This article is an excerpt from Dr Matt Winning’s 2021 book Hot Mess: What on earth can we do about climate change. It is currently available from all good bookstores.
The good news is that asking whether climate change is real is mostly a comical thing of the past, like shoulder pads and spandex. It goes in the bin along with other annoying questions such as “is the earth flat?”, “are women funny?”, and “is Jason Statham a bad actor?”.
The bad news is that the push to delay action has evolved into something far craftier.
The new debate has turned to what we do about climate change. Today in light of changed public perceptions, the “climate inactivism” machine has had to develop into something quite different. It is no longer about denying the science (at least, that is, beyond Twitter accounts named St3v3_4_Fr33d0m and mad cranks with blogs on the internet, like Piers Corbyn, many of which have unsurprisingly turned their recent attention to Covid-denial). Companies that want to be taken seriously, including fossil fuel companies, can no longer deny reality. Public opinion has now shifted so far in line with people’s experience, that it is no longer good for business.
But that doesn’t mean work behind the scenes has stopped. The largest five oil and gas companies are estimated to be still spending on average $200 million a year on climate lobbying. As Damian Carrington from the Guardian puts it, “So it’s goodbye climate deniers, hello – and you’ll pardon me for being blunt here – climate bullshitters”.
The largest five oil and gas companies are estimated to be still spending on average $200 million a year on climate lobbying.
Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief, tells me: “What we have seen is a move away from climate scepticism to policy scepticism”. In some ways you could argue this is valid, he adds, because we want this to be a policy debate. But if one of the policy options is to not do anything, because it’s not serious, that is a “soft form of climate denial”, he says. The old “Can we just do nothing?” is indeed a classic of the genre.
The debate is now all about the polices, the technologies, people asking “is it too late?”, and “Will it cost too much?”? All of which is part of what Michael E. Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, and author of the hockey stick graph, calls “the new climate war”. While that language could be considered rather inflammatory, given the fact that he has been sent death threats and fake ricin in the post, you can kinda see where the guy is coming from.
The main goal, whether unconscious or not, is still delay. Doubt is still used, but now it is about the solutions. This is the stuff I mentioned earlier about whether electric vehicles really have lower emissions, about intermittency of renewables, about plant-based meat needing fertilisers and land to be grown. All of which are “what aboutism” at its best. A prime example of this was the recent Michael Moore-produced film Planet of the Humans by Jeff Gibbs which spent its entire running time spouting outdated and inaccurate cliches about green energy. I presume they started making the film a long time ago as most of the solar statistics provided were about a decade old.
The film was released on YouTube, likely because no film distributor or streaming platform would touch it. Because it was a stinky pile of lazy erroneous garbage. But people see this stuff. I was asked by a friend of a friend, who knows I work in this area, what I thought about it. He’d just watched it and had questions. He didn’t know what to think. Were solar panels bad? Surely it cannot all be that terrible he asked. I told him that everyone who works in climate change reacted to it the same way as the rest of the world reacted to the film Cats. That nobody should be made to suffer it, and he should wipe it from memory if at all possible. That Planet of the Humans couldn’t have been any worse even if it had featured James Corden as a CGI cat.
Dr Kris De Meyer tells me that the “same psychological mechanisms that led to people becoming entrenched in accepting or not accepting the climate science, can lead to entrenched positions about what is the correct thing to do about climate change.” Even when solutions are being discussed in good faith, if we argue so much amongst ourselves that we end up splitting into camps about how to tackle climate change, we risk playing directly into the hands of those that wish to delay change. While we bicker, we continue to stall.
Another staple delay tactic is to say that it will simply cost too much to stop climate change. Now, it is absolutely correct to ask about the costs of climate action, discuss how these will be distributed across society, and talk about how and when to achieve reductions. This is literally my job, so needless to say, people are thinking about it.
Overall, the impact on GDP of achieving net zero emissions is likely to be negligible in the UK, and potentially with a positive impact on GDP. Many of the costs involved are better thought of as investments anyway. However, if you only talk about the costs of mitigation without mentioning the costs of doing nothing about climate change, then you are only considering half the problem (and therefore living in a fantasy land). The UK Office for Budget Responsibility recently reported that:
The costs of failing to get climate change under control would be much larger than those of bringing emissions down to net zero.
It added that the public debt involved in achieving net zero over the next thirty years will be less than the debt from Covid-19 was over two years. The important thing is to design policies to make sure that the transition is a fair one. So that those less well-off are not adversely impacted, and those whose jobs are affected have new opportunities.
Another delay tactic is to get people to disengage by suggesting that it is too late to do anything. That society is about to crumble, and the only strategy left is to remove oneself and survive outside of society. This type of doomism has gained traction amongst some environmentalists and others. For instance, in a non-peer-reviewed, self-published paper about so-called “Deep Adaptation” that has been download over half a million times, Professor Jem Bendell from the University of Cumbria wrote:
When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.
It’s eerily similar to what my Dad said would happen if I moved to London.
This type of doomsday prepper, fatalist nonsense has, until now, normally been reserved for the more right-wing libertarian types. However, there is a growing trend of doomism within those concerned about climate breakdown. In a BBC radio interview in 2019, Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam said: “I am talking about the slaughter, death and starvation of six billion people this century” an outcome which is breathtakingly made-up. It’s not even original as it’s just the plot of Avengers: Endgame. For me, a morbid obsession with self-wallowing will achieve nothing except supporting delay. And if I’m wrong, I’ll let them eat me when the time comes.
Even the superbly written and well-researched book “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells, which essentially reads as a worst-case climate outcome, merely paints a picture of a world that, in all probability, will not happen. The truth is that action is not futile. As the great philosopher Natasha Bedingfield once said, “Today is where your book begins, The rest is still unwritten”. Giving up to me seems like another form of denial. We are not driving off a cliff edge. The best analogy is that we are driving towards a brick wall, but it matters how fast we hit it. There is still time to hit the brakes. But we need to hit them hard.
Given the suffering already experienced by lots of the poorest around the world due to climate change, are presently going through, and will go through to even greater lengths, I find western societies pretending they will collapse rather insulting.
Humans will not go extinct. Neither is it likely that billions will die. I’ve had people say these two things to me and seen the media quoting people saying them as if they are facts. It is true that some places and species cannot adapt and will be lost forever. That’s what happens when things change too quickly through a man-made process. Millions are already dying due to air pollution from fossil fuels. Suffering and loss for millions will increase for sure with a warming world. And yes, we must be aware of tipping points that could massively alter the state of the planet. But it doesn’t need exaggeration or extra scaremongering. But society will not collapse. We will not be eating each other. Perhaps some people are not concerned about the difference between millions and billions. Maybe they think it is better to motivate with fear than to be accurate. Perhaps it is just a lack of attention to detail or getting a bit carried away, or a tendency to fear the worst. I mean we’ve all done that. Given the suffering already experienced by lots of the poorest around the world due to climate change, are presently going through, and will go through to even greater lengths, I find western societies pretending they will collapse rather insulting.
And what of fossil fuels?
Fossil companies are now positioning themselves as part of the solution. This has evolved into unrelenting greenwashing in the ultimate case of he who smelt it dealt it. “Companies spend millions on reputational advertising to protect their social license to operate, that is, the ongoing public acceptance of their business practices,” according to Sophie Marjanac, climate accountability lead at environmental law firm ClientEarth. It turns out it’s a whole lot easier to stick a bunch of adverts up around the country than change your underlying business model. According to InfluenceMap, the five largest oil majors spent 42% of their lobbying and branding budget on climate-related issues in 2018, even while company forecasts showed they only planned to use 3% of their capital spending on low carbon solutions in 2019. Like a teenager who constantly brags about sex, despite the fact they’ve only done it once.
I remember going on the Eurostar to Brussels for work a couple of times during this period and constantly being bombarded early in the morning with ExxonMobil adverts about making biofuels from algae. I was taken aback at the level of sheer arrogance to spend money telling people you are looking into something which may or may not happen in about a decade. It’s like me putting out adverts claiming I might be signing for Barcelona because I bought a new football from Sports Direct.
There was a similar BP advert, that I mentioned before, with posters on the Tube about using banana skins for jet fuel. My poor wife patiently listened to a tirade from me for about 40 minutes on the journey home one night about how this was “an absolute crock of shit”. And not just because it ripped off the episode of Bananaman when he went into space. This exact Possibilities Everywhere campaign by BP was taken to task by ClientEarth lawyers who complained it misled the public by focusing on BP’s low-carbon energy products. BP responded by quickly removing the campaign.
Someone recently asked me what fossil companies should be doing, and what would it take to convince me that they are changing. These are good questions.
To stay roughly under a specific temperature target there is only so much more carbon humanity can emit. We have already emitted 92% of the carbon allowed if we want to stay below 1.5oC. Without immediate rapid reduction we will surpass 1.5oC sometime around 2030-32.
The carbon budget concept has helped bring into focus the vast reserves that fossil fuel companies have on their books that we cannot burn if we are to meet these global climate targets. Such “Unburnable Carbon” is risky for oil and gas companies, some of whom are already having to write-off assets as their values plunge. You can see why it seems easier to pay a PR company to create some nice bullshit about powering a plane with plums.
Many companies are slowly making inroads into new territory such as renewables, clean energy provision and electric vehicles. Several fossil industry companies have made commitments to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050, including BP, Total, Equinor and Shell. While it is both commendable and a pretty big deal that such companies are on board with the net zero plan, they also sort of have to otherwise their social licence to operate would probably be revoked.
There are obviously still issues. A 2050 “net zero” target leaves significant room for interpretation for near on three decades. Many companies’ near-term targets for 2030 are based on carbon-intensity of their energy, not on actual total emissions. This quite opaque approach allows them to grow, or at least maintain, their oil and gas output to 2030 by simply adding more green stuff on top (as this means the overall carbon intensity of their energy will be reduced). Similarly, if I drink a couple of extra low-alcohol beers a week, but still keep drinking the same three wee cans of full-strength IPA on offer from Tesco on a Friday night, then technically the alcohol intensity of my beer consumption is lower, despite the fact I still fall asleep on the couch in front of the TV every Friday.
How quickly these companies start cutting emissions makes a big difference. They could quite literally do nothing until 2049 and then cut their emissions to zero. The pathway matters because cumulative emissions in the atmosphere matter. An end goal of zero is necessary but not sufficient.
The “net” part of “net zero” also gives them an escape route for cutting their emissions. Many companies appear to be heavily relying on planting trees and suchlike to offset emissions while they continue to extract fossil fuels. In 2021, Shell released its first ever modelling scenario of how the world could reach 1.5oC. Unfortunately, its scenario for meeting the target relies on a new forest the size of Brazil to capture emissions. In 2021, a landmark court ruling in the Netherlands ordered Shell to cut its emissions by 45% compared to 2019 levels by 2030 to be in line with the Paris Agreement. Shell plans to appeal.
In my view, the fossil fuel industry should be massively ramping up its annual spending on carbon capture and/or preferably renewables, so that the majority of its investments are focused on these options immediately. And it has to set interim carbon reduction targets based on actual absolute emissions reductions, not intensities that are easy to hide behind.
It is entirely possible for oil and gas companies to change. For instance, Dong Energy (the Dong stood for Danish Oil and Natural Gas), recently transitioned into one the world’s largest green energy companies, now called Orsted. This transition has been a massive success: as of 2020 Orsted was worth £51 billon, double that of two years before. The future needs more visionary Dongs growing across the world. I want all oil and gas companies to become dongs.
Hot Mess: What on earth can we do about climate change is currently available from all good bookstores.
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It’s not enough for fossil fuel companies to publicly step away from climate change denial – they need to take responsibility, and take action to avert a climate catastrophe
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