Climate Whataboutism

Will, we still hear “What about China?” now that China just cut coal emissions by three months’ global emissions.
#whataboutism noun /ˌwɒtəˈbaʊtɪz(ə)m/ the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue. Do you remember how the whataboutism technique was perfected by the dangerously incompetent former Impotus Apprentice President as illustrated below?

by Dr William F Lamb, a researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin. Originally published under a CC license in CarbonBrief.

You have probably already heard a discourse of climate delay. Perhaps it came from a friend, a colleague, someone famous, or someone powerful.

This person did not deny that climate change is a problem, or even that it’s a serious problem. Nonetheless, they gave you the impression that solving climate change is not our job, that it will not require substantial changes, that it is too expensive, or that it is pointless to try.

In our new research, published in the journal Global Sustainability, we set out to gather these types of arguments, which we call “discourses of climate delay”.

Just as scientists and volunteers have compiled lists of climate-skeptic talking points, we wanted to categorize delay discourses – statements that exploit discussions on how we should reduce emissions, with the purpose, or effect, of limiting action on climate change.

These are tricky because they cut to some of the most challenging and disputed aspects of mitigation, such as what policies should be implemented, where, and who should pay for them. Indeed, delayed arguments all contain a grain of truth, without which they probably would not work. 

We outline the common features of climate delay discourses and a guide to identifying them.

Four strategies

Based on our observations as social scientists studying climate change, we identified 12 discourses of climate delay. We found that many of them shared common features and could be grouped into four overarching strategies: “redirect responsibility”; “push non-transformative solutions”; “emphasize the downsides”; and “surrender”. Our figure below summarises these strategies.

In researching this work we found some truly astonishing quotes to illustrate each of the 12 types of delay discourse, examples of which are given below.

The first group of strategies revolves around the questions of who should act first and who is most to blame for emissions, a theme that we called “redirect responsibility”.

We often take for granted, for example, the idea that both individual and system-wide changes are necessary to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. But this was not shared by Yale University, in defending its position not to divest from fossil fuels – a strategy we call “Individualism”:

“Yale’s guiding principles are predicated on the idea that consumption of fossil fuels, not production, is the root of the climate change problem. Targeting fossil-fuel suppliers for divestment, while ignoring the damage caused by consumers, is misdirected.”

Next up, we found many examples of politicians and industry leaders promoting “whataboutism”, they claim that since their jurisdiction represents only a small proportion of global emissions, it really does not matter if they take action or not.

(Of course, the science is quite clear on this point: we must all collectively reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 if we are to have a chance of avoiding more than 1.5C of climate change.)

The example below is from a comment by the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) faction in the German parliament:

“But even if it were possible to fully achieve the desired CO2 emission reduction [in Germany], it would only result in a maximum reduction of 0.000653C of a hypothetical temperature increase, sometime in the distant unknown future.”

Look squirrel

In another group of discourses, we see arguments that advance relatively trivial solutions to climate change and, thereby, draw attention away from more effective measures.

These include relying on uncertain technologies and potential future breakthroughs (“technological optimism”), making vague claims that fossil fuels are part of the solution (“fossil-fuel solutionism”), or calling for voluntary measures as opposed to restrictive policies, such as a carbon tax (“no sticks, just carrots”). 

This could have been Norwegian Primeminister, Erna Solberg a grand figurehead at UN but with almost no results and no concrete strategies according to CCPI.
The Norwegian Petrocracy has perfected the ability to live in two parallel climate worlds

In the example below, UK health secretary Matt Hancock says on BBC Radio 5 Live that “we shouldn’t be flying less”, despite the CO2 emissions, because technology will solve the problem:

“We should use technology to reduce carbon emissions – for instance, electric planes are a potential in the not too distant future.”

Another common type of delay discourse highlights the potential job losses and costs associated with an energy transition, to argue that specific interventions are a bad idea.

Since several of the team for this paper research social aspects of climate-change mitigation, including equity, justice, and human development, we are also concerned about this trade-off.

However, we have found that interest groups who actively oppose mitigation measures often use such arguments for their own benefit.

This is why, for example, job losses in the coal industry are routinely centered in transition discussions (“The appeal to social justice”), but not the justice implications of failing to address climate change or the possibility of implementing fair and progressive mitigation policies.

In this Sun article, UK treasury minister Robert Jenrick is quoted using an appeal to social justice to argue that a proposed aviation tax would “hammer hard-working families and prevent them from enjoying their chance to go abroad” – despite strong evidence that this would be a highly progressive measure.

Too late anyway

A final category of discourses argues for simply surrendering to climate change. Society cannot change, according to this discourse, and if it could, it would be too late anyway.

Whereas all other discourses appear to suggest that mitigation is possible – albeit not necessarily desirable – “surrender” discourses challenge the fundamental notion that mitigation would work, potentially creating a sense of fear and resignation.

The end effect is that, once again, policies that could be rapidly implemented and have been successful in many countries – such as public transportation investment, coal phaseouts, or building retrofits – are downplayed or overlooked.

We separate discourses of delay into individual strategies, but often they are used together. My co-author Dr. Giulio Mattioli highlights this in the case of airport expansion in the UK, where proponents point out that each individual airport only accounts for a few percent of air travel and emissions (“whataboutism”) while adding claims of “clean aviation” (technological optimism). 

Reasonable debate

It is not always clear if someone who propagates a delay argument actually wants to delay. It is, of course, reasonable and necessary to discuss different technology and policy options for addressing climate change, as well as who needs to take more responsibility for this problem.

However, when one looks at the advertisements produced by the lobby group the American Petroleum Institute, aired during the Super Bowl and other prime-time television events in 2017, the use of delay discourses is clear. In one such example, dozens of images of jobs and workers in the fossil-fuel industry are juxtaposed with claims of increased efficiency and reduced emissions.

Prof Robert BrulleProf Naomi Oreskes, and colleagues have long argued that this type of strategy is part of an industry approach to shaping the discussion around energy production in the US, with the end goal of limiting regulation and compliance costs.

Although delay arguments can be compelling, our identification and typology of the most common discourses can help sensitize people to their use. Emerging research suggests the public can be “inoculated” if they are pre-emptively exposed to the content and purpose of contrarian arguments. 

Further responses could include developing competing discourses of responsibility, researching and advocating for the most effective policies, and ensuring that these are just and progressive.

Lamb, W. F. et al. (2020) Discourses of climate delay, Global Sustainability,

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