The biggest elephant in the room, looming over the release was the fossil fuel industry and its influence on policy. third and final report, out this week, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate authority. The main point of contention is how can you talk about mitigating the effects of climate change without having to confront the fossil fuel industry? “It’s like Star Wars without Darth Vader,” says environmental sociologist Robert Brulle, of Brown University.
The first two reports, both released over the last year, highlighted the physical science on climate effects and countries’ vulnerability to further warming. This third report focuses more on the possible solutions, which have been a focus point of controversy in recent decades for both the governments of oil-rich countries and the fossil fuel industry.
Social scientists were successful in pushing for more of their research to be included in the IPCC’s reports, with chapters that touch on everything from debunking claims that less developed countries need fossil fuels to help tackle poverty to a rundown of efforts to block climate policy. One thing was clear in the report: Politics and fossil fuel interests are the only obstacles to adequately addressing climate change.
The role of the fossil fuel industry is highlighted throughout the report’s nearly 3,000 pages, but researchers note it was mysteriously absent from the “Summary for Policymakers” — traditionally the first part of the report that’s released and often attracts the most media attention. An earlier draft of this summary was leaked to The Guardian, however, described the fossil fuel industry and others invested in a high-carbon economy as “vested interests” that have actively worked against climate policy, noting: “Factors limiting ambitious transformation include structural barriers, an incremental rather than systemic approach, lack of coordination, inertia, lock-in to infrastructure and assets, and lock-in as a consequence of vested interests, regulatory inertia, and lack of technological capabilities and human resources.”
Brulle, whose research was cited several times in the report is dismayed to have the cut. “The scientists clearly did their job and provided ample material on climate obstruction activities in the report,” he says. “The political process of creating the Summary for Policymakers ended up editing all of this information out.”
Unlike the research-heavy chapters, which are controlled entirely by the scientists who research and write them, the Summary for Policymakers must be approved by government representatives from 195 countries around the world; the approval process for this year’s mitigation report was the longest and most contentious in the history of the IPCC. According to leaked reports,Saudi Arabian representatives argued in particular for multiple references to carbon storage and carbon capture, as well as the lowering of language regarding the shutting down of fossil fuel production.
Representatives from oil companies were also included in the process. authors and editorsThe report is available here has beenSince the IPCC was established, this has been the case. For the latest report, a senior staffer for Saudi Aramco — Saudia Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas company — was one of the two coordinating lead authors, a position of considerable influence, for the chapter on cross-sector perspectives. Chevron employee for many years was also the review editor of the chapter on energy systems.
“Obviously, none of this was secret,” notes Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Lausanne, and a lead author of the section on mitigation pathways compatible with long-term goals. Steinberger states that contributors and authors are required to disclose their affiliations. However, Steinberger claims that contributions from oil industry insiders constitute an untenable conflict.
“Just because a person fills out forms does not mean that they don’t have other interests at heart that are not reflective of the science and the public interest, but more reflective of their employer.”
Despite the influence of oil companies and oil-rich nations, the report does still highlight the fossil fuel industry’s influence on policymaking, and eviscerates some of the industry’s favorite myths. In the new chapter on “Demand, Services and Social Aspects of Mitigation”, for example, researchers challenged the long-held belief that fossil fuel consumption is entirely driven by demand. “What we were able to demonstrate was actually the contrary: there is no sustainable development or development, full stop, possible without climate mitigation,” said Steinberger, who was a contributing author on the chapter.
“Unless you mitigate climate, the impacts are going to catch you every step of the way and just make people’s lives increasingly hard and miserable, especially in the global south.”
The report highlights the link between climate mitigation and social injustice. “People are beginning to realize how serious the climate crisis is, and that the ways to meet the challenges of the climate crisis — moving to low-carbon energy, looking after the environment, shifting transport — tend to also improve energy security, justice, social concerns, there are a lot of win-wins and co-benefits,” says Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at Exeter University, and one of the two coordinating lead authors on the chapter focused on policy.
According to Dana Fisher (director of the program for society & the environment at the University of Maryland) and contributing author to chapter 13, social scientists are looking to expand their reach into policymaking and not just the IPCC process. Fisher’s research focuses on the impact that activism has had on climate policymaking.
“We have insufficient funding to support the sort of large-scale research that enables you to have high confidence in your findings,” she says, which limits the amount of social science research that can be used in the report.
Less than 1%From 1990 to 2018, the majority of climate research funding went to social sciences, including sociology and economics. That’s despite the fact that even physical scientists themselves agree that inaction on climate will probably not be solved by more scientific evidence.
“Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could only get the information to policymakers they would do the right thing,” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, senior scientist for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy. “And now we see that really 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.”
That’s not to say there’s no further need for atmospheric models, or a better understanding of various aspects of climate science. The report makes it clear that the lack of scientific knowledge and technological options is not what is limiting climate action. It is a result of entrenched power structures, as well as a lack or political will to act. To effectively address that, and act in time to avoid the worst impacts of warming, social scientists agree: we’re going to need more than climate models.
This story is part of Covering Climate NowA global collaboration of news outlets that strengthens coverage of the climate story.