Entrenched systems of power aren’t just an impediment to real action, they’re the whole problem. Systemic discrimination against people and options that are better for people, our common home and the common good, to maintain power and profit for some. We have local examples, but more broadly see how-discourses-of-delay-are-used-to-slow-climate-action
Discussions about how to fight climate change almost always conclude with a lament over the “lack of political will.” It’s as if the roadblock preventing these clean-tech visions and white-paper dreams from becoming market-driven reality is an irrational, unforeseen hiccup. That’s a comforting fallacy. The lack of political will is the whole point: Climate change is a problem caused by entrenched systems of social, economic, and political power. To overturn that, the climate community would do well to learn from the fight for racial justice.
Many climate advocates and researchers seem to be just now starting down this line of reasoning, but not all. The Green New Deal put forward in February 2019 in the U.S. incorporated social justice goals into its vision for an economic shift away from fossil fuels. That turned out to be too politically ambitious for that moment, but it helped energize a constituency that has since taken on the mantle of leadership in the American climate movement. Last week the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis—itself a product of that constituency’s lobbying—released an action plan to “address the urgency of the climate crisis and begin to repair the legacy of environmental pollution that has burdened low-income communities and communities of color for decades.”
With a divided Congress now months away from the November election, these proposals aren’t going to pass into law. But they’re still a step towards addressing the way disadvantaged groups in the U.S. fare significant climate risk. An even bigger step would be for climate-focused policymakers to include disenfranchisement in the definition of climate change.
J. Marshall Shepherd—a distinguished professor and director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program, a former head of the American Meteorological Society and one of the U.S.’s most prominent commentators on weather and climate change—knows about interconnected institutions and phenomena. Before joining academia, he spent years working as a NASA Earth systems scientist. “I can’t help but see things in a connected way because that’s how the Earth works,” he says. When racism and climate change are put into context with each other, you get the drive for climate justice, he says. That is, you get the realization that those most vulnerable to flooding, drought, storms, and heat are also the people most likely to face race-based discrimination and state-sponsored violence, to be on the losing end of economic inequality, and face worse health outcomes. New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response a lawsuit by the New York Times show that Black and Latino people have been three times more likely to contract Covid-19, and almost twice as likely to die from it.
“The social, economic, and political power structure have created neighborhoods in New Orleans or Houston or Atlanta that will be more vulnerable to extreme weather events, or at least have less resilience to them,” he says. “You can’t overlook that.”
After the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed, Shepherd published a short book called The Race Awakening of 2020: A 6-Step Guide for Moving Forward. He named the book after the awakening he sees coming. “I’m an optimist,” he says. Just as the energy economy will clean itself up through an “ultimate and inevitable shift,” he anticipates 2020 bringing a wider shift among Americans on race. “We’re not planting any new flags here from the perspective of [Black Americans], right? All of this we’ve known and experienced and lived. But at least it seems as though there was this awakening by others.”
The book spends little time in the author’s professional domain. Instead, it lingers on reminiscences, including one about a beloved Florida State University college professor who provided him with a useful definition of racism. “Dr. [Bill] Jones’ definition was framed around the idea that racism is steeped in a power imbalance,” Shepherd writes. “When a certain racial group holds the majority of political, economic, and societal power, they can explicitly, implicitly, or systematically discriminate against others or suppress equality to maintain the balance of power.”
In other words, racism is a systemic problem impossible to separate from the institutions and networks that perpetuate it. So is climate change, but it isn’t talked about that way nearly often enough. The people who write laws and set policy get up every morning make decisions (in that power context and) wave climate change on through, a fact that rarely factors into scientific reports, policy studies, and popular books on climate.
Shepherd’s is far from the only book about discrimination to acknowledge the systemic analogy between racism and climate change, however. In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo uses climate change as an example of a problem that doesn’t go away just from acknowledging it. “While we talk about global warming and worry about global warming, most of us go about our days the same as we did before we ever heard the term because it’s just easier to talk than to do. And global warming continues.”
Coal, oil and gas don’t burn themselves. Their continued use is the result of active decision-making, carried out by inertia-bound institutions whose hold on power depends on maintaining the unsustainable status quo. Any change in that structure isn’t going to come from technology development, or even market forces. It requires a political shift.
Dr William F Lamb, researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin.
You have probably already heard a discourse of climate delay. Perhaps it came from a friend, a colleague, someone famous or someone powerful.
This person did not deny that climate change is a problem, or even that it’s a serious problem. Nonetheless, they gave you the impression that solving climate change is not our job, that it will not require substantial changes, that it is too expensive, or that it is pointless to try.
In our new research, published in the journal Global Sustainability, we set out to gather these types of arguments, which we call “discourses of climate delay”.
Just as scientists and volunteers have compiled lists of climate-sceptic talking points, we wanted to categorise delay discourses – statements that exploit discussions on how we should reduce emissions, with the purpose, or effect, of limiting action on climate change.
These are tricky, because they cut to some of the most challenging and disputed aspects of mitigation, such as what policies should be implemented, where, and who should pay for them. Indeed, delay arguments all contain a grain of truth, without which they probably would not work.
We outline the common features of climate delay discourses and a guide to identifying them.
Based on our observations as social scientists studying climate change, we identified 12 discourses of climate delay. We found that many of them shared common features and could be grouped into four overarching strategies: “redirect responsibility”; “push non-transformative solutions”; “emphasise the downsides”; and “surrender”. Our figure below summarises these strategies.
In researching this work we found some truly astonishing quotes to illustrate each of the 12 types of delay discourse, examples of which are given below.
The first group of strategies revolve around the questions of who should act first and who is most to blame for emissions, a theme that we called “redirect responsibility”.
We often take for granted, for example, the idea that both individual and system-wide changes are necessary to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. But this was not shared by Yale University, in defending its position not to divest from fossil fuels – a strategy we call “Individualism”:
“Yale’s guiding principles are predicated on the idea that consumption of fossil fuels, not production, is the root of the climate change problem. Targeting fossil-fuel suppliers for divestment, while ignoring the damage caused by consumers, is misdirected.”
Next up, we found many examples of politicians and industry leaders promoting “whataboutism”, the claim that since their jurisdiction represents only a small proportion of global emissions, it really does not matter if they take action or not.
(Of course, the science is quite clear on this point: we must all collectively reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 if we are to have a chance of avoiding more than 1.5C of climate change.)
The example below is from a comment by the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) faction in the German parliament:
“But even if it were possible to fully achieve the desired CO2 emission reduction [in Germany], it would only result in a maximum reduction of 0.000653C of a hypothetical temperature increase, sometime in the distant unknown future.”
In another group of discourses, we see arguments that advance relatively trivial solutions to climate change and, thereby, draw attention away from more effective measures.
These include relying on uncertain technologies and potential future breakthroughs (“technological optimism”), making vague claims that fossil fuels are part of the solution (“fossil-fuel solutionism”), or calling for voluntary measures as opposed to restrictive policies, such as a carbon tax (“no sticks, just carrots”).
In the example below, UK health secretary Matt Hancock says on BBC Radio 5 Live that “we shouldn’t be flying less”, despite the CO2 emissions, because technology will solve the problem:
“We should use technology to reduce carbon emissions – for instance, electric planes are a potential in the not too distant future.”
Another common type of delay discourse highlights the potential job losses and costs associated with an energy transition, to argue that specific interventions are a bad idea.
Since several of the team for this paper research social aspects of climate-change mitigation, including equity, justice and human development, we are also concerned about this trade off.
We have found, however, that interest groups who actively oppose mitigation measures often use such arguments for their own benefit.
This is why, for example, job losses in the coal industry are routinely centered in transition discussions (“The appeal to social justice”), but not the justice implications of failing to address climate change, or the possibility of implementing fair and progressive mitigation policies.
In this Sun article, UK treasury minister Robert Jenrick is quoted using an appeal to social justice to argue that a proposed aviation tax would “hammer hard-working families and prevent them from enjoying their chance to go abroad” – despite strong evidence that this would be a highly progressive measure.
Too late anyway
A final category of discourses argue for simply surrendering to climate change. Society cannot change, according to this discourse, and if it could, it would be too late anyway.
Whereas all other discourses appear to suggest that mitigation is possible – albeit not necessarily desirable – “surrender” discourses challenge the fundamental notion that mitigation would work, potentially creating a sense of fear and resignation.
The end effect is that, once again, policies that could be rapidly implemented and have been successful in many countries – such as public transportation investment, coal phase outs, or building retrofits – are downplayed or overlooked.
We separate discourses of delay into individual strategies, but often they are used together. My co-author Dr Giulio Mattioli highlights this for the case of airport expansion in the UK, where proponents point out that each individual airport only accounts for a few percent of air travel and emissions (“whataboutism”), while adding claims of “clean aviation” (technological optimism).
It is not always clear if someone who propagates a delay argument actually wants to delay. It is, of course, reasonable and necessary to discuss different technological and policy options for addressing climate change, as well as who needs to take more responsibility for this problem.
However, when one looks at the advertisements produced by the lobby group the American Petroleum Institute, aired during the Super Bowl and other prime-time television events in 2017, the use of delay discourses is clear. In one such example, dozens of images of jobs and workers in the fossil-fuel industry are juxtaposed with claims of increasing efficiency and reduced emissions.
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Prof Robert Brulle, Prof Naomi Oreskes and colleagues have long argued that this type of strategy is part of an industry approach to shaping the discussion around energy production in the US, with the end goal of limiting regulation and compliance costs.
Although delay arguments can be compelling, our identification and typology of the most common discourses can help sensitise people to their use. Emerging research suggests the public can be “inoculated” if they are pre-emptively exposed to the content and purpose of contrarian arguments.
Further responses could include developing competing discourses of responsibility, researching and advocating for the most effective policies, and ensuring that these are just and progressive.
Lamb, W. F. et al. (2020) Discourses of climate delay, Global Sustainability, doi.org/10.1017/sus.2020.13
- Coal powered generation TODAY and levels of air pollution here TODAY are unjust and economically unviable. See RMI, Carbon Tracker and Sierra Club report on How to Retire Early as 79% of US coal fleet is already uncompetitive compared to new renewables and storage. Coal phase-out by 2025 is important. Reclaiming the $578 million now going to Wall Street annually (after their expenditures on advertising, executive salaries, inefficient choices to maximize their 9-11% ROR) and which could be supporting Colorado budget, communities, renewable energy investment and returns/community income stream after these are paid off in 20 years needs to be re-possessed – have an actual Public Service Company not extractive out-of-state monopoly. Remember that Boulder went out to market at the end of 2018 and found they could get to 89% renewable energy by 2024 at 2/3 cost of Xcel. Community members also point out: Xcel wants us to pay for hundreds of millions of $$ spent on old coal and natural gas/fossil methane plants–and to earn 10.35% on the equity (about 55%) portion. Resilient Denver members said yesterday Xcel has a request for a large (16% on residential) spike in gas rates in as well, $6 increase in base rate, very regressive. Even before COVID: 31 Percent Of US Households Have Trouble Paying Energy Bills
- California’s largest combined gas and electric utility indicates it is willing to forgo future gas investments, support electrification/no gas hookups for all new construction. PG&E may be bowing to pubic preferences a bit more, with a Backstop’ bill to turn PG&E into non-profit headed to California governor’s desk, Regulators could revoke its certificate of public convenience and necessity, among other things. Should we take a look at Xcel’s social license and CO Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (7-CO-C)? “State law requires the Commission to give the fullest possible consideration to the cost-effective implementation of clean energy in its considerations of generation acquisitions for electric utilities, keeping in mind economic and environmental factors. C.R.S. § 40-2-123(1)(a).” Any party may file an application for Rehearing, Reargument or Reconsideration (RRR) of any Commission decision or of any recommended decisions that becomes a Commission decision by operation of law. 4 CCR 723-1-1506(a), Rehearing, Re-argument, or Reconsideration.
- A report from Reuters on abandoned and leaking O&G wells is truly striking. “More than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018, according to the data, which was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent report on April 14 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That’s the climate-damage equivalent of consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation, or about as much as the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in a typical day.” EPA thinks actual levels could be 3x higher than this. States and state budgets, already hurting, are on the hook for these as bonding has been inadequate. This is gigantic, as are…
- Emissions health impacts to all (cognition plus physical and mental health, every cell and organ in the body, early deaths – people dying about 2 years earlier on average) should be of concern across the political spectrum. For more details, citations to the medical literature et al., just ask.
Fossil fuel use has peaked in 2019, mainly due to COVID, coupled with a structural decline in some rich countries (e.g. across Europe) and renewables being cheaper in most markets now. Globally, several renewables are on an exponential growth trajectory. The shift towards renewables is inevitable by now. Additionally, there is now a dedicated and growing movement with the sole purpose of shutting the fossil fuel industry down: the KING (“Keep it in the Ground”) movement. If we make the right decisions during COVID recovery, 2019 emissions will not be surpassed.
At the time of writing, the financially struggling oil industry is looking to toxic petrochemicals (more plastics!) as the last area of lucrative growth.
Fossil gas — once called “natural gas” and touted as a “bridge fuel” — can hardly compete with renewables even at all-time low prices (literally zero at times) and is increasingly being criticized for its role in driving global warming which has so far been underestimated. Coal too is basically already a zombie industry that survives only thanks to subsidies and investors squeezing as hard as they can to cut their losses before shutting down shop. Astonishingly, there are still some places in the world where stick-in-the-mud actors don’t care about building some extra coal plants or mines with their shareholders’ money, because they won’t personally bleed for the financial losses when these turn into stranded assets.
This recklessness is encouraged by friends in politics. Remember the guy who waved a lump of coal in parliament in Australia? He’s the prime minister now. I assume I don’t need to say anything about Donald Trump — but guess what will happen after the next election! When political support for increasingly uncompetitive fossil fuels breaks away, those who haven’t divested yet should get ready for a bumpy ride down.
The Fossil Endgame blog series!
Join me as I bring together leading global thinkers to discuss a fast post-fossil transition and help inform the strategic choices to be made in COVID recovery, investments, business strategy, research etc. Some of the topics you can expect are:
- Why “natural” gas is “fossil” gas and is a very dangerous dead-end road instead of saviour and companion of the energy transition and why shutting it down first may be our smartest option in the climate emergency.
- The Climate Bailout — how to shut down fossils and speed up the energy transition without having to spend any of your own money.
- “Fossil-free” — the coming new norm.
- Disruption tools already being forged.
- Counter strategies aimed at holding back the disruption.
- The bankruptcy game and other financial exit strategies and why fossil fuel workers and the environment are sitting in the same boat.
I look forward to sharing these insights with you. Join me on this journey into the new rules of the fossil endgame! Don’t get stuck in the dark ages of the past millennium.
So far, 2019 was the peak of fossil fuels. Let’s keep it that way! Staying below 1.5°C is in reach if we seize the opportunity to build back green. Welcome to a new game with some old and some new rules.
About the series:
The Fossil Endgame blog series is organized by the Leave it in the Ground Initiative (LINGO) in collaboration with the Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) and supported by the Dutch Committee of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN NL).
LINGO works on speeding up the energy transition to 100% renewables, both by supporting frontline struggles against fossil fuel projects and by pushing forward game-changing approaches that can end fossils in years, not decades.
RTA provides evidence-based hope for a warming world. A rapid economic transition, including widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles, is necessary to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees. We gather, share and demonstrate evidence of what is already possible to remove excuses for inaction and show ways ahead.