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Green Is The New Black

Why are governments lobbying climate scientists to downplay the severity of the climate crisis?

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Leaked documents reveal governments of wealthy nations are lobbying UN climate scientists to water down their findings in an upcoming report. With COP approaching, global heads of state will position themselves in the press as ‘world leaders’ on climate action. But, these comments reveal their true colours.

First, a little context

The United Nations (UN) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 to assess the science related to climate change. There are currently 195 members, but thousands of people around the world contribute. The IPCC is the authoritative body on climate science and they publish assessment reports every 6 or 7 years.

The latest report, the Sixth Assessment Report, came out in early August. Thankfully, it attracted huge media attention. But there are two more on the way, because the IPCC is made up of three working groups. Which focus on analysing the physical climate system, natural and socio-economic impacts of climate change and assessment of mitigation options. The report published back in August was from Working Group I. This means Working Groups II and III will publish their reports in 2022.

Unearthed

Last week, BBC reported on leaked documents of the draft, complete with comments from international governments. Who leaked the documents, you ask? Greenpeace’s team of investigative journalists: Unearthed. They’re also the journalists who exposed Exxon lobbyists earlier this year. (Unearthed are on a roll, and we love to see it.) The comments on the drafts included over 32,000 submissions, made by governments and companies.

The IPCC says comments from governments are a typical part of the scientific review process. However, leading climate scientist professor Corinne le Quéré shared that scientists don’t have to accept the proposed revisions. If the comments are lobbying, or not justified by the science, the authors will not integrate them into the reports. Whereas we typically see the media-polished language a government wants to present, these comments give us a glimpse behind the curtain. Many of these 32,000 comments were requests to exclude vital information, or downplay the severity of the crisis.

So governments are lobbying scientists to amend the report so that they can justify lacklustre plans for decarbonisation. Yikes. There is an unsurprising theme emerging, which will become very clear when we look at which governments focused on which sections of the report.

Who said what?

The IPCC is very clear. Climate change has been caused by “human activity” (a problematic term in itself). The specific activity is the creation of greenhouse gases. Of those greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels makes up a whopping 65%. In fact, one of the main objectives at COP26 next week is the phasing out of coal. Coal is, of course, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. And yet, the powers that be insist that this narrative should change…

…on fossil fuels

The leaked documents reveal that several nations are arguing that we don’t need to reduce fossil fuel use with the urgency recommended by climate scientists. The report concludes that “the focus of decarbonisation efforts in the energy systems sector needs to be on rapidly shifting to zero-carbon sources and actively phasing out fossil fuels”.

Yet nations like Japan, China, Australia and Saudi Arabia have taken exception to this conclusion. Their representatives have asked the authors to remove or amend related phrases. One Saudi advisor suggested that “phrases like ‘the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales…’ should be eliminated from the report”. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest producers of oil.

Similarly, the Australian government official “rejects the conclusion that closing coal-fired power plants is necessary”. They suggest that carbon capture is a viable solution to avoid phasing out coal. Additionally, they requested the removal of Australia from a list of the world’s major producers and consumers of coal. Despite, or rather because of, Australia being the fifth-largest coal producer in the world between 2018 and 2021! (It’s also a world leader in coal exportation.) Perhaps most worryingly, on how lobbying by fossil fuel companies has delayed climate action in the US and Australia? Australia said it was a “political viewpoint”, and urged the authors to delete it.

and beef…

Representatives from Brazil and Argentina are pushing back on the evidence that reducing meat production and consumption is an imperative step towards reducing emissions. Argentina requested that scientists delete references to taxes on red meat and the Meatless Monday campaign from the report. Its neighbour, Brazil, claimed that plant-based diets cannot guarantee reduced emissions. For the record, the beef industry is responsible for 6% of annual global emissions. It is also a major driving factor in the devastating deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. The evidence speaks for itself.

As above, the countries speaking out through these comments have vested interests. In 2020, Brazil was the top beef exporter globally. Argentina came in at fourth place.

and climate finance.

The Swiss official argued that “although climate finance is a critical tool for increasing climate ambitions, it is not the only relevant tool”. This has called into question their public commitments to support the Global South.

Georg Klingler, a climate expert at Greenpeace Switzerland, said he was not sure if Switzerland was attempting to “undermine climate protection behind the scenes”. However, he did feel that regardless of this that the nation should be doing much more than they are at present. !it should be at least CHF1 billion a year, considering how strong the Swiss economy is,” he said.

At the 2009 COP, wealthier nations agreed that they would provide $100bn a year in climate finance for “developing” countries by 2020. They’ve still not met the target, and according to latest updates, we’re not expecting to meet the target for another two years.

Sensing a pattern?

This is all about money. Nations that still have a big fossil fuel industry want to carry on profiting from it. States that export beef are not willing to give it up. Wealthy countries don’t want to honour their pledges to support poorer nations. This is yet another warning that we, as a global society, remain trapped in a capitalist paradigm. The wealthy elite of this world—politicians of powerful countries, CEOs of the fossil fuel industry—see the world only through capitalistic lenses. Their goals are wealth and power. And they turn a blind eye to the suffering (read: the climate crisis) caused by their pursuit for profit.

Another recently leaked draft IPCC report, from Working Group III, declared a scientific consensus that capitalism is unsustainable. In order to meet targets for 1.5°C, we need our governments not only to act accordingly, but beyond that? Also to radically change their perspective, and ditch preoccupation with economic growth.

The leaders of these nations will gather in a matter of days to discuss climate action. Just how much progress can we expect when so many countries still think that profit is more important than anything else?

Government hypocrisy

Also reported last week: current plans by governments to extract fossil fuels are a staggering 10% over the levels required to keep warming below 1.5°C. Launched in 2019, The Production Gap Report tracks governments’ planned fossil fuel production, and compares that with the global production levels compatible with curbing warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, to figure out the gap. Essentially, they keep a close eye on what governments are actually doing about fossil fuels, versus what they say they are doing.

To stay within safe levels, we must cut carbon emissions by around 45% by 2030. Current government plans put us at over double that. And despite this lack of ambition? Plenty of counties will likely use COP as an opportunity to market themselves as climate leaders. But don’t be fooled: this report is clear evidence of their hypocrisy.

COP26 hosts

When it comes to government dishonesty, we need to look no further than this year’s COP host: the United Kingdom. The UK is one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. Before interrogating the British government’s dishonesty, here’s a brief history lesson. (A brief segue, but an important one nonetheless.)

There are just 22 countries in the world that the British Empire didn’t colonise. Safe to say that British Colonialism invaded every corner of the globe. (And many nations in the Global South are still reeling from the effects today.) So most of Britain’s wealth? It accumulated by exploiting the colonies for their resources like gold, oil, ivory, iron… you name it. If it was valuable, the colonisers took it. And we would be remiss not to mention slavery. Abducting Africans and selling them into chattel slavery, too, made the British Empire a lot of money. To this day, museums in Britain display stolen artefacts from the nations they plundered throughout history. But I digress. The point is, the UK’s wealth, along with other coloniser countries’, was stolen wealth. Which means that their power? Stolen, too.

“Leading” the way?

Though a relatively small country in terms of population, the UK accounts for a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions, since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Why? The UK is the second-largest oil and gas producer in Europe. And, it looks set to stay that way. Burning oil and gas from existing offshore fields will exceed the UK’s fair share of the Paris goals.

In fact, current plans to “maximise economic recovery” mean burning almost three times the allocated amount. If that wasn’t enough, the government is considering proposals for new oil and coal projects. The two most prominent are Cambo, an oil field off the coast of Scotland, and a new coal mine in West Cumbria. (Of course, there are activists fervently opposing both projects.) And these two are just the tip of the iceberg. According to the latest report from Friends of the Earth, the UK is planning at least 40 new coal, gas and oil extraction projects. Staggering. 

In addition to pursuing new fossil fuel projects, the Paid to Pollute campaign has shone a light on the huge industry subsidies the UK grants. Since signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, the UK government has paid £4 billion of public money to North Sea oil and gas companies. Companies like Shell and BP paid hardly anything in tax, while simultaneously receiving millions in subsidies. The UK is basically paying these companies to pollute.

So, now we know what we are up against. We see their hypocrisy, and we see them lobbying climate scientists. What do we do now? It’s important to utilise COP26, and the media attention around it, to maintain pressure on governments…

#Keep1.5Alive

Staying below 1.5°C is not an arbitrary figure. In 2015, at COP in Paris, world leaders agreed that we should limit global warming to 1.5°C or below. This was because scientists, using conservative and consensus-based predictions, warned that anything above that would have devastating consequences. For MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas), staying within this limit is literally life or death. 2 million people have died as a result of 11,000 climate-related disasters between 1970 and 2019. And more than 91% of those were in “developing countries”.

Sadly, we are already at around 1.2°C warming. And we have seen the catastrophic results of that this year, and years before. Every fraction of a degree more leads to more climate destabilisation, which in turn leads to human suffering. Particularly the suffering of already marginalised communities. For example, limiting warming to 1.5°C, instead of 2°C, could prevent the deluge of lands currently home to around 5 million people.

Will we be able to keep the 1.5°C target alive? Given what we now know—that fossil fuels are still on the rise, and that governments are loath to give that up—a backslide to commit only to 2°C is a very real concern. It might very well happen. Especially with how virtually no government is on track to meet the goals set out in 2015. And how some governments are already adjusting their plans making them less ambitious.

What now?

It can be demoralising to see governments lobbying against action, and the fossil fuel industry roaring ahead like everything is fine. In our hearts, we already know that fighting the lacklustre political will, to halt climate change, is an uphill battle. And the fossil fuel industry? It has only one real purpose. That’s to generate as much wealth as possible for shareholders. It is thus imperative that the truth is brought to light, and it is critical that we hold governments to account.

The positive spin on all of this is that these reports lay it all out in plain sight. We have the latest science, we can see who is trying to bury it. Now, we know where to focus our efforts. Even when net-zero plans or climate finance pledges are unambitious, having them written down allows us to be more specific with our activism and our demands. We can challenge explicit points. We can put forward more precise solutions to put in place of what we have. Their roadmap becomes our roadmap. We can hone in on exactly the areas where they are failing.

When asked about the efficacy of COPs, Greta Thunberg stated: “The change is going to come when people are demanding change. So we can’t expect everything to happen at these conferences”. And she’s right. Governments are showing us just where they stand and now. It’s an invitation for us: we need to challenge them. 

IMAGE: Photo by Patrick Hendry via Unsplash IMAGE DESCRIPTION: The background is a grey, cloudy sky. In the foreground, to the right of the image is a large plume of thick, dark grey smoke coming from a fossil fuel plant. 

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Leanne has worked and volunteered in the NGO sector in Asia and the UK for almost a decade. She is a proud and passionate fundraiser who is motivated by connecting people to causes that they care about and giving them the opportunity to make a real difference. Since growing up on the West Coast of Ireland, she has always been a lover of nature, especially the ocean. Her journey towards living more sustainably and consciously started slowly through an interest in minimalism, plant-based diet, yoga and the zero-waste movement. She has attempted all of them with varying degrees of success! Seeing the Extinction Rebellion April actions in London this year was the biggest wake-up call to learn the truth about the scale of the climate crisis and Leanne now considers herself a bone fide, but imperfect, environmentalist keen to share the infinite benefits of slowing down and living more mindfully with anyone who will listen!

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