IPCC report’s analysis of fossil fuel industry left out of policymakers’ brief


The fossil fuel industry and its influence on politics was the main elephant in the room threatening to release the third and final report this week from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate authority. . The main source of contention: how to talk about climate change mitigation without confronting the fossil fuel industry? “It’s like Star Wars without Darth Vader,” says environmental sociologist Robert Brulle of Brown University.

The first two reports, both released within the last year, highlighted the physical science on climate effects and countries’ vulnerability to further warming. But this third report is more about potential solutions, which have been at the center of controversy in recent years, both for the fossil fuel industry and for the governments of oil-rich countries.

Social scientists have successfully lobbied for more of their research to be included in IPCC reports, with chapters that touch on everything from debunking claims that less-developed countries need fossil fuels to fight against poverty to a reduction in efforts to block climate policy. The report made one thing very clear: the technologies and policies needed to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests.

The role of the fossil fuel industry is highlighted throughout the report’s nearly 3,000 pages, but the researchers note that it was mysteriously absent from the “Summary for Policymakers” – traditionally the first part of the report that is published and often attracts the most media attention. An earlier version of the summary was leaked to the Guardianhowever, described the fossil fuel industry and others invested in a carbon-intensive economy as “vested interests” that have actively worked against climate policy, noting: “Factors limiting ambitious transformation include obstacles structural, incremental rather than systemic approach, lack of coordination, inertia, lock-in of infrastructure and assets, and lock-in due to vested interests, regulatory inertia and lack of technological capacity and human resources.

Brulle, whose research is cited several times in the report, was appalled to see the cut. “Scientists clearly did their job and provided a lot of evidence on climate obstruction activities in the report,” he says. “The political process of creating the Summary for Policymakers ended up suppressing all of this information.”

Unlike the research-oriented chapters, which are entirely vetted by the scientists who research and write them, the Summary for Policymakers must be approved by government officials from 195 countries around the world; the approval process for this year’s mitigation report was the longest and most contentious in IPCC history. According to leaked reports, officials from Saudi Arabia in particular have argued for multiple references to carbon capture and storage and watering down language on ending fossil fuel production.

Representatives of oil companies were also included in this process as authors and editors of the report, which has been the case since the beginning of the IPCC. For the latest report, a senior executive from Saudi Aramco – the Saudi state oil and gas company – was one of two coordinating lead authors, a position of considerable influence, for the chapter on cross-industry perspectives. A longtime Chevron employee was also the editor of the energy systems chapter.

“Obviously, none of this was secret,” notes Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Lausanne and lead author of the section on mitigation pathways compatible with long-term goals. While authors and contributors are required to disclose their affiliations, Steinberger says contributions from oil industry insiders represent an untenable conflict of interest.

“Just because a person fills out forms doesn’t mean they don’t have other interests at heart that don’t reflect science and the public interest, but more those of their employer.”

Despite the influence of oil companies and oil-rich countries, the report still highlights the influence of the fossil fuel industry on policy-making and eviscerates some of the industry’s pet myths. In the new chapter on “Demand, Services, and the Social Aspects of Mitigation,” for example, researchers have challenged the long-held belief that fossil fuel consumption is entirely demand-driven. “What we were able to demonstrate was actually the opposite: there is no sustainable development or development, period, possible without climate change mitigation,” said Steinberger, who helped draft the chapter. .

“Unless you mitigate the climate, the impacts are going to catch you at every step and make people’s lives more and more difficult and miserable, especially in the Global South.”

The link between social justice and climate change mitigation is recurrent throughout the report. “People are starting to realize how serious the climate crisis is and that the ways to address the challenges of the climate crisis – switching to low-carbon energy, caring for the environment, shifting transport – are also tending to improving energy security, justice, social concerns, there are a lot of win-wins and co-benefits,” says Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter and one of the two lead authors policy chapter coordinators.

According to Dana Fisher, director of the Society and Environment Program at the University of Maryland and contributing author on Chapter 13. Fisher’s research focuses on the impact that activism has had on climate policymaking. .

“We don’t have enough funding to support the kind of large-scale research that allows you to have high confidence in your findings,” she says, which limits the amount of social science research that can be used in The report.

Less than 1% of climate research funding from 1990 to 2018 went to the social sciences, including political science, sociology and economics. And this despite the fact that even physicists themselves agree that inaction on climate is unlikely to be resolved by more scientific evidence.

“In the 1980s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could just get the information to decision makers, they would do the right thing,” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, lead scientist for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy. “And now we see that it’s not really about an information deficit, but more about power relations and people who want to retain economic and political power. And so, just telling people a little more climate science isn’t going to help anything. »

This is not to say that there is no longer a need for atmospheric models or a better understanding of various aspects of climate science. But what this report shows very clearly is that climate action is not limited by a lack of scientific knowledge or technological options, but by entrenched power structures and an absence of political will. To address it effectively and act in time to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, social scientists agree: we will need more than climate models.

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global media collaboration boosting climate story coverage.


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