Overview:

Recent industry and government push-back on environmental measures is frustrating. It's also critical to keep in mind, as we advocate for greater resilience and adaptation under climate change

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Welcome to 2023: another year of corporate and political mediocrity when it comes to climate change response. We’re in the middle of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, known colloquially as Davos after its Swiss Alps location, so rhetoric around climate change response (and related economic pressure points) is currently running hot. On Wednesday, an open letter from a group of “Patriotic Millionaires” called for members at Davos to commit to meaningful action, for

A meeting of the ‘global elite’ in Davos to discuss “Cooperation in a Fragmented World” is pointless if you aren’t challenging the root cause of division. Defending democracy and building cooperation requires action to build fairer economies right now – it is not a problem that can be left for our children to fix. 

Now is the time to tackle extreme wealth; now is the time to tax the ultra rich. 

The Cost of Extreme Wealth, open letter by the Patriotic Millionaires, Wednesday January 18

One signatory, Abigail Disney of the multimedia empire, told CNBC that, from her experience at the event, “Davos is a farce. Until Davos attendees start talking about taxing the rich, the entire gathering will remain a very public example of how out of touch they really are.”

Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones. Here are four news items from the past two weeks that illustrate how widespread corporate and political resistance to meaningful climate change and economic transformation remains.

Newspeak hits ‘green’ energy in Ohio

On Friday January 6, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed into law an update to 2011 legislation that had already given state agencies license to lease out land for oil and gas production. This update changed the “may” in state instructions for accepting lease requests to “shall”, such that they must accept any bid that meets provided conditions. It also defined natural gas as “green energy”, despite its high methane footprint, at a time when greenhouse gases are rising and President Joe Biden has declared a goal of halving the US contribution to such emissions by the end of the decade.

A one-off fluke from a fringe government? Unfortunately not. As The Washington Post reported, this update was by no means “homegrown”. Rather,

[t]he Empowerment Alliance, a dark money group with ties to the gas industry, helped Ohio lawmakers push the narrative that the fuel is clean, the documents show. The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, another anonymously funded group, assisted in the effort.

ALEC — a network of state lawmakers, businesses and conservative donors — circulated proposed legislation for Ohio lawmakers and has urged other states to follow suit, according to the documents, which were obtained via a public records request by the Energy and Policy Institute, a group that advocates for renewable energy.

“Inside the successful push for Ohio to define gas as ‘green energy'”, Maxine Joselow, The Washington Post, January 17, 2023

Aiding in this US effort, sadly, is fuzzy language out of the European Union last July, when legislators decided to keep natural gas listed as a potentially sustainable energy source under certain circumstances. This is not quite what Ohio advanced, but the manipulation of EU precedent in US legal documents is unlikely to be a singular event.

The US fight against phasing out gas transport

On Friday January 13, Wyoming Republican lawmakers introduced a resolution to phase out electric vehicle sales by 2035, in a move expressly designed to protect oil and gas industries. Arguments for the legislation included the current paucity of fueling stations for electric vehicles, and possibility of waste management sites needing to update their processes to address electric vehicular waste. But mostly, the bill sponsored by Senators Jim Anderson and Brian Boner argued that

[t]he proliferation of electric vehicles at the expense of gas-powered vehicles will have deleterious impacts on Wyoming’s communities and will be detrimental to Wyoming’s economy and the ability for the country to efficiently engage in commerce.

SJ0004 – Phasing out new electric sales by 2035

The resolution died in committee, after which lawmakers argued that it had been a symbolic gesture. Boner called it “tongue-in-cheek”, while Anderson stated that “[w]e just wanted to make a statement that there is a counter to stopping selling gas vehicles in other states.”

This gamification of environmental response comes as states are divided in their response to California’s requirement that all new vehicles be electric or hydrogen-powered by 2035. Colorado, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Virginia have all differently dissented from the Californian standard, which is more rigid than the federal Clean Air Act. At a time when many states offer strong incentives for the switch, Wyoming is among the lowest in electric vehicle counts, and has one of the highest annual fees for such vehicles.

Carbon offsets are mostly useless, at best

The Guardian has done excellent investigative research into the major corporate and public-private contributors to climate change over the last decade. This makes some of its latest research even more frustrating, because there’s not much in the way of news in, say, a recent reminder that Exxon’s internal climate predictions from the 1970s are as accurate as they were alarming. We know the culprits. We’ve known them for a while.

However, another recent investigation, into the veracity of claims by the prominent carbon-offset company Verra, has yielded important (if also grim) findings: Over 90 percent of rainforest carbon offsets from this provider are at best worthless, and at worst deepen our global heating crisis. Verra is a world leader in the “rapidly growing … voluntary offsets market”, which offers prominent companies and celebrities the comfort of not having to change their practices to reduce their carbon footprints and achieve “net zero” status. All such polluters need to do is buy offsets, which are supposed to translate into investment in regional projects that increase carbon sink capacity in the world.

Alas, the vast majority of these projects are not showing signs of working. As revealed in this nine-month analysis by The Guardian, the German weekly Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial, many of Verra’s projects relied on overstating the initial threat to a given forest (by on average 400 percent), to oversell how much was being “saved”. A full 94 percent of Verra’s projects could not be found to benefit the climate at all.

Moreover, some of these conservation projects have also been tied into human rights abuses including the violent expulsion of local residents. These actions reflect concerns raised around last year’s international biodiversity conference, COP15, wherein world leaders patted themselves on the back for passing a 30-in-30 initiative that would ostensibly conserve 30 percent of the planet’s land and water ecosystems. (But which, in practice, offered no guidelines and minimal regional support to protect this notion of “conservation” from being leveraged against Indigenous and other local populations.)

READ: COP15’s grand—and questionable—promise for biodiversity conservation

Plastics factories rising

On January 18, Jordan Gass-Poore’ of the Talking Points Memo explored a critical test case for a years-long initiative on the part of oil and gas companies, which are trying to pivot for an anticipated end-of-an-era with respect to fossil fuel products. In Beaver County, Pennsylvania, a new plastics factory aims to turn the ethane from nearby fracking operations into 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets annually, primarily for single-use plastics.

News of the fossil fuel pivot has been with us for a while. The aim of US-based industries is to sustain an export market of plastic feedstocks and polymers, which are currently “flooding” many less-developed nations. The US joins Qatar, the UAE, and Saudia Arabia as a leader in this expanding field, even as China and other Asian countries have either outright banned or begun setting hard restrictions on plastics for import.

While Pennsylvania has big hopes for this industry, Gass-Poore’ notes that the UN last March started talks toward an international plastics treaty for 2024, and that a Beyond Plastics study predicts plastics production to surpass coal-fired plants for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, making it a key upcoming target for future bans.

Nevertheless, Big Oil is undaunted, because

[t]he prospect [of plastics] represents something of a lifeline for the industry. Major oil companies like Shell and ExxonMobile are rapidly increasing their plastics output to make up for the anticipated shrinking demand for the companies’ fossil fuel products as nations lean on renewables and electrify their economies. Plastics are projected to be a key source of income for Big Oil over the coming decades — and these companies are using these projections to justify building new plants to crank out more. 

“As The World Tries to Cut Back On Fossil Fuels, Oil Companies Turn To Plastic”, Jordan Grass-Poole’, TPM, January 18, 2023

Corporate monopolies will not stop dictating our fates under climate change on their own.

The bigger picture

At Davos these past few days, there has been controversy over the chair, Klaus Schwab, who for the last 52 years has helmed the annual event he founded. Concerns about a lack of a succession plan, and his inability to effectively represent the needs of the world today, have created all kinds of speculation with respect to who might eventually replace him.

Beyond this tempest in a teapot, though, there is a much more widespread need to consider our approach to “succession” with respect to climate change and its socioeconomic pressure points. As we endeavor to reduce emissions and restructure cultures for our transforming planet, significant pushback from those comfortable with the current status quo is inevitable.

Our response to that pushback will shape the coming world.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.