Implicatory Climate Denial: Why we don’t mitigate climate effectively

Last month the US EIA predicted that we will keep using fossil fuels at present scale past 2050. 

Energy Use

Another new report predicts that instead of the imperative reduction of emissions by half by 2030 we’ll be lucky to reduce emissions by 4%. 

Green house gas ((GHG) emissions from our use of fossil fuels have continued to rise ever since we first got serious about mitigating climate change in the early 90s. Why have we been so ineffectual in achieving treatment for this accidental, possibly fatal, side effect of our use of fossil fuels?

I’m going to sketch out a extended metaphor that hopefully will cast a little light on why we have failed to mitigate in order to help try and find a path to the successful mitigation we now need urgently.

Although the old, flat-earth, anti-science denial of climate change is no longer tenable, publics, policymakers and media are in society-wide denial – what sociologist Kari Norgaard labels implicatory denial : we know climate change is happening, accept the science, even understand that climate is an existential emergency, but we don’t act either reasonably or responsibly because we don’t want to do what must be done.

There are evolutionary reasons for denial; denial serves a purpose. Here’s a common example of implicatory denial:

Your doctor has been telling you for some time that you have a potentially fatal condition and that you have to change your lifestyle, your regime, change your diet, or give up a cause of your possible fatal condition. But you don’t want to – you’re addicted, or love your food too much or whatever. So, even though you accept the diagnosis, you procrastinate, or say you’ll take up jogging or go to the gym, but you don’t give up what is worsening you condition.

Lately doc is insistent that if you don’t act odds are you will soon be dead but you still won’t accept and act and you either tell yourself continuing lies or refuse to act or pretend to act ineffectually because you still don’t want to do the regime change needed.

We’ve known for decades that there is a potentially fatal accidental side effect from our use of fossil fuels. In the early 90s climate science and governments globally recognized that we would have to stop their use, transition away (or at least use fossil fuels without creating GHG emissions). The energy transition was a plan for how we could do this; there was time and carbon budget enough and international (Kyoto) agreement, but in key countries, in key parts of the global economy, this regime change plan was subverted by the fossil fuel companies, related businesses like banks and carmakers, by business groups and business dominated political organizations. 

We didn’t act effectively when it was still possible to mitigate within economic and political business as usual (BAU); fossil fuel use continued to increase (along with emissions) to this day – in fact, instead of regime change, our addiction, our bad diet, kept on increasing. Now we are where the doc (climate science) is telling us that our failure to act means that our condition will probably be fatal soon without emergency action – drastic regime change, reducing emissions by at least half by 2030, an impossibly short time.

And so denial has just gotten stronger. Publics don’t want to even consider drastically changing their lifestyles; no government wants to initiate heretical government action that would lower GDP even fractionally or risk a recession (let alone the deep systemic change needed), or risk national defense in a world where oil can still be the cause and best weapon in war.

And so we lie to ourselves, continue to procrastinate, kick the can down the road, etc, etc.  This is implicatory denial.

We need strong global governmental action to regulate an urgent wind-down of fossil fuel production and use, to actually keep fossil fuels in the ground – but we don’t want to go there, we don’t want to even consider this absolutely needed regime change. It is not allowed.

And so our condition continues to deteriorate and whatever time we have to effectively mitigate is wasting away. Because fossil fuels are so central, so needed, by our modern socio-economies. Since the Paris Agreement was signed trillions of dollars has been invested in continuing to expand fossil fuel production.

But if we don’t effectively mitigate – if we keep on using fossil fuels and don’t rapidly reduce emissions – we risk destroying everything we love and care about.

So we swear we’ll go on a real fitness regime; we’ll get out and jog, go to the gym, buy a high end bike and cycle miles – anything but actually change our regime. We lie to ourselves that an energy transition now will or can even remotely lower emissions enough in the crucial next seven years when this out-dated conception of mitigation has not worked for decades:

The energy transition is an ineffectual Rube Goldberg machine:

Energy transitions take decades we no longer have; historically new energy sources add to instead of displacing existing sources of energy; renewables aren’t decreasing fossil fuel use, and building renewable capacity of a scale needed to displace 50% of fossil fuel use by 2030 is now delusional.

We are still focused upon decarbonizing our energy system instead of essential emission reduction by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Mitigation is still attempting to phase out fossil fuels with only one arm of the climate policy scissors. Sure, fitness is good, but we’re not addressing the basic problem, constraining fossil fuel production isn’t allowed.

And even if we could build, build build enough renewables fast enough to replace fossil fuels, the continuing demand for their use globally will be so strong that without regulation to keep them in the ground, their use will just be displaced to other jurisdictions. 

We know climate is becoming extremely dangerous but the mitigation regime now needed is unthinkable so denial becomes even stronger and we dream up wild schemes that let us continue fossil fuel expansion even as the clock runs out. 

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) will be a part of the solution but in the short term only a very limited solution. Substituting LNG for coal, one fossil fuel for another, doesn’t lower emissions if you consider fugitive methane. Plans for drawing down emissions in the second half of the century, after we’ve achieved ‘net-zero’ by 2050, is the height of delusional denial – just an excuse to expand fossil fuel use production and use today. Geo-engineering is a potential nightmare.

The doc would tell us – if we would listen – that what will kill us isn’t likely a monotonic slow decline to death but more probably our deteriorating condition will weaken us so that a predatory virus or failure of our heart or some such will kill us sometime in our predicted final year or the stress of ill health will cause death by accident or suicide.

We risk total societal breakdown not just through incremental extreme weather, famine, or threat multiplication leading to war, but by non-linear dangers: abrupt climate change, runaway warming, possibly a cascade of feedbacks leading to Hothouse Earth. We are close to if not over the historic CO2 ppm threshold for these latent feedbacks.

Now to conclude my extended metaphor:

If the guy in denial won’t act appropriately to treat his fatal condition, I guess he’s chosen to die (even though nobody’s life is completely their own), but in the case of implicatory climate denial we greatly benefit from both the production and use of fossil fuels today but the damage and long term consequences falls disproportionately on innocents in more vulnerable countries today and all generations in the future. To think it’s our business if or how we treat this fatal condition is not due diligence to all who will be effected. 

In most religions and in ethics across the political spectrum you can’t keep doing something on your property or something that benefits you when it causes damage to your neighbour and community. Asbestos and fentanyl are examples of useful products with a potentially fatal side effect that are now illegal to produce and sell. 

It’s easy to see why greedy managers and investors are happy staying in denial or why legislators afraid of deep transformative change don’t want to even think about policies that have to upset BAU, but effective mitigation is what we owe those who will be effected, even if it means pain and dislocation today. Denial leading to inaction is unconscionable; it is criminal.

But we can’t survive without fossil fuels. 

Yes we can and we must act fast to protect all of our futures. If we cut our production and use of fossil fuels by half by 2030 we would still have a per capita energy use equivalent to North Americans in the 1960s; we are currently some 40 times subsistence levels; we have highly developed technological innovation skills and immense built up wealth. 

It is still possible to reduce our production and use of fossil fuels if we got out of denial, got out of ineffectual, pretend mitigation, and organize, nationally and globally – emergency coalition governments and a strong, binding and enforceable fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

Powering down to a very differently configured socio-economy would require leadership and stability measures from governments (like Covid) and would certainly be difficult because we have left it so late and have so little time and are not governance prepared, but look at all the options going forward and there really is no choice.

We consistently downplay the existential dangers and the urgency regarding effective treatment in order to try and shoehorn mitigation into continuing political and economic BAU. Admit out loud that this isn’t possible anymore, that climate IS AN EMERGENCY.

Hopeful climate disinformation has been rife even before President Biden’s IRA funding for the energy transition. ‘Climate solutions’ stories in the media; messaging about everything but fossil fuels from groups such as Drawdown; anti-doomer false hope commentary from climate intelligentsia figures like Michael Mann and Hannah RItchie: all implying that mitigation is still possible in incremental, business friendly policies and personal lifestyle tweaks in continuing BAU. This is delusional groupthink when we need deep emission reduction urgently; the energy transition is not going to displace fossil fuels anytime soon even if – and it’s a big if – the political and economic situation stays favourable. Hopeful disinformation just buttresses denial and helps the delayers run out the clock.

The uncomfortable knowledge that a regulated wind-down of fossil fuel production is now essential can be dismissed as well as denied. The recent National Academies of Science decarbonization report (like the IPCC AR6 mitigation report) completely ignores supply-side policies – probably because they are perceived to be dangerous and disruptive to the economy. Did the authors of these mitigation policy reports pragmatically and consciously omit supply-side policies or did they unconsciously self-edit?

It’s late in the day – maybe already too late, but with COP28 coming up and the extraordinary spike in temperature and extreme weather maybe waking people up, there is an opportunity. Time maybe to consider a failsafe emission reduction pathway that could reduce emissions enough urgently?

Can we get out of denial enough to consider the effective mitigation steps we need to take to finally get on top of the climate change problem and begin to remove this sword from over our heads? Can we do the right thing and commit to due diligence to future generations?

Bill Henderson is a climate activist from Canada

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