Since the early 1980s, there has been a perception that investing in climate-based research is the defining factor of climate action. However, in my research on climate misinformation campaigns, I have found a lack of research in the social sciences that could promote good climate policy, and an overemphasis on the physical sciences. It’s clear that all the information in the world is not going to change the hearts and minds of fossil fuel companies—the world’s biggest CO2 producers. Furthermore, it is one thing to present the hard facts and projections on climate change to a global audience (even when the messages are constantly muffled and overlooked), but something entirely different to rally tangible support for concrete policies.
Even attempts by our best governmental institutions to attack climate change face serious roadblocks from the fossil fuel industry. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its final assessment report in February, but it was conspicuously missing the sections about the influence that fossil fuels have on climate policy. This report differed from previous ones because its focus was on giving potential solutions and offering climate mitigation strategies for policymakers. Even though the report mentioned the fossil fuel industry, its role in climate change was missing from the “Summary for Policymakers” section. This was no coincidence. For the IPCC to publish that section, it first had to be approved by government representatives from 195 countries, and this year’s approval process was the longest in the history of the IPCC. Most of the public is unaware that oil company representatives are included in the approval process as authors and editors, which undoubtedly creates a conflict of interest.
The lack of social science research and engagement in tackling climate change is one of our society’s major roadblocks, and climate research funding is badly allocated. A recent study found that less than 1% of research funding devoted to climate change from 1990 to 2018 was allocated towards social sciences. Atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, who is a senior scientist for Breakthrough Energy (a group of organizations founded by Bill Gates), explains that scientists are coming to the conclusion that climate change cannot be solved with more scientific evidence. As Caldeira explains, “It’s not about information deficit, it’s about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power. And so just telling people some more climate science isn’t going to help anything.”
As far as tangible climate action goes, things are not looking good. The Trump administration gutted more than 100 environmental protections for air and water pollution, and Joe Biden’s administration has done little to correct that path. Biden campaigned on promises to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030, but his plan never made it through Congress. He has approved more drilling permits on public lands in the West and in Alaska than Trump did in his first year in office.
For decades, fossil fuels have been doing much more than just selling gas. ExxonMobil was the pioneer of misinformation campaigns long before the internet. In the 70s and 80s, head of Exxon public relations Herb Schmertz essentially turned the media into a tool for fossil fuel propaganda. He and his team successfully misled the public and harassed journalists into covering the fossil fuels side of the story. He also lobbied for First-Amendment rights in the corporate sector against any media relations that would make it harder to import these tactics. Notably, Schmertz briefly left Exxonmobil to advertise for JFK’s presidential campaign. Half of fossil fuel companies’ ability to survive is due to their capacity to manipulate culture, politics, and the way people think about the environment.
Based on the U.S.’s current trajectory, it is hard to see any incentive for corporations to go green. People invest in fossil fuels because they make for lucrative business, and there are no limits to the exploitation. Even Democratic members of Congress like Senators John Hickenlooper and Tom Carpenter, who both sit on energy and national resource committees, are major shareholders in the fossil fuel industry. No matter how many treaties are signed or initiatives established, climate change cannot be fought without addressing the elephant in the room: the leverage that fossil fuels have over our economy and global well-being. Looking deeper into modern dysfunctional climate policy and education, it always comes down to money. Until we address these conflicts of interest head-on, we will continue to live in a stalemate.
Avery Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.