Wednesday, 17 December 2008

December 2008 - Overselling their models, or underselling our values?

As the UN climate change negotiations kicked off in Poznan, the New Scientist ran an attention grabbing headline asking whether climate scientists were “over-selling their models”. In an interview with the weekly science magazine, Lenny Smith, a statistician at the London School of Economics claimed that some climate scientists were too hasty in making firm and detailed predictions about the precise nature of the future climate (

While clearly designed to be provocative, a thorough reading of the interview reveals not a climate change sceptic, but a statistician extolling that most cherished of scientific values: conservatism and caution in the face of uncertainty. In expressing his concern that climate scientists should not over-sell their data, Smith was careful not to over-sell his own claim, suggesting that the picture that climate models paint is a broadly accurate one. But while over-interpreting data can never be a sensible path for a scientist to take, is it really true that scientists too often get ahead of themselves?

A consideration of the rather timid relationship between science and policy in the UK would suggest otherwise. The standard approach to maintaining scientific integrity is loosely based on the legal concept of a ‘separation of powers’ – where judges don’t legislate and legislators do not judge. In theory, scientists do not get embroiled in policy making, and policy makers don’t meddle in the science. The intended benefits of this split are clear: scientific data are not moulded by partisan interests, and the credibility of independent research is ensured.

In practice, however, this scientific separation of powers is a somewhat one-way affair. Research councils, the primary providers of University research funding, are public sector bodies. The projects the research councils fund (and perhaps more importantly, the ones that they don’t) inevitably reflect the prevailing political winds – and rightly so, given that university academics are ultimately providing a public service. While some climate sceptics have insinuated that climate change has been cooked up by researchers eager to cash in on a wave of climate change research grants, figures from the reform group Scientists for Global Responsibility tell a different story. In the industrialised nations, the budget for government-funded military research is twice that for health and environmental issues combined, and nearly 100 times bigger than the budget for research into renewable energy. If climate scientists are over-selling their research with a view to being awarded extra funding, then it clearly isn’t working.

Of course, science can be immensely profitable – its just that it typically isn’t the scientists that pick up the big bucks. And, perhaps more importantly, the trajectory of scientific innovation is often guided primarily by commercial profit. New scientific findings are funnelled into a socio-economic system that is radically skewed in favour of acute concentrations of corporate wealth, where the interests of the rich and the powerful are inevitably privileged over the needs of the poor and the weak.

The emerging discipline of nanotechnology, where scientists are able to manufacture tiny particles with novel physical and chemical properties, provides a good example. Sun creams containing ultra-fine nanoparticles that are transparent but block ultraviolet light are profitable. Mass water purification programmes using nano-filters, for rural communities in central Africa are not. No prizes for guessing which application has been commercially realised, and which has been left to gather dust in the pages of academic journals. Nanoscience may be the study of the very small, but nanotechnology is already big business.

In fact, the powerful influence of commercialisation, and the institutionalised reluctance of scientists to ‘speak out’ about the applications of their research risks creating what ethicist Geoffrey Hunt refers to as a ‘nano-divide’ between the scientific ‘haves’ and the scientific ‘have-nots’. Rather than saving the world, the transformational power of this new technology could simply buttress existing socioeconomic inequality.

But from the researchers at the frontier of this leading-edge science there is a deafening silence – a silence that is replicated across scientific disciplines. Save for medically oriented NGOs such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, or the reform group Scientists for Global Responsibility, practising scientists keep a fairly low profile about what happens to their research once it has left the ivory tower. Why? Because scientists are discouraged from stepping outside of their remit as value-neutral, apolitical, knowledge gatherers. With values safely banned from the scientific arena, and few incentives for becoming involved in public engagement work, scientists must watch from the sidelines as sun cream becomes ever more translucent.

It is patents and profit margins, not a lack of medical expertise, which prevents essential medical treatments from reaching the people who need them most. Similarly, it is political feasibility, rather than scientific reality that dominates climate policy.

Climate scientists are likely to be concerned about climate change as much if not more than other people – hardly surprising given that they are on the frontline of climate change research. It’s scary stuff. Should they be prevented from expressing their worries in public?

Lenny Smith is right that scientists shouldn’t over-interpret their data. Science occupies its privileged position in the world precisely because of its softly-softly approach to fact finding. But while over-selling models might be a scientific sin, the underselling of ethical values in the application of science is a far greater concern.


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

December 2008 - Re-branding Christmas

(Published on Comment is Free, 07/12/08)

December 2008 - Don’t stop for the Green Cross Code Man

In the UK in November there was a debate on the Internet and Video Games in the House of Commons, to give you a flavour of the debate I quote MP John Hayes concluding remarks “We will all be brutalised, because those who are malign or malevolent have access to a different kind of media” - Yeah pretty strong stuff. Actually the point of agreement among MP’s arising out of the discussion was a suggestion that the Green Cross Code Man, the road safety character from 1975, should be used to warn people about dangerous Video Games. Yes looking at Hansard on what was said in Parliament on this issue leaves the impression that the dialogue was largely backwards looking (Green Cross Code Man!) and negative about an area that should be treated more as opportunity than threat by our politicians.
Compare this conservative attitude by UK MP’s with American Congressman Ed Markey who in order to save fuel emissions spoke to delegates of the 2007 United Nations climate change conference in Bali using his avatar from the Virtual World Second Life.

Makey’s intervention, however effective, sure shows willingness to embrace new media and use it positively in particular in connection with climate change. A key sign to people in the UK parliament that confident steps into virtual worlds can help communication and leadership on real world climate change issues.
Second Life is an example of a Collaborative Virtual Environment and another example of what they can do in respect of social issues is provided by Jim Purbrick’s Carbon Goggles initiative which allows avatars to view the emissions they would be emitting in the real world as they go about their virtual day.
Carbon Goggles aims to deliver information about emissions from AMEE ( in a different way and projects like this – another example is the BBC game Climate Challenge, there are many more - have the potential be educative on climate change with added accessibility and participation.

The “other reality” media I discuss here can be seen to have three functions in relation to the 100 month effort to avoid dangerous climate change: Firstly education and changing real world behaviour (see Carbon Goggles), secondly Makey’s Second Life foray is about discharging real world tasks by virtual means, in this case communication other examples are planning and prototyping. The third function is other reality as fantasy outlet, doing what is unsustainable in the real world. The video games MPs are concerned about because they don’t reflect real life values, thought about from a different perspective, may be useful as virtual outlets for stuff you can know longer do… not Grand but Green Theft Auto!
Virtual reality is perhaps most conspicuously connected with climate change through the laptop presentations of people like Al Gore and Mark Lynas showing the consequences of not doing enough. It would be nice for other reality media to be used more, in these 100 months, to do what is necessary to avoid those consequences.


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

November 2008 - What's so great about saving the planet?

"Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality"
(John Gray - Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals)

In Straw Dogs, John Gray issues a scathing attack on humanism - the widely held belief that we can, through the considered application of their own abilities, manipulate the world such that the our species progresses beyond the evolutionary chain that produced us: through conscious will, humans can become something more than simply an efficiently destructive animal. Gray argues that the secular humanist perspective is little more than an extension of Cristian dogma, with humans at the centre of a shared illusion of 'progress'. This time, however, instead of redemption in the afterlife, salvation through self-improvement and species-immortality is the preferred focus of the mutual hallucination.

Gray's attack is aimed at an unsettlingly broad range of popular belief systems, from Fascist regimes that seek purification via ethnic cleansing, to the modern faith in markets and technology as liberators of human development. Both, he argues, are little more than tweaks of the same dial - a knob marked 'intentional human progress' - when in fact, that dial does little to alter the eventual outcomes of human lives. Try as we might, claims Gray, we are no more able to escape the biological determinants of our fates (primitive drives for food, power and reproduction) than the non-human animals we are so quick to distant ourselves from.

In light of the rug being pulled out from under human endeavour, how does the Green movement fare? If humans are just animals, impotent in the face of evolutionary restrictions, deluded by a shared vision of progress that is destined to elude us, and obsessed with creating an environment where we can 'live forever', what's so great about saving the earth?

Its a good question, and one that should have any serious environmentalist quivering over their quinoa. Its important to note that this isn't just a re-hash of the 'how can you be so arrogant to assume that humans are causing climate change' argument, that seeks to duck-out of responsibility to future generations by proclaiming innocence in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. The claim isn't that humans are not causing climate change - it is that causing climate change is just a symptom of the inevitable destruction that resides deep in our genetic code. Humans, as a species, are very good at rapidly expanding our numbers, rapidly exploiting our resources, and rapidly dying out. This story has been repeated since homosapien first evolved. Ultimately, therefore, the dream of 'saving the planet' is precisely that - a dream, and grandiose one at that.

Worse still is the realisation that 'saving the planet' is so often a proxy for 'saving humans' in most people's eyes. The emerging political acceptance that climate change is real and should be prevented is not borne out of some Gaian concern for the earth system. It is borne out of the very species-centric realisation that a malfunctioning environment will soon spell the end for human life. If the everlasting propagation of human life is what we're fighting for, is it really worth our while?

Environmentalists are not a coherent group. Many people want to prevent dangerous climate change, for many different reasons. Some undoubtedly feel a strong urge to preserve the earth for centuries to come, supporting human life in abundance. Others perhaps, wish for a world with less people (although justly engineering this would be next to impossible). Most feel a commitment to immediate future generations. But for some, preventing dangerous climate change is primarily a social justice issue - one that concerns the current world population, not some imagined future group that might retrospectively regret our decisions made 1000 years previously. 100 months takes us to 2016. Advocating immediate and radical action on climate change is not a grandiose scheme for human immortality, it is a practical response to the indisputable fact that unmitigated climate change will greatly exacerbate the current inequitable distribution of global resources.

Tackling climate change requires a solution that simultaneously tackles global inequality, whether this be financial, medical, educational or environmental. The principle of fairness does not crumble in the face of John Gray's dismissal of human progress. On this view, the human race could start dying out in its millions tomorrow, but so long as this extinction was random, and unsystematic, then the principle of fairness would be preserved (of course, in reality, even 'random' events like natural disasters claim over 90% of their victims in poor countries). Whether humans 'survive' or not is irrelevant - so long as they stand and fall together.

So what's so great about saving the planet? Nothing, really. But so long as the world is carved up as it is - with the richest 2% owning 50% of the wealth - preserving it in the best possible state is simply an intervention for addressing (current) poverty and inequality. And that's something that John Gray's (straw) attack dogs cant devour.


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

November 2008 - Big Ask: Big Deal?

Amidst the financial crisis that has enveloped the media, if not yet the average British citizen, Energy & Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband quietly conceded that the target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would be increased from 60 to 80%. Two weeks later, Barack Obama swept to victory in the US elections running on a campaign promise of reducing American emissions by the same amount. The target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has been a central target of the successful and well-publicised Big Ask campaign, led by the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth.

High profile supporters (including Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke) and a substantial amount of postcard-pressure from the electorate clearly had an impact on Government thinking. So, has the political mainstream finally woken up to the scientific reality of climate change? Well, maybe. But the relative ease with which both British and American politicians were persuaded that 80% reduction targets were necessary raises the possibility that perhaps the Big Ask wasn’t such a Big Deal after all.

While there is much to celebrate about the adoption of a stronger climate law (the Climate Change Bill will now also include shipping and aviation in emissions targets), there are some voices who can’t quite find the enthusiasm to join the party. The Big Question on their minds is whether an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas by 2050 in two of the richest and most industrialised countries is really enough.

Strangely enough, Friends of the Earth Australia provide an answer in a report published earlier this year, ominously entitled Code Red. In the document, climate science since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) report is reviewed, with a particular focus on the work of James Hansen, Chief Climate Scientist at NASA. Hansen made the news earlier in the year for testifying in the case of the ‘Kingsnorth Six’, where a group of Greenpeace protestors used climate change as a defence to beat charges of criminal damage for spraying the word ‘Gordon’ in rather large letters on the side of a certain coal-fired power station’s chimney stack. Hansen has also, however, spent a great many number of years studying the effects of climatic change on Arctic ice, and has repeatedly reported that the melting of the Arctic ice is about 100 years ahead of schedule – that is, about 100 years ahead of the IPCC predictions.

Code Red reviews an enormous amount of post-IPCC peer reviewed climate science, and reaches a staggering conclusion: We do not need to reduce our emissions, we need to stop, then reverse them. If we do not, then avoiding the infamous tipping points and positive feedback mechanisms (typically the central goal of climate change legislation) will simply not be possible. All the horrific consequences of runaway climate change will become distinct possibilities, rather than vague future scenarios. Avoiding the tipping points means developing methods of sequestering carbon that is already in the atmosphere, at the same time as completely overhauling the global energy economy. Now that’s a Big Ask.

Unsurprisingly, analyses like these are nowhere to be seen in the political mainstream. This could be, of course, because Code Red is a puritanical manifesto for destroying civilisation and all the values it holds dear. Or, it could be that the scientific reality of climate change – as distinct from the politically feasible and ‘reasonable’ options that now define the boundaries of acceptable political debate on climate change – are just too much to bear.

What if preventing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries meant sacrificing our standards of living? Would we do it? What if preserving ecosystems and biodiversity meant giving up fossil fuels altogether? Could we manage? An 80% reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions of two highly developed and polluting countries is genuine progress. But lurking in the background, some even Bigger Questions remain…


Friday, 31 October 2008

October 2008 - Green New Deal and a (Potential) Political Super-Fight to Save the World.

You think on first thoughts the financial crisis and recession should harm the chances of (cash backed) government action on climate change, however, the change dynamic that the financial crisis has brought is spinning attractive narratives which speak of the opportunities that these times offer. Perhaps the most compelling of these stories is the idea of a Green New Deal.
The reference to Roosevelt’s New Deal, the prescription that cured America’s Great Depression, is deliberate and proponents of the concept argue for a blue print for recovery much like the Old New Deal promoting industrial reform and job creation... but of course privileging green investment, green jobs, building green infrastructure . The potency of this idea is such that the United Nations are backing it calling for a "Global Green New Deal" what they call a “Environmentally-Focused Investment Historic Opportunity for 21st Century Prosperity and Job Generation”

If this idea becomes a real prospect, will we have ourselves a Green-Roosevelt and who might that be? Well it is true the Green New Deal presents Gordon Brown with an opportunity to build on his World Saving! image following his bail out plan and Paul Krugman’s nobel prize winning endorsement.
A world class Green New Deal put together in the UK and taken on round the world could secure Gordon a slice of political legacy that he might be interested in.

While we wait and hope for Brown to make a substantial move, a longer established Superhero has already been playing at the role. Governor Schwarzenegger’s has been saying this month that in these times he wants to go “faster not slower” on the measures needed to grow the green economy in California - and makes like he’s got the Roosevelt Job nailed on seeing as he has already been asked to speak at the UN once.

Arnie argues the benefits of front running on climate change he claims half of US venture capital is coming into California because of the green economy there. The incentives are there for Brown too if his proposals for a Green New Deal are competitive, the present reliance in the UK on financial services is one such incentive to find a way to a growing (greener) economy. In 2007 financial services accounted for 10.1 per cent of UK GDP and Financial services made up one in 30 jobs in the UK.

Old Roosevelt for his New Deal had a ‘Brains Trust’ to help and Gordon Brown should be buoyed by the New Economics Foundations helpful proposals made by a substantial ‘Brains Trust’ of concerned and competent people who give Brown and the government a heads up and if taken on a chance to overtake Arnie as the New New Deal Superhero saving the world.

“the Green New Deal Group challenges government to go away, do its homework, and come back in the Autumn with a comprehensive legislative programme equivalent to that implemented by Roosevelt 75 years ago – a ‘Green New Deal’.”


Tuesday, 7 October 2008

October 2008 - When Good News is Really Only Less Bad News

As bankers across the world did their best to look innocent and surprised as the fiscal black hole created by their arrogance and greed swallowed savings, investments and metaphors for really bad things, British and European climate change policy moved quietly forward.

In the UK, the Independent Climate Change Committee advised the British government that it should be aiming for 80%, rather than 60% reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050, also recommending that aviation be included in these targets. These are targets that have played a big role in the campaigning strategy of environmental NGOs. If these recommendations were to become law when the Climate Change Bill receives its Royal Ascent, Britain would have exactly the moral authority it needs to boss others around in the fight against climate change - and we all love a bit of moral high ground.

In Europe, MEPs voted for an emissions reduction plan modelled on California's ambitious climate change strategy, whereby greenhouse gas emissions are restricted by an 'amount per kilowatt hour' system, that places absolute limits on how much CO2 can be emitted from any one place at any one time. Prime targets for this new legislation are coal-fired power stations - at least, ones built after 2015.

So are Britain and Europe finally taking the fight against climate change seriously? Well, perhaps.

Environmental NGOs must play a continuous game of carrot and stick with the public perception of government action on climate change. On the one hand, positive developments must be flagged as such - and so any legislation that makes E.On's plans to dig up more of the black stuff less likely will be cautiously applauded. On the other hand, mainstream political views are so far away from the scientific reality of climate change that baby-steps away from the shimmering mirage of 'business as usual' cannot be championed as bold strides towards climate change mitigation.

Lest we forget, the 100 months countdown is for dangerous global climate change. Countries such as the UK, which jauntily kicked off the industrial revolution, are already in the red in terms of carbon emissions. That is, if climate change is to be tackled effectively and equitably (using, for example, the contraction and convergence framework), the most polluting of the industrialised nations (us, USA, Australia) will need to find ways of sequestering carbon that is already in the atmosphere. If we do not, then either the burden of combatting climate change will fall unfairly on the shoulders of less industrialised nations, or dangerous climate change will not be avoided. Neither of these outcomes seems much of a reason for celebration.

The inconvenient truth at the centre of environmental campaigning reveals itself at moments like these: We beg for small concessions, knowing all the while that small concessions will simply delay dangerous climate change - not prevent it. Of course, the small concessions must be rewarded - if they were not, the gap between scientific reality and political feasibility would never close. But 80% reduction targets, and no new coal, is the beginning, rather than the end of the story.


Monday, 6 October 2008

September 2008 - Cultural responses to Climate Change, based on Science or (Pop) Art?

At the start of September, Powai a northern suburb of Mumbai, India had a contest to honour the greenest woman they could find and launched the title “Mrs Green”. Take a look at the full details on the Planet Powai community website ( Elsie Gabriel who had the original idea for the contest reckons:

“Ladies across the nation are energized about issues concerning environmental habits, global warming, garbage, alternative fuels, and other environmental topics. Home makers, grand moms or even working women, all are driving the sustainability movement, studying related topics, encouraging people to recycle, and proclaiming the green word!”

What appears online as a charming but culturally-specific event for “Green Ladies” also shows the outside viewer that “the green word” travels and people round the world, want to be involved, they Wannabe* Green.

* I should explain, I mean Wannabe as in; want to with passion the term coined by the Spice Girls, the Pop Group who in the video Wannabe (1996) gave a glimpse of the possibilities of radical change (honestly) as they are seen storming the establishment, running around shaking things up and then getting the bus out again with their integrity in tact – for those Girls it was not Wannabe like them, but Wannabe like US for not being like them! (

For the record, when you scour the internet looking for leadership and inspiration for Wannabe greens in 2008 (98 Months to go), the results are disappointing. You get… Geri Halliwell at last year’s Live Earth. If you have 2 minutes to waste, watch Geri ‘talking’ about the environment (I won’t give it away by telling you if she does say something profound or not, have a bet with yourself… in your own head

You know, taking a September look at the Indian “Mrs Green” and the brilliant yet flawed Geri does draw, interesting question marks about Green Identity Politics and our cultural readiness in Britain to do the necessary in 100 months. We know that we have to MOVE TO a lower carbon economy so a broad based cultural MOVEMENT is vital, and Spice Girl chutzpah and “Mrs Greens’” will be needed to achieve it, but it has to be focused as well and free of self publicity and green wash. There was less than positive news on this question from research written up in the media in September, a study found (from a small sample) people that recycle and save energy are more likely to fly so rendering themselves carbon big foot’s, not the green hero’s they appear – to themselves maybe and others. (

This suggests that your Wannabe Greener needs information, a Movement means shared objectives, and I should remind myself that Climate Change has a fundamental basis in science – and its vital, smart people say to keep the science in mind along the way. To inform the MOVE way beyond the acceptance moment, where an individual decides on the balance of science that yes Climate Change is happening. There are frameworks for doing this of course including Footprints, Planets and the Carbon Bottom Line (George Marshall).

If we should measure our Greenness individually, the next step perhaps is having it monitored by others- as it was mooted in September that eco town residents could:

If eco town monitoring is done purely on the Carbon Bottom Line I have no problem, but to be too prescriptive about how people meet the Carbon Bottom Line, would be to ignore the power in people and groups facing the challenges in their own way. The pursuance of a monoculture based on oil and driven by consumption is the reason that Climate Change is on us so quickly, so we shouldn’t try to solve the problem with that same way of thinking, a diversity of culturally appropriate responses to Climate Change (with eyes on the Bottom Line) may prove the most effective and sustainable direction of travel – with the option of some Girl Power as well.


Sunday, 28 September 2008

September 2008 - Planes, (no) trains and automobiles

The European parliament surprised eager environmental pressure groups and bullish BMW lobbyists this week by voting in favour of a legal framework that will ensure the greenhouse gas emissions of new cars across Europe will be reduced. Any vehicles made after 2012 will have to be (on average) 17% more efficient, with deeper reductions in emissions required by 2020. Fines will be levied against manufacturers that flout the legislation - the higher the emissions, the harsher the fine. Environmentalists could hardly contain their excitement, with Greenpeace claiming that "climate change campaigning works" and Lib Dem environment spokesman Chris Davies declaring "this is a good day for democracy".

And, after years of vacuous greenwash from the motor industry, concrete emissions reduction targets, a firm but fair time frame within which to enact them, and punitive measures for those who choose to keep on truckin', are small reasons to be cheerful. Despite the economic muscle of the automobile industry, environmental values seem to have taken precedence on this occasion.

What the EU giveth, however, the UK does its best to taketh away. Leaked documents from the European council ( suggest that Britain is determined to push for aviation to be excluded from European targets on renewable energy use. This mirrors the current domestic agenda of the British Government, who are simultaneously expanding the capacity of the world's busiest airport by a third AND leaving aviation out of the doesn't-do-quite-what-it-says-on-the-tin Climate Change Bill.

This deference to the increasingly profitable airline industry is not entirely surprising. Despite the death of a few ropey budget operators (so long Zoom, you will not be sadly missed), civil aviation is a growing market. It is also sufficiently disassociated in the mind of the public from the suddenly villainous financial wheelers and dealers. Hence, aviation is likely to weather the threat of a recession for now, and cement its place as the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions.

And the apparent ease with which restrictions were slapped on the automobile industry demonstrates that the problem is not primarily one of regulatory ability, but of political desire. Cars are profitable in Germany, and noticeably, it was Germany's Chancellor Merkel who lead the call to water down the EU legislation. It was in Germany's short-term economic interests to avoid regulating their powerful car industry too stiffly. So, despite the imminent threat of environmental tipping points being reached within the next 99 months, Chancellor Merkel chose to place economic prosperity before ecological welfare, as if the former were not contingent on the latter.

But it is not just the natural environment that contains tipping points - as the events of the past few weeks have shown, markets too respond abruptly to cumulative sequences of small changes, reacting in extreme and unpredictable ways. In the same way that positive feedback mechanisms will, unchecked, ensure that dangerous climatic change is locked into place without urgent ameliorative action, so too can changes in markets be difficult to reverse.

Unlike environmental changes, however, this is a feature of markets that cuts both ways. The EU legislation that will financially penalise car manufacturers that emit more than they should, will create a powerful driver for a market in genuine efficiency: there is now a definite cost associated with over-emitting, rather than vague consumer brownie points based on appearing as green as possible.

When manufacturers compete with each other on grounds of fuel efficiency, we are starting to harness the much-celebrated ability of markets to grope their way towards the 'best' solution. Only this time, they are not groping in the dark; the path is lit by legislation that ensures that profit is contingent on environmental efficiency. And that's a small step towards an economic model that values people and planet.


Saturday, 27 September 2008

September 2008 - The DANGERS of over-insulating the energy providers

Those people shouting loud in September (John Cruddas, Michael Meacher and Tony Woodley have been!) for a windfall tax on the big energy providers were, I imagine, bitterly disappointed by Gordon Brown’s domestic energy announcement.

The NEW interest in the announcement was Brown promising to SWITCH ON “a sea-change in energy efficiency and consumption” by legislating to require the big power companies to pay for £910 million worth of domestic energy saving measures (full costs for older people and the lower waged and half costs for everyone else). So it isn’t a windfall tax but is this a fudged policy alternative or a “sea-change” approach to rolling out loft insulation?

Compass argued for a windfall tax as such:
“We believe that the moment is right for the government to levy a sensible one off windfall tax to guarantee social and environmental justice both now and in the future.”

It’s true a one off tax would give government the means to extend exponentially the government Warm Front scheme and encourage people to insulate their homes - probably alongside transferring money to help with utility bills (the primary objective of many of the tax’s supporters). If such a windfall tax produced turbo-tangible outcomes on home energy efficiency then it would be a robust move showing strong government leadership on the issue. However it would also be bad for three reasons:

1. It is just a one off
2. The power companies sadly are probably better at ‘selling’ the take up
of insulation
3. Companies would NOT be paying the carbon costs UPFRONT and
BUILT-IN to their business models

Doing TAX and GRANT means the Power companies can leave it to the public sector to ‘think’ whilst they remain insulated and operating to a pre Climate-Change-Conscious Logic.

What Chancellor Darling says of the proposal
"I suspect that we have got rather more out of the energy companies than we might have done out of a windfall tax."
Remains to be seen! And the OUTCOMES have to judged but the intention has to be right that these Companies have got to bear a much larger share of Carbon Costs Up Front – and Built-In to their Business models. Corporate responsibility too often has meant corporate minimum standards. The Global Financial Crisis that shows deeper wounds the longer September runs, shows profoundly, that Business can no longer assume that PROFIT is their only responsibility.


Sunday, 21 September 2008

September 2008 - carbon offsetting and 'being reasonable'

In the September copy of the Co-operative's Re:act magazine, there was a debate between Tom Picken, Friends of the Earth International Climate Campaigner, and Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals & Sustainability for the Co-operative group, on carbon offsetting. Making all the key arguments against offsetting was Tom Picken, who accurately observed that a) we only have a few years to reduce global carbon emissions, and b) an offset is an offest - not a reduction.

It is not, perhaps, surprising to find the Co-op, despite the admirable ethical credentials, supporting carbon offsetting. After all, one part of their business is a travel company, and they make income from selling flights. Paul Monaghan's stance, however, was disappointing - not so much because of his support for the carbon offset concept, but because of the disparaging and misleading way he characterised those in the environmental movement who believe that carbon offsetting is simply not an appropriate response to the urgency of tackling climate change.

Monaghan claimed that disliking carbon offsetting was a badge of honour that some environmentalists wore to indicate their 'greener' credentials. He even claimed that taking such a stance was 'dangerous'. In painting those who do not share his views about carbon offsetting as a lunatic fringe with a point to prove, however, Monaghan is doing something far more dangerous: placing boundaries on the 'acceptable' limits of the debate.

Most environmentalists oppose carbon offsetting not because they wish to appear 'greener than thou', but because it fails in contributing to the most basic aim of the fight against climate change - reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. Global carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced rapidly to avoid dangerous climate change - that much is now uncontroversial. Aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, yet carbon offsetting does noting to reduce this - if anything, it encourages it. That comforting feeling you get when you carbon offset is the the wool being pulled over your eyes - it is not enough to simply carry on as we are, and making the tough changes to our behaviour is only made harder by pseudo-solutions like carbon offsetting.

So, while there are serious objections to carbon offsetting that arise from a uncompromising assessment of the harsh reality of climate change, 'reasonable' people like Monaghan make a shameless plunge for the 'reasonable' middle ground and designate all dissenting views as 'dangerous' and 'anti-development'. In a high profile position, working for an organisation supposedly at the forefront of environmentally responsible business practice, Monaghan should know better.There is perhaps nothing quite so dangerous as an attempt to curtail genuine debate - especially when the stakes are so high.

For a far more creative critique of carbon offsetting, see


Wednesday, 17 September 2008

August 2008 - Kingsnorth Climate Camp

The third annual Climate Camp ( took place between 4th-11th August at the site of a proposed new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, in Kent. There is already a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, but it is soon to come to the end of its sooty little life, and energy behemoth E.On have kindly offered to build a brand new one in its place. All that stands between Kent and a shiny new power station is government go-ahead...and several hundred committed climate campers.

The aim of the camp was to highlight the dangerous absurdity of building new coal-fired power stations whilst simultaneously trying to reduce one's carbon emissions. The UK government look likely to pass legislation that will commit Britain to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60% by 2050 (a scientifically unjustified and pitifully inadequate target, but a target nonetheless). Coal, being the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, must necessarily be phased out if emissions are to be reduced, but the proposed power station at Kingsnorth alone would belch out as much carbon dioxide as a country like Zambia does in a year.

Malcom Wicks, the Energy Minister, displayed a criminally glib attitude towards the camp, declaring that "The real prize is to develop technologies so that the CCS technology can be retro-fitted onto coal-fired plants in countries like China. Our decisions about any one application for a coal plant in Britain are pretty small fry compared to the risk of global CO2 emissions in coming years."

Wicks' barely disguised drooling for the 'real prize' of Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) technology is a clue to the solution that the British Government favours to the problem of climate change - and guess what? It involves lots of lucrative contracts for new coal-fired power stations, but with the proviso that an as-yet unproven technology will, at some yet to be specified time, be fitted to these new power stations. CCS may prove itself to be a viable way of capturing emissions from existing coal-fired power stations. But it's primary use at the present is as a justification for coal new-builds.

His assertion that any one planning application is 'small fry' is also terrifyingly disingenuous - if Kingsnorth is given the go-ahead, it is likely to be the first of seven new coal-fired power stations in Britain. While the climate camp succeeded in grabbing some media attention for a short time, the real work to prevent Kingsnorth being built is likely to be played out over years, not days. the camp organisers have declared that a rolling blockade, and peaceful, direct action, will be deployed if the new plant is given the green light (which looks highly likely).

As the 100 month countdown begins, things are not off to a good start - in order to prevent dangerous climate change, fossil fuels must ultimately be phased out altogether. They will run out of their own accord, of course, but this will be too late for millions of people in low-lying settlements, and the eco-systems they depend on. Plus, the quicker we start making the transition out of a fossil-fueled economy, the softer the landing on the other side of the oil peak will be.

Sadly, the short term interests of a government that has firmly hitched its cart to the kamikaze horse of globalised capitalism are not easily reconciled with an end to the age of fossil fuels.


Tuesday, 16 September 2008

August 2008 - The 'energy gap'

It has become commonplace for proponents of new fossil fuel power stations to refer to the 'energy gap' - that is, the gap between our energy demands and the capacity of a renewable energy sector to meet them. Indeed, one of the arguments routinely wheeled out in support of E.On's application to build a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is that new coal is necessary to 'keep the lights on'. Of course, it goes without saying that this gap must be closed by meeting the increasing energy demands of a growing capitalist economy - not by attempting to reduce our energy consumption and live within our ecological means.

There is, however, another notable gap - that between the scientific reality of dangerous climate change (conservatively estimated as requiring atmospheric concentrations of CO2e to not exceed 400 ppm - or approximately 2 degrees of climatic warming above pre-industrial levels) and the political feasibility of taking drastic and urgent action to prevent it. In the same week that the 100 months report appeared, the British Government demonstrated precisely how large this gap had become, as the chief scientific advisor to DEFRA Bob Watson warned that we should 'prepare to adapt to 4 degrees of warming', becuase 2 degrees was an 'ambitious target'

At 4 degrees above pre-industrial levels, "between 7 million and 300 million more people would be affected by coastal flooding each year, there would be a 30-50% reduction in water availability in Southern Africa and the Mediterranean, agricultural yields would decline 15 to 35% in Africa and 20 to 50% of animal and plant species would face extinction." (
The idea that we could somehow 'adapt' to 4 degrees of warming is, as medialens pointed out, deeply irrational ( Of course, any discussion of 'dangerous' climate change is of course a value judgement about how many people we are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of our 'ambitious' targets. As James Hansen, the chief scientist of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies is keen to remind people, climate change is already dangerous.

But where there should be debate about the most effective methods of mitigating climate change, and averting ecological and humanitarian disaster, there are instead thinly veiled threats from corporate energy providers about 'keeping the lights on'. Where vast sums should be invested in decentralised and community based renewable energy generation, millions are poured into building infrastructure that will commit the country to a fossil fueled energy economy for decades to come.

The real gap, it would seem, is between the imminent reality of runaway climate change, and its savage human cost, and the weak, compromised clunking of a political system that openly concedes that a 50% reduction in water availability in Southern Africa is something that we just have to 'adapt' to.


100 months...and counting

"By using the best estimates of current greenhouse gas emission growth rates, conservative estimates for the potentially damaging environmental feedbacks that accelerate global warming, and the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases that might prevent irreversible climate change, it is possible to estimate the length of time until this threshold is passed" (New Economics Foundation '100 Months', 2008)

On 1st August, 2008, the New Economics Foundation ( issued a report stating that in order to avoid 'dangerous' climate change, the world had 100 months to take collective action ( That is, if things continue as they are, dangerous atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will occur in less than nine years time. For the purposes of the report, 'dangerous' climate change was defined as an atmospheric concentration of Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of above 400 parts per million (ppm), which means an above average chance of keeping global temperatures 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

It is worth noting that even 2 degrees of warming will have negative ecological and humanitarian consequences. However, stabilising the global average temperature at less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels gives a decent chance of avoiding the 'tipping points' - the positive feedback mechanisms - that spell disaster for the environment as we know it.

100 months takes us to December 2016. This will be a monthly record of how, in the UK, we measure up to the challenge of drastically reducing global carbon emissions. Will we bury our heads in the sand and desperately put our faith in free markets, techno-fixes, and 'business as usual'? Will we wring our hands, sigh dejectedly and evade responsibility? Or will we take decisive action and acknowledge that the economic model of globalised capitalism is dragging us kicking and screaming into ecological destruction and humanitarian disaster on an unprecedented scale?

100 months...and counting.