Demolishing The 7 Myths Propping Up Fossil Fuels

It's time to set the record straight.
MariusLtu via Getty Images

Climate change deniers and those opposing moves to a clean-energy economy, your time is up.

The fossil fuel lobby spends a fortune supporting their relentless PR campaign that seeks to showcase why it make no sense to transition to a new economy driven by renewable energy.

But do any of their arguments actually stack up?

Let’s ignore the irresponsible claims that climate change is not actually taking place or that it is not caused by human activity and look at the economic, political and religious arguments for sticking with the status quo: These range from the high cost of moving away from oil, gas and coal to the impossibility that renewable energy can power the global economy.

To fire test seven of the fossil fuel lobby's key arguments, I caught up with one of the leading experts on corporate sustainability, Andrew Winston, author of The Big Pivot. Winston provides what he says is compelling evidence that “obliterates” each one of their arguments.

1. Transitioning to a clean-energy economy is expensive and damaging to growth

Winston says the best estimates on what climate change will cost the world -- versus the investment costs of acting to avoid the worst of it -- have for years pointed away from this fallacy.

From the Stern Review in 2006, to the more recent New Climate Economy and Risky Business reports, Winston says the numbers show clearly that not acting on a changing climate would be a terrible and costly mistake.

“The most recent analysis, the powerful Energy Darwinism report from Citi, tells us that between now and the middle of the century, unchecked climate change would reduce global GDP by up to $72 trillion,” says Winston. “That’s a hefty bill for climate impacts. But another calculation from Citi tells a more positive and important story. To keep a global energy and transportation system going and growing, the world will spend large sums of cash on fuel and capital on infrastructure. Citi compares two scenarios for how we approach these investments: ‘action,’ where we build a clean economy, and ‘inaction,’ the fossil-fuel-heavy scenario that could drag GDP down so much. The bill for the action path, Citi says, will be $190.2 trillion over the coming 45 years. That sounds like bad news until you compare it to Citi’s estimate for the business-as-usual scenario: $192 trillion."

“So, in short, we’re going to invest huge sums of money in energy either way, so we may as well spend $2 trillion less to avoid tens of trillions of economic and human damage,” he adds.

2. China’s not doing anything, so why should we?

Besides missing the point that building the clean economy is good for the U.S no matter what anyone else does, Winston says this favorite nugget from the fossil fuel lobby has been untrue for years.

“China built the world’s largest solar and wind industries in less than a decade, driving down the cost of those technologies for all of us,” says Winston. "There’s more wind energy in China than nuclear, and the country built more solar in the first quarter of this year than exists in France in total. And what about all that coal? It’s still a problem, but China reduced coal imports by 42 percent in the first quarter as well. But this persistent myth about China’s inaction was truly destroyed two weeks ago when President Xi Jingping committed his country to launch a national cap and trade system to control carbon pollution in 2017. Yes, the market-based solution that American conservative economists and politicians basically created back in 1990 to fight air pollution -- but then stopped supporting when President Obama tried to enact it to tackle climate change -- will be launched in communist China.”

3. Business doesn’t want this

Winston says that if you ignore the fossil fuel companies that have most to lose, the clean economy is a winning formula for business, and a growing number of the world’s largest companies are realizing this.

He points to a new batch of multinationals that have recently joined RE100, an organization committed to encouraging businesses to use 100 percent renewable energy.

Winston, who is on the steering committee of RE100, points to new signatories including Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Nike, Salesforce and Goldman Sachs. They have joined existing members like IKEA, Swiss Re, Nestle, Philips, Unilever and SAP.

Adding to the momentum, six major banks -- Bank of America, Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo -- announced their support for global and national policies that fight climate change.

4. Investors won’t support the clean economy

Winston points out that the six banks pledging support for policy also specifically agreed to invest significant resources toward financing climate solutions.

“That’s the ‘carrot’ of clean economy finance,” says Winston. “On the ‘stick’ side, the fossil fuel divestment movement has gained significant steam. Just a few fringe universities had signed on a year ago, but now Bloomberg reports that portfolio managers have pledged to steer $2.6 trillion in investments away from fossil fuels. The largest addition to the movement is likely the state of California, which will get out of coal investments.”

The California legislature on Sept. 2 passed a bill requiring the state's two largest pension funds to sell their investments in coal mining companies. A week later, the University of California announced it had sold off $200 million of direct holdings in coal and oil sands companies.

5. God gave us dominion over nature to do whatever we want

Winston says a major sea change has taken place since Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics, came to the U.S. and reinforced the messages in his powerful encyclical, Laudato Si, that the science of human-caused climate change is compelling and that any interpretation of the Bible that lets humans run roughshod all over creation is dead wrong.

As the Pope has said: “We Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures. Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being ... given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures ... 'keeping' means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.”

6. Republicans at the national level will never support action on climate change

Even a few weeks ago this would have looked like a watertight argument, says Winston. But he points to “11 Congressional GOP-ers who have put forward a bill acknowledging climate change and promoting action. The fact that the leader of this little insurrection [Rep. Chris Gibson] is Catholic is not random. Yes, it’s less than a dozen, but it’s 11 more Republicans than we’ve seen come forward in years.”

7. Renewables can’t power a modern society and/or there’s no feasible plan to get us there

There’s so much evidence to the contrary, according to Winston. He says the costs for solar and wind have dropped 70 to 80 percent over the last five years, with fossil fuels losing their cost advantage over renewables. Deutsche Bank now predicts that most of the world will experience "grid parity"-- the point when renewables without subsidies are cheaper than the older technologies -- within a couple of years.

“The idea that renewables can’t power a modern society is mostly a myth,” Winston insists. “Yes, we need advances in storage technology for when the wind isn’t blowing or sun is down, but those are coming fast also. Multiple studies suggest 100 percent renewable energy is possible by 2050 or sooner, at least on the grid. And in transportation, does anyone think Tesla-style vehicles are a pipe dream anymore?”

Winston is clear that we are reaching a tipping point where climate deniers are being shown to be on the wrong side of history and that the idea of the world coming together to slow the steady march of global warming is now more than just a dream. If that is true, that truly would be good news.

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