“Low Carbon” is still carbon: calling out mitigation denial

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA Clinical Asst. Professor, Washington State University @postcarbonsteve

Is it possible to fully acknowledge the climate crisis and its human causation and still be reluctant to embrace what science says is the solution? Many climate leaders exhibit the symptoms of this condition, described by climate scientist Kevin Anderson as “mitigation denial.”  Mitigation denial is evident in those who otherwise would never deny the reality of the crisis, but yet are not ready to accept the blindingly obvious answer: completely eliminating fossil fuels.  This is possible because “we fear the solutions more than the impacts,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.  Anderson claims mitigation denial is “far more dangerous” than the denial of climate science. 

Mitigation denial is demonstrated by the emerging ubiquity of the term “low carbon.” (“Net zero” is another prominent one, but that’s for another time.) “Low carbon” implies that there is a way out of the crisis that includes fossil fueled carbon emissions, but just less than the current trajectory.  Examples abound of the term’s use, sounding similar to this podcast invitation:  “We’ll discuss the path to rebuild our cities and state in beautiful, imaginative, low-carbon ways.”  

In all this, “low carbon” is never defined, much less how it is to be achieved.  Instead, well-meaning folks share visions of a future that looks lot like an idealized present, where nothing needs to fundamentally change.  Essentially, the term “low carbon” signifies wishful thinking: “yes there is a problem, but we can get out of it by using somewhat less of the thing that got us into this problem and then we’ll all be better off.” 

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