Big Essay #64–The Blame Game

Posted on December 7, 2020 

by Judith Curry

How the ‘blame game’ gets in the way of solving complex societal problems.

An essay on how attempting to identify  blame for complex societal problems can get in the way of finding solutions to these problems.  What the climate ‘blame game’ can learn  from the Covid-19 ‘blame game.’

The blame for climate change

Manmade climate change is an emergent problem caused mainly 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 have had on mankind, including improved health, increased lifespan, and expansion of material welfare. Economist Richard Tol evaluated the private benefit of carbon, which is the value of energy services produced by fossil fuels. He finds that the private benefit of carbon is much greater than the social cost of carbon that causes damage via climate change; these benefits are related to the benefits of abundant and reliable energy.

So, who is to blame for fossil fuel emissions and manmade climate change?

  • consumers and industries who demand electric power, transportation, and steel, which are produced using fossil fuels; or
  • electric utilities providers and manufacturers of the internal combustion and jet engines that use fossil fuels; or
  • oil/gas and coal companies that produce fossil fuels; or
  • governments who have the authority to regulate fossil fuel emissions.

The blame for manmade climate change is occasionally placed on national governments. The Urgenda ruling ordered the Dutch government to step up its climate actions in reducing emissions. In the Juliana civil lawsuit, the U.S. federal government was blamed for declining to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, pass a carbon tax and trade bill and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. However, most often in civil litigation, the blame is placed on oil/gas and coal companies that produce the fuels.

The role of climate science in the carbon blame game is an interesting one. As a basis of responsibility, a key element is the causal link between the actor and the harm. Responsibility is also based on the ability to foresee the harm, in terms of scientific understanding. And finally, responsibility relates to the ability to prevent the harm. Recent developments in attribution science are seeking to identify the culpability of individual or groups of oil/gas and coal companies as related to local sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather events.

Carbon Majors

A new wave of private climate litigation has been motivated by publication of the Carbon Majors study by Richard Heede. Heede’s research shows that nearly two-thirds of anthropogenic carbon emissions originated from just 90 companies and government-run industries. Among them, the top eight companies account for 20 percent of world carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production since the Industrial Revolution. Four of the eight companies are owned by national governments, whereas the other four are multinational corporations.

Heede’s research was a turning point in the debate about apportioning responsibility for climate change. While Heede’s work helped identify individual defendants or groups of defendants related to climate change, it did not resolve the question of whether these emitters are responsible for specific climate change-related impacts and events.

Arriving at a dangerous climate outcome includes a causal chain based on increasing atmospheric COand global mean surface temperature. By tracing company emissions over time, Ekwurzel et al. (2017) attribute fractions of the accumulation of COin the atmosphere, increases in atmospheric temperature and elevation of the sea level to the Carbon Major companies. Ekwurzeil et al. mentioned in the conclusions the idea of extending this attribution logic to extreme weather events.   A recent paper by Lickey et al. (2019) attempts to attribute ocean acidification to Carbon Majors.

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

Blame sharing

Attribution of harm associated with the weather, climate change or sea level rise is complicated by the existence of multiple causes. Assuming that some percentage of the harm can be justifiably attributed to fossil fuel emissions, does it make sense to attribute this harm in a legal sense to the producers of fossil fuels, e.g. coal and oil/gas companies?

David Victor is a global thought leader on climate change policy and the energy-systems transformation that is required for a low-carbon future. Victor dismissed Heede’s work on the Carbon Majors as part of a “larger narrative of trying to create villains,” seeking to distinguish between producers as being responsible for the problem and everyone else as victims.  Victor stated: “Frankly we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty.” [link]

In the same article, Richard Heede (author of the Carbon Majors report) concedes that the responsibility is shared. He stated: “I as a consumer bear some responsibility for my own car, et cetera. But we’re living an illusion if we think we’re making choices, because the infrastructure pretty much makes those choices for us.”

Heede makes a key point by saying that the infrastructure pretty much makes the choices for us. The demand for fossil fuels is driven by electric utility and transportation infrastructures. Individual consumers and companies are faced with a limited number of other options, unless they forego grid electricity and do not avail themselves of transportation systems that run on fossil fuels. Individual consumers and companies are responsible for the demand for electric utilities and transportation, but are arguably indifferent to the source of electric power or transportation, provided that it is abundant, reliable, safe and economical.

If there were no demand for fossil fuels, then there would be nothing to blame on the Carbon Majors. The fact that there is continued and growing demand for fossil fuels indicates that the issue of blame is not straightforward. A change from fossil fuels to cleaner fuels is not simple or cheap, owing to infrastructure. For electric power, this includes generation and transmission infrastructure. For transportation, this includes vehicle engines and their manufacture plus refueling infrastructure.

David Victor states: “To create a narrative that involves corporate guilt as opposed to problem-solving is not going solve anything.” A problem-solving focus on infrastructure is needed for progress, but exactly what the infrastructure should look like depends on available and planned technologies, economics and public policy.

Covid-19 analogy

Covid-19 provides an interesting case study regarding ‘blame.’ The origin of the virus is generally regarded to have occurred in Wuhan, China. However, it is difficult to blame the worldwide spread of the virus on Wuhan. While Covid-19 statistics coming from China are incomplete and have been judged to be not trustworthy, China appears to have done a better job at containing the internal spread of the virus  than many other countries. Currently, the ‘blame’ is focused on transmitters who are not adhering to lockdown and mask wearing requirements plus the politicians who aren’t requiring them to do so.

With the advent of Covid-19 vaccines, the Covid-19 discussion is now dominated by the vaccine, with the origin of the disease receiving little attention. The cure to the pandemic is technological, in the form of vaccines; not worldwide behavioral change (although behavioral change has worked in some smaller regions/countries). In many countries, behavioral modifications to limit transmission that were associated with mandatory lockdowns simply didn’t work, for reasons of economic infeasibility, concerns about psychological well being associated with isolation, and general political non-viability.

Conclusion

In context of the climate debate, the lesson from Covid-19 is this. A technological solution (analogous to development of the vaccine) in terms of better electricity generation and transmission would quickly silence the climate ‘blame game’ by solving the problems to the environment caused by burning fossil fuels. Suffering from insufficient electric power or electric power that is too expensive or unreliable (analogous to the Covid lockdowns) is economically damaging and politically unviable.

Again, the solution is problem solving and new technologies, not blame. While isolation and austerity can be invoked for short time periods, they are not solutions.

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

A sensible transition involves continued use of relatively clean and dispatchable natural gas, avoids massive infrastructure investments in wind energy  that have dubious net benefits over the life cycle of the wind turbines, and developing an improved energy infrastructure for the 21st century.  Abundant, secure, reliable, economical, and clean.  How do we prioritize among 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 that justifies, in the name of the ‘climate crisis’,  preventing the development of grid electricity in the poorest regions of Africa that can support development of an advanced economy.  I suspect that I will be waiting a long time for such a justification, because there isn’t one.

Playing the carbon ‘blame game’ is an excuse for punishing certain companies without actually solving societal problems. The net effect is continued suffering in developing countries, failure to make much headway on reducing emissions and certainly a failure to ‘improve’ the climate in any way.

Judith Curry Partial Bio

Education
1982 Ph.D.
1974 B.S. cum laude
Professional Experience
JUDITH A. CURRY
The University of Chicago, Geophysical Sciences Northern Illinois University, Geography
2006-present 2017-present 2002-2016
2002-2014 1992-2002
1989-1992 1986-1989 1982-1986
President, Climate Forecast Applications Network, LLC
Professor Emeritus, Georgia Institute of Technology
Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Georgia Institute of Technology
Chair, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Georgia Institute of Technology
Professor, University of Colorado-Boulder Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Environmental Studies Program
Associate Professor, Department of Meteorology, Penn State
Assistant Professor, Dept of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Purdue Univ Assistant Scientist, Dept of Meteorology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Awards/Honors
2011 Graetzinger Moving School Forward Award, Georgia Tech
2007 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
2006 Best Faculty Paper Award, Georgia Tech Sigma Xi
2004 Fellow, American Geophysical Union
2002 NASA Group Achievement Award for CAMEX-4
2002 Green Faculty Award, University of Colorado
1997 Elected Councilor, American Meteorological Society
1995 Fellow, American Meteorological Society
1992 Henry G. Houghton Award, the American Meteorological Society
1988 Presidential Young Investigator Award, the National Science Foundation

Recent Professional Activities
World Meteorological Organization / International Council of Scientific Unions / International Ocean Commission / World Climate Research Programme
• Global Energy and Water Experiment (GEWEX) Radiation Panel (1994-2004)
• GEWEX Cloud System Studies (GCSS) Science Steering Group (1998-2004)
• Chair, GCSS Working Group on Polar Clouds (1998-2004)
• Chair, GEWEX Radiation Panel SEAFLUX Project (1999-2004)
• Steering Committee, IGAC/SOLAS Air-Ice Chemical Interactions (2003-2006)
• Science Steering Group, Arctic Climate System (ACSYS) Programme (1994-2000)
National Research Council – National Academies
• Space Studies Board (2004-2007)
• Climate Research Committee (2003-2006)
• Panel: A Strategy to Mitigate the Impact of Sensor Descopes and De-manifests on the
NPOESS and GOES-R Spacecraft (2007-2008)
• Committee to review CCSP SAP 1.1 Temperature Trends in the Lower Atmosphere: Steps
for Understanding and Reconciling Differences (2007)
U.S. Federal Agencies
• DOE Biological & Environmental Research Advisory Committee (BERAC) (2012-2015)
• Earth Science Subcommittee, NASA Advisory Council (2009-2013)
• Search Committee, NSF Director for Geoscience (2007)
• External Advisory Board, NCAR Atmospheric Technology Division (2004-2006)
• Science Board, DOE ARM Climate Reference Facility, (2008-2011)
• External Review Committee, COSIM Program, Los Alamos National Laboratory (2007)
• NOAA Climate Working Group (2004-2009)
Professional Societies
• Transformation Vision Committee, American Meteorological Society (2015-present)
• Executive Committee, American Physical Society Topical Group on Physics of Climate
(2013-2016)
• Member, Fellows Committee, American Geophysical Union (2013-2017)
• Executive Committee of the Council, American Meteorological Society (1998-2000)
• Councilor, American Meteorological Society (1997-2000)
Other
• Member, Visiting Committee, Dept of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Purdue Univ. (2008)
• Member, Visiting Committee, Dept of Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences, the MIT Corporation (2009 – )

7 thoughts on “Big Essay #64–The Blame Game

  1. Hi Brian,

    “The moral cause for fossil fuels” is one of my favourite books! We need reliable energy, not some experimental sources. Too many people still believe that electricity comes out of the wall. The US has over the last 2 decades increased their fossil fuel production. Rightly so, and making them more independent. BC is an anomaly in terms of electricity production by water power.

    In regards to Cov-19 and blame: A lot of “Funny Stuff” is going on. Changing the world order? Making money? It will be most interesting what will happen in the next months in terms of vaccination success. Will long term care facility patients survive a vaccination? How long is the vaccine preventing infection? At what percentage is it preventing infection? Good luck for everyone who gets a vaccine. This is not a sure thing.

    Has anybody looked at recent numbers such as NY state? A new high of cases. Virtually no deaths. Hmm. Maybe it is just a common cold after all?

    I hope that we will not become a Socialist country. (Wait a minute, are we already?). After the recent comments of our incompetent Finance Minister, suggesting to get citizens’ bank accounts money, I have lost all hope.

    Regards

    Klaus Protzer

    Like

    • 1.The US has improved their environment while becoming the largest oil producer.

      2. Little is being said about how long the vaccine will be effective. Seems like trial and error.

      3. The west’s denigration of HDC and like early treatments will come back to haunt. A US Senate hearing in the last days showed a new cheap drug to be effective for early treatment .

      4. We crossed the rubicon to socialism some time ago, largely started by daddy Trudeau with the help of J.K. Galbraith .

      Like

  2. Summary of this piece: Climate change from burning fossil fuels is a problem , however, Not to blame the oil and gas companies, because we are all at fault. So just find solutions for the transition and don’t blame.
    What has been been overlooked in this piece?
    That oil companies, we now know, did research as much as 50 years ago and knew the negative impacts on climate, but kept it secret. So it is like the tobacco companies denied linkage to lung cancer? And this eventually became a legal issue.
    And as to transition, if oil/gas/coal companies can innovate, but their is no incentive nor penalty to become cleaner, why should they? If the bottom line is maximum dividends to the shareholders, there will be no timely transition, and to drill and use every economic barrel of crude, btu of gas, and ton of coal.
    There is a move of disinvestment by fund managers, but much more is needed for the rate of transitions needed.Legal challenges has some minor effect so far, but international binding agreements is key.
    So far we have wasted 30 years and now the crunch appears at hand, making the challenge harder, limited by time.
    Like the Covid vaccine, We need a Warp Speed transition for energy. . Who will be Captain Kirk? Who will be Spock and engineer Scottie to avoid the pitfalls for a safe landing for spaceship Earth? The voice of reason is from Greta Thunberg: Our house is on fire, and we first need to panic, and then act., and follow the science. So far, there is little panic, and even less action.
    Winston Adams

    Like

      • I have read it twice, and see it suggests a policy of just using gas, which is cleaner than coal and oil (but is still adding to CO2, so adding to the problem). It says use technology and don’t blame, but no suggestion even of nuclear as a part solution, but says avoid wind generation( which is cost effective in some locations, but does not replace fossil fuels).
        As to panic, panic should be very short term; The Chinese you might say panicked and brought strict regulation and enforcement to counter the virus, they acted. Trump was afraid the public would panic, so fiddled as the virus spread wild. They ordered 100 m doses from Pfizer for over 300 m people while Canada ordered 56 m for just over 30 m people. Now he wants to divert Canadian doses to Americans, as America first.
        What did I miss Brian? Granted fossil fuels has been and is extremely important , past , present and future, but transition is also essential, you agree I think but you question the speed needed?
        Winston

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  3. You have to love it when people say we should panic first that has always been a great way to solve any problem. Panic has already given us large scale use of solar panels that are little more than a disposable battery,taking more energy to produce than they can recover in their usable lifetime. We are building windmills to replace real power plants and then building gas fired power plants to back them up when the wind doesn’t blow. No one has ever done a real study on the impact of windmills as to the environmental damage done by the mining and production of steel,concrete and carbon fibre that goes into the manufacture of these bird killing machines. We were assured that these things had a usable life of fifty years turns out the non recyclable blades have a life span of twelve to fifteen years after which time they are cut up and buried. If you want real energy solutions you have to incentivize inivation that doesn’t require huge govt grants to make economically feasible that only serves to remove resources from sensible projects of which there could be many if virtue signalling politicians didn’t get in the way. Case in point banning incandescent bulbs to be replaced by mercury gas filled cfl’s. Industry then developed the led which is actually a really good solution and has been widely adopted in the general public. The chicken little approach is never a good one,when the engine stops would you prefer the pilot throw his hands in the air or do as he was trained aviate,navigate,communicate

    Like

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