Climate “Inactivists” at Work

I recently steeled myself to take a good look at the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Prepared by hundreds of volunteer scientists from around the world, its findings are dire. Our world is on track to exceed Paris Agreement limits, ensuring a rising toll on human life and wildlife. We still have time to act, but the hour is late, and we can no longer take part in such pointless activities as debating and deflecting polluter misinformation campaigns. Many of the worst predictions of earlier IPCC reports have already occurred in the Pacific Northwest. Unprecedented wildfire, drought and heat waves this year alone have transformed climate change from an academic issue to one with devastatingly direct impacts.

Climate scientist Michael Mann traces how the merchants of climate doubt have followed Big Tobacco’s public-relations playbook to the letter.

Step 1: Sow doubt and delay meaningful action.

Step 2: When the evidence becomes overwhelming, reframe your industry while advocating policies that allow business as usual.

Step 1 of this strategy is doomed to eventual failure. Case in point: The last country on Earth to sell leaded gasoline has finally banned it. Lead manufacturers have been found criminally liable for bribing nations to sell leaded gas even though its health effects were well known for decades. There also was the usual PR campaign. Don Ryan, a former executive director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes said in a documentary, ‘Every step of the way, the lead industry challenged the scientific evidence, ridiculed the reality of lead’s low-level health effects, and basically, claimed this problem was being completely overblown by scientists.’

Sounds familiar.

Outright denial of the physical evidence of human-caused climate change is no longer credible, so carbon-polluting industries have largely moved on to Step 2. Big Timber — which is the largest carbon-emitter in Oregon is now engaged in an increasingly desperate bid to re-cast its work as beneficial. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, scientist William Moomaw said, ‘If we get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and we continue to reduce our emissions after that, and if we continue to increase the biological sequestration — the nature-based solutions as they’re sometimes referred to — we would actually start reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere between 2050 and 2100.’

The delightfully wide range of ‘nature-based solutions’ often involve ecological restoration. For example, proforestation (allowing existing forests to grow old), recreating floodplains in degraded rivers, bringing back nearshore kelp forest ecosystems and rebuilding whale populations all have serious carbon storage potential.

To avert increasing climate chaos, we must immediately restrict emissions while employing proven, widespread nature-based solutions. Yet industry PR still pumps out misinformation. That’s not only frustrating, but it’s also morally indefensible. The ‘inactivists,’ as Mann calls them, might want to take a long look in the mirror.

While we wait for that to happen, we can carry on demanding meaningful climate action from leaders at all levels. Locally, we can ask the Eugene City Council to ban new fossil-fuel infrastructure. At the state level, we can pressure the Oregon Department of Forestry to pass a strong climate change and carbon plan and stop logging mature forests that sequester the most carbon.

And we must let the Biden administration know we expect strong, binding commitments on emissions at
November’s Glasgow climate conference. The stark reality of the IPCC report allows for no less.

Rebecca White directs Cascadia Wildlands’ forest defense work across Oregon and the Cascadia bioregion. She writes a monthly column for The Register-Guard.