Three theories on the silence of the fossil fuel industry at the Paris climate summit

by Timmons Roberts and Robert Brulle | Brown University Climate and Development Lab
Thursday, 7 April 2016 13:09 GMT

Dead sunflowers stand in a field near dormant oil drilling rigs in Dickinson, North Dakota, Jan. 21, 2016. Over the past year, falling oil prices have forced a decrease in drilling and fracking new wells in North Dakota's Bakken shale play. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

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Industry is focused rather on shifting cultural and institutional factors that will support or undermine any real action on climate change

In our previous piece, we described how the fossil fuel industry has successfully delayed action on climate change, but noted a distinct difference in their response in Paris, compared to at previous key moments in the global effort to address the issue.

Why was 2015 different, with little public action by climate deniers? In an effort to expand the public discussion and understanding of what might actually be going on behind the scenes on this crucial issue, we propose three very different theories of why the climate denial machine was quiet in the Paris round. We provide some pointers to some evidence as they are available, but much of this story remains uninvestigated. Our final section describes the outlines of what appears to be the new strategic focus of the fossil fuel industries in the face of inevitable global action on climate change.

Hypothesis 1: Weather, public opinion, and the pope mattered. This theory holds that the Paris round was different because the two hottest years on record in 2014 and 2015 combined with Pope Francis’ June Encyclical Laudato Si to make it impossible for climate denialists’ past tactics to gain traction with the public. Pope Francis’ speech in the U.S. Congress made it more difficult for their representatives in the chambers to make full-throated attacks on the science and on efforts to protect the most vulnerable. People are perceiving climate change in a different way than they did, even as recently as 2009.

Hypothesis 2: Fight the battle at home. In this theory, fossil fuel industries didn’t even bother undermining Paris since they know it rests entirely on national-level actions. Oil, gas, and coal lobbies are much more effective in Washington than in Brussels or in Bonn, the headquarters of the EU and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), respectively. Being visibly negative on the big stage in Paris was risky for major oil or gas companies. Rather, simply sabotaging Obama’s Clean Power Plan, attacking Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implementation of the effort through congressional appropriations, and tipping the presidential election in November for a pro-fossil candidate probably seemed to be far better bets with less downside risk.

In this view, the denial machine has become strongly institutionalized within the Republican Party, arguably at a far stronger level than was the case during the second George W. Bush administration. In 2016 no Republican presidential candidate has dared to utter the words that climate change is a real and actionable threat. A more sophisticated manipulation of climate politics has emerged, involving top PR companies, millions of dollars in TV ads, inside lobbying, and massive campaign efforts we will see in the months ahead.

Hypothesis 3: The treaty is too weak to bother. A third view holds that fossil fuel interests have already won the climate battle by driving down what can even be proposed in global governance of this issue. There is nothing binding in the treaty: everything important is expressed as Parties (nations) “should” take an action, not “shall.” Top-down, binding approaches to dividing up the remaining atmospheric space are entirely off the table. By this reckoning, the fossil fuel industry has won already.

On the positive side, leaders have stated important goals to which civil society can now hold governments accountable, including keeping warming to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, with the aspirational goal of staying under 1.5 degrees. But several top climate scientists have argued that in fact the gap between those goals and the actions actually offered is so great as to make Paris inadequate. In some experts’ view, the reliance of the agreement on negative emissions by unproven BECSS (biomass energy carbon sequestration and storage) methods makes it a fantasy. Since nothing legally binding was really up for grabs, there was no need for the fossil fuel industry to try to drive the negotiations, and it wound up as inadequate scientifically anyway.  

Outlines of an emerging strategy

So which of these hypotheses is the most plausible?  Our answer is that it’s likely some combination of all of them. First, outright opposition to the Paris climate accord was unpalatable in the much-changed cultural landscape of America in 2015. After the pope’s visit, the increasing recognition of the connection between the California drought and climate change, and an uptick in public concern about climate change with seemingly increasing weird weather events, outright denial of the issue was no longer an option. Additionally, since ExxonMobil is now being investigated for misleading their investors on their knowledge of climate change since back in the 1980s, continued insistence on denying the science of climate change could further exacerbate their legal situation. So corporate interests had to try to exert leverage on this process, but not in a public way. 

Overall our read is that fossil fuel interests have played a rather duplicitous game of simultaneous nominal public support for and quieter private opposition to the Paris COP21 accords. Essentially, they said that they supported the accord, while acting to undermine it. First, the fossil fuel industry’s long-term strategy of facilitating and supporting opposition in the Republican Party to any climate accord has clearly paid off by creating an effective firewall against any global binding treaty in the U.S Senate. It was a foregone conclusion at Paris that the agreement could not have any binding components that would require Senate approval. This guaranteed that only a weak and mostly symbolic outcome could emerge from COP21.

Rather, fossil fuel interests continue to work in the domestic U.S. political arena to undermine any climate change action that would come close to what scientists now tell us is necessary. On the one hand, ExxonMobil released a statement of support of the COP21 proceedings in which they maintain their support for an “all of the above” energy strategy. Their level of complacency can be seen by a piece in ClimateWire, which observed that oil majors are barely shifting their overall business strategies.

But on the other hand, even as the Paris conference was ongoing, ExxonMobil was working with other fossil fuel interests to undermine the main basis of the reduction pledge the U.S. brought to Paris: the Clean Power Plan. As nations met in Paris, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona for three days to figure out how to scuttle the power plan.  This is the group that had orchestrated the lawsuits against the EPA for the Plan, an effort that was successful in leading the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a temporary stay against its enactment.

For the past couple years, ExxonMobil has sometimes maintained that the correct way to address climate change is through a carbon tax. However based on statements by top company officials, it is unclear if they actually do support such a tax, and if so, whether they would support a tax at a level adequate to address the issue.

During and just following the COP21 agreement in Paris, fossil fuel interests rolled out sophisticated ads designed to enhance the corporate reputation of fossil fuel interests and influence the fall 2016 elections. ExxonMobil’s ads ambiguously describe how “Energy Lives Here,” and their #beanengineer campaign depicted the exalted lives of engineers, which no one could oppose. Chevron’s ads, meanwhile, talked about their staff as “doers”.

Even more visibly, the Vote4Energy campaign has been running ads on nearly every presidential debate, major sporting event, and news show. The campaign’s website rails against red tape and regulations, and asks voters to sign a pledge to support “A true ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy that values and leverages America’s full-range of energy resources.” Quite difficult to find is information that this is the campaign of the American Petroleum Institute. Kantar media data show that spending for these campaigns is going through the roof, reflecting where fossil fuel industry is placing its bets in 2016. As public opinion expert Riley Dunlap points out, it is likely that the amount of coverage of climate change and energy issues in the news in 2016 will be far outweighed by these fossil industry commercials.

So we see a very sophisticated effort to steer the discourse around climate change into channels that allow business as usual to prevail. Fossil fuel industries and their supporters didn’t need to be major players at COP21, as they are focusing on shifting the cultural and institutional factors that will support or undermine any real and enduring action. Assessing the evidence, we suspect the fossil fuel industry saw COP21 as a grand sideshow of voluntary, unenforceable, and thus non-threatening goals that preserve the legitimacy of the UNFCCC process and little else. Ingolfur Blühdorn calls this sort of effort a systematic self-delusion that sustains unsustainability. As Kari Norgaard’s research suggests, people are deeply predisposed to accept positions that reassure them that they and their social institutions and family and friends are doing enough on climate, because to think otherwise would undermine our self-conceptions as decent people and a great country.

Still, it seems a high-risk strategy for the fossil-fueled denial industry to put all their bets on Republican candidates. Bernie Sanders has come out against fracking of natural gas, for example, but Hillary Clinton has not been clear about her position on fracked natural gas and the building of pipelines and power plants.

Indeed, 2015 turned out to be quite a different year than 2009, and for some observers, surprisingly positive on global action on climate change. But the stakes were truly much lower, since a binding accord was never on the table, precisely because the U.S. Senate had promised to not ratify any agreement with such elements.

Will the Paris Agreement shift society quickly away from fossil fuels? Not if ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute can avoid it. During the Paris negotiations ExxonMobil released a statement saying that: “ExxonMobil believes all economic energy sources will be necessary to meet growing global demand, and the evolution of the energy system toward lower atmospheric emissions will take many decades due to the energy system’s enormous scale, capital intensity, and complexity.”

ExxonMobil appears to be buying time, hoping to not scare away its investors. The battleground now has shifted from the halls and hallways of Le Bourget to the TV sets, computers, smartphones, and ultimately the voting booths of America. Who can best reach the hearts of Americans? Will they vote for “all of the above” energy system or a rapid shift to renewable energy?

The science suggests that getting off of all fossil fuels needs to happen very quickly indeed. The dark clouds of investigations about deception and lawsuits over the impacts of their products loom on the horizon, but the amount of time left for the fossil fuel industry to continue with business as usual is highly uncertain. The sea is rising, and fossil fuel empires appear to be beginning to contract. More research is needed, but from all observable signals, the fossil fuel industry seems to be investing in the best floodwall the Public Relations industry and Republican Party can provide.

Timmons Roberts is Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University, and author of over 70 articles and 12 books, including "Power in a Warming World", 2015, MIT Press. Robert Brulle is a Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University and co-editor of "Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives", 2015, Oxford University Press.