The lesson of fossil fuel advocates' failure at COP 28: stop "Arguing to 0," start "Arguing to 100"
Many fossil fuel advocates thought it would be clever to agree to COP 28's "net zero by 2050" goal and then challenge a few of its implementation details. They were wrong.
I am happy and proud to say that since a decade ago, when there was very little morally confident fossil fuel advocacy aside from me, fossil fuel advocacy has dramatically risen. Unfortunately, fossil fuel opposition has risen, too, but nevertheless a wide range of influential realms—such as the fossil fuel industry, politics, the developing world, and oil-producing countries—have come to believe that continuing fossil fuel use is essential to human flourishing for the foreseeable future, and are sometimes willing to say so publicly.
Sadly, many of these fossil fuel advocates think that it’s dangerous to be too outspoken about what I call the moral case for a fossil future, and dangerous even to challenge the popular global goal of “net zero by 2050.” Indeed, many companies, politicians, developing countries, and oil-producing countries who know full-well that “net zero by 2050,” if realized, would be one of the most destructive developments in human history, think that it’s somehow necessary and practical to agree to the net-zero goals but then in practice just engage in marginal GHG emissions reductions that will bring us nowhere near net-zero by 2050, such as: expanding carbon capture, subsidizing some solar and wind, experimenting with hydrogen fuel, or substituting some natural gas for coal.
This strategy was evident at COP 28. Many fossil fuel advocates attended the event thinking that it would be effective to agree to COP 28's mass-destructive “net zero by 2050” goal but then try to what I call “Argue to 0” by challenging a few of its implementation details.
The result? They largely made the net-zero movement stronger by agreeing with its goal.
If fossil fuel companies and other advocates of fossil fuels agree with net-zero, onlookers think, it really must be the right goal—and any actions they take to slow down the achievement of that goal must be corrupt. Observe that much of the aftermath of COP 28 is people like Al Gore saying that COP 28’s noble goal of rapidly eliminating fossil fuels to achieve net-zero was undercut by fossil fuel interests. This is a hard charge for fossil fuel advocates to answer, since many of them agreed that net-zero by 2050 is a noble goal.
I believe that if fossil fuel advocates had fundamentally challenged “net zero by 2050” in favor of energy freedom and global human flourishing—what I call “Arguing to 100”—they could have made a huge difference.
I hope I can convince many fossil fuel advocates to do just this next year. For an overview of how to do so, revisit my COP talking points from two weeks ago.
This morning I gave an in-depth breakdown of the failure of Arguing to 0 at COP 28 to a group of energy staffers. You can watch it here or read a full transcript below. I hope you enjoy it.
I want to talk about the dangers of Arguing to 0 because I think that there's a... My basic take is that many fossil fuel supporters, including many offices, had a certain strategy with regard to COP. And overall, it's an understandable strategy, but I don't think it was very successful. And since a lot of you guys are leading energy staffers and will be even more so leaders in the future, I want to just give my take on it and what I would advocate as an alternate approach.
So the dangers of Arguing to 0: The situation, before I go into that term, is we have a conference, COP 28, and in general, the COPs, the Conferences of the Parties, that are seeking to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel use. So their goal is net-zero by 2050, which functionally means rapidly eliminate fossil fuel use. We can talk about carbon capture and whether that can allow us to get to net-zero while using a ton of fossil fuels, and I think the short answer is no, but I'll talk about that a little bit. I think that was a false premise among some people.
So there's a question of, okay, what do you do? What do you do at such a conference? Do you boycott it? Do you ignore it? Do you go to it on the grounds that there's a... Do you want a seat at the table? And my view is that, it depends what you believe, but if you believe anything like what I believe...that energy freedom, including the freedom to use fossil fuels, is crucial to our energy future and the future of the world. If you believe that fossil fuels are crucial, and even we need to expand fossil fuel use, and certainly expand US production of fossil fuels, and that it's been a crisis to even somewhat restrict fossil fuels—if you believe this, you need to deal with COP in a way that's not reinforcing its goal of net-zero. And that's a difficult thing because its goal is net-zero.
So my belief is, in one way or another, you need to what I call “Argue to 100.” Argue to 100 means that you set the moral goal and then you argue for policies based on that goal. So in this case, you reject the idea that our goal should be net-zero by 2050. That's not the goal. The goal, I would put it, is: advance human flourishing around the world. And part of that, and by that goal, by that standard, fossil fuels are good and energy freedom is good.
And so you can say, “Well, we believe in addressing CO2 emissions long-term by liberating innovation, not punishing America.” That's something I would say, but not “net-zero by 2050.” That is a goal that means rapidly eliminating fossil fuel use and really ruining the future of the world. So Arguing to 100 means you challenge the goal, you set your own goal, and then the flip side of it is arguing to negative 100, is saying that the other side's goal is wrong. So net-zero by 2050 is a bad goal. It's a harmful goal. If you see my messaging on COP 28, this is the stuff I put out at the outset, but COP 28 should be the last COP. It's just, no, I'm saying they're immoral, they're wrong, et cetera.
Now, some people think, well, this is not a good strategy. Instead, what you should do... If you just condemn it, that's not going to do very much—I'm going to challenge that—but instead, you should do a strategy that I label “Arguing to 0,” which means that, instead of... The way they frame it is the goal is to rapidly eliminate fossil fuel use, or net-zero. On the one hand, that's 100, the negative 100 is increased fossil fuel use.
And the idea is, okay, we can't challenge that, so let's just work within that and then say, yeah, we agree to net-zero by 2050, but what we're going to do is we're going to quibble with the implementation of it. We're going to quibble with, oh, we're going to do it, but you need to support hydrogen, or you need to be okay with carbon capture, or you need to be okay with nuclear. But it's still agreeing with the goal, it's just saying, no, your particular thing is off. That's why I call it arguing zero, because, no, we need to walk it back a little bit. Don't have this net-zero by just getting rid of fossil fuels, have net-zero by being open to fossil fuels and carbon capture, but still, you're agreeing to net-zero, which essentially means get rid of most fossil fuels.
But this was the strategy of a lot of people. It was the strategy of the energy industry. It was certainly the strategy of the OPEC groups, including the leader of the conference. And I'm not sure, I think the various representatives had varying strategies, so I won't paint everyone with a broad brush, but there was some of that, for sure, because if you look at what they argued for, there wasn't a condemnation of it. And then it was also the strategy of many of the African nations. Their focus is, “Yeah, let's do a transition to net-zero, but let's make it a just transition.” And the better side of that is, “Hey, don't restrict our fossil fuel use,” but then the other side is, “Hey, give us some climate reparations.”
But everyone is agreeing that this goal that I, and I think many of the people supporting the goal, know or believe, I would say know, is tremendously destructive, but everyone is supporting that. So the energy industry is saying, “Hey, we agree with net-zero,” and OPEC is saying, “Yeah, we agree with net-zero,” and African nations are saying, “Hey, we agree with net-zero.” And I think some of the Representatives aren't quite saying that, but they're saying, “We agree we need to reduce emissions significantly,” which, I would challenge that. It's different than emissions intensity or something like that, but reducing global emissions significantly means massive harm to the world. We haven't even done that. And just by slowing the growth of emissions, we've done massive harm.
So nobody or very few people involved in the conference are fundamentally challenging the goal of the conference. The people involved in the conference, what they're doing is they are Arguing to 0. And it seems practical. It's like, well, at least we'll get some stuff done. And what you see throughout the reporting of the conference, which is, there was a kind of optimism about how this was going. So one of the points of optimism was the head of COP 28... This is another guy here, but let's see. Oh, yeah. This, I was asked about so many times. Everyone was excited about it. There was this questioning, this basis, but he said, “A phase-down and phase-out, in my view, is inevitable. It is essential, but we need to be real serious and pragmatic about it. There is no science out there, no scenario out there that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what's going to achieve 1.5.” And then he said a full phase-out would take the world back into caves.
And so there were a lot of people, particularly on the right or generally supporters of fossil fuels, who are super excited about this, say, “Wow, this is great, the head of COP is saying this.” Now, notice that not many people quoted this part of it where he says “inevitable and essential.” Now, he's saying, well, it's going to take longer, but the main thing is he's saying there's no science out there that says the phase-out of fossil fuel is what's going to achieve 1.5, and then he says the thing about a full phase-out, at least on some timetable, would take the world back into caves, but what he's really saying is, he's really just advocating some form of carbon capture type scheme because he's saying is that a fossil fuel isn't going to do it, but he's still agreeing that we need to do 1.5, which means preventing 1.5 degrees Celsius rise since the 1800, which were already at one or 1.1. So he's basically saying rapidly eliminate fossil fuels, just rapidly eliminate CO2 emissions, but somehow that doesn't mean rapidly eliminate fossil fuels.
And you saw this from the industry, as well. There's just this focus on, let's carbon capture, carbon capture, carbon capture—but carbon capture, there's no evidence that this is a globally scalable way to use fossil fuels and capture emissions cheaply. That just doesn't exist. If you look in the United States, how much we subsidize this, you can look at EenergyTalkingPoints.com, but for roughly $30 worth of coal, you get subsidized $150 to put the CO2 underground, and natural gas, maybe it's half that rate, but this is incredibly expensive. China's not going to do it, India's not going to do it, et cetera, but people are thinking, “Oh, well, let's argue to zero. We're being so clever, we're Arguing to 0, we're getting a seat at the table,” et cetera.
And then the other thing that kept coming up, which I thought was really odd, but there's this issue of phase-out. This author, by the way, I like a lot, David Blackman. But the argument that you got was, COP is failing. COP is failing because they're unable to get everyone to agree with language about a phasing out of fossil fuels. And everyone is apoplectic about this. The catastrophes are apoplectic, and then the other side's like, “Oh, we have a victory.” You look at the draft text, the draft text said net-zero by 2050 and talked about reducing fossil fuel use to get there.
So it's totally conceding this goal. And by acting like not using the words “phase-out,” that's some sort of victory, you're just reinforcing the whole thing. You're not challenging the premise of this thing, you're reinforcing the premise. And given that it was reinforced, it should be no surprise that, in the end, they went to transition. So if you look at this and it's like, transition... I forget where they put it exactly. Okay, “transitioning away from fossil fuels and energy systems in a just, orderly, and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade so as to achieve net-zero by 2050 and keeping with the size,” but it always had something, it always had the net-zero goal. The people failing to challenge this fundamentally just reinforced it. There were no significant victories.
Now, the biggest victory that anyone can claim is that there was a general kind of resolution to triple nuclear. And insofar as that can happen cost effectively, I'm in favor of it, and I, myself, am working hard on improving nuclear policy in the US and around the world so nuclear can be cost-competitive at a large scale, but as part of conceding climate catastrophe and net-zero, there's no evidence that... If you're ruining everything by doing that, if you're conceding that agenda and you're ruining the world by getting rid of fossil fuels, it doesn't do any good to try to build up some amount more nuclear and it's not even going to happen if you're impoverishing yourself and you're causing energy crisis. So I'm all in favor of liberating nuclear, but it has to be part of liberating energy more broadly.
And even if you want to talk about nuclear, let's look at the victory for nuclear. How many times did nuclear appear? It appears once and it appears as one of a list of options, so interalia, among other things. So it's like, “accelerating zero and low-emissions technologies, including, among other things, renewables, nuclear.” So notice nuclear doesn't go first. “Abatement or removal technologies such as carbon capture utilization and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors and low-carbon hydrogen production.” If you look through this whole thing, which I had the pain of doing this morning, you see there are a couple of slight concessions to either nuclear or fossil fuels and they're just the tiniest thing. And I feel like some of the fossil fuel advocates feel like, “Oh, good, we succeeded. It's so good,” and nobody's paying any attention to these and they're totally contradicted by the overarching net-zero thing that has repeated many, many times.
Just to give you a sense, if we search this, how many mentions of fossil fuel are there in this? Okay, there are two: transitioning away, as we already talked about, and then where's the second one? Oh, inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. So they're just opposing the subsidies, even though fossil fuels are disproportionately punished. So there's that. What about natural gas, which, industry thinks it's clever and like, “Hey, we're going to promote natural gas and we're going to attack coal?” Well, there is no mention of natural gas at all. There's not even a mention of oil. There is a mention of coal once. The other one is coalition. “Accelerating efforts toward the phase-down of unabated coal power.” So we get our attack on coal, which is great in the US, where the coal plants are saving us from the abyss. Let me just see if there are any other things that...
So this whole thing, it ends up just totally conceding the net-zero agenda and people feel like, “Oh, I got it in two words, so there's some sort of victory,” and it's not a victory. It's just totally reinforcing it. And all this capital—the advocates of fossil fuels, if you want to look at Republican politicians, fossil fuel industry, African nations in particular, poor nations, and I'm leaving out one other category that I was talking about, but if you look at those groups, there's a lot of capital that they have in terms of challenging this and saying, “There's something wrong with this. This is the wrong approach. You're ignoring the benefits of fossil fuels. We need energy freedom. That's the key to prosperity. That's the key even to long-term lowering emissions, but the focus should be on human flourishing. It's wrong to go net-zero by 2050. We take an opposite approach.”
If you had a lot of Republican—hopefully Democrats, too—if you had a lot of Republican leaders doing this, a lot of business leaders doing this, certainly if African nations had stood up, you would've really thrown a wrench in this, you would've really had a moral debate, but instead, it ended up just conceding it. And I think that I get why people think, Yeah, we got to concede it. It's too powerful,“ but it's not too powerful if a lot of us challenge it and we challenge it in fundamental terms and we offer an alternative, but if you don't, you just get this trash. Just to give you a sense of... This whole thing does not once mention any benefits of fossil fuels, it does not once mention that climate disaster deaths are at an all-time low, in large part thanks to fossil fuels, it doesn't mention that climate damages have not been increasing, they're flat when adjusted for GDP.
It's just a total catastrophist piece of junk and that is calling for something that would be global mass murder. There's just no way around that, and somebody needs to say that, and the people with the capital should say it. And what I want to just emphasize here is there was no great victory in Arguing to 0. I think there was a loss. The whole premise of this was conceded. And so I think that, for the next COP, those of us who know what's true about this really need to think about, how do we fundamentally challenge this instead of Arguing to 0?
I think I talked about the carbon capture, but people think this is a clever thing, like, ”Oh ...“ And part of it is now there are subsidies involved, which distorts people's incentives. That's part of the IRA. It's just it's gotten a lot of oil and gas people to jump onto net-zero because of carbon, like, ”Oh, there's carbon capture opportunity now“—but hinging your case for saying net-zero is good because there's carbon capture is so weak intellectually because there's no evidence that you can do this on a global scale in the near future cheaply, so it doesn't actually get you to net-zero, but you're conceding that net-zero is necessary, so then you're conceding that the rapid elimination of fossil fuels necessary, and all that you get maybe is support for some niche of subsidies that will probably disappear at some point.
The idea of agreeing to net-zero on the basis of this incredibly implausible hypothetical and making that the goal because you think, oh, there's some way to do it or there's some specific interest for some specific company, that is, I think, a disastrous mistake from the perspective of the world, and I hope that there's some reconsideration of that approach because I don't know how .. if you're pro-fossil-fuel, you cannot view this as a victory.
The only other thing I found, just to give you a sense of this, and I wasn't even sure what this meant, but I got some confirmation that it was... Oh, here we go. Look how sparse this is. ”Recognizing that transitional fuels can play a role in facilitating the energy transition while ensuring energy security.“ Transitional fuels, I guess, means oil and natural gas. That's my interpretation, but look at how weak this is. There's infinite detail on how to get rid of fossil fuels, and there's just this thing.
And you know what happened, is people are getting together in a room... Oh, the OPEC, that was the group I had forgotten about, which, I have a lot of issues with that group, but insofar as they have any rationality to add to the world, they should be challenging this fundamentally, not saying, ”Oh, well, yeah, net-zero is great, but we just need carbon capture, we just need hydrogen,“ or any of these things that are totally farcical, I would argue, in terms of a global scale in the near future.But this is the kind of thing that they got: transitional fuels can play a role.” What does this get you? And all this stuff is non-binding, anyway. So that's our saving grace because we're not bound by this stuff, but to concede it is to reinforce the goals in every nation, including the United States.
And so it's really bad that everyone is reinforcing this. And then of course, the United States righteously is pushing for that phase-out language, and I guess got that transitioning away language, but they're doing this. And then just to add insult to injury, of course, China says, “Yeah, well, our opinion is everyone else, the rich countries, of course, need to do this, and don't really worry about us. We're building 300 plus new coal plants, but of course, we should.” And they should do that, but we have just conceded this totally immoral goal whose current manifestation is particularly harmful to the security of the United States and nothing was gained. I think nothing was gained by supporters of fossil fuels squandering their capital to have this mythical seat at a table and getting a few weasely words in this thing.
So, that's a harsh evaluation. And a lot of the people who were involved in this, I like, and I get why people want to do this, but I really hope that this is a wake-up call. And what I would advocate is: let's start challenging this stuff fundamentally. It's very powerful. Nobody has any arguments against this fundamental moral challenge, saying, “Hey, our goal should be global human flourishing.” The benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh the climate side effects. In fact, the benefits of fossil fuels keep us far safer from climate. We need energy freedom. That is the thing we need. That should be our focus. We should not be focused on net-zero by 2050. That is a mass murderous goal. We're not going to have any part of that.
If you say that, that's going to be powerful, that's going to get attention. And if enough of us say it—and enough of us do know that it's true—then we will fundamentally throw a wrench in this stuff and maybe start to have energy freedom conferences instead of energy elimination conferences, which is really what COP is. It's an energy elimination conference with, of course, infinite promises of subsidies and favors to the, “green energy industry,” which if you look at the document, so much of it is just, oh, you see where those lobbyists got what they wanted, like, “Oh, yeah, we're going to triple renewable energy.” So you get all these commitments and then all these lobbyists can keep their jobs.
But those of us who know fossil fuels are crucial and really care about energy, not some specific type of marginal energy industry that wants subsidies and mandates, we need to fundamentally challenge this. That's my view. All right. That's probably the longest monologue I've ever given here, but any questions about that? And by the way, it was inspired by Casey Hammond, who asked at the beginning of this conference, “Hey, what are people getting out of going to this?” And I was suspicious, and then now I'm more than suspicious.
All right. So I'll try to keep it short, but I have a lot of questions, actually. Other people might have more insightful things to say because their bosses were involved. So this might be splitting hairs, but I see it as two... I don't even know where to go with this. You can talk about this forever. But these UN conferences are silly to begin with. Like I said, I've been to some of these. They're some of the most bizarre experiences I've ever had. Whatever the US contribution is to this document, it ends up being basically something from State Department staff blessed by, to some extent, the White House, in this case John Kerry, but it's not something that what I consider our friends would've had a chance to alter, I don't believe. They wouldn't have been in the room when this was written and wouldn't really have—
Right. For sure. And if you look at what they're focused on, they're focused on talking to Kerry or getting some of these subgroups to come up with some agreement. The nuclear thing was the best thing in terms of, oh, that commitment of people to tripling nuclear. That was the best thing.
So you're not a native Southern Californian, but you've probably been there long enough to see that Comic-Con turned a convention about comic book nerds into a place to be seen, and that's what COP seems to have turned into. It used to be this conference for nerds that want to talk about climate change to a great place to be seen, even if it's to talk about energy in a positive way, in a way we like it. So I have mixed feelings on this whole thing because some of our folks that went there, I think, did a pretty effective job just talking about positive things like energy freedom and ignored the underlying problem with the whole thing that you're talking about, the Arguing to 0. So to me, there's an overall benefit of participating and ignoring the underlying issues with it because you don't have any ability to change them, anyways, and talking about things we care about, like energy dominance, like nuclear, things like that.
Well, I think the simplest answer to this, although it doesn't quite go far enough, is that you can do both. And in fact, that's the only way to... If you're talking about energy dominance, that has no meaning following this. It's basically saying America should lead itself off the abyss. Well, you're not going to be... While the poor nations increase their fossil fuel use and while China is like, we should sacrifice ourselves, which, I do think those other people should increase their fossil fuel use, but it's like, yeah, you need to condemn the goal. It's not that you don't go. You can go and it can be more effective to go. And I considered going. I had another commitment that I'd made a year before, but you want to condemn the goal and challenge the goal.
So these other things are great to talk about, but as part of challenging the goal, “Hey, we have a different vision,” versus, “Hey, please let us make a little bit of a revision of your vision,” or even not... If it's a fossil fuel elimination conference, if that's what it is, and you're going, and you think that's wrong, you should challenge them. And there's no harm in challenging them. It's not like, oh, they got some great favor by not. So you have to just think about what's actually effective, versus something being ineffective, versus something getting you pushback. So it’ll certainly get you pushback. Even the head of the thing saying that thing about caves and 1.5 got him some pushback, but it doesn't... I think that was probably his best press that he got, certainly the most deserved, half-decent press he got.
But that's what I would advocate, is condemn... Say what you think the goal should be, say what you think is wrong with this goal, and advocate these other things. I think it makes it more effective. On the flip side, if you say, “Well, we want energy dominance,” but then you advocate this thing that is calling for energy poverty around the world, and in particular the harm to the US, in terms of if you look at the emphasis, the emphasis is all about, in particular, the US, and countries like the US should suffer as quickly as possible. They'll call it transition, but it just means suffering because we don't have viable near-term alternatives.
So those other things aren't that meaningful. They're contradicted by this. And part of it is people underestimate, I think often elected officials often underestimate, just how valuable it is to have a reputation of being consistent and straightforward and how harmful it is to take positions that don't really make any sense. And when people say climate change is the biggest problem in the world and we're in favor of carbon capture or something, people get that's not really sincere because, if you thought it was the biggest problem in the world, then you'd be doing a lot more than financing these carbon capture projects.
And the real thing, it's not the biggest problem in the world. The biggest problem in the world is poverty, and arguably, the biggest problem in the world is the anti-fossil-fuel movement because it would create even more poverty, much more poverty, and prevent people from rising out of poverty. I'm not saying the good things aren't good, but there's total consistency between doing what I'm saying and doing those good things.
Got it. Thanks.
And I just recommend looking at this. I'll probably put something new, as well, but just this kind of thing of just really challenging the net-zero agenda, really challenging how damaging this is, it's crucial to anything, to really making progress, and we really need the US to stand up. And we really need to withdraw, if we have a new president, with the existing president, he should, but we really need to withdraw from this, and participating in it in a way that doesn't challenge it makes it a lot harder to withdraw. And keeping our involvement—andI think it would never pass the Senate, it's very unlikely—but keeping us in this, failing to withdraw us from this and failing to really challenge it, that's committing us toward destruction. And the US is generally a more ethical country than most, so we're going to probably be more sincere about destroying ourselves than the other countries who fake destroy.
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