Analysis – Climate Change Denial—a thing of the past?

Photo credit: Pascal via Flickr.

By Hans Verolme
The influence of the economy and industry on international climate policy and its decisions has remained hidden from the public for a long time. Only recently has the full extent of the concerted effort with which companies have deceived policymakers and the general public over nearly four decades become clear. The lobbying of fossil fuel stakeholders has been counterproductive to meeting the climate change challenge. Its deliberate efforts to delay effective climate policy eventually lead to damage of an unpredictable scale.
Half of all global emissions since 1985 can be attributed to just 90 producers of coal, oil, gas and cement (both public and private corporations). The 20 largest of them are responsible for nearly 30 percent of emissions.
If rigorous climate policies had been implemented since the 1990s, global emissions would have stabilized at a reliable level. However, instead of holding the fossil fuel industry accountable, many governments have appointed the lobbyists of said industry as members of delegations at international negotiations and welcomed them with open arms as consultants on domestic legislation.
The US-American oil giant Exxon has known the truth about climate change since 1977. Its own scientists warned that global warming would pose a serious challenge to their current business with fossil fuels, and estimated that the time window for tackling this problem was five to ten years. In the beginning, they took the problem seriously, and for a decade the scientists of Exxon researched and identified the problem. However, this ended abruptly in 1988, when the existential threat to the corporation prompted it to launch and fund a campaign aimed at discrediting climate science. This campaign continues to this day.
Disinformation and manipulation
In 1989, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded by governments in response to the growing warnings of science. As a reprisal, an association of companies active primarily in fossil fuels founded the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). For more than a decade, the GCC led a coordinated multi-million dollar campaign to undermine the scientific results of the IPCC. The GCC no longer exists; but its members, including Southern Company and Exxon, continued a cooperation with the GCC lobbyist Don Pearlman from the Washington law firm Patton Boggs and with the World Coal Association.
Once the first report of the IPCC was presented in 1990, the pressure on governments to act increased, prompting the United Nations to launch negotiations for an agreement. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.
In the meantime, industry did not remain idle. In 1991, the Information Council of the Environment (ICE) in the United States led a comprehensive disinformation campaign, using among others the radio as a medium. The president of the ICE was Gale Kappa from the coal giant Southern Company.
It became evident very soon that the voluntary pledges for emission reductions submitted to the UNFCCC would not be complied with. In 1997, further negotiations took place in Kyoto, this time with the aim of concluding an agreement with binding reduction targets. All industrialized countries pledged to reduce their emissions. However, the GCC engaged in a campaign to sabotage the implementation of this global agreement and, indeed, succeeded in preventing the United States from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. In 2001, President George W. Bush also reneged on his pre-election promise to regulate the emissions of power plants, arguing that coal supplied half of the electricity needs of the United States and that energy costs were on the rise.
The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, in 2009, was then anticipated with great hope by those seeking to advance climate negotiations. But, this conference too was disappointing. Shortly prior, the moderate draft climate legislation by Waxman and Markey was rejected by the U.S. Congress following the most expensive PR battle in the history of climate change. Here, misleading lobbying efforts played a decisive role in convincing Congress that such a legislation would drive up electricity prices for poor Americans. The Union of Concerned Scientists found out that members of Congress had received faxes that were allegedly written by consumer protection lawyers and organizations representing poor ethnic minorities—but that were in fact sent by a lobbying firm that worked for the coal industry.
The amalgamation of politics and business
In the following year, Doha in Qatar was the stage for a focused joint effort of the OPEC countries and individual companies to advocate CO2 capture and storage (CCS). The Australian Global CCS Institute, funded by the Australian government with 300 million Australian dollars, lobbied delegates in Doha to recognize CCS as a climate-friendly technology.
The amalgamation of governments and business has become a permanent feature of UN climate change negotiations. The state-owned Polish power plant company PGE, the French coal plant builder Alstom and the steel and mining giant Arcelor Mittal were all sponsors of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) in Warsaw. Further, the World Coal Association hosted, concurrently to COP19, the International Coal & Climate Summit, which was supported by the Polish Minister for Economic Affairs and at which UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres was keynote speaker.
Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO with the declared aim to expose lobbying in the European Union, has documented how companies became official sponsors of UN climate change conferences. They provided government negotiators with virtually anything, from coffee mugs with customized logos to cars including chauffeur service.
In light of this background, what did we expect from COP21 in Paris? It attracted a large number of corporate sponsors, including Air France (which objects to emissions reductions in aviation), the car manufacturer Renault-Nissan, Suez Environment (a strong supporter off fracking), and the state-owned electricity utility company EDF and the energy group Engie (who together account for nearly half of French emissions). Shortly before the summit in Paris, the coal industry hosted another coal summit, this time in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union.
Today’s climate policy acts more locally than globally. Only few companies have to fear strict, globally applicable rules that could undermine their business model of making profit at the expense of the public. Nevertheless, companies in the fossil fuel industry are under increasing pressure. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has determined that the more than 5 trillion (!) US dollars of direct and indirect subsidies given annually to this sector must be brought to an end. Environmental activist are challenging the energy industry with acts of civil disobedience, one notable example being the direct action “Ende Gelände,” where protesters forced the temporary closure of the Garzweiler lignite coal mine in Germany in August 2015.


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