Monthly Archives: April 2015

The looming UK general election has so far been a contest of the lowest possible expectations. It is a difficult election to get excited about. But one group seems to feel especially hurt at being left out of the debate, with their favourite subject having taken a back seat to promises about lowering the cost of living, creating jobs and making tax-dodgers pay their fair share.

Over at Business Green — the on-line trade magazine for subsidy-junkies — we’re told that

Election campaign ‘failing to address’ green energy concerns

Said subsidy-junkies had polled themselves, and found them disillusioned with the substance of the election debates. The Renewable Energy Association (REA) asked its members if they ‘feel that the political parties are addressing the needs of the renewable energy {sic} during this election campaign’. 95% of 136 respondents said they did not. It seems that 1 in 20 turkeys voted for Christmas.

The Green Party was viewed as the party that would be ‘best for the renewable energy industry’ (29%) with the Liberal Democrats seen as the next best.

Members were less optimistic about the two parties most likely to form a government after the election. Nearly a fifth (18%) of respondents believed that the industry would be in the best hands under Labour, whereas the Conservatives received the support of 15%.

No doubt industries and the individuals within them have their favourites. But isn’t it odd for a particular industry to imagine itself and its favourite topics as deserving special status. There is much hand-wringing about large energy interests getting involved in politics — especially in the USA — but Business Green and the REA seem somewhat unashamed to admit that their own interests lie in particular election outcomes. When fossil fuel companies appear to expect special treatment from politics, green organisations and journalists are the very first to complain. And nobody can say that there hasn’t been emphasis on green energy — including the closure of many fossil fuel power plants, and much green legislation — in the UK over the last two parliamentary terms.

The green sector and green organisations have enjoyed much privilege. Yet Green Party and Climate Outreach & Information Network activist and part time academic psychologist, Adam Corner complained in the Guardian that

We need our leaders to speak out on climate change, not stay silent
The less that political, community and business leaders talk about climate change, the more scope there is for scepticism to emerge

There is plenty of stuff in the manifestos, Corner observed, but not in the debate.

So while there appears to be a robust political consensus around the importance of climate change, it is a silent consensus – which from the point of view of public engagement, may as well not be a consensus at all.

And out comes the cod psychology…

One important factor known to influence public opinion is whether elite groups (such as politicians and other public figures) give positive or negative cues on climate change. What our political leaders say about climate change matters – especially if they say nothing at all.

But perhaps one reason for this ‘silence’ is that political parties and their machines have decided that the public aren’t receptive to climate change, no matter what Corner’s research leads him to believe about ‘positive messaging’. After all, when people are more worried about jobs, the cost of living, the economy, health, and taxation, to bang on about climate change might look somewhat callous. Moreover, it risks giving a hostage to fortune, with UKIP being the only party willing to criticise the prevailing political consensus, and which has rapidly absorbed working and middle class voters alienated by the Labour and Conservative parties.

Even the Green Party has chosen to emphasise its social justice agenda rather than the environment. Its manifesto promises to ‘end austerity’ and create a million public service jobs paid for by a new ‘Robin Hood’ wealth tax and create a £10/hour minimum wage, protect the NHS from privatisation and increase spending on mental health, before it gets round to tackling climate change.

The climate simply hasn’t been the rousing chorus that environmentalists want it to be.

But another reason for the ‘silence’ is the fact of consensus politics creating a democratic deficit. To expose the political consensus to debate would be to challenge its very foundations, to test the public’s sympathy for it. This is simply too risky.

The cross party consensus on climate change was renewed for this election in a deal brokered by the Green Alliance.

Green Alliance was launched in 1979 with the aim ‘to ensure that the political priorities of the United Kingdom are determined within an ecological perspective’. Our name originally referred to the large group of eminent individuals from a wide range of professional spheres who were the founding members.

The Green Alliance is staffed, funded and partnered by all the usual suspects — a roll call of climate capitalists, green bureaucrats and activists NGOs — and surprisingly, by fossil fuel companies. Together, they worked to get the leaders of the three main political parties to pledge:

- To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2°C.
– To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act.
– To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.

So it doesn’t matter what the public thinks. The leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have already decided. So there is little point debating the detail. Yet Corner still wants debate:

As the election debates have shown, powerful leadership on climate change is not well served by quiet agreement. Nor is it a question of getting different leaders singing from the same song sheet. Some passionate disagreement – the antithesis of a silent consensus – would in many ways be preferable, and put climate change where it deserves to be: at the centre (not the periphery) of political debates.

Corner is himself reluctant to debate. Like many greens, he takes criticism of his ideas personally, rather than as abstract discussions of consequence. Much of his academic activism hides its politics behind the scientific consensus on climate change. One of the ideas he seems most resistant to discussing is the political nature of consensus — its political utility, and its corrosive effect on democracy. The cross-party consensus on climate has allowed its parties to establish political power and technocracies above the institutions of national democracy, and excused themselves from having to debate it. In the same way, the scientific consensus allows politicians to hide from debate and from criticism, to dismiss critics of political environmentalism as ‘deniers’, no matter the substance of their criticism. Adam Corner has got the consensus he has campaigned for.

Just two years ago, Corner complained that UKIP’s rise may undo the climate change consensus.

If political conservatives have so far not found environmental policies to their liking, then a priority for everyone who cares about climate change, whatever their political leaning, is to find a way of reconciling the values of the right with policy responses to climate change that are sustainable and just.

Otherwise – and the rise of UKIP suggests this may be closer than many assumed – the hard-won cross-party consensus on climate change in Britain, enshrined in the Climate Change Act, could be undone.

Forgetting environmentalism’s origins (in the UK at least) in the conservative camp led Corner to put the policy cart before the political horse. If so many conservatives aren’t natural environmentalists, and thus UKIP’s rise threatens the cross-party consensus, then we can see writ large an admission that the Conservative Party’s embrace of the climate issue alienates its core constituency. If, as Corner (And COIN) argues, green and conservative values can be reconciled, then the Conservative Party still remain divided from their base, having not yet persuaded them of the argument.

A more simpler explanation for what Corner observes, then, is that green values seem to thrive where parties suffer a disconnect from their constituencies, across the political spectrum. It may be the case (I have seen no evidence either way) that Labour and Liberal Democrat activists are more sympathetic to the climate cause than their counterparts in the Conservative Party, but this may reflect the expression of loyalty, obedience or discipline, rather than an reasoned ideological commitment. Moreover, none of these parties are enjoying historic levels of support after enumerating their new-found green principles, much less do they share them with the broader public. Corner’s desire to help the Conservative Party reconnect with natural conservatives with environmental issues aims to address a far more fundamental problem with British (And European) politics than it is able to grasp. It is as if the democratic deficit that afflicts all parties would be okay, or is not worthy of comment, just so long as some Tories think that climate change is an important issue. In this sense, then, environmentalists campaign for climate policy precisely in spite of the public’s interest, against it, to protect all three parties from their existential crisis — the yawning chasm between the political establishment and an indifferent public. Saving the planet from climate change is about saving the political establishment from the public.

BBC-journalist-turned-Greenpeace-activist, Damian Kahya notes the differences between US and UK politicians treatment of the climate issue, and promises to explain How we stopped talking about the climate this election — and why that’s a problem.

After using World Earth Day to warn about the impact the changing climate is already having on the US, [Obama] used his annual stand-up routine in front of White House journalists to rant against his “stupid, short-sighted, irresponsible” climate skeptic opponents who throw snowballs in the Senate to illustrate global warming isn’t happening.

As polarised and unpleasant that debate is — it’s hard not to wonder why it is so absent in the UK. After all, the UK is a flood prone island not that much less economically dependent on fossil fuels than the US.

Whilst Hillary Clinton and her opponents make climate central to their polarised campaigns, the issue appeared 3 times in Paxman’s battle for No.10 with Miliband and Cameron.

It is as if Greenpeace activists suddenly don’t like the consensus.

In fact the UK’s political discussion about climate has become ever more elite, as if the main principles are decided and it’s down to the geeks to sort out the details. But this is to miss the point of what climate means now.

It’s as if Greenpeace are complaining about the elite form of politics they have helped to create…

change-the-politics-save-the-climate-brikesh-singh

Here, a self-appointed Greenpeace activist sits in judgement of the Parliament below him.

And it is as if Greenpeace are now complaining about technocracy…

Climate politics in the UK remains dominated by “the science”. It is a debate about what the science was and what principles and targets we should adopt. It’s the sort of thing you can do a charity concert about — but it no longer engenders real conflict or emotion.

Gosh! It is as if Kahya had just read every blog post on this site. Yet there is no sense that Greenpeace were in any way responsible for the state of the debate… And yet a visit to the Climate Resistance archives yields this…

Back then, it was Dave on Greenpeace’s rooftops, unveiling his policies, which would end up paying the owners of domestic solar PV installations 5 times the market rate for electricity… to consume that electricity. Barking mad — but just the sort of thing Business Green, Corner and Greenpeace campaigned for. And when criticism came, they fell silent, or said the critics were ‘right wing’, ‘fossil-fuel funded’, or ‘deniers’. Kahya shows no signs of regret.

The debate, says the activist for the organisation that has done so much to shut down debate and to belittle criticism, should be about more than technical detail:

It’s about floods, storms or droughts and how to deal with them. About which coastlines, which industries and which companies will survive and which won’t; which technologies we develop and which economic models we use. The way our economy works is – after all – inherently tied up with the energy that drives it.

Most importantly it’s about the risks a changing climate poses to the poor and vulnerable and how to tackle that without undermining the economic livelihoods of those same people by driving up their bills or depriving them of power.

Kahya is wrong. What to do about floods, storms or droughts is a technical issue. But he is right that government picking winners is a political issue. But not one that can be justified on the basis of overweening crisis — the environmentalists preferred mode of argument. If Greenpeace wanted a debate that didn’t pretend that choosing winners and losers that didn’t descend to science, they have certainly fooled me. But that’s the point of asserting ‘the scientific consensus’ in political debates. To suggest that coastlines aren’t quite as perilous as green activists claim, that the government shouldn’t be picking winners, or that cheaper energy might be more helpful to poor people than mitigating climate change was to “deny science”, and to be victim of some horrific right wing ideology that would make Hitler’s crimes against humanity look like a summer picnic… Climate sceptics were inviting certain doom. And even lukewarmers were, on the green view, like some kind of Neville Chamberlain, clutching a piece of paper.

If this blog — now starting its NINTH year — has done nothing else, it has asked the likes of Greenpeace activists for debate about ‘the risks a changing climate poses to the poor and vulnerable and how to tackle that without undermining the economic livelihoods of those same people’. Yet Kahya complains about ‘silence’.

Politics, after all, is about power and choices. The UK’s silent consensus to talk about climate – at some later date – simply means those choices will be made without debate, as though huge changes to our infrastructure, buildings, equipment, behaviours and food system can be delivered by a few technocrats working under the radar. If forced to choose I’d rather someone showed up at Parliament and threw a snowball.

Environmentalists have their consensus and now they don’t like it. They turned up at Parliament, which agreed with them anyway, to stamp all over it, and to issue demands to it. Parliament did as it was told. And climate change became so unfashionable, so uncontroversial that nobody thought to challenge it. Anybody who dared to was harassed and smeared by politicians and NGO activists and on the pages of the Guardian. They were made the subject of bullshit psychology experiments. And now the Greenpeace Activist and the Green party activist say the same thing: wouldn’t it be better if the UK Parliament had a James Inhofe to chuck a few snowballs around.

There’s no pleasing environmentalists who forget the wisdom: be careful what you wish for.

Over at Bishop Hill, Andrew Montford wonders,

Is there a competition on to see who can be the most revolting climate change activist at the moment?

It’s a good question, and it arises out of an article posted on Business Green (an on-line news and campaigning site for green capitalists) by its editor, James Murray. More about that in a moment. First, the background.

Yesterday, Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, chastised his counterpart, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, as the BBC reports

The Labour leader said the UK had repeated the same mistakes “in post-conflict planning” for Libya as were made in Iraq and the current refugee situation should have been anticipated.

This has rightly caused many to point out that it is the oppositions’ job to hold the government to account, but Miliband had not done so. And moreover, Miliband had given his support to the interventions in question, including the plan he now claims was absent, in 2011:

It is only now that many hundreds of lives have been lost in the Mediterranean Sea as people flee the chaos unleashed in the region in no small part by such incautious intervention, that Miliband wants to make it an election issue.

This was, said James Murray, “disgracefully confected outrage over Ed Miliband’s foreign policy speech”, as though Ed Miliband’s speech wasn’t the self-same ‘confected outrage’ and worse, confected outrage from a man who actively supported the intervention and failed to ask questions of the Government in the following four years, in spite of weekly opportunities to put such questions to the Prime Minister directly. And even worse, this criticism came from the leader of a party whose own record of poor judgement has left hundreds of thousands dead across the world under the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

But for Murray, the main message was not the internal and external factors which have produced conflict across the Middle East and North Africa and the deaths of refugees… It was climate change.

But there are other macro-trends at play here that are driving thousands of people to risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean, of which climate change is undoubtedly one.

The “climate change causes war” argument is the nexus of the two main preoccupations of risk- and security-obsessed politics, also known as the ‘politics of fear’. The surprising outcome of the politics of fear is that it produces more of what its agents claim to eliminate. The Bush-Blair doctrine of eliminating the risk of terrorists seems instead to have unleashed a horrific and savage Islamic movement that has capitalised on the chaos and power vacuum left in their wake. A similar paradox emerges from the arguments of those who want to eliminate the risk of climate change. As has been explained here, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say that incautious attempts to mitigate climate change risk increasing society’s vulnerability to the climate.

This is a point that is very hard to explain to climate zealots — let’s call them climate hawks — who are reluctant to admit criticism to the debate. Murry sets out his case…

We know that states tend to fail when they cannot feed themselves. We know that climate change increases the risk of disruption to food supplies in a region. We know that numerous societies throughout history have collapsed due to their failure to adapt to environmental change. We know that in 2007 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the war in Darfur as the world’s first climate change conflict. We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices. We know recent research has suggested climate change played a role in sparking the Syrian War that in turn has played such a big role in fuelling both the rise of ISIS and the humanitarian crisis off Europe’s southern coast.

But do we know any of this? Is it the case that ‘states fail when they cannot feed themselves’, or is it the case that food production and distribution becomes harder as states fail? The economist Amayata Sen, having witnessed the Bengal Famine, noted that often food shortage was less the cause of famine than the prevalent social conditions which beset its distribution — famines had occurred at times when food had been more abundant than when famine had been averted. No famine had occurred in a democracy, he observed. Ditto, is it the case that ‘numerous societies throughout history have collapsed due to their failure to adapt to environmental change’, or have they failed to adapt to climate change because they were collapsing for other reasons?

Should we take Kofi Annan’s word for it that Darfur was the world’s ‘first climate change conflict’? After all, it was Kofi Annan’s think tank, The Global Humanitarian Forum, which produced the 2008 report, The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, in which Anan claimed ‘Today, millions of people are already suffering because of climate change’. This suffering included 302,000 deaths per year from malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition attributed to climate change, claimed the report, out of 7,550,000 deaths from the same diseases. As has been pointed out on this blog ad nauseum, to emphasise the putative cause of 302,000 deaths — climate change — ignores the lower-order consequence of 25 times as many deaths: poverty. Annan’s callous moral calculus almost encourages us to believe that the 7 million — mostly infant — deaths are natural. Yet tackling poverty rather than climate change would have the effect of solving the problem of climate change, which now looks trivial.

Moreover, there is good research suggesting that conflict in Dafur had nothing to do with climate change.

In Climate not to blame for African civil wars, Halvard Buhaug argues,

Vocal actors within policy and practice contend that environmental variability and shocks, such as drought and prolonged heat waves, drive civil wars in Africa. Recently, a widely publicized scientific article appears to substantiate this claim. This paper investigates the empirical foundation for the claimed relationship in detail. Using a host of different model specifications and alternative measures of drought, heat, and civil war, the paper concludes that climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict. Instead, African civil wars can be explained by generic structural and contextual conditions: prevalent ethno-political exclusion, poor national economy, and the collapse of the Cold War system.

And do we know that ‘protests over soaring food prices’ were the spark that began the Arab Spring? The Gaurdian certainly thought so. But to the ‘leave it in the ground’ campaigners rarely stop to think about the effect on prices of abolishing fossil fuels, or subsidies for its consumers — the self-fulfilling prophecy. And we can moreover return to Sen, to point out that, even if there were apparent environmental causes for reduced harvest and thus higher prices (and so on to protests and conflict), the dominant issue was the tyrannies that failed to address the population’s needs, not the relative scarcity of food crops. Here is a graph showing wheat production in the region. (Data from UN FAOSTAT).

wheatProductionArabSpring

It is true that Syria suffered a drought in 2007-8, which can clearly be seen in the chart. And no doubt the internal displacement that is attributed to this drought changed conditions that would be significant later on. But is it enough to say that climate change was a factor in the conflict which developed several years later? It doesn’t seem to account for the political changes seen in Egypt. Nor in Tunisia.

But the green argument is more complex… There is a global dimension to food production — the market — as this research argued…

In 2011, winter drought in eastern China’s wheat-growing region had significant implications beyond the country’s borders. Potential crop failure due to drought led China to buy wheat on the international market and contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices; the resultant price spikes had a serious economic impact in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, where bread prices tripled. Egypt’s geography and population combine to create a dependency on imported wheat and a subsequent exposure to external commodity factors. Bread is the staple of the Egyptian diet, and for decades bread subsidies have been used to maintain social stability.

So let us bring China into the chart…

wheatProductionArabSpringChina

As we can see, there is no climate signal in the statistics for wheat production in China — unless we want to say that its increasing productivity is the consequence of climate change. This calls for closer inspection of the argument…

Potential crop failure due to drought led China to buy wheat on the international market and contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices”

Potential, not actual crop failure led to a policy decision, which pushed up prices. Here are those prices, from Index Mundi.

wheatPrices

But there was no significant reduction in global wheat production that year, though it was slightly depressed from the previous year.

WorldwheatProduction

It is the environmentalists’ tendency, of course to see upward prices as a reflection of actual scarcity, the consequence of environmental degradation. But the figures rarely bear out this relationship. The rights and wrongs of the Chinese government’s anticipation of wheat shortage would no doubt produce debate between those of left and right persuasions about central planning and market failure. But meanwhile, the green steals a march on red and blue with vulgar economics. The climate debate descends to science.

Over at his blog, Thomas Fuller gives many reasons not to take at face value the claims that climate change contributed to the conflict in Syria. These include (in no order):

* Population growth
* Historic vulnerability to episodes of drought, including two years with zero precipitation 1870-71.
* Water diverted by Turkey
* No significant global trends in drought
* Deep discontent with the Syrian regime
* Previous droughts did not lead to conflict
* Other countries experiencing the drought did not descend to conflict
* The humanitarian crisis existed before the drought

And more. Read it.

The substance of what Murray says we “know” in fact turns out to be mere speculation. And highly contested speculation at that, with much criticism of the putative links between climate and conflict emerging from within the green camp itself. It is even contested by the IPCC

Climate variability or climate change are popularly reported to be significant causes of the mass killing in the Darfur region that began in 2003 […]All studies of this conflict agree that it is not possible to isolate any of these specific causes as being most influential […]. Most authors identify government practices as being far more influential drivers than climate variability noting also that similar changes in climate did not stimulate conflicts of the same magnitude in neighboring regions[…]

And it even warns that incautious attempts to mitigate climate change may themselves be the causes of conflict:

Chapter 12 (12.5.2) page 17.

Research is beginning to show that climate change mitigation and adaptation actions can increase the risk of armed conflict, as well as compound vulnerabilities in certain populations (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Adger and Barnett, 2009; Webersik, 2010; Fairhead et al., 2012; Marino and Ribot, 2012; Steinbruner et al., 2012). This is based on robust evidence that violent political struggles occur over the distribution of benefits from natural resources (Peluso and Watts, 2001). Hence, in circumstances where property rights and conflict management institutions are ineffective or illegitimate, efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change that change the distribution of access to resources have the potential to create and aggravate conflict.

“Violent conflict increases vulnerability to climate change (medium evidence, high agreement). Large-scale violent conflict harms assets that facilitate adaptation, including infrastructure, institutions, natural resources, social capital, and livelihood opportunities. [12.5, 19.2, 19.6]”

So climate change policy may increase the risk of conflict, and the conflict will increase people’s exposure to climate change.

The IPCC goes on…

Actions taken in response to climate change can aggravate existing significant inequalities or grievances over resources (Marino and Ribot, 2012), limit access to land and other resources required to maintain livelihoods, or otherwise undermine critical aspects of human security (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008, Fairhead et al., 2012). Maladaptation or greenhouse gas mitigation efforts at odds with local priorities and property rights may increase the risk of conflict in populations, particularly where institutions governing access to property are weak, or favour one group over another (Barnett and O’Neill, 2010; Butler and Gates, 2012, McEvoy and Wilder, 2012). Research on the rapid expansion of biofuels production includes studies connecting land grabbing, land dispossession, and social conflict (Molony and Smith, 2010; Borras et al., 2010; Dauverge and Neville, 2010; Vermeulen and Cotula, 2010). One study has identified possible links between increased biofuels production, food price spikes, and social instability such as riots (Johnstone and Mazo, 2011).

And on…

The provision of financial resources in payment for ecosystem services projects, such as are associated with Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), has the potential to stimulate conflict over resources and property rights (Melick, 2010). For example, efforts to ensure ‘REDD readiness’ in Tanzania (Beymer-Farris and Bassett, 2012; 2013; Burgess et al., 2013) and the Congo basin (Brown et al., 2011) have been contested, and placed communities in conflict with conservationists and governments. Eriksen and Lind (2009) similarly find that climate change adaptation interventions in Kenya have aggravated surrounding conflicts.

And…

Climate change mitigation will increase demand for deployment of less carbon-intensive forms of energy, including hydropower some of which have historically resulted in social conflict and human insecurity (for example because of forced resettlement), and this is a basis for concern about increased violence and insecurity in the future (Conca, 2005; McDonald-Wilmsen et al., 2010; Sherbinin et al., 2011). Other research points to an increased use of nuclear power increasing the threat of nuclear proliferation or incidents of nuclear terrorism (Socolow and Glaser, 2009, Steinbruner et al., 2012). Climate policy responses also have the potential to reduce conflict in various ways, as explained further in Section 12.5.4.

And this adds more armour to the observation that environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recalling Sen’s maxim, the anti-democratic tendency of environmentalists — the view that democracy isn’t equal to the problem of climate change, and so institutions must be constructed above democratic control — would replicate the configuration of power that allowed tyrants and their indifference to their populations’ needs to reign.

Murray continues…

Most of all though, we know that even if climate change is not the primary factor behind the current tragedy this humanitarian disaster and the seemingly intractable geopolitical challenges, nationalist tendencies, and crushing grief it invokes is precisely the kind of disaster security analysts expect to see worsen in a world afflicted by escalating climate change.

Who are these security analysts? Are they the same analysts Ed Miliband consulted when he determined that UK intervention was ‘a feasible plan’, or perhaps the ones that devised the plan? Were they the same analysts that compiled and ‘sexed-up’ the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ that made the case for invading Iraq? Are these the same security analysts that didn’t anticipate the emergence of ISIS/ISIL? Are they the same analysts that presided over a decade and half of interventions across the world that have left thousands of young soldiers dead or seriously wounded, and killed hundreds of thousands of people that had nothing at all to do with terrorism, or fundamental interpretations of religion, and cost hundreds of $billions, if not $trillions?

I asked Murray to explain…

Which built on his earlier equivocation…

Murray’s logic appears to be that because the population of the ‘defence establishment’ aren’t your typical muesli-pushing Guardian readers, they have no obvious interest in climate change, and therefore can be counted as an authority. But this misconceive’s the sociology of the ‘climate establishment’ and the ascendency of environmentalism, as well as the development of risk-politics (discussed in depth in recent posts). The ascendency of the climate issue cannot be explained by the force of so many environmentalists asserting the issue over the political establishment. If it was thus, they were pushing at an open door. The climate issue was expedient to the political establishment and its agenda, much as the schedule of the War on Terror was established before dodgy dossiers were compiled. That’s not to say, of course, that climate change isn’t real and that there was no plot to bring down the World Trade Centre. But it is to say that politicians preoccupation with risk prefigures their response, and that the security agenda is in general prefigured by domestic politics more than by objective fact. Preoccupation with risk allows speculation to be passed of as fact in exactly the same way Murray’s concatenation of things we ‘know’ allowed him to claim that people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea is ‘what climate change looks like’.

That preoccupation with risk is expressed differently in arguments about climate and terror, but the logic is the same, and their nexus is interesting. Since the claims in currency are so contested, it would be prudent to understand the desire to naturalise complex things such as war than to take the claims at face value.

The desire to stuff complex social, political and economic phenomena into the terms of an encompassing ecological narrative overwhelms people who struggle to make sense of the world, and those who resist simpler or inconvenient explanations. And of course, those who would like to elevate themselves and the industries who finance operations like Business Green. The green story allows people selling renewable generators to appear to be saviours and planet-savers, not merely brokers of hardware. In the same way, presenting the War on Terror as a battle of civilisations — as latter day Churchills against their Islamic Hitler counterparts was a hollow morality play.

And this brings us back to Murray, who doesn’t understand how or why anyone could object to his article and its headline.

Murray claimed:

This is what climate crisis really means
The tragic deaths in the Mediterranean are precisely in line with the predictions of climate security analysts, without urgent action they could herald an era of mass migration and international tension

What Murray says is wrong in every respect. The deaths in the sea are not at all in line with security analysts’ predictions — else they would have counselled against the interventions. As IPCC AR5 report makes clear, ‘urgent action’ could well be a conflict risk factor in the same way that incautiously bombing other countries creates the risk of further conflict. The people struggling to reach Europe are escaping brutal regimes and conflict, not bad weather. And the ‘international tension’ already exists, was caused by regional conflict and external intervention.

The fact that people try to escape conflict and persecution needs no explanation. One only needs to see footage from any war to see precisely that refugees are one of the most predictable consequence of war. The cause for this that Murray chooses to emphasise is is weak, theoretical and highly contestable. Murray claims that ‘this is precisely the kind of extreme event climate security analysts from the Pentagon to the MoD to the world’s top insurance firms expect to see happen more often and with more intensity’. But this is owed to the increasing tendency to attempt to frame complex social and political phenomena in natural terms, not because of any developments in rational or scientific attempts to understand the world.

Never mind the abuses of fact and reason. Many find Murray’s words disgusting because his short-cut through the complexities of the world is so cheap. It makes instrumental use of other people’s suffering, to service a political agenda, and turns it into a marketing opportunity. It hides behind authorities like the ‘defence establishment’ and Kofi Annan, but flies in the face of empirical evidence and even the scientific consensus, to make claim that other people’s lives would be better — there would be no war — if only we’d buy solar panels from Business Green’s clients.

jamesBLog

I have a very short piece over at the Institute of Ideas (IOI) website, outlining the reasons for repealing the Climate Change Act. It is very short, so I won’t give much away here:

It might be easy to imagine that scepticism towards claims that we face catastrophic climate change would be the main reason anybody could object to the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA). But that would be a mistake.

It’s part of a series the IOI is running over the election period on the theme, ‘If I could repeal one law…‘ all of which are (and will be) worth checking out.

I was given a fairly strict word limit. So there’s plenty left out.

There are many ways the CCA could be criticised. It has always been defended on that tired old notion that the debate about climate policy divides on the fact of climate change, between scientists who claim ‘climate change is real’ and deniers who claim the opposite. But most of the argument has been about the effectiveness and feasibility of reducing CO2 intensity in this way — most famously Roger Pielke Jr and Bjorn Lomborg who have emphasised technology-up rather than policy-down solutions — and the costs of these policies. But I was more concerned with what form of politics the CCA represents.

That is to say that, whatever the facts of climate change, dealing with it has other political implications. For example, here is a clip I ran into recently from the 2011 BBC film, ‘Meet the Climate Sceptics’, which was notable for being something of a set-up and hatchet job on Christopher Monckton.

The main political implication of climate change is, according to Mayer Hillman, that democracy is inadequate. The only defence of democracy considered by the film maker, Rupert Murray, is that offered by the cartoonishly “right-wing” media and pundits — Monckton, Delingpole, Fox News, Alex Jones. Murray presents these arguments with very little depth — sceptics just want ice in their drinks, and to be free to shoot their guns and ride their motorcycles, and everyone else can get stuffed. It’s as if Mayer Hillman had no political agenda of his own.

But Hillman’s own website explains,

Our continuing uneconomic growth makes us complicit in a process that is triggering an ecological catastrophe for our children and generations beyond them. They will justifiably sit in judgment{sic} on our failure to have prevented its devastating consequences knowing that we chose to look the other way.

But whatever the scientific facts of climate change, and whatever the depth of the putative ‘right-wing’ counter-argument, or wherever you stand between left and right, there is more to this than a picture of gun-toting bikers and innocent scientists.

Is Hillman’s frustration with democracy really owed to the imperatives that are the necessary consequence of climate science’s discoveries? Or does his frustration precede the scientific facts of the argument? It strikes me that climate catastrophism is used in the service of political arguments, because the exhaustion of those who attach themselves to a particular view of how society should be organised leaves them unable to articulate a compelling argument for such change, be it left or right. That’s not to say Hillman is aware of this, such that we can say he intends to benefit from misleading people. On the contrary, I am sure his genuine convictions about the climate make him feel very important indeed. But it is to say that the facts of the matter are not so clear that we can take them, or his interpretation of them, at face value.

Ditto, can we take at face value, the UK Parliament’s response to climate change in the form of the CCA?

The CCA is not just a policy, it has broader political implications. It says something about the relationship, as policy-makers understand it, between the public and the state, and the responsibilities of government, which go beyond simple legislation. This has always been the point.

Hillman’s contempt for democracy is contempt for people. It says they are too stupid to understand the risks they are exposed to, and expose themselves and future generations to, and are therefore incapable of participating in the decisions that affect them. It is not a coincidence that this is the dominant mood in politics. And it is the background to the construction of the CCA. Consider this Newsweek article on Tony Blair, for example:

blair-cover

Blair had sharpened his ideas about leadership and the failings of democracy in the years since he left power. Democracy, he now concluded, faced an “efficacy challenge”. “Slow, bureaucratic and weak,” it was too often “failing its citizens” and “failing to deliver”. The price was grave, and apparent. Without effective action by democratic governments to stem it, volatility and uncertainty were spreading. Public fear and disillusionment was stoking the return of the far Right in Europe and the United States. “Suddenly, to some, Putinism – the cult of the strong leader who goes in the direction he pleases, seemingly contemptuous of opposition – has its appeal,” wrote Blair. “If we truly believe in democracy, the time has come to improve it.” Every few years, democracy was about the people’s vote. But most of the time, it was about their elected representatives harnessing the machinery of government to effect change on their behalf. Attempts to be a cipher for popular opinion Blair dismissed as “governing by Twitter”. Leaders had to lead.

Democracy isn’t “effective”, complains Blair, and he was a man concerned with getting things done, in spite of what everybody else thought ought to be done. Or not done, as the case was.

But ‘getting things done’ for Blair never meant rolling back bureaucracy as much as creating more of it. This is true for the forms of security from risk Blair was preoccupied with as it is true of the desire to save the planet from climate change. That is not to make equivalents of Islamic terrorists and carbon dioxide. But it is to suggest that what drove the response to terrorism and climate change are the same impulses: preoccupation with risk precedes the facts of the existence of both terrorism and global warming.

Blair’s solution is to get more billionaires and their flunkies together with decision-makers in more rooms more often. These set-ups achieve results, as Newsweek notes:

Government began millennia ago with kings and emperors. In time, their power was diluted by religious leaders, courtiers, generals, aristocrats and merchants. The past few centuries have witnessed the steady displacement of all of these by politicians: conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries and, most recently, elected centrists. And now, it seems, power is shifting again.

The World Economic Forum is our foremost example of the rise of a self-selected global elite. It is only one of thousands of new private institutes focused on public service around the world. Many are led by individuals. Blair is one.

Others include the billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros and his Open Society, which bolsters democracy by working through non-governmental activists in 100 countries. Another is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, founded by the Sudanese telecoms billionaire to work on African governance.

Then there is the $350-million Clinton Foundation, founded by a former President of the United States and a former Secretary of State, which works in health, education and applies a “business-oriented approach to fight climate change worldwide and to promote sustainable economic growth in Africa and Latin America”. Biggest of the new groups is the 15-year-old $41bn Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which takes the resources of the world’s richest man, and its second richest, Warren Buffett, and focuses them on health, mostly in poor parts of Asia and Africa.

And it goes on to ask…

If there are paradoxes in the Davos agenda – how did a non-governmental super-class manage to appropriate the subject of governance from government? how did the super-rich reserve inequality as a discussion for themselves? – what’s missing is a discussion on legitimacy. In a world increasingly run by the self-anointed, do we now make our CEOs and pop stars as accountable as our politicians – in case their good fortune one day convinces them to try to change the world? Should we choose our computers or movies according to the political beliefs of the bosses who make them? Can we trust a Gates, a Soros, a Blair?

To take the climate change issue at face value, then, is to ignore the pertinence of those questions. Blair’s troubled machinations about the shortcomings of democracy are like the poison that thinks of itself as the antidote to itself. What would he have been without terrorism? What would any Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change — Ed Miliband, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey — have been without climate change? Lightweight, self-serving political hacks.

Blair didn’t arrive in office on a wave of popular support for anything. He enjoyed a brief honeymoon period, because the other leading, but by then, deeply unpopular party had been in government for 18 years. Its political battles, formed in the dark days of the 1970s, won, the Tory party struggled to identify itself or its purpose, and it collapsed into its own internal chaos while the Labour party had rescued itself from its own malaise by cutting the party machine off from its traditional constituency, and reinvented its image. But the freshness lasted only a few years. Tony Blair was sceptical of democracy, not because of its inherent flaws, but because his ability to contribute to it was not equal to his desire for power. It is that simple. And that is the dynamic that forces so many politicians to hide behind ‘science’. Unable to achieve a convincing mandate from the public, political power searches for authority elsewhere. Power always has to justify itself, to itself, whether it be through ideas about Divine Right, or through invisible risks.

Politicians not standing for anything apart from slightly different forms of superficial niceness — Blair’s trademark was insincere modesty, forced emotion, estuarine twang and emphatic hand gestures — is the cause of the political malaise that Blair ponders. The rot that set in — the overreach of billionaires and their pet NGOs — is the disease that follows, not the remedy, to such political impotence and sterility. Blair epitomised the estrangement of government and ordinary life — professional, managerial politics — the evacuation of substance from politics. Billionaires and their entourages fill the vacuum.

Aside from the War on Terror, the rise of environmental politics as the most perfect expression of that form of politics. It aims to build political institutions above democratic control, comprised of expert panels, directed by non-governmental organisations, financed by faceless interests. Totally unaccountable to the public, and completely indifferent, if not entirely hostile to its interests, this compact is at the moment immune to criticism. Whether or not climate change is real, it protects politicians and the privileged against the public. Popular green wisdom has it that ‘global problems need global solutions’, but the fact is that global solutions need global problems. The real problem addressed by global solutions are domestic in origin: contemporary politicians’ inability to legitimise themselves and their agendas. The problems caused to political leaders’ by their distance from ordinary life appear to them as problems with the balance of gasses in the atmosphere.

In the weird world occupied by the Great and the Good, wars, poverty, famine, plague, pestilence and natural disasters can all be abolished. All we need to do is drive our cars less, recycle more, and put up some windmills, say these billionaires. Peace will break out, all over the globe. It is the politicians’ responsibility, then, not to respond to the wishes of the public, after public contests of ideas and values, but to act in spite of them — to tell people what they are entitled to. Whereas in earlier idealogical battles people fought for their interests as they understood them, today’s political leaders are more inclined to say that what people should expect is what is ‘sustainable’.

Never mind the physics of CO2 or its counter theories… Never mind the balance of positive and negative feedback mechanisms… Never mind estimates of “impacts”… Nor even the merits and demerits of wind turbines… The climate debate is at its core about the form of politics that established itself in the late 20th century. It is that movement which prefigures all cost-benefit analyses and debates about risk and the management of risk, be it risk from terrorism, climate change or drunken behaviour. After all, democracy has “failed” to stop people getting fat and drunk, too. Something “effective” must be done.

The cross-party consensus on climate change, renewed for the 2015 General Election, is not about about climate change. It re-cements the compact between the political establishment, businesses and private interests, and NGOs which brokered the deal. It promises to keep this relationship intact, and to protect it from the public and from democratic debate. No doubt all those organisations and their membership really believe in the fact of climate change. But if it didn’t exist, it would be some other issue which formed the putative object of an identical agreement.

The Climate Change Act, you will remember, came into being after coordination between NGOs and the government. The latter being unable to make the case to the public, Friends of the Earth were tasked with not only drafting much of the bill in both its 2005 and 2007 forms, but mobilising a charade of public support for it, involving the usual suspects in a ‘Web March’ — a virtual protest in which video clips of green activists and celebrities were uploaded to Youtube. There was no significant public demand for the legislation. There was no pressing crisis. There was no public debate about the need or terms of such a policy.

The Climate Change Act, then, is an instance of this compact between government, interests and organisations, reproduced as policy.

Post archive
  • 2016
  • 2015
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2007
  • 2006
  • 2002