Monday, July 4, 2011

Have the Greens lost the plot?

The Guardian reported under the headline "Has the green movement lost its way? Anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist, anti-flying: the green movement may have alienated more people than it has won over, and there are now calls for a new kind of environmentalism"

This refers to the debate in the UK and it will be interesting to see what you make of it when looking at Germany.
The article portrays former activist and journalist Mark Lynas, novelist Ian McEwan and activist Tamsin Omond.
Lynas has come out in favour of nuclear power: "Anyone who still marches against nuclear today," he writes, "as many thousands of people did in Germany following the Fukushima accident, is in my view just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like the big oil companies."
He is now also in favour of GM food and thinks the green movement should engage more positively with market capitalism. "If it becomes a culture war like the debate over abortion or something, you can't win," he says. "I want an environmental movement that is happy with capitalism, which goes out there and says yes rather than no, and is rigorous about the way it treats science. The green movement needs a clause-four moment – the Labour party had to go through that." (note: clause four meant to reject the Socialist principles).

However, it is one thing to realize that we are in a culture war, as we see every day also on this blog. It is quite another thing to get away from it. Lynas seems to rely on science to do so. As Roger Pielke Jr has pointed out, using the example of abortion politics and tornado politics,  climate change cannot be treated as tornado politics despite all attempts to scientize the issue. Important value decisions are attached to it which cannot be wished away.

Tamsin Omond of direct action group Climate Rush recalls the period leading up to Copenhagen: "2009 was the year we said we would do one action a month, and we did. Everyone saw this as the one chance and the feeling of momentum – that we only had to work really hard until December, and then we could have a rest – was really present. Everything we did would get in the papers and journalists were phoning up all the time. I was completely caught up in it."
One wonders where the political instinct went during this period of blind activism.

McEwan makes an interesting comment about the waning importance of cliamte change in terms of political importance. "Most issues have a narrative, with the sense of an ending or resolution – the referendum is passed, the government falls – but this really is a lifetime story, and not just our lifetime, but our children's and their children's. We are decades away from the point where we say, 'We've finally deflected the rising curve of Co2 emissions, so let's have one last push to fix it for good.' We've made no impact on this rising curve as yet, and it's hard to keep interest and optimism alive."
This is the problem with the current framing of the issue as CO2 issue. If we focused on other short term climate forcings (such as HFCs, black carbon, methane, deforestation, as outlined in the Hartwell Paper) we could make visible progress and keep optimism alive. UNEPs Achim Steiner has outlined as much, see here.

Instead of engaging with such alternatives, McEwan offers a real letdown: "I've never voted for the Tories, but I'd make my judgments at the next general election based entirely on the respective parties' attitudes and intentions in matters of climate change. This is the overwhelming issue that encloses all others. If Cameron and friends came up with a more feasible and effective plan than Miliband, then I would have to vote for it. I think that's all we, as citizens, can do."


eduardo said...


I think that not only environmentalism is running out of enticing ideas, but also all political parties, at least in Western Europe. There is an underground craving for 'something new',
not necessary formulated in terms of left and right

Risking being terribly wrong, I think the Green Party in Germany has now a chance to grab this opportunity, if they could only agree to bring back Fischer as the next chancellor candidate. I even think he could win, just regarding the possible candidates of the other parties.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Thanks for this comment, Eduardo and the link to Tim Jackson.
Why do you think Fischer would be good? Which ideas has he that would be imaginative to advance the debate and policy options?

Regarding Jackson, for my taste this is too much wishful thinking. Marx was a greater realist as regards the necessity of capital accumulation for accumulation's sake. Attacking growth is not a very appealing position (especially in the current economic climate). It also leaves aside many aspects of growth that even Jackson would like to see: growth in happiness, for example. For many, this is linked to wealth and health.
Any 'new' environmental vision needs to work from these basic parameters I think.

Werner Krauss said...

The Guardian article sounds funny to my German ears. German Greens are (somehow) anti-capitalist and anti-nuclear, and they are more successful than ever! This shows once more how much discourses about nature / environment / climate are shaped nationally.

Marc Lynas arguments have some Monty Python qualities: it sounds as if he suggests that after the Germans didn't manage to destroy the world in WWII, they now will try it by phasing out nuclear energy! Well...He seems to have a kind of identity crisis - isn't he the same one who called himself a honorary "denier" after the recent Greenpeace / IPCC case? I think it is the fervor of apostates (if this is the correct term for s.o. who changes his mind completely).

I think without the everyday context of political Britain, these statements don't make too much sense.
There is also something very anglo-saxon about it. The pro nukes and pro capitalism attitude reminds me somehow of Nordhaus / Schellenberger; their arguments are based on a completely different tradition of citizen - government relationship.

eduardo said...

I did not write that Fischer would be good. I just wrote that he could win in the next elections. I am just thinking aloud from the Green Party's perspective. It has achieved a remarkable victory in the nuclear debate. Now the real problem will be to really implement that , may be historical decision, showing that it is indeed possible. It will be a daunting task - investments in the distribution network, energy storage , even new consumption patterns. The Green Party will need to convince its non-voters and they will need an integrative and not exclusive, approach. I fully agree with your comment that the slogan 'no growth' will not go very far. It is of course my speculation, but I see that Fischer could grab many non-green votes, even from parts of the disillusioned FDP and SPD voters. To some extent, the natural allies of the Greens is not the SPD, but parts of the CDU, they just do not want to acknowledge it :-).
Of course Fischer is not particularly loved in the Green Party, and this connects to your blog post. If they want to really fulfill the 'environmental transformation of society 'they need to build a bridge to the wider society, to become a Volkspartei. Fischer could do just that. If that will turn to be good for Germany, it is another matter

Werner Krauss said...

@ eduardo 4

Eduardo, it is not entirely correct to say that implementing the energy transition is the "real problem". Getting out of nuclear energy already was a "real problem". So implementation of alternative energies is "the next problem".

Furthermore, it is currently the problem of the CDU / FDP to implement the energy transition, because they decided to phase out nuclear energy. Or, it is everybody's problem, as we have a truly grand coalition in this question.

By the way, (hopefully) it will be much easier than to implement nuclear energy. Just remember Whyl, Gorleben, Brokdorf etc - it was almost a kind of civil war, sometimes.

The energy decision will be very much another test for democracy. While democracy suffered very much from the implementation of nuclear energy, there is now a chance to do it better. Alternative energies in Germany are very much a bottom-up technology, which is a good start. Just remember that the government long time boycotted it in order to further promote the interests of nuclear industry. It was the endurance and insistence of citizens and municipalities which finally convinced the government to implement the energy feed in laws etc.

Let's hope that this time the government listens to the people instead of forcing them into something they don't want to have.
The great danger is that government will again make a deal with the ever same energy providers instead of putting their bets on citizen owned wind turbines, for example. Seen from this perspective, the fight is not between nuclear and alternative energies, or government versus citizens; instead, it is corporate industry interests versus citizens' interest. This is especially a problem with off-shore wind energy, which is big industry energy.

Energy means power, political power. What we need is democratic energy. This, of course, is the opposite of Lynas' green fantasies!

Reiner Grundmann said...

Werner -3

The discourses are shaped nationally in a different way, absolutely right. The main differences are determined by the cultural and political history, ie. the strong anti-nuclear tradition in Germany and the much weaker opposition in the UK. The second reason is the fact that Germany seems to have enough energy supply (60 GW, 80Gw peak I read somewhere)-- even without nuclear.
The UK has an ageing grid and many power stations being de-commissioned. Public discourse is rife with metaphors of 'keeping the lights on' etc. Therefore the government's plan to build 8 new nuclear plants. The UK government never had the political will or appetite to invest in electricity infrastructure (same applies to the railway system). They privatised everything and as a consequence German and French power companies (among others) are dominating the electricity market. Also offshore windpower is expanding -- to the benefit of Siemens who seems to be the only supplier of technology (after Vestas experienced problems with offshore turbines).
While this is only a partial picture it explains the relative optimism prevalent in Germany compared to the gloomy picture in the UK which sees some greens turn into advocates for nuclear in desperation.

Werner Krauss said...

@Reiner #6
Very interesting, indeed! I didn't know that it's German industry supplying the nuclear energy market in the UK. Privatizing everything doesn't sound very promising, after what I heard for example about the malfunctioning of the British railway system. But again, I am really fascinated to see that the question of energy unavoidably leads to a debate about political ideology. "Science" is just another political argument in this discussion about energy / systems, be they capitalist, socialist, welfare or whatever.
(The same might be true for the climate debate.)

Reiner Grundmann said...

Werner, it is not the German industry supplying the UK nuclear programme -- I think there are other players at work. What I meant was wind energy technology being supplied by Siemens.

Worldwide, the main suppliers for nuclear power plants are based in the US (Westinghouse, GE); Russia, China and Korea (let's forget Japan for the moment). See here for an interesting article in the FT.
Ironically, one of the bottlenecks in nuclear engineering -- the supply of ultra-large forgings -- had been provided by the Sheffield company Forgemasters which has seen their government subsidies withdrawn (remember, the Brits only bail out the banks). Globally, there are not that many forgeries able to cater for the demand. This means only a small number of nuclear power plants can get built each year.

Reiner Grundmann said...

In addition to the previous post:

The very heavy forging capacity in operation today is in Japan (Japan Steel Works), China (China First Heavy Industries) and Russia (OMX Izhora). New capacity is being built by JSW and in South Korea (Doosan), France (Le Creusot) and is planned in both UK (Sheffield Forgemasters) and India (Larsen & Toubro). Nothing in North America currently approaches the scale of these enterprises.
See here

In wind energy technology, Vestas and Siemens seem head to head.

For Vestas's problems see here

Reiner Grundmann said...

There are several letters in today's Guardian which express a different perspective than the one offered in the article. Read it here

The first letter by Andrew Dobson also uses the label 'apostate' for Lynas. Others want him to become green entrepreneur/capitalist. Then there are voices re-affirming that the Green movement has not fallen asleep... Such reasurrances are telling for the state of play.

Anonymous said...

Uff, I became a little afraid after reading this thread. But "reality" is:


Anonymous said...

Germany is and never has been good in inventing things. Germans were and are excellent in reproducing things.
This is the basis of Germany as an industrial nation and they, the Germans, are still able to outpace the Chinese on this issue.
Now, the Greens have taken over in Germany and I wonder were this will head to: DDR = Deutsche Dekarbonisierende Republik, who knows?

eduardo said...

McEwan and the Klimazwiebel saw it coming already last year: Schwarz-Grün.