What obstruction to Biden’s climate initiative will look like
Here it comes.
As President Biden announced new ambitious climate goals for the United States Thursday, opponents to climate action — aided by top public relations firms around the country — began blanketing the airways with a combination of obstruction and greenwashing.
We knew they were going to do this, because we’ve seen it many times before.
Throughout the 1990s leading up to Kyoto Protocol negotiations, fossil fuel interests continuously argued against climate action at the international level. Opponents’ arguments consisted of four key points:
- The proposed actions will hurt the economy and will create job losses and lower the U.S. standard of living
- The scale of the issue requires global action, but the Kyoto Protocol holds major emitters such as China and India, to a different standard, giving them a free ride and hurting the U.S. in international trade efforts
- The science of climate change is uncertain, especially regarding the timing and nature of the impacts, and do not justify such a radical economic actions that will end up hurting the economy
- Voluntary measures by industry and technological innovation are adequate to address climate action, and the fossil fuel industry is already taking these actions and are part of the solution.
The arguments worked: the Kyoto Protocol was adopted by most of the world, but the United States didn’t ratify the agreement. Similar arguments were used to defuse the threat of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in the U.S. Senate in 2009 and in 2015 to battle back Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Former President Trump repeatedly used these arguments in defending his abrupt withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017.
The terrain has shifted since those earlier efforts at obstruction. As climate change has become irrefutably perceptible to most people and disasters mount, the imperative for zeroing out emissions in a few decades is clear. Biden has put forward an ambitious goal of the U.S. reducing its emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels, while enthusiasm for action on climate change has grown in the country. The U.S. goal is not by any means the strongest in the world: Costa Rica has pledged 100 percent reductions by next year and the European Union’s goal is 55 percent from a tougher baseline of 1990. However, the 50 percent U.S. goal is a remarkable shift in ambition from previous administrations.
With the writing on the wall for fossil fuel companies and allies, their opposition tactics are evolving.
Rather than denying climate change, this time fossil fuel companies have wheeled out focus group-tested “net zero” pledges that rely on carbon capture and storage and massive tree-planting projects — all while continuing to profit from a business model based on carbon pollution. Expect to be bombarded with advertisements, opinion pieces mouthing fossil fuel company talking points such as how “innovation” is the solution, and new “grassroots” groups being created by PR companies to try to convince us that there is real popular support for continuing the fossil fuel economy.
We know this because we’ve seen it before, and we are already seeing it now. These arguments also happen at the state level, where we’re hearing the same arguments and excuses. Chambers of commerce, industry associations, real estate industry trade groups, natural gas and power plant companies all repeat these same points and use the same playbook.
Americans need to recognize these tactics for what they are: propaganda. Fossil fuel companies have bragged in leaked internal documents about their ability to mold the “collective unconscious” of the U.S. citizens. They have successfully done so for 30 years, and now they are likely to turn to their standard playbook to manipulate public and elite opinion to stop climate action. Expect billions of dollars to be spent on the latest state-of-the-art propaganda techniques to stop climate action.
After decades of obstruction on climate change, it’s time we got wise. Just as tobacco companies lost their social license to advertise cigarettes to children, fossil fuel companies should lose their credibility with the American public.
How can this be accomplished? Public relations firms and professionals should cease their engagement with companies that promote climate opposition. Federal and state legislators and agencies must make sure that laws against false advertising and greenwashing are passed and enforced. The media must avoid framing stories about climate change with false choices such as the environment versus the economy and whether the country can act on climate without other countries. And policymakers must become vigilant as to how lobbyists and influencers can steer and manipulate the public agenda for their private interests.
J. Timmons Roberts is the Ittleson professor of environment and Society and professor of sociology at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. He is executive director of the Climate Social Science Network.
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