Monbiot Re-Writes History

by | Sep 13, 2014

Environmentalists don’t understand politics. Especially democratic politics. And Environmentalists aren’t much good at history either. And it should be noted, that although environmentalists like to claim that their perspectives are grounded in science, they are promiscuous with scientific facts: scientific consensus on climate, good; scientific consensus on the risks of GM crops, bad. Those who fail at these subjects are destined to rewrite them according to their needs.

Monbiot! Again! After something of a pause in Monbiot’s climate routine, he is today telling the world what it should be doing:

Stopping climate meltdown needs the courage that saved the ozone layer
Governments dither on the solution to global warming – but the Montreal Protocol is a reminder of a time when they took their hands out of their pockets

This is how environmental diplomacy works. Governments gather to discuss an urgent problem and propose everything except the obvious solution – legislation. The last thing our self-hating states will contemplate is what they are empowered to do: govern. They will launch endless talks and commissions, devise elaborate market mechanisms, even offer massive subsidies to encourage better behaviour, rather than simply say “we’re stopping this”.

I haven’t noticed the dearth of climate and energy legislation that Monbiot refers to. It seems more likely that the ‘obvious’ solution of legislation is the one which is hastily sought, where in fact it might be the least effective tool. Here in the UK, for instance we were subject to the Climate Change Act, which had been drafted by Friends of the Earth, which won climate activist Bryony (now Baroness) Worthington a seat in the House of Lords. The failure of the Climate Change Act, combined with the economic situation, resulted in a lack of investment in energy infrastructure — a problem now coming home to roost, as the UK faces winter with the smallest ever capacity margin, and Europe being denied gas by Russia — led to the Energy Act (Energy Market Reform), which transfers more risk from investors to the consumer. Since this blog’s first post back in April 2007, the hope of the UK government has been wind power. Yet in that time, the net capacity of wind energy has not increased by the output of just one coal-fired power station, many of which are now closed thanks to… yes, you’ve guessed it… Legislation. Namely, the EU’s Large Combustion Plant and Industrial Emissions directives.

According to Renewable UK, the UK has 7,534 MW onshore wind capacity, and 3,653 MW of offshore capacity. If we multiply these by their typical respective load factors (25% and 30%), we get 2,979 MW of net capacity. Before it was converted into a power station that burned American forests, Drax power station in Yorkshire had a capacity of 3,960 MW, and a load factor of 76%, producing a net capacity of 3,009 MW. It is not enough to simply pass legislation, like some kind of latter-day Cnut, and expect the world to fall into the order it imposes. The market did not have sufficient confidence that wind technology was viable, in spite of the promises of subsidies that could yield as much as 10% on the investment per year. The number of consented wind farm projects grew, yet only half of them were built. It took yet more legislation, “Energy Market Reform”, to ‘send signals to the market’ — Liberal Democrat speak for promises of public money. Meanwhile, the uncertainty generated by so much political intervention, uncertainty and vacillation in the face of growing public scepticism and ire at rising energy prices meant that new conventional plant did not get built, and the hope that the low carbon imperative could revive the UK’s nuclear energy sector forced the government into a deal with EDF for the most expensive power station in the world — at Hinkley Point.

Legislation, then, rather than mobilising resources, can paralyse an economy. Rather than creating the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ that the Labour and current coalition governments promised, they merely made it much more difficult to build new capacity of any kind in sufficient time either to meet the targets they had set, or to close the energy gap that their incautious policymaking had created.

As Roger Pielke Jr. explained in 2008,

The approach to emissions reduction embodied by the Climate Change Act is exactly backwards. It begins with setting a target and then only later do policy makers ask how that target might be achieved, with no consideration for whether the target implies realistic or feasible rates of decarbonization. The uncomfortable reality is that no one knows how fast a major economy can decarbonize. Both the 2022 interim and 2050 targets require rates of decarbonization far in excess of what has been observed in large economies at anytime in the past. Simply making progress to the targets requires steps of a magnitude that seem practically impossible, e.g., such as the need for the UK to achieve a carbon efficiency of its economy equal to that of France in 2006 in a time period considerably less than a decade.

The failure of the UK’s Climate Change Act was predictable before it had even begun, explained Pielke. And this should take us back to Monbiot.

This is what’s happening with manmade climate change. The obvious solution, in fact the only real and lasting solution, is to decide that most fossil fuel reserves will be left in the ground, while alternative energy sources are rapidly developed to fill the gap. Everything else is talk. But not only will governments not contemplate this step, they won’t even discuss it. They would rather risk mortal injury than open the gate.

‘Leaving the fossil fuels in the ground’, and ‘rapidly deploying alternative energy sources’ are not solutions. ‘Alternative energy sources’ are not actually alternatives, in the sense of ‘alternative’ which makes two things equivalent, or interchangeable. In the past, environmentalists, Monbiot included, were honest about the fact. In 2005, Monbiot said,

The notion that we can achieve this by replacing fossil fuels with ambient energy is a fantasy. It is true that we have untapped sources of energy in wind, waves, tides and sunlight, but it is neither so concentrated nor so consistent that we can plug it in and carry on as before.

And the following year, in Heat, Mobiot said of the climate change movement,

It is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

Moniot’s commitment to austerity was owed to what science had determined was a necessity, he claimed. In other words, he knows — he must know, because he has been arguing for years — that there is no equivalent ‘alternative’ to fossil fuels.

This is reflected in official thinking on climate policy. When Pielke published his research, I spoke with Professor Julia King of the Committee on Climate Change:

Professor Julia King, who is both chancellor of the university and a member of the Climate Change Committee, raised an objection to Pielke’s analysis: ‘Before you make statements about timetables and targets which don’t ask “can this be done?”, I think you really do need to take due account of the fact that most people who are putting together targets and timetables are doing this on the basis of a lot of research into potential scenarios. It’s another issue turning that into policy, for governments, and it’s very easy for all of us who don’t have to be elected to say “this is how I would do it”, and I have a lot of sympathy for our politicians, because they are dealing with extremely selfish populations.’


‘The biggest challenge is actually behavioural change in my view. My particular area has been looking at how we can decarbonise road transport. It wouldn’t take much behaviour change to reduce by 30 or 40 per cent our CO2 emissions from cars.’

King appears to want to sustain her cake and eat it. On one hand, she argues that targets have been ‘tested for do-ability’, but on the other she emphasises that behaviour change is key to meeting them. These targets may well be ‘do-able’ in the sense that they are feasible – we could dispense with all electricity and transport problems simply by ‘changing behaviour’ such that nobody used transport or used electricity. But what kind of society would we have?

This contempt for people creates a problem for Monbiot and for the legislators he now chides. It is not simply a matter of a choice without consequence; reducing CO2 emissions carries serious consequences, even in a country as wealthy as the UK. A global policy on climate change would have to suit people from economies where GDP per capita range between orders of magnitude. While many bloggers have pointed out that this creates a problem which may in fact be bigger than climate change, George Monbiot and his pals have insisted that what we have been doing is in fact ‘denying’ the science.

Political practicality is as much a problem for legislators as technical fesibility. Even a seemingly equitable arrangement whereby the world cut its emissions by 90% by 2030 that Monbiot demanded would leave much of the developing world in its condition of subsistence, and would expand the parts of the world experiencing such conditions. Policymakers from around the world, for all their desires for a global agreement, are not so stupid as to realise that striking such a deal would not result in a terminal loss of their offices, if not leaving them dangling from lamp posts. Legislators are, after all, in most places, appointed by democratic processes.

In other words, legislators need a mandate to legislate. This blog has pointed out, however, that environmentalism is at least as much an attempt to circumnavigate problems of democratic legitimacy as it is a response to environmental problems — that it is easier to take moral authority from scientific experts than it is to elicit from the governed the consent to govern in lieu of a convincing argument. Monbiot’s short cut through democracy — with a bulldozer — demonstrates that democracy and the necessity of debate were never very close to his thinking. It as if he is thinking “WHY DON’T THEY BLOODY WELL JUST DO WHAT I WANT THEM TO DO?“; technical feasibility and political reality not really being obstacles that Monbiot’s ego can even acknowledge.

World leaders have attempted to achieve an agreement, for reasons that I find dubious, but let’s take them at face value here. There was something like legislation — the Kyoto Protocol — which set the framework for legislation in some of the countries which signed up to it. The EU’s emissions-trading system, for instance. There are many and varied reasons cited for the failure, and the subsequent expiry of the Kyoto Protocol, and world leaders’ inability to identify a successor, but the one which should concern Monbiot is that, unlike a sovereign nation, the United Nations does not (yet) have the means to bind countries to ‘legislation’ in the way that parliaments of various kinds can enact legislation. It makes no sense to really speak about ‘legislation’ in this way, agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol are just that, agreements. Treaties take the place of the sovereign, constitution, or whatever institution that the executive of a polity takes its authority from. And in spite of environmentalists’ claims that the world will surely end without an agreement of the kind Monbiot wants, the facts on this are not as certain as has been claimed, and there are simply too many non-convergent interests to bring under one policy.

George Monbiot should understand the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, the reasons why agreements are so hard to achieve, and should be able to ponder the legitimacy of any such agreement. Back in 2004, he wrote a book called ‘Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order‘. In the manifesto, Monbiot argues that whereas corporate power has been globalised, democratic power has not.

Everything has been globalized except our consent. Democracy alone has been confined to the nation state. It stands at the national border, suitcase in hand, without a passport. A handful of men in the richest nations use the global powers they have assumed to tell the rest of the world how to live. This book is an attempt to describe a world run on the principle by which those powerful men claim to govern: the principle of democracy. It is an attempt to Replace our Age of Coercion with an Age of Consent.

This aim required the construction, or democratisation of global political institutions:

The four principal projects are these: a democratically elected world parliament; a democratised United Nations General Assembly, which captures the powers now vested in the Security Council; an International Clearing Union, which automatically discharges trade deficits and prevents the accumulation of debt; a Fair Trade Organization, which restrains the rich while emancipating the poor.

On the basis that Monbiot knew, a decade ago, that global political institutions have little or no democratic legitimacy, why would he today call for them to impose a policy on the world? What if Monbiot’s global political institutions were constructed, but a fully democratic United Nations determined that the world had other priorities than fighting climate change? I argue that the undemocratic institution, the United Nations that exists now, and its bodies, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change exist to overcome the problem of democracy: to reduce it. Talk about democratising profoundly undemocratic institutions would be like talking about how to burn coal in order to reduce atmospheric CO2.

Let’s take a step back. What would it mean to construct or convert a global democratic institution? Democracy is not something that can be simply implemented. It is the consequence of many generations’ conflicts and settlements, as weight of numbers took power away from divine right and from military and financial muscle. Democracy has never been given, and is never a given. It has always been fought for, by the people who wanted to represent their own interests or wanted them represented. Thus, in order for there to be a democratic institution, a potential demos must exist, with a demand for the dismantling of an old political order and/or its democratisation. Building a democratic global political institution now would be like building a house from the apex of the roof down to the foundations: it is upside down politics. There is no such mass of people, with such demands.

The concept which makes Monbiot’s 2004 vision unworkable is sovereignty. For better or worse, people understand that sovereignty begins with the individual, and ends at the nation state. The reasons should be obvious: this is, or has been, the way that political institutions and relationships between them and individuals have developed. Various political theorists have observed that authority lies in the implicit consent of the people who observe it. That is not to rule out the possibility of some future global polity necessarily, but that the United Nations and other supranational institutions would never volunteer to democratise, and there is no means by which a mass movement can express its desires to them. It is more likely that political movements would make the decision to withdraw their country from such processes, thereby repatriating power ceded to supranational bodies. People simply have no relationship with the United Nations.

Although organisations such as the UN may have been established for good reasons, in times of deep geopolitical conflict, their mandates and missions shifted. Concomitantly, institutions seek ground to legitimise themselves. Although article 2.1 of the Charter of the United Nations states that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”, the sovereignty of nation states became the thing that caused the problems that the UN was intended to solve. Nowhere is this more evident than in the UN’s machinations on the environment. At the first plenary of the United Nations Environment Programme in 1972, Maurice Strong…

…stressed the need for:

(a) New concepts of sovereignty, based not on the surrender of national sovereignties but on better means of exercising them collectively, and with a greater sense of responsibility for the common good;

(b) New codes of international law which the era of environmental concern required, and new means of dealing with environmental conflicts;

Strong is in Humpty Dumpty territory, of course. In the UK, it is the sovereign’s government which enacts laws, and her Police force which enforces it, and anyone accused of breaking it faces the Crown, in her court. Similarly, in other political systems, defendants face either ‘The People’, or ‘The State’. Hence ‘The People versus…’. The notion, therefore, that one can have ‘international law’ without ‘surrender of national sovereignties’ to at least some (if not total) extent, is pure bunk. An oxymoron.

One claim made in defence of supranational institutions is that national sovereignty — or its unmitigated expression — can cause conflict. After two world wars, how to keep ambitious leaders of nation states in check? But this, apart from presupposing that it was national sovereignty, unleashing irrational and violent forces, which led to war, merely defers the problem. How to keep ambitious Canadian fossil fuel multi-millionaires from becoming UN Commissioners and taking such liberties with language and logic?

In the same way that democracy is never given, bureaucracies swell and seek new ground to accommodate them. Perhaps there are good reasons for global forums, including conflict and environmental problems. But in order for a forum to expand its power, those problems need to be framed as terminal, and beyond the understanding or reach of sovereign nation states. Notice how often environmentalist tend to talk about the impossibility of ‘solving climate change’ within democratic frameworks, either explicitly or by implication. On many green views, democracy merely unleashes material lusts, or forces governments to respond to them rather than the issues that the likes of Monbiot decide should be at the top of the agenda. On similar perspectives, humans are just not psychologically equipped to understand issues or risks beyond their everyday experience. A fat, feckless and fecund public — the ‘extremely selfish population’ — is no longer trusted to count as the body politic; ‘civil society’ fills the political vacuum created between people and government by the elevation of political power to supranational institutions.

Back to Monbiot, who believes that world leaders should be able to solve climate change as quickly and easily as they solved the ozone crisis under the Montreal Protocol.

In 1974, before any noticeable issues had arisen, the chemists Frank Rowland and Mario Molina predicted that the breakdown of chlorofluorocarbons – chemicals used for refrigeration and as aerosol propellants – in the stratosphere would destroy atmospheric ozone. Eleven years later, ozone depletion near the South Pole was detected by the British Antarctic Survey.

The action governments took was direct and uncomplicated: ozone-depleting chemicals would be banned. The Montreal Protocol came into force in 1989, and within seven years, use of the most dangerous substances had been more or less eliminated. Every member of the United Nations has ratified the treaty.

This was despite a sustained campaign of lobbying and denial by the chemicals industry – led by Dupont – which bears strong similarities to the campaign by fossil fuel companies to prevent action on climate change.

Roger Pielke Jr, however, offers us a more thoroughgoing analysis than the simple story of goodies, armed with science, versus baddies armed by vested interests with lies:

Conventional wisdom holds that action on ozone depletion followed the following sequence: science was made certain, then the public expressed a desire for action, an international protocol was negotiated and this political action led to the invention of technological substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons.

In the late 1970s, DuPont was the world’s major producer of CFCs, which it calls Freon, with 25% market share. In 1980, the company patented a process for manufacturing HFC-134a, the leading CFC alternative, after identifying it as a replacement to Freon in 1976. Immediately before and after the signing of the Montreal Protocol, DuPont had applied for more than 20 patents for CFC alternatives. Du Pont saw alternatives as a business opportunity. “There is an opportunity for a billion-pound market out there,” its Freon division head explained in 1988. Du Pont’s decision to back regulation was facilitated by economic opportunity – an opportunity that existed solely because of technological substitutes for CFCs.

Technological advances on CFC alternatives, really starting in the 1970s, helped to grease the skids for incremental policy action creating a virtuous circle that began long before Montreal and continued long after.

In other words, the solution to the problem of ozone depletion — leaving aside questions about the magnitude of the problem for the moment — had a simple technological remedy. Monbiot, however, blames the innovator of solutions for standing against it. The mistake being Monbiot’s confusion about the relationship between corporations, markets and regulation. On Monbiot’s view, corporations hate regulation. But in real life, regulation gives corporations advantages: they are more able to mobilise resources or capital at scale than smaller counterparts. There would be no market for DuPont’s CFC-alternatives without the Montreal Protocol (except in the USA, where CFCs had already been banned). Moreover, many CFC patents were in any case, about to expire, leading to various theories that DuPont may have even been behind ozone legislation. The truth of those claims is immaterial, the point is that Monbiot paints black and white what was in fact a much more complex picture, and now invites us to ask why climate change doesn’t have as simple a remedy…

So what’s the difference? Why is the Montreal Protocol effective while the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent efforts to prevent climate breakdown are not?

Part of the answer must be that the fossil fuel industry is much bigger than the halogenated hydrocarbon industry, and its lobbying power much greater. Retiring fossil fuel is technically just as feasible as replacing ozone-depleting chemicals, given the wide range of technologies for generating useful energy, but politically much tougher.

Monbiot has forgotten his own words…

The notion that we can achieve this by replacing fossil fuels with ambient energy is a fantasy. It is true that we have untapped sources of energy in wind, waves, tides and sunlight, but it is neither so concentrated nor so consistent that we can plug it in and carry on as before.

It is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

Either Monbiot is keeping some new-found faith in green abundance, or his preference for green austerity quiet. Either way, clearly he is offering up only a simple message, so he can sustain a story of an easy technical solution, thwarted by the might of the fossil fuel industry’s conspiracy — a conspiracy that Monbiot has much trouble producing any evidence of. The conspiracy theory deepens…

When the Montreal Protocol was negotiated, during the mid-1980s, the notion that governments could intervene in the market was under sustained assault, but not yet conquered. Even Margaret Thatcher, while speaking the language of market fundamentalism, was dirigiste by comparison to her successors: enough at any rate to be a staunch supporter of the Montreal Protocol. It is almost impossible to imagine David Cameron championing such a measure. For that matter, given the current state of Congress, it’s more or less impossible to see Barack Obama doing it either.

By the mid-1990s, the doctrine of market fundamentalism – also known as neoliberalism – had almost all governments by the throat. Any politicians who tried to protect the weak from the powerful or the natural world from industrial destruction were punished by the corporate media or the markets.

Monbiot will note that the Rio Earth Summit was held in 1992, under the stewardship of director general fossil fuel multi-multi-millionaire Maurice Strong (again). No fewer than 116 heads of state attended, each of them, no doubt, were by then entirely gripped by the ‘doctrine of market fundamentalism’. The conference mandated the creation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Not bad for a world that Monbiot claims was on the absolute precipice of market dogma.

This extreme political doctrine – that governments must cease to govern – has made direct, uncomplicated action almost unthinkable. Just as the extent of humankind’s greatest crisis – climate breakdown – became clear, governments willing to address it were everywhere being disciplined or purged.

Even though five years later the world according to Monbiot was having its face stamped on by the ‘extreme political doctrine’, ‘neoliberalism’, it managed nonetheless to establish the Kyoto Protocol under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Here is a simple rule of thumb for anyone confused by the claims and counter-claims made in political debates: anyone ever using the term ‘neoliberalism’ is more confused by the world than you are, and no matter how confident their manner is, they are talking bullshit. That is not to defend any doctrine described as ‘neoliberal’; it is just to say that anyone who thinks it is an adequate description of the world since the 1980s is as confused as Monbiot.

And that is an adequate explanation for, as well as a description of, the real dynamic of that era: not so much the ascendency of any ‘-ism’ in particular, but their collapse. Especially the left, and those parts of it which now can do nothing — least of all organise themselves against it — which feebly whine ‘neoliberalism’ at the world, and complain about ‘capitalism’ standing in the way of international agreements which were designed by… capitalists!… who made their fortunes selling oil.

It doesn’t occur to Monbiot that the fundamental failure of international climate institutions and their policies to at least share their objectives, if not implement them, is owed to the fact that, not only are they undemocratic, they are intended to circumvent the problems of post-democratic politics. In other words, green institutions and green global policymaking positively thrived in the era he suggests was dominated by capitalism. As recently as 2008, the UK, without any semblance of real democratic process, passed the Climate Change Act (see above), and more recently Energy Market Reform, even though the terms of these acts go further than anything the UK is obliged to do by its membership of Kyoto, or under any EU directives.

Environmentalists represent the full manifestation of that confusion. Hence one doesn’t need to scratch the surface of Monbiot’s theses (or any other green manifesto, for that matter), to discover its dark authoritarianism. They want order out of what they perceive as chaos: so many fat, fecund and feckless people — the ‘extremely selfish population — not doing as they are told. Authoritarianism speaks to the loss of faith in other people, distrust of institutions, and personal experiences of detachment from the world. It is amazing that a man that has seen so much of the world fails to apprehend it; Monbiot’s moral and social disorientation is projected back out onto the world as a story about environmental catastrophe.

Tackling any environmental crisis, especially climate breakdown, requires a resumption of political courage: the courage just to open the sodding gate.

Mobiot believes that ‘political courage’ means doing things that he wants, in spite of what other people want and the technical or political feasibility of being ‘courageous’. However, he stumbles across a truth here, by accident. He is right that today’s political class is not courageous. But that dearth of courage better explains the phenomenon of supranational institution building, of global agreements, and of political and public individual’s championing of climate change than it explains the failure of those policies as they meet political and technical reality. It is easy for politicians and journalists to attach themselves to global, terminal and invisible crises — easier than it is to face the seemingly trivial, but extant and day-to-day problems. It is easy to claim that the conditions experienced by millions, if not billions of people are the result, not of politics and policies, but of climate change, and to promise that policies which will mitigate climate change will bring about world peace, end poverty and create a general sense of well being amongst all people. It’s easier to dress up as superman, dealing with crises that nobody can perceive than it is to set out a coherent political vision, and to compete with it, against others, to an engaged public. Hence, power is accumulated, above democratic institutions, apparently to save the planet.

That is the opposite of ‘political courage’. Nothing is at stake. No careers are risked, no reputations are put on the line, no power is gambled with. This is why sceptics are vilified — almost the entire political establishment, in its total and utter cowardice, has closed ranks in defence of itself, on the issue of climate change. It fails because it meets political and technical realities, not because there is no ‘ambition’.

Monbiot takes a very cartoonish view of the Montreal Protocol, its history and its scientific underpinnings to make an extremely simplistic political argument. He rewrites history as ‘global policy making is simple; technological solutions are simple; simple baddies stand in the way’. But the Montreal Protocol was in fact the first implementation of the precautionary principle. As the protocol itself states, parties were…

Determined to protect the ozone layer by taking precautionary measures to control equitably total global emissions of substances that deplete it, with the ultimate objective of their elimination on the basis of developments in scientific knowledge, taking into account technical and economic considerations and bearing in mind the developmental needs of developing countries,

Noting the precautionary measures for controlling emissions of certain chlorofluorocarbons that have already been taken at national and regional levels,

Far from proceeding from science, which ‘predicted’ anything, as Monbiot claimed, the threat to the ozone layer from CFCs and its consequences for the natural and human world were theoretical — i.e. unquantified — risks. The precautionary principle allows agreements or policies to be implemented without science providing certainty. The possibility of the ozone layer thinning, just as the possibility of the planet warming, allowed speculation of the kind usually leant to cheap science fiction plots than scientific research. This is not to say that the Montreal protocol — or rather, the objectives of the Montreal Protocol had no foundation whatsoever, but that it was then part of a broader process of seeking a basis on which to ground global institutions, that had been in motion since the 1960s, and that one cannot understand the construction of the Montreal and subsequent protocols, their creation, and the basis of their construction by taking them at face value.

As is reported over at PJ Media, in spite of very recent claims of an ozone recovery, conveniently timed with a celebration of the Montreal Protocol’s 25th anniversary, there is much dispute about the state of the ozone layer.

Within the span of nine months, NASA issued statements claiming of atmospheric ozone that “signs of recovery are not yet present,” there is “large variability,” it is “stabilizing,” and now, that the hole is “shrinking.”

So which is it? The answer may lie in the relevant political science, not the atmospheric. The Montreal Protocol is 25 years old this year, having been entered into force in 1989. When such milestones are reached, there is always pressure to make some statement that the work of the UN actually made some sort of difference.

In many debates about climate change, sceptics have been challenged to criticise the Montreal Protocol on exactly the basis that Monbiot’s argument proceeds, in the hope that once the sceptic agrees the basis for the Montreal Protocol, he will accept the need for The Kyoto Protocol and whatever follows it. In these arguments — and therefore in the environmentalists’ imagination — the science is unimpeachable, and the forecasts of consequences due to ozone depletion as incontrovertible as 2+2=4, and therefore the Montroeal Protocol an imperative — there is no possibility that the sensitivity of ozone was overestimated, no possibility that the consequences of any amount of depletion was overstated, and no possibility that the protocol was successful because a technical alternative to CFCs could be found. The fact of the Monstreal Protocol’s existence seems to stand as conclusive proof of the environmentalists’ presuppositions and claims, both with respect to the ozone layer, and atmospheric CO2.

We can see in the claims made now, and in the past, and made now about the past that the accounts offered by Monbiot are not consistent with the facts — the science, history and politics of the environment are rewritten, to suit the needs of the present. The ozone layer may not have be damaged, much less fixed, yet the role of the precautionary principle has been written out of history. The ozone layer may have been fixed, yet the role of evil corporations finding alternatives to CFCs does not get a mention in Monbiot’s tale of goodies and baddies. Scientists may or may not have identified a looming problem, but Monbiot does not talk about the excessive claims made about the scale of that problem in pursuit of the Montreal Protocol. And the Monstreal Protocol itself may turn out to have done some good, but nowhere does Monbiot, in spite of his concerns about undemocratic institutions run by the super-wealthy, worry about the character of the politics that is being established above democratic governments in the name of the environment, orchestrated by multi-millionaires.

The last words here belong to Geophysicist, Joe Farman, who, while working at the British Antarctic Survey, was part of the team who discovered the hole in the ozone layer.

Well, I mean I suppose I’d better go on record somewhere as pointing out that, please, if you ever read the World Health Organisation’s view of the Montreal Protocol, just don’t believe it. They will tell you that the Montreal Protocol has prevented N cases of eye trouble in the Tropics, and various other things, and the answer is: what on earth do you mean? There hasn’t been any ozone depletion in the tropics, there hasn’t been any increase of UV, documented increase of UV in the Tropics, what the hell has the Montreal Protocol got to do with saving all this vast number of malignant melanomas and the rest of it, you know. And they – and the world goes mad in front of environmental problems and alarmist scares and things like that. It sort of somehow takes the story to be hard evidence and it just, you know. As far as I know no one has yet demonstrated, anywhere in the world, that any harm has been done to anyone by ozone depletion or any organism. All the krill around Antarctica are very sensible creatures; they live under the ice. They’ve got the most wonderful sunscreen there is, you know. And if they’re in the open water, when the sun comes up they go down. Not the slightest evidence that anything has yet changed. And, you know, okay we don’t want to lose the ozone layer, I’m as keen as anyone to get rid of CFCs and put the ozone layer back to where it was. But you don’t fight battles by misleading the public. Once they, you know, get known that this is the sort of which goes on, you can’t even start a story anymore [laughs]. I mean it’s the trouble with climate change: it’s been so overdone, it’s seized on by politicians because it’s a wonderful excuse for getting a wonderful new tax, ‘Save all the budgetary problems, you know, we just put a carbon tax on.’ No way. No way.


  1. hunter

    For me answer to the raised question of why Monbiot ditched his earlier rational position regarding alternative energy is found in the arc of his climate obsession. Monbiot has lingered long at the top of the arc of climate obsession. He has not alloyed his climate concern with new ideas, reflection or examination of his position. This comes at a cost to his abilities. It requires a suspension (if not outright rejection) of practical ideas or moderate opinion. He has to in effect broaden the importance of his obsession even as the things the obsession has led to continue to fail. So rule of law, civil society, reason, integrity, even self-consistency with his past positions, are all traded away in favor of the obsession.

  2. RickA

    Wow – what a great piece.

    Well researched and well written.


  3. RickA


    Monbiot did reverse his stance on nuclear power – so that does show some reflection and examination of his position.

    Nuclear is the only real alternative to hydro-carbon based power.

    We have dammed all the places that can really generate hydro and wind and solar are just not baseload enough – so you need just as much fossil fuel power as backup as if you had no solar or wind in the first place.

    I think the world should move to generate at least 50% of its power with nuclear (passive cooled design) – I think that would be a pretty good start.

  4. Ben Pile

    RickA – Monbiot did reverse his stance on nuclear power – so that does show some reflection and examination of his position.

    Monbiot vacillates. Consider his opening in Captive State:

    The struggle between people and corporations will be the defining battle of the twenty-first century.

    And then his reply to green anarchists at climate camp, who, curiously shared his anti-capitalist beliefs.

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

    One of the revolutionaries at Climate Camp in particular, said Monbiot, were putting ‘politics ahead of action’.

    She claims to want to stop global warming, but she makes that task 100 times harder by rejecting all state and corporate solutions. It seems to me that what she really wants to do is to create an anarchist utopia, and to use climate change as an excuse to engineer it.

    That’s a bit rich, isn’t it, for someone who wrote in 2000 about ‘struggle between people and corporations’, and this week wrote about the ‘extreme political doctrine’ that dominates the world.

    But back to nuclear. I wasn’t convinced by his apparent epiphany. One reason for this is that in spite of becoming reluctantly pro-nuclear, it didn’t cause any reflection on what had driven his own anti-nuclear campaigning, nor was he any able to shed any light on what might be driving his erstwhile comrades; all he could say what that he was in possession of the scientific facts, whereas they denied them.

    This journey was not unlike Mark Lynas’ nuclear conversion, which I’ve written about here.

    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? Lynas would only have to watch the studio debate that followed What the Green Movement Got Wrong to recall that it was a pantomime, in which each green side claimed to represent pragmatism and science against the other’s 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.

  5. Paul Carpenter

    As usual, searingly accurate. I class environmentalism (at least as incarnated in the form of Monbiot) as nothing more than an ostensibly non-religious substitute for millennialism – ironically one that religious institutions themselves have stumbled on as a means to justify their existence in a scientific world.

    (Also – and I *hate* myself for mentioning it, you have written “the steaks couldn’t be higher”. Sorry)

    [Fixed, thanks. B.]

  6. Craig Loehle

    The ozone problem and CFCs was “easy” because Freon was a trivial cost within the overall economy. if you double the cost, no big deal. Every 10 yrs it is $100 instead of $50 to refill my car A/C. But if you double the cost of electricity–fuel poverty, old people dying, businesses closing, people out of jobs. And doubling the cost of power doesn’t even get you there–you need more like 5 times the cost to shut down the economy.

  7. michael hart

    As Craig Loehle says, the practical cost of substituting things like CFCs or filament light-bulbs is pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things.

    It amounts to trimming some of the outer branches on a large tree. De-carbonising the economy and making energy much more expensive is taking a chain-saw to the base of the trunk.

    I still think a majority of ‘green’ supporters are not really aware of this and that the Montreal Protocol merely emboldened them to bite-off more than they could chew.

  8. Craig Loehle

    I think Ben raises an interesting point about the politicians. They are truly out of ideas. The problems we face have largely to do with managing a complex economy and legal system, which legislatures are not inclined to do. When the questions were like “buy Louisiana territory?” or “slavery?” things were much simpler for politicians. The climate “problem” seems like a great way out: a big problem that everyone agrees on. They have failed to see that this is also a muddy field and their wagons are getting stuck in it. The “simple” solutions to this problem put forth by people like Hansen and Monbiot, like just shut down power plants [decarbonize], lead to catastrophe. Britain will likely have the lights go out this winter thanks to windmills. I think that is what it will take to turn the corner, but each country may need its own disaster, like Spain, to make a change.

  9. Jake Haye

    Another superb article, Ben.

    I daresay I’m not the only one to notice that Monbiot’s criticts put far more thought into his writing than he does. I’m sure Monbiot finds that arrangement very much to his satisfaction.

  10. Rick Bradford

    Monbiot brings rationality and passion to his arguments, but unfortunately in the wrong order.

    He determines his stance emotionally, by what he “feels” to be right, and then uses his considerable intellect to justify and proselytise that stance.

    More emotionally mature types use their rationality first to determine their stance and then, if necessary, use passion to try to drive appropriate actions.

    Monbiot is undoubtedly stuck in the mindset where he believes objectivity is impossible and therefore not worth even pursuing.



  1. Stern’s Turn » Climate Resistance - [...] like her Guardian colleague, George Monbiot, re-writes the history of the climate debate. As is explained above, Stern did…

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