In the wake of the Paris negotiations last month there certainly are many positives which can be drawn from the debate. Levels of public interest in climate change and the recognition from politicians across the globe of the need to address the issue is undoubtedly higher than ever before. The COP21 talks will almost certainly galvanise more action than any of its predecessors, especially if agreement is maintained on a tougher target of 1.5 degree maximum warming levels over the previously discussed 2 degree rise. However, it is clear that the biggest challenge remains how to translate this increased political will, increased public engagement and increased pressure from campaigning organisations into tangible action on the ground within a relatively short space of time, with most estimates agreeing on the need for a near complete transition to renewables within 50-70 years.
Herein it seems lies the crucial problem which is the way in which the debate is presented and the actions of vested interests on attempts to enact significant changes to our current and unsustainable energy model. This battle for the narrative around climate change and the role of key vested interests in the debate via the PR and lobbying firms which they employ could well be the last and most challenging sticking point in any effort to ensure a sustainable future for the planet.
Role of corporate interests in the steering of the climate change narrative
Different techniques are used by some of the key polluting corporations and industries to achieve their financial aims. These include the blocking of climate action by directly funding disinformation and climate denial campaigns (Exxon Mobil with the help of their PR firm Edelman for example) or in the way in which companies and consortiums seek to present themselves as part of the solution to the climate change issue whilst continuing to carry out heavily polluting activities. This is achieved in a number of ways, but notably in recent years can be seen in the promotion of discredited and ineffective approaches such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and the presentation of natural gas as a ‘bridge’ or ‘clean’ fuel. By pumping millions into lobbying in these areas and ignoring, in relation to natural gas for instance, how aggressive extraction methods often bring it up to the same level as coal in terms of pollution, companies are able to re-position themselves as agents of the change which, behind closed doors, so many of them oppose.
The revolving door between policy-making and PR firms means that companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron are able to bring to bear great leverage on policy-making which could be seen at the Copenhagen climate summit of 2009 with heavy lobbying by the International Chamber of Commerce and others who were pushing for a rejection of binding carbon reduction targets and an emphasis instead on CCS and the addressing of climate change issues through market based mechanisms.
The wider context and public engagement with climate change
Whilst specific lobbying techniques on the ground may have changed, the wider strategy is one which we have seen time and again over the years, most notably in relation to the Tobacco lobby and its attempts over a period of many years to delay and derail attempts at increased regulation. The stakes now are even higher and the profits at risk far greater so it is understandable that the situation has become a veritable minefield of complexities. There is undoubtedly also increased subtlety in the lobbying approach as compared to the days of the tobacco battles, especially in Europe where outright climate denial gains limited traction (the same cannot be said for the U.S here). The backroom lobbying of policy makers, the movement of talent between the fields of policy into PR as well as broader attempts to shape and influence the public narrative around climate change are all key tools in the armoury of organisations attempting to put brakes on the process of change and transition to renewables.
Moving forwards it seems a separation between lobbyists and policy makers is key and, at a minimum, we need publicly available information on which firms are paying which PR companies to lobby on their behalf. In the meantime though it seems public awareness is crucial. As outlined in an article earlier this week by Charles Donovan and Christopher Corbishley on this blog, in a lot of places renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels and ready for highly effective deployment. Whether in regards to wind or solar PV there have been huge advances made. This, however, flies in the face of the often-heard public narrative of the ‘gap’ which remains in terms of cost and efficiency of renewables as compared to fossil fuels. This is just one example of how the public narrative needs to be re-shaped around the facts rather than the narrative peddled by those with a huge financial stake in the continuation of our current fossil fuel-based energy model. If more businesses both in the UK and across the world were made aware of the financial gains available through a transition from fossil fuels to renewables rather than the moral argument in isolation then we could start to see the real change needed on the ground. Here also it will be crucial for government involvement in the form of both public awareness and information dissemination but also schemes which support businesses transitioning to renewables.
With this intelligent mix of increased public awareness on climate change issues and solutions available on the ground locally in tandem with increased transparency on the activities of firms lobbying on behalf of key polluters there may be time yet to realise the change necessary to keep warming levels below a runaway level. One thing is for certain though, that is whilst negotiations such as those currently taking place in Paris are crucial to setting the overall framework and agreements between nations it is just the start of the necessary action on the ground by national government and a whole range of educational and civil society organisations.