“It’s the Stupid Economy”

Posted by Ben Pile on July 13, 2012
Jul 132012

According to my ‘favourite’ newspaper

Bill Clinton: cutting use of natural resources would help US economy
Former president says US would recover faster from financial crises if more effort was made to use resources sustainably

Clinton was speaking to the Re|Source conference in Oxford, and features a line-up of individuals with international profiles. Fiona Harvey of the Guardian was there, and had this to say about Clinton’s recipe for America’s recovery:

“We can grow even faster if we use less energy,” said Clinton in a conversation with the Guardian at the Resource 2012 conference in Oxford on Friday evening. “We have studies that show this. All that we need to do is find ways to finance this.”

He said the current financial system favoured the building of major projects such as coal-fired power stations, despite their energy intensity, because the value of energy efficiency was underrated.

Big financial backers are used to weighing up the finances of major infrastructure works, because they have long developed the financial models to work out the payback on their investment over the project’s lifetime.

But financing efficiency projects is more complex, and has received much less attention from investors, because the payback is spread more diffusely – among thousands of companies and individuals.

“This is the problem with going aggressively for efficiency, as we need to,” Clinton said. “If I want to finance efficiency savings, I need to go to lots of people and add all those savings together. But if I want to build a new coal-fired power station, I go to a few [backers] and I’ve done it.”

“We can grow even faster if we use less energy”… Has Clinton discovered some new principle which contradicts all existing scientific knowledge? Have the laws of thermodynamics changed? Does this hold true for any amount of ‘less energy’ used? Could we use less and less energy indefinitely, and ‘grow’ indefinitely? Is less, really, and in fact, more?

Of course not. And dear old Bill is confused about the difference between ‘using less’ and ‘efficiency’. He believes that somehow, inefficiencies are built into some kind of ‘system’. He believes you can change the system by ‘financing efficiency projects’. And this will somehow made it possible to ‘grow faster’.

This is nonsense, of course, unless you’re facing a shortage of the resource in the first place. We’re not. There are plenty of resources. But they are expensive at the moment. So it could be argued that making processes more energy efficient might lower the total cost of energy, leaving more money for other things. But this would depend in the first place on the ‘efficiency project’ being worthwhile. You could install a $million worth of things that improve efficiency, but only realise $100,000 worth of fuel savings a year. And then you’d have to decide whether you’d get a better return on the $million spent on efficiency, or some other thing.

Clinton wants to make efficiency an end in itself. This is a reinvention of the concept of ‘efficiency’. And as discussed in a recent post here, this reinvention of ‘efficiency’ in environmental terms, cannot produce growth, except in the twisted logic of environmentalism. Making this reinvented ‘efficiency’ the end of policy and of the production of energy means precisely the opposite of ‘growth’.

Nobody ever needed to tell the designers and financiers of of power stations to be ‘efficient’. If a team of designers could not produce increasingly efficient generator designs, they would quickly find themselves working in other fields. (Perhaps they might find themselves either working on the Guardian, or advising former presidents). And if financiers did not put emphasis on efficiency in their briefs to designers, they would soon find their stock falling. Designers being able to produce something more efficiently than existing systems is what makes financiers get their chequebooks out. And it’s not as if there is no incentive, what with oil prices being what they are.

But environmentalism holds that there is only one form of ‘efficiency’. And it’s not for anyone else to determine what the measure of ‘efficiency’ is — i.e. to make calculations of something’s efficiency in the terms that are of interest to them. Environmentalists believe they have invented — rather than reinvented — ‘efficiency’, and that nobody had ever heard of it.

And it’s an interesting rhetorical trick, a bit like the invention of the concept of ‘sustainability’. To be critical of ‘sustainability’ would sound like being critical of something that common sense tells you is right. Who is for ‘unsustainability’? It’s only when we look at the endless stream of nonsense that is produced by advocates of ‘sustainability’ that we discover that the common sense understanding of ‘sustainable’ is not the principle operating within the agenda. They’re talking about ‘sustainability’ in terms strictly narrowed by environmentalism. Nobody is against efficiency.

‘Efficiency’, says Clinton… And the room gives him a standing ovation, as though, for centuries, it had been the missing part of liberte, egalite, fraternite.

What does Clinton know about ‘efficiency’? What is the reason he was invited to the Re|Source conference? For sure, he might be able to shed some light on what happened in politics during his reign. But what does he really know about how much CO2 a power station produces? As much as Al Gore? He’s a celebrity, of course, and that’s why he turned up. He was briefed on what to say by his researchers. He’s just an actor. This was just a performance.

And the performance is extended onto the pages of the Guardian, where another actor, playing the part of a journalist called Fiona Harvey, penned the article. It looks like journalism. It looks like an article in a newspaper. But a vital component is missing from the scene, making it it impossible to suspend disbelief, and to find the performance convincing. The journalist has suspended disbelief. She believes the play she is in. And she forgets to notice that Clinton is talking unmitigated bullshit.

As the article points out, David Miliband and Peter Mandelson were also in attendance.

Earlier in the conference, Miliband warned of the destructive effects of resource overuse and scarcity, and Mandelson called for an end to subsidies that encouraged the overuse of fossil fuels and an increase in support mechanisms for clean energy, such as sun and wind power.

Mandelson said: “Some kinds of subsidies are key to opening up the new world but on the other hand there are some kinds which are the biggest obstacles to making progress.

Isn’t it odd that when politicians say ‘environment’, journalists’ brains switch off. It’s as if there were no reason to be sceptical of these politicians’ words. No need to check the facts, or to scrutinise the logic… when the politicians are talking about climate change in the right way.

Jul 122012

Barry Gardiner MP has a written an article for the Guardian, which complains that ‘This government’s energy policies are a timebomb‘.

Sometime in 2018 or shortly thereafter, the UK will experience a crisis. Electricity supply will not be enough to meet demand. When this happens, people will look back to 2012 and the disastrous policy decisions taken by the UK.

Yes, indeed, it is true. Between now and 2015, 11.8GW of conventional generating capacity will be shut down. And between 2016 and 2019, a further 6.1GW of nuclear generating capacity is scheduled for decommissioning. Just 7 years from now, nearly 18GW of capacity will be lost. We seem to be in agreement with Gardiner. So what’s the issue?

The first is the publication of the draft bill on electricity market reform. The second is the imminent decision to cut potentially as much as 25% from onshore windfarm subsidies.

This complaint seems to be that uncertainty about the details of energy market reform, and the possibility of a cut in subsidies have dented investor confidence. No investment, no wind farms. No wind farms no plug to fill the UK’s energy gap.

What has become clear is that the government cannot rely on the market to supply the £110bn of investment in generating capacity that will be required to replace the old nuclear and coal power stations, which are likely to be turned off after 2017.

If this is news to the coalition, it must be news to Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party. And it was under that party’s administration that the existing arrangements were made. They came to office fifteen years ago, and made the environment central to their policy-making. Miliband himself sought to champion the climate issue internationally, and fought for tougher emissions and renewable energy targets in the UK, in the EU, and in the world.

Gardiner’s emphasis is on the financing of low carbon energy. Now he is in opposition, he has the luxury of criticising the coalition’s policies. But the current and previous government have both operated on the basis that the right policy framework would… for sure… create the conditions for investment in renewable energy. And compare the difference in rhetoric. In 2008, politicians like Ed Miliband and Peter Mandelson were talking, not about ‘keeping the lights on’ — avoiding an energy gap — but a ‘green industrial revolution’. The UK was set to become a world leader in renewable energy and other green tech. As I wrote in 2009, the government believed that nearly half a million jobs would be created by 2017, meaning that 1.3 million people would be working in the provision of environmental goods and services. Since then, unemployment has risen by nearly half the number of jobs promised. And the promises of jobs and an ‘industrial revolution’ have turned into threats about ‘timebombs’.

Gardiner should admit that if the current government is wrong to believe that the market would supply the finance for the UK’s energy ‘transformation’, so were his own colleagues in the Labour Party.

In the words of one senior city analyst: “The government’s policy is based on a lie.” He is too generous. It is based upon three. The government wants to tell people that their electricity will become cheaper. It will not. The government wants people to believe that new nuclear can be built without government subsidy. It cannot. The government wants to persuade people that it is neutral as between technologies. It is not.

The current government’s desire desire to change the energy market and subsidies for renewable energy are not whimsies. They may be poorly conceived, but they are at least owed to political, economic and material reality: there is no real public appetite for renewable energy, and it has embarrassed the current and previous government; it is expensive and increasingly so, and the level of subsidisation is further embarrassment, and likely to cause further hardship; and renewable energy as it currently exists simply doesn’t work as it is intended. If the current government’s policies existing and planned policies are ill-conceived, messy, and likely to fail, then so were the Labour government’s.

In the words of one senior city analyst: “The government’s policy is based on a lie.” He is too generous. It is based upon three. The government wants to tell people that their electricity will become cheaper. It will not. The government wants people to believe that new nuclear can be built without government subsidy. It cannot. The government wants to persuade people that it is neutral as between technologies. It is not.

The real lie that afflicted both governments was that you can pull policy levers, and material, economic and political realities will adjust themselves accordingly. Promises of money for investment, in the form of subsidies for renewable energy did not cause wind industry to boom. The following graph shows the cumulative capacity of planned, approved, refused, and built onshore wind farms in the UK, data from the Renewable UK website.

As the graph shows, onshore wind capacity has grown linearly, at a rate of about 485MW per year. In spite of claims that it was wind farm campaigners and climate change sceptics that stalled this progress, the rate at which wind farms have been given planning consent is more than double the rate at which they have been built. Clearly, therefore, there has been very little investment in the machinery which installs wind turbines. One explanation for this is the possibility that investors were never confident in the UK renewable energy market, in spite of the UK’s policies. Another possibility is that grid integration problems have stalled progress. A third explanation is that developers were ensuring the highest profits by ‘gaming’ the Renewables Obligation system — putting too much capacity onto the grid would mean devaluing the fake commodity (Renewables Obligation Certificates) invented by the government, to encourage investment.

Whatever the cause of the wind sector’s inertia, Gardiner’s own lie is the idea that this inertia could ever be overcome. At the rate at which wind farms have been built in the UK, and assuming a load factor of 80% for conventional and nuclear generating capacity and 30% for wind, it would take an entire century to fill the UK’s energy gap with onshore wind. So in order to have the 18GW gap closed by 2018, the rate of build would have to increase by a factor of 16 — and we have not even considered the problems of backup and intermitency. Does Gardiner really believe that the difference between the coalition’s policies and his own analysis amounts to this much?

Of course, there are other ways of producing energy that both governments have considered. The point is to emphasise that wind energy cannot, as Gardiner seems to believe, make any meaningful contribution to the closure of the energy gap by 2018. The point is, his own claims do far more to injure his own argument than they do damage to the Government. For instance, he continues,

In principle, a contract like this should work to incentivise investors and dispel their concerns over any future price uncertainty. The problem is that our government has caused real disquiet among the investment community because it has prevaricated about just who will sign these contracts. The government initially claimed that National Grid would be the counterparty, but National Grid has said it will not sign the contracts. The government first claimed that in the event of a default it would be the government who was sued in the courts, but claims it is the public who have to pay the contracts through their bills, and that government would not be liable. The whole thing is a mess and the uncertainty is choking off investment appetite.

He is right to say that the proposed policy is a mess, incoherent, full of contradiction, and likely to fail. He is right that investors are being put off, and were never very confidfent in the first place. But it was ever thus with the UK’s renewable energy policies, and it is unlikely to change while policy-makers labour under the misapprehension that you can simply set targets and make promises to reward investment, and LO! Britain will have a wonderful new energy grid. While this belief persists, expensive failure will follow expensive failure. It’s not the detail of the policy which is the problem, it is policies of this kind. What Gardiner forgets is reality.

Of the three low-carbon options, onshore wind is far and away the cheapest to build. So a government that simply wanted to produce a lot more electricity without producing a lot more greenhouse gas would likely favour onshore wind technology. In fact, onshore wind is the government’s least favoured option, as the Guardian has reported.

Never before has the UK required investment in its utilities sector on the scale this government must achieve, nor in a timeframe so brief, in order to keep the lights on past 2018. The government has begun to close down its energy options and the British public are going to pay the price.

Gardiner is simply wrong. The government itself has no objection to onshore wind at all. But it senses that it is a political embarrassment: increasingly, people don’t want them. Visible wind turbines were huge monuments to the pioneering of energy policies, but quickly came to stand instead for politicians’ intransigence, expensive energy bills and high profits for energy companies.

And worse, Gardiner uses the energy gap — as much a problem of his own making as it is the government’s — as a weapon against the government. Here we see that the poison presented as the antidote. Ambitious renewable energy targets and over-emphasis on wind created the problem, and now Gardiner suggest more wind will be the solution. No, it’s worse than that. The problem goes back further. The failure to permit the development of new generating capacity created the problem. For decades, UK governments have been terrified of environmentalists, to the extent that they simply rolled over, rather than allowed or comissioned the construction of new nuclear, gas, coal or oil-fired power stations. The public interest was sacrificed to avoid embarrassing political conflict. Governments didn’t believe that they had the muscle necessary to fight street-level environmentalism. So they dithered, and involved the environmental movement in policymaking, an unholy union epitomised by David hug-a-husky Cameron announcing his party’s energy policies on the rooftop of Greenpeace’s London offices. Now that the problem has come to fruition, manifested in the form of an energy gap, Gardiner’s proposition is that the government ignore the growing scepticism of renewable energy policies, and anger about increasing prices. It is a lie, says Gardiner, that we can have cheaper energy. He is a liar.

We can have cheaper energy. And we can close the energy gap. It would be quite simple.

All it involves is the repeal or suspension of the Climate Change Act, and other energy policies, including the EU’s renewable energy targets. Gardiner has all but admitted that this is inevitable. There is no chance of sufficient wind or nuclear power stations being built by 2018 to close the gap, and the alternatives are fossil fuel-fired power stations. The cost of energy would be reduced by allowing different technique of finding, extracting and producing it to be developed and to compete. While policies privilege inefficient forms of energy, there is no incentive to produce any.

By invoking the ‘time bomb’ analogy, Gardiner has revealed the truth of the energy debate: renewable energy and emissions-reduction policies were always dangerous, and were gambling the UK’s energy generating capacity for political expediency. ‘Tackling climate change’ was never as straightforward as simply creating the right policies, and watching the green economy blossom. That was hyperbole — the conceit of self-serving politicians.

Jul 112012

The Guardian… as ever… are reporting that

British consumers have an estimated £30bn worth of clothing that they have not worn for a year in their wardrobes, a new report from the government waste body Wrap reveals today.

As a statistic, it may or may not be interesting. I work it out to be approximately £500 per person — US$777 at today’s exchange rate. And I do not find it surprising. Some of the clothes in my wardrobe are 10 years old, and no longer fit me, because over the last decade, I have eaten too much. If we assume the growth of my waistline (and the rest) to be linear, it would mean that £50 worth of clothes a year go to the back of the wardrobe. That could be as little as one shirt. In my experience — I don’t often spend that much on one shirt — it might be one shirt and one pair of trousers. If you were budgeting, it could be three such items. And if you went to Primark, you may come away with a fair bit more for £50, but it probably wouldn’t last five years.

Our outward expansion is the cause of all this redundant clothing, as the report notes.

The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes, but around 30% of that clothing – 1.7bn items – has not been worn for at least a year, most commonly because it no longer fits.

So what’s the big deal?

The report does not advocate that people should stop buying clothes, but that the active life of clothing is extended and the amount going into in landfill is cut back. Just under one-third of clothing at the end of its life goes to landfill every year – around 350,000 tonnes, worth £140m every year, based on Salvation Army estimates of their value.

Wrap said that extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in their carbon and water footprints.

What is interesting about this is the way in which the environment is used as the pretext for expanding the role of government bodies, making it their responsibility to monitor lifestyles.

Some might say that I’m over-stating things here, and that this is just an attempt to understand how people are living, so that public services can be better organised. But the report isn’t about planning public services, as I will explain shortly.

The organisation that produced the report, WRAP — The Waste and Resources Acton Plan — are a curious form of public body that has emerged in recent years. They aren’t statutory bodies, and as such have no real authority, but are established to deliver a public function of some kind, a bit like the QUANGOs — Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations — of previous years. Increasingly, these take the form of non-profit-making companies, financed by government. In the case of wrap, the financing is substantial. According to WRAP’s annual statement, it received £79 million in 2011. £12.4 million of that pays the salaries of its 253 staff. And it’s nice work if you can get it. Four of the senior staff at WRAP earn more that £100,000 a year. A further 25 earn more than £50,000 year. A further 104 earn between £30,000 and £50,000. And what do they do? According to their ‘about’ page

We have two priorities; minimising resource use and diverting priority materials from landfill.

Between 2011-15 we aim to:

* Encourage better design and more informed consumption which will help us all waste less
* Make it easier to recycle, repair and re-use as much of our waste as possible, wherever we are – in the home, at work, or away from home
* To enable others to recover as much value as possible from the waste that’s collected – whether as resources that can be used again and again, or as energy
* Help others to keep resources moving round the economy – the more money we save, the less the demand on ever-scarcer natural resources

Organisations like WRAP deserve our full contempt. They are established by governments at ‘arms length’, but in reality this means that they are also out of our control. Their agenda is determined by whichever minister woke up one morning with the bright idea, and then the possibility of debating the function of that organisation is kicked into the long grass. WRAP have a huge staff, and £Millions to spend on influencing the public debate and policy, but where is the possibility of countering it, or putting forward competing analyses about how to organise public services? There isn’t any. The best you can hope for is blogs like this, run without funding, in spare time, with zero budget.

This brings me to the second interesting thing. Being at ‘arms length’ from government means appearing as an actually independent organisation. And that means idiot journalists taking WRAPS’s report at face value, rather than asking questions about its mandate, its legitimacy (the mandate notwithstanding), its agenda, and the basis of its project to get us all to ‘Reduce! Re-Use! Recycle!’. Such credulity is not just naivety, it’s the signature of utter mediocrity. And it is the duty of every mediocre journalist at the epitome of mediocrity, the Guardian, to report verbatim what those in authority tell them.

Liz Godwin, chief executive officer of Wrap, said: “The way we make and use clothes consumes a huge amount of the Earth’s precious resources, and accounts for a major chunk of family spending. But by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon, and waste impacts by up to 20-30% each and save £5bn.”

The report cites the recently launched M&S and Oxfam “Shwopping” initiative as evidence of retail awareness and customer interest in new approaches. Retailers are being urged to set up “buy back” schemes that would enable customers to sell retailer own-brand clothes they no longer want back to the retailer to prepare for re-sale.

Lord Taylor, minister for environment, said: “Making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth, cutting carbon emissions and building a strong and sustainable green economy. This report shows that there is a huge potential for both businesses and households to save money and the environment by thinking differently about the way we produce, use and dispose of clothes. Used clothing has a massive commercial value, yet over 430,000 tonnes is thrown away in the UK every year.”

The idea that “Making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth” is green flim-flam. There has never been a need for official intervention to help individuals or companies find more efficient ways of producing or consuming. It is only necessary to spend £tens of millions a year on such ends when the idea of ‘efficiency’ has been re-conceived. Re-conceived, that is, according to the tenets of environmentalism. One of those tenets, of course, being the idea of ‘ever-scarcer natural resources’ — an idea which has no basis in material fact, and is historically illiterate. Once again, we see environmentalism, given as the operating principles of a public body, put beyond the reach of proper democratic control, such putative virtues taken for granted.

Concomitant with re-inventing ‘efficiency’ according to environmentalism’s precepts is a transformation of the relationship between the public and private spheres. So it is no surprise that we now find official bodies poking around in people’s wardrobes, and writing reports giving ‘advice’ like this…

A combination of good practice – lower wash frequency, lower wash temperature, less tumble dryer usage in summer time and larger loads – could cut the footprint by 7%.

Yes, folks, for £79 million a year, the Climate Resistance blog would also be happy to tell you to wash your clothes less, to “save the planet”. The report concludes:

This report has set out a number of opportunities for the clothing sector to reduce carbon emissions, resource use and waste – and gain business benefit from doing so. While many of the opportunities are up to businesses themselves to evaluate and take forward, one action that organisations across the sector can take is to sign up to the forthcoming Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 Commitment.

Like many reports intended to influence behaviour, debate and policy, it is insipid and stuffed full of glib statements about how to produce — at best — a marginal actual benefits to the individual/company and a very contestable environmental benefit. It’s the quality we would expect from an organisation that has no real demand put on it by the public to perform, and isn’t subject to scrutiny either from above or from below. The flow of money is secure. It is the sound of a detached political class, speaking to itself, up its own arse… the bland pieties it reproduces being nothing more than echoes reverberating through public institutions… ‘save the planet’… ‘reduce our impact’… ‘scarce natural resources’… ’2020 sustainability commitment’… uninhibited by reason.

The proper journalistic response to any official report — take note, The Guardian — is incredulity. The first job is to say ‘f*** off!’, rather than take things at face value. The job of the journalist is to ask people in authority ‘who the f*** do you think you are?’ You’re supposed to be following the money, exposing the agenda, and asking difficult questions. When you fail to do so, you turn the Fourth Estate into the first. Shame on you, the Guardian.

Jul 032012

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12599/</em>

Some 50,000 delegates and 100 world leaders met at the Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ last month to settle on ‘the future we want’. They failed.

‘Let me be frank. Our efforts have not lived up to the measure of the challenge’, said UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, at the opening ceremony. What ‘we want’ turned out to be the opposite of what he thought we wanted. Ban continued: ‘For too long, we have behaved as though we could… burn and consume our way to prosperity. Today, we recognise that we can no longer do so. We recognise that the old model for economic development and social advancement is broken… Our global footprint has overstepped our planet’s boundaries.’

Rio+20 was presented as an opportunity to determine ‘the future we want’ as though there was a free choice to be made. The next moment, the ugly truth was revealed: choice had been excluded. Science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’ – the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis revised for the twenty-first century – which, with the imperatives of ‘sustainable development’, had already decided what kind of future we should be allowed.

A lot is expected of ‘science’. However, the failure of Rio+20, like the failure of many global conferences to produce agreements, such as the meetings at DurbanCancun andCopenhagen, reveals once again that the real function of ‘science’ is a fig leaf for their delegates’ bad faith. One of the first to reflect on the failure of Rio, for instance, was UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called the agreement produced by the conference ‘insipid’. He should know – before setting off to Rio, he wrote in the Guardian that ‘developed economies must not sacrifice long-term sustainability in the name of short-term growth’, that ‘national governments [must] broaden their understanding of wealth’, and that ‘Rio must set out a plan for the future’.

Rio+20 was the ideal marketplace for such bland pieties. It’s not as if economic growth, short- or long-term, is a problem the UK enjoys. Politicians and ‘thinkers’ who lack the ideas necessary to produce positive change – growth – turn the concept of growth into the enemy. The anti-growth lobby congeals at events such as Rio, where there’s ample opportunity to swap ideas about how to turn their own mediocrity into a worldwide political project under the pretence of ‘saving the planet’. In reality, the desire for powerful global political institutions owes much more to politicians’ own domestic crises of legitimacy than it does to any real threat to the world’s rivers, trees and oceans.

This fact of environmentalism’s political utility to disoriented and useless politicians was epitomised on a recent episode of the BBC interview programme, Hard Talk, in which the former secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, said: ‘All through human political history, you have had governments that have tried to set up particular objectives and have realised they can only go so far so fast without the rest of the world going along with them. For example, back in the bad old days of communism, you had the whole argument about whether Joe Stalin could have socialism in one country. You can’t have environmentalism in one country.’

By winning whatever passes for the hearts and minds of the political establishment, environmentalism has been installed throughout political institutions without ever having won a democratic contest of its ideals. Such is the extent of this insidious colonisation that any public debate about the future, especially of energy policies, is already prefigured according to environmental precepts. Party-political debates about the environment in the UK have consisted of no more than oneupmanship: who is taking the climate issue most seriously.

Similarly, debates in the wider public sphere consist of little more than terrifying stories about our imminent demise. Opportunities to challenge the premise of such alarmism are limited to discussing, for example, energy as an end in itself – which means of generating power is the least problematic – rather than as a means to solve human problems of scarcity. The rights and wrongs of political environmentalism – its designs for political institutions, the reorganisation of economic and industrial life, and the management of lifestyles according to environmental diktats – are rarely, if ever, exposed to discussion.

Nowhere is environmentalism more protected from scrutiny than at conferences such as Rio+20. They are held well beyond the reach of democratic politics and far from critics. Yet some are not convinced that such institution-making is put far enough outside our control. Just as the basis for political environmentalism is seemingly justified on ‘what science says’, so resistance to environmentalism’s political projects is explained by its advocates in pseudoscientific terms: that we are all addicted to consumer society.

This assumption that the masses are suffering from consumption addiction allows world leaders to step in and make the big decisions about the future on our behalf. Yet conferences like Rio+20 are not about protecting us plebs; these shindigs are really about protecting the elites. The real reason Huhne couldn’t build ‘environmentalism in one country’ is because nobody in that country wanted it. The way around such stumbling blocks is to establish a basis for political institutions internationally, away from such troubling concepts as democracy.

NGOs are only too happy to help. As I have argued previously on spiked, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to establish itself as a popular movement. Instead, environmental NGOs – a pale imitation of mass movements – were given access to political institutions to overcome the disconnect between political elites and the public. As ‘pressure groups’, they pretended to be holding governments to account, but by raising the issues the government wanted to identify with, NGOs were actually doing governments’ bidding.

This supranational institution-building needs its own legitimising basis: environmental crisis. And this is where the science is recruited. Scientific organisations all over the world plan for years to produce the most ghastly predictions from measurements of our relationship with the natural world. Most notably, the Royal Society began its quest to investigate ‘the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet’, published shortly before the Rio conference two years ago. The reality of The Science is, however, that ‘planetary boundaries’ have no more been detected than have the mechanisms which supposedly reduce politics to a search for the expression of neurotransmitters associated with pleasure. Boundaries are presupposed rather than discovered.

The desire to organise society according to ‘scientific’ principles inevitably treats humans like trash, without exception. Prejudices are smuggled under cover of science.

A proper perspective on the context of Rio gives us many more clues about what it is really intended to achieve than The Science does. Hollow politicians escape their domestic problems to pose in front of cameras as planet-savers. Morally bankrupt and self-serving NGOs appoint themselves as the representatives of non-existent future generations and the poorest people in the world, while campaigning for a form of politics that puts political power beyond the reach of democratic control. Sociopathic public-health control freaks and weirdo Malthusian scientists – the rightful heirs of the eugenics movement – get to parade their anti-human hypotheses as virtues. A supine media, in search of drama, declares this the final opportunity to save us from ecological Armageddon.

It would be easier to swallow the claim that science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’, and that it was necessary to create certain political institutions to deal with the problem, if the claims stopped there. But instead of stopping there, environmentalists have developed an entire ideology, premised on the idea that humans are incapable of reason, and concluding that powerful institutions are necessary to contain our impulses. That framework is expedient to the current mode of politics: the endless construction of historically illiterate technocracies that lumber from crisis to crisis, to the extent that they now need crisis to legitimise all the lumbering.

But what about The Science? If there really are problems with humanity’s relationship with the natural world, then what really impedes an understanding and solving of those problems are these anti-human precepts that dominate at least half of the calculation. It is no surprise that, when you take such a low view of humanity, you discover that things are ‘unsustainable’.

Jul 032012

Leo Hickman has collected a number of seemingly sensible statements from climate scientists about the claims that the recent unusual weather in the USA can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Says Leo,

This week, scientists have been queuing up, it seems, to explain how the wildfires in Colorado, the heatwave across the eastern seaboard, and the “super derecho” are all indicative of “what global warming looks like”. Most pulled back, though, from directly blaming global warming for such weather events.

This more sensible approach sits in contrast to articles elsewhere on the Guardian’s website. For instance, this screechy vignette of what happens in the mind of Bill McKibben:

Global warming is underway. Are we waiting for someone to hold up a sign that says “Here’s climate change”? Because, this week, we got everything but that:

• In the Gulf, tropical storm Debby dropped what one meteorologist described as “unthinkable amounts” of rain on Florida. Debby marked the first time in history that we’d reached the fourth-named storm of the year in June; normally it takes till August to reach that mark.

• In the west, of course, firestorms raged: the biggest fire in New Mexico history, and the most destructive in Colorado’s annals. (That would be the Colorado Springs blaze: the old record had been set the week before, in Fort Collins.) One resident described escaping across suburban soccer fields in his car, with “hell in the rearview mirror”.

• The record-setting temperatures (it had never been warmer in Colorado) that fueled those blazes drifted east across the continent as the week wore on: across the Plains, there were places where the mercury reached levels it hadn’t touched even in the Dust Bowl years, America’s previous all-time highs.

• That heatwave was coming at just the wrong time, as farmers were watching their corn crops get ready to pollinate, a task that gets much harder at temperatures outside the norms with which those crops evolved. “You only get one chance to pollinate over 1 quadrillion kernels,” said Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a Omaha-based commodity consulting firm. “There’s always some level of angst at this time of year, but it’s significantly greater now and with good reason. We’ve had extended periods of drought.”

McKibbin’s recent twitter feed has been reading like a latter-day Revelations. Indeed, if isn’t enjoying the spectacle of homes and fields going up in smoke, he’s nonetheless milking it.

But such screeching isn’t going to convince anyone else, and doesn’t seem to come with the blessing of the scientists quoted by Hickman. Kerry Emmanuel, Peter Stott,Michael Mann, Clare Goodess, Doug Smith, Michael Oppenheimer, Harold Brooks, and Michael F. Wehner were each far more reluctant to make an unequivocal attribution of any event to human induced climate change than McKibben was. Mike Mann is perhaps the keenest to make the link, but typifies the response:

I like to use the analogy of loaded dice. Here in the US, we’ve seen a doubling in the frequency of record-breaking heat, relative to what we would expect from chance alone. So far this year, we’re seeing those records broken at nearly 10 times the rate we would expect without global warming. So there is no question in my mind that the “signal” of climate change has now emerged in our day-to-day weather. We are seeing the loading of the random weather dice toward more “sixes”. We are seeing and feeling climate change in the more extreme heat we are witnessing this summer, the outbreak of massive forest fires like the one engulfing Colorado over the past week, and more extreme weather events like the Derecho that knocked out power for millions in the eastern US during a record-breaking heat spell.

The scientist is saved from having to do anything as silly as linking a single event or series of events to a single cause by invoking probability — the ‘loaded dice’ analogy. Oppenheimer makes the same point:

The link between extreme events which have occurred recently and the build-up of the greenhouse gases is best represented by the “loading the dice” analogy – as the world warms, the likelihood of occurrence (frequency), intensity, and/or geographic extent of many types of extreme events is increasing. The events are individual data points in a broader pattern, akin to pixels on a computer screen. You can’t say much from any one pixel, but a picture emerges when you step back and look at the pattern. That said, for a few types of extreme events, particularly heat waves, it is sometimes possible to connect the pixel to the bigger picture more directly. The best case is the European heat wave of 2003. According to computer simulations of climate, the likelihood that such an event would occur was about doubled by the buildup of the greenhouse gases. A few other events have been examined using similar techniques, including the 2010 heat wave in Russia.
As for the willingness of scientists to make such statements: as the climate signal due to the ever-increasing greenhouse effect strengthens and emerges more and more from the noise in the system, and as statistical techniques for doing such “fingerprinting” studies as I mention above improves, scientists have become more confident in making such claims, which is to be expected.

It’s a yes-but-no-but answer to Hickman’s question — Is it now possible to blame extreme weather on global warming?

Indeed, the answer — which depends to some extent on who you ask — is more complicated than the question permits an answer to.

The real answer is no, of course. But let’s imagine that it was possible, and we could say that we could attribute events to AGW. What then?

Even if science could do this, would its answer be any more instructive? Let’s imagine that the dice analogy holds true, and that it is possible to say that the extreme weather in the USA is X times more likely… Does it make Bill McKibben’s imploring the world to act any more rational?

No, this is a greed problem. In the last five years, Exxon has made more money than any company in history. For the moment, Exxon and other’s desire to keep minting money – and our politicians’ desire for a share of that cash – has conspired to keep our government, and most others, from doing anything to head off the crisis.

In other words,should we head off this ‘crisis’ if it is possible to say that extreme weather has been increased by our CO2 emissions?

No.

The problem is created by asking climate scientists to pass judgements on human greed, and politician’s intransigence. McKibben does it it explicitly, Hickman does it by implication. The expectation is that science can be instructive — that once we can establish that there are links between our emissions and weather extremes, we know we have to ‘do something’ about it.

But this is a mistake. The real question to ask is ‘are we more vulnerable to climate extremes’, to which the answer is…

No.

The problem is epitomised by Michael F. Wehner’s answer.

This risk of extreme weather, particularly very severe heat waves, has already changed significantly due to human induced global warming. For instance, the chances of the 2003 European summer heat wave, responsible for as many as 70000 additional deaths, at least doubled and likely increased by a factor of 4 to 10. The chances of the 2010 Russian and 2011 Texas events also undoubtedly increased. While these events could have occurred without the human changes to the climate, it is important to know that the amount of climate change that we have experienced so far is very small to what is projected to occur by the middle and end of this century. By 2100, today’s most extreme weather events will seem relatively normal.

I only wish that I could be around long enough to see his prognostication fail to come to pass. Failing that, I will be content to go to my deathbed having seen the deaths attributed to the European heat wave of 2003 instead attributed to the failure to look after people. It’s quite simple: you can make sure that people have enough water to drink and that there are ample fans or air conditioning units available. Few — if any — of those 70,000 deaths can be attributed to ‘the weather’, which can in turn be attributed to CO2 emissions. The preoccupation with climate distorts our priorities, and our understanding of how we relate to the natural world.

On the view evinced by Hickman’s correspondents, we seem to be passive objects, shoved around by the dynamics of the climate. But this is a self-evidentially a misconception. There are many places in the world where the elderly and infirm survive hotter and drier places than Europe in the summer of 2003. And there are places on the planet which are hotter and drier than Colorado. What ‘climate change looks like’ cannot be understood merely in terms of the magnitude of the climatic phenomena. As I pointed out in my previous post, in order to understand environmental ‘impacts’, you need to understand what it is impacting upon. If you take the view that humans are passive/stupid, then it follows that you will overestimate the impact.

Climate ‘ideology’ is what loads the dice, and loads the question. Climate ‘extremes’ have become part of environmentalism’s mythology because it holds that we cannot survive them, and that they happen to us. In reality, however, what determines a climate extreme’s ‘impact’ is determined by our ability to cope with the climate. A simple thought experiment proves the point: what would have happened if the same wildfires and drought had happened in a much poorer part of the world? The answer is that there would have been many times the number of casualties.

It’s of no comfort to the people whose lives have been turned upside down by the weather, of course. But such things are a decreasing fact of human life, in spite of what doomsayers tell us. So, perhaps we do face an increase in the frequency and intensity of climate ‘extremes’. But their potential impact reduces by a greater factor each time we give the matter thought. In which case, reducing our vulnerability to climate by a factor of 4X at the cost of increasing the frequency and intensity of extremes by X seems to me to be a price worth paying. But don’t expect climate scientists to agree.


UNPDATE: Judith Curry has some interesting comments on ‘what global warming looks like’. Interesting that another journalist was canvassing scientists’ views but decided not to publish Curry’s sober comments… Only doom sells papers, after all.

Rio+20 = Politics Minus Democracy

Posted by Ben Pile on July 3, 2012
Jul 032012

I have a story on Spiked-Online today.

Rio+20 was presented as an opportunity to determine ‘the future we want’ as though there was a free choice to be made. The next moment, the ugly truth was revealed: choice had been excluded. Science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’ – the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis revised for the twenty-first century – which, with the imperatives of ‘sustainable development’, had already decided what kind of future we should be allowed.

A lot is expected of ‘science’. However, the failure of Rio+20, like the failure of many global conferences to produce agreements, such as the meetings at Durban, Cancun and Copenhagen, reveals once again that the real function of ‘science’ is a fig leaf for their delegates’ bad faith. One of the first to reflect on the failure of Rio, for instance, was UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called the agreement produced by the conference ‘insipid’. He should know – before setting off to Rio, he wrote in the Guardian that ‘developed economies must not sacrifice long-term sustainability in the name of short-term growth’, that ‘national governments [must] broaden their understanding of wealth’, and that ‘Rio must set out a plan for the future’.

The most obvious thing to say about Rio is of course that it failed. But the failure of these huge environmental conferences doesn’t seem to limit their number or ambition. It’s almost as if the failure of things like Rio are what drives the process ever further from normal democratic politics. We hear often from the green camp that climate change may be too big an issue for democracy — that by representing people’s interests and desires, it fails to respond to things which are beyond individuals’ understanding.

What I also wanted to show was how the ‘ideology’ of environmentalism — its political culture, its presuppositions and prejudices, and so on — now consists of more than just the claim that humanity’s relationship with the natural world, it now makes claims about humans. So the claim that democracy cannot cope with the problem of environmental degradation now has a (pseudo-) scientific premise that our brains are too limited. A couple of paragraphs on this point didn’t make it into the final version of the article:

And nowhere is environmentalism more protected from scrutiny than at conferences such as Rio+20. They are held well beyond the reach of democratic politics, and far from critics. Yet some are not convinced that such institution-making is put far enough outside our control. Just as the basis for political environmentalism is seemingly justified on ‘what science says’, resistance to environmentalism’s political projects is explained by its advocates in pseudoscientific terms. The failure of Rio+20 was, according to George Monbiot, the result of a politics dominated by the ‘[pursuit of] the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need’ — consumer society, to which we are ‘addicted’. We have ‘stone age brains equipped with space age technology’, said Paul Ehrlich — our minds and bodies are built only to respond to the limited pains and pleasures of hunter-gatherer lifestyles, not to advanced technological society.

No doubt Ehlrich, Monbiot and the mob at Rio would protest that their primary concern is for humans and their interests — that they are therefore ‘humanists’. But this ‘concern’ amounts equally to contempt. If their outlooks are ‘humanism’, then it is a form of humanism equivalent to animal husbandry, which would lock us in kennels, and entitle us to no more than subsistence. Theirs is a ‘metabolic humanism’, in which humans are seen not as subjective agents capable of rational thought, and determining our own ends — the premise of any sensible definition of humanism — but on the contrary, mere machines  hardwired to consume beyond satisfaction. Thus, rather than escaping or criticising the shortcomings of consumer society, Mobiot and Ehrlich assimilate its vile logic in its entirety, to view humans as merely consumers. The only difference between the consumer society they offer and the one they criticise is that theirs is one characterised by scarcity, rather than the promise of abundance.

Once you take the view — as Monbiot and Ehrlich have, and which is implied by the very premise of the Rio meeting — that humans aren’t capable of making decisions even about what to eat and buy, let alone about decisions about how to organise society, you allow yourself to make decisions on their behalf. World leaders ‘seem more interested in protecting the interests of plutocratic elites than our environment’, moaned Monbiot, when it was revealed that Rio was doomed to fail. Yet the protection of elites is what conferences such as Rio are all about. The real reason Huhne couldn’t build  ‘environmentalism in one country’, is because nobody in that country wanted it. The only alternative is to establish a basis for political institutions internationally, away from such troubling concepts as democracy.

There are three orders of scientific claim in currency here. First, there are the claims made about the world as it is — temperature changes, and their consequences. I.e. there are observations. Second, there are models, models and more models about the interaction of natural processes — the functioning of the entire planet. And third, there are these arguments about individuals’ capacity to understand the problem, and their predisposition to ‘ignore evidence’, and carry on consuming. While we can have (some) confidence about the first category — observations — the second and third are presupposed. As useful as observations are, they point to an imbalance or antagonism between our minds and the ‘biosphere’, only if we presuppose the second and third categories. in other words, it’s only if we hold with a ‘strong Gaia’ hypothesis and contempt for stupid humans that we get ‘unsustainability’ out of the calculation.

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