The rise of climate inactivism
The factual argument on climate change is over. Now lobbyists are trying to make a moral case for fossil fuels

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Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, released yesterday, emphatically states the need for urgent climate action, and unequivocally admonishes those who deny the problem exists. Most Australians would agree: the Lowy Institute’s most recent poll shows a steady upwards slope in the number of people who accept climate science. This isn’t a short-term blip. This clear, quantifiable increase in public acceptance of climate science has forced a noticeable narrative shift in those who’d prefer to see the status quo preserved indefinitely. We are seeing a shift from climate scepticism to “climate inactivism” – an attempt to label fossil fuels as an ethically sound gift to the developing world. It is a campaign to rebrand the preservation of fossil fuel dominance as the greatest moral challenge of our time.  

Peabody Energy, one of the world’s largest coal producers, has recently launched a new campaign named ‘Advanced Energy for Life’. It’s run by Burson-Marstellar, the public relations firm responsible for handling Union Carbide’s PR when it was responsible for an industrial accident that killed 20,000 Indians in Bhopal. Alex Epstein, the founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, a for-profit think-tank based in the US, wrote a book named The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, in which he argued that “Compared with the alternatives, the overall impact of using fossil fuels is to make the world a far better place. We are morally obligated to use more fossil fuels for the sake of our economy and our environment.” (Of you bought his book on Black Friday last year, you received a free piece of coal.) Epstein recently tweeted that the Pope’s proposal for climate action will “make us all poor”.

Stark images of poverty, need and vulnerability are deployed to add an altruistic sheen to an industry that has begun to shy away from publicly denying the problem exists. At last year’s G20 summit, Peabody’s head of Australian operations gave a presentation in which an ultrasound of a foetus lay curled beneath the phrase “Energy is vital”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is fond of coal, too, declaring at a mine opening that “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world … So let’s have no demonisation of coal. Coal is good for humanity.” He continued with an unapologetic flourish: “The future for coal is bright and it is the responsibility for government to try to ensure that we are there making it easier for everyone wanting to have a go.” Despite the campaigns and the prime-ministerial assertions, the Australian public remain strong supporters of a more diverse energy system, and a move away from fossil fuels. Perhaps the desired outcome of these campaigns is the simple delay of climate action, rather than broad public acceptance.

Making things “easier for everyone wanting to have a go” was likely to have been the key driver behind Tony Abbott’s most recent captain’s pick – his decision to spend $4 million on the establishment of an Australian arm of Bjorn Lomborg’s Consensus Centre. Lomborg is an economist who once openly rejected climate science – now, he accepts the science, but argues we ought to revoke subsidies for both renewable energy and fossil fuels, and spend the money on foreign aid instead. The University of Western Australia initially accepted the federal government’s offer to establish the “consensus centre”, but changed their minds – not because of Lomborg’s chequered academic history, but because of the “emotional backlash” to the announcement. Lomborg blamed “toxic politics” for the decision.

Lomborg has shifted from the outright rejection of climate science to the more positive message of climate inactivism – re-branding fossil fuels as the only pathway from poverty to riches. Lomborg recently tweeted that the “Pope's #encyclical expresses concern for the poor. But the actions that would most help them are not about climate”. His formulations excuse our continued reliance on carbon-intensive technology, whether they’re critiquing the detail of climate science or advocating the end of renewable energy deployment. It’s warm and fuzzy, with none of the angry grit of climate change denial.

The transition from outright denialism to subtle undermining is mirrored in the government’s attitudes towards Australian climate policies. In the 2014 budget, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) faced abolition, as did the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Climate Change Authority (CCA). The outright destruction of these schemes was averted, but they’ve been damaged in other ways. ARENA has faced crippling staff cuts. The CEFC has been given unrealistic targets, and investment in renewable energy was held hostage until the renewable energy target was cut by 8000 gigawatt hours. News of the PM’s attacks on wind farm aesthetics dominated the media for a full day, and the white-anting continues. Coal’s competitors are damaged through erosion, rather than outright, open attempts to axe clean energy schemes.

It won’t work forever, in the face of mounting opposition from the public. Climate inactivism won’t save technologies that are inextricably linked to substances that damage the atmospheric systems that sustain our societies. But it might save them for too long, all the same. The tool of scientific denialism worked well in delaying effective global climate action. Sadly, climate inactivism’s altruistic new brand could be similarly effective in extending the lifespan of an industry that should be investing its wealth in new technologies, not new narratives. 

Ketan Joshi
Ketan Joshi works in research and communications in the renewable energy industry, and writes on science, technology and energy.

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