The blame sport | Watts up with that?


Reposted by Climate Etc.

Posted on December 7th, 2020 by curryja

by Judith Curry

How the “guilt game” stands in the way of solving complex social problems.

An essay on how trying to identify blame for complex societal problems can get in the way of finding solutions to those problems. What the climate debt game can learn from the Covid 19 debt game.

The blame for climate change

Man-made climate change is an emerging problem, caused primarily 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 has had for humankind, including improved health, longer lifespans, and expansion of the material prosperity. Economist Richard Tol assessed the private utility of carbon, which is the value of energy services generated using fossil fuels. He notes that the private benefits of carbon are much greater than the social costs of carbon, which is causing damage through climate change. These benefits are related to the benefits of abundant and reliable energy.

So who is to blame for fossil fuel emissions and human-made climate change?

  • Consumers and industries that require electricity, transportation, and steel made with fossil fuels; or
  • Utilities and manufacturers of combustion and jet engines that use fossil fuels; or
  • Oil / gas and coal companies that produce fossil fuels; or
  • Governments with the power to regulate fossil fuel emissions.

The blame for human-made climate change sometimes lies with national governments. The Urgenda judgment ordered the Dutch government to step up its climate protection measures to reduce emissions. In the civil lawsuit against Juliana, the US federal government was accused of refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol, pass a law on carbon tax and trade, and withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Most often, however, in civil litigation, blame is placed on the oil / gas and coal companies that produce the fuels.

The role of climate science in the carbon debt game is interesting. A key element as the basis of responsibility is the causal link between the actor and the damage. Responsibility is also based on the ability to foresee the harm in terms of scientific understanding. Finally, responsibility relates to the ability to prevent harm. Recent developments in attribution science aim to determine the guilt of individual or groups of oil / gas and coal companies related to local sea level rise, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events.

Carbon majors

A new wave of private climate disputes was motivated by the publication of Richard Heede’s Carbon Majors study. Heede’s research shows that nearly two-thirds of anthropogenic carbon emissions come from just 90 companies and government industries. Among them, the eight largest companies have accounted for 20 percent of global carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production since the industrial revolution. Four of the eight companies are owned by national governments while the other four are multinational companies.

Heeede’s research marked a turning point in the debate about sharing responsibility for climate change. While Heede’s work helped identify individual defendants or groups of defendants related to climate change, it did not solve the question of whether these emitters were responsible for certain climate change-related impacts and events.

Achieving a dangerous climate outcome involves a chain of causation based on increases in atmospheric CO2 and global mean surface temperature. By Ekwurzel et al. (2017) attribute fractions to the carbon major companies to the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, the rise in atmospheric temperature and the rise in sea levels. Ekwurzeil et al. In the conclusions, the idea was mentioned to extend this attribution logic to extreme weather events. A recently published paper by Lickey et al. (2019) tries to ascribe ocean acidification to carbon majors.

The science of attribution, or causality, is not easy at all. There are two specific problems here: whether climate models are valid sources of legal evidence for the attribution / cause of climate change; and also the importance of determining partial causation in the context of natural climate variability.

Finger pointing

Assigning damage associated with weather, climate change or sea level rise is made difficult by the existence of several causes. Assuming that a certain percentage of the damage can rightly be traced back to fossil fuel emissions, it makes sense, in the legal sense, to present this damage to fossil fuel producers, e.g. B. Coal and Oil / Gas Companies?

David Victor is a global thought leader on climate policy and the transformation of energy systems required for a low carbon future. Victor turned down Heede’s work on the Carbon Majors as part of a “larger narrative about the attempt to create villains” in order to distinguish between producers responsible for the problem and everyone else as victims. Victor stated, “In all fairness we are all users and therefore we are all guilty.”

In the same article, Richard Heede (author of the Carbon Majors report) admits that responsibility is shared. He explained: “As a consumer, I have a certain responsibility for my own car, etc. But we are living an illusion when we think we are making decisions because the infrastructure makes those decisions for us. “

Heede makes an important point by saying that infrastructure makes the decisions for us. The demand for fossil fuels is driven by electricity supply and transportation infrastructures. Individual consumers and businesses have only a limited number of other options unless they forego grid power and do not use fossil fuel-powered transportation systems. Individual consumers and businesses are responsible for the demand for electricity suppliers and transportation, but arguably indifferent to the source of electricity or transportation, provided it is plentiful, reliable, safe and economical.

If there is no demand for fossil fuels, the carbon majors are not to blame. The fact that the demand for fossil fuels continues and grows shows that the problem of guilt is not an easy one. Switching from fossil fuels to cleaner fuels is not easy or cheap because of the infrastructure. For electricity, this includes the generation and transmission infrastructure. For transport, this includes vehicle engines and their manufacture, as well as the tank infrastructure.

David Victor explains, “Creating a narrative that includes corporate guilt as opposed to problem-solving won’t solve anything.” Progress requires a problem-solving focus on infrastructure. How exactly the infrastructure should look, however, depends on the available and planned technologies, economic efficiency and public order.

Covid-19 analogy

Covid-19 offers an interesting case study on the subject of “guilt”. It is widely believed that the origin of the virus occurred in Wuhan, China. However, it is difficult to attribute the virus’s global spread to Wuhan. While the Covid-19 statistics from China are incomplete and have been classified as untrustworthy, China appears to contain the internal spread of the virus better than many other countries. Currently, the “blame” is centered on broadcasters who do not adhere to the requirements for wearing locks and masks as well as politicians who do not.

With the advent of Covid-19 vaccines, the Covid-19 discussion is now dominated by the vaccine, with little consideration given to the origin of the disease. The cure for the pandemic is technological in the form of vaccines; no global behavior change (although behavior changes have worked in some smaller regions / countries). In many countries, behavioral changes to limit transmission, coupled with compulsory bans, simply did not work due to economic impossibility, mental wellbeing concerns related to isolation, and general political inability to live.


In the context of the climate debate, this is the lesson from Covid-19. A technological solution (analogous to the development of the vaccine) in terms of better power generation and transmission would quickly silence the climate protection game by solving the environmental problems caused by burning fossil fuels. Suffering from insufficient or too expensive or unreliable electrical energy (analogous to the Covid barriers) is economically harmful and politically unprofitable.

Again, the solution is problem solving and new technology, not fault. Isolation and austerity measures can be used for short periods of time but are not solutions.

The Covid-19 guilt game didn’t get in the way of finding a solution (i.e. a vaccine). However, the rush to blame and punish fossil fuel companies is hindering a sensible transition from the worst fossil fuel impacts on the environment.

A sensible transition involves continuing to use relatively clean and shippable natural gas, avoiding massive infrastructure investments in wind energy, which has dubious net benefits over the wind turbine lifecycle, and developing improved energy infrastructure for the 21st century. Abundant, safe, reliable, economical and clean. How do we prioritize 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 to justify preventing the development of grid power in the poorest regions of Africa, which can support the development of an advanced economy, in the name of the “climate crisis”. I suspect that I will wait a long time for such justification because there is none.

The carbon blame game is an excuse to punish certain companies without actually solving societal problems. The net effect is the continuing suffering in developing countries, the failure to drive emissions reductions, and certainly the failure to improve the climate in any way.

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