MUST READ: Why science failed to stop climate change: How the energy companies took us all

by NAOMI ORESKES November 18, 2019 read full article in Salon here

It’s a tale for all time. What might be the greatest scam in history or, at least, the one that threatens to take history down with it. Think of it as the climate-change scam that beat science, big time…

….Scientists working on the issue have often told me that, once upon a time, they assumed, if they did their jobs, politicians would act upon the information. That, of course, hasn’t happened. Anything but, across much of the planet. Worse yet, science failed to have the necessary impact in significant part because of disinformation promoted by the major fossil-fuel companies, which have succeeded in diverting attention from climate change and successfully blocking meaningful action….

….The [recent] comments of Republican committee members offer a sense of just how deeply the climate-change disinformation campaign is now lodged in the heart of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans as 2019 draws to an end and the planet visibly heats. Consider just six of their “facts”:

1. The misleading claim that climate change will be “mild and manageable.”There is no scientific evidence to support this. On the contrary, literally hundreds of scientific reports over the past few decades, including those U.S. National Climate Assessments, have affirmed that any warming above 2 degrees Centigrade will lead to grave and perhaps catastrophic effects on “health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.” The U.N.’s IPCC has recently noted that avoiding the worst impacts of global warming will “require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy… infrastructure… and industrial systems.”…

2. The misleading claim that global prosperity is actually being driven by fossil fuels. No one denies that fossil fuels drove the Industrial Revolution and, in doing so, contributed substantively to rising living standards for hundreds of millions of people in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. But the claim that fossil fuels are the essence of global prosperity today is, at best, a half-truth because what is at stake here isn’t the past but the future. Disruptive climate change fueled by greenhouse gas emissions from the use of oil, coal, and natural gas now threatens both the prosperity that parts of this planet have already achieved and future economic growth of just about any sort. Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank and one of the foremost experts on the economics of climate change, has put our situation succinctly this way: “High carbon growth self-destructs.”

3. A misleading claim that fossil fuels represent “cheap energy.” Fossil fuels are not cheap. When their external costs are included — that is, not just the price of extracting, distributing, and profiting from them, but what it will cost in all our lives once you add in the fires, extreme storms, flooding, health effects, and everything else that their carbon emissions into the atmosphere will bring about — they couldn’t be more expensive. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the cost to consumers above and beyond what we pay at the pump or in our electricity bills already comes to more than $5 trillion dollars annually. That’s trillion, not billion. Put another way, we are all paying a massive, largely unnoticed subsidy to the oil, gas, and coal industry to destroy our civilization. Among other things, those subsidies already “damage the environment, caus[e]… premature deaths through local air pollution, [and] exacerbat[e] congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use.”

4. A misleading claim about poverty and fossil fuels. That fossil fuels are the solution to the energy needs of the world’s poor is a tale being heavily promoted by ExxonMobil, among others. The idea that ExxonMobil is suddenly concerned about the plight of the global poor is, of course, laughable or its executives wouldn’t be planning (as they are) for significant increases in fossil-fuel production between now and 2030, while downplaying the threat of climate change. As Pope Francis, global justice leader Mary Robinson, and former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon — as well as countless scientists and advocates of poverty reduction and global justice — have repeatedly emphasized, climate change will, above all, hurt the poor. It is they who will first be uprooted from their homes (and homelands); it is they who will be migrating into an increasingly hostile and walled-in world; it is they who will truly feel the heat, literal and figurative, of it all. A fossil-fuel company that cared about the poor would obviously not be committed, above all else, to pursuing a business model based on oil and gas exploration and development. The cynicism of this argument is truly astonishing….

5. Misleading assertions about the costs of renewable energy. The cheap fossil fuel narrative is regularly coupled with misleading assertions about the allegedly high costs of renewable energy. According to Bloomberg News, however, in two-thirds of the world, solar is already the cheapest form of newly installed electricity generation, cheaper than nuclear, natural gas, or coal. Improvements in energy storage are needed to maximize the penetration of renewables, particularly in developed countries, but such improvements are happening quickly. Between 2010 and 2017, the price of battery storage decreased a startling 79% and most experts believe that, in the near future, many of the storage problems can and will be solved.

6. The false claim that, under President Trump, the U.S. has actually cut greenhouse gas emissions. Republicans have claimed not only that such emissions have fallen but that the United States under President Trump has done more to reduce emissions than any other country on the planet. One environmental reporter, who has described herself as “accustomed to hearing a lot of misinformation” about climate change, characterized this statement as “brazenly false.” In fact, U.S. CO2 emissions spiked in 2018, increasing by 3.1% over 2017. Methane emissions are also on the rise and President Trump’s proposal to rollback methane standards will ensure that unhappy trend continues….

….ExxonMobil loves to accuse me of being “an activist.” I am, in fact, a teacher and a scholar. Most of the time, I’d rather be home working on my next book, but that increasingly seems like less of an option when Big Energy’s climate-change scam is ongoing and our civilization is, quite literally, at stake. When citizens are inactive, democracy fails — and this time, if democracy fails, as burning California shows, so much else could fail as well. Science isn’t enough. The rest of us are needed. And we are needed now.

Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. She is coauthor, with Erik Conway, of Merchants of Doubt. Her latest book is Why Trust Science?