Opinion | What’s Worse: Climate Denial or Climate Hypocrisy?

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By David Wallace-Wells

Opinion Writer

In early 2020, Larry Fink — the chief executive of BlackRock, a financial firm whose $10 trillion in assets under management are roughly equivalent to the aggregate wealth of Latin America, and about twice that of Africa — did his best to stake his claim as the face of an environmentally responsible business future. “Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” Fink wrote in his annual letter to C.E.O.s that year. He called global warming the most serious threat to the financial system in his 40 years of experience and promised a drastic response from his firm: making sustainability “integral to portfolio construction and risk management”; ditching investments that contribute to the problem; and pursuing not just sustainability but transparency, too, so we all could see what impacts the company was having.

Not long before, captains of industry like Fink could have gotten away with climate indifference, and many with outright denial. But something had changed — with the Paris agreement and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, with Greta Thunberg’s school strikes and the arrival, in the global North, of obvious climate disasters long sequestered in the global South. And finance seemed to take the hint, creating a new wave of purportedly virtuous “environmental, social and governance” (E.S.G.) investing.

But in his annual letter this January, just two years later, Fink struck a radically different tone, rejecting “woke” capitalism and elevating the principle that investors should center only on profits. In the spring, the firm announced it would support fewer shareholder resolutions on climate change, “as we do not consider them to be consistent with our clients’ long-term financial interests.” Just months before, BlackRock closed a $15.5 billion investment in Saudi pipelines.

What should we call an about-face like this? The word that comes most easily to mind is “hypocrisy” — or perhaps “greenwashing,” the insult that activists like to lob at companies that use eco-friendly rhetoric to launder their reputations. But this basic phenomenon, in which powerful people make climate pledges that turn out to wildly outrace their genuine commitments, has now become so pervasive that it begins to look less like venality by any one person or institution and more like a new political grammar. The era of climate denial has been replaced with one plagued by climate promises that no one seems prepared to keep.

For years, when advocates lamented the “emissions gap,” they meant the gulf between what scientists said was necessary and what public and private actors were willing to promise. Today that gap has almost entirely disappeared; it has been estimated that global pledges, if enacted in full, would most likely bring the planet 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming — in line with the Paris agreement’s stated target of “well below two degrees” and in range of its more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees. But it has been replaced by another gap, between what has been pledged and what is being done. In June, a global review of net-zero pledges by corporations found that fully half of them had laid out no concrete plan for getting there; and though 83 percent of emissions and 91 percent of global G.D.P. is now covered by national net-zero pledges, no country — not a single one, including the 187 that signed the Paris agreement — is on track for emissions reductions in line with a 1.5 degree target, according to the watchdog group Climate Action Tracker.

In trading denial for dissonance, a certain narrative clarity has been lost. Five years ago, the stakes were clear, to those looking closely, but so were the forces of denial and inaction, which helps explain the global crescendo of moral fervor that appeared to peak just before the pandemic. Today the rhetorical war has largely been won, but the outlook grows a lot more confusing when everyone agrees to agree, paying at least lip service to the existential rhetoric of activists. It’s not just Boris Johnson — who once mocked “eco-doomsters” — declaring at the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference that it was “one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock.” The 1.5-degree goal was recently described as “fundamental for the survival of the ecosystem as a whole” by, of all people, the head of OPEC.

Rhetoric this unmoored from reality is often called disinformation. It is also simply disorienting — especially given how many narratives have been layered over our picture of the post-warming future. Yes, there’s still an awful lot of fossil-fuel propaganda out there, as well as a profusion of wishful thinking, climate poptimism and giddy techno-solutionism. But even among those who take the inevitability of warming seriously, there’s also a lot of normalization and compartmentalization, which allow many of the world’s most privileged to regard climate suffering as distant if tragic. And there are the narrative temptations of apocalyptic thinking, too — which, while often misleading, at least gives a familiar shape to a future that can be otherwise quite difficult to make sense of.

As significant climate impacts have begun unmistakably to arrive, indeed now almost daily, the curtain of denial has been pulled back, revealing not a simple story but a complicated new world. During the South Asian heat wave, we heard warnings of wet-bulb temperatures that approached the theoretical limit for human survivability, but then the punishing heat wave endured for three months with relatively few deaths. We hear about the rapid decline in the price of renewables — photovoltaic solar power is now the “cheapest source of electricity in history,” according to the International Energy Agency — but also that major oil companies are reportedly planning more than 200 new projects globally in just the next three years; in May, 73 percent of shareholders of Exxon Mobil, which has a 2050 net-zero pledge, voted against trying to reduce emissions at all.

Among the disorienting features of climate news is that it isn’t actually all bad anymore; the planet seems not to be veering as certainly toward a worst-case future as felt likely just a few years ago. Those trying to project a climate outcome through the veil of uncertainty now estimate that, given current policies, the world is probably heading this century for about 2.5 or three degrees of warming — a full degree or two cooler than was described as “business as usual” as recently as a few years ago, but a degree or more warmer than has been described as “disastrous” for longer still. An enormous amount of possible suffering may have been averted; but an unconscionable amount still lies in store, at least in the absence of rapid and monumental additional action.

Those straining to make the math work on the back end, by invoking large-scale carbon removal later this century, are generating novel dissonance, too. We see headlines about Stripe and its tech allies making a $925 million commitment to removal — perhaps without realizing that the I.P.C.C. has already built into nearly all its lower-warming scenarios the fact that, by 2050, every single year many billions of tons of carbon will be removed from the atmosphere. We nod our heads reflexively about proposals to plant a trillion trees, without realizing that doing so, as climate scientists like David Ho have pointed out, would set the carbon clock back by less than eight months at current emissions levels. (Plus, trees burn, unfortunately; last year, in fact, the carbon released by wildfires exceeded that released by any of the world’s economies except the United States and China.)

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