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And the Climate Pretender Award Goes to ...

And the Climate Pretender Award Goes to ...

At COP21, aka the Paris climate conference, one of the most popular and suspenseful rituals was the announcement of the Fossil of the Day Award.  

Handed out by Climate Action Network in full-on burlesque fashion before an audience of hundreds, the award served to shame the nation judged to have done the “best” job of undermining the negotiations on any given day.  

On the last day, Saudi Arabia won for—among other dastardly maneuvers—attempting a last-minute gambit to force out of the treaty a global warming limit of 1.5 degrees, despite the consensus that had coalesced around that target temperature.

There was also the Ray of the Day Award, which acknowledged acts of de-carbonizing courage. Maldives and the Philippines—both island nations and members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum—received a Ray for promoting language that would ensure that nations return to the table in 2018 with more ambitious targets.

Taking place on a dinky, plywood platform in the back of Building 4, the awards ceremony not only made international news but, according to several longtime COP21 observers I spoke with, seemed truly to influence the course of the negotiations.

Appeals to shame are powerful. As is positive reinforcement.

Now that the world has shifted from the urgency of framing, drafting and revising the first global binding contract on climate change to the ongoing challenge of implementing, actualizing and operationalizing it, I suggest we keep the pressure up by continuing on with these awards.

Further, I’d like to propose a third award category: one that would be bestowed upon those who claim to be climate champions but whose actions show otherwise. Which is to say, we need a high-profile trophy that recognizes political figures (or organizations) who self-identify as rays of light but who are actually cleverly disguised chunks of carbon.

A fossil in solar clothing, so to speak.

Let’s call it the Climate Pretender Award, given to those who—for the purposes of attaining admiration, influence, grant money or a political legacy—best mimics the speech of a world climate leader while making precious little effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground, uncombusted.

My candidate for the inaugural Climate Pretender Award is California Gov. Jerry Brown.

While in Paris, Gov. Brown and members of his administration gave one self-congratulatory presentation after another that held up California as a model of climate leadership for the world to emulate—including how the state manages emissions from manure. (Manure and landfills were the topics senior advisor to the governor, Cliff Rechtschaffen, chose to discuss as a member of a COP21 panel on methane).

But not a word was spoken about the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch near Los Angeles, which, since Oct. 23, has been spewing 50,000 kilograms (= 110,000 pounds) of methane per hour into the air from a pipe that no one knows how to fix. The single leak alone is the greenhouse gas equivalent of six coal-burning power plants and nullifies hundreds other state-based efforts in California—including those directed at cows and landfills—to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions.

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Indeed, the flow rate of the escaping methane from Aliso Canyon is so extraordinary and the concentrations so astronomical that, out of concern that airplanes could ignite it, the FAA has declared a no-fly zone over the community that will be in place until at least March.

By week two of the climate negotiations in Paris, 1,800 Porter Ranch families had been evacuated, with many demanding that the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility be shut down altogether. But SoCalGas nixed that idea summarily, noting that no fewer than 14 California power plants depend on the gas stored there. No immediate plans to break that dependency exist.

And now we find out, thanks to a Public Accountability Initiative report, that the gas storage well in Porter Ranch is owned by a company where Gov. Brown’s sister is a highly-compensated board member. The report also points out that his sister, Kathleen Brown, plays an environmental, health and safety oversight role at the company.

According to the report:

Brown’s relationships with the oil and gas industry likely play a role in influencing his stances on these issues. This report, to be released in sections in the coming weeks, will detail Brown’s many ties to the industry: through his campaigns and political causes, which have benefited from significant industry funding; through close associates, who play advocacy and leadership roles in the industry; and through appointments to key regulatory roles.

The relationships, some of which have never been reported before, raise new questions about Brown’s handling of oil and gas matters.

This map helps spell out Gov. Brown's family ties to the methane leak and fracking:

Meanwhile, back in Paris, in a high-profile speech at a gathering of governors and mayors from around the world, Governor Brown emphasized the urgent need to “decarbonize in a serious way. ... We have to take courage to make the hard choices—big, fundamental and transformational.”

Not everyone was buying it.

No sooner had the governor finished talking when a dozen or more people in the audience—many of them members of indigenous communities—leapt to their feet and began chanting, “No more REDD!” and angrily challenging Gov. Brown’s carbon trading scheme. (REDD = Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

Under the REDD project, a California polluter—say, an oil refinery that processes tar sands from Canada—can expand operations as long as it purchases credits somewhere else—like in the forests of Mexico or Brazil—so that the photosynthesizing trees that take carbon out of the air offset the carbon added by the refinery.

Protesters argued—loudly—that REDD is “a shell game” that not only allows high-emission industries to pay to pollute but also instigates land grabs that evict indigenous people from their forested communities throughout the developing world. Far from being a model for the nation, California’s REDD, they declared to the governor, is a false solution that should be removed from the draft Paris Accord.

In an interview with me out in the hotel lobby after the confrontation, Tom Goldtooth, of the Indigenous Environmental Network and one of the protesters, said that any plan that addresses climate change by privatizing forests in the global South to excuse fossil fuel pollution in the global North is, unacceptable, doomed to fail, and means that “Governor Brown needs be very concerned about his legacy."

Cassandra Smithies, a researcher with No REDD in Africa Network, added that the California model “commodifies photosynthesis” through the creation of offsets while providing no plan to cut extraction and leave fossil fuels in the ground.

Indeed, California, already the nation’s third largest oil-producer, is doubling down on fossil fuel extraction via fracking and other extreme, toxic forms of oil and gas development, including in the Los Angeles area where 1.7 million people live or work within a mile of an active oil or gas well.

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Kern County, which serves as a top producer of the nation’s food crops, hosts the highest density of drilling and fracking operations in the state. The recent admission by state regulators that companies had been wrongly allowed, for years, to inject fracking waste directly into California’s freshwater aquifers, has led to the closing of many fracking waste disposal wells. In turn, the lack of disposal options has diverted fracking waste into irrigation canals with unknown impacts on food crops.

For these reasons and more, on one of the final days of the Paris negotiations, a collection of civil society groups—with a hard-won police permit for assembly—staged an anti-fracking rally outside of COP21 headquarters. Chanting “climate leaders don’t frack!” they singled out Gov. Brown for special mention and called on him to ban fracking in California.

This was not a lightly considered decision. Throughout the rally, which the permit had limited to 45 minutes and 50 participants, no fewer than 32 heavily armed military police ringed the demonstrators. In addition, because images of political leaders had been banned at this rally, pictures of Jerry Brown’s face on signs and banners had to be carefully duct-taped over. (The effect, to my mind, was to make the visual message appear more, not less, sinister).

In short, the rally was peaceful; the mood was tense. It took real bravery to bring an anti-fracking message to climate negotiations and call out Gov. Brown for his duplicity.

The following day, at an official COP21 panel discussion called “Not Just California Dreamin’: Climate Action from the Golden State” and where the speakers were government leaders and renewable energy CEOs, it was as if none of this had happened.

No one on the panel mentioned REDD or fracking.

No one mentioned that, according to this year’s California Air Resources Board’s greenhouse gas inventory, overall emissions have increased in California since Brown took office.

No one on the panel talked about leaving oil and gas in the ground even though another civil society protest, which involved hundreds of people, had just wrapped up in a space not far away and chants of “leave it in the ground!” were still ringing in the air.

Instead, Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, enthused, “The world is looking toward California as a leader. ... NRDC loves California so much that we have two offices there!”

During the Q&A, I asked California Sec. for Environmental Protection, Matthew Rodriquez, about the expansion of fracking in California and how it squares with Gov. Brown’s professed vision for the state. At which point the moderator announced that we had run out of time for further conversation.

But Sec. Rodriguez answered my question anyway. He urged patience. “To the issue of fracking, change doesn’t happen overnight. The goal is to reduce oil by 50 percent by 2050. ... We have the most effective regulations in the world. We understand the implications. We are monitoring. ... We’ve got it under control.”

Which is a different kind of message than Gov. Brown delivered two nights earlier, before his fellow governors, when he warned of the fierce urgency of the climate crisis, saying, “Unless everyone does everything they can, there will be a catastrophic impact.”

Nor does it align with the message of science, which says that: to have a shot at limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need a 100 percent shift to renewables by 2050, not a goal of 50 percent.

So, let’s keep that awards ceremony going in the days ahead. Bring back the cabaret curtains and the plywood stage. And queue up old Jackson Brown for the opener: “Say a prayer for the Pretender / Who started out so young and strong / Only to surrender.


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The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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