Opportunism in climate change denying: high confidence
“So they knew.” These words were proffered by the US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during the hearing with Martin Hoffert, former Exxon scientist, about the company’s extensive knowledge of the current climate crisis.
The politician is referring to an extensive study conducted by the giant oil company since the 1970s to estimate carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and predict impacts in nature and livelihoods. As pointed out during the session, Exxon scientists were able to predict with astonishing accuracy current atmospheric carbon levels as well as its impacts such as sea-level rise, more intense rain and snow, inundation, hotter temperatures, desertification, and agricultural disruption. Using their own words (extracted from memos dating back 1970): the effects of fossil fuel emissions could “indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the world’s population).”
With such knowledge in their hands and the possibility to take the opportunity to make a progressive paced shift to cleaner fuels and energy, the company decided to go the opposite way. The current investigation brought by the New York State Attorney General’s office accuses the company of sowing doubt about the climate crisis and defrauding investors by misleading them on the projected cost of climate change regulations. It was at least US$30 million spent by the firm on climate change denial think tanks and organizations. And Exxon is far from being the only one acknowledging climate crisis but supporting climate change denialism.
Their strategy — with their allied voices — allowed them to keep the world sirens off as they continued to drop gigatons after gigatons of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. This activity led us to the current crisis and postponed the necessary climate action while the damages would be mostly reversible.
If scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is about 99%, why these deniers have such a powerful voice? These corporations benefit from uncertainty.
They understand that different concepts of uncertainty can be applied — or explored — when it comes to an understanding of the effects and impacts of global warming. In this case, the scientific community applied the idea as the degree of confidence that decision-makers have about possible outcomes of specific decisions and probabilities of these outcomes. On the other hand, the deniers explore the term as a state of incomplete knowledge that may be resulting from lack of information or disagreement about the knowns and the unknowns.
They also understand people’s behaviour and how they feel motivated or not to take action based on how humans respond to risk and uncertainty. The emergence of the risk must be tangible enough so people can properly balance of costs and benefits from their actions.
It gives room for those who actively speak against climate action and create doubt over a scientific consensus. As being part of the multi-billion dollar industry of fossil fuels, financing campaigns, and politicians, these firms are misleading leadership to spread confusion and prevent climate change policy in an opportunistic strategy of buying time. As our action windows is closing by the next 11 years, time is definitely not for sale. As in the case of the Exxon Mobil trial, we must point out their contradictions and hold those actors accountable. What is evident by their actions is that they not only acknowledge the human-conducted theory of climate change, as they were preparing for future scenarios while keeping the world captive from their activities to extract every last drop of profit.
It does not mean that we are naive to ignore that a paradigmatic change in production and consumption patterns to mitigate climate impacts means high costs, losses, and challenges. The call here is for transparency and coherence in addressing a vital global issue.
We cannot allow a powerful actor like President Trump to continue to downplay global warming research while proposing the purchase of Greenland from Denmark in a strategy to put both feet on the melting-Arctic treasure [+].
Instead of conduct policies to address the global challenge, major players are joining the corporations’ game of buying time to turn global warming into national advantages. If it is the case, these players are preparing to reproduce the status quo — and its inequalities — in a chaotic world.
Another relevant case of misleading leadership regarding climate action is from the Brazilian government. Brazil, that once was a global leader on climate action, now spreads obscurantism over its environmental national and foreign policy. The Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo, is one of the most aggressive advocates of climate change denialism. During a conference at the conservative Heritage Foundation in the US, Araujo repeated the climate skeptics overused (and already overcame) argument. He says that there was a lack of scientific proof over the causes of global warming, as also environmentalists were spreading alarmism for political ends as part of a Marxist-Gramscian conspiracy against the United States and Brazil to attack their sovereignty.
Probably in the face of ever-growing evidence, the minister is slowly changing his speech. If at the beginning of the year, he would say there is no global warming, now he confirms the threat but minimizes the human influence on the issue by saying: “So is there climate change? Yes, certainly, there has always been. Is it man-made? Many people say yes, we don’t know for sure.” And he blames uncertainty:”Because every statement in the IPCC report classifies high, medium or low confidence. So there is medium confidence that trends in intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected in a period that basically since 1950. So there isn’t a thing like a climate catastrophe to me at least.” Araujo affirms.
His speech confirms Laura Howe words — a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University: “In the context of global warming specifically, scientific uncertainty has been of great interest, in part because of concerted efforts by so-called ‘merchants of doubt’ to minimize public concern about the issue by explicitly labelling the science as ‘uncertain.’”
So, if we want to react, we should embrace uncertainty and take it by its appropriate assumption. That, especially for complex issues like climate change, scientific uncertainty will always exist at some level. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t face the costs of mitigating and adapting. On the contrary, it means that we can’t keep business as usual in an uncertain world.
Among many things science can’t be precise, there is a lot of settled knowledge we can be sure. There is no uncertainty on how burning fossil fuels release CO2 into the atmosphere and that concentration of CO2, among other gases, trap heat through the greenhouse effect. And that excessive concentration of GHGs is causing global warming as these gases are released faster than it can be absorbed in the natural cycles. Finally, with a greater than 90% probability, our activities are very likely the main reason for increased global temperatures. Scientists have very high confidence that sea levels are rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, glaciers and permafrost are melting, and biodiversity is being affected.
We don’t know precisely how catastrophic our future would be. However, we know that acting now to reduce emissions gives us a great chance to limit the risks and the severity of the impacts we could face. We must embrace this certainty, hold our leaders accountable to it and demand coherent action now.