Pretending to care: why "net zero" is delusional nonsense.
The latest fad in climate change self-delusion is going to look dreadful in historical hindsight.
It’s been at once amazing and depressing, in the weeks since the disastrous COP26 climate change talks concluded in Glasgow, to see how completely the climate change community has bought into the world’s latest excuse for doing nothing about the climate crisis. If you swim around in the pond of people who are concerned about global warming, you’ve no doubt heard and read the words “net zero” quite a lot during 2021, and company after company, including big oil polluters like Shell, have loudly trumpeted the release of their “net zero 2030” or (worse) “net zero 2050” pledges. “Look! There! See? We’re doing something about climate change!” Governments have also embraced “net zero.” The worthless scrap of paper that emerged from Glasgow is entirely based on this concept. To hear the spin doctors of death tell it, the world has turned the corner on carbon emissions and, after decades of denial, delay, obfuscation and wishful thinking, we’ve finally started—started!—to do something serious about climate change.
It’s a delusion, though. Over the past few months, as my historical training has finally come to overshadow my emotional desire to see in parlor games “real progress” (I hate those words) on global warming, it’s become increasingly clear to me that all we’re doing is shifting the conversation to a new form of self-delusion, and a new excuse to do nothing and ease our consciences by pretending to do something. It’s the latest flavor of pretending to care. The 2021 focus on “net zero,” which I think will look pretty quaint in even 12 months’ time, does absolutely nothing to slow down the juggernaut of historical upheaval (basically, violent revolution and global war) that’s hurtling toward us as a result of governmental and economic inaction on anthropogenic global warming, which I outlined in what has become my touchstone article on this blog. “Net zero” is not just corporate or government greenwashing. It is that, but it’s worse than that. It’s a refusal to deal with reality.
There’s been a lot written, even before Glasgow, about how “net zero” is greenwashing. Should you need to bone up on that subject, this (Climate Change News on “net zero” myths) and this (Grain.org on how corporations use “net zero” to cloak their inaction), both pre-Glasgow, are good primers. As applied to the COP26 Glasgow agreement itself, I highly recommend this article from Carbon Tracker which shows countries’ 2030 pledges up as woefully inadequate to meet any real climate action, a baby-baby-baby step taken with great laborious slowness that totally ignores the urgency of the crisis. If you look at that article you’ll notice it includes the same graphic, describing how Glasgow puts us on track for 2.4° or even 2.7° C of warming by 2100, that I included in my “spin doctors of death” article, and which is extraordinarily unwelcome to anyone who still believes in “net zero.” Here is that graphic.
I’m going to make a prediction here, which is always dangerous for a historian to do, but I think is pretty obvious in these circumstances. I think that not one “net zero” pledge, made by any company or any government, whether the target date is 2030 or 2050, will actually be kept. Not a single one. In fact, I think it will be so obvious that every promulgator of a “net zero” pledge will utterly fail to meet these goals, that everyone will stop talking about “net zero” long before 2030, in the hopes that everyone will forget that “net zero” was a thing way back in 2021. The entire concept will go down the memory hole, just as did the ambitious goals or “targets” of the ill-fated 1997 Kyoto Accords or the now-defunct 2015 Paris Accords. Shell Oil, one of the most rapacious and evil carbon polluters on the planet, has already admitted that their grand strategy to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050 is a lie and that they have no intention to keep to this pledge. How long will it be before every other company, industry or government that has made such pledges similarly shrugs them off? “Well, we gave it a shot, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ you know? Reducing carbon emissions is hard. Give us credit for trying!” This, a shrug and a casual brush-off, when the survival of human civilization is at stake.
“Net zero” is so insidious because it works a neat and almost irresistible bit of obfuscation in the head of anyone thinking about it, especially anyone genuinely concerned about the climate crisis. First of all, it sounds great. Zero emissions is where we want to be, right? Well, actually, no. Ceasing to emit CO2 into the atmosphere does nothing about the decades’ worth of CO2 that’s already there, which is causing incalculable damage and death all over the planet—right now, not in 2030 or 2050. And speaking of that, most “net zero” strategies involve, whether explicitly stated or implicit and carefully not shown to the public, assumptions that technology will eventually be developed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at scale—carbon capture technology. This wishful thinking is hinted at with the little word “net” in front of “zero.” It means, we can keep pumping harmful CO2 into the atmosphere and the oceans by burning fossil fuels, but something will eventually be invented, someday, that will balance those emissions on the other side of the ledger. That something does not exist yet, at least not at the scale needed, but we’re sure hopeful that it will be!
This is like an emergency room doctor, confronted with a patient bleeding to death from several serious stab wounds, claiming he’s making “real progress” toward saving his patient, while refusing to suture up his wounds, on the theory that a blood transfusion—which he hasn’t begun to apply yet—will eventually compensate for the blood the patient is leaking onto the floor. The blood transfusion will occur in 2030, or maybe 2050. As long as we hold the doctor “accountable.” In 2050.
The conceptual absurdity of this approach is obvious. But this is what we’re asked to accept in the realm of political and economic policymaking with regard to global warming. And many are accepting it. The next pernicious myth in the realm of climate change self-delusion is accepting an inadequate result because it’s a “good first step.” The words “good first step” usually follow the word “but.” “Yes, I know ‘net zero by 2050’ is inadequate, and we need to do more, but…” You know the rest. The virtual certainty that even this “first step” will never be taken is forgotten, pushed off to some future reckoning date on which, when it comes, if anyone remembers the promise to take that step, the reaction will inevitably be, you guessed it, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Instead of applauding a company or a government for making a “net zero” pledge, you should ask them: how many oil refineries are you willing to shut down permanently, right now, today? Not in 2030. Not in 2025. Not in 2023. Today. Demand oil refinery shutdowns, coal plant closures, fossil fuel project approval cancellations, and an end to fossil fuel economic subsidies. Now. Today. That, not a pledge to do something in 8 (or 28) years, is the definition of a “good first step.” And it can’t be a token move to placate bad press or political pressure. A permanent oil refinery shutdown today, followed by one tomorrow, and another one the day after that, until they’re all gone. That would be a “good first step.”
Oh, but I forget. That’s not “realistic.” That’s too “radical.” That’ll hurt the bottom line. We have to be “economically responsible.” What this kind of thinking does, every single time, is exclude from the realm of possibility any measure on global warming that actually will have a measurable effect, and put us back into a realm of choosing between fantasy solutions that will never happen anyway.
You don’t want to shut down refineries or cancel fossil fuel projects because of, mumble mumble, responsibility, realistic, mumble mumble, shareholders, mumble, voters, mumble mumble, socialism. Fine. So you’re saying that you want this instead, then? I’m glad you’re being honest that you want that—because you’re highly likely to get it.
I’m rapidly running out of patience with people who choose self-delusion on climate change rather than realistic understanding of what needs to be done, and sober reckoning with what that means for our global society. Don’t tell me about your “net zero” pledges. I don’t want to hear it. Fantasy stories belong in cloud cuckoo land, not in the realm of serious engagement with the climate crisis. Sorry to be blunt, but this is where we are.
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