Fossil fuel gaslighting: accept climate change but undermine action

by Ian Dunlop | Oct 1, 2020 | Energy & Environment

Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry have enjoyed a meteoric rise in influence both locally and globally over the past few decades, writes Ian Dunlop. 

Despite the supposed success of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement in uniting disparate parties behind the common objective of tackling climate change, the words  “fossil fuels”, “coal”, “oil” or “gas” do not appear in the entire document, even though reduction in their carbon emissions is the agreement’s raison d’etre.

It is just one example of the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists. From the outset of international climate negotiations under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, industry representatives played a major role in influencing outcomes in favour of continued fossil fuel use, led in Australia’s case by the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network (AIGN).

The efforts of industry bodies such as the Business Council of Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Australian Institute of Petroleum, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, the Australian Aluminium Council, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group to undermine sensible climate and energy policy have been extensively documentedFrom the late 1990s, their efforts were coordinated under the umbrella of the AIGN, which continues today.

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Glencore, Peabody and BHP

The influence of fossil fuel leaders was further enhanced through industry advisory bodies in key international institutions such as the International Energy Agency (IEA). For many years the IEA demonstrated a strong bias toward fossil fuels and underestimated renewable energy, a position which continues to this day, undoubtedly influenced by fossil fuel industry pressure.

Industry’s forked tongue

Publicly the industry now accepts that climate change is real and caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions; every corporate and lobby group website has its commitment to sustainability, and in many cases a climate change plan. However, the urgency for action is yet to be accepted.

And in Australia, denial mounts. The recent “Gas-Led Recovery” and “Technological Roadmap” announcements of the  Morrison government confirm the continued influence of the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists, with the Prime Minister’s office, the Covid Commission and other advisory groups stacked with fossil fuel representatives.

Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have played a central role in the development of human civilisation. Without them, the explosion in population, economic activity and wealth creation would never have occurred. It is unsurprising that those who control the industry gained enormous influence over global and national affairs.

Australia is particularly well-endowed with, and thus heavily reliant on, fossil fuels. Coal and liquid natural gas comprise about 23% of Australia’s export income, with fossil fuels supplying about 94% of Australia’s primary energy needs.

Neoliberalism, which has dominated economic thinking for the past 40 years, emphasises deregulation, small government and globalisation, in the process handing ever more power to corporate and media players, particularly the fossil fuel industry.

In Australia, close alliances developed between corporate leaders, industry bodies, right-wing think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute in Australia, and like-minded media notably the Murdoch press, intent upon preserving the dominance of the fossil fuel industry. Political donations from the industry play a major role in inclining mainstream politics toward the industry’s preferences, particularly as neoliberalism becomes ever more extreme.

Bonuses undermined ethics

Lobbying was also turbo-charged by the introduction in the 1990s of performance-enhancing bonuses for senior corporate executives, paid for short-term performance. These bonuses fundamentally undermined the ethical basis for business. Because of the resulting short-termism, management sought to shore up their short-term benefits by preserving the status quo at the expense of longer-term considerations such as climate policy. Industry lobbying has been hugely successful, as witnessed by the 2011 campaign co-ordinated by the Minerals Council of Australia, which overturned the Rudd Government’s Mining Super Profits Tax.

But the exponential rise in fossil fuel consumption has brought the industry’s own nemesis – a huge rise in carbon emissions and their accelerating affect on the global climate. This is the issue that the industry has for three decades been desperately holding at bay and has been the main focus of its lobbying.

In June 1988, James Hansen, then Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified to the US Congress that: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now”.

But even before that leading oil companies had been aware of the impending crisis.

In 1978 Exxon said this: “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.

In 1988: Royal Dutch Shell said this: “By the time global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilise the situation.”

Predatory delay

While groups such as Exxon, Shell and Australian fossil fuel groups such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside, had the foresight to focus on the climate science and its implications, they decided to hide those implications to prolong the life of the fossil fuel industry.  Further, the industry deliberately set in train a process of deceit and misinformation [to prevent] any move toward carbon emission reduction. In essence a process of predatory delay, largely delivered by lobby groups

 Predatory delay has placed the industry in a cleft stick. The fossil fuel industry must be rapidly dismantled if human civilisation in its current form is to survive. Industry leaders who are genuinely concerned for the future of the planet, their social licence to operate and their children must accept the emergency reality, forget business-as-usual, and reframe strategy around emergency action to wind down the industry.

Read here for Ian Dunlop’s full article on Pearls and Irritations and the solutions he puts forward, and for the Lobbyland series on lobbyists in Australia.

Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is co-author of “What Lies Beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk”, and of the Club of Rome’s “Climate Emergency Plan”.

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