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UN chief slams oil firms for 'big lie' on global warming

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres skewered oil firms on Wednesday for having "peddled the big lie" about their role in global warming, telling the World Economic Forum that they should be held accountable.

Addressing a room full of the world’s business and political elite, Guterres drew a parallel between the actions of oil companies and those of tobacco companies that have been hit by huge lawsuits over the adverse effects of cigarettes.

"We learned last week that certain fossil fuel producers were fully aware in the 1970s that their core product was baking our planet," Guterres said.

He was referring to a study published in the journal Science that said ExxonMobil had dismissed the findings of its own scientists on the role of fossil fuels in climate change.

"Just like the tobacco industry, they rode roughshod over their own science," Guterres said, referring to lawsuits that determined cigarette companies had hidden the dangers of their products.

"Some in Big Oil peddled the big lie. And like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account," he said.

In 1998, US states won a landmark settlement against tobacco companies worth $246 billion aimed at recovering the costs of treating smokers from the harmful effects of cigarettes.

The study on ExxonMobil found that the firm’s scientists had modelled and predicted global warming "with shocking accuracy", only for the company "to spend the next couple of decades denying that very climate science," said Guterres.

ExxonMobil is the target of a number of lawsuits in the United States.

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Asked about the Science report, an ExxonMobil spokesman said last week that the issue had come up several times in recent years and in each case the company’s answer was that "those who talk about how ‘Exxon Knew’ are wrong in their conclusions," the spokesman said. 

In his speech, Guterres urged the world to "end the addiction to fossil fuels" as he warned that the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels was going up in smoke.

"Fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that this business model is inconsistent with human survival," he said.

"This insanity belongs in science-fiction, yet we know the ecosystem meltdown is cold, hard scientific fact," Guterres added.

His speech was welcomed by the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, an endeavour backed by Pacific island nations Tuvalu and Vanuatu that seeks the end of new fossil fuel projects and a phase out of current production.

"We have to stop the lies of big oil, gas, and coal companies and start collective action on phasing them out," the initiative’s executive director, Alex Rafalowicz, said in a statement.

"Government action to date has been piecemeal and devastatingly slow, riddled by the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists who are roadblocking progress in favour of profit," he said.

Guterres also called on business leaders in the room to provide by the end of the year "credible and transparent" plans on how to achieve net-zero emissions.

UN experts published recommendations at the UN climate summit in Egypt in November, saying firms could not claim to be net-zero if they invested in new fossil fuels, caused deforestation or offset emissions with carbon credits instead of reducing them.

"Here at Davos, I call on all corporate leaders to act based on these guidelines," Guterres said.

He also noted that the benchmarks and criteria in corporate pledges are "often dubious or murky", which can mislead consumers, investors and regulators with false narratives.

"It feeds a culture of climate misinformation and confusion. And leaves the door open to greenwashing," he said.

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