As the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference gathers momentum, we can anticipate an increase of urgency, finger-pointing and awareness-raising. What is the motivation of this behaviour, and why is the volume of climate campaigning increasing? What is often overlooked is how the money tied into launching the green economy has led to a cosy relationship between governments, NGOs, some scientists and alert industrial groups. This advantageous relationship can only continue to thrive so long as the public remains afraid of impending climate catastrophe and is made willing to sacrifice economic resources and personal comforts for this shared quest. Is history repeating itself?
In 1961, US President Eisenhower gave an alarming farewell address warning that the military-industrial (Congressional) complex was threatening democracy and leading to a disastrous rise of misplaced power. In the 1950s, a cosy relationship had developed between arms manufacturers, the military, government procurement and the congressional districts benefiting from the increased jobs brought in via the weapons industry. The key to keeping the money and power flowing through these channels was to ensure that the public fear of the imminent threat of Communism was kept at a hysterical level. Kennedy tried with limited success to undo this “internal threat to democracy”.
With the public fear of the imminent threat of global warming, we have today the formation of an environmental-industrial complex, made up of NGOs, legislators, scientists and industries involved in developing the green economy. Open debate and democratic choices are getting more difficult as money and interests take over, and use public fear as a means to generate opportunity.
Fear is a very useful political tool. It provides governments with legitimacy, NGOs with fundraising opportunities and companies with potential new markets. Some would argue that societies need a generalized fear to thrive (part of an Armageddon complex deeply rooted in our DNA). Climate change fears have been stoked for more than a decade, to the point that it has, echoing Eisenhower, an “economic, political and spiritual influence” on humanity. Climate concern has crept into every day conversations, shopping decisions and moral valuations. When it rains, or snows, or if the wind blows, weather is part of the climate narrative, as is debates on energy, transportation and food. Like the threat of Communism in the 1950s, climate today purveys culture.
Fear can also become irrational; something that can be a very dangerous political tool should the juggernaut get out of control. The need to tackle climate change has been championed by anti-globalisation activists, vegetarians, forest campaigners, scientists, corporate CEOs, Hollywood actors … pretty well everyone. It has been presented as a spontaneous global movement to save the world: we have called it a war – a war on climate where we are all enlisted as soldiers. Those who disagree or feel that resources should be directed elsewhere are branded as traitors.
The Green Economy
The main solution for us to save the world is to change the way we do things: to decarbonise, which in a carbon-based global economy, implies a radical revolution. The call for a revolution was sounded by an influential American technology activist and critic, Jeremy Rifkin. At an EU Open Days event in October 2009, Rifkin called to change how energy is to be produced and distributed: no longer from large-scale carbon-based energy generators leaving energy to waste on a large grid, but rather from a distributive system of small, locally produced (green, renewable) roof-top generators put onto a smart grid. A smart grid would be complemented by appliances that would only switch on when energy supply was more abundant and less expensive (evidently solving our problem of irregular supply from green-energy sources). With this revolutionary distributive energy, we could remove our dependence on carbon-based and nuclear energy sources in the coming decade.
His arguments echo, almost word for word, a press release from General Electric on 14 July 2009, after a GE scientific conference on the smart grid at its research centre in upstate New York. GE has been developing smart appliances, domestic energy management systems and small scale renewable generators in preparation for this revolution. For GE, the motivation is clear. Its Eco-Imagination strategy has bet the firm’s future on the continued growth of green energy and smart-grid integration (as well as stimulus cash and green subsidies). They are working cross-stakeholder with scientists and NGOs to communicate the urgency of this need to revolutionize energy.
Other “green energy” companies have become dependent on the continued funding from governments. Smart grids are going to cost a lot, renewable energy may never turn a profit without subsidies, the research costs are going to be enormous. The money has to keep on flowing, we are told, otherwise the planet will burn and future generations will look at our present-day leadership and mutter what a disaster these minnows were. Nobody seems to be standing up to say: “Stop this madness!” Unfortunately, there is no money and no incentive for anyone to take the courage to do so. The only thing they would do is open themselves up to personal attack from the environmental-industrial complex already at the trough of subsidies, incentives and stimulus measures.
The War on Climate – not the place for open debate
Truth is the first casualty of war. Scientists who feel that the models are inaccurate or that the perceived and predicted warming is not necessarily due to human activity (that the sun or oceans could possibly play more of a role in climate than man) have been branded sceptics, contrarians or in the paid pocket of industry. Some have been excluded from scientific bodies given that their thinking is contrary to the prevailing consensus. Consensus-making is a political act, not a scientific one. Science encourages disputes and testing to see if theories can resist falsification. Limiting or denying free and open scientific debate because of political impetus for consensus does not improve the reputation of science. When motives and reputation come in (this is the first open scientific dispute of the Internet age), scientific methodology is compromised – science is compromised. The emails that were recently leaked from the University of East Anglia (one of the leading climate science institutions) showed climatologists expressing personal views about climate skeptics and admitting that their data was not sound enough (and needed some “tricks”). This is a crisis of credibility and the evidence of “climate spin” shows just how far science has fallen from the level of offering objective expertise.
The present leadership of the IPCC has not done much to restore the reputation of scientific validity and evidence-based advice. IPCC chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, has publicly declared that rich countries will have to pay reparations to poor countries, he moonlights as a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s advisory council on climate change, and declares at a vegetarian conference inflated numbers of the amount of CO2 produced by the beef industry. He does not seem to recognise any conflict of interest in these activities, or that he has become more of a politician than a scientist. After Copenhagen, Pachauri should be fired; instead he has a Nobel Prize hanging on his wall.
The NGOs are also rather aggressive when it comes to protecting environmental information from any open discussion or dialogue with people who might be questioning their evidence. Greenpeace members have been particularly severe on one of their founders, Patrick Moore, for considering nuclear energy as a viable energy source. When Bjorn Lomborg published his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, suggesting that money could be better spent on other pressing needs than the hopeless task of reversing global warming, NGOs took to the offence and ensured that the Danish academy no longer considered him as a scientist (he was a statistician after all!). Arguments against green positions are often met with rancour and insult rather than facts and rational debate. I am curious as to what the Green-shirts will do to poor James Lovelock for recently referring to environmentalist arguments on renewable energy as “silly theories”.
Ecological Lifecycle Assessments
What is lacking in so many of the ‘green’ technology debates is a clear eLCA – an ecological lifecycle assessment. Solutions are provided to perceived environmental problems without taking into account full environmental effects (especially real CO2 emissions). We have “ecological” washing products that demand that we wash our clothes at higher water temperatures. We insist on recycling certain materials (at a high energy and water cost) rather than recovering the product’s energy through incineration. We promote solar energy as a carbon-free source of energy without taking into account the amount of energy required to purify the silicon and other production costs. The only real eLCA that was performed recently was for the production of biofuels as a carbon-neutral fuel alternative after their real environmental impact was leading to serious global consequences (from food supply to increased CO2 to land distribution issues).
Like any religion, the environmental feel-good effects of saving the planet blind us from even wanting to look more closely at the facts of our lifestyle and real environmental consequences. These eco-solutions put off making harder choices. Rather than recycling, we should use less stuff. We don’t need to use so much energy. Green technologies promise us that we don’t have to make these choices and we can still feel good pretending that we are doing good (all we have to do is change a light-bulb). And governments are not shy to reinforce this perception with green incentives that put their own role in a benign light.
The Rifkin-GE strategy of a micro-electricity power plant on every roof seems idealistic to the eco-religious, but how does it hold up under an eLCA? Economies of scale in energy production would suggest that a single nuclear site would produce more energy more ecologically efficiently than manufacturing and maintaining 300,000 generators (unless, of course, you are making and selling these little eco-pods). What is more sinister is what this strategy will do to energy supply philosophy, where until now access to energy supply was considered a basic right in advanced economies. As only richer neighbourhoods will be able to afford these roof-top generators, we can expect non-stop energy stream to become a luxury item once we “make the switch” to renewables. The majority of the population will have to deal with a schedule of rotating “brown-outs” (UK officials are openly predicting this). The public is starting to become sensitised to this eventuality with such campaigns like WWF’s Earth Hour. The environmental-industrial complex is preparing for the next stage – as freezers risk becoming obsolete in the brown-out society, new appliances will be marketed to consumers with built in battery reserves. There is more money to be made from such consequences.
Policies for Clunkers
Perhaps the most blatant example of a lack of eLCA consciousness (and evidence of the environmental-industrial complex at work) can be found in the recent automotive policies. Faced with concern of the impact of our unsustainable automotive culture on the environment and the threatened demise of inefficient automakers: what was our solution? Build more cars! The various “cash for clunkers” programmes around the world seemed like a win-win for everyone: older, more polluting cars taken off the road, more jobs created throughout the supply chain, benign governments seen at work as environmental stewards … the only real loser seems to have been the environment.
A simple eLCA would indicate that around one third of the CO2 a car produces in its lifespan is from its production process (the smelting of steel, the tires, electronics, assembly …). Add in the costs of recycling the clunkers that were taken off the road well before the end of their productive lives, and we are looking at almost half of the CO2 released into the environment before you even fill up the tank. But wouldn’t that look better once we factor in more ecological cars like hybrids? The hybrid battery production (and producing a car with two motors!) is even more costly to the environment. So long as we defy the need to do eLCAs, hybrid drivers will continue to be looked upon as environmental demi-gods rather than mass polluters.
Rather than governments giving cash to put new cars on the road (and create more CO2), there should have been a push to keep cars on the road longer and providing means for them to run cleaner. But this logical answer goes up against the mentality of the environmental-industrial complex so we can anticipate more environmental waste and little discussion of the real environmental issues. Now governments are even using twisted data that suggests that eating beef is worse for the planet than driving a car (ergo, cars are good).
Shouldn’t our watchdogs, the NGOs, be doing more to get cars off the road (not just for climate change, but to lower the road death statistics, noise pollution and air pollution levels that would make any toxics campaigner blush)? A scan of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF would show them disturbingly silent here. The public is not prepared to contribute money to these organisations so that their cars could be restricted or taxed, and in any case it is fruitless to try to terrify car-owners about the risks of their cars.
What if we are wrong?
Before people jump to conclusions about my moral fibre, I agree there is a genuine societal worth in saving energy and planting trees and these practices must be encouraged whenever possible, just as we should encourage hygiene and politeness. But if we promote these virtues for political ends that affect other ends (global poverty, diseases, economic viability, societal progress), then we had better be right in our declarations.
Evidence is emerging to suggest that our experts have been wrong. Last summer’s Antarctic ice melt was the lowest since satellite imaging began. This was not predicted in any modelling and suggests that the sea-level rise predictions have been exaggerated. But the publication of this information by Tedesco and Monaghan in Geophysical Research Letters (volume 36), has been largely ignored by climatologists. Secondly, there has been a cooling trend since 1998 (global temperatures have been going down rather than going up). This evidence has been met with many explanations and dire warnings that although this may be true, once this oceanic cooling phase ends, it is going to get even hotter faster. (During the last ocean cooling phase that peaked in the 1970s, scientists were predicting an ice age.)
Mother Nature is entering the climate debate, and rather than us celebrating having avoided the worst-case warming scenarios, the environmental-industrial complex is ratcheting up the fear index. The leaked emails from the University of East Anglia show that scientists have been playing “tricks” with the data for quite some time now. What would happen to all of the climate research funding UEA receives should there be less concern about global warming?
The precautionary principle as espoused by NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (and presently being lobbied on EU policy-makers and retail companies) does not accommodate responsibility for any consequences from needless avoidance. “Better safe than sorry” translates into an attitude of “never mind if, in the end, we were proven to be wrong”. Being wrong does not seem to matter if you are trying to save the planet. In any case, our emerging eco-religion, like all religions before it, keeps facts at arm’s length.
It is not that NGOs and climate scientists are lying. Rather, enamoured by the benign nature of their mission, their decision-making process has perhaps been clouded by their high sense of urgency, emotion and ego. Someone should tell them that in the greater scheme of things, man is not so significant, not when compared to the climatic influence of oceans, our planet or the sun. Such is our hubris today to even think we are of the same stature and can affect climate in the same way as the sun or the sea.
We are in a world of finite resources (at a time of economic crisis) where all of our focus seems to be on this noble project of cooling our planet, with industry pulling in public funds to build cathedrals of ecological inutility. At the same time, every day almost 3000 people (mostly children and mostly in Africa) die from malaria; 2000 die from TB (once again, that is every day). Hunger rates are rising and experts are predicting dire consequences (although policy opportunists are trying to pin that on climate change rather than the evident lack of investment in agricultural technologies and development). Being wrong on climate does matter (and reflects even a greater irresponsibility of policy-makers – too weak to stand up to the environmental-industrial complex).
These daily silent deaths can easily be avoided with investments far less significant than that given to organisations to try to reverse our planetary and solar patterns as well as other stimulus-driven eco-follies. Unfortunately, children in Africa are not part of the strategy of the environmental-industrial complex so the only funds they receive seem to come from private charities – enough to make some of us feel better, but certainly not enough to do anything concrete. And anyway, we keep telling ourselves that the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change on children in Africa will be far worse than malaria, TB and starvation. So deeply have we been affected by this fear of climate change that even evidence of our being wrong cannot seem right.
How can we break free of this environmental-industrial complex? Eisenhower could not. Nor could Kennedy. Obama is encouraging it. It seems our only hope is for Mother Nature to continue to confuse us and for contrarian scientists to continue to show courage.
Risk Perception Management