What a surprise. The annual emissions report by the United Nations is out and greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, a full 30 years after we first realized there was a problem with the climate.
In fact, emissions have gone up 15 per cent in the past 10 years. So much for the promises of early and deep cuts in emissions to avoid catastrophic heating.
Governments have been making these promises since the early 1990s and they are never kept because the political pressures are far stronger from those who profit in the present — the fossil fuel, automobile, shipping and aviation industries – than from those who are merely frightened for their children’s’ future.
The industries are well organized, have lots of money to spend and focus tightly on stopping changes that threaten their business model. Private citizens are less organized, have far fewer resources and have many competing demands on their attention.
Inevitably, the industries succeed in sabotaging most attempts to cut emissions.
For a long time, the main strategy of the industries was denial.
At first, they denied outright that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions were changing the climate. Never mind the science, just listen to this other guy in a white coat who says it isn’t happening.
That worked for a while and the initial rapid response to the climate change threat lost speed through the late 1990s.
Flat denial became increasingly untenable in the early 21st century, however, and the emphasis of the deniers shifted to spreading doubt: the climate is always changing, lots of scientists don’t believe the warming is caused by human activities, the jury is still out.
Those lies worked for another 15 years, but gradually the real scientists realized they, too, had to organize.
There is now no government in the world (except the United States) that still goes along with the denialism.
Every major international body has accepted evidence that climate change is actually happening and that we are the cause.
So, it is time for another change of strategy by the fossil fuel industries and their allies.
If they can no longer hope to discredit the science or confuse the public about the evidence, maybe they can at least deflect and divert the pressure for effective action on climate change to targets that do not directly threaten sales of their products.
That’s where we are now and it was Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Earth System Science Center, who first spotted the new strategy of the fossil fuel industry’s shills.
“There is an attempt being made by them to deflect attention away from finding policy solutions for global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour,” he told The Observer newspaper in Britain recently.
“This is a deflection campaign and a lot of well-meaning people have been taken in by it.”
What gives the deflectors credibility is that they seem to be on the side of the angels.
They are not denying that climate change is real; they just want you to use your bike more, eat less meat and recycle your waste.
What could be wrong with that?
Nothing, of course.
You should be doing all of those things as they are a necessary part of the solution.
But they want you to do that instead of campaigning (or at least voting) for action that directly targets fossil-fuel use. If you feel you are already doing your bit in the climate emergency by changing your personal behaviour, then the pressure is off them.
They also encourage “doomism,” the notion that it’s too late in the game to do anything useful about climate change.
“This leads people down a path of despair and hopelessness and, finally, inaction, which actually leads us to the same place as outright climate-change denialism,” Mann said.
It really is quite late in the game.
We would have to cut global emissions by seven per cent a year (instead of increasing them by 1.5 per cent annually) to avoid breaching the never-exceed limit of 2 C higher average global temperature. That’s far beyond what we have ever done before, so there is considerable justification for pessimism.
However, pessimism is a luxury we cannot afford. We have to keep working away at the task because every cut we make in emissions, however inadequate, gives us a little more time to deal with the rest of the problem.
The deflect, divert and distract campaign is often hard to distinguish from genuine attempts to change people’s lifestyles in positive ways — and, frankly, there’s no point in trying.
Just do what they’re advocating (bikes, meat, recycling, etc.) and remember to also do the hard political and legal work of eliminating fossil fuel use.
It is simple to say, but hard to do.