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 massive lawsuits over the 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.
A study published in the journal Science last week 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 rough-shod over their own science,” Guterres said, referring to lawsuits that found that 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.”
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 published in the journal Science last week 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”.
ExxonMobil is the target of a number of lawsuits in the United States.
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”.
‘Credible’ net-zero pledges
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 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 a cold, hard scientific fact,” Guterres added.
The UN chief 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 cannot claim to be net-zero if they invest in new fossil fuels, cause 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,” he said.
Guterres said the benchmarks and criteria in the pledges made by companies 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.