The most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988 to monitor changes in climate, has concluded that limiting the impacts of global warming “is necessary to achieve sustainable development and equity, including poverty eradication”. It has also shown that, in order to effectively tackle climate change, by limiting environmental warming to less than 2 degrees celsius, over two thirds of our carbon reserves must now be left in the ground. The IPCC report has been approved by 195 of the world’s nations and the G20 has launched an investigation into the potential global financial risks posed by fossil fuel companies continuing to invest in projects that could be left worthless by international action on climate change. There is both scientific and political consensus that climate change, as a man-made problem, requires human intervention to slow it’s steady progress. So why then, do certain individuals and groups within business and politics continue to cast doubt on the validity of climate change science?
At a fossil fuel conference in Houston last week, the chairman of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, said that global warming was “an environmental crisis predicted by flawed computer models”. In Australia, a country already facing increased extreme weather events, an Australian Academy of Science report has warned that a 2C temperature rise will “lead directly to loss of life and will have a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of communities.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, until recently a complete climate change denier, has declared that “coal is good for humanity”. While many struggle to envisage the long-term impact of the fossil fuel industry on our environment, even the immediate dangers are being ignored by some. A US Geological Survey report last week confirmed what many have suspected for several years; that the injection of wastewater from the fracking process into underground wells can result in earthquakes. In Oklahoma last year, there were 600 quakes of more than magnitude 3, an average of almost 2 a day compared to an average of 2 per year prior to 2008. In 2013, the fracking industry in that state disposed of 1.1 billion barrels of water into the ground. While Oklahoma finally accepted the scientific evidence connecting these two events, the following day state legislation was passed prohibiting cities and towns from regulating oil and gas drilling in their areas. It was argued that local regulation would create too much confusion for the oil operators. Additionally, calls for a moratorium on fracking in parts of the state have also been met with resistance by the oil and gas companies, with the state regulatory body, the Oklahoma Corporation Committee, having no authority to impose such a halt to drilling.
There are obvious economic reasons for those profiting from the fossil fuel industry to argue for its continuation. However, fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson stated, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels”, 45 years after the first Earth Day and Nixon’s establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and 25 years after George H. W. Bush declared, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways”, there is still doubt being cast on the scientific fact of anthropogenic climate change and damage to the environment.
In their fascinating 2010 book Merchants of Doubt (also a 2014 documentary), Naomi Oreskes and Erik M.Conway track how a handful of scientists, funded by governments and corporations, have cast doubt on the science surrounding the dangers of tobacco, DDT, acid rain, the ozone hole and now climate change. Driven by free market fundamentalism they pushed an agenda to discredit scientific consensus on those issues in order to avert any calls for government regulation of business. They have been aided by the media, who give as much attention to the minority of doubters as to the thousands of peer reviewed scientific reports produced over the past 40 years which have proven climate change and humankind’s role in it. The doubts that have been created by this allow politicians, business leaders and media mouthpieces to continue calling climate change a “theory”, based on “flawed evidence” and to cite a heavy fall of snow as proof of its falsity, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
As economic gain is what is driving the fossil fuel companies who remain entrenched in climate change denial, the answer may lie in divestment. In September last year, the Rockefellers, a family whose wealth was originally built on oil, divested $50 billion from fossil fuel companies. Some of the world’s top universities have also made such divestments, investing instead in the development of renewable energies. Even the banks, including HSBC and the Bank of England, are warning that continued investment in fossil fuels is a risky business, given that you may be investing in a product that, ultimately, will never leave the ground, through either regulation or demand being increasingly met by alternative energy sources. While many still seem happy to ignore or belittle the scientific evidence of rising temperatures and sea levels, it is hard to imagine such a display of bravado in the face of falling share prices and profits.
Naomi Oreskes on Merchants of Doubt:
Jon Stewart on Oklahoma Fracking:
Other information from:
30th April 2015