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Working with fossil fuel companies is uniquely unethical

All views here are my personal views, not necessarily the view of any employers, past or present.

(A quick reminder: The human suffering and economic costs of climate change are expected to be enormous. One cost estimate is $23 trillion to the global economy by just 2030 [link]. Another report gives an estimated human toll of 150 million deaths by 2100 [link]. But as far as I can tell these reports do not include costs and deaths resulting from climate-induced wars, probably because it is too difficult to estimate. Crop failures and resulting food shortages [see: Syrian civil war], widespread droughts, storm-destroyed cities, and millions of migrants are all but guaranteed to lead to increased military conflict, which in turn would massively increase that death toll. Nations will go to war because of resource scarcity, as they have done throughout history. War deaths from climate are a big “known unknown,” and it’s worth noting that several wars that were not induced by climate catastrophes still led to tens of millions of casualties.)

Do you work in tech? In consulting or marketing? In law? If you’re a “skilled laborer” in one of these or related careers, you might have experienced working with a corporate customer whom you found distasteful. Maybe your tech company is selling servers to a social media company with questionable speech policies. Or your marketing firm was hired to make ads for an often-abused drug. Or you’re a consultant who’s been assigned to improve the business plan for a coal company. You might ask yourself if there is a red line, if there is any type of company that you would flat-out refuse to cooperate with.

I make the case here that working with fossil fuel companies is uniquely unethical. And I think it’s straightforward to make the case.

There are several industries that produce a lot of suffering. You might want to avoid pharma because of drugs like Oxycontin; social media because of its role in violence like the recent Myanmar genocide; military contractors because their products kill (at least) tens of thousands per year; or nuclear arms producers and Los Alamos National Lab.

But at worst, one should be ambivalent about working with those institutions. All of these fields produce at least something that can be beneficial, with no obvious alternative. It is simply not the case that helping them advance is categorically a negative. The truth is, future drugs will save lives, expanding social media does have some positive benefits, a country’s safety does depend somewhat on having the latest weapons, and (I hate to admit it) unilaterally downgrading the nuclear deterrent probably won’t lower the probability of an apocalypse.

But the fossil fuel industry is different, for the following reason: The main effect of new development or increased efficiency will be to slow down the transition to a low-carbon energy sector.

Let me first make a distinction between cutting off fossil fuels entirely on one hand, and not increasing their business+technological efficiency on the other. I am not necessarily advocating that (for example) all truck drivers who transport gasoline and jet fuel stop doing so; this would indeed halt the economy. Instead I am referring to the following types of actions. A rough term for these could be efficiency-boosting actions for fossil energy.

  • Business/management consulting to help these companies streamline their businesses and increase profits (which boosts their competitive advantage over new energy)

  • Aiding FF companies politically (lobbying, politically motivated ads, etc.)

  • Helping to create or run advertisements that spread falsehoods about climate change or new energy

  • Giving companies below-market prices for large purchases (drilling equipment, structural feedstocks, land use discounts, servers, software, …)

  • Direct technical partnerships that increase their software efficiency (for example co-writing simulation or AI software for refinery design)

  • Aiding geological oil exploration in any way whatsoever (we have enough fuel from existing known coal/gas/petroleum reserves)

  • Aiding the building of new infrastructure in any way whatsoever

The point is: If most professionals boycott the above actions, then fuel will still flow and society will still function. These things don’t cut off energy production. It is just that we won’t actively be making these fuels cheaper and more entrenched. Hence we won’t be actively harming the chances of low-carbon tech to win in the market.

My goal here is to address the cynical bait-and-switch that’s used in these discussions. When someone points out the immorality of participating in the efforts listed above, a common rebuttal is “but we still need these fuels for now.” But again, needing these fuels in the immediate future is not the same as needing to increase technological and business efficiency for their production. This is a silly straw man. Nobody–not a single person–is advocating immediately turning off all use of fossil fuels.

I have made two main points. First, it is uniquely unethical to work with fossil fuel companies—one cannot make the “whataboutism” comparison to pharma/armaments/etc, because there are real societal benefits to improving the latter industries’ business positions. Second, not boosting efficiencies (broadly defined) is not the same as abruptly shutting off fossil energy production. Likely, most fossil fuel business collaborations that you are offered will be related to expansion or efficiency improvements.

Whether we work in computer tech, chemical engineering, consulting, finance, or construction, we should shun projects related to the expansion or streamlining of the fossil fuel industry. If you are asked, decline to work on a project. Let them use outdated hardware, software, science, and business practices, if that’s what it means for them to be professionally isolated. Climate change is a massive threat to civilization—global crop failures, migration-induced wars, coastal cities underwater—and entrenched interests are the main obstacle to solving this problem. A campaign of disobedience, if performed on a large scale by many professionals, can accelerate the inevitable decline of this industry.


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