Both climate scientists and Big Oil executives use the term “energy transition,” but they generally mean very different things by the phrase, and they wield it to profoundly different ends—though some find seeds for hope in the linguistic common ground.
When climate scientists refer to the energy transition, they mean “a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels and the immediate scaling up of cleaner energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear,” writes the New York Times. [Well, often not nuclear—Ed.]
- Concise headlines. Original content. Timely news and views from a select group of opinion leaders. Special extras.
- Everything you need, nothing you don’t.
- The Weekender: The climate news you need.
But fossil executives typically use it to mean “a continued use of fossil fuels, with a greater reliance on natural gas rather than coal, and a hope that new technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration can contain or reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses they produce.”
The phrase has become what linguists call a “floating signifier,” or “a blank term that you can fill with your own preferred definition,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told the Times.
Though it has been in circulation for a while, both climate advocates and the fossil sector are using the term “energy transition” with increasing urgency, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine puts energy security top-of-mind.
For those urging a “fast pivot to clean energy,” Putin’s war, which has put a spotlight on Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian oil and gas, offers proof of the need for a transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
“There’s a well-understood path that we all need to follow here,” Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, told the Times. “It’s a fundamental shift away from production and use of oil and gas and toward renewable resources.”
The general public too is “broadly supportive of a determined move away from fossil fuels, with 69% of Americans saying that developing sources of clean energy should be a high priority for leaders in Washington, and the same share supporting a transition of the U.S. economy to 100% clean energy by 2050,” writes The Times, citing a Pew Research Center poll.
For fossil executives like ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, however, the war in Ukraine proves that oil and gas remain indispensable. In a recent speech, Woods said his company was ramping up production in response to the war—while also claiming a commitment to “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting the transition to a net-zero future.”
Woods’ “transition” here, notes the Times, significantly includes ramping up carbon capture and storage and so-called blue hydrogen processes that would enable the fossil industry to keep on with the big business of extracting oil and gas.
“This is a cover for ‘We don’t want a real transition,’” David Victor, a climate policy expert at the University of California, San Diego, told the Times.
Though the free-wheeling nature of the term “energy transition” is unsettling, The Times sees it as a hopeful development that climate advocacy and the fossil sector at least share a common language.
The fact that the oil and gas industry is acknowledging the need for change is a major breakthrough, Leiserowitz said. “Just using the term ‘energy transition’ means that we’re going from where we are today. So you’ve already established the fundamental direction of progress, and that’s huge.”
Leave a Reply