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Balancing Science and Advocacy in the Face of Climate Denial: A climate scientist reports from COP23


A guest post by John Fleming on a Trump Administration-sponsored session at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn Germany, Nov 13, 2017.


As a climate scientist, I came to the United Nations climate conference in Germany to engage with my science peers. For the first week of the conference, I had wonderfully productive discussions about how climate science could inform global policy.

But then came the Trump administration’s only public panel at this landmark conference.

It was a pitch for cleaner use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy as the best way forward for the climate. And it turned out to be what I can only describe as an Orwellian spectacle of climate science denial.

Trump’s international energy adviser — George D. Banks — gave the opening speech. Banks claimed that renewables will not be able to replace fossil fuels in the foreseeable future, and to think differently is the equivalent of “put[ting] our heads in the sand.” Therefore, he posited, we should focus on investing in “clean and efficient” fossil fuel usage, particularly in developing countries.

For these developing countries, Mr. Banks presented fossil fuels as a savior for the poor, rescuing them from indoor air pollution from burning wood and kerosene. He charged that keeping fossil fuels in the ground will worsen poverty in developing countries.

It’s a standard industry talking point. It’s also completely wrong.

First, the concept of “clean” coal and other fossil fuels is a farce. Burning fossil fuels is fundamentally incompatible with curbing climate change. Efforts to make fossil fuel burning cleaner to promote their use, such as carbon capture and storage, are false solutions. Instead, the science is clear that fighting climate change will require a complete phase-out of fossil fuel production. For coal in particular, 80 to 90 percent of reserves worldwide will need to remain in the ground to avoid blowing past the 2-degree Celsius target.

Yet Banks claimed that using fossil fuels will actually allow us to stay below this target and help achieve our Paris Agreement goals. The science begs to differ, and so do I.

Second, burning fossil fuels also generates significant air pollution that fuels major health problems in developing countries.

The extraction, transport and burning of fossil fuels spew sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and other toxic pollutants into the air. Air pollution causes 9 million premature deaths per year worldwide, with 800,000 deaths from coal pollution alone. Noxious smog, largely from fossil fuel combustion, already blankets countries like China and India.

Renewable advantages

In reality, renewables like solar are not only cleaner, but are also becoming cheaper and faster to deploy than new “clean coal” plants. Many developing countries have been canceling plans for new coal-fired power plants because the costs of renewable energy are dropping faster than predicted. Renewable energy also creates more—and safer—jobs than fossils fuels.

Furthermore, in many developing countries, renewables are easier to deploy. Without the fossil fuel infrastructure of developed countries, they have a blank slate to establish a renewable energy system. Insistence by people like Banks on the continued use of fossil fuels is partly to blame for the slow global transition to renewables.

How to respond?

At this point in the panel presentation, my frustration was boiling over. I didn’t know how much more of the truth-twisting and outright lies I could take. Purely from the description of the event, I expected I would disagree with some of the content, but I underestimated how ludicrous the remarks would be.

I suddenly wished for the caliber of science-based discussion I’d experienced in week one, instead of the nonsense being put forth in that room. I began to question if I could sit through the entire thing without some unsavory outburst.

Barry Worthington of the U.S. Energy Association was next to speak. Just as he began his presentation, a voice from a few seats to my right interrupted, singing “so you claim to be an American, but we see right through your greed” to the tune of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”

More voices then joined him, singing “you’re killing all across the world, for that coal money.” Even more joined in, standing up together as they sang “we proudly stand up until you keep it in the ground.”

Soon, the majority of the audience was standing with their backs turned to the panel, singing the verses together with a triumphant energy.












I’m a scientist, and I’m known for my reserve and objectivity, but I couldn’t help but feel that this moment of protest was an important and powerful rebuke of climate denial.

I stood up with the activists and joined in the tune. Our singing (with accompanying clapping and stomping) halted the panel for nearly 10 minutes until security guards began escorting out protesters.

I proudly followed the group out, leaving behind a mostly empty room for the duration of the panel. I could have stayed to attempt some semblance of sane scientific debate, but I felt that to stay would have been a betrayal. To entertain such distortion of scientific fact would have been disloyal to my identity as a scientist and as a person who cares about the world he lives in.

Reportedly, the panelists condemned the protesters for leaving, saying it would have been more productive if they had stayed and engaged in debate. However, there is no substantive debate to be had about the dangerous contribution of fossil fuels to climate change.

To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we must transition away from fossil fuels, for they have no role in a clean energy future. To debate this fact is to give a platform to a severely outnumbered minority of climate change deniers and their anti-science agenda.

Similar to how I joined the protestors that day, scientists must join the fight in rejecting this administration’s reckless fossil fuel promotion. With climate censorship plaguing our government agencies, scientists must speak out against misinformation and destructive policymaking.

When the industry most responsible for driving climate change has a megaphone in the White House, scientists must join forces with advocates to speak even louder.


John Fleming, Ph.D., is a staff scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. In this role, he provides science support for the Climate Law Institute’s efforts to cut greenhouse pollution, speed the transition to 100% renewable energy, keep the majority of US fossil fuels in the ground, and to protect our climate, air, water, health, and wildlife. He has a specific focus on highlighting the scientific links between fossil fuel extraction and climate change, and on fossil fuel and climate policies in the state of California. Fleming has a Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from the University of Southern California. @CFlemingJohn

Top featured image credit: Lukas Schulze, Getty Images

Second image credit: Collin Rees.

The views expressed in this post solely represent those of the author and are not necessarily shared by PLOS. Comments are welcome below.










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