The Old Barons vs the Next Economy, Or, Why You Shouldn’t Believe Exxon’s CEO

By Garvin Jabusch.

ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods has ignited fury with his recent Fortune interview, because everyone who understands the climate crisis for what it is has become sick to death of the gaslighting, consumer blaming, disinformation campaigns, and sheer cold-blooded indifference to the fate of humankind so brazenly on display in Woods’ comments. Referring to renewable energies like solar, Woods says, “People can’t afford it, and governments around the world rightly know that their constituents will have real concerns…So we’ve got to find a way to get the cost down to grow the utility of the solution, and make it more available and more affordable, so that you can begin the transition.” Sounds like real-talk from a no-nonsense pragmatist, except he’s gaslighting you: according to the International Energy Agency, solar remains cheaper than all other sources of energy, even when factoring in the cost of intermittency. As to why Exxon is scarcely investing in renewables at all, he says, “building a business on government subsidy is not a long-term sustainable strategy — we don’t support that.” Except the fossil fuels industry benefits from far greater subsidies than those enjoyed by wind and solar, according to analyses from Bloomberg. Perhaps most disingenuous, Woods says the world is not on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050, because it has “waited too long” to begin investing in climate solutions. Never mind that the long, destructive delay has been largely the result of Exxon’s own campaigns of disinformation, doubt and delay, as revealed by the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and many more.

As Woods and the other fossil fuel barons do their damndest to torch the Earth, their favorite means of avoiding blame is to call us dreamers. They peddle the “hard-nosed reality” that humanity needs their hydrocarbons, and we’re romantic utopians who think the world can run on sunshine and virtuous thoughts. Without them, the narrative goes, the economy would collapse, and we’d all be freezing in the dark.

Here’s the thing: they’re full of it. Mostly.

Humanity does need energy if we’re going to grow the economy and reap the enormous benefits of innovation. But fossil fuels are a dead-end solution, and the narratives they advance are a crutch for an industry unwilling to evolve. Even if one denies climate change (I know, but even if), there’s still the reality that fossil emissions cause a staggering number of premature deaths annually, and there’s another simple reality: fossil fuels are finite. We need a smarter, longer-term strategy.

Thankfully, though you wouldn’t know it if you’re only hearing the dominant narrative, the future is already here. Renewables are more than up to the task. It’s hard to overstate just how much potential lies in solar, wind, and next-generation technologies. As Deb Chachra puts it in How Infrastructure Works, we have a material problem, not an energy problem. If we capture a tiny fraction of the sun’s rays, every person could live the energy-rich life of the average Canadian, who are among the world’s most affluent people. Of course, Darren Woods would counter that this will be too expensive for people to bear, but, again, IEA says solar is the world’s cheapest source of new energy today, and, unlike fossil fuels, it has a clear path to becoming ridiculously less expensive over the coming years. As Casey Handmer patiently explains in a recent blog post,

“The learning rate, defined as the cost decrease per doubling of production, applies to modular manufactured goods built in a factory, where process controls and innovation can result in continual improvement. For solar, this is currently running at about 44, while for batteries it’s about 23%, reflecting their relative complexity and immaturity of the manufacturing process. That said, battery production is expanding somewhat faster than solar, so both processes are seeing year-over-year cost improvements in the mid-to-high teens of percents. As of 2024, of course – both technologies are increasing their TAM at a terrifying rate and will probably continue to accelerate.”

Fossil fuels can contemplate no such trajectory of cost declines. Being dependent on molecules rather than sunshine requires a never ending and expensive slog of exploration, infrastructure development, drilling, mining, transportation, refining, more transportation, and then a healthy markup on top of all that.

Enjoying free-cost-of-fuel (photons), limitless, non-polluting energy that is ever cheaper to harvest is just so obviously the better road to a healthy, energy-rich, and abundant future.

This is of course the future–and present!–that Woods fears, and why he is so shameless about distorting reality. He and his product are about to be largely displaced.

But that does not mean we will have or need less energy, on the contrary. To power AI and the many other means needed to fix the climate crisis, resource degradation, human disease burdens and the other big threats to the economy, the world will need more power. So, it’s damn fortunate that renewables are cheap and getting ever cheaper.

The Next EconomyTM isn’t just about abundant energy; it’s about sustainable abundant energy. For too long, we’ve treated energy as scarce and materials as disposable. That’s dangerously backwards. We get a fresh shipment of solar energy with every sunrise. Meanwhile, recovering new material is expensive and difficult. A responsible, forward-thinking leader concerned with the future would be obsessed with this and its implications. They’d prioritize responsible material sourcing and invest in technologies that turn space into electrons with maximum efficiency. Think repurposing coal mines into gravity batteries, not digging ever deeper for single-use black rocks of dead dinosaur.

That’s Next-Economy thinking. It’s about finding elegant solutions, not clinging to the brute-force methods of the past. Woods claims Exxon is just “transforming molecules…hydrogen and carbon [into energy],” and that this is the only way to power the world, but what he’s really accomplishing there is admitting he’s stuck in the old economy mindset. He’s not interested in the sunshine-to-electrons business because electrons can’t be monopolized like molecules. The sun gives them away for free, which he sees as a problem for his profit margins.

So, when Woods says that renewables don’t “generate above-average returns for our shareholders,” he admits the real issue. Exxon’s not interested in solving the energy crisis; they’re interested in exploiting it for as long as possible. “We recognize a need for [clean energy]. We just don’t see that as an appropriate use of ExxonMobil’s capabilities.”

But they’re on the wrong side of history. Let’s remember that #ExxonKnew. For decades, they grasped the severity of climate change but actively lied about it, lobbying to stall the transition that could save us all. They knew the damage, knew the path forward, and CHOSE to torch the planet for cash.

When Woods says it’s “too late,” it’s because Exxon made it too late while funneling millions to politicians like Joe Manchin, who help perpetuate their fossil fuel addiction. Direct air carbon-capture isn’t a solution; it’s a lifeline to an obsolete business model. These lies are undeniable. Exposed by Greenpeace, Exxon’s own lobbyists admit to their manipulation. The crux of the issue, as economist Brett Christophers notes, is that the market mechanisms the old barons worship won’t save us while those same mechanisms line their pockets. As Bill McKibben has summarized it, “Remember: Exxon has trillions of dollars in oil and gas reserves. We no longer need it, but they need it—and they can game our political system to keep us using it.”

I can’t sum it all up any better than Akshat Rathi has in the first line of his new book, Climate Capitalism, “It is now cheaper to save the world than destroy it.”

The Next Economy demands more than just new energy sources. It’s a mindset shift–-embracing abundance, valuing ingenuity, and prioritizing, via our capital investments, long-term solutions. It’s a future the fossil fuel giants cannot abide, as it spells the end of their ill-gotten monopolies and the obscene wealth they’ve hoarded through environmental destruction. But ending their reign advances us toward a future of indefinite growth, stability, and abundance.


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