Thursday, March 12, 2015

This changes nothing - The Guardian campaign on climate change

The Guardian has embarked on a campaign to put climate change in the spotlight again. Starting last weekend it used the first pages of its print edition to publish comments by high profile campaigners like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and George Monbiot. These were accompanied by powerful artwork from Anthony Gormley, Nele Azevedo and Judy Watson. The motto of the campaign is 'Keep it in the ground', don't burn the vast amounts of fossil fuels that are still buried underground. Otherwise we would fry the planet.

The campaign kicked off with Naomi Klein. She asks 'What is wrong with us?'

A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it into a joke (“more signs of the Apocalypse!”). Which is another way of looking away. Or we look but tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely suck the carbon out of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun. Which, I was to discover while researching this book, is yet another way of looking away.
Framing the issue in this way prompts the question 'Why do we look away when confronted with so many other, more devastating issues, causing harm in the here and now?' We (as human civilization, community of states, societies) have not found ways to stop war, economic crises, or inequality. Compared to these issues that cause daily human suffering, harm and death, climate change is a distant threat. Framing the issue int he way Klein does makes it rational not to put climate change on the top of the political agenda.

Klein believes that there is a solution to the problem of climate change which makes us all better off, through reclaiming democracy, blocking free trade deals, nationalising energy and water, etc. There is a lot of wishful thinking in this, and the belief that all the good things go together. Somehow in this process carbon emissions will go down, and we will live happily ever after.

While Klein's vision is to get rid of capitalism in order to solve the climate problem, Bill KcKibben thinks that technical solutions are available, and made operational by some big capitalist firms:
None of the problems the fossil fuel players keep predicting for renewables seem decisive. Yes, the sun goes down at night, but that tends to be when the wind kicks up. We’re learning to store peak power in all kinds of ways: a California auction for new power supply was won by a company that uses extra solar energy to freeze ice, which then melts during the day to supply power. The smart meters now coming on line around the world allow utilities to juggle demand, turning off your water heater when its not needed. Wise companies have either seen the future or learned their lesson: E.ON, Germany’s biggest utility, announced last year that it will now focus on wind and sun. “We are the first to resolutely draw the conclusion from the change of the energy world,” chief executive Johannes Teyssen told reporters in Dusseldorf. “We’re convinced that energy companies will have to focus on one of the two energy worlds if they want to be successful.”
Again, a fair amount of wishful thinking, and a big ask of consumers to accept demand based pricing of energy based on surveillance technologies. Be that as it may, both his and Klein's visions are based on the problems of the Western rich countries, where carbon emissions will peak soon. What about the rising demand in cheap energy in the rest of the world?

Step up George Monbiot, making the slogan 'Keep it in the ground' operational. He suggests the Paris summit in December should adopt a document along these lines:

Scientific assessments of the carbon contained in existing fossil fuel reserves suggest that full exploitation of these reserves is incompatible with the agreed target of no more than 2C of global warming. The unrestricted extraction of these reserves undermines attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We will start negotiating a global budget for the extraction of fossil fuels from existing reserves, as well as a date for a moratorium on the exploration and development of new reserves. In line with the quantification of the fossil carbon that can be extracted without a high chance of exceeding 2C of global warming, we will develop a timetable for annual reductions towards that budget. We will develop mechanisms for allocating production within this budget and for enforcement and monitoring.”
The consequence of such a policy would be that prices for fossil fuels rise massively. In the absence of alternative sources this would have serious impacts on economic activity and social wellbeing. Either there is some wishful thinking that somehow we will have solved the problem of renewables just in time, or a complete disregard about these issues because of the need to 'save the planet'. Again, there can be no surprise that such proposals will not find political traction.

The good thing about the Guardian is that it also has comment pages where such grand visions are brought back to reality. Today Mark Lynas has such a comment which demonstrates how such campaigns are unlikely to change much, because the issue is polarised, and the contributions published so far only help deepening the polarisation.

The Guardian’s climate campaign is, in principle, very welcome. But it risks reinforcing this polarisation by leading with two extensive extracts from Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Climate vs Capitalism. Lefties will lap it up; others will see it as evidence that science has been appropriated as cover for an ideological project.

For Klein, whose career has always focused on fighting capitalism, climate change merely means we must renew that fight. It doesn’t seem to strike her as odd or fortuitous that this new “crisis”, which she admits she’s only lately discovered, should “change everything” for everyone else but merely reinforce her own decades-old ideological position. Her analysis of the problem is the same as for all the rest of today’s challenges – that it is the fault of multinational corporations, “market fundamentalism” and the “elites”, who in her view control the media and democratic politics.

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

All of this makes climate change much harder to deal with than it would otherwise be. In insisting that tackling carbon emissions must be subordinated into a wider agenda of social revolution and the dismantling of corporate capitalism, Klein isn’t making climate mitigation easier: she is making it politically toxic. In rejecting “too easy” solutions such as nuclear power and advanced renewables technologies (the dreaded “technofix”), the left puts its cards on the table – and confirms what the right has always suspected: that climate mitigation is not a primary but at best a secondary goal.

This is also a debate conducted in a western bubble. No one in India doubts that the emergence from poverty of hundreds of millions of people in south Asia will require the production of prodigious amounts more energy – far more than could ever be compensated for by any remotely plausible “energy austerity” path taken by the west. Don’t forget: rich OECD countries have already peaked their CO2 emissions, so pretty much all the future growth will come from Asia, Africa and South America.
Quite a lot to agree with, I think.


conqueringlion said...

Meanwhile the Arctic ice is at a record low, unheralded explosions of methane are occurring in Siberia and CO2 levels are at record highs and climbing. Yet it is extreme to think this warrants a radical change in the nature and goals of the economic activities driving this?

Barry Woods said...

Mark of course is one of the very people that helped polarise the debate, over a decade ago in the New Statesman.

ref: "Alarmists and deniers need to climb out of their parallel trenches, engage with the developing world and work together to end the crisis"

So it does show how it is possible for people to change their opinions.

I did add a comment or 2, about this, but I was struck that Mark, who was in the trenches on GM and nuclear, has now changed his mind on 2 out of 3 things he wrote about a 'climate denier' when he was a younger activist.

Lynas/Marshall (2003 - New Statesman)

Philip Stott is Britain's leading climate-change denier and has built a career on criticising environmentalists. Professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of London, he has no climate-science qualifications. A skilled communicator who has written for the Times and New Scientist, he describes global warming as a "lie". On an advisory board of the Scientific Alliance, an anti-environmentalist campaign group that denies climate change; opposes organic agriculture and promotes genetically modified foods and nuclear power."

Ben Pile said...

Lynas makes a number of points... But this is the most interesting:

"Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for."

What is, or more pertinently, what was the 'eco-malthusian left', which existed, so as to have "always" hoped for something?

Malthusianism, from the pastor through to Hardin and Ehrlich, was for the most part a tendency of the pessimistic right. The premises of the Malthusian perspective were rooted in a conception of scarcity that the left from Marx onwards would surely have rejected.

If there was such a thing as the eco-malthusian left, there was an eco-malthusian centre and an eco-malthusian right, also. If the left descended into eco-malthusianism, it had company. Lynas's rightly observes the ideological nature of (part of) the left's attempt to reformulate itself under the logic of environmentalism (notwithstanding obvious contradictions), but omits that this is the story of all mainstream 'ideology', and is not unique to the left. After all, we can find social democrats, social conservatives, nationalists, capitalists and our future king all seeking to reinvent themselves as planet-savers in the same way.

Lynas included. The fact that he wants 'Alarmists and deniers ... to climb out of their parallel trenches, engage with the developing world and work together to end the crisis' is no less 'ideological' than Klein, or the right wind deniers that exist in his head. In fact, asking others to eschew normal politics -- i.e. to suspend their own interests -- for the sake of the planet seems to be as 'extreme' an idea as Kleins.

Barry Woods said...

Monbiot was flogging in the ground horse 8/9 years ago:

"The real answer to climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground"

I wonder if he will start running around coal mines as a polar bear again.

There is a video of him, in a polar bear suit online somewhere...

richardtol said...

Climate policy is, by and large, government policy.

Fossil fuel reserves and resources are, by and large, owned by governments.

Leaving fossil fuels in the ground will, first and foremost, hit government revenues.

Do we believe the environment minister is powerful enough to shoot the finance minister in the foot?

Barry Woods said...

The Guardian.. as if to demonstrate Mark'k point about a polarised debate. Have deleted my comments.. the guardian being one of the key media players that have caused polarisation over the last 2 decades

MikeR said...

As usual, I liked Mark Lynas' comment.

Dan Pangburn said...

Climate has always changed ... naturally. The last change is that it stopped warming.

Discover what actually does cause climate change (95% correlation since before 1900) at

Anonymous said...

If I parse one of Lynas statements as an admission that "the science" has been co-opted by a political ideology.
The quote is "... the political right has increasingly adopted an outright denialist position – attacking the science in a covert war against the political ideology it has been co-opted to serve."

Elsewhere in the piece Lynas equates "the science" as "the science - as articulated by the IPPC". Thus either Lynas sees the IPPC as being co-opted by an ideology or he uses the phrase "the science" in different ways.

As an aside it seems to me that the use of the phrase "the science" is also part of the problem that Lynas writes about.

Anonymous said...

@ der Debatte zu Naomi Klein: Mit Aussagen wie (im Spiegel) "wir können die Gesetze der Physik nicht ändern, aber die der Politik" versucht sie schlicht, ihr Anliegen, - den amerikanischen Kapitalismus abzuschaffen, indem sie mehr von ihren Büchern verkauft und öfters in den Medien erscheint - über eine Art physikalischen Determinismus zu begründen. Es geht bei der Klimadebatte aber weniger um Physik, als um Geowissenschaftliches, ein Bereich bei dem wir nach wie vor weniger wissen und viele Überraschungen erleben. MRR wäre mit "Ich habe mich gelangweilt" dazu abschließend zu zitieren.

@ den Religionskommentaren:
Die Behauptung, "Grundlage der Religion ... sei Furcht" ist so alt wie albern und geht auf einen Russel-Essay, eine aktuelle Widerlegung siehe u.a. W. E. Connolly (Why I am not a secularist) Eintreten für einen radikalen Pluralismus. Wie das hier anhand Pachauri diskutiert wurde (aber auch bei der Reduktion der komplexen Sachlage der Eurodebatte auf eine obszöne Geste offensichtlich ist), lassen wir Menschen uns weniger von "Wissenschaft" oder "Sachlagen", als von einfachen Zeichen und Richtungsvorgaben leiten. Religion und Spritualität (auch gerade bei Gaia und Co) setzen solche Zeichen. Latour hat die (zivil) religiöse Komponente der Umweltdebatte erkannt und ist gleichzeitig (vergeblich) bemüht sie loszuwerden.
Gruß FH

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Just came across this blog by Mat Hope:

"The Guardian has started a campaign. If you’re at all interested in climate change, you’ve probably seen it. It’s called ‘keep it in the ground’, and calls on the world’s fossil fuel companies to leave about 80 per cent of their known reserves unburned.

To make this happen, the Guardian is encouraging businesses, charities, trust funds, and anyone with skin in the game to ‘divest’ from fossil fuels. It’s doing this, in the words of its editor in chief, Alan Rusbridger, “in the firm belief that it will force the issue now into the boardrooms and inboxes of people who have billions of dollars at their disposal.” For the Guardian, this “simple idea” is the key to meaningful action on climate change.

I’m not convinced.

In fact, i’m more than just unconvinced. I’m concerned the Guardian’s campaign will backfire, and become yet another obstacle to efforts to curb emissions and tackle climate change. Here’s why...

This week, the Guardian held a Q&A about the campaign with Rusbridger and a few other editors. I submitted a question, and was lucky enough to receive a fairly robust response from the assistant national news editor, James Randerson.

“We are very much wanting to build a consensus around this issue.”

This was Randerson’s response to me questioning whether the Guardian was essentially preaching to the choir, or whether it hoped to reach a wider audience.

Now, maybe the Guardian has better data on this than I do, but i’d bet most of their global readership is left-leaning. It’s well known that people seek news to confirm their world view, and the Guardian provides this service for many, many people (including myself).

Randerson rightly points out that the political left doesn’t own this issue, and points to an article in which columnist Jonathan Freedland argues it would be a “disaster” if that were the case.

But the Guardian does and will continue to put forward the left-leaning case for climate action. By backing divestment - a non-market, counter-market, solution - it has already nailed its flag to the mast...

The Guardian’s ‘keep it in the ground’ coverage will be read, appropriated and regurgitated by those on the left. It is only going to entrench the idea that this is an issue for the left."

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Reiner for this interesting entry.

Backing divestment is of cause far from being a "a non-market, counter-market, solution" - investment decisions are always as well about "divestment" - if you put money in a certain basket, you decide against all possible other cases available on the market.

The crucial point is more about the politization of the issue. Reiner has worked on the power of experts in general and on the Ozone case en detail. If I understand him right, the succes of global regulation in the Ozone case was based e.g. on the "lack of politization" (e.g. by low involvement of NGO campaigning) and high solution finding efficiency of a small network of involved scientists.

Mat hope describes the Guardian "saving the climate by divesting from the evil in the ground" campaign as failed, since its being used as a signifier for a certain political partisanship.

I have the impression (feedback welcome) that the role of an expert (or "technocrat") involves a sort of political celibacy, an Eunuch status towards matters politically. Such Eunuchs ("grey eminences") are far from being powerless, neither in the literal nor in the figurative meaning.

It might be prudent to seek "Eunuch status" for the sake of Heaven not only in the Ozone case (compare Mt. 19.12 ;), since if youre being ignored by the political scene, you get ahead with much less ado.

Cheers Friedrich

@ReinerGrundmann said...


I thought my reply had gone through many days ago but I now realise it went into the ether.

What I wrote (I think) was that the absence of NGOs in the ozone story was no causal contributor to its success.

It was a rather complicated history, with three main developments coming together after the crisis of the ozone hole:

1 Kohl's government signalling support for CFC regulations;

2 The EU adopting Germany's new found 'ecological' position on CFCs;

3 DuPont company, the world's largest CFC manufacturer signalling acceptance of regulations.

Behind each of these points lies a more complex story, as you know.

Here is another takedown of Naomi Klein's book: