5 Climate Politics and Policies
5 Climate Politics and Policies
- Joseph Romm
This chapter will explain the most commonly used or discussed climate policies around the world. It will also explore some of the issues involving climate politics.
What climate policies are governments around the world using to fight climate change?
The major policies used by governments to slow or reverse the growth in a country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generally fall into four basic categories: economic, regulatory, technological, and forestry/land-use policies. The first category focuses on economic policies aimed at raising the price of carbon dioxide (and other GHG) emissions or subsidizing the cost of carbon-free energy sources. The goal of a carbon price is to have the economic cost of burning hydrocarbons (coal, oil, and natural gas) reflect the actual harm their emissions cause to humans and society. The two primary ways that carbon pricing is achieved is through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, both of which are discussed herein. Putting a price directly on CO2 emissions does not necessarily mean that fossil fuels cannot be used to generate energy, only that doing so becomes more costly. The goal of subsidies for nuclear power or renewable forms of energy (such as solar and wind) is to similarly level the economic playing field but to do so in a targeted manner that encourages deployment of new technologies, which generally brings their cost down.
p. 176↵The second category focuses on regulatory policies aimed at either increasing the use of clean energy or reducing the emissions of GHGs. Examples include fuel economy standards for vehicles, energy efficiency standards for appliances, renewable energy standards that require electricity (or vehicle fuel) to incorporate a certain minimum percentage of carbon-free sources, and limits on carbon dioxide emissions from different facilities such as electric power plants. The Clean Power Plan standards the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put in place in the Obama Administration are an example of a regulatory approach. Such policies can also target other major GHG emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide.
The third category focuses on research-based policies aimed at lowering the cost and improving the performance of low-carbon sources. This includes basic research into new materials. It also includes applied research and development of advanced energy efficiency technologies such as LED lighting, a next-generation solar panel, and a lower-cost electric car battery. Research-based policy also includes helping to pay part of the cost needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of a low-carbon energy system operating on a large scale, such as a coal plant with carbon capture and storage.
The fourth category focuses on land and forestry policies aimed at reducing GHG emissions from deforestation and agricultural practices. Some countries, such as Brazil, have made significant reductions in their net emissions from deforestation. At one point, deforestation and land use policies were responsible for almost 20% of global GHG emissions, but now the number is closer to 10% if we just look at GHG emissions from deforestation and other land-use changes.
What is a carbon tax?
A carbon tax is a tax on the carbon content of hydrocarbon fuels or on the carbon dioxide emitted by those fuels when they are converted into energy. Hydrocarbons fuels—such as p. 177↵coal, oil, and natural gas—contain carbon, which turns into carbon dioxide after combustion. In economics, the total economic harm caused by a pollutant such as carbon dioxide can be considered an external cost that can be estimated and added to the price of that fossil fuel. If that “social cost of carbon” could fully account for all of the costs to society of emitting that pollutant, and if the tax were equal to that social cost, then businesses and other entities would reduce their use of fossil fuels in the most optimum and efficient manner. In practice, given the myriad projected impacts of climate change, many of which are unprecedented, coupled with uncertainties about exactly when these impacts will hit and how we should value future costs versus current ones, there is a large range in estimates of the social cost of carbon.
A number of countries have a carbon tax. Norway and Sweden introduced carbon taxes in 1991. Many other European countries also have a price on carbon content of fuel. In 2012, Australia introduced a $24 per metric ton carbon tax for major industrial emitters and some government entities. Much of the revenue raised was returned to the public in the form of lower income taxes or increased pensions and welfare payments. By mid-2014, the tax had cut carbon emissions by as much as 17 million metric tons, according to one study. The Australian government repealed the tax in July 2014.
In 2008, Canada’s province of British Columbia (BC) launched the first economy-wide carbon tax in North America. It is “revenue neutral,” which is to say that the revenues raised by the tax are returned to consumers and businesses in the form of lower personal and corporate taxes. If some of the revenues were used to pay for government spending, such as increased research and development into clean energy technologies, it would not be revenue neutral. The BC tax started at $10 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, and it hit $30 a metric ton in 2012. That translates into approximately $0.25 a gallon of gasoline. From 2008 to 2012, one study found that fossil fuel consumption fell 17% in BC (and 19% compared to the rest of Canada).44
p. 178↵Many countries that do not have a significant (or any) carbon price do place a large tax on petroleum-based fuels, such as gasoline and diesel. These taxes are often substantially larger on gasoline than a typical carbon tax would be, but they pay for road repair and offset other externality costs associated with fuel consumption. In many European countries and Japan, the gasoline tax is typically a few dollars a gallon, whereas the vast majority of carbon taxes in place today add a cost to the price of gasoline that is one tenth that size.
What are cap-and-trade and carbon trading?
Cap-and-trade is a market-based environmental policy aimed at reducing pollution. It has emerged as one of the most popular means of reducing greenhouse gases (and other pollutants) worldwide. The European Union (EU) Emission Trading System is a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide adopted in 2003 that is “by far the world’s largest environmental pricing regime.”45
In a cap-and-trade system, the “cap” is a limit set by a governmental entity (such as the EPA) on the amount of a specific pollutant (such as carbon pollution or acid rain pollution) that an entire industrial sector (such as the utility industry) can emit. The cap is enforced by having that entity allocate or sell a limited number of permits or allowances, which give companies the “right” to pollute a certain amount. Companies cannot emit a pollutant without allowances to do so.
Those permits can then be sold on secondary markets comparable to the stock exchange. Companies that can cheaply and efficiently reduce their emissions below their allocation can sell those permits to other companies that find reducing emissions more costly. This is the “trade” part of cap and trade. The allocated permits are reduced over time in a specified fashion, which reduces the overall level of pollution. A shrinking cap generally means a rising price for the pollutant being traded. By specifying in advance how the cap or allocation will be p. 179↵reduced, this policy sends a long-term signal to businesses and other players in the marketplace that the price of this pollutant is likely to rise over time, thus incentivizing long-term investment in technologies and strategies that can reduce or replace CO2.
A cap-and-trade system is similar to a carbon tax in that both aim to set a price for carbon dioxide that will reduce its emission into the atmosphere. However, the cap-and-trade system lets the market set the price for carbon dioxide, whereas in a tax, the government sets the price. In theory, the cap-and-trade system is considered to be more flexible, economically efficient, and business friendly than the so-called command-and-control regulations made popular in the 1970s. Those regulations typically required a company to make a specific reduction in air or water pollution at every single facility it owned, even if some facilities or some companies could easily and cheaply make far deeper reductions and other facilities or companies could not. The cap-and-trade system is designed to achieve a comparable target level of overall economy-wide emissions reductions as the other pollution-reduction strategies while (1) rewarding the companies that are the most innovative or efficient at cutting pollution and (2) making certain that the target level of emissions is achieved at the least possible cost.
A 2013 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by two leading economic experts on cap-and-trade explains some of its history:
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency put in place a trading program to phase out leaded gasoline. It produced a more rapid elimination of leaded gasoline from the marketplace than had been anticipated, and at a savings of some $250 million per year compared with a conventional no-trade, command-and-control approach. Not only did President George H. W. Bush successfully propose the use of p. 180↵cap-and-trade to cut US SO2 [sulfur dioxide] emissions, his administration advocated in international forums the use of emissions trading to cut global CO2 emissions, a proposal initially resisted but ultimately adopted by the European Union. In 2005, President George W. Bush’s EPA issued the Clean Air Interstate Rule, aimed at reducing SO2 emissions by a further 70 percent from their 2003 levels. Cap-and-trade was again the policy instrument of choice.
The sulfur dioxide (or acid rain pollution) trading program was a cornerstone of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 89 to 11 and the House of Representatives by a vote of 401 to 21, including 87% of Republican members and more than 90% of Democrats in both houses. The trading system helped industry beat the emissions reduction targets at a lower cost than anyone had projected. An EPA study ultimately found that the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments had “benefits exceeding costs by a ratio of 25-to-1” by 2010. Costs in 2010 were approximately $53 billion, whereas benefits were $1.3 trillion. By 2010, the cumulative benefits included 1.8 million lives saved, 1.3 million heart attacks prevented, 137 million additional days of work (and productivity) because workers were healthier, and 26 million more school days because students were also healthier.
It was, in part, the economic, environmental, and political success of the acid rain program that led the Europeans to embrace cap and trade for greenhouse gases. The EU enacted their Emission Trading System to meet the targets they had committed to under the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which was to reduce collective EU emissions to 8% below 1990 levels during the 5-year period between 2008 and 2012. The EU Emission Trading System was criticized for issuing too many allowances, which ultimately led to a very low trading price for carbon dioxide, “less than 4 euros (around $5.25) per ton of carbon, down from nearly 30 euros in 2008,” as the New York Times p. 181↵explained in 2013. However, thanks in large part to the trading system, “Emissions have fallen by 14% among sectors covered by the program in countries that have participated since 2005.” So it was successful in achieving its goal and is likely to be central to the EU meeting the carbon dioxide target their members announced in 2014—cutting GHG emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
Likewise, the success of the acid rain program inspired many states to embrace a cap-and-trade system. For instance, California put in place a cap-and-trade system in 2013 to help meet its target of returning GHG emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020—with the eventual goal of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 for the state. In July 2017, the state passed a law extending the system through 2030, by which time California’s emissions must be 40% below 1990 levels.
In 2003, George Pataki, then Republican governor of New York, reached out to the governors of Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states “to develop a strategy that will help the region lead the nation in the effort to fight global climate change.” That in turn led to the creation of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in 2008, a cap-and-trade program whose goal was to cut CO2 emissions in the utility sector 10% by 2018. At one point, it encompassed 10 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. New Jersey exited RGGI in 2011.
There have been many efforts to start a nationwide cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide in the United States. Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, repeatedly introduced legislation in the United States Senate to set up such a system, but he never garnered sufficient votes to pass it. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives did pass a cap-and-trade bill, but legislation was ultimately never taken up in the Senate. Criticisms of the bill included concerns that it would be too complex and costly.
p. 182↵Many other countries are initiating cap-and-trade programs. In January 2015, South Korea launched a program as part of its effort to cut GHG emissions. South Korea’s carbon market is already one of the largest in the world, and in July 2017, South Korea’s president said its cap-and-trade system was the centerpiece of its climate policy.
In 2011, China launched pilot carbon trading in several cities and provinces, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen along with Guangdong and Hubei Provinces. In the fall of 2014, China pledged to cap total carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and, in 2015, announced it would launch a national cap-and-trade system in two years. In December 2017, China announced that it was starting the system, initially focusing on the utility sector and fossil fuel power plants. The Chinese cap-and-trade system is widely expected to become the largest carbon market in the world.
What are china and india doing to restrict carbon dioxide emissions?
“Both both China and India are set to overachieve their Paris Agreement climate pledges,” according to a May 2017 study by Climate Action Tracker. The Tracker is a joint project of three European think tanks who are monitoring progress on the Paris deal. That study also found that “China’s CO2 emissions appear to have peaked more than a decade ahead of its Paris Agreement commitment to peak its CO2 emissions before 2030.”
In November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping joined President Obama in the U.S.–China Joint Announcement, which stated “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” This was the first time a major developing nation—in this case, the largest and fastest-growing carbon emitter in the world—agreed to sharply change the trajectory of its carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption. This joint announcement was p. 183↵widely viewed as increasing the chances for a successful global treaty in Paris in December 2015. China experts I spoke to believe that China would not have agreed to the phrase “to make best efforts to peak early,” if their leaders did not believe that they could and would do so.46
The Chinese had already started to work toward a CO2 peak, with energy price reforms, strong fuel economy standards, and an aggressive effort to deploy clean energy technologies, which had made them world leaders in both manufacturing and utilizing solar power and wind power. In the new announcement, China committed to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.” That clean energy pledge “will require China to deploy an additional 800–1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030,” as the White House explained at the time. And that is “more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”
One week later, the Chinese government announced it would cap coal use by 2020. The Chinese State Council, or cabinet, said the peak would be 4.2 billion metric tons, a one-sixth increase over current consumption. This was a major reversal of Chinese energy policy, which for two decades had been centered on building a coal plant or more a week. Now, they will be building the equivalent in carbon-free power every week for decades, while the construction rate of new coal plants slows sharply.
A key motivation for China to cut coal use, beyond simply its interest in slowing climate change, is that their urban air pollution levels are among the highest in the world. This gives them a major public health and domestic political motivation to peak coal use soon. To meet its CO2 and air pollution targets, for instance, Beijing province needs to slash coal use by 99% by 2030, to fewer than 200,000 metric tons. Su Ming, a leading Chinese energy expert working at an institute run by China’s p. 184↵National Development and Reform Commission, explained to Reuters, “We are trying to tell provincial officials how much coal they could use under a restricted nationwide quota.” That would mean “the big consuming regions of Hebei, Tianjin and Shandong” would have to cut coal use by up to 27% by 2030.
In February 2014, China reported it had cut its coal consumption 2.9% in 2014, the first drop this century. Domestic coal production fell 2.5%. Melanie Hart, the director for China Policy at the Washington, DC, think tank the Center for American Progress (where I work), explained to me that the 2014 coal drop suggests the country is “well on track to peak coal use by 2020,” but “if coal growth remains sluggish over the next few years Chinese coal use could possibly peak even earlier.”
I visited China at the end of June 2015 to meet with top governmental and nongovernmental experts on clean energy and climate. That visit made clear to me that the country’s leaders are serious about reversing their energy policy and cleaning up their polluted air. That is a key reason the Chinese are beating climate and clean energy targets across the board. China became the world leader in manufacturing and use of both solar and wind power years ago. In 2016, China installed almost twice as many solar panels as it had in 2015, which was also a record-setting year. As a result, China’s solar installation target for 2020 is likely to be achieved 2 years early.
In January 2017, Beijing announced its latest 5-year energy development plan would invest 2.5 trillion yuan ($360 billion) in renewable generation by 2020. Of that, $144 billion will go to solar, about $100 billion to wind, $70 billion to hydropower, and the rest to sources like tidal and geothermal power. The Chinese National Energy Administration said the resulting “employment will be more than 13 million people.”
In 2016, Chinese coal consumption fell for the third consecutive year, according to government data. In 2017, Chinese coal use increased, suggesting consumption may not have peaked p. 185↵yet, though it is apparently nearing a plateau. Similarly, China’s CO2 emissions appear to be at or near a plateau.
India’s original Paris pledge announced in October 2015— its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)—was focused on slowing the rate of growth of CO2 emissions and boosting noncarbon power sources (renewables and nuclear) to 40% of total electric production, up from 30% today. That would require some 200 gigawatts of new non-fossil-based power by 2030.
That December, in Paris, India’s senior negotiator said the country would reduce coal use if enough foreign investment to boost renewables deployment came out of the Paris deal. Stimulating that investment became a major focus of leaders at Paris and beyond. By January 2017, India’s power minister, Piyush Goyal, was able to announce that over U.S.$250 billion would be invested in India’s renewable generation and transmission by 2022, and as much as $1 trillion by 2030.
In May 2017, Climate Action Tracker found that if India is able to implement all of its current plans, it will achieve its 2030 goal of “40% non-fossil capacity target before 2022, and will reach 57% by 2027.”
What is the United States doing to restrict carbon dioxide emissions?
In the 2014 U.S.–China Joint Announcement on climate, President Obama advanced “a new target to cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025.” Meeting that target would require roughly doubling the rate of decline Obama had committed the United States to with his previous target of a 17% cut by 2020, which had been announced in the weeks leading up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.
Until the election of President Donald Trump, the United States embraced a variety of strategies at the federal and state levels to cut carbon pollution. In the last few years, the United States adopted much-strengthened fuel economy standards p. 186↵for automobiles for the first time in decades. Half the states have renewable electricity standards that require their electric utilities to purchase a significant fraction of their power from new renewable power, such as solar and wind. The federal government has had a long-term program of investing in renewable energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment, which has helped bring down the cost of renewable power. Some states have specific programs to cut carbon pollution, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative used by several northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States, discussed earlier. California has enacted very strong GHG regulations that require steady and deep reductions in its CO2 emissions, ultimately leading to an 80% cut in emissions below 1990 levels by 2050.
These strategies, coupled with the lower cost of natural gas (made possible by the fracking revolution) along with aggressive state and federal and corporate efforts to increase energy efficiency, have reversed the steady rise of U.S. GHG emissions. In 2016, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions were 14% below 2005 levels.
The primary additional strategy the Obama Administration adopted to meet its target in 2020 and beyond is the use of the Clean Air Act, which requires the EPA to regulate pollutants found to endanger the public. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that carbon dioxide does qualify as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. In 2009, the EPA found that based on the science, CO2 was a danger to public health. That meant the EPA had to put in place CO2 standards for “mobile sources,” which it did when the new U.S. fuel economy standards went into effect. After that, the EPA was required to put in place CO2 standards for stationary sources, including the biggest sources, which are new and existing electric power plants.
In 2014, the Supreme Court affirmed 7 to 2 that indeed the EPA has the authority to regulate GHGs from stationary sources, such as power plants.47 In August 2016, the EPA p. 187↵finalized its Clean Power Plan—the first rules aimed at reducing CO2 for existing power plants. These regulations would give each state a target for how much CO2 can be emitted per unit of electricity generated. The states could then devise for themselves the specific plan for its electricity providers to achieve that target, which could include building new renewable and nuclear power plants, replacing existing coal plants with new natural gas plants, running cleaner plants more often (and dirty plants less often) than they had been, embracing energy efficiency programs, attempting to capture and store carbon dioxide from power plants, or even putting in place a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system.
In February 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court placed a hold on the Clean Power Plan, which remains in effect until the D.C. Court of Appeals rules on it—and if it overturns that hold, the case will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court for a final decision. In March 2017, President Trump signed executive orders aimed at undoing the Clean Power Plan as well as the stronger fuel-economy standards from the Obama Administration that were to apply to model years 2022–2025.
In June 2017, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Prior to 2017, the independent analytical team at Climate Action Tracker had concluded, “The U.S. climate plans are at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution.” After Trump’s announcement, the Tracker noted that “without further policies” the United States is likely to miss its 2025 Paris commitment “by a large margin.”
How do different political parties view climate science and policies in the united states and around the world?
In most countries around the world, opposing political parties tend to share the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is a serious problem that must be addressed. The European Union, for instance, has been embracing stronger p. 188↵and stronger greenhouse gas targets for two decades—and putting in place stronger and stronger policies to achieve those targets—even as many of their governments have flipped from conservative to liberal or vice versa. In the case of the United Kingdom, one UK newspaper noted back in 2010 that “All the major parties are signed up to transforming Britain into a green, low-carbon economy to boost growth, as well as to combat climate change.”48
In 2009, when some UK climate scientists were being attacked, both the Labour government led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and leaders of the Conservative Party reiterated support for climate science:
But tonight the shadow climate change secretary, Greg Clark, made clear the party line remains that climate change is a serious man-made threat. “Research into climate change has involved thousands of different scientists, pursuing many separate lines of independent inquiry over many years. The case for a global deal is still strong and in many aspects, such as the daily destruction of the Earth’s rainforests, desperately urgent,” he said.
In the UK’s 2015 parliamentary election, all parties reiterated their support for Britain’s climate targets, although they do differ on specific policies of how to get to that target. Under Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservatives negotiated and signed the Paris Agreement in December 2015. And under Prime Minister Theresa May, the Conservatives ratified it in November 2016.
A handful of countries in the world are politically divided on climate change. For instance, Australia’s Labor government introduced a carbon tax in 2012. In the federal election of 2013, the opposition Liberal Party campaigned against the tax and after winning the election, it was able to repeal the tax in 2014.
p. 189↵The United States is notably divided on climate change at the level of national politics, with the national Democratic Party and its leaders generally in favor of strong action on climate change and the national Republican Party and its leaders now generally opposed. However, the partisan divide was not always so sharp. As recently as 2008, both the Democratic nominee for president (Senator Barack Obama) and the Republican nominee for president (Senator John McCain) were both running on a platform of putting in place a cap-and-trade system for the United States. In 2008, many leading national Republicans endorsed climate action. Also, at the state level, many Republican governors have been advocates of strong climate action. It was Republican Governor George Pataki of New York who launched the effort that resulted in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which put in place a cap-and-trade system for several Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California championed that state’s strong carbon dioxide targets, and he remains a strong advocate of climate action.
At the national level, however, the Republican Party has become strongly opposed to climate action, with many elected leaders expressing doubt or disbelief of basic climate science. In 2010, the National Journal reported that “The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.” The magazine pointed out that, in contrast, British Foreign Secretary William Hague along with “such other prominent European conservatives as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have embraced” the widespread scientific consensus on climate change and “supported vigorous action.”
By 2015, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, had started an “aggressive campaign to block” EPA’s carbon pollution standards “in statehouses and courtrooms across the country, arenas far beyond Mr. McConnell’s official reach and authority,” as p. 190↵the New York Times reported. In March 2015, McConnell sent a letter to every governor in the country urging him or her not to comply with federal law. McConnell is trying to “undercut Mr. Obama’s position internationally as he tries to negotiate a global climate change treaty to be signed in Paris in December,” the Times reported.
Ultimately, the United States did join the rest of the nations of the world in negotiationg and signing the Paris Agreement. But during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, GOP nominee Donald Trump—who had called global warming “a hoax”—made clear that if elected he would abandon the Paris Agreement. Once elected, Trump named a variety of Republicans who actively deny the scientific consensus on climate change to senior positions, including the Administrator of the EPA Scott Pruitt, and they were all approved by the GOP-controlled Senate. In June 2017, Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. The division between the U.S. political parties on climate is now as large as it has ever been.
Is there are a large-scale effort to spread misinformation on climate science and, if so, who funds it?
For more than two decades, the fossil fuel industry has been funding scientists, think tanks, and others to deny and cast doubt on the scientific understanding of human-caused global warming. The major media has extensively documented this. As recently as February 2015, a New York Times exposé revealed that a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who routinely casts doubt on widely accepted climate science “has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers.” This included funding from Exxon-Mobil and “at least $230,000 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.” In p. 191↵books and documentaries such as “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” historians and journalists have shown (1) that this misinformation and disinformation campaign goes all the way back to the tobacco industry’s campaign to cast doubt on claims that cigarette smoking is bad for your health and (2) that in some cases it involves the same exact people.49
In 2009, the New York Times documented that the Global Climate Coalition, an anti-action lobbying group backed by industries that profit from fossil fuels, ignored its own climate scientists during the 1990s while spreading disinformation about global warming.50 An internal report stating that the human causes of global warming “cannot be denied” fell on the deaf ears of Coalition leaders. The Coalition led an “aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.” However, the final draft of a 1995 “Primer on Climate Change Science” written by the GGC’s own scientific experts—which was made public years later through a federal lawsuit—revealed that those experts “were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.” For instance, those experts concluded the following: “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” In addition, after a long analysis of “Are There Alternate Explanations for the Climate Change Which Has Occurred Over the Last 120 Years?” they conclude: “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.”
The New York Times reported that the Global Climate Coalition “was financed by fees from large corporations and p. 192↵trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others.” They had a substantial budget:
In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.
Throughout the 1990s, when the coalition conducted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign challenging the merits of an international agreement, policy makers and pundits were fiercely debating whether humans could dangerously warm the planet.
Ultimately, the Times notes, “The coalition, according to other documents, later requested that the section of the primer endorsing the basics of global warming science be cut.” In the same way that the tobacco industry knew of the dangers of smoking and the addictive nature of nicotine for decades, but their CEOs and representatives publicly denied those facts, many of those denying the reality of human plus climate science have long known the actual science.
In 2015, we learned that oil giant Exxon understood the scientific reality of climate change as far back as 1981, many years before climate change became a political issue that they tried to spread confusion about. By 2016, oil industry documents published by The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) had pushed back the start date of this misinformation campaign to the 1960s, if not earlier.
As far back as 1946, the leading oil companies had created a “Smoke and Fumes Committee” to back scientific research into air pollution issues and use their findings to shape the public debate about the environment. CIEL explains, “The express goal of their collaboration was to use science and public skepticism to prevent environmental regulations they deemed hasty, costly, and unnecessary.” The Committee was p. 193↵later folded into the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s lobbying arm.
By 1957, Humble Oil, which is now Exxon, knew fossil fuels were raising CO2 levels and that it was likely to cause climate change. By 1968, Stanford Research Institute scientists had completed their Final Report to the API on “Sources, Abundance, and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Pollutants.” That report noted that the best explanation for rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is the “fossil fuel emanation theory.” The scientists warned that by the year 2000, “potential damage to our environment could be severe,” and if the warming was great enough, we could see melting of the Antarctic ice and rapid sea-level rise “100 times greater than presently observed changes.”
Over the years, fossil fuel companies and their executives were documented to have funneled tens of millions of dollars into this disinformation campaign. For a long time, the leading funder was the oil company Exxon-Mobil. However, they have been overtaken by Koch Industries—a company with large fossil fuel interests, run by billionaires Charles and David Koch—which spent more $48.5 million from 1997 to 2010 to fund disinformation. A report concluded that “From 2005 to 2008, Exxon Mobil spent $8.9 million while the Koch Industries-controlled foundations contributed $24.9 million in funding to organizations of the climate denial machine.”
In 2015, the Times revealed that Dr. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon had taken more than $1 million from Exxon-Mobil, the Kochs, and other fossil fuel interests without generally disclosing that conflict of interest in his scientific papers. During this period, Soon has advanced a repeatedly debunked theory arguing that humans are not the primary cause of global warming. As the Times explained:
Though he has little formal training in climatology, Dr. Soon has for years published papers trying to show that variations in the sun’s energy can explain most recent global warming. His thesis is that human activity has played a relatively small role in causing climate change.
p. 194↵The Times goes on to explain “Many experts in the field say that Dr. Soon uses out-of-date data, publishes spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators, and does not take account of the evidence implicating emissions from human behavior in climate change.” The head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies explained that solar variability probably is responsible for at most 10% of recent global warming, whereas human-caused GHGs are responsible for the overwhelming majority of it. He added, “The science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless.”
In October 2014, the Smithsonian itself put out a climate statement, which makes clear that such a view is simply anti-scientific. The Smithsonian explains, “Scientific evidence has demonstrated that the global climate is warming as a result of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases generated by human activities.” The newly uncovered documents show that “Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as ‘deliverables’ that he completed in exchange for their money.” The Smithsonian repeatedly signed off on contracts with Southern Company Services—a coal company and long-time funder of science denial—requiring the Smithsonian to provide the coal utility “advanced written copy of proposed publications . . . for comment and input.”
The fossil fuel industry has known for two decades that the solar variability explanation for recent climate change is untrue. As far back as 1995, the scientific and technical advisors to the Global Climate Coalition wrote in their draft primer:
[The] hypothesis about the role of solar variability and [Pat] Michaels’ questions about the temperature record are not convincing arguments against any conclusion that we are currently experiencing warming as the result of greenhouse gas emissions. However, neither solar variability nor anomalies in the temperature record offer a mechanism for off-setting the much larger rise in temperature which might occur if the atmospheric p. 195↵concentration of greenhouse gases were to double or quadruple.
We have been headed for a tripling of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and the dangerous consequences of doing so are widely understood and accepted by the world’s leading climate scientists and governments. The multidecade disinformation campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry is marked by a rejection of basic science and the constant repetition of flawed arguments that have been long debunked by scientists, even ones who were advising the fossil fuel industry. That disinformation campaign continues today with more money than ever.
What are climate science deniers?
The scientific community and leading governments of the world have repeatedly reported on the ever-strengthening body of research supporting our understanding of basic climate science. Some people, including a small number of scientists who do research in the climate arena, reject this science. Those people are often called “climate science deniers” or climate deniers, especially those who receive financial support from fossil fuel interests. Some who reject climate science embrace the term “denier,” whereas others reject it, preferring the term “skeptic.” All scientists, however, are skeptics, and many believe that “denier” is a more accurate term for those who reject climate science.51
“Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening,” explained The American Association for the Advancement of Science in its 2014 report, “What We Know.” The world’s largest general scientific society explained:
The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung p. 196↵and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer. And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.
The media does not write about “tobacco science skeptics” and no longer gives airtime to people who deny the dangerous health consequences of cigarette smoking. However, many in the media continue to quote those who deny basic climate science. In December 2014, four dozen leading scientists and science journalists/communicators issued a statement urging the media to “Please stop using the word ‘skeptic’ to describe deniers” of climate science. The 48 signatories from the United States, the United Kingdom, and around the world are Fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. They include Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kyoto; Douglas Hofstadter, director of The Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University; physicist Lawrence Krauss, director of The Arizona State University Origins Project; and Bill Nye, “the Science Guy.”
The scientists and journalists were motivated by a November 2014 New York Times article, “Republicans Vow to Fight EPA and Approve Keystone Pipeline” that referred to Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) as “a prominent skeptic of climate change.” They note that in the same week, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition called Inhofe “one of the leading climate change deniers in Congress.” The signatories note, “These are not equivalent statements” and the two terms should not be conflated.
“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial p. 197↵and extraordinary claims,” the letter reads. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.” The scientists and journalists point out that Inhofe’s assertion that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” is a very extraordinary claim of a “vast alleged conspiracy.” They note that true skepticism is embodied in a quote often repeated by Carl Sagan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” However, the Senator has never been able to provide even ordinary evidence for his conspiracy charge. “That alone should disqualify him [Inhofe] from using the title ‘skeptic.’ ”
The signatories explain that they are “skeptics who have devoted much of our careers to practicing and promoting scientific skepticism.” They ask journalists to “stop using the word ‘skeptic’ to describe deniers”—those who reject basic climate science. They write
As scientific skeptics, we are well aware of political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong. The most appropriate word to describe the behavior of those individuals is “denial.” Not all individuals who call themselves climate change skeptics are deniers. But virtually all deniers have falsely branded themselves as skeptics. By perpetrating this misnomer, journalists have granted undeserved credibility to those who reject science and scientific inquiry.
Some of the people labeled “deniers” take offense at the apparent implication that they are like Holocaust deniers. Some people have tried to coin other terms, such as “denialist” or “disinformer.” However, coining terms is nearly impossible, and “deniers” remains a term that is widely embraced, p. 198↵including by many deniers themselves. As the National Center for Science Education explained in their 2012 post, “Why Is It Called Denial?”
“Denial” is the term preferred even by many deniers. “I actually like ‘denier.’ That’s closer than skeptic,” says MIT’s Richard Lindzen, one of the most prominent deniers. Minnesotans for Global Warming and other major denier groups go so far as to sing, “I’m a Denier!”
Thus, using the term “denier” does not inherently mean you are equating a disinformer with a Holocaust denier. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of people who use the term certainly do not mean it in that sense. That said, people who use the term would be well advised to explain what they do and do not mean by it.