“Delay is the new denial”
On February 24, I participated in the first White House-level convening on the topic of “climate delayism” as part of a group consisting of climate experts and scholars of climate denial and misinformation. The roundtable event was intended to highlight the accelerating strategy of delay now being deployed to directly target climate solutions.
Delay is the new denial – “climate delayism” is a systematic and coordinated strategy to bring about unwarranted concern regarding a wide range of climate actions for the purpose of slowing down or indefinitely suspending those actions. Of course, delay has always been the primary purpose and consequence of climate denial. Climate denialists, such as the soon to retire Senator James Inhofe and ExxonMobil, have never been primarily interested in probing science in an honest and dispassionate manner. Climate denialists have been primarily interested in obfuscation and nurturing confusion for the purpose of derailing and delaying climate actions . Delay has always been a primary goal – so “climate delayism” is not a new thing. However, in light of the critical urgency for action, delay is more problematic than ever.
Urgency and agency – after several years of significantly worsening climate catastrophe, lethal and uncontrollable wildfires in the American west, Australia, Greece; worsening droughts and record low reservoirs at Lake Powell and Mead; devastating floods in Germany, Houston and Manila and so much more, the urgency of climate change is plain as day. In his Washington Post article  and recent blog post , Michael Mann details how we can still achieve maximum warming of no more than 1.5C, but we need to act now. And yet, while urgency is unfortunately amply clear in a changing climate, there is still much to do to engender agency – the knowledge and capacity to act in effective ways. The situation is dire, so what do we do?
This is exactly the question that delayism targets, for while delay is not new it is now becoming a more effective way to misinform and disinform. Delayism’s answers to the question of what do we do are 1) it’s too late, the game is over so we might as well not overreact – therefore let’s make the best of a bad situation and accept that fossil fuels, like methane are here to stay and; 2) alternatives are risky, they might not work, are expensive and might make the situation worse. The first fatalistic position is intended to create a crippling stasis – deer in the headlights – in which one believes there is no possible way to avert the coming catastrophe. This argument takes advantage of the increasing number of people who consider the situation urgent but suffer under the weight of helplessness from not knowing what to do – who feel a lack of agency. The second leverages the inertia that comes from invoking risk to create doubt about the real value and suggest vague dangers of existing and emerging solutions. For example, this second argument was used to blame the massive power outage in Texas in 2021 on renewable energy  when the actual primary cause was disruption from very cold temperatures on thermal plants fueled by natural gas .
Present and local – a major part of the answer of what to do begins with solutions in the present that can be deployed at the local level. Economically and technically viable solutions have been available for decades and more are developed regularly. For example, electrification of buildings, heat pumps, building and district scale geothermal are a path toward eliminating on-site combustion of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Let’s remember that natural gas has been cited as the primary bridge fuel essential to lowering GHG emissions while meeting increasing global energy demands in a concerted corporate and special interest campaign [6,7,8,9].
While this may have made sense as a strategy to aggressively replace coal years ago it no longer does as methane emissions mount and threaten to overwhelm this decade’s emissions reductions targets. The continued investment in methane infrastructure is partly the result of the various questionable arguments used for delay such as the responsibility to meet increasing consumer demand with fossil fuels; the lock-in of already existing infrastructure; and the immaturity of system and technology alternatives. Yet, robust arguments easily dispel the myth of methane as a climate-benign fossil fuel essential to a low carbon transition .
Over the past half century, a sustained marketing and communications campaign has resulted in public acceptance of the necessity of natural gas as a benign alternative to coal and oil at the same time that CO2 emissions from gas have risen faster than coal and oil, anthropogenic methane emissions are now 60% of the global total [11,12] and new sources of methane releases are discovered [13,14]. For example, recently it was shown that household emissions from kitchen gas ranges are a significant source of emissions. In the US, more than 40 million gas stoves emit methane through leakage and incomplete combustion with three quarters of emissions occurring while stoves are off .
While there has been substantial research accounting for leakage of methane along the supply chain including the ∼3 million miles of pipeline in the United States – there is very little about emissions in the home at the point of household consumption, so-called “post-meter” emissions. Narratives of delayism have taken advantage of this gap in general awareness about the consequences of household methane emissions and combustion to assert that natural gas is the very best low carbon alternative currently available. This is not accurate.
Today, in your own kitchen you can reduce emissions of a powerful greenhouse gas and improve your health and the health of your entire family. Every day, American families turn on gas-fired ranges and stoves and breathe in un-combusted methane and compounds formed during combustion including formaldehyde (CH2O) carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). This indoor pollution can lead to a range of negative health effects. In the US homeowners know to be concerned about lead paint and radon gas but there is very little awareness of the health consequences of natural gas. Electrification of heating, cooling and cooking would eliminate on-site combustion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment and improve human health. We are fortunate to have market ready low and zero carbon alternatives to gas fired boilers and stoves already on the marketplace – heat pumps, household and district scale geothermal, for example (16).
Climate denialists are realizing that greater acceptance of the science of climate change internationally and now in the US – including the acceptance that warming is due to human activities – has taken root and may continue to expand . So, the strategy to block meaningful climate actions is shifting to skepticism about solutions. Delaysim is a particularly insidious and effective way in which to continue inaction on climate change. It is a strategy that needs to be aggressively opposed before it derails the climate actions critical to this decade and our future.
At the inaugural Climate Science Roundtable on Countering “Delayism” and Communicating the Urgency of Climate Action the White House committed to addressing the corrosive and insidious strategy of delayism that attacks creative, economically and technically viable, and broadly benevolent solutions.
Press release readout of the White House Climate Science Roundtable: https://www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/news-updates/2022/02/25/readout-of-white-house-climate-science-roundtable-on-countering-delayism-and-communicating-the-urgency-of-climate-action/
John E. Fernández, Director
March 4, 2022
- Supran, G. & N. Oreskes 2021. Rhetoric and frame analysis of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications. One Earth 4, 696-719. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2021.04.014
- Hertsgaard, M., Huq, S., and M. Mann. “The Best Climate Science You’ve Never Heard Of.” February 26, 2022, https://michaelmann.net/content/best-climate-science-you’ve-never-heard?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Weekend+Reader%3A&utm_campaign=Weekend+Reader+Email accessed 26 February 2022.
- Kim, N. Y. “Tucker Carlson falsely blames Green New Deal, wind energy for Texas power outage.” Politifact, The Poynter Institute, February 17, 2021. https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/feb/17/tucker-carlson/tucker-carlson-falsely-blames-green-new-deal-wind-/ accessed 24 February 2022.
- Henson, B. “Why the power is out in Texas… and why other states are vulnerable too.” Yale Climate Communications, February 17, 2021. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/02/why-the-power-is-out-in-texas-and-why-other-states-are-vulnerable-too/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3-yQBhD3ARIsAHuHT65U9uUFDDXNB58HBDGa1J6RcsAyLclXQSv_3KHX9sj-C77nYMZHcvoaAqveEALw_wcB accessed 24 February 2022.
- Stevens, A. 2021. How the Battle of the Natural Gas Bans Will Cost You, Institute for Energy Research Research. https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/fossil-fuels/gas-and-oil/how-the-battle-of-the-natural-gas-bans-will-cost-you/ accessed 10 February, 2022
- Raval, A. 2018. Majors back gas in power switch as a ‘bridge fuel’. Financial Times, November 28, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/811b38ae-c883-11e8-86e6-19f5b7134d1c accessed December 12, 2021.
- Muttitt, G. 2021. Gas Is Not a Bridge Fuel, It’s a Wall. So, Why Are Governments Still Financing It? IISD. https://www.iisd.org/articles/gas-bridge-fuel accessed 12 February 2022.
- Jackson et al. 2022. (ERL, in press) and Friedlingsten et al. 2022. (ESSD, in press) – findings from both presented at an internal MIT climate workshop on 15 February 2022 by Robert Jackson.
- Saunois et al. 2020. The Global Methane Budget 2000-2017. ESSD, 12, 1561–1623. https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-12-1561-2020
- Phillips, N.G., Ackley, R., Crosson, E.R., Down, A., Hutyra, L.R., Brondfield, M., Karr, J.D., Zhao, K., and R.B. Jackson, 2013. Mapping urban pipeline leaks: Methane leaks across Boston. Environmental Pollution, 173, 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2012.11.003
- Jackson, R.B., Down, A., Phillips, N.G., Ackley, R.C., Cook, C.W., Plata, D.L., and K.Zhao. 2014. Natural Gas Pipeline Leaks Across Washington, DC Environmental Science & Technology 48 (3), 2051-2058. https://doi.org/10.1021/es404474x
- Lebel, E.D., Finnegan, C.J., Ouyang, Z. and R.B. Jackson. 2022. Methane and NOx Emissions from Natural Gas Stoves, Cooktops, and Ovens in Residential Homes. Environmental Science & Technology 56 (4), 2529-2539. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.1c04707
- Abel, D. “These climate activists aren’t just spouting rhetoric; they’re helping wean utilities off fossil fuels.” Boston Globe, 11 February 2022. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/02/11/science/these-climate-activists-arent-just-spouting-rhetoric-theyre-helping-wean-utilities-off-fossil-fuels/?s_campaign=8315 Accessed 24 February 2022.