infrastructure permits to generous subsidies — $20 billion per year in the United States alone. There are plenty of people in C-suites to hold responsible, with roles that more closely parallel those of Hermann Göring than Hermann Schmitz.

But to narrow the field of potential indictments, we might start with Rex Tillerson and other ExxonMobil executives — particularly good targets given that there’s been extensive documentation proving that the company’s top brass both knew about and then covered up the existence of climate change, even as they fortified their supply chains against climate impacts.

Of course, the legal hurdles to making such trials happen would be substantial. If the Nuremberg Trials were outside the box for international law at the time, trying fossil-fuel executives for crimes against humanity might well be in the stratosphere. For one, the United States is not a party to the Rome Statute, so unless the UN Security Council were to grant a US court jurisdiction over the matter — which hardly seems likely — a case would have to happen in a country that is for anything to go before the ICC. And the legal doctrines that the ICC operates under were designed principally to go after states, not multinational corporations.

But if we were able to overcome those considerable constraints, what might trying fossil-fuel executives for crimes against humanity actually look like? Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, is based in the Netherlands — in the Hague, in fact — and is a party to the Rome Statute. In order for their executives to be tried for crimes against humanity, the ICC prosecutor would need to open an investigation to determine whether domestic courts in the Netherlands had not done enough to hold the offending parties accountable. The prosecutor could then use their proprio motu power to bring an indictment before the ICC, which would then hear the case.

Alternately, the Dutch government could refer the case to the court itself. Plenty of countries have crimes against humanity statutes, however, so a trial wouldn’t necessarily have to happen under the auspices of the ICC. And because companies like Exxon have operations all over the world, they could theoretically be tried in any country that has such statutes on the books, or that is a party to the Rome Statute. Options abound.

But none of these lengthy bureaucratic processes will kick off without massive public pressure, which in itself could bear fruit beyond indictments. Exciting as these trials might be, the most pressing work ahead is to decarbonize the global economy.

One obvious implication of calling people like Tillerson mass murderers is that their ilk should probably not be in charge of the world’s most powerful corporations; every piece of evidence we have suggests they’ll just keep killing. If we are going to embark on the managed and just transition off of fossil fuels that science is telling us we need, fossil-fuel executives simply can’t be trusted to oversee it.

So if in the long run we hope to bring fossil-fuel executives to court, the road there should make sure that their destructive companies are taken out of private hands and run in the public interest — that is, wound down as quickly as possible, with the first priority being to ensure a dignified quality of life for those workers who stand to be most affected.

While there are plenty of barriers to getting a conviction or even opening a case, the Nuremberg trials were themselves a kind of experimentation, wherein Allied forces effectively tested a new legal doctrine crafted to fit the specific atrocities committed by Axis forces, for which there wasn’t — to that point — an established legal framework for punishing. Confronting climate change — the greatest existential threat the world has ever known — demands thinking no less creative.


Can We Survive Extreme Heat?

Humans have never lived on a planet this hot, and we’re totally unprepared for what’s to come.

Rolling Stone

  • Jeff Goodell

The real question is not whether superheated cities are sustainable. With enough money and engineering skill, you can sustain life on Mars. The issue is, sustainable for whom? Illustration by Sean McCabe.

On a scorching day in downtown Phoenix, when the temperature soars to 115°F or higher, heat becomes a lethal force. Sunshine assaults you, forcing you to seek cover. The air feels solid, a hazy, ozone-soaked curtain of heat. You feel it radiating up from the parking lot through your shoes. Metal bus stops become convection ovens. Flights may be delayed at Sky Harbor International Airport because the planes can’t get enough lift in the thin, hot air. At City Hall, where the entrance to the building is emblazoned with a giant metallic emblem of the sun, workers eat lunch in the lobby rather than trek through the heat to nearby restaurants. On the outskirts of the city, power lines sag and buzz, overloaded with electrons as the demand for air conditioning soars and the entire grid is pushed to the limit. In an Arizona heat wave, electricity is not a convenience, it is a tool for survival.

As the mercury rises, people die. The homeless cook to death on hot sidewalks. Older folks, their bodies unable to cope with the metabolic stress of extreme heat, suffer heart attacks and strokes. Hikers collapse from dehydration. As the climate warms, heat waves are growing longer, hotter, and more frequent. Since the 1960s, the average number of annual heat waves in 50 major American cities has tripled. They are also becoming more deadly. In 2018, there were 181 heat-related deaths in Arizona’s Maricopa County, nearly three times the number from four years earlier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2004 and 2017, about a quarter of all weather-related deaths were caused by excessive heat, far more than other natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes.

Still, the multiplying risks of extreme heat are just beginning to be understood, even in places like Phoenix, one of the hottest big cities in America. To Mikhail Chester, the director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University, the risk of a heat-driven catastrophe increases every year. “What will the Hurricane Katrina of extreme heat look like?” he wonders aloud as we sit in a cafe near the ASU campus. Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths and more than $100 billion in economic damage, demonstrated just how unprepared a city can be for extreme climate events.

“Hurricane Katrina caused a cascading failure of urban infrastructure in New Orleans that no one really predicted,” Chester explains. “Levees broke. People were stranded. Rescue operations failed. Extreme heat could lead to a similar cascading failure in Phoenix, exposing vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the region’s infrastructure that are difficult to foresee.”

In Chester’s view, a Phoenix heat catastrophe begins with a blackout. It could be triggered any number of ways. During periods of extreme heat, power demand surges, straining the system. Inevitably, something will fail. A wildfire will knock out a power line. A substation will blow. A hacker might crash the grid. In 2011, a utility worker doing routine maintenance near Yuma knocked out a 500-kilovolt power line that shut off power to millions of people for up to 12 hours, including virtually the entire city of San Diego, causing economic losses of $100 million. A major blackout in Phoenix could easily cost much more, says Chester.

But it’s not just about money. When the city goes dark, the order and convenience of modern life begin to fray. Without air conditioning, temperatures in homes and office buildings soar. (Ironically, new, energy-efficient buildings are tightly sealed, making them dangerous heat traps.) Traffic signals go out. Highways gridlock with people fleeing the city. Without power, gas pumps don’t work, leaving vehicles stranded with empty tanks. Water pipes crack from the heat, and water pumps fail, leaving people scrounging for fresh water. Hospitals overflow with people suffering from heat exhaustion and heatstroke. If there are wildfires, the air will become hazy and difficult to breathe. If a blackout during extreme heat continues for long, rioting, looting, and arson could begin.


A pedestrian uses an umbrella to get some relief from the sun as she walks past a sign displaying the temperature on June 20, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Ralph Freso / Getty Images.

And people will start dying. How many? “Katrina-like numbers,” Chester predicts. Which is to say, thousands. Chester describes all this coolly, as if a Phoenix heat apocalypse is a matter of fact, not hypothesis.

“How likely is this to happen?” I ask.

“It’s more a question of when,” Chester says, “not if.”

* * *

Extreme heat is the most direct, tangible, and deadly consequence of our hellbent consumption of fossil fuels. Rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere trap heat, which is fundamentally changing our climate system. “Think of the Earth’s temperature as a bell curve,” says Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann. “Climate change is shifting the bell curve toward the hotter end of the temperature scale, making extreme-heat events more likely.” As the temperature rises, ice sheets are melting, seas are rising, hurricanes are getting more intense, rainfall patterns are changing (witness the recent flooding in the Midwest). Drought and flooding inflict tremendous economic damage and create political chaos, but extreme heat is much more likely to kill you directly. The World Health Organization predicts heat stress linked to the climate crisis will cause 38,000 extra deaths a year worldwide between 2030 and 2050. A recent study published in Nature Climate Change found that by 2100, if emissions continue to grow, 74 percent of the world’s population will be exposed to heat waves hot enough to kill. “The more warming you have, the more heat waves you have,” says Michael Wehner, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “The more heat waves you have, the more people die. It’s a pretty simple equation.”

Heat waves are driven not just by rising temperatures but by a change in the dynamics of the Earth’s climate system. As the atmosphere warms, the temperature difference between the poles and the subtropics is shrinking, which is changing the path of the jet stream, the big river of wind 35,000 feet up in the sky that drives our weather system. The jet stream’s path is shaped by atmospheric waves called Rossby waves, which are created naturally as the Earth spins. Mann explains that as the Earth’s temperature gradient flattens, the Rossby waves tend to bend, resulting in a curvy jet stream that is more likely to get “stuck,” trapping weather systems in place and creating what Mann calls “huge heat domes.”

Extreme heat is already transforming our world in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Disney executives recently voiced concern that rising temperatures will significantly reduce the number of visits to their parks. In Germany, officials were forced to put a speed limit on the autobahn because of fears the road would buckle from heat. The U.S. military has already incurred as much as $1 billion in costs during the past decade — from lost work, retraining, and medical care — due to the health impacts of heat. The warming of the planet “will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security,” a recent DOD report said. Forests and soils are drying out, contributing to explosive and unprecedented wildfires. Habitation zones for plants and animals are changing, forcing them to adapt to a warmer world or die. A U.N. report found that 1 million species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. Another study by researchers at MIT suggests that rising temperatures and humidity may make much of South Asia, including parts of India and Pakistan, too hot for human existence by the end of the century. As scientist Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute in California, told me, “There is a shocking, unreported, fundamental change coming to the habitability of many parts of the planet, including the USA.”

Since the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s temperature has risen by 1.8°F (1°C). As we burn more fossil fuels, the warming is accelerating. The planet’s average surface temperature in 2018 was the fourth-highest since 1880, when record-keeping began. Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA, said there’s a “90 percent chance” that 2019 will turn out to be even hotter. Nine of the 10 warmest years in recorded history have occurred since 2005. June 2019 was the hottest June ever recorded. Astonishingly, July was the hottest month in human history.


But warming is not happening at the same rate everywhere. The Arctic, for example, is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Why? It’s a classic climate feedback loop: Ice and snow are highly reflective, bouncing sunlight back into space. But as the region warms, sea and land ice declines, exposing more open land and ocean, which are darker and absorb more heat. As temperatures rise, the permafrost melts, which releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which further accelerates the melting. Greenland is in the midst of one of the biggest melt seasons ever recorded, with temperatures as much as 40°F above normal. And as the Arctic heats up and dries out, it burns. There were unprecedented wildfires in 2019, with more than 100 massive fires raging across the region since June. The burning peat has already emitted more than 100 million tons of greenhouse gases (nearly the annual carbon emissions of Belgium), further accelerating the climate feedback cycle that’s cooking the planet.

But the greatest risk to human health may be in areas that are already hot, where temperature increases will strain habitability. In the U.S., the fastest-warming cities are in the Southwest. Las Vegas, El Paso, Tucson, and Phoenix have warmed the most, each by at least 4.3°F since 1970. Globally, many of the hottest cities are in India. In May, a deadly heat wave sent temperatures above 120°F in the north. The desert city of Churu recorded a high of 123°F, nearly breaking India’s record of 123.8°F, set in 2016. There were warnings not to go outside after 11 a.m. Authorities poured water on roads to keep them from melting. A 33-year-old man was reportedly beaten to death in a fight over water. The preliminary death toll in India for this summer’s heat wave is already more than 200, and that number is likely to grow.

How hot will it get? That depends largely on how far and how fast carbon-dioxide levels rise, which depends on how much fossil fuel the world continues to burn. The Paris Climate Agreement (which President Trump pulled the U.S. out of) aims to limit the warming to 3.6°F (2°C). Given the current trajectory of carbon pollution, hitting that target is all but impossible. Unless nations of the world take dramatic action soon, we are headed for a warming of at least 5.4°F (3°C) by the end of the century, making the Earth roughly as warm as it was 3 million years ago during the Pliocene era, long before Homo sapiens came along. “Human beings have literally never lived on a planet as hot as it is today,” says Wehner. A 5.4°F-warmer world would be radically different from the one we know now, with cities swamped by rising seas and epic droughts turning rainforests into deserts. The increased heat alone would kill significant numbers of people. A recent report from the University of Bristol estimated that with 5.4°F of warming, about 5,800 people could die each year in New York due to the heat, 2,500 could die in Los Angeles, and 2,300 in Miami. “The relationship between heat and mortality is clear,” Eunice Lo, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol and the lead author of the report, tells me. “The warmer the world becomes, the more people die.”

* * *

The properties of heat confused scientists and philosophers for centuries. In Greek mythology, heat was controlled by Ankhiale, the goddess of warmth. Eighteenth-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier believed heat was an invisible fluid, known as the caloric, that flowed from hotter bodies to colder bodies. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that scientists understood that when you feel heat, what you’re really feeling is energy released by the vibration of molecules. The faster something vibrates, the higher its temperature, and the more energy it releases. The sun is a big ball of hydrogen that burns at about 10,000°F and releases vast amounts of energy into space, which travels in the form of waves until colliding with something, such as a rock or a building or a human being. That, in turn, speeds up the vibrations within that object. These accelerating vibrations are what we humans sense as “getting hotter.”

Not surprisingly, heat regulation is one of the body’s most important functions. One way to think about the human body is as a giant multicellular heat engine that strives to maintain a constant internal state of 98.6°F. The very process of living — of eating, breathing, moving, thinking, having sex — generates heat. The outside air is usually lower than 98.6°F, so our bodies release heat, mostly by circulating blood to capillaries close to the surface of our skin, where the heat can be dissipated (that’s why your body is warm to the touch). Without a cooling mechanism, just our basic metabolism would result in about a 2°F hourly rise in body temperature. We wouldn’t even make it through the day.


Photo by Matt Mawson / Getty Images.

If the equilibrium between body temperature and the outside world gets too far out of whack, the body quickly deploys its only emergency heat-release system: It sweats. For sweating to be effective, however, the water has to evaporate. High humidity is uncomfortable (and potentially deadly) because the air, already filled with water, has little capacity to add more, so the sweat simply sits on the surface.

The loss of water through sweat is itself a health hazard. The average person contains roughly 40 liters of fluid. On a hot day, when the body is struggling to keep from overheating, a person can easily lose a liter of sweat per hour. When the body is down one liter, basic functions are impaired. When it’s down five, fatigue and dizziness set in. Ten liters disturbs hearing and vision and you will likely collapse — a condition known as heat stress.

But if it’s hot and humid enough, even drinking plenty of water won’t help. As the body’s temperature rises, it tries to cool itself by pumping more and more blood to capillaries under the skin. The heart pumps faster, the chest pounds, the pulse races. As the body loses water, our blood becomes thicker and harder to propel. When the body temperature hits 103°F or so, the metabolism will be running flat out in an emergency effort to dump heat. Eventually, the most vital organs can’t keep up, and the body’s neurological system begins to collapse. At 105°F, the body is in serious trouble. The brain swells, often causing hallucinations and convulsions. Pupils become dilated and fixed. Sweating stops, and the skin feels hot and dry to the touch. At that point, if the body temperature isn’t lowered immediately by emergency cooling measures such as being packed in ice or a plunge into cold water, the person could die of heatstroke.

The psychological impacts of extreme heat are obvious to anyone who’s ever felt cranky on a hot day. But the impacts go beyond crankiness. When temperatures rise, suicide rates can go up at a pace similar to the impact of economic recessions. Some aspects of higher cognition are impaired. School test scores decline, with one study showing decreases across five measures of cognitive function, including reaction times and working memory.

The link between heat and violence is particularly intriguing. “There is growing evidence of a psychological mechanism that is impacted by heat, although we can’t yet say exactly what that is,” says Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy at Berkeley. Some scientists speculate that higher temperatures impact neurotransmitters in the brain, resulting in lower levels of serotonin, which has been shown to lead to aggressive behavior. So rising heat may literally alter the chemistry in our brains. One study showed that police officers were more likely to fire on intruders during training exercises when it was hot. Andrew Shaver, a professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, analyzed data about conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and found that attacks by insurgents involving RPGs and assault rifles increased with higher temperatures, while planned attacks did not. “During conflicts, higher temperatures seem to provoke more impulsive aggression,” Shaver says. One speculative paper projects that by 2099, due to rising heat, the U.S. could see an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 rapes, 3.5 million assaults, and 3.76 million robberies, burglaries, and acts of larceny.

* * *

The city of Phoenix has no master plan to deal with heat, no radical remaking of the building codes or zoning laws in place, and no heat czar who is in charge of reimagining the city for the 21st century. Re-engineering a city like Phoenix for extreme heat is a long-term project that has only just begun, says David Hondula, a senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University. “Think about places like Minnesota, and what they have done to engineer for cold winters,” Hondula says. “They have tunnels you walk through in the winter, the heating systems are optimized, you drive cars with snow tires and all-wheel drive. We have done nothing like that in Phoenix, or in any city, really, when it comes to thinking about heat. The whole idea of engineering for extreme heat is still in its infancy.”

Retrofitting Phoenix — including reining in suburban sprawl, revising building codes to improve energy efficiency and ventilation, and creating greener urban spaces — is certainly imaginable, but “if we are going to be serious about this, a big investment is required,” Hondula says. “We need billions of dollars.”

It will also require leadership from city and state officials. A recent poll found that two-thirds of Arizonans accept that climate change is happening, but most elected officials in the state, including Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, are hardly climate activists. Arizona is one of the sunniest states in the nation, and yet only 6.5 percent of the state’s electricity comes from solar power. A statewide ballot initiative in 2018 to require 50 percent renewable power by 2030 was soundly defeated, in part because the parent company of Arizona Public Service, the big public utility in the state, spent more than $37 million on false and misleading arguments about how transitioning to renewable power would raise power bills and destroy the Arizona economy.

“We have a large number of elected officials who don’t believe in climate change, period,” says Stacey Champion, a longtime Phoenix energy and climate activist. “How do you get effective, data-driven policy if you have people pushing hard against it because they are batshit crazy, or they are afraid it will spook companies like Nike who want to come here?”

But as the world heats up, cities will get the worst of it. They are built of concrete and asphalt and steel, materials that absorb and amplify heat during the day, then radiate it out at night. Air conditioners blow out hot air, exacerbating the problem of urban heat buildup. Downtown Phoenix, for example, can be as much as 21°F hotter than the surrounding area. This phenomenon, which is called Urban Heat Island Effect, impacts most cities in the world. On average, cities are 2 to 5°F warmer than their leafy suburbs during the day — and as much as 22°F warmer during some evenings. The effect is so pervasive that some climate skeptics have seriously claimed that global warming is merely an illusion created by thousands of once-rural meteorological stations becoming surrounded by urban development.

Counterintuitively, the biggest health effects of rising heat often occur at night, when vulnerable people such as the elderly badly need the chance to cool down. Without that chance, they can succumb to heatstroke, dehydration, and heart attacks. This appears to be what happened during the heat wave that hit Europe in 2003, killing 70,000 people, mostly in buildings without air conditioning. Research has shown that the cause of many deaths was not so much the 104°F daytime temperatures, but the fact that nights stayed in the seventies or higher.

To reduce the heat-absorbing impacts of urban areas, some cities are experimenting with white roofs. The idea is to change the reflectivity of the rooftop to bounce more light off so that the building absorbs less heat. New York, for instance, introduced rules on white roofs into its building codes as long ago as 2012. Volunteers and workers have taken white paint to 10 million square feet of roofs in the city, though that is still less than one percent of New York’s total roof area.

Keith Oleson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, looked at what might happen if every roof in large cities around the world were painted white. He found it could decrease the Urban Heat Island Effect by a third — enough to reduce the maximum daytime temperatures by about 1°F, and even more in hot, sunny regions such as the Arabian Peninsula and Brazil.

In Los Angeles, city officials are experimenting with asphalt sealants that give roads a light-reflective surface. Manufacturers claim they can reduce the surface temperature by up to 30°F. Greg Spotts, chief sustainability officer in the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services, says the sealants have worked well so far, but cost (it’s roughly three times more expensive than conventional sealant) and questions about durability have limited their use. Spotts estimates that of the 23,000 miles of streets in L.A., less than 10 miles have been covered with reflective coating. “But we know it works, because dogs always move over to walk on the white streets when they can,” says Spotts.

Other places, such as Stuttgart, Germany, are trying to re-engineer the airflow of the whole city. Stuttgart is an industrial town surrounded by steep hills at the bottom of a river valley, where heat and polluted air linger. To help cool things off, city planners have built a number of wide, tree-flanked arterial roads that work as ventilation corridors and help clean, cool air flow down from the hills. Officials have also restricted new buildings from going up on certain hillsides in order to keep the air moving.


Many urban centers are trying to combat heat the old-fashioned way: by planting shade trees. Since 2011, Louisville, Kentucky, has planted about 100,000 trees. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has plans to create “urban forests” in the center of the city. In May, I visited Singapore, a tropical city that is far more densely developed than Phoenix. It’s hard to find a single inch of Singapore that is in any way “natural,” but since the 1960s, there has been a deliberate government-led effort to green the city. The highways are canopied with lush trees, urban parks have been expanded, and thousands of sidewalk trees have been planted. Wandering downtown, I felt like I was in a jungle, there were so many vines and plants hanging from windows.

“There used to be a lot of nice big shade trees in Phoenix, but they cut them all down in the 1960s because they were worried about how much water they used,” Mark Hartman, Phoenix’s chief sustainability officer, says with a bit of an eye roll. (In fact, climate-appropriate trees like mesquite or ash only require extra water for the first year or two after they’re planted — when they get bigger, the increased shade often increases soil moisture by reducing evaporation.) In 2010, as the problems of extreme heat became more obvious, Phoenix officials set a goal of doubling the percentage of the city covered with tree canopy from 12 to 25 percent. Then came the inevitable budget cuts and layoffs after the recession. According to Hartman, “Tree planting was cut back to stay only slightly ahead of those lost to storms and drought.” Today, the tree-canopy cover in Phoenix remains virtually unchanged from what it was a decade ago.

But if you look closely, you can find signs that a few people in Phoenix are starting to think differently about life in a rapidly warming world. You will hear about plans for “walkable shade corridors.” Most commercial buildings are now constructed with white roofs. At one light-rail stop, you can push a button and get sprayed with a cool mist of water while you wait for the train. One Phoenix city official has been known to walk around downtown passing out umbrellas on hot days. And the city launched an aggressive social media campaign to alert people to the risks of extreme heat.

But mostly what you see in Phoenix is asphalt and concrete, cars and malls, and big, crowded highways. In this sense, it is like virtually every other city in America, except with a few more palm trees (which are purely decorative — they provide zero shade) and a heavy dependence on air conditioning. As Hondula says one afternoon as we drive through Encanto Village, a historic middle-class neighborhood in Phoenix, “The number-one heat adaptation here is forking over money for the electric bill.”

* * *

In research labs around the country, you can find experiments with walls engineered to suck heat out of buildings, and wood that’s altered to be stronger, cooler, and better for insulation. But right now, the only technology deployed at scale against extreme heat is air conditioning. Nearly 90 percent of the homes in America have it — it’s as necessary as running water and a toilet.

Without air conditioning, the world as we know it today wouldn’t exist. It’s inconceivable that there would be a city of 4.5 million people living in the middle of the Southwestern desert — much less 20 million people living in Florida — without air conditioning. After World War II, Americans flocked from chilly Northern states to sunny Southern states. It was one of the great demographic shifts of the 20th century, and it precisely mirrored the proliferation of air conditioners. “Air conditioning was essential to the development of the Sun Belt,” historian Gary Mormino has argued. “It was unquestionably the most significant factor.”

Air conditioning is one of those paradoxical modern technologies that creates just as many problems as it solves. For one thing, it requires a lot of energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels. AC and fans already account for 10 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Globally, the number of air-conditioning units is expected to quadruple by 2050. Even accounting for modest growth in renewable power, the carbon emissions from all this new AC would result in a more than 0.9°F increase in global temperature by the year 2100.

Cheap air conditioning is like crack cocaine for modern civilization, keeping us addicted and putting off serious thinking about more creative (and less fossil-fuel-intensive) solutions. Air conditioning also creates a kind of extreme heat apartheid. If you’re rich, you have a big house with enough air conditioning to chill a martini. And if you are poor, like Leonor Juarez, a 46-year-old single mother whom I met on an afternoon in July when the temperature was hovering around 115°F, you live in South Phoenix, where sidewalks are dirt and trees are few, and you hope you can squeeze enough money out of your paycheck to run the AC for a few hours on hot summer nights.

On hot days, Juarez’s small apartment feels like a cave. She has heavy purple curtains on the windows to block the sun. “I could not live here without air conditioning,” she tells me. Because she has poor credit, she doesn’t qualify for the usual monthly billing from Salt River Project, her utility. Instead, to pay for electricity and keep her AC running, SRP has given her a card reader that plugs into an outlet that she has to feed like a jukebox to keep the power on. Juarez turns on her AC only a few hours a day — still, her electric bill can run $500 a month during the summer, which is more than she pays for rent. To Juarez, who takes a bus five miles to a laundromat in the middle of the night because washing machines are discounted to 50 cents a load after 1 a.m., $500 is a tremendous amount of money.

She shows me the meter on the card reader: She has $49 worth of credit on it, enough for a few more days of power. And when that runs out? “I am in trouble,” she says bluntly. Juarez, who works as an in-home caretaker for the elderly, says she knows of several people who lived alone and died when they failed to pay their electric bills and tried to live without AC.

One such woman was named Stephanie Pullman, a 72-year-old retiree who lived alone on a fixed income of less than $1,000 a month in a small house in Sun City West, a development north of downtown Phoenix. In the summer of 2018, she was late to pay her electric bill and owed $176.84. On September 5th, 2018, Pullman paid $125, leaving $51.84 unpaid. Two days later, when the temperature hit 107°F, her electric company, Arizona Public Service, cut off her power. A week later, Pullman’s daughter became worried when she hadn’t heard from her mother, who had a heart condition, so she alerted locals. A Maricopa County Sheriff’s officer entered the house and found Pullman dead in her bed. Cause of death: heat exposure.

In 2018, APS cut off power to customers more than 110,000 times. Of those, more than 39,000 were during the blistering months of May through September.

Pullman’s death sparked wide media coverage and street protests over APS’s disconnect policy, and pushed Arizona regulators to ban power shut-offs on hot summer days. (APS shut-offs have been linked to at least two other heat-related deaths in recent years.) These deaths also raise larger questions about the future of cities like Phoenix. As temperatures soar in the coming years, the real question is not whether superheated cities are sustainable. With enough money and engineering skill, you can sustain life on Mars. The issue is, sustainable for whom?

* * *

Heat is not an equal-opportunity killer. If you’re poor, sick, old, or homeless, you’re more likely to die during a heat wave. Recent immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are particularly at risk. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that immigrants are three times more likely than citizens to die from heat-related illnesses. More than 85 percent of non-U.S. citizens who died from heat-related causes were Hispanic. Researchers hypothesized that working outdoors and in agriculture increased vulnerability.

In Arizona, the most visible victims of heat are the homeless. One afternoon, I drive around Glendale, a town just outside Phoenix, with Brian Farretta and Rich Heitz of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, a faith-based group dedicated to getting people off the streets. Recently, the group launched “Code: Red,” an initiative to pass out water and other essentials to people on the street during heat waves. “Our strategy is simple,” Heitz says. “We find people and give them water.”

Heitz, 48, has lived in Arizona most of his adult life. He is a gentle man with a goatee and a Harley-Davidson cap. Before joining the Phoenix Rescue Mission, Heitz spent 10 years on the streets of Phoenix as a heroin addict. “I lost myself in numbness,” he says. He spent a few years in jail for various charges and has now gone clean and is devoting his life to helping others do the same.


The Brown Boyz music crew distributes water and barbeque to people experiencing homelessness during an excessive heat advisory on July 13, 2019 in Phoenix, AZ. Photo by Caitlin O’Hara for Rolling Stone.

We pull into Sands Park, a typical suburban green swath with basketball courts and picnic areas. Heitz and Farretta head to a concrete bathroom, where they find a middle-aged woman sitting in the shade on the floor near the entrance.

She has brown, sunburned skin, long gray hair, and a pleasant smile. She’s dressed in dirty jeans and a T-shirt. Beside her is what looks like a children’s coloring book. On the cover, written in red crayon, are the words “It’s Raining Love.”

“How are you doing, Sherri?” Heitz asks her. “You doing OK in the heat?”

I notice her face is flushed, and there are rings of sweat under her arms.

“Yeah, I’m keeping cool.”

Heitz offers her a couple of bottles of water, which she takes, stockpiling them beside her.

As we walk back to the van, Heitz says this summer will be brutal for her and for all of the homeless in the city. “If you’re smart, you figure out ways to survive, to adapt,” he says. “You find friends with cool houses where you can crash during the day. You learn which churches are open.”

But not everyone is so wise. Heitz tells me about a man he found lying in the heat on the sidewalk. His face was flushed, his eyes were dilated, and he wasn’t moving. “I called 911, and they took him to the hospital,” Heitz says. “The guy was cooking right there on the sidewalk.”

In Phoenix, the brutality of life beyond the halo of air conditioning was evident everywhere I went. A few days after my visit with Heitz, I pull my rental car over to answer some emails near the corner of Indian School Road and Central Avenue. It is a nothing place, just a big intersection where 12 lanes of traffic cross. There are a few palm trees and a concrete sidewalk and some nondescript buildings that look like microprocessors on a giant PC board. I could feel the heat radiating off the asphalt and concrete as if I were standing beside a blast furnace. It was as inhuman and inhospitable a spot on this planet as anywhere I’ve ever been.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can build a city on a human scale, and in such a way that it does not cook people who can’t afford an iced latte at Starbucks. You can power the world without fossil fuels and stop the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. But so far, we haven’t. The sprawl in Phoenix, as in most cities, continues unabated. And until that changes, so too will the heat.

As I fiddle with my phone, I notice a woman pacing the sidewalk ahead of me. She is rail-thin. In her skin, I see years of sun. I assume she is homeless, but maybe not. She approaches the passenger-side window of my car. There is fear in her eyes.

I roll down the window.

“I’m looking for my father,” she says quickly. “Have you seen him?” She describes him and says he is supposed to meet her here every Thursday. She says he is 56 years old and doesn’t have a place to stay and she is worried about him.

I tell her I haven’t seen him, that I was just driving by.

“I want to find him before it gets fucking hot,” she says. “I need to get out of this city. I’m like a bird, you know. I migrate. But I don’t want to leave until I find my father.”

She is jittery. She asks me again if I have seen her father, and I tell her I have not. Then she just turns and continues pacing along the sidewalk.

I thought of her a few days later as the temperature in Phoenix soared past 100°F. The Maricopa County Department of Public Health reported its first heat-related death of 2019: A homeless man had been found dead in a vehicle near downtown. No name or other details were released. I wondered if it might have been that woman’s lost father, but I knew it was unlikely. Still, the worst of the summer heat hadn’t arrived yet, and as the temperatures rise in Phoenix and cities around the world, superheated by the civilized world’s insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, there are so many deaths to come. 

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This post originally appeared on Rolling Stone and was published August 27, 2019.