How industry-backed environmental disinformation campaigns keep us feeling shamed and powerless, and what we can do about it.
I’ve been working on a few post ideas, but this week, a couple of news stories pushed one idea to the top of the list. It happens to touch everything I’m working on.
The intent of this campaign was to shift responsibility and guilt for carbon emissions from the companies causing them onto us.
The first news item was this story in Bloomberg Green: A Canadian Businessman Spent $1 Million to Offset His Carbon Footprint – Bloomberg. Let’s talk about carbon footprint. This term comes from one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever. In 2004, BP unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator”. In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s still there. The intent of this campaign was to shift responsibility and guilt for carbon emissions from the companies causing them onto us, the people (they would prefer the term “consumers”). It has been successful beyond their wildest dreams. The EPA even has its own version. Who among us hasn’t felt a pang of guilt over getting on an airplane? Of course, the reason we have to do that rather than take a high-speed train is because of intensive lobbying by the same people that brought you your carbon footprint. For a deeper dive on carbon footprint, check out Confessions of a Green Troll, part of this series from Orion Magazine, especially this patronizing poll from BP and this reply.
They might be in your retirement fund. I hope not.
How is our businessman offsetting his carbon emissions? First let’s talk about carbon offsets. Offsets as a concept have a shady history. The term arose in the 1970s as part of the Clean Air Act, primarily to limit emissions contributing to ozone. To offset emissions from new facilites, such as oil refineries, reductions had to be made elsewhere. Where shady comes in, is that many of those new facilities were in disadvantaged communities, while the reductions were in more affluent areas. Rectifying that harm has belatedly spawned the environmental equity and justice movement. Application of the term to carbon emissions is an invention of the 21st century. Carbon offsets, or carbon credits, are now traded on exchanges. They might be in your retirement fund. I hope not. Let’s see why.
Our businessman contacted a company called Patch, who invest in a range of technologies, some green, and some maybe not so green. Among the technologies listed on the Patch website are “blue carbon” and “”direct air capture”. Specific projects include “Ocean Carbon Removal”.
At best, they’re dumping rocks in the ocean for no net reduction of carbon.
This week’s second news story was about ocean carbon removal and involved both blue carbon and direct air capture. A journalist friend at a major regional newspaper was filling in on the climate desk. She followed up on a press release from a company that was piloting a technology to electrolyze seawater to increase its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The technology uses a split cell with the interesting action happening in the cathode compartment where hydrogen is generated, and the water is made less acid. From many years working in electroplating, I know that what happens at the cathode is only half the story. I clicked on the link to the paper (not yet peer reviewed!) and waded through a lot of detail that seemed designed to obscure rather than enlighten. The inescapable conclusion is that it doesn’t work. At best, they’re dumping rocks in the ocean for no net reduction of carbon. At worst, they’re generating more carbon than they’re locking up. The principal of the company is also a professor of sustainability at a major public university. A look at his LinkedIn shows that he’s started no less then eight similar companies, most of which consist of no more than a web page and a registered address.
I’ve decided not to share details. It would just be scapegoating. The system is set up to promote this stuff. Underfunded universities are forced to start incubators to commercialize technologies and seek outside funding, and there’s gold in them hills if you know where to look. It’s hard to tell if the founder is the next Elizabeth Holmes or just a victim of circumstance. I did communicate my concerns privately to my journalist friend.
The hills where the gold is are called Carbon Capture and Storage.
The hills where the gold is are called Carbon Capture and Storage. This technology has been around for a while, focused on removing carbon from relatively pure, concentrated streams like fermentation, with a possible extension to cement production and maybe fossil fuel burning. If we look at extending that to direct air capture, we run into a thing called entropy. A cornerstone of thermodynamics, this says that the universe tends towards disorder, and that restoring order always takes more energy, which in turn creates more disorder somewhere else. Anyone who has seen a teenager’s room knows this intuitively. Putting two gigatonnes a year of carbon dioxide toothpaste back in the tube will consume more energy than was generated by putting it there in the first place. Trees have done this, but it took 100 million years of the sun’s energy to get there. Carbon capture and storage without energy input is a just a perpetual motion machine.
Nevertheless, carbon capture and storage is listed by the IPCC as an essential technology. Rolling Stone reports that Silicon Valley is spending $925 million to suck all the carbon from the air. As part of this initiative, the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation has invested $21 million in the project I described above. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law offers billions more. The fossil fuel companies are happy to have anyone entertaining the public on stage so that no one looks behind the curtain. Who can blame the modern-day 49ers?
Altman was called an “anti-plastics ideologue” by an industry trade group.
Disinformation is not limited to the fossil fuel industry. Respected environmental sociologist and historian Rebecca Altman just published this thoughtful piece “On Vinyl, A brief history of East Palestine’s toxic train disaster” in Orion Magazine outlining the history of vinyl chloride. Altman was called an “anti-plastics ideologue” by an industry trade group.
Much of the messaging is much more subtle than that. One example is the “PFAS is everywhere” meme, a pernicious weed, readily propagated by the media, that I have whacked at for example here:
While technically true, that industry narrative is designed to obscure the fact that most PFAS consumption today is from contaminated drinking water, and that almost all of the PFAS in drinking water comes from firefighting foam.
When faced with threats we feel defenseless against, we find refuge in denial.
If all this is making you feel guilty and powerless, that it’s all your fault, and that there’s nothing you can do, well, that’s a feature, not a bug. The disinformation campaign is working as intended.
I discussed this with a health educator friend. She explained to me that humans react to these negative emotions by shutting down. When faced with threats we feel defenseless against, we find refuge in denial. That’s an automatic response, part of our limbic system. We are unaware that we are doing it. And that is how disinformation comes to affect my other work.
If the only options we offer are yes or no, accept or deny, then we can expect a “no”.
I was recently asked to join a committee tasked with assessing the feasibility of merging our small community water system with a neighboring one, and moving our wells away from the coastal flooding I discussed here,
To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is hard to get a man to believe in sea level rise, when his property value depends on him not believing in it. One of our team members joined us right after a meeting with his contractor to discuss damage to his heat pump during that storm. For him, denial is no longer an option. For other community members, it’s hard to accept that there’s a risk to the water system without accepting that there’s a risk to their own property. That may make the consolidation and move a hard sell. The key will be to provide choices and agency. If the only options we offer are yes or no, accept or deny, then we can expect a “no”.
Combatting disinformation and the fatalism it’s designed to promote requires constant vigilance, push back, public education, and the creation of real agency.
A similar conundrum is playing out in my other current project, public participation in cleanup of PFAS contamination in drinking water. One affected community is besieged by a such litany of problems – sea level rise, risk of sea water intrusion in their wells, and now PFAS – that they have indeed sought refuge in denial. The industry narratives, sometimes repeated even by agency staff, certainly don’t help. There’s a path for is community to join a larger water system, but in the absence of other options it becomes just a binary choice – yes or no, accept or deny. The track record for yes has not been encouraging.
Combatting disinformation and the fatalism it’s designed to promote requires constant vigilance, push back, public education, and the creation of real agency. Let’s keep trying.