Withdrawing the social licence of fossil fuels

The once all-powerful fossil fuel industry is, at last, on the ropes. Behemoths like Exxon Mobil are bracing for massive drop in demand for their products in the next decade and more, as the global transition to low-carbon energy, currently a trickle, becomes an economic tsunami threatening to sweep away businesses built on dirty fuels. Few tears will be shed for the eventual demise of an industry that has knowingly misled the public and politicians about the deadly impacts of fossil fuel burning – facts established decades ago by these industries’ own scientists, then quietly suppressed as Big Energy flooded huge resources into cynical campaigns aimed to undermine the findings of climate science and stymie effective action. The article below ran in mid-January in the Sunday Times, looking at the gradual withdrawal of the crucial ‘social licence’ of fossil fuels. This battle is far from won, but this time, Big Energy is the one under attack, its credibility in tatters as the long-denied reality of the climate emergency bites ever harder.

IT MAY SEEM hard to believe today, but up to a few decades ago, smoking was widespread and hugely popular. People smoked everywhere – in cinemas, on aircraft, in restaurants and even hospitals. Cigarettes were also widely advertised on TV and in newspapers and magazines, and brands were associated with glamour and sophistication.

And, while the medical consensus on the dangers of smoking was by then long-established, it was poorly understood by the general public. This is due in no small part to heavy spending on the part of the tobacco industry to spread doubt and confusion about the true dangers of its products, which in fact killed half its customers.

And, while tens of millions have suffered premature death and serious tobacco-related illnesses, the 21stcentury portends human suffering on a vastly greater scale as a result of our dangerous collective addiction to the combustion of fossil fuels.

One of the most crucial steps to breaking the grip of the tobacco industry was to gradually de-legitimise smoking and frame it as a hazardous, anti-social activity. So, while not making it illegal, advertising, sponsorship and promotion of tobacco products was eventually banned, and so its ‘social licence’ was gradually withdrawn. Consider that as recently as 1978, the GAA All Stars were sponsored by PJ Carroll, an Irish tobacco firm.

Today, the seemingly innocuous act of filling up your car with petrol or diesel may seem just as harmless as lighting up a cigarette was once regarded. This may be about to change. In recent weeks, the city of Cambridge in the US state of Massachusetts introduced a legal mandate to place bright yellow warning stickers on all fuel pumps in the city.

The stickers warn that burning of fuel oils have ‘major consequences on human health and the environment, including contributing to climate change’. A similar initiative was introduced in Sweden in 2019. “The gas pump stickers will remind drivers to think about climate change and hopefully consider non-polluting options,” according to a Cambridge city spokesman.

“Labels like this are designed to create a feeling like someone has broken a rule or violated a law,” said James Brooks of the campaign group ‘Beyond The Pump’.

The movement to delegitimise fossil fuel burning received a boost last March when the influential British Medical Journal (BMJ) proposed warning labels at points of purchase of fossil energy or services dependent on large amounts of fossil fuel. This would, it argued, be a ‘low cost, scalable intervention to facilitate change in individuals’ and society’s views and behaviour’.

The BMJ pointed out that fossil fuel burning is already a major global killer through ambient air pollution that kills around 3.5 million people annually, adding that its climate impacts are even more grave, as these ‘increasingly threaten the health of current and future generations.’

The journal argued that, apart from filling stations, warning labels should also be included on energy bills and airline tickets. If such a labelling system were to be introduced in Ireland, it could also be extended to peat, both as a fuel and a horticultural product.

Labels on peat products could point out that they contribute to air pollution and climate change, while also helping to destroy Irish biodiversity and leading to widespread water pollution and increased flooding risk. Given the full picture and regular reminders, the public may begin to think again about the ethics of using peat-based products.

Flying is the single most carbon-intensive and climate-damaging personal activity, and frequent fliers representing just one per cent of the global population account for half the total carbon emissions of aviation.

The concept of ‘flygskam’, or flight shame has begun to gain popularity. It highlights the injustice of a tiny minority of people who are contributing disproportionately to global warming through their behaviour. A more equitable solution would be to tax flying based on its true costs, and to introduce a strict rationing system to allocate everyone a fair share of the rapidly diminishing global carbon budget.

Whether in cars, aircraft or home heating, every litre of fossil fuels burned inflicts costs on society, both in terms of the health impacts of air pollution and also the climate impacts of fuelling extreme weather, sea level rise and ecological destruction.

While economists typically value the damage cost of a tonne of carbon at around $50-$100, a recent scientific study estimated that the true long-term damage of CO2 released could be a jaw-dropping $100,000 a tonne, because the impacts of today’s human-induced climate change will persist for millennia.

The first step towards dealing with a problem is recognising that the problem exists. Since fossil fuel burning now represents an existential threat to life on Earth, a system of warning labels can help send out a clear signal that the public is deadly serious about demanding sustainable energy alternatives.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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