And so the smoke clears: just 90 companies produced two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions that have been smothering the planet since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The new research is a landmark because knowing exactly who caused global warming is a big step towards knowing how to stop it.
It is tempting to see the list as a rogues gallery, full of familiar names such as ExxonMobil who have lavishly funded campaigns to deny the role of fossil fuels in climate change. The prospect of legal challenges to extract damages from the titans of the extractive industry looks attractive, particularly as scientists get ever better at attributing extreme weather events to the heat trapped by carbon dioxide.
But the pollution belongs to all of those whose lives have been transformed over the last 250 years by cheap energy. Instead, the value of the work is that it has produced a power list, in every sense.
It is now clearer than ever before that a just few dozen companies and cartels have presided over the mass pollution of our planet, unknowingly for many years but no longer. Energy fuels the world economy and the list shows just how that power has been concentrated in astonishingly few hands. There are few more terrifying threats a government faces than the lights going out or the petrol pumps running dry.
Energy companies are the biggest corporations the world has ever seen and this concentration of immense power makes them the biggest vested interests ever to do battle with the public good.
So, while the past is a foreign country where they did things differently, to paraphrase L P Hartley’s opening to his novel of lost innocence, the power list points to a more hopeful future. That is because the list shows that the levers of power that must be shifted to avoid climate meltdown are held by relatively few hands.
You can fit 90 people on one London bus: the current bosses of those energy companies exploiting fossil fuels can be targeted. Appeals to their better natures are unlikely to be successful as their jobs are to maximise the profits of their companies.
But those very profits may turn out to be the most powerful lever of all. The world’s governments have pledged to limit climate change to 2C, which means two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground unburned.
This carbon bubble is starting to be taken seriously by the biggest financial institutions in the world, from Citibank to HSBC to Goldman Sachs. If you think the idea of a carbon bubble is far-fetched consider the fact that in 2012, far from reducing their efforts to develop fossil fuels, the top 200 companies spent $674bn (£441bn) to find and exploit even more.
If those are burned, the planet fries. If they are not, investors are going to lose their shirts.
Combating climate change is the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. It is nothing less than re-engineering the world economy by taking on its greatest corporations. The new list shows that those vested interests may be great in power but they are small in number.
The smoke-filled rooms where the planet’s future will be decided just cleared.
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