Column: Which is code red again – the ‘death knell of fossil fuels’ or Biden’s demand for more of them?


“We can’t wait to tackle the climate crisis. The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. And the cost of inaction keeps mounting.” President Biden on Twitter

“President Biden has made clear that he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy, including at the pump.” White House statement, two days later, pleading with OPEC to produce more oil to reduce gasoline prices

Confused? Bad news; it gets worse. That’s what happens when you have a minimum wage job and promise the kids they get ponies for their birthday.

Reuters attempted to add clarity to Biden’s doublespeak with this: “Prices fell…after the White House said in a statement that the Biden administration had urged OPEC and its partners to boost production…The market reversed course after the White House later said its outreach to OPEC members and its oil-producing allies are ongoing and aimed at long-term engagement, not necessarily an immediate response.” So no, this isn’t a panicked plea for oil this month; it is a dialogue meant for the long term.

If this all sounds like a poorly written play, it is. To quote a very good (screen)play, “This is what happens, Larry, when you…” (a Big Lebowski reference which I won’t elaborate on for reasons that will be clear if you YouTube it). This is what happens, Joe, when you [ ] your voters in the [  ].

Commentators were confused by Biden’s contradictory messaging (a Japanese bank in the Reuters piece: “I don’t know why they aren’t trying to get U.S. producers to increase production…”), Saudi Arabia was confused (per the Wall Street Journal: “Isn’t [Biden] about climate change and the impact of oil on the environment?” asked a Saudi oil official. “How come now they are asking for more?”).

There is, of course, no confusion here at all, if energy reality is your thing and not the normative delusions that fill the media. Similarly, there was no confusion to any clear-headed energy bystander when Trudeau bought TMX and proceeded with the expansion project (the last 2 percent of which is going to be WWIII, but we’ll have to wait until next year for that spectacle). Biden’s actions simply bring to life the conundrum faced by anyone that is simultaneously: i) advocating for a rapid energy transition, and ii) responsible for running an economy.

The web is full of blathering bandwagon jumpers talking about how we will transition energy systems quickly, because we must (as opposed to analytical/objective thinkers that recognize the scope of the challenge, a number that appears to be terrifyingly small). They jump on every green announcement (of which there are billions) as if proof that the transition is happening quickly. If you live your life according to the media stream (a highly dangerous practice not unlike a diet of only Coke and weed and Skittles), you will have good reason to think that a transition will happen quickly: the UN’s IPCC just declared ‘code red for humanity’ – a brand new phrase I googled two days after its public unveiling, and the search yielded an astonishing 3.3 billion results.

According to one of the 3 billion references in AP News, “Scientists have issued this message for more than three decades, but the world hasn’t listened,” said United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen.

And, you’d think, after listening to Biden plead to OPEC, that the world still isn’t listening. But Inger’s lament is fallacious: it’s not that the world isn’t listening, it’s that cold hard reality trumps the ‘code red’ messaging. Nearly eight billion people are alive at once due to the Rube Goldberg-like monolith that is our current global energy infrastructure system. It won’t be changed quickly when three-quarters of the world is just warming up to it. The rich west’s demands of developing countries to forgo the benefits of hydrocarbons reeks to the high heavens of the latest form of colonialism, made worse by the west’s apparent guilt at over-consumption. That is not a persuasive message in the developing world that is voraciously consuming ever-increasing levels of all forms of energy. 

Beyond that, the plea for more oil runs counter to claims of a climate emergency. Biden has been fairly vocal and clear (as clear as any politician can be after being in office since before the invention of gunpowder) about this. One could assume then that someone somewhere in his crew would be able to point out that rising energy prices will curb consumption like nothing else.

Therefore, Biden should be cheering higher gas prices, if he truly believes in code red and climate emergencies and whatever other reference-to-horror his squad is currently working on. Even our soliloquy-rich federal ham leader knows this; Canada’s carbon tax is designed to make energy so expensive that Canadians do something about it. And, at horrendous cost, it works – when gasoline hits $2/litre, Canadians will migrate to more fuel efficient vehicles, and when natural gas/propane becomes too expensive for heating fuel, they will eye those endless forests like a gambling addict eyes a craps table, and out will come the chainsaws. 

Higher oil/gasoline/jet fuel prices would accelerate an energy transition in a way that threats/doomsday predictions never will. In fact, there is a major error in the doomsday messaging; going from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate emergency’ to ‘code red for humanity’ does nothing except desensitize the public, which is a true shame for the environment.

Part of the reason for this is the ethnocentric view of those pushing the slogans; while cranking up the rhetoric no doubt serves to agitate the slight percentage of the world’s population that is taking it seriously (as in, slashing their environmental footprint to a painful minimum), it falls on deaf and hungry ears for the 4+ billion in Asia/Africa/South America that are far more interested in air conditioning and clean water and holidays than in what might happen to the world should it warm by two degrees in 50 years’ time.

That warning is as abstract and hopeless to the average citizen as lecturing a 30-year-old to appreciate their underwear because in 60 years they will be wearing a diaper.

Of course, Biden’s more-oil-please news release was pure political theatre; he could have made the same message discreetly in a phone call. The point of the news release was clearly to show sympathy for voters. But what a poorly played card.

The Biden admin is on record, two days after code red and the death knell for fossil fuels, two months after IEA’s musing that a 2050 net-zero timeline requires an immediate cessation in fossil fuel investment, telling the world very clearly that the US needs cheap hydrocarbons, not just now, but as ‘part of a longer term dialogue’ per the Reuters article. 

The doomsday talk is an understandable strategy, if one is convinced that the worst horrors that a two degree change could bring. It is not a wise strategy, because it is too abstract and distant to change daily behaviour, but it is understandable – scaring the crap out of people is one way to get humans to change behaviour.

But that’s not quite right either, or rather only right in certain limited circumstances. Humans should be scared of a great many things – texting and driving, drunk drivers, drinking too much, smoking (tobacco or stronger), lack of physical activity, poor diets, and on and on and on. Each of these is taken very seriously by a slice of the population, and has the power to change behaviour – but only for a small slice. A changing climate is no different. We saw this demonstrated loudly in the recent US election.

The media, post Greta in particular, made much of the alleged concern of the general public about climate change. Yet in polls leading up to that election, a Pew poll placed climate change 11th on a list of important topics, behind things like foreign policy, immigration, economic inequality, the economy, health care…in fact climate change barely nudged ahead of abortion. Even among Democrats, climate change ranked fifth. What are the four levels more serious than ‘code red’ called?

This stat is borne out even more starkly when the hand of government quietly reaches for the voter’s pocketbook. It gets slapped, hard. In multiple polls, a majority of both Canadians and Americans professed to be some or a lot concerned by climate change, but then profess to be more concerned about a hundred bucks a year (in Canada, only 22% would spend an extra $100 per year to do anything about the problem; in the US, only about a third would entertain spending that much).

All this adds up to the conundrum faced by Biden and other western leaders. The majority of people say one thing, and vote another with their wallets. This is not news. But it is taking a frightfully long time for it to sink in for the IPCC’s stupefyingly large communications network. And that is the ethnocentric west that won’t change course; the developing world is even less likely to listen. 

Doomsday prophets have however shot all their bullets by going to ‘code red’, and the beast that is 7.8 billion people living a life of continuity is not really slowed at all. The rhetoric has reached the point of absurdity (people like the Guardian’s George Monbiot host Twitter discussions about what phrases can further demonize fossil fuels – what can signify greater evil, greater devastation, greater disgust) – where does rhetoric go once ‘climate emergency’ and ‘code red for humanity’ are both shrugged off by the world’s harried dads, soccer moms, and developing world’s villages?

We’ve been hearing for twenty years, that ‘the next few years are critical’, and every climate conference states the same thing. Must every worthwhile parable be repeated every year, for hundreds of years, as in The Boy who cried Wolf? Is anyone listening to places like Nigeria, who have just declared a war to end energy poverty by developing their hydrocarbon resources?

And in the meantime, leaders like Biden have to keep their citizenry from uprising. We know this is true in developing countries, where food and fuel are not taken for granted; it is something more profound when a country like the US is terrified that its gasoline prices will remain elevated. Based on Biden’s actions, it seems highly improbable that the US will even get to a carbon tax, never mind a massive collapse in emissions.

To be clear, as always, global emissions need to come down, and eventually cheap hydrocarbons will no longer be cheap, and we will transition away. Great work is being done to accomplish this – new carbon capture ideas, hydrogen developments, etc. 

What is missing from the equation though is beyond critical: A fully engaged and appreciated hydrocarbon sector would be a powerful and capable ally in that fight. A demonized and slandered one will expend valuable energy in PR wars, which will simply prolong the energy transition. 

Buy it while it’s still legal! Before the book burnin’ starts…pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.caIndigo.ca, or Amazon.com. Thanks for the support.

Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here, or email Terry here.





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