A strange silence in Paris

Despite climate denialists having actively worked against meaningful agreements on climate change in the past, these groups were strangely quiet during COP21. Sociology professors Timmons Roberts and Robert Brulle explore the possible reasons why.

Closing Ceremony at COP21
The historic Paris Agreement signed by 196 countries in December marks an important step forward in the fight against climate change. Image: UNFCCC, CC BY 2.0

Each time in the past that there was the threat of a meaningful international agreement on climate change, powerful actors in the fossil fuel industry mobilized in public and in private to hinder that progress. Regardless of one’s opinion of their rationale or ethics, one has to acknowledge that they were remarkably effective.

So why were the fossil fuel interests so quiet as the 196-nation Paris Agreement was forged? Did they see the pact as so non-binding as to be insignificant? Did they see their goals as having already been met before the huge meeting started? Or were the climate science denialists and climate action doubt-mongers simply unable to gain traction in a changed physical and media landscape?

What will be the response of the fossil fuel interests to the rising tides of international climate action? The vast public relations efforts and campaign contributions of the oil majors suggest they are moving beyond Paris in a sophisticated effort to buy time.

Manufacturing Inaction

In the summer of 1997, before the Kyoto Protocol was even drafted, fossil fuel interests succeeded in passing a resolution sponsored by U.S. Senators Robert Byrd and Chuck Hagel which essentially made it impossible for then-President Bill Clinton to bring the treaty to the Senate to ratify.

(The Byrd-Hagel Resolution declared that the U.S. should ratify no treaty that bound the country in a way different than developing nations like China, during the same commitment period.) Byrd was from the coal extraction-dominated West Virginia; Hagel from the industrial monoculture Michigan, dependent upon automobile sales.

That one resolution held off Congress long enough for George W. Bush to be elected, who, despite campaign promises to address the issue, promptly “unsigned” Kyoto as one of his first acts in office. As the world’s largest historical (and then-leading) emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S.’s non-participation essentially set back global efforts to protect this “common pool” resource by 15 years.

Around that time a group of representatives of the fossil fuel industries developed a campaign to systematically sow the seeds of doubt about climate change science. Funded primarily by the coal industry, the group elevated the profile of a few skeptical scientists and amplified their message effectively for years, even after the New York Times published a secret memo detailing their plans.

The Global Climate Coalition was the public face of the group; some of the work was carried out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other think tanks. In the coming years, funding flowed to the Heartland Institute and a series of other think tanks and new research institutes that were built to amplify the voices of scientists and others skeptical of the emerging consensus on the reality of human-caused climate change.

This time the denial machine failed to derail multilateralism, and there was no “October Surprise” like Climategate back in late 2009 before Copenhagen.

In the U.S., at least, the campaign was largely successful: what had been a near-national consensus about the need to act on climate change became sharply polarized along party lines. The strategy was effective globally too, since by stopping efforts in the U.S., the Kyoto Protocol was unable to reach critical mass.

The treaty only went into effect in 2005, and international negotiations were snarled without the world’s largest polluter to take the lead. Each year the nations of the world waited in vain for the U.S. to get serious about the issue and to lead. Nearly every other nation was able to say of the U.S.’s non-participation: “Why should we act when the biggest emitter is doing nothing?”

In Copenhagen in 2009, a series of studies and climate disasters built momentum in the lead-up to the conference aimed at agreeing a successor to Kyoto. The expectations were that a Copenhagen Protocol would create a strong, binding treaty to stop climate change. 

Just before the negotiations, emails hacked from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia were leaked, which were portrayed to appear that they were fudging the data. Eight inquiries have since shown no wrongdoing, but the damage was done, and many people today continue to believe that the so-called “Climategate” was a real scandal.  

Different this time

Then there was Paris. This time, with strategic and dedicated leadership from the U.S., France, Peru and even China, the community of nations was able to draft and agree a deal that applied to all nations. President Obama appears to have seen climate change as a crucial issue on which he could create a positive legacy, and he repeatedly spoke about his obligation to his children and humanity to act.

His White House team built the groundwork for a successful year with bilateral joint announcements made with China, Mexico, Brazil, and others.

The November 2014 joint announcement with China of “differentiated” pledges for action was absolutely pivotal, breaking the logjam so that other nations could see that the biggest emitters were in fact finally moving on this issue. This boosted the Peru meeting later that month, which in turn laid the groundwork for Paris.

So where were the climate deniers during the Paris round? This time the denial machine failed to derail multilateralism, and there was no “October Surprise” like Climategate back in late 2009 before Copenhagen.

While entirely non-binding on the actions of nations who sign it, the Paris Agreement did establish a five-year rolling system of pledges that are summed up and evaluated for adequacy, and each successive round is required to be more ambitious that the last.

While built on a bottom-up voluntary system, nearly every nation on Earth agreed to something in Paris. It wasn’t as weak as it could have been. 2015 was not 2009.

Where were the climate deniers during the Paris meetings? The Heartland Institute and CFACT contingent led by Marc Morano held a “counter summit” at the Hotel California in Paris during the talks, but in the fairly massive media coverage of the Paris negotiations the event ended up being a barely-visible sideshow . The main groups that mobilized with substantial efforts in past years had very little new material on their websites, and very few media mentions.

Timmons Roberts is a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University. Robert Brulle is a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University.This post was republished from Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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