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Climate in 2023: escalation and backlash

"We continue to witness the rise and triumph of the fossil fuel industry over our societies," says Julia K. Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics and IPCC author.
Protest during COP27 Foto: IMAGO/Achille Abboud via Reuters Connect.

This text was originally published in Spanish in Magazine 2023, now on sale. You can get a copy, in digital or paper, through our website.

We live in a time of many dangers, of which the largest is probably a misconception of our dangers. Such misconception can be deadly: preparing for the wrong challenge means we even more vulnerable to sneak attacks from our real foes

This is what it feels like to be a climate scientist in 2023: we have done so much, and prepared so much, to explain climate breakdown. The physical science is now irrefutable (Working Group 1 of the IPCC). The impacts are now clearly explained, not just in terms of averages, but also in terms of increased frequency and geographical distribution of extreme events (again: Working Group 1). Ways to protect ourselves against such impacts have been catalogued and assessed (Working Group 2 of the IPCC). Science has moved on: in our ignorance, we used to think that 2°C was still a relatively ‘safe’ warming range. In bad news the world has not yet caught up with, we now know that beyond 2°C degrees of warming adaptation to impacts is simply not feasible (Working Group 2 again). And finally, the tools and pathways to halt climate breakdown have been clearly outlined, quantified, examined (Working Group 3 of the IPCC). 

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It feels as though climate scientists were martial arts trainers, trying to warn humanity and its governments: “This is the monster you must prepare to fight. This is how it breathes and moves, these are its claws and fangs: some of its attacks you can prepare yourself against. But in any case, you must stop it before it grows too large, otherwise it will become too strong for you, and hurt you too badly. This is how you must train and fight to win against it.”

But what if we climate scientists got the monster wrong? Because it seems like the biggest danger is not just the worsening impacts of the climate crisis, but the effectiveness of the fossil fuel industry in stopping action. So while the vast majority of our efforts have been on the science of the earth system, and the possibility of energy transitions, we have been outpaced and outflanked at every step by an industry laser-focused on maintaining its grip as the words largest energy source.

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In fact, things are so bad, that it is only in 2023 that scientists realised that Exxon (now ExxonMobil)’s own climate research was more accurate in its warming predictions than publicly funded university science! The fossil fuel companies were investing in their own in-house climate science in the 1970s and 1980s, only to abandon these programs when they were utterly convinced of the warming trajectory. The scientists involved in these programs often believed the evidence they produced would sway the companies to abandon fossil fuels and to invest heavily in alternative energy sources. That was a fundamental mistake in understanding of corporate culture. 

This is a crucial point to understand: fossil fuel companies are not energy companies. They are fossil fuel companies. They are tied, by their history, capabilities and culture, to fossil fuels. Their employees, going way back, are petroleum geoengineers, petroleum economists and traders. They grew up in households and programs where fossil fuels were the name of the game, and their entire social capital and sense of self, sense of purpose in their work, comes from the heritage of supplying fossil fuels to the world. Essentially, going back to one of Marx’s core insights on capitalism, corporations are not separate from their commodities. Fossil fuel companies are not “energy” companies. They are terminally enmeshed with fossil fuels, through physical assets, technical know-how, and employee culture. Cutting those ties requires far, far, far more than knowledge and conviction of climate science. Because make no mistake: fossil fuel CEOs, at the latest in the early 1980s, had no illusions or doubts about climate science. They knew full well, from their own scientists, that their industry’s products were contributing to planetary breakdown.

But the commodity entanglement is not the only aspect that climate scientists got wrong. At every step of the way, we have underestimated the ability and determination of the fossil fuel industry to command public opinion, through denial, delay and disinformation campaigns, going against their own scientists, buying space in newspapers, coercing journalists and editors to cover “both sides” of the scientific fact of climate change. 

The sad fact is that the rapidity and ambition of innovation in fossil fuel industry obstructionism far, far outpaces the capacity (or curiosity?) of scientists to examine what the industry is doing, let alone be in a position to predict and counter its next moves. A handful of scientists, top among them science historian Naomi Oreskes, along with Geoffrey Supran, Ben Franta, Robert Brulle, and the investigative journalist Amy Westervelt, have been leading the charge. Meanwhile, the rest of the scientific community remains asleep, assuming that facts and models and charts and reports will win out in no-holds-barred influence warfare. The analogy of trying to put out forest fire with a water pistol is insufficient, because even having a water pistol is evidence of more collective will to face the real problem than the scientific community has mustered to date.

The influence of the fossil fuel industry goes far beyond science denial, and is ever escalating. The fossil fuel industry designed the economics of climate mitigation (portray only the costs, not the impacts), a practice that remains to this day embedded in the IAM models used by the IPCC. Fossil fuel industry employees succeeded in becoming IPCC authors and reviewers. Fossil fuel lobbyists show up in massive numbers at international climate negotiations, often embedded within national government delegations (infamously, the CEO of British Petroleum attended COP27 as part of the Mauritanian national delegation, exposing the pattern of fossil fuel corruption taking hold in Africa after becoming slightly less acceptable in Europe).

And now, in 2023, the fossil companies have achieved perhaps their biggest coup to date: one of their own is presiding over international negotiations. Sultan Al Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is now also the chair of COP28. Despite international outcry, the UEA refuses to remove him, while journalists and diplomats defer to his “expertise” – and indeed, he is an expert on climate: the same way a butcher is an expert on animal conservation. Accordingly, he is staffing the COP28 negotiations with fossil fuel professionals. In my own country, Switzerland, a climate denier and fossil fuel lobbyist is now the minister for climate, energy and environment. 

So despite the solidity of the science explaining and predicting climate breakdown, and demonstrating the solutions to stop it, despite the activism of millions of students, and the multiplicity of climate movements and campaigns, the speeches of politicians, the powerful statements of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, my conclusion is that we are still witnessing the ascendence and triumph of the domination of the fossil fuel industries over our societies. The first step in solving a problem is facing its existence. We need to become laser-focused on exposing fossil fuel industries (and their allies, automotive, aviation, and others), and extirpating their influence from our midst. Because it’s not going to stop until we toughen up and wise up. Onwards. 

The text can also be read in Spanish here.

Julia K. Steinberger is Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and lead author of Working Group 3 of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.

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