by Judith Curry
How the ‘blame game’ gets in the way of solving complex societal problems.
An essay on how attempting to identify blame for complex societal problems can get in the way of finding solutions to these problems. What the climate ‘blame game’ can learn from the Covid-19 ‘blame game.’
The blame for climate change
Manmade climate change is an emergent problem caused mainly by the abundance and usefulness of fossil fuels in providing cheap, reliable energy. In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, energy theorist Alex Epstein outlines the benefits that the development of coal, oil, and natural gas have had on mankind, including improved health, increased lifespan, and expansion of material welfare. Economist Richard Tol evaluated the private benefit of carbon, which is the value of energy services produced by fossil fuels. He finds that the private benefit of carbon is much greater than the social cost of carbon that causes damage via climate change; these benefits are related to the benefits of abundant and reliable energy.
So, who is to blame for fossil fuel emissions and manmade climate change?
- consumers and industries who demand electric power, transportation, and steel, which are produced using fossil fuels; or
- electric utilities providers and manufacturers of the internal combustion and jet engines that use fossil fuels; or
- oil/gas and coal companies that produce fossil fuels; or
- governments who have the authority to regulate fossil fuel emissions.
The blame for manmade climate change is occasionally placed on national governments. The Urgenda ruling ordered the Dutch government to step up its climate actions in reducing emissions. In the Juliana civil lawsuit, the U.S. federal government was blamed for declining to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, pass a carbon tax and trade bill and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. However, most often in civil litigation, the blame is placed on oil/gas and coal companies that produce the fuels.
The role of climate science in the carbon blame game is an interesting one. As a basis of responsibility, a key element is the causal link between the actor and the harm. Responsibility is also based on the ability to foresee the harm, in terms of scientific understanding. And finally, responsibility relates to the ability to prevent the harm. Recent developments in attribution science are seeking to identify the culpability of individual or groups of oil/gas and coal companies as related to local sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather events.
A new wave of private climate litigation has been motivated by publication of the Carbon Majors study by Richard Heede. Heede’s research shows that nearly two-thirds of anthropogenic carbon emissions originated from just 90 companies and government-run industries. Among them, the top eight companies account for 20 percent of world carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production since the Industrial Revolution. Four of the eight companies are owned by national governments, whereas the other four are multinational corporations.
Heede’s research was a turning point in the debate about apportioning responsibility for climate change. While Heede’s work helped identify individual defendants or groups of defendants related to climate change, it did not resolve the question of whether these emitters are responsible for specific climate change-related impacts and events.
Arriving at a dangerous climate outcome includes a causal chain based on increasing atmospheric CO2 and global mean surface temperature. By tracing company emissions over time, Ekwurzel et al. (2017) attribute fractions of the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, increases in atmospheric temperature and elevation of the sea level to the Carbon Major companies. Ekwurzeil et al. mentioned in the conclusions the idea of extending this attribution logic to extreme weather events. A recent paper by Lickey et al. (2019) attempts to attribute ocean acidification to Carbon Majors.
The science of attribution, or causality, is not at all straightforward. There are two specific issues here: whether climate models are valid sources of legal evidence for climate change attribution/cause; and also the importance of determining partial causation in the context of natural climate variability.
Attribution of harm associated with the weather, climate change or sea level rise is complicated by the existence of multiple causes. Assuming that some percentage of the harm can be justifiably attributed to fossil fuel emissions, does it make sense to attribute this harm in a legal sense to the producers of fossil fuels, e.g. coal and oil/gas companies?
David Victor is a global thought leader on climate change policy and the energy-systems transformation that is required for a low-carbon future. Victor dismissed Heede’s work on the Carbon Majors as part of a “larger narrative of trying to create villains,” seeking to distinguish between producers as being responsible for the problem and everyone else as victims. Victor stated: “Frankly we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty.” [link]
In the same article, Richard Heede (author of the Carbon Majors report) concedes that the responsibility is shared. He stated: “I as a consumer bear some responsibility for my own car, et cetera. But we’re living an illusion if we think we’re making choices, because the infrastructure pretty much makes those choices for us.”
Heede makes a key point by saying that the infrastructure pretty much makes the choices for us. The demand for fossil fuels is driven by electric utility and transportation infrastructures. Individual consumers and companies are faced with a limited number of other options, unless they forego grid electricity and do not avail themselves of transportation systems that run on fossil fuels. Individual consumers and companies are responsible for the demand for electric utilities and transportation, but are arguably indifferent to the source of electric power or transportation, provided that it is abundant, reliable, safe and economical.
If there were no demand for fossil fuels, then there would be nothing to blame on the Carbon Majors. The fact that there is continued and growing demand for fossil fuels indicates that the issue of blame is not straightforward. A change from fossil fuels to cleaner fuels is not simple or cheap, owing to infrastructure. For electric power, this includes generation and transmission infrastructure. For transportation, this includes vehicle engines and their manufacture plus refueling infrastructure.
David Victor states: “To create a narrative that involves corporate guilt as opposed to problem-solving is not going solve anything.” A problem-solving focus on infrastructure is needed for progress, but exactly what the infrastructure should look like depends on available and planned technologies, economics and public policy.
Covid-19 provides an interesting case study regarding ‘blame.’ The origin of the virus is generally regarded to have occurred in Wuhan, China. However, it is difficult to blame the worldwide spread of the virus on Wuhan. While Covid-19 statistics coming from China are incomplete and have been judged to be not trustworthy, China appears to have done a better job at containing the internal spread of the virus than many other countries. Currently, the ‘blame’ is focused on transmitters who are not adhering to lockdown and mask wearing requirements plus the politicians who aren’t requiring them to do so.
With the advent of Covid-19 vaccines, the Covid-19 discussion is now dominated by the vaccine, with the origin of the disease receiving little attention. The cure to the pandemic is technological, in the form of vaccines; not worldwide behavioral change (although behavioral change has worked in some smaller regions/countries). In many countries, behavioral modifications to limit transmission that were associated with mandatory lockdowns simply didn’t work, for reasons of economic infeasibility, concerns about psychological well being associated with isolation, and general political non-viability.
In context of the climate debate, the lesson from Covid-19 is this. A technological solution (analogous to development of the vaccine) in terms of better electricity generation and transmission would quickly silence the climate ‘blame game’ by solving the problems to the environment caused by burning fossil fuels. Suffering from insufficient electric power or electric power that is too expensive or unreliable (analogous to the Covid lockdowns) is economically damaging and politically unviable.
Again, the solution is problem solving and new technologies, not blame. While isolation and austerity can be invoked for short time periods, they are not solutions.
The Covid-19 blame game didn’t get in the way of finding a solution (i.e. vaccine). However, the rush to blame the fossil fuel companies and punish them is getting in the way of a sensible transition away from the worst impacts of fossil fuels on the environment.
A sensible transition involves continued use of relatively clean and dispatchable natural gas, avoids massive infrastructure investments in wind energy that have dubious net benefits over the life cycle of the wind turbines, and developing an improved energy infrastructure for the 21st century. Abundant, secure, reliable, economical, and clean. How do we prioritize among these, and to what extent should ‘clean’ trump the others? Do we define ‘clean’ only in terms of emissions, or do we also include mining/exploration, land use, life cycle issues, etc.?
I am still waiting for a moral argument that justifies, in the name of the ‘climate crisis’, preventing the development of grid electricity in the poorest regions of Africa that can support development of an advanced economy. I suspect that I will be waiting a long time for such a justification, because there isn’t one.
Playing the carbon ‘blame game’ is an excuse for punishing certain companies without actually solving societal problems. The net effect is continued suffering in developing countries, failure to make much headway on reducing emissions and certainly a failure to ‘improve’ the climate in any way.