For decades, the fossil fuel industry ran a wildly successful and well-funded campaign to muddy the waters when it came to climate change. It denied the science, created false equivalencies and dumped billions upon billions of dollars into projects designed to protect profits. Then, a few years ago, this lie was exposed just as the impacts of climate change began to be felt widely around the world.
A new global consensus started to be reached. With governments across the globe naming and pledging to act on the climate crisis, old-school climate denial was no longer a winning strategy. Enter the “new climate denial,” a term starting to be used more and more to describe not outright denial of climate science, but when corporations and politicians accept the climate crisis in word, but fail to act like it in deed. And the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, was truly the new climate denial’s coming-out party.
In the final hours of the negotiations, language in the Glasgow text was amended to shift a pledge to “phase out” coal to “phase down” coal. While this might seem somewhat innocuous (you do after all need to phase something down in order to phase it out), it’s really a perfect example of the new climate denial in action. The science is pretty unequivocally clear that we need to get off of fossil fuels, and coal being the dirtiest fuel around, it needs to be the first to go.
But, coal companies don’t like that and want to try to prolong their lifespan as much as possible. A global agreement to phase them out could have cascading impacts on project approvals, funding and general social licence. But, coal companies are much better positioned to make vague commitments about how they themselves are “phasing down” emissions with a range of schemes designed to buy them time while they try to make as much money as they can.
This is the same basic principle at play in a lot of “net-zero” pledges. The origins of the idea of net-zero may have been well-intentioned, but when you dig into the plans of most big fossil fuel companies and countries making these pledges today, there’s a lot to be desired.
Take Canada, for example. We’ve made a pledge to meet net-zero emissions by 2050. But, we still don’t have a clear roadmap for how our government plans to get there. And, looking at how they’re spending money in line with this promise, it’s fair to be worried they’re more focused on the “net” than the “zero” part of the equation, dumping billions of dollars into carbon capture technology, hydrogen, offsets and other unproven technologies and schemes the fossil fuel industry is pushing in order to keep itself in business.
And, according to Canada’s Big Oil Reality Check, a report released during the first week of COP26, Canada’s fossil fuel industry is at the “bottom of the pack” when it comes to climate action. No major oil company, including those that came together to brand themselves the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative, has a plan in line with actually meeting that goal.
It’s easy to understand why when you look at the latest International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook report. According to that report, considered widely to be the most comprehensive energy forecast in the world, oil and gas demand needs to peak and fall precipitously in the coming years in order to put us on the pathway to limiting warming to 1.5 C. Which is the alleged goal of promises to meet net-zero by 2050.
And, net-zero and phase down aren’t the only weasel words coming to define the language of the new climate denial, especially in Canada. Early on at COP26, Canada made a surprise announcement, joining an international coalition pledging to end international fossil fuel finance in a matter of years.
But, newly minted Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was careful in how he explained the announcement, tweeting out that Canada “will end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel sector by the end of 2022.”
The question is what he means by “unabated fossil fuel sector.” In Canada, Wilkinson spent a good deal of his time as environment minister lauding fossil fuel companies taking even the most minor actions to acknowledge the climate crisis. He even seemed like a Shell Canada spokesperson for a time when he was hailing its strange pay-at-pump offset scheme Drive Carbon Neutral.
This raises the question as to whether Wilkinson and others view those kinds of actions as enough for a fossil fuel company to get itself off the “unabated” list, and whether those actions are actually in line with what’s needed to keep warming below 1.5 C.
Governments are similarly pledging to end fossil fuel subsidies with the caveat that “inefficient” subsidies will be cut. But, like with their promises around international financing, they’re not clear on what the dividing line between an efficient subsidy and an inefficient one is. That’s worrying given that Canada’s approach to problems like abandoned oil wells has been to hand millions of dollars to wealthy fossil fuel companies to clean up messes those firms created in the first place and to call that an efficient subsidy. And that’s saying nothing of the potentially more than $20 billion that we’re spending to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, yet another subsidy this government seems to have no plans to eliminate.
Opinion: Corporations and politicians accept the climate crisis in word, but fail to act like it in deed, writes @CamFenton. #JustRecovery #COP26 #climatechange
Climate denial cost us the critical decades where we could tackle the climate crisis with plenty of runway. Now, because a handful of wildly rich fossil fuel companies lied to the public to line their pockets, we only have years to aggressively cut emissions and transition the world off fossil fuels. To do that, we can’t afford to let the new climate denial slow us down.
In Canada, that means forcing our politicians to actually keep their climate promises, including Justin Trudeau’s 2019 vow to enact a Just Transition Act and his more recent promise to cap and regulate down oil and gas emissions in line with a 1.5 C climate target.