by Dr. Carolyn Orr
We’re already well into the 2020’s – the decade which will be critical in determining our future. And yet greenhouse gas emissions keep rising despite our knowledge that we need to drastically reduce them in order to keep the world to the (relatively) safe limit of 2.7 ℉ (1.5 ℃) global heating.
As it is we’re currently on track for 4.9 ℉ (2.7 ℃) of global heating, which will be catastrophic for human health and prosperity.
Why are we not managing the turnaround? Why are we still headed towards the cliff?
It’s not that we don’t know what to do to safeguard our present and future. We need to stop burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and transition rapidly and urgently to renewable forms of energy.
There are lots of reasons we are failing – and some are simply to do with how we are wired as human beings. Humans are very good at solving problems that are immediate, visible, precedented, that have direct personal impact, and that are are caused by an obvious enemy (the Bad Guy). But climate change is none of these things: it is slowly evolving; it can seem invisible (depending on what media you choose to read); it is unprecedented in human history; and for most people in the developed world it hasn’t yet had a huge personal impact. And we’re all to blame (unless you don’t ever eat meat, drive a car or fly in a plane).
But there’s another very significant reason that we’re failing. There really is a Bad Guy in this story – the fossil fuel industry – who are making obscene profits as we careen to the cliff face.
Big Fossil have known the harm they cause through air pollution and climate change for decades. They responded by funding junk science designed to muddy the ever increasing evidence of climate change, while funding lobbyists and politicians to promote doubt. And because they intentionally misled us, we wasted decades arguing about whether or not climate change was real. But it is now proven and widely accepted that climate change is real and happening at a frightening rate.
And so the fossil fuel industry has pivoted to messages that acknowledge the problem, but downplay its severity and urgency. Their new strategies are delusion and delay.
Delusion includes the fantasy that new technology just around the corner will save us. The best example of this is carbon capture. This is storing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions underground – literally burying the problem. Unfortunately carbon capture has never been shown to work at anything like the scale that would be needed to address the climate crisis. Instead carbon capture and other emerging technologies (the solution always being just around the corner) are used as an excuse to keep funding fossil fuel companies.
Delusion also involves overstating the industry’s progress toward addressing climate change – greenwashing. When you read about fossil fuel companies reducing their emissions – invariably they are talking about the emissions created in digging up and processing fossil fuels – not the emissions created by burning them, which dwarf the former. The industry that has done the most to create the climate crisis will not solve it.
And Big Fossil is still hard at work to prevent meaningful timely action on the climate crisis. Invariably this is coached in terms of financial prudence, by pointing out the expense of transformative action away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. And so we hear constantly about the cost of the clean energy transition, in the media and from certain politicians. In fact, delay in action on climate change is forecast to be far more expensive.
There is a historical precedent for this, in the struggle to abolish slavery. Decades were wasted on economic arguments that the economy would collapse if slavery was stopped. That wasn’t true then, any more than arguments that is it too expensive to make the changes we need to stop global heating are now. In fact, the abolition of slavery led to an era of enormous technological innovation and prosperity. It is not hard to foresee that the same is likely to be the case for the renewable transition.
And just like slavery, the false economic argument ignores the cost of the human suffering that is being and will be caused by global heating.
The fossil fuel industry makes 2.8 billion dollars of profit. Every single day for the last 50 years, and every day that we delay meaningful action on global heating.
This profit motive has allowed them to ignore six increasingly frantic IPCC reports, the statement from the International Energy Agency last year that no more fossil fuel projects can be built beyond 2021 if we hope to keep the world safe, and reports from all over the world of record breaking temperatures and unprecedented heatwaves, floods, droughts and cyclones. And at present195 “carbon bombs” are being built around the world. (Carbon bombs are oil or gas projects so polluting that each will result each in a minimum a billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions). Big Fossil’s carbon bombs are completely incompatible with a safe future.
These companies are perfectly aware that fossil fuels must end, and very soon; but in pursuit of profit each company is competing to be the last one standing. They’re not going to stop until we force them to do so. And we are running out of time, with less than 8 years to half greenhouse gas emissions according to world scientists.
I believe that to save our future we need public opinion to recognize that fossil fuels though global heating pose the biggest danger to humanity that has ever existed. If we are to survive, Big Fossil must become a despised footnote in history, just like the slave industry.
How do we achieve this?
1. We need to take away their social license. Each year the fossil fuel industry spends millions on their image. Fossil fuel companies spend this (for them, trivial) money to buy our approval, and to embed themselves in our social fabric. I live in Western Australia (the Australian equivalent of Texas). And the influence of Big Fossil is everywhere. Surf lifesaving classes for children, sponsorship for orchestras, theatre and ballet companies, arts festivals, football teams and sporting events. Fossil fuel sponsorship is seen in our universities, our museums and even within our hospitals. We need to campaign to make it completely socially unacceptable for these institutions to accept fossil fuel money.
2. We need to call out their financial backers – the banks.
The unrestricted supply of money from the banking system to Big Fossil is driving the climate crisis. If you haven’t consciously chosen otherwise, your money – via your bank, your super fund, your insurance, and your investments – will be funding the fossil fuel industry. So move your money, inform your financial institutions why you are moving, then tell your friends and family and contacts through social media all about it.
3. We need to hold their supporting industries to account. Behind each new fossil fuel project are an army of influencers: the big consultancy firm that does the financial modelling, the lobbying firm that pushes through regulatory approval, the PR firm that works to get the local community on board, the law firm that quashes legal objections, and the PR agency that sells the image of the fossil fuel company, and nullifies the effect of medical, local and environmental campaigns. We need these influencer industries to take responsibility for the climate impact of their actions. They need to stop serving the industries that cause the climate crisis and start serving the solutions to it. A number of companies have already pledged not to take contracts with Big Fossil. If you work in one of the influencer industries, or have family or friends that do, can you start a conversation about this? Can you influence the influencers?
4. We need to confront the political influence of Big Fossil. Fossil fuel companies exert influence through direct and frequent access to ministers; donations to political parties; and a revolving door for executives between positions in industry and government. This means that no matter which party is in power, their influence limits efforts to rein in expansion of fossil fuel projects, and ensures that greenhouse gas emission targets stay weak, poorly monitored, and rarely penalized. Our state and federal governments have promised to slash greenhouse gas emissions, yet they are still handing out licenses to explore for further fossil fuels. The cause of this discrepancy is the outsize political influence of fossil fuel companies. We need to permanently legislate this influence out of politics.
5. We need to challenge fossil fuel industry greenwashing. Even now Big Fossil is investing wholesale in further oil and gas development while spending a pittance in renewables (typically 1-2% of their budgets). This contrasts with their marketing where they they emphasize their involvement in renewables and barely mention oil and gas). We also need to confront the lie that ‘natural’ gas helps the transition away from fossil fuels. ‘Natural’ gas (which is mostly methane) is as bad a greenhouse gas emitter as coal, depending on how it is processed. Fossil fuel companies want us to believe developing gas fields is a step towards going renewable by displacing coal; but the evidence suggests that it displaces renewables not coal. We need to legislate for truth in advertising and enforce rigorous standards about claims of environmental responsibility.
6. We need to ban all fossil fuel advertising. Fossil fuel advertising postpones the shift in social and political attitudes that is urgently required to transition to safer, cleaner energy. And they currently have unrestricted access to marketing via TV, radio, billboards and the internet almost everywhere. France, Amsterdam and Sydney are leading the way and have banned fossil fuel advertising. We need to push for a total ban on fossil fuel advertising everywhere.
7. We need to publicize the effects of fossil fuels on our health. 1 in 5 of us dies prematurely because of fossil fuel air pollution – which is linked to cancer, stroke, dementia, emphysema, diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver disease, osteoporosis, asthma, impaired IQ in children, infertility and miscarriage. The average human loses over one year of life to the air pollution coming from coal, oil and gas. The end of fossil fuels will mean longer life and very much better human health.
8. We need to remove their public funding by ending all public subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Last year subsidies to Big Fossil reached $700 billion dollars a year. Effectively, we are subsidizing air pollution and climate change – simply insane by any measure.
10. We need to confront the lie that we cannot afford the fossil to renewable transition. Multiple analyses have shown that the cost of the fossil fuel to renewable transition is outweighed by the savings to our healthcare system that will be made by eliminating fossil fuel air pollution. And there are more jobs to be gained by going renewable than by staying fossil. We need to call out the lies that we cannot afford emergency action on climate change, and that we need to go slow for economic reasons.
11. We need to support the legal cases trying to set the precedent that climate impact has to be considered in any fossil fuel project. These cases are springing up all over the world, and law is founded on precedent. Once the principle that greenhouse gas pollution and global heating effects must be considered for any new project becomes accepted legally – it will be game over for new fossil projects.
12. We need to support an international agreement on fossil fuel non-proliferation. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is a global initiative supported by 64 cities, over 3000 scientists and academics, and over 100,000 doctors. This treaty calls for an immediate end to exploration of new fossil fuel reserves, phasing out existing production of fossil fuels, and a just transition to renewables. We need to support and expand this treaty. Has your region or city signed on?
The fossil fuel industry corrodes our environment, our politics and our society. We need to make them completely socially unacceptable. We need to force them to abandon their carbon bombs. We need to get to the time where fossil fuels are considered as anachronistic and unpalatable as slavery.
In the end it will down come to us, the people. Are we going to let these companies ruin our world, our health and our future? Or will we condemn them to despised history where they belong?
Dr Carolyn Orr is a Scottish-Australian neurologist who treats and researches degenerative brain diseases. Her training included fellowships in the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota. Carolyn is a public speaker and a fearless campaigner on the threat of fossil fuels to our health. Fossil fuels cause a significant fraction of human illness through air pollution, and the global heating they cause poses an even bigger threat to our health in the medium term. See her TEDx talk given at the University of Western Australia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jduP_6qxaUA&t=4s