Ben Pile

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While browsing Twitter the other day, I chanced upon this tweet from the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)…

Climate change brings out the weirdest things. The event seems to have been a joint venture between Prospect magazine and the DECC, and hosted by Channel 4 news anchor, Jon Snow (who you may remember got himself in a flap about whether the weather last year was caused by climate change). It is unsurprising that two of the speakers were Matthew Pencharz, a Senior Advisor on Environment & Energy to the Mayor of London and Dr Tom Counsell from the DECC. But what caught my eye was the presence of Shappi Khorsandi, who is a comedian, and Jay Rayner, who is the Guardian’s food critic.

So, the weirdness…

Prospect magazine claims to be ‘the leading magazine of ideas’…

ProspectLogo

But the magazine’s ‘energy’ section does not reveal much evidence of an editorial commitment to the idea of bringing ideas to the energy debate. There are a few articles, notably from DECC Secretary of State, Ed Davey, and his shadow, Caroline Flint. But given the un-diametric mutual opposition between Davey and Flint’s parties on the climate issue, this hardly counts as a battle of ideas, and barely even a disagreement about policy beyond the superficialities of inter-party politics. There is a short debate between the GWPF’s Benny Peiser and the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Shaun Spiers on the issue of fracking. Otherwise, Prospect magazine has run just a handful of articles on this topic over the last year, most of which seem to represent the orthodox position, espoused by the government, or its orthodox critics, such as Dieter Helm.

But the weirdest thing is… What do a comedian and a food critic have to say about energy policy? Why would a magazine, which sells itself on the virtues of exchanging ideas in the public realm, host an event, apparently on behalf of the government, unopposed, with a minister, two bureaucrats a comedian and a food critic?

Clearly an evening of discussion between a DECC minister and the London Mayor’s chief climate bureaucrat would be boring. Not even the events team at Prospect believed that their chin-stroking readers would drag themselves through the cold mid-January streets of London without some celebrity endorsement. DECC, for its part, take as condescending a view of the public as Prospect. Where the event needed a celebrity, DECC felt the campaign needed an animated video to arouse interest in London’s energy future.

I’m not going to say too much about Shappi Khorsandi — partly because there doesn’t appear to be much comment about the event itself, and because she doesn’t seem to have said very much in the past about either energy policy or climate change. Her stand-up act instead usually trades on her ethnicity and identity. But as I have suggested before here, the graveyard for one-time satirists is to ditch the standing-up for something for finger-wagging.

There is probably some kind of law, somewhere, which states that as a comedian’s product becomes less funny, the more likely he or she will be to attempt some kind of political posturing. NB: I do not mean political satire here. I mean comedians, seemingly eschewing comedy, to use their profile to instead tell the world how it ought to be. The previous post mentioned two such comedians — Stewart Lee and Robin Ince (who is discussed again shortly) — who were perhaps funny in the 1990s, but have been reduced to grumpy old men, ranting at the world about how stupid it is. Ince and Lee follow in the wake of two other has-been stand-ups that have chosen to save the planet rather than make people laugh: Marcus Brigstoke and Rob Newman.

The point about satire is worth repeating and updating. A comedian cannot do a gig with a Secretary of State and pretend to be a satirist. She is now on new territory.

Since I wrote that post, Russell Brand, who was mentioned in it, has become more famous for his shallow and incoherent revolutionary politics than his stand up comedy, having penned a book laying out his manifesto — ‘Revolution’ — with the help of plagiarist, fraudster and Wikipedia editor, Johan Hari. The cosy milieu of liberal-left comedians has expanded. And is now part of the political establishment, as much as Brand seemingly rails against it. There is Khorsandi, who appears with Davey, to urge Londoners to get with the coalition’s energy policy…

… And there is this, from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) — “an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative and creative practical solutions to today’s social challenges“…

Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change

Climate change is no laughing matter, but when all else fails, perhaps it’s time to take humour a bit more seriously?

With the climate clock ticking we witness a seemingly endless cycle of public talks, journalistic comment pieces and debates on old turf, mostly reinforcing what we already know and fear.

In a bid to generate a new dialogue that sparks enduring change, the RSA is embarking on a series of climate events with a difference, starting with a comedy night.

Humour has long been a powerful tool in the social-change arsenal, but is it powerful enough to help us break through the static on this colossal issue? Is ‘laughing-it-off’ just about evasion, or is it the key to transforming public perspective at scale, in time?

Working alongside BBC comedian and Sunday Assembly founder Pippa Evans, we have gathered a group of talented comics to inject fresh life and verve into what is often a technocratic debate.

Marcus Brigstocke, Steve Punt, The Showstoppers, Rob Auton, Jessica Fostekew, Holly Burn and Pappy’s will help us think through how to reimagine the climate challenge, loosely based on RSA’s Seven Dimensions of Climate Change framework.

Seven comedians tackle one of the seven dimensions each. And here’s the punchline: “The seven dimensions of climate change project seeks to turn a scientific fact into a social fact by clarifying what it really means to ‘act’ through the complementary and competing perspectives of Science, Behaviour, Technology, Culture, Law, Economy and Democracy.”

And this is the result:

As you will have discovered, it is funnier with the sound off. And it is probably even funnier if you don’t watch it at all. This event was far more painful than it was funny. I shall spare you a blow-by-blow account because there really isn’t much to say about the content other than to highlight its failure. The real issue here is what kind of thinking produced this phenomenon.

But let’s discuss briefly the first of the seven skits. Steve Punt is allegedly a satirist, and one of the team behind BBC Radio 4’s ongoing lefty satire, The Now Show, which is also home to pompous climate-change activist and comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, who also does a turn at the RSA event. Punt reads unconvincingly from a script, lampooning an imaginary climate change denier’s understanding of “so-called science”. The putative joke being that the denier takes issue with science itself.

Hilarious stuff. But in this hilarity, Punt, like so many before him, doesn’t get to the substance of the phenomenon of denial to satirise it. Sure, by being so stuffed full of the zombie canards, it’s a comedy version of what people like Punt and his colleague, Brigstocke imagine denial to be. But it is a reflection more of their own ignorance of the debate than their masterful understanding of it, so as to satirise it: the skill of satire. As such, the vulgar satire says more about the satirist than the object of it.

If this were just a ticketed event, or half an hour of BBC radio that one could easily switch off, it would not really be worthy of much comment. But the intention here was to ‘turn a scientific fact into a social fact’. Like some kind of social alchemy, the conceit is that getting famous comedians to tell jokes about the ‘them’ will encourage people to become one of ‘us’.

The presupposition here is rooted in the logic of political correctness. The predominantly middle-class, public school and Oxbridge alternative comedians that emerged in the 1980s, and became established in the 1990s ousted (from the broadcast media, at least, and latterly the circuits), a bawdier, rougher, tougher and working class tradition, which became deeply unfashionable and itself the object of much ridicule. The belief was that the crass homophobia and racial and sexual stereotypes that (on the emergent view) were the stock-in-trade of the stand-up comic in a working mens’ club transmitted values to the audience… Life imitates art. Accordingly, the RSA hoped to reproduce in the wider public the appropriate values and norms — social facts.

There are several problems, of course. The first being Punt’s own grasp of the science he wanted to turn into social fact, and the confusion about what it was he was satirising. As observed here at length, the comedian who dips into politics or campaigning risks proceeding from his ignorance, not his knowledge, and so invents what ‘science says’ (or what ‘so-called science says’) from merely his knowledge that a consensus exists. He improvises from the consensus without an object. Second, his skit was not funny. I don’t say it out of humbug; it really wasn’t funny. The audience barely laughs at all. Which is remarkable, because, and thirdly, this audience is already cemented into the RSA’s framework of ‘social facts’. Not being funny, Punt’s skit is worse than a bad or misleading lecture. Not being an event the wider public are at all interested in, it is a lecture to the choir. And the RSA being the establishment, with a mandate from the Queen, the whole event looks about as promising a prospect for satire as the government abandoning its daily business to instead mock comedians.

So the irony, which ought to be the subject of satire, is that the RSA — which exists by Royal Charter — has sought to engineer social values, but instead reveals that it has little grasp of the science or that the scientific facts aren’t as important to it as the control it seeks. And it reveals its own isolation from the minds in which it desires to reproduce its values.

The consequences for ‘satire’ then — and with apologies to Charlie, and for my French — can be summed up thus: Je Suis un Changement Climatique Denier. The point of the RSA comedy night was to shut down other opinions, to close down debate. The Great and the Good assembled at the RSA were there to giggle at deniers as proxies for the stupid and little people. And much of this performance self-consciously reflected on the inadequacies of democracy — in particular Marcus Brigstocke’s sketch. Said Brigstocke,

That’s the problem, isn’t it. The elitist slow nods that happen in rooms like this where people all gather somewhere nice, where clever people come together and go, hmmm. We are very off-putting. I mean, I’m not, I’m on the telly, but… We are, we’re fantastically off-putting. People find idiots much more appealing than us. You see. So I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know how you make it sexy. The breasts from page three have gone from The Sun today, maybe we replace them with some sustainability solutions. Obviously I don’t have a conclusion, I don’t have a solution to the issues that are thrown up by existing within a democracy where fundamentally everybody’s opinion on polling day is of equal value.

But it would be hard to satirise the smug, self-importance of the RSA and its funny men and women. Don’t be fooled by Brigstocke’s apparent self-awareness — he really does think that he is above the rest of the world — the idiots. There’s nothing that could be brought out of his act which would tell us anything new. He admits he is arrogant. He is aware of the problem caused by the gulf between the elite that has appointed itself to engineer and police public values. The only thing he doesn’t understand is the possibility that he and the audience have embraced climate change whereas the broader public aren’t interested, not because he and the RSA have a better grasp of the science than the people on the other side of that gulf, but because the gulf creates an existential problem for the elite. After all, the RSA was mandated to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce”… The elite now turns its back on such filthy things as enterprise and manufacture — so many consumer trinkets will destroy the planet. And it uses science and the arts to sneer at plebs, to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi. Having failed in its duty, it now problematises that failure, not as a consequence of its own divorce from reality and the public, but as a “social challenge”, to which it seeks to “innovative practical solutions”. Climate change rescues the RSA from its irrelevance. It gives it mission, importance. And it justifies the smug.

Comedy, then, isn’t just a fun night out any more. It is an instrument that social engineers believe they can use to get the public to conform. Never mind the melting ice caps and polar bears; climate change is killing jokes.

Even Adam Corner, the climate change activist-academic-psychologist anticipated the failure of the event.

But while online ridicule directed towards climate ‘deniers’ (generally portrayed as either too stupid to understand the science, or as conspiracy theorists) may appeal to the usual crowd, its hard to see how this kind of approach will breach the political divide. After all, the feeling of being laughed at by a sneering, left-leaning elite is not appealing. One notorious attempt by the 10:10 campaign and director Richard Curtis at ‘humorously’ marginalising opposition towards environmentalism backfired completely. It turns out that most people don’t find graphic depictions of children’s heads exploding all that hilarious after all…

But his own punchline equally fails to raise a chuckle…

What’s required is for climate change to seep into the fabric of satirical and humourous TV programming, in the same way that other ‘current affairs’ often provide the backdrop and context for creative output. Jokes ‘about’ climate change can in fact be ‘about’ any of the dozens of subjects – family disputes over energy bills, travel and tourism, or changing consumer habits – that are directly impacted by climate change.

Just as explaining a joke denies its humour, if comedy is instrumental, it ceases to be spontaneous. So Corner moves the climate change issue to the stage backdrop, in front of which people repeat gags about mothers-in-law who keep leaving the lights on.

Or here’s a better idea… A sitcom in which a BBC executive is trying to squeeze the subject of climate change into a sit-com he is commissioning. But the problem is, the sit-com isn’t very funny. And there’s the problem… It’s all so postmodern. Everyone is so self aware, self-conscious they are forced to explain the joke, and the purpose of making the joke, because not even jokes can be told for the sake of telling jokes — they have to have higher purpose, sanctioned by academic psychologists at the University of Cardiff who double-up as climate change activists for the Climate Outreach & Information Network and Guardian eco-bloggers. All spontaneity has been expunged from the schedule. Comedy, in the hands of people who take themselves far, far, far too seriously.

And it doesn’t stop at comedy, either. The desire to colonise the cultural sphere — and in particular popular culture — knows no limits. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Al Gore and Pharrall Williams declared that they would ‘literally’ have ‘humanity harmonised all at once’.

The unlikely combination of Pharrell Williams and Al Gore have announced what they hope to be the largest global campaign in history, in the form of a second round of Live Earth concerts to promote awareness of climate change. The concerts will take place across all seven continents – including Antarctica – on 18 June.

But the real satirists were quick off the mark…

Williams’ words aren’t just hypocrisy… This is eight-mile-high-in-a-private-jet green hypocrisy. It compares to Will.I.Am’s turning up to an Oxford conference on climate change in a helicopter. Said the rapper,

Climate change should be the thing that we are all worried and concerned about as humans on this planet, how we affect the planet, our consumption, and how we treat the place that we live in.

The Telegraph goes on to quote climate scientist Myles Allen, “The irony didn’t escape everybody. But he’s committed to the issues and he’s written songs about it.”

So just as we can ask what Shappi Khorsandi was doing at an event intended to get Londoners to ‘think’ about their energy supply, to the exclusion of any contrary ideas, we might wonder what Oxford — the second oldest University in the world — needed from Will.I.Am, and what Will.I.Am really needed to speak to Myles Allen about. Will Will.I.Am be rapping Myles Allen’s next paper? It sounds about as entertaining — not to say spontaneous — a gig as the RSA’s night of uninterrupted laughter.

The point, of course, is that celebrities, be they has-been comedians or stratospheric rappers, prostitute their status. And its not hard to work out what they’re whoring themselves out for

Celebrities and campaigners including Matt Damon, Bill Gates, Jody Williams and Malala Yousafzai are joining forces to launch an international campaign to persuade the planet’s leaders to make 2015 the defining year in the fight against world poverty and climate change.

The campaign action/2015 – which launches on Thursday backed by more than 1,000 organisations across 50 countries – is focused on securing successful outcomes for two pivotal UN summits, one in September on remodelled development goals, and the other in December in Paris on a new international agreement on climate change.

The harder question to answer is why. One answer might be that they believe in the causes they seem to champion. In which case, they really should butt out. Because what they reveal is not only their own ignorance of the ‘issues’ they want to ‘raise awareness’ of, but their rank hypocrisy.

But a more likely answer is that celebs have an insatiable need to be flattered. It must, after all, be hard to account for the luxury you enjoy when you sit in your private jet or in a helicopter. It’s not enough to say “I wrote a few songs and it made me $millions”. Self importance is incompatible with such ephemera as topical jokes and pop songs. There must be more to it, that justifies pop-singers and funny men’s sense of self-importance, that they can preach austerity from a jet-powered pulpit or rotary-winged lectern. It is the same with the fellows of the RSA as it is with the pop stars. A pathological narcissism in search of endless self-justification.

The science-advocacy axis has provoked much fraught discussion over the years. Crudely put, there appear to be scientist, activists, and activist-scientists, and scientists-activists. The consensus appears to be that political advocacy and science should not be confused.

I half agree. But I think the ideal of keeping distance between the two is far more easy spoken about than acheived. My argument has been that scientists in the schema might not recognise the political nature of their work, or the presuppositions their work proceeds from. While it may be that the scientific process is intended to exclude the influence of human subjectivity, to discover things as they are independently of our preconceptions, merely instituting science does not preclude such effects. In fact, where science is an institution, it may become more vulnerable to political effects, for obvious reasons, especially in the following case observed by Andrew Montford:

You can imagine someone explaining that they believed in small government and that they had therefore decided to study the cost of subsidies in the renewables industry. The pathological hatred of such views among most members of the academy hardly needs to be mentioned, so while the dismiss/deconstruct options would still be available for readers of such a study, the chances are that this would result in ostracisation, discrimination and ultimately the end of the particular researcher’s career.

We don’t need to search far and wide to discover this phenomenon at the very top of the UK’s scientific institutions. The Royal Society, given the climate brief (in particular) by Prime Ministers, has abandoned the principle of its motto, to seek a greater role for ‘science’ in society, and in particular in policy-making. Now that scientists are recruited into the business of social organisation, there more at stake than the discovery of the material world. Interlocutors threaten to upset the course to discover the optimal administration of public life… Hence the ire of the Royal Society’s presidents past and present. More on that shortly. The point for now being that the world’s oldest scientific academy took a position in the climate debate, effectively issuing a memo to all scientific institutions that certain views are not to be tolerated.

Andrew Montford’s observation comes in response to an article by Gavin Schmidt, in which he apparently shows more reflection on the problems of science and advocacy than I would have expected, given his robust statements about ‘deniers’, and his refusal to debate with more sceptical climate scientists in the past, and his impatience with his scientific critics, to the delight of climate activists.

Whereas he claimed in 2009 that ‘I don’t advocate for political solutions. If I do advocate for something, my advocacy is focused on having more intelligent discussions’, Schmidt now argues,

Despite this careful distinction between advocacy and facts, the term “advocate” is regularly used pejoratively in scientific circles and is frequently associated with the cherry-picking of science to support a preconceived idea. In order to avoid these connotations, scientists often go to great lengths to deny being advocates for specific policies. However, it is almost always the case that a scientist speaking in public is in fact advocating for something—deeper public understanding of the science, more research funding, a more informed public discourse, awareness, and, yes, sometimes for specific policy action. Each of these examples is a reflection of both a scientific background and a set of values that, for instance, might prize an informed populace or continued research employment. It is most often when addressing a group with a shared set of values that scientists are the least aware that their call for something that “should” happen is still advocacy.

In my view, it is impossible to divorce public communication from advocacy, and scientists should not even try. Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace the terminology and, in so doing, define clearly what our own values are and exactly what we are advocating for.

So what is Gavin advocating for?

My exhortations here are (of course) also advocacy, and I would be remiss in not expounding on my own values and their relevance to this topic. I have a strong belief (or, perhaps, hope) that an informed democracy is more likely to make good decisions than one in which ignorance and tribalism are the dominant factors. I don’t believe that scientists themselves are in any special position when it comes to making decisions, but I do believe that their expertise must be an input into the decision-making process. The ability of climate science to probe and answer questions about the Earth system, the changes it has undergone, and the potential for change in the future has been (in my opinion) very successful in exploring the scope and limits of climate system predictability. There are many complexities and uncertainties, to be sure, but also many fundamental features that are as well established as any textbook science.

At face value, Gavin might as well advocate for Motherhood and Apple Pie. Though there is a question here about whether he advocates ‘informed democracy’ as some kind of qualified democracy, rather than the somewhat more mundane, ‘wouldn’t it be very nice if nobody was ignorant’.

What I would have preferred from Gavin is not this hollow secular piety, equivalent to nothing more than ‘I advocate science’ — everyone says that, and the claim that climate advocates are merely ‘speaking up for science’ is nowt new — but rather an attempt to enumerate and expand on those values.

For example, in the game of musical chairs he played with his climate science counterpart Roy Spencer on the Stossel show, linked to above, Gavin made the following claim:

Schmidt: What we’ve been doing in the last 150 years is we’ve been increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere — over 40% in terms of CO2, we’ve more than doubled the amount of methane, which is another greenhouse gas, and the signatures of those changes are very very clear, all the way through the system.

Stossel: Assuming this is true, why is this necessarily a problem? Warmer might be better. More people die from cold than warm.

Schmidt: We have built a society — an agricultural system and cities and everything we do based on assumptions that basically the climate is not going to change. The fact that we have so much infrastructure right near the shore is because we didn’t expect sea level to rise. The damage that we had from Hurricane Sandy was increased because sea level has increased by 10-12 inches in this area…

The dangers of attributing sea level rise and Hurricane Sandy to global warming to one side, it is these claims much more than his ‘science advocacy’ which reveal Gavin’s values. (And it is a shame that Stossel cut him off at this point, to concentrate on the claims which some environmentalists, but not Gavin, have made).

Gavin’s view, put simply, is that there is some equivalence of climate’s sensitivity to CO2 and society’s sensitivity to climate.

I visited New York in the aftermath of Sandy, and what struck me was that it had put in place a remarkable, and visible recovery from both that storm, and the 9-11 attacks. Mobile generators and pumps were on the scene. And an incredible building has been put in the place of the World Trade Centre. However, talking to New Yorkers, the recovery from Sandy had not yet reached the poorer parts of the city. New York is well and truly capable of recovery — more capable than it was 150 years ago, notwithstanding that the benefits of that wealth do not reach all that need it. The rights and wrongs of that is not a question for science.

It may well be true that New York may have been slightly more vulnerable to inundation because of sea level rise, and that some of that sea level rise may be the consequence of anthropogenic global warming. But the implication — Gavin’s values — that New York is more vulnerable to nature’s whims or vengeance now than at any point in its history is not plausible.

New York is also capable of defence. It would not have taken much might to defend against the storm. And it would not take much to protect New York against another 10-12 inches, as it would need to anyway, like London or Amsterdam have needed to, and will need to, and New Orleans should have been. It is Gavin’s assumption here that society, or cities, have been organised around the principle of an unchanging environment, and that a stable climate can ever be achieved. There is an assumption that cities would not ever, given a stable climate, be assaulted by the waves.

Gavin’s climate sociology is simply wrong. Society has never been built on the assumption of climate stability. No good farmer lacks the knowledge that drought, famine, are possibilities and that climate varies. No forward-thinking architect ever imagined that the weather could not get the better of his building. Consequently, people improved their skills and climate takes fewer and fewer lives, and society founded on industrial agriculture produces more and more, to feed more and more people, who live longer, healthier and more wealthy lives — all in spite of climate change.

It is this low estimation of society — that it is dependent on the environment, rather than resources of its own construction — that is the value which should be reflected on. That’s not necessarily something I think Gavin should be aware of when he declares the causes he advocates for. But he will not hear it unless it is pointed out to him in debate, along with the observation that his deterministic, and highly ideological understanding of society’s relationship with the environment is a view that dominates the scientific establishment, the academy and global politics (especially in Europe).

And Gavin nearly gets it:

Scientists and philosophers have long distinguished between descriptions of what “is” (derived from scientific investigations of the real world), what “ought” to be (based on one’s value system), and suggestions for what one “should” do in the face of this knowledge (Hume, 1740; Schneider, 1996).

Schneider’s talk is unfortunately no longer available, though, he, like Gavin, strikes me as an odd person to be pontificating on the is-ought fallacy. Rather, I think they have stumbled across this obstacle, and are trying to revise a way around it, in much as the way Gavin is avoiding admitting that he is advocating a political cause, by claiming that he is only advocating science.

Here is one such instance of is-ought thinking which popped up today… Roger Harrabin is back, telling the winter that it is misbehaving…

Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day.

They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom.

It raises further questions about the effects of climate change during the UK’s warmest year on record.

There may be many reasons why the world does not act in accordance with textbooks. And climate change may be one of them. But to immediately frame the phenomenon as a consequence of climate change reveals the extent to which climate change and its presuppositions has become an encompassing narrative, as if an early bloom could not happen in an uncontaminated world, and was a harbinger, as deadly as Hurricane Sandy. Environmental correspondence are obsessed with early and late winters.

Back to Gavin. Anyone invoking the is-ought fallacy should ought to think more carefully about why it happens, rather than drive a train through it. What causes people to read is as ought?

And this is why I find these epiphanies so unconvincing — the author fails to reflect on the epiphany itself. For instance, as I pointed out in my review of Mark Lynas’s book, The God Species, the book, and his newly-found support for GM technology and nuclear power did not reveal anything about what drove the more orthodox-green Lynas.

Lynas’s transformation shows few signs of self-reflection. Yet this would surely be the most interesting thing he could discuss. Why did ‘denial’ provoke such incomprehensible rage to the younger Lynas? And now that he finds himself accused of it, why is he not more cautious about the word ‘denier’, which he still uses with abandon? Instead, he puts his past eco-zeal down to mere ‘ideology’. Ideology it may have been, but there is no discussion about its character, its origins and context, or how he came to be vulnerable to it. His metamorphosis from long-time anti-GM campaigner to advocate came about, he explains, after he read some scientific literature in 2008. Lynas’s conceit is that he has freed himself from ideology simply by reading ‘the science’.

But doesn’t every green campaigner believe himself to be armed with the science against the dark forces of ideology? […] Clearly, the coordinates of the environmental debate are not easily determined as ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, and a deeper reflection on both concepts is necessary to understand it. Lynas, in spite of his claim that ‘science’ has helped him overcome ‘ideology’, fails to provide that insight.

And Gavin has much of his former self to reflect on, too. When he declared back in 2009 that he was not an advocate, he also explained his views on ‘noise’ in the climate debate:

This leads to maybe the final question that I think about, which is, “how do you increase the signal-to-noise ratio in communication about complex issues?” We battle with this on a small scale in our blog’s comment thread. In un-moderated forums about climate change, it just devolves immediately into name-calling. It becomes very difficult discuss science, to talk about what aerosols do to the hydrological.

The problem is that the noise serves various people’s purposes. It’s not that the noise is accidental. When it comes to climate, a lot of the noise is deliberate because if there’s an increase of noise you don’t hear the signal, and if you don’t hear the signal you can’t do anything about it. Increasing the level of noise is a deliberate political tactic. It’s been used by all segments of the political spectrum for different problems. With the climate issue in the US, it is used by a particular segment of the political community in ways that is personally distressing. How do you deal with that? That is a question, which I am still asking myself.

‘Noise’ is the price you pay for science and for unqualified democracy (if it’s qualified, it’s not democracy). ‘Noise’ is the consequence of trust in other people, even though they might be wrong. Noise is what you have to suffer, when you understand that science is messy and that science and politics are not easily delineated. And noise is what you must accept you may be producing in an open, democratic society, in which science can trump politics.

You can’t stand on a soapbox to shout about ‘the hydrological’, and expect an audience to obediently go away, to rebuild society on the premise of the seemingly correct understanding of climate. Not even scientists have the right not to be challenged, to be challenged robustly, and to be challenged by people who are wrong. ‘Noise’ is ultimately the process by which the best way forward is negotiated, in spite of mistakes made on the way. Gavin, albeit mealy-mouthed, seems to have realised that the idea that scientists channel uncontaminated, noise-free truth from objectivity itself, is not credible.

This returns us to the question, how is it that is becomes ought?

One reminder of the real role that science is playing in society, and why Gavin misapprehends the human world’s relationship with the environment is the recent death of Sociologist, Ulrich Beck.

Beck, along with New Labour sociologist Anthony Giddens, developed an influential theory of Risk Society. According to Beck, the modern era — technological, industrial society — had exposed society to ever greater, global risks, and that our awareness of these risks and the scepticism of modernity’s achievements marked the beginning of a new historical era, in which this awareness of risks and their amelioration would become the basis of politics. In particular, Beck, the European Federalist, noted environmental risks, and his thinking is in many sense the blueprint for environmental policy. An informative interview with Beck on the LSE’s website reveals how the concept of risk altered the political landscape, and became the basis for new political institutions:

If we look at how the issue of climate change fits into the general perspective we have in politics and the social sciences, we can see the limitations of what I call ‘methodological nationalism’. We frame almost every issue, whether it relates to class, conflict, or politics, in the context of nation states organised in the international sphere.

However, when we look at the world from the perspective of climate change, this doesn’t fit at all. For example, if we take the basic concept of risk – in this case global climate risk – we find that there is a new power structure already imbedded within the logic of this concept. This is because, when we talk about risk, we first of all have to relate it to decisions and decision-makers. We have to make a fundamental distinction between those who take the risk and those who are affected by it. In the case of climate change these groups of people are completely different. Those who are taking the decisions are not accountable from the perspective of those who are affected by the risks, and those who are affected have no real way of participating in the decision-making process.

So from the start we have an imperialistic structure because the decision-making process and the consequences are attributed to completely different groups. We can only observe this when we step outside of a nation state perspective and take a broader view of the issue. I call this a cosmopolitan perspective, where the unit of research is a community of risk which includes what is excluded in the national perspective: i.e. the decision makers and the consequences of their decisions.

Beck’s largely imagined, and entirely unquantified notion of climate catastrophe allowed him to construct the idea of an imperialism of risk, to which the solution appears to be the construction of a cosmopolitan institution — let us call it the UNFCCC — to mediate the relationship between the two putative categories of people: those who benefit from risk and those who pay for it. Hence the climate activist’s, UN cheerleader’s and European Federalist’s maxim: ‘global problems need global solutions’. The truer maxim, however, is that global solutions need global problems.

Beck’s blueprint (if it wasn’t merely an observation), is not hard to spot in debates about climate. Take Nicholas Stern’s words, for example…

Policy-making is usually about risk management. Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making. … Thus, climate science supports sound policy when it informs risk management, informing the selection of climate policy measures that influence key aspects of the causal chain of climate change. This chain runs: from humans to emissions and changes in atmospheric concentrations; from changes in concentrations to changes in weather conditions which, with their induced feedbacks, change the climate; and from the weather of this altered climate to changes in risks and the circumstances of individuals. Coherent risk management across such a chain requires input from both the social sciences and the physical sciences, and not only from economics and physics but also from other disciplines, such as ethics. Deep insights and frightening uncertainty in one link may prove either critical or irrelevant, as the implications of a policy option are propagated down the chain to explore their ultimate impact on people.

Stern and Smith, you will note, were housed at the same institution as Beck — The London School of Economics. These economists have eschewed the idea that simple wealth is the best defence against things as trivial as different weather — climate resistance.

And their way of looking at the world exists outside of the climate debate, which brings us back to the Royal Society, and what it and its presidents were trying to do with their scientific authority. Rees, in an online bet, and in his book, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?, claimed that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event.”

by 2020 there will be thousands-even millions-of people with the capability to cause a catastrophic biological disaster. My concern is not only organized terrorist groups, but individual wierdos with the mindset of the people who now design computer viruses.

By “bioerror”, I mean something which has the same effect as a terror attack, but rises from inadvertance rather than evil intent.

And it is Rees who really lets the cat out of the bag, and gives the best illustration of the transformed role of science — the thing that Gavin Schmidt is advocating — in society. Beck’s observation is that the modern era unleashes ever greater risks, and that these risks become the basis on which politics is organised. In other words, it is science which unleashes destructive potential. But it is that potential, in the hands of people, that science becomes risky. Rees worries that an incautious or malicious scientist will kill a million people in one event, and that as the 21st Century develops, so the potential for wrong-doing and error increases. While risk society appears to be conceived of in order to protect people, and science is emphasised by its advocates to inform people, what is really going on in these arguments is not in their interests — it is intended to deprive them. In this, postmodern scientific era, people need to be regulated, because as individuals, and as groups, they are risk factors to themselves, to each other, and to the continued survival of the species and life on the planet.

Whether or not Gavin Schmidt would agree with Stern, Beck or Rees, their words describe the context into which he has stepped, nonetheless. That is what ‘science’ is doing in the 21st Century: regulating people, limiting their expectations and making arguments from authority, for authority, in contrast to the promises made by science in the modern era, to respond to the desire to improve circumstances. On the Risk Society perspective, improving our lot through industrialisation has inadvertently created incalculable risks, which need to be mitigated by the likes of Stern and Rees.

So it is not enough to admit, mealy mouthed, that he is an advocate for ‘science'; science is not a straightforward thing. The scientific process may well be simple enough, but the priorities and presuppositions of science as an institution — which ‘speaks’ to the public, to tell them what to do and what to expect — owes much more to the historical context and to politics and ideology than its advocate can admit. Like Beck, Rees and Stern, Schmidt imagines a society, not comprised of autonomous, thinking agents, capable of negotiating their own risks and responding to their own ‘challenges'; but of a fragile system, which is closely dependent on stability for its own survival, imperilled by the arbitrary decisions and desire of so many unthinking, blind, and ignorant bodies.

NGOs are weird. And green NGOs are even weirder. Even at face value they are weird, precisely because we are supposed to take them and the issues they seemingly speak for at face value, as plainly as we would take the Campaign for the Abolition of Stubbed Toes (CAST) which doesn’t exist yet. But give it time. Nobody likes stubbing their toe, so it stands to reason, right(?), that we should all get behind a movement to end pain caused to the lower extremities. CAST will speak not just for anyone who has ever stubbed their toe, but the friends, lovers and families of people with toes, who are vulnerable (i.e. they have toes) to stubbing. Research has shown that some people are at risk of stubbing their toe as often as once a month.

But take a step back from your concern for people with stubbed toes, and outrage about toe-stubbing. Who said CAST speak for us? Who appointed them? Who said they should raise awareness of stubbed toes? And why should their demand of action against stubbed toes be taken seriously by politicians, who were elected by us, to represent our concerns? This is the question that no NGO can answer: who the **** do NGOs think they are?

The latest Green NGO weirdness comes via Donna Laframboise. Donna notes the case of Greenpeace’s disturbance of the Nazca Lines, and adds the case of the Cross on Mount Royal, Montreal, which was hijacked by a Greenpeace publicity stunt. The effect, says Laframboise, is to say “We spit on your sacred spaces”.

Other instances of NGO weirdness emerged out of the UNFCCC meeting in Lima… Guardian “journalist” turned WWF activist, Leo Hickman chaired a discussion organized by the Met Office Hadley Centre, Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and the University of Reading, which “explored the challenges of making climate projections and linking damages from extreme weather events to changing emissions; risk management in the face of uncertainty; and the ethics of loss and damage”.

This is weird for several reasons. First is Hickman’s own emphasis on expertise — the consensus — in the climate debate, whereas he has none himself. Indeed, some might argue that a donkey has a greater intellectual qualification to chair a discussion between climate researchers than the Graun’s former ethical agony aunt, who in the past laboured with such questions as ‘how green is your web search‘. Having been so keen to reduce the carbon footprint of such trivialities as searching the internet for information about how green the internet is, however, Hickman seems happy to have jetted off to Lima, spewing tons of CO2 into Gaia’s face for the sake of a jolly in Lima. So much for ‘ethics’, Leo.

I digress. The point is the omnipresence and influence of green NGOs like WWF is a question which has been raised by Donna Laframboise again. Last Year, she braved the shenanigans of COP19 in Warsaw, and found them creepy. Here, again, is the WWF, chairing events at COP meetings, as though it were natural. And this brings me back to the point raised above about taking NGOs at face value.

Survival International — who may not thank me for highlighting their campaign — suggest that the WWF’s moral standing isn’t what it seems, and that they are ‘complicit in tribal people’s abuse‘.

Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, has uncovered serious abuses of Baka “Pygmies” in southeast Cameroon, at the hands of anti-poaching squads supported and funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The Baka are being illegally forced from their ancestral homelands in the name of “conservation” because much of their land has been turned into “protected areas” – including safari-hunting zones.

Rather than target the powerful individuals behind organized poaching, wildlife officers and soldiers pursue Baka who hunt only to feed their families.

A later article goes into more detail.

But now the Baka are forced to stay in roadside villages and fear going into the forest which has provided them with most of what they needed for generations. Anti-poaching squads routinely arrest, beat and torture Baka and their neighbors in the name of “conservation” and many Baka say that friends and relatives have died as a result of the beatings.

Imagine, though, if it were an oil company that was accused of such human rights violations. Or, for that matter, an energy company had desecrated a sacred historical monument in blind pursuit of their aims. What might be the response?

Godwin Uyi Ojo of Friends of the Earth Nigeria had this to say about Shell at the conference in Lima.

Since 1956, when Shell came to Nigeria’s Niger Delta, the Niger Delta have known no rest. It has been conflict, violence, human rights violations, killings and series of deaths. You all are aware of the situation of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Shell has polluted our rivers. Shell has taken our land. Shell has destroyed our livelihood. We say it is time that the world stand up against Shell, that they cannot continue in their violence against people, in their violence against communities. Shell has no place in Nigeria. Shell has no place in these negotiations.

[Full story]

I wonder if we can now see WWF in any better light than FOE want us to see Shell. Indeed, we now see WWF accused of hiring helicopter death squads, to protect large areas of land for rich people, by evicting people from the land they have occupied for countless years, on a scale greater than any attempt of genocide in the Western world.

Without taking sides, then, we can see that the world is far more complicated than the story offered by environmentalists — of indigenous people at the mercy of powerful companies, who rule over corrupt governments, with only NGOs holding the wrong-doers to account. It seems green NGOs are much closer to that story than they will admit.

And the story gets murkier. Uyi Ojo words were uttered as a group of green activists attempted to disrupt an event at the Lima COP meeting.

We’re now at the entrance of the International Emissions Trading Association Pavilion, where they’re trying to present themselves as part of climate solution. In fact, the event they’re about to hold is with Shell, one of the biggest polluters in the world; the World Coal Association, that’s trying to work coal in a solution to climate change; and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. This event is also sponsored by Chevron. These are not players we want to see in our climate solutions, in our climate policy. So we’re here to ask them if they’ll politely, please, to leave, and we don’t want to see fossil fuels anywhere near these talks.

These words belong to Pascoe Sabido, a member of Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO which aims to “expose the power of corporate lobbying in the EU”.

An aside… As much as Corporate Earth Observatory claim to be against ‘the power of corporate lobbying’, they admit:

Corporate Europe Observatory receives grants from a number of trusts and foundations. Currently we receive funding from the Adessium Foundation, Isvara Foundation, Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation, RH Southern Trust, Sigrid Rausing Trust, JM Goldsmith foundation, Misereor, Human Earth Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind and the Marisla Foundation. CEO doesn’t receive any EU or member state government funding.

So where would the Corporate Europe Observatory be without cash from billionaires, eh?

Back to the story.

Who are Corporate Europe Observatory to say who should and should not be at side events at COP meetings? Who, apart from JM Goldsmith and Joseph Rowntree appointed Corporate Europe Observatory to police these discussions?

In fact the green activists had very little to complain about, as is revealed by the object of their anger — Climate Change Advisor to Shell, David Hone — who was speaking at the event. The event was about Carbon Capture and Storage, which Hone points out,

The Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) held an excellent and well attended side event on Monday afternoon which was initially mobbed by some 100+ demonstrators and their press entourage. The demonstrators crowded into the modest sized room and the hallway outside, waited for the start of the event and then promptly left as Lord Stern opened the side event with his remarks on the need for a massive scale-up of CCS. Arriving and then departing en masse allowed them to tweet that civil society had walked out on Lord Stern. The demonstrators were equally upset that Shell was represented at the event with my presentation on yet another sobering reality; 2°C is most likely out of reach without the application of CCS; also a finding of the IPCC in their 5th Assessment Report.

Hold on to the thoughts about Stern for a moment. Green NGOs might not like CCS as a solution to climate change. But it is as viable as solution to the problem of climate change as is, for example, wind energy. To illustrate the point, we can do some back-of-an-envelope maths, to work out that if the approximately 8,300 COP20 delegates had each taken a five hour flight to get there, they would have used approximately half of the power output of the world’s 80GW of net wind generating capacity while they were in the air (i.e. 4MWh per person).

The delegation from European Corporate Observatory would be stuck in Europe if it were not for fossil fuels.

I don’t particularly like CCS or wind energy, for that matter. But I don’t want to stop people who think it might be a solution, and who have worked on it being a solution putting their ideas across in appropriate fora. European Corportate Observatory don’t like Stern rubbing shoulders with Shell. It’s bad PR, they explain

By speaking, Stern gives all involved – and particularly the WCA – the veneer of respectability they received when Figueres spoke at their International Summit last year. It would be a gift for the IETA and the WCA, but there’s nothing to be gained from his side. If the intention is challenging them, it’s a lost cause. The room is tiny – maximum 30 people – and no-one outside the room will hear about it. Instead, IETA and the WCA will write it up, pull out a nice quote and show how they’ve engaged and even won-over serious climate change thinkers. His name will forever be there, associated with organisations who are stopping progress on tackling the crisis. Should he even be attending? Christiana Figueres’ attendance at the coal summit didn’t weaken the industry, it legitimised them (she said they had an important role to play and that they were key for development). At least since then she has taken a tougher stand against coal, perhaps as a result of the backlash.

Stern should set example to us all

If Lord Nicholas Stern decided not to go, it would send a strong signal to those very industries undermining the effort to tackle the crisis. It would question their legitimacy and stop their march towards the heart of our governments with false solutions like CCS. If we’re going to tackle climate change, then we need to delegitimise the role that dirty industry currently plays, remove its access to power and channels of influence it has with our governments. And as an influential person himself, with strong climate credentials, Lord Stern has an important role to play. Those fighting against lung disease would not speak at a tobacco event, so Stern should should do the right thing and not attend this one.

Corporate Observatory have done so much more to publicise the event than the sponsors could ever have achieved by themselves, it’s hard not to imagine that they asked them to try to shut it down for the free publicity.

Stern, of course, is supposed to be some kind of climate hero, who shouldn’t get his hands (or shoulders) dirty in this way. his are hands (and shoulders) that carry the weight of the entire planet’s future, if Pascal Sabido’s attempt to hashtag his somewhat poorly-conceived campaign is to be understood properly:

Another delegation at COP 20, tweeted to remind us to ignore the corporations, and to tell us just how cheap it would be to save the planet.

Bargain!

This weird NGO protest mirrors the ‘civil society’ ‘walkout’ staged at previous COP meetings.

The Guardian reported last year that,

Environment and development groups together with young people, trade unions and social movements walked out of the UN climate talks on Thursday in protest at what they say is the slow speed and lack of ambition of the negotiations in Warsaw.

[…]

Frustration with the climate talks has grown in the past two years but progress in this year’s conference of the parties (COP) has seen negotiations deadlocked in technical areas, and rich and poor countries at loggerheads over compensation and money. Anger has also mounted over the perceived closeness of governments to industrial lobbies, and because several developed countries have reneged on their commitments to cut emissions.

But although they walked out with shared purpose — to disrupt the, erm, failing talks — they were undecided about why. ‘Lobbying from fossil fuel companies was impeding progress at the talks’, claimed Hoda Baraka, global communications director for 350.org. Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International, said that ‘The Polish government has done its best to turn these talks into a showcase for the coal industry’, and that ‘backsliding by Japan, Australia and Canada’ was a ‘slap in the face to those suffering as a result of dangerous climate change’ (i.e. nobody). ‘We are walking out of these talks because governments need to know that enough is enough’, said Winnie Byanyima, director of Oxfam International, ‘The stakes are too high to allow governments to make a mockery of these talks’. ‘Civil society is being suppressed’, said Anjali Appadurai of youth group Earth in Brackets. ‘Developed nations would rather spend their time playing to vocal minorities at home rather than meet this global threat head-on’, said Friends of the Earth International’s climate campaigner, Asad Rehman. But though NGOs had failed to get their story straight about why their ‘spontaneous’, and not at all pre-planned, arranged months in advance walkout was happening, they had in fact had time to have T-shirts bearing the slogan “Volverermos” (We will return) printed to commemorate it.

So NGOs will blame big businesses, intransigent governments, disinterested publics and narrow interests for failed negotiations. But never themselves. Rather than recognising that the UNFCCC process, at best, suffers from something of a democratic deficit, and furthermore attempts to negotiate many competing interests, and seeking to find ground on which those differences might be reconciled, environmental NGOs actively disrupt negotiations that are not to their taste. Green organisations don’t like CCS, so rather than seeking to hold a debate on CCS, they try to shut down the discussion on CCS.

Is it possible that one, major reason that talks fail is due to the fact that NGOs act like complete jerks?

“Civil society” groups’ direct action/disruption is utterly incongruous with their actual status. It’s like a teacher refusing to behave properly, a policeman breaking the law. They’re at the top table, demanding to be at the top table, but complaining that they are not getting their own way. They represent nobody at all. They produce nothing. They have no mandate. Yet they are invited to the highest levels of political negotiations, such as the COP meetings, and to national and supranational governments. But you or I, as members of the public, could not go to see these events for ourselves, much less could we walk out of them to register our disgust.

And yet they behave, when things don’t go according to their plan, in such a way as to disrupt proceedings — either of day-to-day life, or of political business.

There is no distinction between this and the destruction of ancient monuments. In both cases, green NGOs imagine themselves to be above the rest of the world. The most illustrative case of this was Greenpeace UK’s demand to ‘change the politics, save the climate’ — a stunt in which activists climbed the Houses of Parliament, to unfurl their banners.

Just as Greenpeace activists in Peru trample over the country’s history in order to achieve the NGOs’ look-at-me objectives, UK activists believed that the elected representatives in the debating chambers below should be doing as they — not the public — had instructed. Greenpeace put itself above — on top of — democratic institutions. And NGOs also see themselves above the undemocratic UNFCCC process in Lima.

This is what organisations which feel they need no mandate from ordinary people, who feel themselves to be above the institutions of mere people, and who feel able to judge ordinary people do. This is how they behave. Like the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the tyrants of feudal Europe, they do not recognise that they are accountable to anyone. Not to the public, and not to the law. They have a higher purpose.

Their ‘direct action’ in the West usually consists of little more than inconveniences — the blockages of airport runways, roads and railways. But where their money gives them more power, they are no less toxic than the companies they attack, and no less intransigent than the governments they criticise. Indeed, they may be more toxic and more indifferent to suffering than any business and any corrupt government. This power is unchecked. Whereas we can hold governments and businesses to account, there is no mechanism for voting out of office an NGO, or boycotting it.

The weirdest thing about NGOs is that they are there because governments needed them. They are a construction of governments, and processes like the UNFCCC, because political institutions such as these are so remote from ordinary life. “Civil society” has developed in the gulf between power and people, not to hold power to account, but to hold people further away. Their attacks on power — ridiculous, childish publicity stunts — are charades, or rituals, intended to convince those who play them out more than the public, that they really are in opposition, and that there isn’t a revolving door between NGOs, government, media, and big business.

I have a review of Chris Rapley’s “play”, 2071, over at Breitbart London.

The latest development in the green colonisation of the cultural sphere is the planet-saving stage play. This year, the Royal Court Theatre commissioned Duncan Macmillian and Chris Rapley to adapt for the stage the latter’s concerns about the state of the planet when his eldest granddaughter will be the age he is now, in 2071. That year gives the play its title.

Yes, I actually went to see 2071.

I felt a bit sorry for Rapley at first. He was obviously nervous. And reviews were already saying that the performance was dull (“but important”). But then, I wondered who the hell puts themselves forward for this stuff? What colossal sense of self-importance is required to put oneself on the stage in this way, with nothing new to say?

I was going to discuss the difference between a lecture and a play in the article, but word limit precluded it. So here’s some brief thoughts not from the article.

I was lucky to have some great lecturers at university, and a few dreadful ones. If I was to do my time at uni again (which I would, without a second’s thought), I would choose more of my courses on the strength of the lecturers/seminar tutors. Of course, most arts degrees are dependent on self study. But a good lecture orients your study, lays out the coordinates, the history and the controversies of a subject, and thereby share their interest in something. Although many lecturers take quite strong positions on certain ideas, the best lecturers in my experience, were those who were not only unafraid of other ideas, but welcomed challenges to their own positions.

So my point here is not simply that Rapley’s lecture-play was dry and dull. It failed at being a play, and it failed at being a lecture too. It was more like what I imagine some kind of sermon to be, though, not being religious, I might not have understood the point of sermon’s correctly. Even preaching, I think, involves some element of putting yourself in front of a crowd with the expectation that they may challenge you.

What were the opportunities here, to challenge Rapley? It is true that The Royal Court Theatre have follow up events. But look at them:

DEBATE: CAN BUSINESS EVER BE GREEN?
1.30 – 2.30pm
Simon Graham, Environmental Strategist at Commercial Group, one of the biggest independent companies in the UK; Olivier Lawder, Creative Planner at Futerra, working to deliver sustainability campaigns; Bioregional Programme Manager, Tom Hill and Daniel Turner, Head of Disclosure at CDP.

It will seek to discover how and if business’ can operate commercially whilst lowering their carbon emissions.

DEBATE: CAN THEATRE EVER BE GREEN?
6.00 – 7.00pm
Theatre-makers discuss responsibility towards Climate Change in their work
Speakers: Natalie Abrahami (Theatre Director), Natasha Chivers (Lighting Designer), Alison Tickell (CEO, Julie’s Bicycle) Ben Todd (Executive Director, Arcola Theatre) and Paul Handley (Production Manager, Chair).

Analysing the responsibility to climate change in their work and discussing more environmentally friendly ways of producing theatre.

WORKSHOP: PSYCHOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO CLIMATE CHANGE
11.00am – 12.30pm
Hosted by Paul Hoggett, Chairman of Climate Psychology Alliance from the University of West of England.

An interactive workshop to help audiences come to terms with psychological responses to Climate Change exploring the guilt and ambivalence we feel, and the dilemmas we face around the subject.

WORKSHOP: TRANSITION TOWN
1.00pm – 2.30pm
Transition Town: the power of just doing stuff!
Hosted by Sarah McAdam, Transition Network and Hilary Jennings, co-founder of Transition Town Tooting.
A transition town is a grassroot community project that seeks to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction and economic instability.
Hear more about the spread of the Transition movement internationally, gain inspiration from the action communities are taking to help create a low carbon, socially-just, healthier and happier future and explore how you might get things started in your neighbourhood.

WORKSHOP: AFRO RETRO’S UPCYCLING
3.15 – 4.45pm
UpCycling, is it just a fad or could it be a way of life?
Let team AFRORETRO show you just how easy it is to breathe new life into your old, unwanted stuff.
In this workshop with the help of AFRORETRO; upgrade an old unwanted t-shirt into a one-of-kind, statement infinity scarf.
All materials will be provided but in the spirit of UpCycling please bring a t-shirt, the larger the better.
Sewing skills not necessary however imagination and curiosity a must.
www.afroretro.com

WORKSHOP: WE’RE ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
5:15pm – 6:45pm
Hosted by Caralampo Focas, from Oxford University.
Caralampo Focas is an experienced researcher with an established international reputation. For over 25 years he has been writing, consulting and researching into transport, consumer and quality of life themes, expanding the research horizons in methodological, social, economic, comparative and policy issues.
www.tsu.ox.ac.uk/people/cfocas.html

CLIMATE CONSULTANTS
11am – 7pm (15 minute slots throughout the day)

Jane Orton and Tony Wragg will assess your carbon footprint then discuss practical ways to reduce it.

Jane Orton has been working as a psychotherapist for over 20 years. She was formerly a teacher and educationalist, member of a radical theatre group and for a long period lived in a community aiming for sustainability. She is a keen cyclist and tandem rider. She has been involved with Carbon Conversations since 2009 is a Designated Trainer and Community and commercial Facilitator.

Tony Wragg practices as a psychotherapist, but had a quite different earlier career as an engineer and research and development manager. He provides consultancy on technology and intellectual property. He continues a lifelong love affair with the Scottish Highlands and is a passionate on-and-off-road cyclist. He has been involved in Carbon Conversations since 2009 and is a Designated Trainer and Community and Commercial Facilitator.

There is no suggestion in these workshops that the academic can be challenged. Their purpose is instead instruction. You can talk to a psychotherapist about your carbon footprint, or have a group therapy session about your feelings of climate guilt. But there is no opportunity to put to Rapley or his workshop leaders that other perspectives might exist.

The only sense that a question remained unanswered in Rapley’s talk was the question he said science couldn’t answer: “what kind of world do we want to live in”, he asked. But the choice he was offering was only a world in which we did as we had been told, or face ecological Armageddon. His question was rhetorical.

But there is much to take issue with. What struck me was his glib treatment of the facts, in fact. Like many of his kind, for example, Rapley trotted out the “$500 bn a year on fossil fuels” line, that was discussed here a few posts ago.

If the academic hasn’t researched this very simple claim, how much confidence should we have in the rest of his presentation, much less the moral consequences that seem to emerge in consequence?

And there’s the problem in a nutshell. If the environmental argument is protected from interrogation, and is delivered in circumstances that preclude debate, in what sense is it based in science? How can Rapley’s epic appeal to authority be legitimised, when it is presented in such a way as to deprive it of the virtue that legitimises it?

It’s Lewandowsky time, again. ‘Are you a poor logician? Logically, you might never know‘, he observes with Richard Pancost over at the Conversation Nonversation. More about that logic shortly…

At the Nonversation, of course, comments from Lewandowsky’s critics have been removed. Meanwhile, Andy West has a three part series (one, two, three) over at WUWT examining Lewandowsky’s work in considerable detail. Lewandowsky and Pancost’s (‘L&P’ hereafter) new logic, the deleted comments and the exhaustive critique of his work reflect in microcosm the climate change debate.

It has been argued here before that the amazing thing about Lew is not simply the low quality of his work, but the failure of academe to act as a check on it. The professor of psychology makes bold claims. He believes that he understands the entire world’s relationship to the natural world. He believes he understands the natural world, and professes expertise in climate science. And he believes he knows how society should be organised. Surely he is a true Renaissance Man… A polymath… A Renaissance Polymath… Or he is an epic blowhard.

The task of taking Lewandowsky et al to task has fallen to bloggers (and latterly José Duarte). It is bloggers who have identified the problems with Lew’s claims, and tried to bring them to the attention of a largely indifferent academic community, who don’t seem at all willing to hold an academic to account.

Perhaps this is understandable. The climate debate is hostile. And in spite of claims that bloggers are the agents of this hostility, Academics can be found making statements — such as the idea that influential climate sceptics ought to face the death penalty — which don’t exactly serve to cool the atmosphere, much less shed any light on the matters of debate.

But the trouble for those academics is the fact that, if the academy’s standard is so low as is necessary to admit Lewandowsky’s work, it says something about the standards of every discipline that Lew comments on, from psychology outwards, to climate science. If the academy cannot check itself, its population have no business acting as a check on society, and on power in particular. The academy is redundant.

This not to say that academe’s rightful role is to be the check on society, or to supply policy-makers with the closest possible approximation of the the Truth. But those roles are what the academy seems to increasingly sold itself as in recent years.

Of course, someone might say that the academy — for the first time since scholasticism was eschewed — really had settled on a consensus. But a more likely explanation is that a political settlement — dogma — was established, either spontaneously or by design. The most political arguments made in the climate debate by academics are made by those pronouncing on the ‘psychology’ of climate change ‘denial’, just as psychologists were able, per the political orthodoxy of the era, to deal with political dissidents in Soviet Russia. Whether or not a scientific consensus on climate change exists, and whatever the substance of that consensus is, academics have been slow to realise that ‘climate change’ has an ideological form, no matter how well grounded in science it is. Head-shrinking your political opponents is as political act as any form of apartheid. It delimits the putative subject’s political and civil rights, and confers to the psychologist political authority over that subject.

Academic resistance to that observation results in hostility towards not only those who might dare utter it, but towards the public in general. Lewandowsky, amongst others, set about overcoming the impasse by belittling sceptics, primarily, but also the faculties of the wider public, and thereby to elevate academics. The public must STFU, said Lewandowsky, or challenge his work through the ‘proper channels’ — i.e. academic publishing. When that happened, and a paper he had authored was eventually withdrawn, he accused those he had previously accused of ‘conspiracy ideation’, of organising a conspiracy against him.

Because I value freedom of speech and academic freedom, I oppose and resist the bullying and intimidation employed by some opponents who refuse to engage in scientific debate by avoiding peer review. My thoughts and experiences are summarized in an article on the Subterranean War on Science.

[…]

In no way do my values suggest that debate should be curtailed: I merely insist that a scientific debate should take place in the scientific literature and that the public be put in a position where it can make an informed judgment about the voices that are opposing mainstream science on crucial issues ranging from climate change to vaccination.

The problem for Lewandowsky is that if the observation that academia and its institutions have been colonised by political environmentalism is true to any extent, there would exist a barrier against dissent passing peer review. And there is good evidence that this is the case. There are entire academic institutions and university departments given over to a particular view of climate change, and of promoting that view in the public sphere. There is almost no possibility of substantive criticism emerging from these institutions, or through academic publishers, the editors and peer reviewers of which hail from those organisations, and whose editorial policies are equivalent to a lobbying organisation’s. Lewandowsky was calling for debate to be curtailed. That is what it means to create ‘ethics’ which preclude the unwashed masses from the sphere of public debate, and that is what is meant by his studies into the ‘psychology’ of named people he disagrees with and those who have the audacity to disagree with him. That is exactly what Lewandowsky did when he used dodgy statistical techniques to attack his critics, and what he did when he hid his shameful political ideas behind dodgy mathematics

Lewandowsky and Pancost’s (L&P) new argument is that…

It is an unfortunate paradox: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance. And if you don’t know much about a topic, you’re unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance.

Is this true? I cannot play the banjo, which as anyone who has seen this scene in Deliverance knows, it looks like it would be fun to be able to play. Yet I am very confident indeed in my ability to assess my own performance. If I were to attempt a performance, it would be as obvious to my own ears as it would be to any expert’s. Yet L&P counter:

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

This is obviously bullshit, or no progress would have ever been made in any field in which it is possible to be an expert, for the simple reason that, if confidence is inversely proportional to ignorance, nobody would ever have developed the inclination to advance their understanding.

L&P refer to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which claims that people who do less well in tests of their knowledge over-estimate their performance. Say L&P:

People whose logical ability was in the bottom 12% (so that 88 out of 100 people performed better than they did) judged their own performance to be among the top third of the distribution. Conversely, the outstanding logicians who outperformed 86% of their peers judged themselves to be merely in the top quarter (roughly) of the distribution, thereby underestimating their performance.

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

The claim, of course, is that sceptical climate change experts’ confidence belies their expertise. However, L&P’s own argument defeats them. Kruger and Dunning’s observation applies to the first and second quantile of their study’s participants, not to people with knowledge. Even the unnamed subject of L&P’s broadside — Anthony Watts — has extensive knowledge of the concepts in the climate debate, whether or not he counts, on their view, as a an expert. One could not, for example, devise a study such as Watt’s Surface Stations project and formulate a hypothesis about the recording of errors in the temperature record without such knowledge. And the same holds for individuals with established expertise in climate science, like Richard Lindzen, Patrick Michaels and John Christie, who are routinely vilified by Lewandowsky’s colleagues.

L&P extend the point. The problem, they claim, is that a putative expert’s confidence is fundamental in our evaluation of their level of expertise.

Does this mean that the poorest-performing — and hence most over-confident — expert is believed more than the top performer whose displayed confidence may be a little more tentative? This rather discomforting possibility cannot be ruled out on the basis of existing data.

If this is true, it has more worrying implications for L&P’s own argument than it has for climate sceptics…

there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from our economic activities are altering the Earth’s climate. This consensus is expressed in more than 95% of the scientific literature and it is shared by a similar fraction — 97-98% – of publishing experts in the area. In the present context, it is relevant that research has found that the “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” of the few dissenting researchers “are substantially below that of the convinced researchers”.

The “overwhelming consensus” might well be, on L&P’s admission, nothing more than the product of so many self-deceived experts’ over-estimation of themselves, except for their caveat that experts are “those who publish in the peer-reviewed literature in their area of expertise”. It’s a surprising thing for a Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol and a Professor of Biogeochemistry, Director of the Cabot Institute at University of Bristol to admit about debates about climate science, in a non peer-reviewed journal such as the Nonversation. L&P still defeat themselves.

The more substantive problem with the argument, if we take it at face value, is it’s own inability to understand the terms of the climate debate. L&P serve, again, as an object lesson in ‘the consensus without an object‘. As is discussed in the previous post, journalists tripped over their own ignorance of the debate. The idea of consensus preceded their knowledge of the consensus. So when their knowledge of the arguments in currency did advance, it appeared to them as a change of argument in the climate debate. The facts were plain: the journalists didn’t know what the consensus was, nor what the argument of the sceptics was, and so they didn’t notice that the putative sceptics’ arguments were not in fact outside of the consensus at all.

L&P play a similar game. Equally there is no object — no substance — to the consensus they propose. It means nothing to say “there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from our economic activities are altering the Earth’s climate”, because the statement is not quantified. This is the point also discussed in the previous post. If L&P quantified the consensus, they would be forced to notice that the putative sceptics’ claims, also quantified, do not exist outside of the consensus. The consensus is broad.

L&P’s logic is a binary logic applied to a debate to which binary axioms do not apply. Even at its most simple, the debate about global warming is a debate about a property of the Earth, which is a question of degree. The ‘consensus’ position encompasses a range of estimates, produced by research, none of which is true (or closer to the truth) by virtue of its proximity to others. To reduce the debate to a matter of binary logic is make statements equivalent to the claim that ‘the economy is true’, or ‘Wednesday is purple’.

L&P’s omission of nuance is startling, given their claim to be concerned about misinformation by ignorant non-experts. I don’t think they’re ignorant. I think they do it deliberately. If I have over-estimated their intelligence, I apologise to them.

One of the things I’ve tried to point out here is the emptiness of the categories and concepts that dominate reporting on the climate debate. In particular, the notion of ‘consensus’ has become so entirely divorced from its substance that those who invoke it often have no idea what it refers to. It is a ‘consensus without an object‘.

The idea that there is a scientific consensus, and a tiny opposing minority then informs coverage of the debate. These coordinates are forced over any story about the climate, which dares to raise the subject of the climate debate, rather than the inevitable doom. There are scientists, and there are sceptics, and never the twain shall meet.

But this polarisation exists much more in the heads of reporters than real life. The consensus is far more nebulous than many will admit.

Take BBC’s Environment Analyst, Roger Harrabin’s recent report on Nic Lewis’s research in the light of IPCC reports, for example.

‘Are the Climate Wars over?’ asks the presenter, introducing Harrabin… “We have reached the point now, where many climate sceptics are singing off the same hymbook as mainstream science over the effects of CO2..”, he claims.

Harrabin’s claim is brilliantly illustrated by Josh over at Bishop Hill.

It sounded like Roger thought sceptics were now changing their tune but clearly, with lower sensitivity, The Pause and no hope of any global policy harmony on the horizon, the strains that are coming from the alarmist camp now have much more of a sceptic air.

Indeed, and it has to be pointed out to Roger — other mistakes about his reproduction of Lewis’s research to one side — that the IPCC’s estimated range of climate sensitivity has changed, as is revealed by the AR5 WGI SPM [PDF]:

The equilibrium climate sensitivity quantifies the response of the climate system to constant radiative forcing on multi-century time scales. It is defined as the change in global mean surface temperature at equilibrium that is caused by a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. Equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C (high confidence), extremely unlikely less than 1°C (high confidence), and very unlikely greater than 6°C (medium confidence)16. The lower temperature limit of the assessed likely range is thus less than the 2°C in the AR4, but the upper limit is the same. This assessment reflects improved understanding, the extended temperature record in the atmosphere and ocean, and new estimates of radiative forcing.

And the footnote:

No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies.

The consensus changed between AR4 and AR5. But does this bring sceptics and the consensus closer together than they were?

Other BBC staff clearly got Harrabin’s memo. Yesterday, the GWPF’s Benny Peiser then appeared on BBC News 24…

The interviewer said to Peiser:

If you look at the whole argument… If you look at the historical difference between [sceptics vs scientists] The sceptics have said initially there’s no warming, then they’ve said it’s not down to man, and now they do seem, you do seem to be coming more into line with the international body of thinking over what is going to happen in the future. […] Take Nic Lewis, leading sceptical scientist, recent report coming out with forecast figures that are very much in line with the UN’s.

But how much have the sceptics changed their tune in relation to the consensus?

Going through some old articles of mine, I found my review of Iain Stewart’s BBC series, Earth: The Climate Wars for Spiked in 2008 — six years ago. The series had been co-written by Naomi Oreskes.

After a section featuring Christopher Monckton and his views that much climate science was fraudulent near the end of episode two, Stewart said,

To me, such attacks are a sure sign that the scientific battle is over. And sure enough, perhaps the most surprising thing at the sceptic’s conference is what I heard at the keynote speech.

The film then shows Patrick Michaels taking the stage at the 2008 International Conference on Climate Change. Stewart continues…

For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet today he’s in surprising agreement with advocates {sic} of global warming. […] He accepts the globe is warming. But the truly astonishing thing is he also accepts that we are partly to blame. […] [to camera]: You know I’ve heard things here that’s really surprised me. I’ve heard things I really didn’t expect to hear climate sceptics to say. They say global warming is happening. Temperatures are going up. And that humans are somehow implicated in some degree. That’s amazing. Those issues, it looks like, are behind us.

Stewart had claimed, six years ago, that Pat Michaels — who is in the first division of the environmentalist’s demonology — had changed his mind about climate change. But as I reported at the time,

‘For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet, today, he’s in surprising agreement with the advocates of global warming’, said Stewart. Michaels is then shown giving his talk, saying ‘global warming is real, and in the second half of the twentieth century, humans had something to do with it’. But there is nothing surprising about Michael’s apparent turnaround, because it isn’t one. A 2002 article in the Journal of Climatic Research, authored by Michaels et al argued for a revision of the IPCC’s projections for the year 2100. Instead of saying that there would be no warming, the paper concluded that rises of ‘of 1.0 to 3.0 degrees Celsius, with a central value that averages 1.8 degrees Celsius’ were more likely than the IPCC’s range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius. Hardly climate change denial.

The abstract of Michaels et al 2002 [PDF] is as follows.

Temperature projections for the 21st century made in the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate a rise of 1.4 to 5.8°C for 1990–2100. However, several independent lines of evidence suggest that the projections at the upper end of this range are not well supported. Since the publication of the TAR, several findings have appeared in the scientific literature that challenge many of the assumptions that generated the TAR temperature range. Incorporating new findings on the radiative forcing of black carbon (BC) aerosols, the magnitude of the climate sensitivity, and the strength of the climate/carbon cycle feedbacks into a simple upwelling diffusion/energy balance model similar to the one that was used in the TAR, we find that the range of projected warming for the 1990–2100 period is reduced to 1.1–2.8°C. When we adjust the TAR emissions scenarios to include an atmospheric CO2 pathway that is based upon observed CO2 increases during the past 25 yr, we find a warming range of 1.5–2.6°C prior to the adjustments for the new findings. Factoring in these findings along with the adjusted CO2 pathway reduces the range to 1.0–1.6°C. And thirdly, a simple empirical adjustment to the average of a large family of models, based upon observed changes in temperature, yields a warming range of 1.3–3.0°C, with a central value of 1.9°C. The constancy of these somewhat independent results encourages us to conclude that 21st century warming will be modest and near the low end of the IPCC TAR projections.

By the standards of IPCC TAR, Michaels was not outside the consensus in 2002. And by the standards of AR4 in 2008, Michaels was not outside of the consensus when Iain Stewart made his films. The only ‘surprising’ thing revealed — as the punchline — by the second of three episodes of Climate Wars is that Stewart was ignorant of the debate he was reporting on. He had begun his film with a preconceived idea about the climate debate, as one divided into two camps — sceptics and deniers — disagreeing about a single proposition: “climate change is happening”. And then, when he encountered the more nuanced reality, he imagined that it was sceptics who had changed their position. It was Stewart’s desire to frame the debate that led to his misreporting.

Harrabin tells me via email that there wasn’t enough time in a three-minute slot to cover the nuances of the debate. But Stewart, with his three-part series of hour-long episodes cannot make such a claim. And this error characterises so much BBC coverage of the ‘Climate Wars’. Unfortunately for Harrabin, who thinks the convergence of the sceptics and the consensus is new, and therefore an interesting development, the Climate Wars series and Michaels’ 2002 paper show that sceptics’ estimates haven’t changed much.

And the BBC’s treatment of climate sceptics hasn’t changed much either. It is surely a welcome thing that, be it on the Today Programme, or BBC News 24, or Earth: The Climate Wars, sceptics’ arguments at least get a little airtime. But the substance of those interviews, and the narrative around them, the editorial decisions about what is included from those interviews, and the questions asked are all informed by the same preconceived and false understanding of the debate, and the positions within it.

BBC journalists in particular trip over their own framing of the climate debate. They imagine it to be sharply divided, but when they discover nuance, they report a shift in positions with respect to the consensus, like the misconception of the Sun’s displacement through the sky leading to the misapprehension of a geocentric universe. They’re not reporting developments from climate science, or from the climate debate, just their own misunderstanding of what they see.

Here’s my talk from the recent Battle of Ideas festival session — Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children? — which some readers may find interesting. Some context: it begins with a reference to the proposal to ban smoking in public parks in Britain.


The assumption in arguments to ban smoking is that smoker and non-smokers cannot negotiate between themselves. The no smoking sign when it is required by law then, is functionally equivalent to a no thinking sign.

I can see why some people might find that claim far-fetched. It’s not a huge inconvenience to say, ‘you have to go over there to smoke’. Smoking is smelly, after all.

Banning things like smoking may seem trivial, but underpinning the banning is a fundamental shift in political culture that can be seen more broadly, operating at different levels of society, finding different expression in various aspects of public and private life.

My interest is in debates about the environment, and the political ideas which underpin those debates. I don’t think it’s enough to take the interventions we’re talking about – that treat adults as children — at face value, as face-value treatments of real problems.

For example: I wasn’t surprised to see that Alan Johnson MP had written an article in the Guardian called ‘If I were king for a day, I would ban coca cola’. That company, he believes, forces people to drink sugary pop. “My power allows me to save adults from themselves”, he said “to push them towards healthier beverages such as rooibos tea and mango juice”.

When Sir Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society was asked by Prospect magazine what he would do if he ruled the world. He said that “Only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely”.

REES: “Space-ship Earth is hurtling through space. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their entire life-support system is vulnerable to break-downs. But there is no ‘captain’ —no authority to safeguard the planet’s future.”

So I believe the premise of both Rees and Johnson’s positions is roughly the same: if we’re not even capable of deciding what to drink, how can we possibly take part in big decisions about the environment, or the management of the economy?

If it were only Martin Rees or Alan Johnson saying it, it would be easier to take their arguments at face value. But every political institution seems to be making the same order of claim.

On Rees’s view, democracy is not a sufficiently capable captain of “spaceship earth. It’s not enough for Rees that we should decide who the captain should be, and what his standing orders are. The public are simply not competent to make that choice. They lack the knowledge, expertise, and intelligence to make choices about their government.

What I think is going on here in political terms is that rather than seeking a mandate from the public, political authority increasingly turns to researchers, doctors, scientists and special interest groups. It is from them we get the claim that sugar is like crack cocaine, and that the planet is like a spaceship without a captain, careering towards its doomsday.

Researchers are commissioned to identify risks – even the most theoretical risks – give power to arguments for something to be done, and for new political organisations to see that something is done.

Nicholas Stern for example, author of the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, which set the ground for much UK climate policy, claims that ‘policy making is usually about risk-management’.

Stern gives the game away. Back when people were mostly able to manage their own exposure to risk, “policy makers’ used to be called ‘politicians’, and policy-making was called politics.

But politics has been hollowed out in this new political settlement and debates descend to the parent-child or doctor-patient metaphors because these are the zero-level of dependent relationships. And this is all about creating dependent relationships, rather than relationships based on assent, or consent, by willing, engaged subjects.

In conclusion then, I don’t think we should take the attempt to eliminate risks from public and private life at face value. Risk Society, as it was conceived by Ulrich Beck and Blair’s favourite sociologist, Anthony Giddens has been used as a political instrument, not to mitigate risk.

That’s not to say that risks do not exist. They certainly do. But under the logic of Risk Society, the more the ordinary adult’s faculties are diminished, so the greater the risk they are exposed to appears to be, and so the greater the imperative for the government to intervene becomes.

Catherine Mitchell is Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Exeter. She is also one of the academics behind a joint venture between Exeter University and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, called IGov: ‘Innovation, Governance and Affordability for a Sustainable Secure Economy’.

IGov is a four year research project aiming to understand and explain the nature of sustainable change within the energy system, focusing on the complex inter-relationships between governance and innovation. The project is housed in the University of Exeter’s Energy Policy Group and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Our approach is to examine theories of change alongside actual practice in the UK and a number of comparison countries. The ultimate objective is to develop a framework for governance that better enables practices to change and the UK to move towards a sustainable, secure and affordable energy system. IGov is about new thinking for energy.

Needless to say, I find this stuff weird.

Why? First, leaving aside what we know about the Green Blob (we’ll come back to that), I find the growing nexus between the academy and the state weird. ‘A government of all the talents’, as Gordon Brown called it, seems to make at least superficial sense. But it leads to the grim politics that Gordon Brown will be remembered for. Expertise, though a necessary thing for governments to draw from, given undue prominence, is corrosive to the democratic sphere. Second, it seems to me that Academe’s growing role as outsourced policymakers invariably attracts the dimmest academics, who nonetheless are now able to campaign for “change” under the cover of academic prestige, rather than out in the public sphere, amongst the hoi polloi. I don’t think that is a healthy way to construct policy.

For example… What business is it of Exeter University to lobby for ‘sustainable change within the energy system’? Who asked them to devise plans to get ‘the UK to move towards a sustainable, secure and affordable energy system’?

That’s not to criticise academics for having views — and stating them — about how the world should be organised, if it should be organised at all. But put it this way, would IGov ask an academic who is critical of its aims to join it? No. But neither is it open to public criticism, yet it has influence in the public sphere.

On Monday, Professor Mitchell posted an article to the IGov blog, criticising David Rose’s Mail on Sunday article on the Green Blob, which Barry Woods and I helped with. Mitchell says ‘It is the Black Fog the Daily Mail needs to worry about, not the Green Blob’. After dismissing the article as ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view’, she makes her argument that the fossil fuel lobby — the Black Fog — is far more extended into policymaking than the Green Blob is.

One thing we can be certain of is that it is not the green blob which is somehow taking over parliament. The ‘black fog’ which supports fossil fuels and the conventional energy system is far bigger, and has a far greater impact across the globe, and in Britain.

To make her point, she uses research from the IEA, OECD and IMF, which claims that subsidies for fossil fuels are much greater than the subsidies for renewables. This is a proxy, on Mitchell’s view, for the extent of the lobbying either sector does. I thought I’d email Professor Mitchell, to explain why she’s wrong.

Dear Professor Mitchell,

As one of the reporters on the Mail on Sunday story you refer to in your recent blog post, I was interested in your comments that the ‘Black Fog’ should concern the Daily Mail {sic} more than the ‘Green Blob’. Being a freelance researcher on energy and climate matters, a number of your other comments also concerned me.

You express the view that the article represented ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view’.

In fact a substantial amount of research was undertaken for the article, and some was produced beforehand. The bulk of the evidence for the claims made in the article exist in the published reports of the organisations referred to – a requirement of US (though sadly not UK) law. I have provided some links below this email.

The reports published by the US, UK and Brussels-based organisations referred to all emphasise their roles in campaigning for planned coal-fired generating capacity in the UK to be cancelled, and their success in bringing about national and EU legislation. We show that The Hewlett Foundation alone made grants of $0.5 billion to ClimateWorks, which is the major donor in turn of the European Climate Foundation (ECF), who make further grants from a €25 million budget to organisations to lobby for policy change. We found further substantial grants are made directly between ClimateWorks and ECF’s funders and their beneficiaries.

You go on to claim that a greater problem than the effect of ‘green blob’ funding over policy-making is the black fog, which is ‘taking over parliament’. The only evidence you offer in support of this claim is the ‘direct public subsidies to different energy sectors’, revealed in reports by the International Energy Agency (IEA), IMF and OECD. I believe that you may have misunderstood the research you cite.

The summary of the report you linked to makes the claim that “The global cost of fossil-fuel subsidies expanded to $544 billion in 2012 despite efforts at reform. Financial support to renewable sources of energy totalled $101 billion.” However, what is not explained is how these figures are produced.

The IEA explain their methodology: “It compares average end-user prices paid by consumers with reference prices that correspond to the full cost of supply.” The OECD explain the problem with this approach. As the price paid by the consumer after duty and so on is generally greater than the reference price, the IEA do not consider that Britain subsidises the fossil fuel sector. And so on the IEA’s analysis, no country in Europe or North America subsidises its fossil sector, either. We can, on the terms of your own argument, then, determine that the size of the ‘black fog’ is zero, and that its influence in Westminster and in Brussels is zero.

The OECD’s analysis, which is drawn from the same data, does claim that Britain subsidises the fossil fuel sectors. But it admits that ‘The scope of what is considered “support” is here deliberately broad, and is broader than some conceptions of “subsidy”’. Taking the case of Britain, for example, the OECD looked at the tax benefits enjoyed by gas companies, and found the sector to be subsidised in 2011 to the amount of £3.631 billion. However, this includes £3.51 billion of ‘subsidy’ in the form of a reduced rate of VAT on domestic energy. If this is a subsidy at all, it is a consumer subsidy, not a producer subsidy. The remainder – £121 million is dwarfed by the amount the sector pays to the Treasury.

Returning to the IEA’s analysis, further investigation shows, too, that it includes in the largest part subsidies to poor consumers not to producers.

Neither analyses suggest, as you claim that ‘direct public subsidies’ are paid to ‘fossil energy sectors’ at all, much less in Britain. In fact, a PWC survey of the oil and gas sector found that it contributed more than £30bn to the Treasury. No subsidies are paid to the fossil sectors. And what the OECD claims is a ‘subsidy’ in the form of reduced rates of VAT on fuel and power in the UK is in fact a consumer benefit that is equally applied to green energy – it just happens that less of it is produced, so it draws less subsidy. In this respect, the OECD’s analysis is extremely misleading. My own research shows that, even taking the OECD’s analysis at face value, when we compare the ‘subsidies’ given to green and brown sectors on a unit-for-unit basis, the renewable sector enjoys thirteen times the subsidy that the fossil fuel sector received.

You are right to say that claims about the ‘green blob’ influencing policy should be seen in the context of the efforts of ‘black fog’ to do the same. However, you are wrong to suggest that our investigation did not attempt to do this.

In fact, I spoke to a number of green organisations’ press officers about the new EU 2030 targets and the effect of industry lobbying on both sides of the debate on the Friday before publication. The Greenpeace European Office, for example, were adamant that there was such resistance to the new targets, but were unable to identify it in the terms of the article, or quantify such intervention, beyond reference to the Magritte Group, which, the spokeswoman admitted, did not seem to have intervened in the discussion about 2030 targets. A spokesman for Climate Action Network Europe told me that “the business voice has been very divided, with some being more or less on the same page as NGOs… Big multinational companies, not just renewable energy companies”. We did not look into commercial support for green policies, though we had the opportunity to point out that substantial commercial interests exist in them, and are involved with ECF beneficiaries, and have working relationships with them and politicians.

Had the organisations we spoke to – and we spoke to quite a few – been able to offer us evidence that the ‘black fog’ had intervened in the way that the ‘green blob’ has intervened, this detail would have been in the article. However, and as the article pointed out, there is only one organisation which could be described in that way. But it is very poorly funded and it refuses donations from people with interests in the energy sector.

It does not seem unreasonable, therefore, to suggest that the black fog may be nothing more than a figment of the green blob’s imagination, and that if any such lobbying effort exists, its effect is negligible. After all, the ‘green blob’, as they themselves claim, were successful in closing down the planned Kingsnorth coal-fired power station replacement, and in securing a promise of ‘no new coal without CCS’ from the previous and coalition governments.

I am surprised that it needs to be pointed out to a professor of energy policy that the OECD, EIA and IMF reports on subsidies have no place in a discussion about energy policy lobbying, and are themselves misleading measures of the energy market. If the lobbying funded by American billionaires simply went to arguing for more cash for the renewable energy sector, it might be harder to criticise them. But the consequences of yet more and further-reaching policies such as the Climate Change Act and the new 2030 targets will be felt more by people outside of the energy sector than within it. Even with the EU’s targets, it seems unlikely to me that the fossil sector’s bottom line will be affected – the EU’s 2030 targets and CCA will not close down the world market for fossil fuels.

You are entitled to your own research interests and political preferences, of course. But it looks like you have dismissed an article out of hand, on a university blog, without the substance to back it up, merely on the basis of prejudices. If the point of academic expertise is to cheerlead preferred policies, and to shout ‘boo’ at Big Oil and the wrong kind of newspapers, we can surely add them to the list of organisations recruited into the Green Blob. It seems to me that you have done precisely what you accuse the Mail on Sunday of doing – namely, ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view.’

If I have misunderstood your blog post, however, I would be grateful for your explanation. Otherwise, I hope that you will be correcting your blog post.

Best wishes,

Ben Pile.

————–

ECF grantees:- http://europeanclimate.org/home/how-we-work/our-grantees/
ECF Annual Report 2013:- http://europeanclimate.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ECF-2013-annual-report-web.pdf
ClimateWorks donors:- https://web.archive.org/web/20131127175640/http://www.climateworks.org/about/funders/

Hewlett Foundation grant database:- http://www.hewlett.org/grants/search

Hewlett Foundation statement of support for ClimateWorks:- “That is why the Hewlett Foundation decided to make a five-year, $100 million a year commitment, beginning in 2008, to ClimateWorks. ClimateWorks Foundation is a clearinghouse for this work, coordinating and supporting an international network of regional climate foundations in each of the world’s top carbon-dioxide-emitting regions-the United States, the European Union, China, India, and Latin America, as well as one to monitor the preservation of forests. The ClimateWorks Foundation is governed and led by a board of preeminent civic, business and scientific leaders from around the world and committed to supporting and sharing the best approaches to combating climate change from every corner of the world.” — http://www.hewlett.org/philanthropys-role-fighting-climate-change

Packard Foundation grant database:- http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database
Includes the following grants to ClimateWorks:-
2014 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-8/
2013 – $250,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-7/
2013 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-6/
2012 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-5/
2011 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-4/
2010 – $46,757,793 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-3/
2009 – $40,400,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-2/
2008 – $33,400,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation/

McKnight Foundation grant database:- http://www.mcknight.org/grant-programs/grantees
Includes the following grants to ClimateWorks:-

http://www.mcknight.org/grant-programs/grantees?query=ClimateWorks&year=&program_area=

Year Approved: 2008 – Grant Amount: $16,000,000
Year Approved: 2010 – Grant Amount: $26,000,000
Year Approved: 2013 – Grant Amount: $1,000,000

Oak Foundation grant database:- http://www.oakfnd.org/grants
Includes the following grants to ECF;-
2009 – $1,700,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/2909
2011 – $2,938,505 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4136
2012 – $6,825,710 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4490
2013 – $468,270 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/5163
2013 – 4,771,798 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/5162

And hte following donations to ClimateWorks:-
2008 – $600,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/3363
2010 – $2,000,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/3367
2011 – $3,750,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4190
2012 – $2,400,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4488

ClimateWorks 2011 Annual Report:- http://www.climateworks.org/imo/media/doc/ClimateWorks%20Foundation_2011%20Annual%20Report.pdf
ClimateWorks 2010 Annual Report:- http://www.climateworks.org/imo/media/doc/ClimateWorks%202010%20annual%20report.pdf
ClimateWorks 2009 Annual Report:- http://www.climateworks.org/imo/media/doc/CWFAnnualReport2009.pdf

In which the following grants to are listed:

In 2009, CW gave $64,858,769 to regional climate foundations, which
included $10,100,000 to ECF
In 2011, CW gave $83,446,516 to regional climate foundations, which
included $13,632,557 to ECF

in 2010:
European Climate Foundation – To support E.U. programs – $13,775,200
European Climate Foundation – To help track, assess, and compare
countries’ climate mitigation – $963,000
European Climate Foundation – To support the Deutsche Umwelthilfe
“Soot-Free for the Climate” European diesel filter campaign – $715,000
European Climate Foundation – To support carbon capture and storage
(CCS) strategy and grants management – $1,000,000
TOTAL: $16,453,200

ClimateWorks 2012 990 form:- http://pdfs.citizenaudit.org/2013_11_EO/26-2303250_990_201212.pdf — in which CW declares that it made $25,367,175 in grants to
European organisations.

ECF grant to CAN Europe:- E345,453 in 2013 – http://www.climnet.org/about-us/60-about-us/caneeuropesfunding
ECF grant to FOE Europe:- E339,967 in 2013 – http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/foee_funding_breakdown_2013.pdf
Grants to WWF Europe:- E531,280 in 2013 from “foundations” – http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/foee_funding_breakdown_2013.pdf
Grants to Green Alliance from “foundations”:- http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Accounts/Ends95/0001045395_AC_20130331_E_C.pdf

Example statement of ClimateWorks’ support of lobbying policy ends:- “ECF support helped ensure that the European Commission committed to strong, binding targets and minimized loopholes in its updated climate policies. ECF also helped defeat a half-dozen proposed coal power plants and supported adoption of some of the world’s strongest fuel-efficiency standards.” — http://www.climateworks.org/network/regions/region/?id=adac1221-b7c3-e0dc-3f30-67b27b29feec##regional-climate-foundation

Then I took another look at Professor Mitchell’s profile page…

She is on the Board of the Regulatory Assistance Project – a US based non-profit organisation that provides regulatory advice to Governments. She has also advised numerous national and international companies, NGOs and institutions on various aspects of the transition to a sustainable energy system.

The Regulatory Assistance Project sounds innocuous enough. It is ‘a global, non-profit team of experts focused on the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the power and natural gas sectors, providing assistance to government officials on a broad range of energy and environmental issues’.

I’d seen the name before. It had popped up during my research for David Rose. If you have a look at ClimateWorks’ 2012 990 form, for instance, you’ll see this:

CW990

ClimateWorks gave The Regulatory Assistance Project more than $8 million in 2012. If you haven’t read the Sunday Mail article yet, the significance of this is that ClimateWorks is the clearing house for the vast funds that flow between ‘philanthropic’ organisations and special interest lobbying organisations, like RAP. The European Climate Foundation, which is the focus of the Mail on Sunday Article, is the European Office of ClimateWorks, and distributes £tens of millions to our friends such as FoE, Greenpeace, WWF and smaller propaganda outfits like Richard Black’s Energy and Climate Intelligence {sic} Unit, and The Carbon Brief, which is now headed up by my old pal, Leo Hickman.

ASIDE: On that last point, check out this from ClimateWorks’ 2011 report, where it explains what it spent its ‘climate science communications’ budget on…

climateBriefClimateWorks

$600,000… FOR A BLOG! If there are any generous billionaires reading this blog, please get in touch.

Back to Professor Mitchell. She was criticising David Rose’s article, and yet the organisation in the USA, which she is a director of, is a beneficiary of the foundation, funded by billionaires such as the Hewletts, Packards, and so on.

I sent Professor Mitchell another email.

Dear Professor Mitchell,

Since sending you my email, I notice from your profile that you are a board member of the US Regulatory Assistance Project, which was the beneficiary of $8,674,434 of grants from ClimateWorks in 2012.

Given that you discuss in your blog post the need for transparency, do you not think you should have mentioned your relationship with the organisations identified in the Mail on Sunday article?

Best wishes,

I’m not expecting a reply.


UPDATE: Catherine Mitchell has emailed to say that her blog post has been amended. The comment about ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view’ has been removed.

This was originally written for Spiked, who haven’t yet decided whether or not to publish it.

Plans to bring UK nuclear energy out of its torpor were given mild relief last week, as the EU Commission approved the deal between the Government and EDF – the developer of the proposed Hinkley Point power station. The Commission investigated whether or not the deal broke state aid rules, and found that it did not. But when the Somerset turf is finally cut to make way for Britain’s first nuclear power station in nearly 20 years, Hinkley Point will stand as an epitome of remote, self-serving and intransigent political institutions rather than the symbol of technological and social progress that nuclear power stations once were.

New nuclear has been on the table for some time. But years of talks with energy companies and potential developers resulted in them packing up their pitch and walking away, citing expense. With only one developer left in the running, and with the UK government having committed to new nuclear energy as part of its carbon emissions-reduction strategy, it was now held over a barrel. To save itself from embarrassment, the government would underwrite loans for the £16 billion project, and guarantee a minimum price (‘strike price’) for the electricity it produced for the first 35 years of operation: £92.50 per megawatt hour (MWh) – roughly double the current market value.

At such prices, it is no surprise that the private sector was reluctant to get involved or finance Britain’s new nuclear projects. And with such an extraordinary intervention in the pricing mechanism, it was no surprise that the deal was investigated by the Commission for a possible breach of state aid rules. What is a surprise is that the Commission – which estimated that the costs of construction may reach £24.5 billion, and which advised that the price support should be extended from 35 years to the full 60-year lifespan of the plant – did not find much wrong with the UK government’s intervention. People born today will still be paying over-the-odds for the electricity produced at Hinkley Point at the end of their lives. Never mind toxic waste; expensive energy will be the coalition government’s ‘nuclear legacy’.

The cost of the 3.2 gigawatt (GW) proposed Hinkley Point power station is extraordinary. To put it into perspective, a comparison can be made with the gas-fired power station at Pembroke, which opened in 2012. On a unit-for-unit basis, the £7.6 bn per GW Hinkley Point plant is expected to cost nearly 20 times as much as the £400m per GW Pembroke plant. Though the fuel costs of Pembroke are not reflected in such a comparison, even at today’s relatively high gas prices, Pembroke produces electricity for less than half the cost of the proposed Hinkley Point plant. If gas prices were to fall to the prices seen in the 1990s and 2000s, electricity from Pembroke might be produced for as little as an eighth of the cost of electricity produced at Hinkley Point. The gamble on such high energy prices demonstrates that cheap energy is off the political agenda.

The green lobby reacted by complaining about the expense of the deal. “This is a world record sell-out to the nuclear industry at the expense of taxpayers and the environment’, whinged Greenpeace. But people who have campaigned for the abolition of greenhouse gasses and lobbied for expensive alternatives should not throw stones about market distortion and costs to the consumer. The same legislation which gives the operators of Hinkley Point £92.50 per MWh also grants to renewable generators far more generous subsidies. The strike price for offshore wind in 2014/5 is £155/MWh. For onshore wind it is £95. Biomass generators receive £105/MWh. Large solar PV installations receive a very generous £120. And operators of wave and tidal stream generators will receive a whopping £305. Where were Greenpeace’s complaints about government largesse when these prices were announced? The extraordinary Hinkley Point deal needs to be seen in the context of climate change and renewable energy policies.

High energy prices have been established as the norm by policy, not by scarcity. This has been legitimised by arguments that first-of-kind and immature technologies need help to compete with seemingly mature counterparts such as coal and gas. But the categories of ‘mature’ and ‘immature’ technology presuppose that one has reached its terminal point, while the other has more potential to be unleashed. But the reverse may be true: wind energy and the use of wood as fuel are in fact much older, and were largely abandoned by today’s politician’s wiser predecessors. Meanwhile, shale gas ‘fracking’ and the potential recovery of methane hydrates from the ocean floor demonstrate that there is a great deal of R&D left to do in the fossil fuel sector.

But abundant and cheap energy may create environmental problems. On the green view, this creates a tension between human needs and wants and the need for political leaders to address the urgent problem of a changing climate. Climate change may or may not be a problem requiring political intervention. However, there is no need for us to understand it as a problem to see the backwards thinking that has produced the climate and energy policies that now put expensive ‘negawatts’ further up the political agenda than cheaper megawatts. Although each EU member state – and many other countries throughout the world – spend many billions each year on renewable energy subsidies and emissions-reduction, global emissions continue to rise. But what if the tens of £billions ear-marked for the most expensive power station in the world instead went on actual energy research? Entire university campuses could be constructed and funded for just the price of Hinkley Point.

Just a small fraction of the many £billions spent each year on subsidising the extremely inefficient renewable energy sector could finance instead an array of projects like ITER – the European fusion research programme – where currently many countries now share just one. ITER is a good demonstration of political priorities. It is a 35 year research programme, intended to produce a proof-of-concept of sustained nuclear fusion: zero-carbon energy from water, forever. The programme has a budget of around €15 billion, shared between 35 countries – or very roughly €12 million per year, per country on average – barely enough cash to finance a small wind farm.

The budgets for nuclear energy research in the UK are, when compared to the money spent on renewables, mean, to say the least. A 2012 review of UK nuclear energy research found that UK Government expenditure on nuclear R&D was just £66 million in 2010/11 – around £30 million each for research into fusion and fission. The same review found that university research into nuclear energy between the years 2006-2012 was just £269 million — £44 million a year. Again, these sums are barely enough to build a small wind farm.

This is not to say that every last penny spent on renewable energy should have been spent on nuclear R&D. But these sums indicate that the problem of climate change isn’t being taken at all seriously from an R&D perspective. The emphasis on immediate, top-down and restrictive policies – targets, carbon budgets, subsidies and taxes – have yielded no practical benefit, whereas emphasis on energy R&D could have multiplied the number of experimental pathways into all forms of energy, both to mitigate climate change, and expand the reach of industrial energy production.
Investment in R&D, rather than top-down policies might well have delivered benefits that reduced the risks and costs of nuclear energy. There are many reactor designs that could compete on safety and therefore cost. Some designs offer to burn up waste stockpiles in sub-critical reactors. Some designs are modular, allowing easy and rapid deployment. Some are hybrids of fission and fusion. Some operate at low pressure. Some burn substances other than uranium and plutonium. The progress of each design is beset, not by technical challenges, but by political inertia. Rather than making a transparent choice of technique, or investing in such a way as to expand the choices on offer, policymakers were forced by first their own ineptitude, and second by their own intransigence into an expensive and hasty decision: not to save the planet from climate change, but to save their policies from embarrassing failure.

The predictable failure of renewable energy’s promises was the final cue for nuclear energy’s farcical return. The UK’s nuclear energy programme had been abandoned in the 1980s following the environmental movement’s successful mobilisation of public opinion after the Chernobyl accident. Meanwhile, the effect of the ‘dash for gas’ that had begun in the late ‘80s, and which led to low energy prices throughout the 1990s began to ebb away as North Sea gas fields seemed to dry up. In the 2000s, a timid and image-conscious Labour government sought the approval of green organisations, and allowed them to close down any possibility of new coal-fired power station. European emissions directives shortened the lives of existing fossil-fuel-powered plants though the Large Combustion Plant Directive and the Industrial Emissions Directive. Now the UK faced a growing energy gap.

Renewable energy never stood a chance of filling that gap or providing electricity at a reasonable cost. The offshore wind farm at Thanet, completed in 2010, cost £900 million to build for 300MW of installed capacity. But due to the variability of wind, offshore wind farms produce around a third of their nameplate capacity. Thanet therefore cost a whopping £8.6 billion per GW of effective capacity – nearly a £billion more than Hinkley point, but supplying the grid with electricity at three times the market value, netting its operators more than £75 million in subsidies per year.

The rhetoric hailing the return of nuclear exists in stark contrast to the promises about white heat of technological revolution generations earlier. More than half a century since the first civil nuclear reactors produced electricity, Britain’s political leaders struggle to establish the lowest possible expectations for the highest possible price: keeping the lights on and tackling climate change.

Back in the 1950s, a year before Britain’s first nuclear power plant opened, ministers from the six member countries of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) gathered at Messina, Italy. The ECSC met to set out the priorities that would become the foundations of the European Economic Community, and later the EU. Amongst the three major objectives that were essential ‘to improve steadily the living standard of the population’, the conference agreed that ‘Putting more abundant energy at a cheaper price at the disposal of the European economies constitutes a fundamental element of economic progress’ and that ‘The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes will very soon open up the prospect of a new industrial revolution beyond comparison with that of the last hundred years’.

Nearly sixty years of technological development and social progress, however, have taken their toll on the European political elite’s technological ambition and imagination. In 2007, they set out their new objectives. Europe abandoned the Messina Declaration’s objectives. “Energy is essential for Europe to function. But the days of cheap energy for Europe seem to be over. The challenges of climate change, increasing import dependence and higher energy prices are faced by all EU members.”

It may seem a radical proposition: if policymakers eschew the principle of cheap energy, might cheap energy become that much harder to find? Does the fact of Europe declaring that ‘the days of cheap energy for Europe seem to be over’ not establish expensive energy as a political priority, and shift the emphasis of public organisations and publically-funded research away from the discovery of cheap energy? Might this not explain why ITER and nuclear research are so poorly-funded, in spite of what so many politicians have described as a ‘planetary emergency’ and ‘the biggest challenge ever facing humanity’?

Whether or not climate change is happening, the tension between the necessity of dealing with it and wanting cheap energy is one that politicians have used for their own ends: to secure themselves and their institutions against the public’s wishes. The promise of abolishing coal, and supplying the UK with green energy may occasionally raise a standing ovation from the zombie faithful at party conferences, but most people just want there to be reasonably-priced electricity when the light switch is flicked. Accordingly, the problem, as policymakers conceive of it, is people, not the climate. Hence their preference for ‘behaviour change’, demand-side management, ‘efficiency’, and the imposition of limits, targets and subsidies, while eschewing innovation and the notion of economic development with it. The growing expense and decreasing reliability of electricity infrastructure throughout Europe is not merely a symbolic reflection of the European political establishment’s detachment from ordinary life; it is its product.

And so it is with nuclear energy now. We can keep our lights on, but only at colossal expense. The expense was caused by policies, which through accidents and by design, established high energy prices and expectations of government support for new capacity. Having established that much, the incentive to innovate, to produce energy for a lower cost and in greater abundance, disappears.

Electricity generation and its delivery are technologies that were mastered many decades ago. Nuclear power was developed not long after. The fuels for these technologies exist in vast quantities, and their quantities are multiplied as the means to extract and use them are developed. The thing that stops the transparent management of resources and their efficient delivery is a form of politics which legitimises itself, to itself, for itself, against us, by problematising such simple things as energy. The more that technical problems involved in life’s most basic necessities – like coping with the climate and producing energy – are made complicated, so the lower the aspirations of politics and the lower the expectations of politicians become.


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The Institute of Ideas‘ tenth Battle of Ideas festival is taking place next month at the Barbican Centre in London.

If you’re not familiar with the event, the Battle is a weekend of many debates and discussions on many different matters, led by speakers from around the world. The Saturday line up is here, and the Sunday line up is here.

I will be discussing Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children? with Chris Snowdon, Dan Hodges and Martha Gill. The debate is not about climate change, though it touches on the excess of the climate debate that have been observed on this blog, as well as in many other areas of public life. From the Battle of Ideas website:

In the past, government may have intervened frequently in the economy, but our private lives were our own to live as we saw fit. In recent years, however, government has largely given up on being the ‘hand on the tiller’ of the economy and intervenes regularly in once-private aspects of life. Smoking is now banned in most public places, and smoking in cars in the presence of children is about to be banned. Environmental concerns have led to new efficiency standards for domestic appliances, and smart meters may regulate our electricity usage from afar, while we are constantly told to reduce our consumption of everything and there is serious discussion about how procreation should be limited to save the planet. Even now, parents are increasingly lectured to about how they should raise their children and, in Scotland, the Named Person rules mean a specific government employee will oversee each child’s upbringing.

Even non-governmental organisations, charities, voluntary associations and academics increasingly see it as their role to ‘educate’ ill-informed, non-expert adults. From public health to environmental campaigns, the assumption is that left our own devices, we will make the ‘wrong choices’. England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, complains that ‘three quarters of parents with overweight children do not recognise that they are too fat’. How can we trust adults who don’t understand the impact of their gas-guzzling family car on the planet or that feeding their kids junk food is leading to an obesity epidemic?

While such attitudes and interventions are viewed as annoying or threatening in some instances, few people actively protest against them. And often there are popular demands for more regulation and legislation to protect us from harm. Why has government become so keen to make decisions for us? And why do we not even seem to take ourselves seriously as autonomous citizens? Or is such ‘infantilisation’ actually a sensible response to our limited capacities and propensity to shoot ourselves in the foot, based on a recognition that in fact, ‘there are no grown ups’. Is it reasonable to allow the ‘experts’ to decide how we live? If not, what should we do about it?

Readers here may be particularly interested in the following sessions…

Tim Worstall, Rob Lyons, Miguel Veiga-Pestana and Amy Jackson will be debating Feeding the world: can we engineer away hunger?:

TV images from Ethiopia in the 1980s seemed to confirm the gloomy prognosis that many parts of the world faced mass starvation. Since then, humanity’s capacity to feed itself looked to be increasing well. China’s dramatic economic growth eradicated hunger for millions, much like the earlier Green Revolution in India. World population has gone up by 50 per cent, yet the proportion of people who are undernourished has fallen dramatically. But gloomy voices of modern Malthusianism are making a comeback, warning that disaster was merely postponed.

[…]

So, can we feed the world in the future? Will the future of food require a radical overhaul of our contemporary diets or can technological and social advancements aim to provide (much) more of the same? Should we look forward to a future of healthy bug burgers edging out the Big Mac, or can innovation and food engineering deliver pleasurable diversity as well as sustenance? And what is the right balance between technological innovation and social development?

Then Dr Alan Walker, Dr Keith MacLean, Rob Lyons, Paul Ekins and Gemma Adams will be discussing Energy futures: how can we keep the lights on?:

Could Britain soon be facing blackouts? Over the past few years, EU rules have led to the closure of many coal-fired power stations. But after much prevarication by politicians, the generating capacity to replace these stations will not be available immediately. For the second half of this decade, the gap between peak demand and total power-station capacity will be close to zero. While much discussion focuses on increasing energy efficiency, the need to increase the absolute amount of energy available is still an urgent priority.

[…]

Is it a positive development that a practical question such as energy production has become such a public hot potato? Are barriers to generating more sources of energy political, technical or environmental? If increased energy can be is secured, will it boost human prosperity by helping fuel economic growth, or will it simply accelerate the destruction of the planet? Can we make a positive case for increased energy production against a backdrop of disquiet about effects on the environment and ambivalence about economic growth per se? How much power should we produce, where should it come from and what methods should be used to produce it? How can we satisfy competing demands, contested priorities and keep the lights on?

Andrew Orlowski, Steve Rayner, Bryony Sadler and Peter Sammonds will be asking After the floods: can we tame the weather?

Are critics right to imply human beings are still a long way from being able to control and withstand the fearsome whims of Mother Nature? Do the most effective forms of flood defence lie in adapting to the landscape rather than adapting the landscape for human habitation? Is it simply common sense that any large-scale attempts to modify the weather or climate come at an unacceptably high risk to future generations of ‘blowback’? What do the weather wars reveal about our attitudes to risk and innovation today?

There are many other discussions on offer, so please take a look. Tickets can be bought at the Barbican website, here.

A note of caution if you’re not buying tickets through the links above… The Battle of Ideas is now a decade old and thus must expect some low quality imitations. As testimony to the Guardian group’s ability to form original ideas and content, The Observer is running its own ‘Festival of Ideas‘ at the same venue, a week earlier. So if you’re buying tickets, make sure you’re buying them for the BATTLE, of ideas, not the Observer’s knock-off.

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