8 Episodes in the New Climate Denialism
Shannon Daub, Gwendolyn Blue, Lise Rajewicz, and Zoë Yunker
Canada looks forward to playing a constructive role at COP 21…. We have an opportunity to make history in Paris—an agreement that supports a transition to a low-carbon economy that is necessary for our collective health, security, and prosperity. Canada is back, my good friends.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking on November 30, 2015 at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris
No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there. The resource will be developed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking at the CERAWeek Global Energy and Environment Leadership Award Dinner in Houston, Texas, on March 9, 2017
Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party swept to power in the October 2015 federal election amid much optimism about the prospects for renewed environmental leadership. Climate action was a centrepiece of Trudeau’s campaign, which promised to rehabilitate Canada’s international role during the Paris climate talks, bring in a national price on carbon, phase out fossil fuel subsidies, overhaul the National Energy Board (the country’s national energy regulator), invest millions in clean technologies, and put a moratorium on oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s north coast.1 While cagey on the issues of oil sands development and highly contentious proposed new pipelines to export Alberta bitumen, Trudeau’s campaign nevertheless provided a stark contrast to the approach taken by incumbent Stephen Harper. Harper’s Conservative government earned an international reputation for climate obstruction, aggressively pursued fossil fuel extraction with the aim of making Canada an “energy superpower” (Taber 2006), and labelled environmental groups a “threat” to “Canada’s national economic interest” (Oliver 2012).
Within a year, however, the new Trudeau government approved a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on British Columbia’s north coast, green-lighted two major new oil sands pipelines, and directly acknowledged its intention to continue supporting expanded fossil fuel production. What explains this apparent contradiction? Is it a simple matter of crass political strategy—campaigning to win, with no intention to deliver? Or a case of corporate intervention behind the scenes to moderate the ambitions of a government committed to environmental protection? A closer look at the Trudeau government’s policies and rhetoric suggests that both explanations miss the mark. Rather, the deployment of energetic talk of climate leadership and the adoption of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction policies alongside an expansionary stance on fossil fuel production is, paradoxically, entirely consistent with an approach to climate change we call the “new denialism.”2
Trudeau’s ongoing commitment to climate policies and expanded oil and natural gas production is but one example of what we argue is a more nuanced and increasingly dominant approach to climate change by national governments and industry that profit from fossil fuel extraction. The new denialism is distinct from “traditional” denialism in that it eschews skepticism about anthropogenic climate change in favour of acceptance of climate science, while refusing to acknowledge the full implications of the science in terms of the public policies and societal changes required to prevent global temperature rise from producing catastrophic effects. The new denialism can be understood as both a discursive strategy and a substantive policy agenda that together sow confusion about the nature and scale of the policy transformations required to meet international climate targets, while normalizing market-based “solutions” and the inevitability of continued fossil fuel production.
What we refer to here as “traditional” climate denial has received significant attention in the scholarly literature. This scholarship, along with important work by investigative journalists and environmental NGOs, continues to expose the full scale of a concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry over the past four decades to “manufacture” uncertainty and controversy about climate science—that is, scientific evidence about the existence, severity, causes, and consequences of climate change—and the need to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels (see Dunlap and McCright 2015, 305–9). Thus far, however, the literature on climate change denialism has devoted relatively scant attention to organizations and institutions that embrace the scientific consensus on climate change, while continuing to support fossil fuel extractive practices or status quo policy approaches. A notable exception is an important study of the climate rhetoric and policies of conservative governments in Australia and Canada by Nathan Young and Aline Coutinho (2013) (see also Blue 2018; Bonds 2016; Levy and Spicer 2013; Methmann 2010). While the discourse of climate denial provides a useful approach for examining institutional resistance to implementing climate policy, one of our objectives in this chapter is to broaden the scope of climate denial and its dynamics. We do so in relation to Canadian responses to climate change where the populist-conservative ideology and movement driving the traditional denial industry in the United States have historically been relatively less powerful.
We begin by examining three recent “episodes” of the new denialism, all of which took place leading up to and following the Paris climate negotiations in December 2015. The first was the emergence of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), which saw major fossil fuel corporations join together to advocate for an ambitious global climate agreement and the adoption of GHG reduction measures. The second was the development of provincial “climate leadership” plans in British Columbia and Alberta, during which the fossil fuel industry commented extensively about its policy preferences. And the third was the Trudeau government’s decision to approve new oil sands pipelines, which coincided with the negotiation of the country’s first national climate framework. We assess the implications of the policy stances adopted by industry and government actors in these episodes, compared with the outright rejection of policy action associated with traditional denial, and dig deeper into the similarities and differences between these two forms of denial.
Although what we call the “new denialism” is not a brand-new phenomenon, it has become an important mode of obstructing progress on climate action, particularly in Canada. As the ongoing push to expand production grows ever more indefensible in a period now widely recognized as a climate emergency, the fossil fuel industry and its political allies have increasingly turned to this strategy in an effort to preserve the status quo.
Episode 1: Oil and Gas Majors Call for Global Climate Action—More Than “Blah, Blah, Blah”?
The lead-up to the UN climate talks in Paris (otherwise known as COP21) in December 2015 was characterized by widespread optimism that a new international climate accord to limit GHG emissions could be reached. After the collapse of the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen and the failure in subsequent rounds to reach a new deal, key global players were positioning themselves for a successful agreement (Darby 2015). Into this mix stepped six of the world’s largest oil and gas corporations, with a May 2015 joint letter avowing their commitment to GHG reduction and calling on national governments to adopt carbon pricing systems in order to provide greater policy certainty to the fossil fuel industry and encourage the use of less carbon-intensive energy sources.3 A few months later, an expanded group of ten majors issued a declaration through the OGCI supporting a global climate agreement and recognizing “the general ambition to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade” (OGCI 2015, 1).4 Notably, the declaration dropped the call for carbon pricing, instead focusing on a carefully crafted list of other climate measures.
The options favoured by these oil and gas giants—including the initial inclusion of carbon pricing—are instructive, constituting an action plan that is typical of the new climate denial. These corporations’ advocacy is anchored in a commitment to “reducing the GHG intensity of the global energy mix” (OGCI 2015, 1), meaning fewer GHGs emitted per unit of energy produced. A reduction in emissions intensity is not the same as an absolute reduction in emissions, however, the latter being the most basic and widely recognized policy implication of climate science. The OCGI declaration asserted that more energy is needed to support population and economic growth, while also noting that this energy “has to be provided in a sustainable and affordable manner” (1). To this end, the signatory corporations planned to improve efficiency in their own oil and gas production, increase investment in natural gas (implicitly positioned as a relatively clean fossil fuel), invest in “R&D and technology innovation,” and engage in partnerships with governments and civil society agencies (2). One of the signatories, Repsol CEO Josu Jon Imaz, argued that the commitments were meaningful: “This is not all blah, blah, blah. We are fully convinced that we can reduce CO2 emissions. We could be part of the problem, but we are convinced we are part of the solution” (quoted in Willsher 2015). Such optimism, expressed as belief or even faith in the power of market-based solutions to overcome the climate crisis, is typical of the new climate denialism.
The contradictions inherent in the OGCI member companies’ efforts did not go unnoticed. A Greenpeace representative pointed out that “each and every one of them has a business plan that would lead to dangerous global temperature rises,” adding that “arsonists don’t make good firefighters” (quoted in Willsher 2015). A study by the UK watchdog group InfluenceMap supported Greenpeace’s skepticism, finding that key OGCI members were “systematically obstructing” climate action through their active participation in trade associations that aggressively oppose efforts in the United States and European Union to bring in carbon pricing and GHG emissions regulations. (InfluenceMap 2015, 2). A senior executive with Total, for example, was found to be on the board of the American Petroleum Institute, among the most notoriously aggressive opponents of both climate science and policy (8). Similarly, BP and Shell were found to have close ties to numerous trade associations in the United States and Europe that have advocated against various climate initiatives.
The cases of BP and Shell are especially interesting, given their long-standing public acceptance of the imperative to act on climate change. In the lead-up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations, both companies broke with their industry counterparts to proclaim support for a global climate agreement and announced a commitment to reduce their own GHG emissions (for detailed accounts of this history, see Levy and Spicer 2013; McCright and Dunlap 2003; Pulver 2007). Prior to the 2009 Copenhagen talks, as policy discussions about climate change once again intensified, a similar dynamic unfolded with the creation of the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a coalition of large environmental NGOs and multinational corporations from a number of sectors including fossil fuels (BP, Shell, Duke Energy, and ConocoPhillips were among its members). USCAP advocated the adoption of a cap-and-trade system in the United States (Whittingham 2008). Given this pattern, the creation of the OGCI can be understood as part of a trajectory of pragmatic accommodation by a growing number of key industry players. This accommodation takes place amid a continuation of more direct obstructionism by the fossil fuel industry through their continued support for industry associations and right-wing think tanks that question the existence of anthropogenic climate change.
Episode 2: Climate Policy Development in British Columbia and Alberta—“Leadership” or “Social Licence” to Extract?
In 2015, with the Paris negotiations on the horizon, the provincial governments of British Columbia and Alberta each embarked on new “climate leadership” plans. The development of these policy frameworks offers a window into the dynamics of the new climate denialism in Canada. Both provinces are producer jurisdictions—with BC’s fossil fuel industry driven by natural gas and coal extraction, and Alberta’s by the exploitation of oil and gas (in addition to a declining coal sector). Climate policy featured prominently in the BC Liberal government’s agenda from 2007 to 2009, most notably through the introduction of a widely lauded carbon tax.5 By 2015, however, the government’s enthusiasm for climate action had been eclipsed by the aggressive pursuit of an LNG industry as its primary economic development strategy, along with support for an expanded fracked gas sector. Alberta’s approach to climate change has also varied considerably. Earlier Conservative provincial governments had vehemently opposed Canadian ratification of the Kyoto Accord and then adopted limited climate policies that proved largely ineffectual. The election of Alberta’s first-ever New Democratic Party (NDP) government in 2015, however, put climate policy at the top of the province’s agenda.
Each province appointed a multi-sector advisory panel tasked with making recommendations to government and established public-consultation processes in which fossil fuel corporations participated actively. We analyzed corporate submissions to these consultations to better understand the narrative strategies they used to frame climate change and shape policy responses.6 While there were some differences between the submissions made in each province and within subsectors of industry, several dominant themes emerged.
All the submissions implicitly or explicitly acknowledged the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and all generally expressed a willingness to support some form of climate policy. Many submissions urged the provincial government in question to be a climate leader. However, the submissions also cautioned that a particular form of leadership was needed, one that “balanced” environmental and economic concerns. While couched in win-win terms, the notion that environmental protection and economic well-being must be balanced presumes that these imperatives are in tension and therefore represent trade-offs. Maintaining industry “competitiveness” was prescribed over and over as the key to good climate leadership, particularly for those sectors that rely on global export markets. Policies harmful to competitiveness were defined as imposing additional costs on industry (whether through regulatory measures or the imposition of direct costs such as higher taxes or royalties). Favoured means of ensuring competitiveness were reduced regulation or enhanced industry subsidies, particularly through support for “technology innovation” (such as the subsidization of hydroelectricity to power natural gas fracking and liquefaction in British Columbia and public spending for research and development on less-emissions-intensive bitumen extraction techniques in Alberta).
“Climate leadership” was also expressly positioned as essential to securing international exports for the two provinces’ unconventional fossil fuels. Many of the submissions explicitly linked a desire to brand Alberta as a climate leader to industry’s perceived need to rehabilitate the reputation of the oil sands in order to secure “social licence” for new pipelines and to expand international markets for bitumen exports.7 In British Columbia, increased fossil fuel production was positioned as a climate solution, with LNG proponents and business associations positioning natural gas as a clean(er) energy source that should be subsidized and marketed as a transition fuel to help reduce coal consumption in Asia (a claim that does not stand up to scrutiny).8
Both provinces ultimately adopted plans that framed climate action in very similar terms. Substantively, Alberta’s plan departed from the policy preferences expressed in many industry submissions by introducing an economy-wide carbon tax of $20 per tonne, a 100-megatonne (Mt) cap on total annual GHG emissions from oil sands production (which would allow production to grow by 45 percent over 2014 levels), and a phase-out of coal-fired electricity generation by 2030. These moves were nevertheless endorsed by four of the five largest oil sands producers in Alberta at the time, as well as by several prominent environmental and Indigenous leaders. Shell Canada’s then-president called the plan “a turning point” that marked “the end of a chapter for Alberta, and for Canada, where the economy and the environment were at odds” (Mitchelmore 2015). In British Columbia, the provincial government opted to proceed with a plan that was couched in bold claims about climate leadership but that contained little by way of credible climate measures. The plan effectively abandoned the province’s existing legislated GHG reduction targets, while promising to subsidize use of hydroelectricity in natural gas production and processing “to ensure that BC has the cleanest LNG in the world” (British Columbia 2016, 17).
Episode 3: New Pipelines and a National Climate Framework—“Like Paddles and Canoes”?
At the Paris climate talks in December 2015, Canada pledged to reduce emissions by 30 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2030 to help meet the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2°C. On the eve of the Paris Accord’s one-year anniversary, Prime Minister Trudeau announced his government’s approval of two new oil pipelines: the Enbridge Line 3 and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion projects. Together, these two projects would increase net oil sands pipeline capacity by nearly one million barrels per day and add approximately 137 Mt of carbon to the atmosphere annually (Lee 2017b, 25, table 3). Nine days later, Trudeau announced the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (Canada 2016), a plan negotiated with the provinces and territories that represents the means by which Canada intends to meet its Paris commitment. The plan established a national carbon price “floor” (leaving it to provinces to implement their preferred pricing system) along with a series of measures related to renewable energy, buildings, transportation, industrial emissions, and forestry and agriculture.
The contradiction between approving new pipelines and developing climate-mitigation policies is resolved discursively within the particular version of the new denialism espoused by the current federal government. Consider the following statements from Trudeau’s pipeline announcement in November 2016:
Voters rejected the old thinking that what is good for the economy is bad for the environment. They embraced the idea that we need strong environmental policies if we expect to develop our natural resources and get them to international markets.
Canadians know that strong action on the environment is good for the economy. It makes us more competitive, by fostering innovation and reducing pollution….
But we also know that this transition will take investment, and it won’t happen in a day. We need to create good jobs and strong growth to pay for it….
Our challenge is to use today’s wealth to create tomorrow’s opportunity….
We said that major pipelines could only get built if we had a price on carbon, and strong environmental protections in place.
We said that Indigenous peoples must be respected, and be a part of the process. (Trudeau 2016)
The above statements highlight three key interrelated arguments that knit together Trudeau’s (and his government’s) particular brand of new climate denialism.
First is the explicit linking of environmental and economic performance. Trudeau’s rhetoric contrasts with that of the fossil fuel industry in their submissions to the BC and Alberta government consultations (discussed in the previous section). Those submissions largely professed support for action on climate change in principle but positioned environmental and economic imperatives as trade-offs that must be balanced. In contrast, the environmentalism espoused by Trudeau presents economic and environmental concerns as inseparable, positioning climate policy as an “opportunity” to lead economies into a clean growth-driven future (Gaouette 2017). Or, as the prime minister put it in a pre-election speech, “The environment and the economy … go together like paddles and canoes” (quoted in Do 2015). (See chapter 17 in this volume for an in-depth examination of clean growth policy discourse.) Indeed, Trudeau and his colleagues argue that expanded fossil fuel production is essential to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy—meaning the royalty and tax revenues from growing production are needed to pay the costs of climate mitigation policies and infrastructure. Éric Pineault (2016) characterizes this logic as a northern version of the progressive extractivism seen in Latin American countries, where governments in recent decades have embraced extractive industries as a means to fund social services and poverty reduction. As he goes on to point out, it is a logic that sits comfortably with the fossil fuel industry and wider corporate elite because “even if it implies limits on carbon emissions, it forgoes adequate limits on hydrocarbon extraction. Which means the asset value of unconventional reserves is largely protected from climate policy.”
Second, Trudeau explicitly positions climate policy as a means to make Canadian oil exports more viable by securing “social license.” In Trudeau’s eyes, the adoption of a national carbon price offers a means by which to neutralize opposition to oil sands pipelines by the environmental movement. The federal government’s adoption of a leadership stance on climate change also aims to rehabilitate the international reputation of Alberta oil sands—which the campaigns of numerous environmental and Indigenous groups succeeded in tarnishing over the last decade—in order to secure export markets for Canadian heavy crude. This rationale is baldly captured in his November 2016 pipeline speech:
And let me say this definitively: We could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley, and Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan—a plan that commits to pricing carbon and capping oilsands emissions at 100 megatonnes per year.
… Alberta’s climate plan is a vital contributor to our national strategy. It has been rightly celebrated as a major step forward by industry and the environmental community. (Trudeau 2016)
Finally, Trudeau’s speech highlights the importance of “respecting” Indigenous peoples in the development of oil sands pipelines. Commitments to Indigenous rights featured prominently in the federal Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform, which promised a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship” and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (Liberal Party of Canada 2015, 46, 48). Article 32 of UNDRIP establishes the right of Indigenous peoples “to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources” and further that governments must “obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources” (United Nations 2008, 12). As with climate policy, it appears the federal government hoped its adoption of a leadership stance on Indigenous rights would enable it to advance new pipeline projects. At the time of Trudeau’s pipeline approval speech, more than one hundred First Nations and tribes had declared their opposition to any further expansion of oil sands development, including both the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipeline projects.9
The government’s claim to respect the legal and historic basis of Indigenous rights and title while refusing to accept what those rights mean in concrete policy terms represents a related form of denial. This variant of Indigenous rights denial goes hand in hand with the new climate denialism. While there is, sadly, an abundance of examples of governments failing to act on stated commitments to respect Indigenous rights in a wide range of policy areas, these rights seem to be most expendable when they run up against the interests of the fossil fuel corporate sector. Not to be outdone in the empty-endorsement sweepstakes, the industry has increasingly embraced Indigenous rights, in its own fashion. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP 2016, 1), for example, purports to “endorse” UNDRIP “as a framework for reconciliation in Canada,” yet it continues to vigorously advocate in favour of new oil sands development and pipelines.
The federal government’s commitment to expanded oil sands production is so strong that in May 2018 it announced plans to buy the existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion and take over the financing and building of the expansion project.
Discussion: Traditional Versus New Denialism—Potato/Potato?
The episodes reviewed above describe a mode of denial that we contend is as problematic and dangerous as the outright rejection of climate science. Notwithstanding the accolades Canada received for its role in the Paris climate negotiations, the country’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to reducing GHG emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 is the same target adopted by the blatantly obstructionist Harper government. The target itself has long been viewed as inadequate, and the measures contained in the Pan-Canadian climate framework are insufficient to meet even this target. The 2017 UN emissions gap report warned that, under current its policies, Canada would miss its nationally determined contribution (NDC) target “by a large margin” (UNEP 2017, 24).10 As the report also points out, the collective pledges made by Paris signatories account for only one-third of the GHG reductions needed to avert catastrophic warming (xiv). Similarly, the 2019 emissions gap report lists Canada as one of six G20 countries that are likely to miss their 2020 reduction targets and as one of seven that “require further action” in order to meet their 2030 NDCs (UNEP 2019, 7, 8).
Despite ongoing proclamations by the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues about the importance of climate action, the notion that Canada can be a climate leader while expanding fossil fuel production is simply not tenable. David Hughes (2016) calculates that if Alberta oil sands production grows to the level allowed under the province’s 100 Mt emissions cap and just one major LNG export terminal is built on British Columbia’s coast to export fracked gas, fossil fuel sector emissions will balloon to nearly half of Canada’s total allowable emissions by 2030 (as limited by the Paris target).
Traditional and new denialism thus have the same ultimate outcome, namely, to delay societal responses that are commensurate with the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. Nevertheless, the origins and operation of these two modes of denial differ significantly (see table 8.1). The organized effort to deny and/or cast doubt on the scientific certainty of human-caused climate change began in the late 1980s, as the issue initially captured the attention of policy makers and the public (Dunlap and McCright 2015; Oreskes and Conway 2011). Peter Jacques, Riley Dunlap, and Mark Freeman (2008) trace the origins of this effort back further, to the resurgence of the conservative movement in the United States in the 1970s in response to the societal changes and progressive social movements of the 1960s. They document the rise of an “anti-environmental counter-movement” (356), catalyzed by the emergence of environmentalism along with the associated problematization of industrial capitalism’s ecological impacts and the adoption of environmental protection policies by governments. This countermovement promoted what Jacques, Dunlap, and Freeman call “environmental skepticism”: an epistemological stance that rejects scientific knowledge about environmental problems and therefore their seriousness; challenges the need for environmental policies; eschews corporate responsibility for environmental problems via regulation or legal liability; and portrays environmental policies “as threatening Western progress” (354).
The driving force behind the climate denial movement in the United States has been a cadre of conservative think tanks—allied with fossil fuel corporations and industry groups (along with swaths of the wider corporate sector) and working in tandem with a vast network of conservative front groups, media pundits, bloggers, politicians, and contrarian scientists (Dunlap and McCright 2015; Jacques, Dunlap, and Freeman 2008; McCright and Dunlap 2003). Powered by funding from conservative foundations and wealthy right-wing elites (Brulle 2014; Mayer 2016), the denial countermovement systematically undermines climate science by manufacturing uncertainty (attacking the validity of climate science and the credibility of climate scientists) and manufacturing controversy (promoting the myth of significant “debate and dissent within the scientific community”) (Dunlap and McCright 2015, 308). Even though climate science naturally entails a measure of uncertainty, especially with regard to interpretation and prediction, climate denier groups make strategic use of this uncertainty in order to obstruct policy efforts to regulate industry. Jacques (2012, 11) argues that the denial movement’s efforts have created a “science trap,” in which “elites and masses cannot differentiate between authentic controversy in scientific literature and manufactured controversy outside of the literature.”
Traditional climate denialism
New climate denialism
Rejects or casts doubt on the science of climate change
Accepts the science of climate change
Manufactures uncertainty and controversy about climate science (Dunlap and McCright 2015)
Manufactures confusion about the nature and extent of the policy and societal response needed to address climate change, allowing for the illusion of action
Fights mandatory GHG reductions and other climate policies
Accepts and advocates for mandatory or voluntary GHG reductions together with market-driven and demand-side policy measures such as carbon pricing, provided these don’t impinge upon industry profits and assets (with exception of coal phase-out policies)
Reassures people in the face of threat to “ontological security” (Jacques 2012, 15)
Reassures people in the face of transformative societal changes that feel uncertain, unimaginable, or threatening
Is promoted especially by right-wing think tanks, along with other conservative-movement actors
Is promoted directly by fossil fuel corporations and governments, along with actors from a variety of ideological positions
Equates climate-change science with “an immanent critique of industrial power, Western modernity and the ideals of Western progress” and an “ontological threat to Western modernity” (Jacques 2012, 11)
Equates adequate climate-change action with a challenge to Western modernity and carboniferous capitalism
accepts Indigenous world views, rights, and title in principle but denies them in practice if they hinder business-as-usual
Adheres to the “exemptionalist paradigm” (Dunlap and McCright 2015; Foster 2012)
Adheres to the “new exemptionalism” and ecological modernization theory (Foster 2012)
Proponents of the new denialism diverge sharply by accepting the science of climate change and advocating an active policy response. Whereas the traditional climate denial movement seeks to camouflage its “true ideological and material objectives” by confusing the public about climate science (Jacques 2012, 11), proponents of the new denialism camouflage their objectives by promoting a limited agenda for action that does not threaten capital accumulation by the fossil fuel industry. The championing of modest climate-mitigation strategies by institutions and elites is a process that Chris Methmann (2010, 346) dubs the “mainstreaming of climate protection,” one that leads to “paradoxical results”: while references to the need for climate protection become widespread, “climate protection itself changes its meaning and becomes ambiguous.” In making the meaning of climate action ambiguous, the new denialism allows industry and governments to create the illusion of action—whether through the adoption of voluntary emissions reduction measures or incremental policy action. Traditional and new denialism thus achieve similar results by limiting the scope of climate policy.
Drawing on the work of Kari Norgaard (2006; 2011), who has studied how everyday people participate in the “social organization” of climate denial, Jacques (2012, 15) notes that denial can function as a psychological strategy of self-protection in the face of the existential threat of climate change. In a similar vein, the comforting illusion of action may function to neutralize demand for more ambitious climate mitigation requiring deeper social transformations. In other words, the new denialism creates a policy trap, in which the public struggles to differentiate between effective policy responses that match the scale and severity of climate change and inadequate solutions that sound good but do little to address the problem.
The new denialism also diverges from the traditional mode in both degree of organization and ideological orientation. The traditional climate denial movement is an “extension” of the American conservative movement (Brulle 2014), though it reaches into and has counterparts in other ‘developed’ fossil-fuel producing countries like Canada and Australia (Dunlap and McCright 2015). Whereas “political conservatism is the hegemonic glue that binds” the climate denial movement together (Dunlap and McCright 2010), new denialism is more disparate and cannot really be characterized as a movement per se, though it is more generally aligned with liberal ideology and its proponents. Traditional denialism espouses the “exemptionalist paradigm”—the belief that human ingenuity and technology exempt capitalist industrial society from ecological constraints (Catton and Dunlap 1980; Dunlap and McCright 2015). New denialism is instead rooted in the “new exemptionalism” of policy discourses founded on ecological modernization theory (Blue et al. 2018; Foster 2012), which attempt to reconcile contradictions between industrial capitalist economies and the environmental damage they cause. In this paradigm, climate change is understood as a serious problem that must be addressed, but primarily via technological and market-based fixes (for example, carbon capture and storage, carbon pricing), while leaving corporate power largely intact. Adherence to ecological modernization is typical of contemporary liberal political movements, as well as more progressive strains of conservativism, particularly in Canada.
Given Canada’s similar-yet-different political culture vis-à-vis the United States, it is not surprising that new denialism has played a particularly strong role in the country’s history of engagement with climate change. As Young and Coutinho (2013) remind us, it was Brian Mulroney’s government that made Canada one of the first countries to commit to GHG reductions. Even so, the negotiation of the UNFCCC in the early 1990s and subsequent Kyoto Protocol in 1997 triggered a backlash from the corporate elite, building to a crescendo of opposition as the federal government moved slowly toward formal ratification of the Kyoto Accord. The opposition movement was led by an informal coalition of powerful business groups: the Business Council on National Issues (now the Business Council of Canada), the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (Macdonald 2007). Together they challenged the need for action and the scale of the GHG reductions that Canada’s Kyoto commitment entailed, relying especially on exaggerated claims about “catastrophic consequences” and casting doubt on the “certainty” of climate science (Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters 2002; Chase 2002; Marshall 2002). The federal Liberal government of Jean Chrétien ultimately ratified the accord in 2002 but proceeded to do little else. Indeed, given decades of lip service to targets but little concrete action by both Liberal and Conservative governments (Lee 2017a; Simpson, Jaccard, and Rivers 2008), one could argue that Canada has pioneered the new denialism.11
An Era of New Denialism?
The new denialism has emerged as a strategic effort to proactively define the solutions to climate change in a manner that mitigates the threat of action, to protect not only the interests of producer industries and governments but also the larger economic regime. As we have discussed, the new denialism’s roots stretch back to the 1990s, but we suggest that as the impacts of climate change worsen and become more visible to larger numbers of people, it is becoming an increasingly dominant mode of obstruction. In this sense, we may be entering an “era” of new denialism—within Canada and in other Western producer jurisdictions.12
Even within the conservative movement in the United States, where adherence to traditional climate denial has long been a “litmus test” for Republican political hopefuls (Dunlap and McCright 2015, 300), the new denialism is gaining ground. In 2017, for example, a group of corporations, NGOs, political leaders, and prominent thinkers launched the Climate Leadership Council, whose founding members included ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and the Nature Conservancy.13 One of its first publications, authored by a team of prominent Republicans, was titled The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends: How a New Climate Strategy Can Strengthen Our Economy, Reduce Regulation, Help Working-Class Americans, Shrink Government, and Promote National Security. The document proposed a gradually increasing national carbon tax, whose revenues would be returned to Americans as dividend cheques, ostensibly justifying, in turn, the elimination of wide swaths of regulation, including “much of the EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions” (Baker et al. 2017, 3). While such policy would not be taken up by the Trump administration, its emergence is nevertheless notable.
It is important to clarify that, while we may be in an era of new denialism, the “new” and “traditional” modes of climate denial are not fundamentally at odds, nor do we see evidence to suggest that traditional denial efforts will disappear. Instead, these modes reinforce each other and structure climate politics around an apparent divide between the reactionary conservative-populist forces of outright denial, on one side, and a more progressive-leaning incremental agenda for action, on the other.
David Levy and André Spicer (2013) identify three key periods of struggle over responses to climate change: the “carbon wars” (1990s), a “carbon compromise” (1998–2008), and a “climate impasse” (2009–13). We propose a fourth period of “climate contradiction.” This current period is increasingly dominated by the new denialism, while also characterized by sharpening contestation over fossil fuel extraction. We see these dynamics reflected in movements for fossil fuel corporate accountability in Western producer countries. These movements are supported by a mounting body of research that focuses on the urgent need to curtail fossil fuel production (see, for example, Heede 2014; Lee 2017b; McGlade and Ekins 2015; Muttitt 2016), and they explicitly call out the fundamental illogic of the new climate denialism. As Bill McKibben (2017), of the climate action group 350.org, points out, “Trudeau says all the right things, over and over…. But those words are meaningless if you keep digging up more carbon and selling it to people to burn.”
- 1. For Trudeau’s “Clean Environment” platform, see Liberal Party of Canada (2015, 39–44); see also Hayward (2015). Canada had first pledged to phase out fossil fuel subsidies in 2009, at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.
- 2. The idea of the new climate denialism was first outlined by Seth Klein and Shannon Daub (2016). Our colleague Marc Lee (2015) had earlier called the approach “all of the above” policy making.
- 3. The letter—dated May 29, 2015, and signed by representatives of the BG Group, BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil, and Total—is available at https://www.shell.com/media/news-and-media-releases/2015/oil-and-gas-majors-call-for-carbon-pricing/_jcr_content/par/textimage_1.stream/1441316901849/0faacac135932382443c58c83c1d575dc85ff382/letter-to-unfccc.pdf.
- 4. The ten corporations were BG Group, Eni, Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos), Reliance Industries, Repsol, Royal Dutch Shell, Saudi Aramco, Statoil, and Total.
- 5. Chapter 9 in this volume offers an in-depth look at the evolution of British Columbia’s climate policies under the BC Liberal Party, including the involvement of industry in their development. The BC Liberal Party is a coalition of conservatives and liberals and is more aggressively neoliberal in its policy stances than the federal Liberal Party of Canada, with which the provincial party is not affiliated.
- 6. The sample of submissions (BC n = 17, AB n = 37) from fossil fuel corporations, other GHG-intensive industrial corporations, and general business groups was analyzed using an iterative coding scheme to identify key themes. For a more detailed discussion of methodology and findings, see Blue et al. (2018).
- 7. On social licence, see Prno and Slocombe (2012). The term refers to the need to secure local community acceptance for extractive projects.
- 8. J. David Hughes (2015, 7) found that, in view of the substantial methane emissions associated with the production and transport of LNG, “BC LNG exports to China would increase GHG emissions over at least the next fifty years, compared to building state-of-the-art coal plants.” Further, there is no guarantee that BC LNG would displace coal-powered electricity generation, rather than simply adding to total energy consumption (see Lee 2017b).
- 9. Indigenous peoples have expressed their opposition through the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion: http://www.treatyalliance.org/. As of April 30, 2018, the number of signatories had grown to 150. “Signatory Nations,” Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands, April 30, 2018, http://www.treatyalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/TAATSE-SignatoryNations-EN-R12-20180430-OL.pdf.
- 10. On the inadequacy of Canada’s targets, both current and historical, see also “Canada,” Climate Action Tracker, n.d., accessed December 5, 2018, https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/canada/.
- 11. For a detailed discussion of the factors that led to Canada’s early divergence from the United States on climate policy, see Harrison (2007), Macdonald (2007), and Young and Coutinho (2013).
- 12. On the concept of climate “eras,” see Dunlap and McCright (2015).
- 13. The Climate Leadership Council announced its formation by taking out a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal: see https://www.clcouncil.org/founding-members/. The ad listed the initial members, although, since then, “founding” members have continued to be added.
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