The fossil fuel industry's 'existential choice'

The oil and gas industry has done some truly great things. But it's time for a major change 

photo of an oil derrick against the backdrop of a setting sun
The fossil fuel industry faces an existential dilemma due to climate change, writes David Fenton. Photo by Zbynek Burival / Unsplash

David Fenton, a longtime FrameLab collaborator and guest contributor, delivered this speech at EarthX in Dallas on April 24.  It masterfully frames the choice ahead for fossil fuel industry figures, some of whom were in the room during his speech. We are republishing it here with his permission.


I’m a climate activist. I know and have worked with some of the world’s top climate scientists. I sold my public relations firm a few years ago to dedicate myself to this issue. Because these scientists taught me that if we don’t rapidly stop and even reverse human-caused climate change, we may not get to solve much else. 

Yet I rise today with an appeal to the fossil fuel industry, here in its home state of Texas. It may surprise you, but I’d like to first acknowledge that the oil and gas industry has done some truly great things. 

Starting with the Industrial Revolution, the fossil fuel industry has helped create the greatest prosperity humanity has ever known. It is truly amazing how we can fly all over the world, light and heat our homes, drive most anywhere, and power our industries. I believe we should recognize and thank the fossil fuel industry for advancing human prosperity. 

But now we know that we have to change. In a hurry. The industry learned this from its own scientists in the 1970s, the public from Dr. James Hansen’s Congressional testimony in 1989. To protect the very prosperity the industry did so much to create, we must rapidly transition to a clean, carbon-free energy economy. 

The fossil fuel industry has an existential choice to make. It can join us in a rapid clean energy transition and prosper. Or its products will destabilize our climate, flood all the coastal cities of the world, collapse insurance markets, make food unaffordable, send waves of climate refugees to our shores, increase wildfires, smoke, heat waves, and droughts plus make hurricanes stronger.

This is the choice. 

And it isn’t science fiction, the kind you see on Fox News. This is SCIENCE. That your own scientists told you about 50 years ago. The same scientists your entire industry relies on. It is also pretty simple science. Carbon dioxide and methane from oil, coal and gas traps heat on earth that used to go back to space. The more we emit, the hotter and stormier it will get. 

The last time in earth’s geologic history there was 427 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, as there is today, the seas were over 50 feet higher. That’s the world we are headed to if your industry doesn’t make radical changes. How long it will take is not the issue – it is morally indefensible regardless. 

It may surprise you to hear an environmentalist like me say that if you join us in making the right choice, to preserve a livable climate and civilization for your children, some of us may help you. 

It won’t be easy, given today’s hyper-polarized media and politics. But I believe it might be done.

For example, at the dawn of World War II, the US government paid firms to rapidly switch to war production. The taxpayers paid corporations a lot of money, with a guaranteed profit margin. This is how we switched to making tanks, bombers, jeeps, fighter planes, artillery and the like. We did it with lightning speed to win the war. 

Personally, I’m for doing this again. We truly need a WW II style mobilization to decarbonize the economy, and fast. But I’m against subsidizing you for climate destruction, as is the case today. 

Intensifying climate chaos is now everyone’s enemy. We have much but not all of the technology we need to defeat it. You can be part of this. As the weather worsens, the public will demand it, so why wait? 

We need to drill for geothermal energy. We need to turn atmospheric CO2 into carbon neutral liquid fuels, even jet fuel, at scale.

We need to make green hydrogen fuels, without planet-heating methane. Yes, although some of my colleagues disagree, we need to restore a stable climate by taking some carbon out of the atmosphere, turning it into stable rock under the ground. You can do the drilling. (But forget about using carbon capture so you can keep polluting. People won’t stand for that). 

Your scientists and engineers who helped create prosperity can now set loose the technologies that can help bring more people safely into prosperity for generations to come.

Help us improve batteries and other forms of renewable energy storage. Help us increase energy efficiency. There is so much to do. Ok, you may not make the “above average returns” Exxon CEO Darren Woods insists on. But are you really going to put that above a livable earth? 

You have another big problem looming. There are now pieces of your products — micro plastics — in every human heart, placenta and brain. They are in the rain. They are in every sea creature.

I imagine your scientists know these plastics leak toxic chemicals that can even change our hormonal system, contributing to cancer and other diseases. This sounds like a pretty risky business model to me. So why don’t we join together to get the government to invest big time in a Manhattan Project to create safe, biodegradable alternatives to petrochemical plastics?

I know you are caught in a bad system. Perhaps we can work together to change it. 

For example, the equity valuations of the oil and gas companies are significantly linked not only to the size of your fuel reserves, but the rate at which they are replenished. Under this system, you feel forced to drill to the ends of the earth to keep your stock price up and keep your jobs. 

A few Wall Street analysts maintain this absurd, economically suicidal method of valuation. Ok, so how about we collaborate on remedies in legislation and financial markets to this madness? Let’s go talk to Jamie Dimon and Larry Fink together. Science is clear that we can’t burn all the known reserves and maintain a livable climate. Looking for more is dangerous folly — and these will likely become stranded assets. 

Meanwhile, there are now significant lawsuits against you. Eventually, these may make the tobacco settlements look small. After all, the impact of suppressing the truth, funding disinformation, and buying politicians to delay climate action, will dwarf the harms of the tobacco industry. 

Of course this makes me mad. But our children are more important than our anger. If we were to work together to protect the prosperity you did so much to create, you might settle these lawsuits as part of a global agreement to participate in the energy transition. You’d still have to pay damages, but perhaps less. And less to the lawyers. 

We all love our country, we all love our children, and most of us love Creation and the natural world. It is all threatened if the oil and gas industry doesn’t change. Our oceans and coral reefs, our forests, our oxygen supply from both — they are in deep trouble. 

I worked with Nelson Mandela. It was the biggest privilege of my working life. He brought South Africans together, black and white. Believe me the defenders of apartheid and the resistance movement hated each other. They had even bombed and killed each other. Yet they found a way forward. 

For the sake of freedom, prosperity, national and global security, human health, our children, the survival of our civilization and our astonishingly beautiful planet, our common home, might we do the same? 

Thank you. 

David Fenton is a long-time environmental activist. In 1982, he founded, Fenton: the Social Change Firm. He is the author of "The Activist's Media Handbook: Lessons from 50 Years as a Progressive Agitator." Contact him at


David Fenton and Dan Miller talk climate change communications

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to George Lakoff and Gil Duran: FrameLab.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.