Greens Whinge About Consensus

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.

2 thoughts on “Greens Whinge About Consensus”

  1. Did Kahya really turn greenpeace after joining the BBC, as you seem to imply? Usually it is the other way around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *