Comment is NOT Free

Over at Comment is Free, George Monbiot attempts to rescue the eco-movement from the criticism that they’re a bunch of toffs by launching a campaign to ‘ban the aga’. “This is indeed a class war,” he says. 

So where is the campaign against Agas? There isn’t one. I’ve lost count of the number of aspirational middle-class greens I know who own one of these monsters and believe that they are somehow compatible (perhaps because they look good in a country kitchen) with a green lifestyle. The campaign against Agas – which starts here – will divide rich greens down the middle.

(For those readers hailing from lands without them, an Aga is a very large, solid and heavy cooker, which is ‘always on’, and was a much-coveted lifestyle/status symbol in the eighties.)

George is keen to demonstrate his readiness to split the green movement following criticism from Spiked-Online that its membership is almost exclusively or disproportionately people with middle and upper class backgrounds.

Edited by Brendan O’Neill, it concentrates on denying the existence of social and environmental problems, and attacking protest movements with a hatred so intense and disproportionate that it must contain an element of self-disgust.

Monbiot imagines that the failure of the UK’s environmental movement is the fault of Spiked and its associates. But what’s even weirder than this conspiracy-mongering is George’s plan to distance himself from Spiked’s criticism, and to reveal Spiked as the ‘real’ friend of the rich. 

Yes, this is a class war; and Brendan O’Neill and his fellow travellers have sided with the toffs. These Marxist proletarian firebrands are defending the class they profess to hate. Bosses of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your planes.

Mark Lynas, author of Six-Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, tried to make a similar argument in reply to Spiked earlier in the year after a poll of voting behaviour, in his view, revealed a greater interest in environmental issues amongst working class people. 

So perhaps anti-environmental class warriors like the editors of Spiked need to find a new cause to champion. The working-class people who they claim “can’t afford to be concerned about climate change” actually care more about the future of the planet than the rich – and are doing a lot less damage to boot. So next time you hear someone defending motorway expansion or cheap flights on behalf of the British poor, ask yourself the question: whose side are they really on?

But as we showed, Lynas’ treatment of the raw statistics was, erm, bad statistics. Furthermore, Lynas’ claim to be onside with the poor of the world is undermined by his comment to Red Pepper magazine in 2004, 

The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere.

…which is exactly the sort of thing which Spiked criticise him for. Similarly, Monbiot argued in August, that his eco-socialist and eco-anarchist comrades risked undermining his efforts to save the planet

Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim.

Which is curious, because just a few years ago, George himself was a staunch anti-capitalist, arguing in 2000 that 

The struggle between people and corporations will be the defining battle of the twenty-first century. If the corporations win, liberal democracy will come to an end. The great social institutions which have defended the weak against the strong – equality before the law, representative government, democratic accountability and the sovereignty of parliament – will be toppled.

Monbiot accuses Spiked of ‘moving to the Right’. Yet Monbiot, 8 years after his attempt to mobilise the masses against global capitalism… gives up, and calls for people to abandon politics, or the world will end. 

He and Lynas struggle hard to reply to the criticisms made by Spiked. And that is why they need to use words such as these…

[LM (prior to Spiked)] campaigned against bans on tobacco advertising, child pornography and the ownership of handguns. It denied that genocide had taken place in Rwanda, or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It provided a platform for writers from the hard-right Institute for Economic Affairs and Centre for the Defence of Free Enterprise. Frank Furedi started writing for the Centre for Policy Studies, which was founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. He and the LM writer Tony Gilland wrote to the supermarket chains, offering – for £7,500 – to educate “consumers about complex scientific issues”.

… in an effort to throw muck at their critics. It is only by turning Spiked into advocates for genocide, child pornography, laissez-faire capitalism, Smoking, murders and evil-supermarkets that Monbiot can elevate himself and his fragile argument. 

But Monbiot’s is a shallow, weird, and infantile argument, for which he takes a drubbing in the comments. One of which, from James Heartfield, author of Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance, was deleted by the moderators.  

Is George Monbiot being a bit sensitive about being called a toff? But then his ancestors were French aristocrats, the Ducs de Coutard, his parents leading Tory Politicians who sent their little boy to Stowe Public school and Brasenose College, Oxford, before George got a job at the BBC, trolled around the anti-roads protests for a while, sponsored by career diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, then landing his current job as Guardian columnist. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Monbiot)

George thinks air travel the equivalent of child abuse, except when he is doing it to ‘promote his book’. Climate changes gives George the intellectual justification for refusing to share his flights with the great unwashed.

We Are Armed Only With Rumour, Hyperbole And Friends In High Places

The Climate Camp protestors have been complaining about the way they have been treated by the police. Again. Caroline Lucas explains, on commentisrubbish,

Everyone who enters the site is being searched. Police officers are taking anything away that “could be used for illegal activity”, with efforts being made to strip protesters of such hardcore weapons of choice as bits of carpet, biodegradable soap and toilet paper. In the absence of any serious threat, the police clearly found it necessary to justify their presence with an unprovoked attack on personal hygiene.

As we said recently, the police are complicit in the camp’s PR. Heavy handedness just appears to lend the protest some drama, and sympathy for the silly protest. Worse still, it makes the protestors look like they are on the opposing side to the Government, when in fact, they have a lot in common.

But further North from the camp, near the site of the 2006 Climate Camp, another group of protestors in June halted a train bound for the Drax power plant, [video], attached ropes from the train to a bridge, and emptied coal from the train onto adjacent tracks.

It is hardly a surprise that the police therefore take the threat a little bit more seriously than the likes of Lucas claim it warrants. Indeed, the camp’s organisers boast of their intention to cause problems for the rest of the country:

On Saturday August 9th, the climate camp will go beyond talk and culminate in a spectacular mass action to shut down Kingsnorth. Permanently!

How can the police not take seriously the open threat made by the protestors – clearly no strangers to dangerous acts of sabotage – to sabotage an installation that serves hundreds of thousands of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals with power? We take very seriously the right of the camp to protest, and even to get up people’s noses by inconveniencing them. That is the stuff of democracy, after all. But you can’t expect the police to treat you all nice and fluffy while you are issuing threats that they are duty-bound to prevent you from carrying out.

The small group of self-important protestors have convinced themselves that they are beyond any kind of reproach, and are faultless. Reason does not apply to them. They have Gaia on their side.

Yet their arguments are too easily defeated. Last Friday, just eight Climate Camp protestors chained themselves to the gates of argibusiness giant, Cargill, on the basis that they are ‘profiting from hunger’ during global food price rises. This is simply crazy. The environmental movement has long campaigned for HIGHER food prices, arguing that industrial agriculture and distribution, in its search for lower prices and efficiencies is bad for the environment. If Cargill are profiting from higher prices, it is thanks to Environmentalism, as James Heartfield put it in Spiked recently:

For more than 20 years now, both the US and the European Union have pursued policies designed to reduce food output. They have introduced policies that reward farmers for retiring land from production (such as the EU’s set-aside and wilderness schemes). At the same time, the United Nations has used its aid programmes to penalise African farmers who try to increase yields with modern fertilisers or mechanisation. […] Just when it suited large-scale agriculture to wind down output to protect prices, the environmentalists were on hand to support land retirement schemes. Farmers, according to Britain’s Countryside Agency, would no longer farm, but become stewards of the countryside.

The leitmotif of the environmental movement is ‘the science says’. The camp’s slogan last year was ‘We are armed… only with peer-reviewed science’ . As we have said before, science is Environmentalism’s fig leaf. Behind the idea that ‘the science’ has promised catastrophe is the shameful illogic, unreason and plain untruths that Environmentalists don’t want us to see.

Writing in the Guardian, for example, Climate Camp protesters Ellen Potts, Oli Rodker, Johnathan Stevensen, Paul Morozzo and Mel Evans specify just how long all that ‘peer-reviewed science’ tells we have to save the planet:

Scientists tell us that from this week we have just 100 months to solve climate change.

Which scientists would that be then? Well, it seems it would be the Green New Deal Group, which comprises Larry Elliott (Economics Editor of the Guardian), Colin Hines (Co-Director of Finance for the Future; former head of Greenpeace International’s Economics Unit), Tony Juniper (former Director of Friends of the Earth), Jeremy Leggett (founder and Chairman of Solarcentury and SolarAid), Caroline Lucas (Green Party MEP), Richard Murphy (Co-Director of Finance for the Future and Director, Tax Research LLP), Ann Pettifor (former head of the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign, Campaign Director of Operation Noah), Charles Secrett (Advisor on Sustainable Development; former Director of Friends of the Earth) and Andrew Simms (Policy Director, the new economics foundation).

Spot the scientists, anyone?

Slightly more sobre – surprisingly – is the Camp’s very own ‘climate science’ page. It doesn’t talk of ‘just 100 weeks to save the planet’, but it does talk of 4°C temperature rise by 2100, giving rise to

reduced crop yields in the tropics, sea level rises and increases in flooding, more extreme weather events and at least a third of all species destined for extinction

These are, of course, factoids leeched from IPCC reports, and give the upper ranges of projections as predictions, and cite, third hand, worst-case scenarios from single-studies of very small sample groups taken from highly vulnerable species. There is, as yet, no clear evidence of ‘more extreme weather events’.

The reason for the camp’s relatively sobre – albeit still rather shrill – presentation of the ‘science’ might have something to do with its being written by a scientist.

Dr Simon L. Lewis, Earth & Biosphere Institute, School of Geography, University of Leeds. The author is a specialist on the interactions of tropical forests and climate change and a member of the Royal Society’s Climate Change Advisory Group. All the scientific information included here appears in the IPCC Fourth Assesment Reports, available at www.ipcc.ch

Climate Camp must be over the moon at having Lewis on board to write the sciencey bits. Unfortunately for them, however, what is striking is that the actions of the Climate Camp protesters is not justifiable on the basis of the Lewis’s summary. Which is why in interviews and letters to the Guardian, the protesters have to resort to the language of catastrophe.

Lewis’s thoughts on the matter of catastrophe, published on the Royal Society’s website are even more circumspect:

Are we heading for catastrophe? Possibly. It is currently impossible to make robust predictions concerning how future climatic changes will interact with social factors and non-climatic environmental problems in an increasingly globalised world, but it is straightforward to conceive of plausible and socially explosive scenarios (e.g. mixing a future economic recession and geopolitical tensions over resources, with extreme weather events causing a a key crop failure and resulting mass human migrations could overload political institutions). However, regarding climate change per se, it is physically possible to avoid the worst of climate change depending upon political choices now.

Nonetheless, we see here less climate science, and more speculation that is far closer to social science. And it gets worse:

The basic solution to climate change is obvious but rarely articulated forcefully: most fossil carbon must not get into the atmosphere. Currently the only proven way to do this is to leave most fossil fuels in the ground. That is no new oil fields, no new coal mines. But such apparently drastic measures are not on the mainstream agenda. Why? In my view this is because individuals, governments and companies all operate within a socio-economic system, capitalism, which, whether we like it or not, means it is difficult not to abide by the rules of this system.

This isn’t even social science – it’s political ideology. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with holding anti-capitalist views. Capitalism – like social science, and like climate science – needs to be challenged. But it’s clear that the boundaries between Lewis’s study of forests and his very shallow and fragile critique of capitalism are not as solid as they might be. If Lewis were a post-doctoral researcher specialising in tropical forest ecology who happened to be an anti-capitalist, that would be one thing. But instead, as is true of political discussions today, ‘science’ is the language in which ethical and political arguments are being made. In other words, Lewis, and the anti-capitalist environmental movement, cannot challenge capitalism in human, political, or on principled terms. If you aren’t sure about why that is wrong, consider what might be wrong with an argument attempting to ‘prove’ that theft and murder are wrong using Newtons laws of thermodynamics.

Writing on Commentisrubbish to explain the purpose of the camp, Lewis once again conflates science and politics:

A new high point of opposition starts this weekend as the Camp for Climate Action embarks on an eight-day protest to press the government and E.ON to abandon the scheme. This is no fringe issue: they will be taking action to stop a proposal potentially so destructive that increasing numbers of scientists are speaking out against it […]

The Climate Camp is creating space for serious debate about the kind of world we want to live in. More than that, the campers give shape to a force that can perhaps override the profits-now catastrophe-later logic of the government and E.ON: they form a broad-based movement of people committed to a socially just transition to a low-carbon society. I certainly don’t want to live in E.ON’s world, where business as usual trumps avoiding dangerous climate change. So I’ll be joining the campers in Kent. Anyone else with concerns about the future should do the same.

But he’s a scientist. So it must be true. Also no stranger to the language of catastrophe is Sir Martin “Our Final Century” Rees, president of the Royal Society, which funds Lewis’ research. Who said recently,

“Our main concerns are that coal fired powered stations are worse in terms of CO2 production even than oil or gas fired power stations.
“It would symbolically be very unfortunate if the UK were to approve a coal fired power station without imposing very strict requirements that some technology should be adopted that would allow it to capture the carbon dioxide it emits.”

So what have Rees and Lewis got to do with sabotage, police-brutality, and silly protests in Kent?

Quite a lot. We have described before the curious symbiosis between the Royal Society and activists such as Mark Lynas. What it reveals is that the establishment generates anxiety about the future, and are key to equipping the protestors with their arguments. The establishment is sympathetic to the protestors aims, as witnessed by the raft of environmental legislation on the cards and already in place. The establishment is involved in heavy policing of the protest. And the establishment is responsible for publicising the protest. This is not grass-roots activists, protesting about the state of things. This is anxiety within the establishment, expressing itself downwards. This process begins in the minds of those at the top, unsure of their roles, and of the future. It finds its way to a tiny number of individuals, who make a big noise and interesting pictures, which in turn creates the idea that this absurd protest has a point. But in truth, the entire spectacle owes itself to nothing more than the fact that Chicken Littles are running the roost, and that they depend on those prepared to flap about to make their positions more tenable, and legitimate.

The love-in between Climate Camp and the Royal Society is also evident in the protestors’ Guardian Letter:

The thought of going to prison even for a short period is daunting, but we cannot accept the logic of bail conditions that stop us attending a legal event at which Royal Society professors mix with families.

And which aims to shut down illegally a power station, by the way.

When the likes of Martin Durkin are deemed by the Royal Society to deviate from ‘the science’ of climate change, he is subject to the full wrath of the Royal Society. And yet it stands by as climate protesters and scientists take liberties with the truth and pass off opinion as science while hiding behind the Society’s very authority.

What the Royal Society ought to be doing – rather than running around like headless chickens – is providing sobre reflection, and scientific rationalism. It does exist, amongst the clucking. Take for example, the words of Carl Wunsch

…it is very difficult to separate human induced change from natural change, certainly not with the confidence we all seek. In these circumstances, it is essential to remember that the inability to prove human-induced change is not the same thing as a demonstration of its absence. It is probably true that most scientists would assign a very high probability that human-induced change is already strongly present in the climate system, while at the same time agreeing that clear-cut proof is not now available and may not be available for a long-time to come, if ever. Public policy has to be made on the basis of probabilities, not firm proof.

… and the words of Lewis in the same section of the RS website:

It is currently impossible to make robust predictions concerning how future climatic changes will interact with social factors and non-climatic environmental problems in an increasingly globalised world, but it is straightforward to conceive of plausible and socially explosive scenarios (e.g. mixing a future economic recession and geopolitical tensions over resources, with extreme weather events causing a a key crop failure and resulting mass human migrations could overload political institutions).

We can see firstly that there is no claim to certainty, or the science being ‘in’ on behalf of [ scientists, even those who make public, and very shrill statements about the need for action. Second, we can see that scientific arguments that we should act to mitigate climate change are founded on the precautionary principle – a controversial way of determining the best course of action in the face of unquantified risk. Third, what determines our vulnerability to climate is what Lewis refers to as ‘social factors’, therefore, concentration on the social factors would seem to be far more prudant than making attempts to control the weather. Unfortunately, though, he only considers ways in which we are vulnerable to climate, rather than resistant to it, and so concludes that we must act to change the weather. Fourth, then, climate change, given the right ‘social factors’ might not be a problem. But Lewis’s desire that we aim for changing the weather dimishes the ‘social factors’ which relate to our ability to resist the effects of climate. Fifth, it shows that the Royal Society and its associates are aware that social factors are more important than climatic ones, and yet they insist on alarming the public with terrifying stories and innuendo about those who dare to challenge it.

Perhaps the Royal Society simply doesn’t understand its role here. It too has become caught up in the political process, and its members seem to be as confused about what is politics and what is science as the circus-freak protestors. It too makes the mistake of believing that science can answer political questions about the future. It runs with it, because to say ‘we don’t really know’ would be to undermine its own position at a time when people – particularly the rest of the establishment – are turning to science for answers because politics isn’t providing them. The result is a loss of faith in both politics and science.

It's All About Ethanol

Poor old Gordon Brown:

More than 80 Labour MPs have signed an amendment to the Climate Change Bill, which would force ministers to promise greater cuts in carbon emissions.

The Climate Change Bill commits the government to make at least a 60% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. The MPs want that figure to rise to 80%.

The rebels say the 60% goal will not do enough to control global warming.

This is the latest installment not only in Brown’s Prime Ministerial nightmare, but also in the razor wars that masquerade as environmental politics in the UK. Looking on the bright side, we’re right on course to collect on our prediction that somebody, sometime soon, is going to pledge that the country will be carbon negative by 2050.

Even more predictable is the excuse that the backbenchers offer for their rebellion:

[The rebels] also claim it is based on out-of-date science.

These figures aren’t based on science at all. They are plucked from the thin air of our ailing stratosphere and given authority merely by the use of the word ‘science’ in close proximity.

It all makes the negotiators at the G8 summit seem so last week:

World leaders say they will aim to set a global target of cutting carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2050 in an effort to tackle global warming.

Only 50%! Ach, they’ll get the hang of it. Especially with the G5 developing nations snapping at their heels:

Mexico, Brazil, China, India and South Africa challenged the Group of Eight countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% by 2050.

Not to mention that bastion of objective, detached scientific investigation, the IPCC’s chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who complains that the developed countries should be showing leadership on such matters:

“They should get off the backs of India and China,” he told reporters in the Indian capital, Delhi.

“They should say: ‘We’ll assist you to move to a pattern of development which is sustainable, low in terms of emissions intensity. But we as the richest nations are willing to take the lead and we affirm our commitment to do so.'”

But the G8 statements on carbon emissions have been eclipsed by discussions of the global food crisis and biofuels, and the supposed causal connection between the two. The G8 pledge to ensure that biofuel policies are compatible with food security comes in the wake of the leaked World Bank report that the push for biofuels accounts for 75% of the food crisis by competing with food crops for agricultural land. Suddenly, it seems, all the world’s problems are less about oil than they are about ethanol.

But, in Food price rises: are biofuels to blame?, James Heartfield provides such anaemic thinking with a healthy dose of red-blooded realism:

For more than 20 years now, both the US and the European Union have pursued policies designed to reduce food output. They have introduced policies that reward farmers for retiring land from production (such as the EU’s set-aside and wilderness schemes). At the same time, the United Nations has used its aid programmes to penalise African farmers who try to increase yields with modern fertilisers or mechanisation […]

The programmes of land retirement and reservation have been so successful worldwide that between 1982 and 2003, national parks grew from nine million square kilometres to 19million, 12.5 per cent of the earth’s surface – or more than the combined land of China and South-East Asia. In the US more than one billion acres of agricultural land is lying fallow. So the idea that land has been lost from ordinary crops to biofuels is not really true; rather, it has been lost from agricultural production altogether.

For the environmentalist critics, blaming biofuels is a desperate act of scapegoating. For years now, they have been propagandising against mass food production, favouring a return to less efficient farming methods, and for the return of farmland to its natural state. It was environmentalists who lobbied for the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, that biased UN programmes against modern farming techniques in Africa (in favour of ‘appropriate’, which is to say poor ‘technologies’). Just when it suited large-scale agriculture to wind down output to protect prices, the environmentalists were on hand to support land retirement schemes. Farmers, according to Britain’s Countryside Agency, would no longer farm, but become stewards of the countryside.

It’s interesting, then, that the G8 summit has also committed to fulfil a pledge to raise annual foreign aid levels by $50bn by 2010, of which $25bn is intended for Africa. Not that that is a Bad Thing in and of itself, of course; it just depends how it is used. If it’s spent on more of the same, and if similar strings are attached, we can expect more land to be taken out of agricultural production in the name of the saving the planet, more food shortages, more scapegoating, and more tin-pot explanations for why the world is screwed and we’re all going to die. As we keep saying, Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A major question remains regarding the green U-turn on biofuels. Why did Environmentalists ever push the bloody things in the first place? OK, so they are, theoretically, a carbon-neutral source of energy. So far, so green. But the fact remains that it was hardly rocket science to work out that they would necessarily jostle for space with agricultural land and wilderness areas.

So please indulge us while we speculate wildly, and quite possibly wrongly… Could it be that those who were pushing biofuels at the start of the century were figuring that, come 2008, primed by the Green Great-and-Good, the world would have moved on to debating how best to go about reducing the human population to more ‘sustainable’ levels? And let’s face it, if there’s one thing that Environmentalism doesn’t like it’s humans – especially lots of them. And you can bet that, while Environmentalism is not the conspiracy that many of its critics accuse it of being, its adherents do have some sort of long-term strategy. While Gordon Brown, his backbenchers, Tory leader David Cameron and pretty much everybody else in parliamentary politics grasp desperately and opportunistically at Green policies in the absence of any other, better ideas, we at least know where we stand with environmental idealogues such as Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ehrlich (who are both, as it happens, trustees of the Optimum Population Trust, a group for whom ‘optimum’ means – in case you hadn’t guessed – ‘much smaller’).

The trouble is that they underestimated the humanity of, well, humanity. The fact is that in 2008, and despite the efforts of Porritt, Ehrlich et al, the vast majority of us remain repulsed – and may we remain so for ever more – at the thought of population control, just as we remain repulsed by the notion a moral equivalence between nature and civilisation. The result is that they have had to think again.

That said, we are keen not to fall into the trap of painting a simplistic, one-dimensional picture of Environmentalism. There has always been a significant element of the movement that is against the dealings of big-business – especially big agri-business – as a matter of principle. But at the same time, other greens have appealed to market forces in the fight against ecological meltdown. (To repeat ourselves again, Environmentalism transcends traditional Left-Right distinctions.) In which case, the whole messy business might be the product of the push-and-pull between these various Green factions. A bit like the Labour Party, perhaps.