As world leaders gather for the United Nations climate change conference (COP27) in Egypt, it is hard to be optimistic that the talks will generate a step change from the inexorable rise in global carbon emissions in the over the past two centuries.
After all, before the Glasgow talks last year, experts warned that the summit was the world’s last chance to limit global warming to 1.5℃ this century. And yet, a UN report last week found that even if all nations met their climate targets this decade, the planet would still heat up to a catastrophic 2.5℃.
It was hoped that the global pandemic might have lifted global economies out of their reliance on fossil fuels, as lockdowns reduced energy consumption and progressive politicians offered alternative policy agendas.
But after the borders reopened, our reliance on fossil fuels returned with a vengeance. In fact, the International Energy Agency predicts that the net income of oil and gas producers will double in 2022 to an alarming US$4 trillion.
As social scientists, it’s both horrifying and fascinating to watch. How is it that a technologically advanced society can choose to destroy itself by failing to act to avoid climate catastrophe?
We’ve had decades to act
Like watching a train wreck in slow motion, the world’s leading climate scientists have warned for decades of the dangers of ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Political and corporate leaders knew about the threat more than a decade before it became known to the general public. In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter was made aware of the possibility of catastrophic climate change. That same year, internal memos at one of the world’s largest oil companies made it clear that continued burning of fossil fuels would significantly heat the planet.
So why, in the 45 years since, has there been so little action in response? Why do we condemn today’s children and future generations to live on a dangerous and hostile planet?
We’ve sought to answer this question in our research on business and climate change over the years, including our latest book.
The answer, we believe, rests on a dominant assumption curated by business and political elites: that endless fossil fuel-fueled economic growth is so basic and common sense that it cannot be questioned.
We call this all-consuming ideology “fossil fuel hegemony”. He asserts that corporate capitalism based on fossil fuel energy is a natural state of being, which cannot be disputed.
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How Fossil Fuel Hegemony Works
The concept of “hegemony” was developed by the Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci. In the 1920s, Gramsci sought to explain how the ruling classes maintained their power beyond the use of force and coercion.
He argued that hegemony involved a continuous process of gaining the consent of key actors in society such as industrialists, the media, and religious and educational institutions, to form a ruling bloc. Civil society would thus accept the prevailing order, mitigating any threat of revolution.
Gramsci’s insights help us understand the lack of action in response to the climate crisis. In particular, it helps explain the outsized influence of the corporate sector on climate policy across the globe.
For example, a series of recent studies have explored the “fossil fuel hegemony” in countries like Australia, Canada and the United States. These studies argue that such a hegemony includes a coalition of business and political actors whose interests are aligned around carbon-dependent economic growth. This leads to limited progress on legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
The hegemony has also extended to corporate political activity casting doubt on climate science, lobbying against emissions reductions and renewable energy, and the capture of political parties by interests aligned with fossil fuels. .
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This helps explain why environmentalists who advocate keeping fossil fuels in the ground are attacked by conservative politicians and the right-wing media.
They are presented not only as a threat to “our way of life”, but as deceived and dangerous radicals, even terrorists.
There’s another way
Of course, there are alternatives to fossil fuel hegemony. This implies an immediate and dramatic decarbonization of the global economy, as COP27 in Egypt aspires to achieve.
But this also requires alternative economic models of “degrowth”. Degrowth implies a planned and equitable contraction of rich economies, until it operates steadily and within the limits of the planet’s resources.
This includes carbon trading systems with a rapidly falling cap, fossil fuel extraction limits, worker autonomy and shorter working hours, and job guarantees with living wages.
These types of policies rely on tax reforms to limit resource use and reduce carbon emissions, while promoting labor sharing and limiting production and consumption.
It also requires a much more democratic politics than the current hegemony allows – a politics that challenges the illusion that economic growth can continue even as Earth’s life support systems begin to break down.
Read more: Life in a “degrowth” economy and why you could benefit
But the real test of fossil fuel hegemony will be how long that picture can persist as the weather becomes more extreme and climate activism grows.
Because more and more people recognize the reality of the climate crisis, those seeking to maintain fossil fuel hegemony will have to work harder to maintain their grip on climate politics.