80% and the Climate Change Aristocracy

The Independent newspaper announced yesterday that

The UK should cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by mid-century, the Government’s climate change committee recommended today.

The committee said a more stringent target than the 60 per cent cut currently in the Climate Change Bill was needed, because new information suggested the dangers of global warming were greater than previously thought.

The dangers of climate change were worse than previously thought? What possible worse scenario could there be, than the barrage of catastrophic visions we have been subjected to by activists, politicians, and the media, over the last few years?

When we started this blog in April 2007, we said:

Because of a perception that the public mood demands action to mitigate climate change, the UK government has used the IPCC findings to justify committing the country to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Like much environmental policy, this has gone largely unchallenged by opposition parties.

Nobody in UK politics was challenging the often very tenuous claims that climate change would mean catastrophe. And even fewer people were challenging the even less credible idea that the only way to prevent catastrophe was to prevent CO2 emissions. And worst of all, everybody involved in UK politics seemed to be using the looming catastrophe to demand that people use less, expect less, and obey the tenets of environmentalism. There being no challenge to this orthodoxy, and no questions asked about either its effectiveness or its consequences, how could the process of the greening of the UK be seen as democratic?

In March last year, the government published a Draft Climate Change Bill, proposing that the UK reduces its CO2 emissions by 2050. This lead to criticism that it hadn’t gone far enough. The Conservatives said they would reduce emissions by 80%, and the Liberals 100% by 2050. The Government wasn’t taking the threat of climate change seriously enough, they said, and the 60% figure proved it. This shows that there is only one way that the politicians in the UK can respond to the perception of a crisis; they have to make it worse, and worse, and worse, and promise that they are the only party that can hope to solve this terrible mess, and that the other parties are so incompetent, that only a terrible catastrophe can follow their inevitable failure.

Following this game of politics-by-numbers, on October 2007, the Environment Secretary announced changes to the bill:

The changes to the draft Bill, set out in a Command Paper entitled ‘Taking Forward the UK Climate Change Bill’ published today, include:

  • As announced by the Prime Minister in September, asking the Committee on Climate Change to report on whether the Government’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 60 percent by 2050 should be strengthened further;
  • Asking the Committee to look at the implications of including other greenhouse gases and emissions from international aviation and shipping in theUK’s targets as part of this review;
  • Strengthening the role and responsibilities of the Committee on Climate Change, including by requiring the Government to seek the Committee’s advice before amending the 2020 or 2050 targets in the Bill;
  • Strengthening the Committee’s independence from Government, by confirming that it will appoint its own chief executive and staff, and increasing its analytical resources;

It would no longer be the responsibility of politicians to determine the level of CO2 emissions that the UK would allow. It would instead be determined by an expert committee. This would end the silly squabbling between parties about which percentage cut in CO2 best reflected the ‘scientific’ advice. But it also removes the possibility that we or you might influence the environmental policies of the UK through the democratic process. As we’ve pointed out many times before, environmentalism is a political idea; it aims to reorganise society around its values and ethics. Yet this ideology has never been tested democratically. It hasn’t won any seats in the UK parliament, yet almost the entire house of commons has embraced environmentalism. Its as though, one morning, the House of Commons turned up for a debate, not as the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the independents, but as members of the Green Party. This is a failure of UK politics and democracy.

Today, as the changes to the Draft bill stipulated, Lord Adair Turner of Ecchinswell, the chair of the committee, wrote to the Environment secretary that, as the Independent reported, ‘The UK should cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by mid-century’. What a surprise. So what lay behind the decision to increase the UK’s target from 60% to 80%? The letter said:

The Committee looked at whether the UK’s current target for a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 was likely to be sufficient given what we know about the latest developments in climate science. This target was recommended in the report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) published in 2000. Since the report, however, new information has become available. This suggests that the dangers of significant climate change are greater than previously assessed which argues for larger global, and thus UK, reductions.

This gives the impression that the scientific basis of the bill was the 2000 Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution(RCEP). But curiously, there is no mention of the RCEP in the March Draft Climate Change Bill. The report is, as you’d expect it to be, based principally on IPCC AR4, and the Stern report. The figure of 60%, it seems, stems from a 2003 White Paper.

The Government would therefore like to enshrine the commitments in the Energy White Paper 2003 to reduce CO2 emissions by 60% on 1990 levels by 2050; and to achieve “real progress” by 2020 (which would equate to reductions of 26-32%) towards the long-term goal within a new legal carbon management framework (outlined in Section 5).

This White Paper does mention the RCEP2000 report.

We therefore accept the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s (RCEP’s) recommendation that the UK should put itself on a path towards a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of some 60% from current levels by about 2050.

The October ’07, amendments to the bill called Taking Forward the UK Climate Change Bill gave the CCC its responsibilities to check the 60% figure:

Bearing in mind however the weight of scientific evidence before the Committee that a target of more than 60% is likely to be necessary, we believe that as soon as possible after it is established, the Committee on Climate Change should review the most recent scientific research available and consider to what extent the target should be higher than 60%, with a view to making recommendations on the appropriate amendment to the long term target.

The very next paragraph mentions the RCEP:

The figure of 60% was arrived at by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in 2000, following extensive research and analysis. We recognise the significant recent advances in scientific understanding, but also note that no comparable crosscutting research and analysis has been done since the RCEP report and there is no broad consensus around what the figure should be, if it is not 60%.

If the figure of 60% was based on the 2000 RCEP report, why was it not mentioned in the March Draft Bill? And if there has been no process since 2000 to determine what the level of CO2 emissions reduction should be, how can any figure be determined as appropriate?

It is clear that the October ’07 document created an opportunity for the CCC to reject 60% in favour of 80%. It might as well have said ‘the figure of 60% has given the opposition an opportunity to embarrass us, therefore, we have set up the CCC to report back in one year that the figure ought to be 80%’.

Last month, Lord Adair Turner was appointed chair of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the body which regulates the financial sector. It seems that the world’s problems are on his shoulders. But wouldn’t it be better to make the economic and ecological crises that we face the subject of political debate, rather than appoint people like Turner to make ‘expert’ decisions. After all, the FSA was unable to prevent today’s current economic problems from manifesting.

It is also interesting to note that Turner was until recently, a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and a member of the Advisory Board of Climate Change Capital, a firm offering services as an ‘investment manager and advisor specialising in the opportunities created by the transition to the low carbon economy’. As a member of the Advisory Board, he ‘assist[ed] senior management to develop the group’s medium-term strategy, extend the company’s network and evaluate opportunities’.

Had Turner emerged from an advisory role at a company lacking such spotless ethical credentials – let’s say, for example, one such as Exxonmobil – and had he suggested that 60% was a bit too strong a figure, and perhaps 40% was a better one, would there ever be an end to claims that this process was corrupt and undemocratic?

Yet here we see a man, with associations to commercial interests in the implementation of environmental policy (contrast with the speculation that surrounds sceptics who have worked with the oil industry), with a clear commitment to the environmental ethics espoused WWF, who is responsible for determining the UK’s policy over the next 45 years.

Working alongside Lord Turner on the CCC are:

Sir Brian Hoskins – a dynamical meteorologist and climatologist at the University of Reading and Imperial College London. He worked on the Stern review of climate change, and Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, which aims ‘To be a world-leading institute generating and communicating the highest quality research on climate-driven change and translating this into sustainable technological, political and socio-economic responses’. 

Lord Robert May – erstwhile President of the Royal Society, and a climate change alarmist second to none. As we have reported many times, Lord May’s involvement in the climate change debate has generated more heat than light.

Professor Jim Skea – Research Director at the UK Energy Research Centre and former Director at the Policy Studies Institute and the Economic and Social Research Council Global Environmental Change Programme, and contributor to the Stern Review.

Dr Samuel Fankhauser a visiting fellow in climate change economics at LSE, and Managing Director of IDEAcarbon, the parent company of which Sir Nicholas Stern is Vice-Chairman, and ‘an independent and professional provider of ratings, research and strategic advice on carbon finance. Our services are designed to provide leading financial institutions, corporations, governments, traders and developers with unbiased intelligence and analysis of the factors that affect the pricing of carbon market assets.’

Professor Michael Grubb – Chief Economist at the Carbon Trust, a Government-funded private company, and a Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge.

Amongst these men are very clear interests in climate change policy, with lots to gain, both professionally, and economically from climate change policies. In other words, just as the political process failed to subject environmental ideas to scrutiny, so too does the outsourced task of determining our future.

This is not to say there is a conspiracy here, nor that this is corrupt. Yet having such an interested old boys club is clearly corrupting of the process by which policies that affect all our lives are determined. Lord May has made a hell of a lot of noise in recent times about the existence of a ‘well funded denial machine’ doing the work of the oil industry. Yet as we have shown, this ‘well funded’ effort is the beneficiary of a tiny fraction of the quantity of cash available to, for example, the Carbon Trust (£70+ million / year), whose aim is ‘to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy by working with organisations to reduce carbon emissions and develop commercial low carbon technologies’. And it is likely to be a lot less than the returns seen by IDEAcarbon and Climate Change Capital, when their services are made more profitable by climate change policies.

The problem is simply that there is no opposition allowed into this process, either to question the science, or the way the science informs the policy decision, nor to ask whether emissions reductions is the best solution in terms of the interests of the UK population, or throughout the world. Worst still, the shrill complaints made about people who challenge climate orthodoxy by Bob May effectively close down any possibility of debate. Indeed, on at least one occasion, we have found Bob May making stuff up about ‘deniers’. No, let’s call it what it is… Bob May is a liar. And he lies – while accusing others of lies, and conspiring – seemingly in order to secure his position in what is clearly a climate change aristocracy, not only in name.

So what is behind the decision made by the group that 80% is the right target? What ‘new information has become available’ which makes ‘the dangers of significant climate change greater than previously assessed’?

The CCC’s letter to the Environment Secretary says,

Firstly, we know more about how rising temperatures will reduce the effectiveness of carbon sinks: the science now tells us that for any given level of emissions, concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and temperatures will increase by more than the RCEP report anticipated.

The principal basis of climate change alarmism has always been that positive feedback mechanisms will produce ‘runaway climate change’. As the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), to which the UK is committed, says, lack of understanding should not be used as a reason not to act. This embodiment of the precautionary principal means that, regardless of the state of knowledge in an area of climate science, the response is the same. It makes no difference how much is understood. The effect of new research emerging since the 2000 RCEP recommendation therefore ought to make no difference to policy. What matters is the ‘what if…’, not the ‘what’.

Pedantry aside, it is hard to work out what this ‘new understanding’ is, and what its effect on the outcome of global warming actually is. No new research is cited. Although we know more about carbon sinks, maybe, that they will respond to increases in global temperature in a way which is worse than previously thought should only be understood to inform a policy decision in the context of the total effect of climate change and society’s vulnerability to it.

The chapter relating to global temperature and sinks in the RCEP 2000 report uses a graph to consider the effect of CO2 on the atmosphere, under several different scenarios relating to CO2 emissions policies (left figure). The IPCC do the same thing in their Assessment Reports, the most recent (AR4, 2007) is also shown below, for comparison (right).

As the graphs show, if the RCEP 2000 report reflected the best available knowledge, then the understanding which has emerged since then does not, as has been reported, indicate that the situation is ‘worse than previously thought’. In fact, the IPCC 2007 graphic is far more optimistic than RCEP2000. So what basis is there for extending the 60% figure?

Secondly, unlike the authors of the RCEP report we had the benefit of models that included the warming effects of gases other than CO2. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) shows that, for the stabilisation level outlined by RCEP, non-CO2 gases will increase the equivalent CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by approximately 100ppm.

This is not true. The RCEP report said ‘The concentration of methane has also been increased by human activities, more than doubling over the last 200 years. It is thought to contribute about one-fifth of the current enhancement in the greenhouse effect.’ This claim was cited to
IPCC (1996b) The Science of Climate Change 1995. Summary for Policymakers, page 8. Curiously, the SPM referred has only 5 pages, as far as we can tell, so it is hard to establish what the basis was.

Whatever it was, clearly methane at least was part of the RCEP’s calculations, and the IPCC AR4 gives a good indication that in 2000, we had a fairly good understanding of the contribution other gasses make to global warming. The IPCC’s 1995 report (SAR) gives methane (CH4) a 100 year ‘global warming potential’ (GWP ) figure of 21 (relative to carbon dioxide = 1). The 2007 report gives CH4 a global warming potential of 25. Not a massive increase, especially as the SAR gave Nitrous Oxide a GWP of 310, downgraded in 2007 to 298. As the basis for RCEP, IPCC SAR includes nearly all the greenhouse gasses included in AR4, and upgrades some, and downgrades others.

But this is pretty meaningless anyway. A DEFRA report published earlier this year showed that by 2006, ‘Methane emissions, excluding those from natural sources, were 53 per cent below 1990 levels’ and that ‘Nitrous oxide emissions fell by 40 per cent between 1990 and 2006.’

The UK clearly has reduced its CH4 and N2O levels substantially. What is more, the claim that new evidence has emerged with respect to the global warming potential of other greenhouses gasses is barely credible. The RCEP had access to the data relating to non-CO2 GHG’s GWP in 2000, which is almost identical to today’s. Therefore, there is no good reason to make this ‘new information’ the basis for increasing the target to 80%.

Thirdly, the reduction in the summer Arctic sea ice in recent years has been greater than predicted by any of the models. Also the summer melt of the Greenland ice sheet has accelerated. These observations have led to new concerns about the pace of global warming, particularly as it affects the Arctic and possible rates of sea level rise.

Presumably, this statement is based on the single paper published last year by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). And let’s remember that such evidence does not bolster the claim that global warming is worse than previously thought, just that Arctic summer ice melt has been greater than the models predicted. If the models used to base policy on are wrong, then they are just wrong, and no further conclusion can be safely drawn. Wrong is wrong. It does not mean that things are ‘worse’ than expected’, it just means that the expectations and assumptions were wrong. And they still are wrong. Furthermore, there are only 30 years worth of data on which to base these models, from an area which is necessarily one of the most changeable and dynamic regions on earth. We know for example, that parts of the Arctic in the early C20th saw rates of change not dissimilar to, and possibly greater than today’s.

This argument clearly also rests on the news story of the year. But as the NSIDC told us, the record low 2007 ice extent was not the result of global warming, but principally a ‘perfect storm’, as part of natural variation. In much the same way, the unusually hot 1998 has not been attributed by scientists to anthropogenic climate change, but to natural variation. This is the same natural variation which was used by the Hadley Centre to explain its failure to accurately predict the temperatures of 2007, and the cold weather which has followed the La Nina event.

The ‘possible rate of sea level rise’ referred to has been substantially reduced by the IPCC from their previous estimates, and the range between upper and lower estimates narrowed. This has caused something of a split in the climate change community, with the increasingly lunatic James Hansen claiming that the IPCC estimate is dangerously conservative. This surely makes Hansen as remote from the ‘consensus’ as any ‘denier’, yet he is still celebrated by environmental activists, and we can assume, the CCC.

Again, the reasons given by the CCC for increasing the target to 80% lack substance.

Fourthly, it is now realised that atmospheric pollution has probably masked some of the greenhouse gas warming that would have occurred. As air quality improvements continue to be achieved, so even more warming can be expected.

We look forward to seeing the evidence for this statement presented in the report proper. It was only this year, for example, that a major and well-publicised (albeit for the wrong reasons) study found that components of atmospheric pollution are responsible for up to 60% as much warming compared to CO2. That’s not to say that other components (eg, sulphates) don’t have a cooling effect – they do – but the net effect of all these pollutants remains very poorly understood.

Fifthly, there is now a greater understanding of the range of potential climate change impacts, their regional variation and the possibility of abrupt or irreversible changes. These analyses also suggest greater damages once temperature increases become significant.

Ah yes, it’s always a good idea to squeeze ‘abrupt and irreversible’ into alarmist reports on climate change. But, as we’ve shown before, the phrase’s currency owes more to silly newspaper articles about AR4 than it does to AR4 itself.

Finally, latest global emission trends are higher than those anticipated in most IPCC scenarios, largely because of higher economic growth and a shift towards more carbon intensive sources of energy.

Higher economic growth? How can a man who chairs the Financial Services Authority claim that we are experiencing ‘higher economic growth’? Secondly, ‘higher economic growth’ than anticipated means greater resilience to climate change, as is shown by the difference in outcomes between ‘natural’ disasters experienced in the industrialised world, and those in the developing world. Thirdly, a ‘shift towards more carbon intensive sources of energy’ means not burning wood, and dung, which contribute to deforestation and poor health. In other words, it represents progress. As a reason for increasing the UK’s cut of CO2 emissions it’s also rather poor, because the 60% figure and the targets outlined by Stern and Kyoto, for example, are predicated on the principle that emissions from developing nations will increase. These factors could therefore equally be given as reasons not to increase the UK’s target.

It seems that the CCC’s recommendation owes less to climate science than it does to climate headlines from the last 18 months. Headlines which, almost without fail, have painted a far more drastic and alarming story than the science warrants. ‘Sceptics’ are often criticised for placing emphasis on single studies whose findings fall outside of the opinion of the consensus, represented by the IPCC reports. Yet the CCC seem to have based their recommendation on whatever alarmist literature they can find.

The broader view of future climate in 2007 is arguably more positive than it was in 2000. Yet the CCC want us to believe that things are ‘worse than previously thought’ in order to justify an increase of the UK’s emissions reduction target. To do this, it waves scientific factoids around in a process which owes more to some kind of pagan ritual than to good science. Like the protesters at last year’s Climate Camp who turned pages from a climate change study into gloves, and marched under the slogan ‘we are armed: only with peer-reviewed science‘, the CCC seemingly wave science around to legitimise policies which will have far-reaching effects on society, and to justify the existence of a political elite which is increasingly estranged from the public.

This voodoo science ritual is being used to arm politicians with something that they desperately lack: direction. The climate change aristocracy now sit and dictate what the terms, values, and principles of UK politics ought to be. And as their influence increases no doubt, so do their cash returns. While their influence extends, so the opportunities to challenge environmentalism through the political process diminishes. Now all a politician has to do to answer critics of environmental policy is say that an ‘independent’ committee has produced its findings.

Politics: available in any colour, as long as it’s green.

Oiling the Wheel of Despair at the Edge of Scare City

The future is bleak. That seems to be the message that everybody wheeled into the public spotlight is keen to tell us. Indeed, if you can’t say that the future is bleak, you have no business being on the news. 

Other than the current comparisons to today’s economic climate with the Great Depression, there seems to be two main categories of doom saying; the first tells us that the stuff we do will cause irreversible damage to the planet. The second tells us that we’re running out of stuff to do stuff with anyway. Either way, we’re up a certain creek without a paddle. It’s a ticking time bomb. A disaster waiting to happen. Not if, but when. The disaster B-movie has mutated, grown limbs, escaped its fantasy celluloid landscape, and found a new home in the imaginations of the people whose expertise we might have thought would protect them – and us – from such silliness. But embracing disaster movie clichés is now part of the expert commentators’ routine.  

Matthew Simmons, CEO, Energy Investment bank Simmons & Co joined Richard Heinberg – Senior fellow, Post Carbon Institute, and Liberal-Democrat, John Hemming MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary group on Peak Oil and Gas for a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s consumer affairs programme, You and Yours, for some lunch time fear-mongery.

You can listen again, here.

This kind of thinking is straight out of the environmentalists’ cookbook. But it is not unique to environmentalists. 

PRESENTER: And when you’ve been asked before if it’s time, you know, for this whole idea of peak oil and gas to be part of the public policy you’ve said, ‘it’s passed time, and in fact the solution now is to pray’. Is it really as dire as that?   

MATTHEW SIMMONS: I beleive so, and I beleive the data is overwhelmingly… it’s not perfect yet… it won’t be until we look back with, you know,  the benefit of two or three year hindsight… But I think the data is pretty clear that basically we reached, the sustainable top oil production in 2005. So we’re now three years beyond the tipping point. 

Amongst many critics of environmentalism on the right, environmentalism is regarded as the continuation of the Left. Environmentalists are ‘watermelons’, they say; green on the outside, red in the middle. Various eco-warriors haven’t been keen to challenge this perception, arguing that climate scepticism was a front for the interests of oil companies, who face a reduction in their profits. This was also the claim of a former director of media relations of the UK’s Royal Society, Bob Ward. Ward sent angry open letters to Exxonmobil and the media, demanding that they stop funding sceptics, which he continued even after he left the RS to work at insurance products firm, Risk Management Solutions (RMS). But as we pointed out, if Ward is criticising oil companies for having an interest in the public’s doubt about global warming, then Ward, now working for RMS, which sells products relating to the effects of climate change, has an interest in the public’s undue fear of catastrophe. If nobody feared climate change, there would be no market for the products created by Ward’s new employers. Fear is to RMS as oil is to Exxonmobil. 

Similarly, Matthew Simmons has something to gain by promoting the idea that the oil is about to run out, and we’re all going to die. Scarcity, or the belief that something is scarce, makes his commodity more valuable. It pushes the price up. It means that, as a CEO of an energy investment bank, he has to do less investing for each dollar of return, than he would, were prices lower than they have been in the past. The urgency with which he presents his case also creates the drive to subsidise ‘renewable’ energy installations, which he will no doubt benefit from. 

The company’s website announces itself, 

Simmons & Company is the only independent investment bank specializing in the entire spectrum of the energy industry. Founded in 1974, the firm has acted as financial advisor in over $134* billion of transactions, including 535 merger and acquisitions worth over $93 billion. Simmons has served as co-manager on over $35 billion in public debt and equity offerings. During 2007 Simmons closed 49 M&A transactions worth $26 billion and co-managed 10 offerings worth $4.9 billion. The firm’s clients range from small, privately held companies to multi-billion dollar public entities.

Does that sound to anyone like workings of a secret socialist conspiracy? 

Richard Heinberg lightens the mood of the conversation. ‘We’re going to have to re-think just about everything we do’, he says. 

PRESENTER: Are we talking about population control at some point? 

RICHARD HIENBERG: Well, certainly we’re going to have to look at how to reduce population increase and perhaps even contemplate ways to reduce fertility so that gradually the human population can contract back to a level that we can sustain. Obviously we want to do this in the most humane way, without disregarding human rights, but at the same time, the ecological reality is we may not be able to support seven, eight, or nine-billion people. 

And here we see the ecological and depletion arguments converge. Humans must balance not merely their lifestyles, but their lives, and the lives of the families they want to have, and their rights against ‘ecological reality’. All that is necessary to demand people lower their horizons, aspirations, and expectations is to invoke ‘ecological reality’. Gone are the days when nature was studied in order to be harnessed for the benefit of humanity. Today’s study of nature is a political exercise that is undertaken in order to discover ways of legitimising social control. You want liberty? Well, tough, ecological reality dictates that it’s not possible. Start digging. 

And don’t expect capitalists to rush to the rescue. 

PRESENTER: Matt Simmons, do you really think we’re going to have to have population control as a result of your fears over peak oil?

MATTHEW SIMMONS: I think population control is like introducing a new car. It’s a great concept, but basically it just takes too long. We don’t have the time for these. We would have had the time if we started thinking about this in the ’70s or ’80s, but again, population control, unless we’re talking about genocide, it takes decades to implement so… Liberating the workforce, and allowing people to work when they want and where they want, growing food locally, ending globalisation, ?[making things we’re using]? can be implemented in three to four years, so. That’s the draconian measures we need to do. And long-term we need to think about these other things, but they’re very long-term implementations, and we don’t have that time, we ran out the clock. 

‘Liberating the workforce’ in Simmons’ argument is not really about liberation at all. He’s principally talking about telecommuting. Which is fine if you happen to be in his line of work (not to mention if you have a nice big house, with plenty of room for working in). If you happen to be one of those people doing the ‘growing food locally’, it means hard work, and low pay. Allowing people to work ‘where they want and when they want’ is also a neat idea. But Simmons doesn’t mean freedom. It doesn’t mean allowing people to work 100 miles away from where they live. It doesn’t mean letting people drive, or, heaven forfend, flying to new opportunities. Industry with a ‘low ecological impact’ isn’t liberating. It’s back-breaking, manual labour. And what to make of a CEO of an investment back calling for an end to globalisation?! 

Once upon a time, capitalists sought to find new ways of meeting human needs and desires. Even if that meant, sometimes, creating things we didn’t really want, or didn’t really need. It is curious, then, that Simmons should be using ‘ecological reality’ as the basis for an argument against globalisation, and for a radical change in our lifestyles. 

This pessimism has found a home in the establishment as much as it has amongst the self-proclaimed revolutionary activists. Anti-globalisation protesters clash with the authorities at G8 meetings, but if CEOs of energy investment banks are saying the same things, then it’s not clear what either are asking for. Between the demonstrators and the companies, the Government, and the political parties, there is very little difference of perspective on the problem. 

‘I think we need to recognise that there is a link between food and energy.’ Says Lib-Dem MP, John Hemming. Well, you’d have hoped so, wouldn’t you? 

JOHN HEMMING: Fertilisers are generally… the feedstock is from oil. So you will always have a link between the two. And the policy changes that are needed are the same, whether you agree with the doomsday scenario or not, we still need to be much more orientated towards controlling the use of fossil fuels.

PRESENTER: And is the Government currently doing that? Is it doing as much as it not only could but should, desperately should according to Matt and Richard? Do you think it is? 

JOHN HEMMING: I think the Government’s not even doing as much as it intends to. The first problem from the Government is denial. They estimate the peak, global peak for hydro-carbon production to be in 2030. They explain that’s based on the IEA figures, and the IEA perhaps indicate a figre of 2011 2012. If you start by denying there is a problem then it’s not suprising they’re not doing anything about it. 

PRESENTER: So what should they be doing?

JOHN HEMMING: There’s a wide range of things. We’re producing a number of reports. But the fact that you cannot for instance, have a third runway at Heathrow Airport is a very obvious thing. They plan for a growth in air transport. It’s a farce to plan for a growth in air transport when there isn’t actually the fuel to power it. 

If there really is no fuel to power aircraft at Heathrow, then there’s no real problem about it being built. So it is odd that Hemming makes a point of it. 

It is telling that the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary group on Peak Oil and Gas does not focus his responsibilities to finding new ways to power the country, were his fears about peak oil to be correct. He recognises that energy is essential – he tells us that it takes ten calories of fuel energy to make one calorie of food energy. This is a good thing, because the more fuel energy that has gone into producing food, the less human labour has gone into producing it. He doesn’t recognise that, and wants instead to control the use of fossil fuels. Hemming continues:

Energy is going to be rationed, by the price, or by tradable energy quotas. If it’s rationed by price, poorer people will suffer to a far greater extent than aiming… and it require international action, there’s no question about it. One country can’t resolve this on their own. But you have a limited numbers of ways of dealing with it. When you look at the numbers game in terms of alternative energies, they’re all various partial solutions, it’s not clear that they add up to a complete solution, therefore, you have to look at how you equitably deal with the fossil fuel provision that we have. And the tradable energy quotas is one way forward, the other one is pricing the poor people out of the market, which isn’t very fair. 

Hemming has ignored coal, and he has ignored nuclear, and the other fossil alternatives. The ‘peak oil’ crisis relates only to a relative depletion of crude oil reserves, not of fossil fuels. Much of South Africa’s petrol is produced from coal. Alternatives such as oil shale and sands exist in much greater quantities than crude ever has, but what stops these from being exploited has been the low price of crude until relatively recently. While there is uncertainty about the future of the global economy, and the way in which oil prices will respond, there is little incentive in investing in alternatives which may not, in the medium term, compete with crude. But plenty of alternatives – some of them renewable – exist, and in abundance. The problems are, firstly that these alternatives are incompatible with environmental anxieties. The second is that they are incompatible with the intellectual vacuum driving the thoughts of men such as Hemming, Simmons, and Heinberg. 

PRESENTER: Matt Simmons, you’re an expert on the impact that this could have on the, as it were, the global economy, it seems that pretty well every and any solution is going to have an impact on those at the bottom end of the scale.

MATT SIMMONS: That’s one of the reasons we basically can’t let the market sort this out. Because the market sorting it out is going to last for a few weeks and then we have social chaos, and then we’re into a resource war. What we really need to realise is this is a global problem, it’s not a UK problem, it’s not a United States problem, it’s not a California problem or a Texas problem. And we’re basically on the edge of scarcity of oil which means we basically have to do a fast retreat from our heavy addiction to using oil. As Richard said, this is transportation. All the other forms of energy relate to electricity and heat. But this is transportation, so it’s pretty simple, we have to travel less, and that means liberating the work force, paying by productivity, any long-distance commuting… luckily we have a tool kit we’ve already developed to do that… But we now need to implement something which has the intensity of a war effort of world war 2, or the Manhatten Project, or rebuilding Europe, and do this all very fast in the next two or three years, or we’ve really lost the battle. 

Turning a restriction on travel and ‘payment by productivity’ into ‘liberating the work force’ is an impressive example of Orwellian spin. One might say ‘freedom from freedom’, and make as much sense. ‘Payment by productivity’ might be a great idea if you’re a CEO of an investment bank. But if you’re working in ‘localised food production’, it means little more than a few pence from the gang master if you shove more dirt. One of the best things about the ability to move is that it freed people to move to find work on better terms. Reducing the opportunity to travel means reducing opportunities to work. John Hemming’s perspective is no deeper. 

Well I think we need to focus more on quality of life rather than standard of living, and the evidence is that people aren’t necessarily happier in an environment where they commute for two hours each day. Those factors need to be taken into account. And what is critical is we need to look at an equitable way of dealing with scarcity and to just price the poor people out of the market, which is what the Government are doing isn’t an equitable way of dealing with it. 

Perhaps here we begin to see what’s at the heart of the nonsense emerging from these three men. Hemming has nothing to offer us at all. Scarcity is an inevitability as far as he is concerned, because without the prospect of doom hanging over us, he is, as was the Emperor, without clothes. He can’t raise people’s expectations with a positive vision because he lacks one. Instead, he exploits the story created by ‘ecological reality’, to cast himself as the saviour. He can’t make any claims to make us any richer, but he tells us that he can make us happier, if only we’d abandon our attachment to our materialist ‘standard of living’. This isn’t politics, it’s Buddhism. His concern for the poor is quite moving. But rather than worrying about their happiness, we’re pretty sure they’d rather he got on with the business of raising standards of living, so that they can get on with their emotional lives, by themselves, thank you very much. Just who does he think he is? 

We’re realy are at the stage where Government needs to move on from denial. The people can adjust their own lifestyle to be less energy-dependant, and that’s strongly advisable thing to do because we’re not going to see over time a massive reduction in prices, whatever happens. So it’s in everybody’s interests to adjust their lifesytle to minimise their use of energy.

We have noted before the tendency of political parties not in power to escalate the scale of the problem faced, and to say that only their policies reflect what the ‘science says’, and that the other parties are therefore ‘in denial’. When we began this blog, the Labour government had announced their commitment to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Shortly after, the Conservatives announced that they would see an 80% reduction by the same time. The Liberal Democrats – Hemming’s party – announced that by 2050, they would make Britain carbon neutral by measures including banning the petrol engine, and, curiously, banning nuclear power. This process owes nothing to science, and is merely posturing by percentage points like boys boasting about their physical strength. In the past, politicians would try to attract your vote by arguing that the political philosophy and economic theories they espoused would make a better life either for you, or for everyone. Now, people like Hemming argue that you need to make lifestyle changes, and get used to less. ‘Ecological realities’ are invoked in place of principles and values. Statistics that bear no relation to human experience underpin stories of terrible ecological consequences and social collapse. 

Similarly, investment capitalists once sought to innovate ways to achieve an edge over their competitors, and passed on some of the savings made by economies of scale, efficiency, and industrial processes to the consumer. Like the politicians embracing environmental tenets, today’s CEOs of energy investment banks suffer from a scarcity, not of natural resources, but the ideas and imagination required to continue providing the world with the services it needs. Instead of innovating, Matthew Simmons appears to be protecting his commercial position by lobbying for regulation, and protecting the value of his commodity by creating the illusion of scarcity. 

Environmentalism is not unique to the Left. It is being absorbed by parties and individuals positioned across the political spectrum; Conservative, Liberal and Left, and by capitalists and anti-capitalists, radicals and establishmentarians alike. Intellectually exhausted political parties and their members and zombified corporate CEOs try to breathe life into their collapsing organisations by wrapping themselves in green. But this reinvention brings them ever closer to ‘end-is-nigh’ sandwich board lunatics like Richard Heinberg, and further and further away from the public. The tragedy is that their limited vision is the basis on which the future is being constructed. Politicians should be engaged by the task of enabling the exploration of new, cheaper and more abundant sources of energy, and investment capitalists should be finding ways of making them commercially viable. Instead, we seem to be facing an economic crisis, with rows upon rows upon rows of public figures telling us to expect less and less. With people like that at the helm, it is no wonder this ship is sinking. Down is the only direction these people know.

Only Happy When It Rains

Bizarrely, this week’s episode of Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s BBC Radio 4 series Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s History of Home, in which celebrity interior designer and big, flouncy ponce Laurence Llewelyn Bowen explores the history of our homes from the 1920s to the present day, opens with a montage of calls to arms from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: ‘this is really not a political issue so much as a moral issue’ and ‘within the decade there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro’, and so on. Cue Laurence Llewelyn Bowen:

By the turn of the 21st Century, we were having to face a few of Al Gore’s inconvenient truths about global warming, not least the news that our homes contribute heavily to the problem. In Britain, CO2 emissions from the housing sector have risen by 5% in the last ten years alone, so that our homes now account for 27% of the UK’s carbon footprint.

The latest installment looks at the eco-home. First stop: the Hockerton Housing Project near Nottingham, a terrace of five houses that use only 10% of the energy of the average British home. They are neither plugged nor plumbed in, but they are right-on. They have grass roofs, reed-beds instead of sewers, windmills and solar panels instead of sub-stations, and various different kinds of compost heap.

LLB: Let’s go to the bathroom. Because that’s always a slight point of sensitivity as far as people are concerned, because they always associate green living with a nose-dive in personal hygiene, which I think is deeply unfair.

Resident: It is.

LLB: This is exactly as you’d expect from a family bathroom.

Resident: It is. But it’s actually a cunningly disguised, ultra-low water-use toilet, and it does the job […] It starts to flush everything down the pipe and out into a tank, which then leads into a reed bed. It’s a wonderful habitat for the plants and the animals; it saves us loads of money because we don’t pay water rates. The other thing that isn’t obvious in the bathroom really is the water is actually collected from the rain, and everything we use in terms of water, we have to collect, look after [and] treat […] And when it’s raining, you’re moderately happy and you’re filling your water tank. And you’re very connected with that. You become in control of what you’re doing.

What the resident meant to say, of course, is that when you are entirely dependent on enough sun, rain and wind falling on your your own little patch of the planet, you relinquish all ‘control of what you’re doing’ to Mother Nature. Which is all well and good if you like to spend your time composting your nail clippings and wondering whether to water your vegetables or wash your hair. But given that the vast majority of us have other things to do, it’s hardly a model for future society.

The eco-village was built and is now lived in by some nice, middle-class folk who have a lot of time on their hands and who don’t really want to be part of modern civilisation. They have even symbolised their aspirations to some sort of pre-industrial utopia with a stone circle they built in their communal back-garden.

Were it just about a bunch of well-meaning eccentrics pottering about in quiet corners of the English countryside, that would be the end of it, but the trouble is that, whether we like it or not, eco-living is going mainstream. The programme tells us that the UK government’s aim is for all new houses to be ‘zero-carbon’ by 2016. To that end, it has produced the Code for Sustainable Homes, a national standard of sustainability for new build housing, and plans for ten new ‘eco-towns‘.

Barratt Homes is one of the construction giants looking for a piece of the action, by drawing on green technologies developed by the likes of ZEDfactory, who can pack fifty Rural Zed self-build eco-houses into a hectare. Barratt chief executive officer Mark Clare explains that all houses of the future will store rainwater for use in the toilet and washing machine, have dedicated spaces for bicycles, and, er…

We also are designing these homes so that there are warm areas in the house at the top, where you can actually dry your clothes, so you shouldn’t need a tumble drier.

Like you shouldn’t need a car, because all the public transport will be ‘integrated’. And like you shouldn’t need to go anywhere anyway, because, well, why would you need to? But it’s a thin line between shouldn’t and mustn’t, and it remains far from clear on which side of that line the eco-proles will be forced to sit. As Andrew Orlowski reported last week on The Register, a report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) suggests that the lifestyle police will be paying very close attention:

If the proposals in the report What Makes An Eco Town? are implemented few aspects of life will go unrecorded.

CABE says the strict monitoring is needed to ensure the carbon footprint of the eco-town dwellers remains at one-third of the British average, which is the requirement for what’s called “one-planet living”, the quango says.

Examples of monitoring include “the ecological footprint of the diet of 100 randomly selected residents”, and the number of shops selling local produce. Waste disposal and transportion habits will also be scrutinized.

The Carbon Cult also wants to choose what you food you eat, and will carefully pre-select only the most righteous retailers. Veggies will be pleased to read that the report recommends “actively seeking retailers on site who will commit to supporting residents in reducing the ecological footprint of their food consumption, in particular providing a wide variety of healthy, low meat and dairy options.

Certainly, eco-towns are about more than making just the architecture eco-friendly. Mark Clare says his houses can lead to a 60% reduction in carbon footprint. Which is plainly not enough for Caroline Flint, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, and her zero-carbon aspirations. Lifestyle changes are also essential.

MC: The house will enable the home-owner to reduce their carbon footprint by well over 60%. If they do all of the other things – including transport – then they can get up to 80% reduction. So, now we really are talking about something close to zero-carbon living.

We are certainly not the first to criticise the government’s eco-towns policies. At one end of the spectrum, the Guardian’s architecture critic Jonathan Glancey isn’t impressed. And at the other, neither are those nice, well-meaning middle-class types – like the parents of plucky British tennis under-achiever Tim Henman – who find themselves in the flight-path of one of the proposed developments. But the fact is that most people aren’t going to be negatively affected by eco-towns. Like most people wouldn’t have been negatively affected by new towns period. And as we keep saying, most people remain unconvinced by Environmentalism, and few vote for it. So why the re-branding? One advantage is that the shrill voices of Environmentalism would find it harder to mount a challenge if it is billed under the government’s commitment to reducing CO2. Who could possibly object to ethical ‘eco-homes’?

That said, some shrill voices can’t be drowned out just like that. One of our pet favorite loony Environmentalist organisations, the Optimal Population Trust (OPT), rightly points out that eco-towns will make but a dent in the UK’s need for new housing. Where they go wrong – completely, entirely and utterly wrong – is in thinking that what we really need is no new houses at all.

the Government should minimise future demand for housing by developing a clear “green” strategy to achieve a sustainable level of population for the UK. England is by some measures the world’s fourth most densely populated country, with overcrowding affecting quality of life and damaging the habitat of other species.

Intriguingly, they add:

Population growth is by far the biggest factor in the predicted increase in demand for housing, accounting for at least 59 per cent

They don’t mention what they think accounts for the other 41% of the demand. Presumably, it has something to do with the trend for solitary living. We should be living together as long as we don’t sleep together, or something.

When it comes down to it, eco-towns are a response to neither ecological nor housing imperatives. And yet, once good, old-fashioned ‘towns’ are re-labelled as ‘eco-towns’, they are bestowed with a loftier purpose, which gives governments – not to mention the likes of Barratt’s Homes – licence to start getting away with anything. And they do. Yet Llewelyn Bowen still doesn’t see any reason to criticise them. He concludes:

I can’t help thinking though that this is a life that lots of people would cherish – it’s simpler, it’s safer, it’s greener, and that all important sense of community […] It’s basically ‘Get happy’.

But, no matter how much his history of the eco-home uncritically extols their virtues, you can bet that prancing dandies like Llewelyn Bowen won’t be making eco-slums their home. Nor will well-intentioned, disillusioned, middle-class folk with time on their hands. Eco-slums will be the last resort of those who don’t have any choice in the matter.

Contact problems

If you sent an email to us between mid August, and lunchtime today (GMT), the chances are we didn’t get it. This is because we didn’t maintain a mailbox properly. 

It should be sorted out now. We’ve also been having reports of our contact page not working properly. If this is the case, you can also contact us at editors[at]climate-r….[you know the rest].