How Long Can America’s Climate Hypocrisy Last?

On the same day this month that the head of the International Energy Agency confidently declared that fossil fuel demand would peak this decade, the climate advocacy group Oil Change International found that the United States would be responsible for over one-third of all planned fossil fuel expansion through 2050. The following week, as President Biden emphatically called climate change an “existential threat” and announced the creation of a climate conservation corps, the United States broke a record for oil production.

It’s nothing new for climate ambition and climate hypocrisy to flicker back and forth like the two faces of a lenticular hologram. When the United States helped forge the Paris agreement in 2015, it still forbid the export of crude oil and was shipping a pretty trivial amount of natural gas overseas. But that legal ban was lifted the same month the climate agreement was reached, and today the United States — already the biggest producer of oil in the world and its biggest consumer — is also the world’s second largest inter-regional exporter of crude. In 2015, the United States was shipping out just 1 percent as much liquefied natural gas as Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter; today, it is the world’s largest exporter, as well as the largest consumer and largest producer.

On the diplomatic stage, the United States likes to admonish nations it describes as petrostates. But we’ve been pumping more petro almost every year in the age of climate alarm. And often bragging about it, as when the Biden administration touted its draining of the strategic petroleum reserve, or when President Barack Obama, two years out of office, proudly took credit for the American fossil fuel production boom. “That was me, people,” he told an audience in Texas. “Have you checked where your stocks were when I came into office and where they are now?” he asked. “What are you complaining about? Just say ‘thank you,’ please.”

Obama called the basic rule of his energy policy “all of the above,” and having it both ways has been the basic preference of the Democratic Party, and indeed the country, ever since. The country’s move away from coal has helped lower its emissions by nearly 20 percent since 2005, a more impressive decline than most Americans realize and many climate advocates acknowledge. But if the two poles of climate policy are “keep it in the ground” and “drill, baby, drill,” it’s not clear which pole the United States has been closer to.

The Inflation Reduction Act was by far the largest investment the country has ever made in renewables, one which has already kicked off a genuine green manufacturing boom and accelerated the country’s energy transformation. But even optimistic projections of its impact show barely any decline in American production of fossil fuels over the next decade.

Many analysts believe renewable technologies are poised to really take off and finally replace some fossil energy rather than simply adding more total capacity, not just in the United States but throughout the world. Europe is a bit farther ahead, despite spending nearly a trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But we’ve known for years that just rolling out renewables wouldn’t be enough, that some existing fossil fuel assets would have to be “stranded” to meet the world’s ambitious goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and that additional fossil exploration or buildout threatens to push us past its riskier two-degree target, as well. There may be reason to think that U.S. natural gas could help some coal-heavy countries in the short term, and some European officials have come to believe the continent will need our L.N.G. for decades. But at some point, you have to find a way to leave those fossils in the ground.

Which is why both increasingly frustrated climate activists and more accommodating moderate figures have been taking a much more confrontational line against the fossil fuel industry: After years focused on climate awareness and the provision of renewable energy, more and more of those concerned about warming are arguing that genuinely pursuing global goals means turning to the problem of fossil fuel supply.

Last week, New York’s Climate Week effectively opened with what was called a March to End Fossil Fuels — a much more pointed formulation than has framed similar climate marches in the past. The Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty to end the expansion of fossil fuel production received endorsements from several nations and the state of California. President Emmanuel Macron of France announced his intention to drastically reduce his country’s dependence on fossil fuels this decade, the former British prime minister Gordon Brown called for a $25 billion windfall tax on oil and gas revenues, and Catherine McKenna, the former environment minister for Canada, came out in favor of a hard cap on oil and gas emissions. Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations climate chief, declared that she’d given up on working with the fossil fuel industry on decarbonization and that they should be excluded from future climate conferences. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the industry “the polluted heart of the climate crisis.”

In July, Al Gore delivered a fiery TED Talk asking, of the oil and gas business, “Do you take us for fools?”

This is language from centrists and technocrats that you might once have heard at a pipeline protest, but it remains mostly rhetoric. Which is one reason I found it so striking earlier this month when the attorney general of California, with almost giddily enthusiastic support from Gov. Gavin Newsom, filed suit against major oil companies for tens of billions of dollars of climate damages. The state’s legal claim is not sure to prevail, but it is already by far the most formidable legal adversary the industry has faced — as Newsom likes to point out, California is apparently now the fourth largest economy in the world. And at the U.N. General Assembly he made clear that he wanted to be seen as picking a fight. “This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” he said. “It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal. And we need to call that out.” After a grateful ovation, he added, “The oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools.”

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