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Enough tunnel vision: time for policymakers to take the blinders off

By Iman Hill, IOGP Executive Director

Iman Hill, IOGP Executive Director

When I joined IOGP last year, one of the biggest asks of our Association Members was to advocate more on their behalf. There was a feeling that our industry needed a common voice to explain its ongoing transformation to policymakers and the public, while attempting to rebalance emotional responses to climate discussions.

 What’s happened so far

Activists have raised global awareness about the environmental impact on our lives. The world needed a wake-up call and thanks to their actions, global leaders came together in Paris in 2015 and delivered a joint vision for the future – limiting global warming to 1.5°C.  With the objective now set, came the hard part. While the science is clear on the target and the consequences of not getting there, it doesn’t tell us how to deliver it.

That’s when we start to look at pathways, assess impact, consult stakeholders, mobilize resources, and make choices. We cannot afford to fail on climate, but we equally cannot afford to damage societies by making wrong decisions. Political leaders need to act, but there are many aspects to consider. This is where advocacy becomes important.

Why advocacy is necessary

Often elected officials are not subject matter experts. So, to draft and pass legislation they consult a broad range of experts and stakeholders on an issue to ensure decisions are well-informed. Each stakeholder – IOGP, think tanks, NGOs, local authorities or even countries – will bring their perspective and policy recommendations on the issue. Sometimes they’ll collaborate to help policymakers realize there is consensus within a group. No one wants to compromise on the objective – we need to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But this objective cannot be achieved in isolation of others – tunnel vision is not an option. We cannot right a wrong by committing other mistakes in the process.

Throughout the consultation process, policymakers and stakeholders are expected to be transparent in their engagement. This is one of the most important pillars of our democracies: the ability to voice our views before a decision that impacts us is made. We may not like the outcome, but we have been heard, to advocate for our views before elected officials make their judgment. On energy and climate, as with everything else, this process needs to happen.

What’s at stake today

However, policymakers face overwhelming pressure to act fast on climate, because of advocacy practices that incite public fear. There is no denying climate change impacts can be severe, which is why we need to deploy large-scale solutions, support economies throughout the transformational change, and mitigate the impact of this transition on citizens. But with the rise of climate activism, public debate on energy and climate has become tainted by radicalism and emotions that prevent healthy discussion. Instead of us all coming together to solve climate change, lines are being drawn in the sand, social inequalities are being exacerbated, and the cost for society is rising.

This is a danger zone we need to get out of, fast.

Europe is a case in point. In the last decade, activists successfully managed to convince large parts of the public and politicians that Europe should put an end to hydrocarbon production if it is to succeed in the transition. For years, European leaders ignored our industry’s fact-based advocacy on the significant benefits of maintaining a healthy oil and gas industry in Europe and multiplied moratoria and bans. The pressure on policymakers was so high that gas was almost denied transitional fuel status in the EU’s sustainable finance policy framework, despite the obvious role it plays across the world in helping replace coal and integrating renewables.

None of this made sense from a security of supply, economic, or even environmental perspective – it’s the result of fear-driven advocacy. The consequences became all to obvious this winter when gas stepped in to keep the lights on as European wind generation fell. The European Commission, initially pushing for exclusion, was forced to acknowledge the need to include gas in the EU Taxonomy on sustainable investments. And as Europe begins cutting Russian imports and looks to energy autonomy, the Commission is under such activist pressure it is unable to publicly support the resumption of Europe’s oil and gas industry. This situation demonstrates what happens when you leave critical stakeholders out of a debate. The one-sided political discourse becomes a straitjacket for policymakers from which they cannot untie themselves. Most alarming is the fact that it is only because of the current crisis in Europe that we are looking at energy security and climate holistically when this should be the norm. Ironically, it’s what the energy sector has been advocating for since 2015!

Our industry

I understand the pressure politicians are under, but I also expect them to stand firm and push back against advocacy practices that jeopardize the democratic functioning of our institutions.

Activist initiatives such as Fossil Free Politics or Fossil Free Media would have companies, accounting for around 60% of the energy mix, excluded from media airtime or able to provide input to public policymaking. This makes for practical complexity too. As governments begin to look to energy autonomy, for decommissioned assets to be restarted or for new projects to be developed, they need to understand that these assets cannot be brought back on by flipping a switch. It will take time and a huge investment.

And let’s not forget that our industry also needs to take some responsibility. For too long, its complacency has let others present a biased view of our industry. I believe we need to be better advocates for our sector, but I’m not ready to compromise on ethics. Change is needed and our industry is actively helping make it happen. We must succeed on climate, but at the same time, we must advocate for affordable, reliable energy through transparent dialogue and facts, rather than emotion and rhetoric.

This article is also published on LinkedIn.

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