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In my last post, I talked about the need for electric cars that symbolise innovation, the cutting edge, etc. etc. Electric cars that car fanciers can relate to.  At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the need for cars that are practical for families without boy racers (or indeed girl racers in). As a strikingly normal, practical car for the everyman the Ford Focus Electric has a chance of being that car, the spiritual successor to the Model T.

The Ford Focus Electric

The Ford Focus Electric seems to be somewhere in between: it’s still a presentable car but it’s takes a big step towards that market of electric cars for ordinary people. Ford has always been the make favoured by the practical driver rather than the flashy: my Dad, for instance, drives serious Ford estate cars with lots of boot space for family holidays. Ford’s place in history was secured, of course, by its provision of a car for the masses, the Model T, in 1908.

It’s difficult to see what the uptake will be at this stage: there’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem with electric cars that the infrastructure will only be built if there is demand for it (or expected demand), while the demand for the cars will only survive if there are places to charge them. The European Commission have recently outlined plans to get petrol cars out of city streets by 2050, in part with governments taking the lead in providing infrastructure . For the market to rise to this challenge, however, it needs big symbols that electric cars are on the way. Ford’s decision to step into that market may send a clear signal that the big guns of car manufacturing are taking the electric car seriously. As I’ve argued previously, rising oil prices from middle-east conflict and unrest may also prove a boost to such technologies.

The Chrysler GEM Peapod. Plays on its uniqueness rather than its normality

I am also pleased to see they’ve stuck with the design of their existing ordinary, nice-looking cars. With the greatest respect to some of the other pioneers in this field, lots of electric cars are frankly wierd-looking in a way that it’s difficult to get over. A blog on treehugger.com Ford’s move to normality this as a bold strategy, moving away from the model of selling eco-friendly cars that make a statement about their own uniqueness. Meanwhile a CNN blog has criticised Ford for “coming to the eco-party late”, near a year behind its rivals, but perhaps this reflects a more mature product: according to their PR, the Ford Focus Electric is also “designed to offer sufficient range to cover the majority of daily driving habits”, in this case about 100 miles. It is also good to see they’re aware of and seeking to tackle the problem.

Ford have already dabbled in hybrid cars, such as the upcoming C-MAX Energi. (I hope am not the only person who finds the use of an “i” in the brand name “Energi” slightly tiresome.) I find hybrid cars an interesting and slightly odd market because it is so dominated by the Toyota Prius, which somehow managed to tie itself entirely to the concept of hybrid cars in the public mindset much as “hoover” became synonymous with vacuum cleaner. (The example I always think of with this is the episode of The West Wing where Josh Lyman, the White House’s Deputy Chief of Staff, is photographed crashing an SUV into a Prius, a fantastic symbol of arrogant anti-environmentalism that they then have to manage the fallout from.)

As far as I know there isn’t a fully electric car that has that kind of dominance yet. Or maybe there is among car fanciers and it just hasn’t filtered down to sane people grownups me yet. Will Ford be able to roll out the definitive, yet reassuringly normal electric car, the model T for our generation? Time will tell. Good luck to them, say I.

I have a come up with a brilliant way for the James Bond franchise to play its part in the low-carbon revolution, keep Bond at the cutting edge of technology and stir up some public interest in the next film along the way.

Pierce Brosnan as Bond, with Aston Martin

The electric car is many things, but cool is not one of them. The technology may be improving, the ethical case strengthening and the marketing picking up, but petrolheads, the Jeremy Clarkson brigade, can’t quite bring themselves to take an interest. Now Electric Cars like the Tesla Roadster (my personal favourite, though at £88,000 a little outside my current budget) even look fantastic. Fundamentally, however, no matter how good the electric car becomes, a certain segment of the population won’t be able to take it seriously.

The reason? The car, in its petrol-driven form is deeply embedded in US-UK culture. The Beach Boys did not sing “Little Electric Deuce Coope”. There were no electric cars in The Fast and the Furious (and The Fast and The Furious 4: She’s Electric seems unlikely somehow). In Thunder Road Bruce Springsteen sings of getting out of small-town America and the likely fate of young men left behind: “They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets”. If he sang that now about those little nippy smart cars he would sound ridiculous. While Chevrolet have now expanded into electric cars, the image also doesn’t quite sit with the Chevrolet Volt – the industrial heartland of America is still characterised by petrol. And James Bond does not drive an electric car. I think we all suspect, deep down, that if he did he would find it much less easy to attract women with the speed and reliability he does. Besides which, Aston Martin, Bond’s car of choice, has dismissed the possibility of going electric.

But James Bond is the perfect vehicle (pun not intended) for showcasing the electric car. Bond always has the latest technology: that’s a big part of what the franchise is all about. Electric cars can be sold to the Bond audience as the latest, best, most high-tech thing. Best of all, it doesn’t have to be based on reality: I could be wrong here but I very much suspect that no-one has yet invented a car that can be steered by a mobile phone (and if they did it was after watching Tomorrow Never Dies not before) but Bond can have one because the audience understands that MI6 are ahead of the curve on this one. So Bond’s electric car can have limited range. He can hack into power lines on the road to charge it. It’s all fair game. And Daniel Craig’s masculinity will go a long way to making the electric car a thing of desire.

Daniel Craig as Bond, also with an Aston Martin

So how will this benefit the Bond franchise? Because putting Bond in an electric car will be highly controversial. There will be headlines and endless online comment pieces and blogs. The diehard petrolheads may all complain down the pub, but they’ll go and see it and all their friends will pick up on the buzz and want to know what’s going on and will go and see it too.

It’s a long road (again, pun not intended) to building up the electric car in the public eye, a task that falls partly to improving technology and partly to cultural change. An electric bond car would, however, leave the market shaken, if not stirred.

The decision by the UK Government to cut fuel duty in the budget this week comes from a noble aspiration to make life easier for those on lower and middle incomes. Doing this by cancelling the fuel escalator and cutting fuel duty, however, encourages people to consume more petrol and diesel and provides less incentive for individuals and for businesses to switch to alternatives where they are available. Supporting them by raising income tax threshold higher, faster, would have the same benefits but be better for the planet and better preparation for a world where fuel prices can only go up in the long-term.

In his budget speech, chancellor George Osborne argued: “The price of petrol has become a huge burden on families”. His solution was to cut fuel duty by one penny per litre and to cancel the ‘fuel escalator’ of the previous government which added a penny of tax every year to the cost of petrol above inflation. True, this must be put in the context of the combination of a high VAT rate as well as rising prices, but there are still better ways to offset that extra cost.

A central plank of the coalition agreement (page 30, if you’re looking) is the increase in the bottom rate of tax threshold, a key Lib Dem policy, which is to creep up to £10,000 over the course of the government. This is a much more sensible policy, helping people through tax relief so that they can make their own choices about how to spend that money. Giving that money back through a tax cut rather than a fuel duty increase  allows people to make environmentally sound choices because they become cheaper.

Taxes on petrol follow a fundamentally sound concept: the polluter-pays principle. If you’re going to pollute, you should pay society an amount of money equivalent to that pollution. The cheaper gas-guzzling cars are to run, the higher their cost to society through pollution.

It will never be possible for everyone to switch to bikes, walking and public transport, especially for those who live in rural areas or small villages poorly served by public transport. There are baby steps to take, however, choosing cars that get more miles to a gallon, or, even buying a hybrid, or learning to drive in a more fuel-efficient way. Finding solutions for people in these situations will be harder, and more expensive. This does not make those solutions less necessary.

Oil Prices: Only going one way in the long term (Image source: bybusiness.net)

Taking those steps has a second benefit: they prepare society now for the reality of rising oil prices and the likelihood of steadily rising carbon prices, both of which will make petrol more expensive. As the Arab awakening only grows in force and unpredictability and oil prices remain over $115 a barrel (not long ago it made headlines by crossing the $100 mark), the risk of short-to-medium-term price fluctuations is very high as old dictatorships fall and new regimes are, gradually, set up. The reality of long-term rising oil prices is even clearer. Also in the budget was a £16 price floor for the UK carbon market, which will increase the cost of most fossil-fuel based operations. This will only rise with tougher future legislation. To cut taxes on petrol is to deny the realities of rising oil prices and the growing need for tougher CO2 emissions regulations. The short-term pain relief will make the shocks of rising prices harder for people to manage or more and more expensive for the government to offset in the future.

I write this following news of the many-layered disaster in Japan. At the point I am writing, the literal dust has settled but the metaphorical dust remains hovering in the air in the confusion. The literal fallout from the nuclear reactor has been gauged and thankfully found under control, but the metaphorical fallout is just beginning. In trying to write about the situation it is striking how many clichéd metaphors have to be avoided because of their literal relevance. It is perhaps a sign of the scale of the tragedy when what is usually the language of exaggeration (“open the floodgates”, “go nuclear”) fits the facts.

When disaster strikes there is always a pregnant pause while the world watches and the commentariat suspends their rational brains as they engage with the situation. Radical intellectual Naomi Klein is eloquent on the risks of governments using that pause of reason to push though radical agendas before the bloggers, the columnists and the public intellectuals have processed the situation. She warns us to be wary of big changes made while nations are reeling. That period is now ending and the thought process beginning. It is not known as I sit at my computer now what the big discussions will be about in the coming weeks, let alone what conclusions will be drawn, what changes made.

There are two areas to follow closely from a climate change perspective. The most obvious is the future of nuclear power. With the British government pushing the nuclear option hard in recent months, the events at Fukushima may radically shift both public and expert opinion.

Fukushima No.1 plant exploded twice more today. Radiation has risen to dangerous levels

At the point of writing there has just been a third blast at the No. 2 reactor and concerns about radiation are now at the front of everyone’s mind. Michael White on the Guardian website is arguing that if “the underlying lesson of Fukushima will turn out to be that, even after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, nuclear plants – 40-year-old nuclear plants – can be built that survive, more or less in tact. Touch wood.” One suspects this will not be the only side of the argument to emerge in the next few days. Germany is one of several countries to be already seriously rethinking its approach to nuclear power.

Perhaps the less obvious conversation this may shift is the conversation about hazard management. Let me first clarify some terms: a hazard is a potentially risky event, like an earthquake in a crowded area. A disaster is what happens if this turns into a humanitarian catastrophe. This need not be the case: where Hurricane Katrina is widely considered to have been disastrously managed, Cuba survived the onslaught of a Hurricane Ivan (which, like Katrina, reached category 5 status but struck while at category 3 size), relatively unscathed the year before. In the area of climate change adaptation, good disaster management practice is understood as key to reducing the impacts of the increased likelihood of hurricanes, floods and heatwaves that we can expect as a result.

What happened in Japan, however, was unusual: in fact Japan has often been seen as excellent at earthquake management. This BBC news story from back in 2003 praises that ability effusively. The problem here was that two disasters struck in rapid succession. A plan for one, or even both, falls apart when hit by two in combination. The best example of this is the nuclear power station’s unit 1, where disaster struck first. When the earthquake hit, the plants all shut down, leaving hot fuel (uranium) needing to be cooled. This should have been happened using an electric water pump. The power-cut, however, knocked out this option. The backup system was a diesel pump that would have taken over successfully had it not been for the Tsunami shortly afterwards, which is thought to have disabled it. The second backup system, the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling system is battery-powered, and continues to supply water for as long as its batteries last: eight hours. Normally this would be enough to get power back up. In this situation things are more complicated. (See the reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists for detail.)

It is difficult to know what kinds of multiple-layered hazards may strike as the impacts of climate change become more serious. Some, like agricultural failure, may be more gradual. Imagine, however, a scenario let’s say in the U.S.A. where heat-waves damage food supplies in the country and heat the towns, rising sea-levels drive people from coastal cities and together lead to overcrowding and civil unrest in inland cities. If a hurricane, or a non-climate related hazard like an earthquake then strikes, the potential for disaster is huge, and the need for complex, well-funded and well-integrated disaster planning becomes key.

The detailed lessons for disaster management will be one of many areas to watch as the aftermath of the crisis plays out. This combination of earthquake and tsunami was, sadly, fairly predictable: geologists know where the fault lines are and know that earthquakes cause tsunamis. If this situation was not adequately accounted for, what about stranger combinations of hazards?

Huhne in 'The Observer': "We cannot afford to go on relying on such a volatile source of energy when we can have clean, green and secure energy from low-carbon sources"

It is reassuring to see in today’s Observer, on the front page no less, that the UK government is treating the unrest in the Middle East as a reason to get serious about sustainable sources of energy. It is, and they should, but the devil will be in the detail of the plans outlined this coming week. It may be that the protests throughout the arab world will achieve what the most hardened environmentalist protester may struggle with: whipping up political will and public support for renewable energy.

With the very real impact of the recession on things governments and the population generally have prioritised for 30 years – growth, employment and now inflation – it is understandable that environmentalism has been pushed onto the backburner. Annoying, yes, unhelpful, definitely, badly timed from an ecological perspective, absolutely. But understandable, nevertheless. What rising oil prices bring with them is a sense of reality to them that, despite the overwhelming evidence and genuine world-wide impacts, discussion of climate change cannot seem to manage.

As primarily a Financial Times reader, I am always struck by that paper’s unwillingness to talk about climate change, preferring to frame such issues as clean technologies in ways that quietly sidestep mentioning it. This is probably not a bad thing – ill-informed but vocal critics highjack almost any discussion of climate change, especially on online article comment boards. The Financial Times is, however, always happy to write about oil prices. During the uprising in Egypt the tabloids reported on the experiences of British tourists (presumably because Johnny Foreigner is not real a real person who experiences real things, and even if they do, who cares?), The Independent and The Guardian got excited about the winds of change sweeping the world (as only the liberal left can) and The Financial Times reported “Oil Surges as Egypt Protests Grow”. Because we wouldn’t want to get too excited by this politics nonsense when oil prices are rising, now would we? The Telegraph appeared not to notice Egypt for most of the period.

Oil: As we approach the 100th anniversary of the break-up of Standard Oil on the 15th May this year (buy your balloons now before they sell out) it's making the world go around as much as ever

The truth is that it is neither obvious nor straightforward that oil prices damage the well being of the man on the street. You have to understand that oil prices drive inflation, and particularly food inflation, which makes life more expensive. You also have to know that electricity and gas prices tend to rise in line with oil prices, even though neither comes from oil. On the face of it this is like saying “of course the price of tables will rise – the price of plant pots has risen”: on the surface at least it’s a little weird. These facts have, however, filtered down into the decision-making end of the public as received wisdom, and enough that the whole political spectrum is rattled. In economic good times, seriously rising oil prices are only inflationary. In bad times we’re talking about the dreaded stagflation, where the two horsemen of economic apocalypse, inflation and unemployment, ride out together.

(I would also like add, in passing, that this resolution seems to me further evidence of the value of having Lib Dems in the current government. Accusations of impotence and of “selling out” run rife in newspaper comment pages – and in most episodes of The News Quiz on a Friday night – but this may be one of many occasions when a Lib Dem minister or a Lib Dem presence has huge impact on the detail of policies that fly beneath the radar of many such critics. Nor is it an isolated case – I count two or three news stories a week highlighting compromise decisions or finely balanced Conservative-Lib Dem influences.)

With the future of the Middle East as uncertain as ever, future oil shocks may hit the world economy hard. The political unrest of Egypt and Libya may have pushed prices up, but they only produce 0.74 and 0.6 million barrels of oil per day. Iran produces 3.66 million, and Saudi Arabia more than 9 million barrels (source: FT). Even if these shocks don’t materialise, there is a simpler truth here – that the world supply of oil is finite, so in the long-term the price is only going to go one way: up.

In the news today was a proposal to make companies operating nuclear energy in the UK liable for clean-up costs of up to £1.01 billon in the event of a accident, up from only £140 million at the moment. Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne also proposes to allow more types of claim to be made in such circumstances. It is absolutely right for the government to make this change and stop distorting the market as it does now.

Huhne: In favour of building more nuclear plants, but raising the insurance costs

I will come clean here: I am a fence-sitter on the issue of nuclear power. The more I look into it the more complicated and unclear it becomes. I tend to conclude that it is not a power source to be dismissed completely, but mostly is not worth the cost. This may, however, change with technological improvements.

It is, however, unhelpful for nuclear power to be given an unfair market advantage. When its maximum liability level is low it has a huge implicit subsidy: government is then effectively agreeing to clear up the mess from any nuclear disaster. If nuclear energy becomes a bigger part of the UK’s (or the world’s) energy supply because its real costs are being covered by the government, then that is due to a misjudgement on the part of policymakers.

This is not to say all energy subsidies should be opposed, quite the opposite. The cards should be stacked heavily in favour of giving renewable energy an advantage, so the technology is developed swiftly. Subsidies to renewable energy sources are essential to develop areas like wind and solar power to a competitive market position. At present they have an unfair disadvantage simply because however good the fundamental ideas are, they haven’t had the years of development that fossil fuel and nuclear industries have. Adopting the most effective and efficient renewable generation is key to developing a sustainable economy in the long-term.

There is another key way of making the energy market better reflect energy production costs, and that is smart grids. At present less predictable sources of energy like wind are effectively discriminated against by a grid that is designed to move energy in a fairly unsubtle way. High-quality smart grids can allow power companies to monitor the electricity going through all of its power lines in real-time and have much greater control of where the power goes. Electricity inefficiency costs the world dearly: according to IBM the world’s current grids “lose enough electricity annually to power India, Germany and Canada for an entire year” This control makes the reliability challenges of renewable energy much easier to overcome: if there isn’t enough power generation in one area, it can be moved from elsewhere. Smart grids would still have benefits for other energy companies, but would level the playing field still further.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested he might devote after the Governorship to climate change work. How? By focusing on the business end and never mentioning climate change by name. And presumably by being very, very quotable.

The Governator may yet lead the way in the business of climate

One of the most interesting analyses of climate change communications out there is buried in a recent Guardian article on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s future. “The Governator” has speculated he could spend his future after the governorship drumming up support and capital for climate-change friendly technology, a path not dissimilar to Tony Blair’s work on climate change since leaving office, including a recent Chinese low-carbon business initiative.

What’s interesting about this is the focus: future technology, business and big money. Hardly the hallmarks of traditional environmentalism, to be sure. What is even more interesting is that he consciously chooses his language to reflect this: he makes it clear that his strategy is to avoid referring to climate change or greenhouse gases, presumably to sidestep the entire climate change debates going on in the US. He also speaks of avoiding the polarised US politics in this issue, so perhaps by talking about “clean tech” and “future energy sources” he can avoid spooking the businessmen out there who shudder at environmentalism but smile on visions of future technology.

He’s certainly crystal clear when he says on climate change groups: “People get stuck and fall in love with their slogans and with their little agendas”. His pragmatic approach may prove just the ticket. It also chimes perfectly with the recommendations of the Hartwell Paper last May, which argues for “an indirect approach, which pulls on the twin levers of reducing the energy intensity of economies and the carbon intensity of energy” to avoid the “hyper-politicised” environment surrounding arguments over the science.

Those who have seen the film “Amazing Grace” about the life of William Wilberforce will know that the British slave trade industry was broken down through the back door by focusing on the trade with Britain’s enemies, reframing it as a patriotic issue and by the usual anti-slave-trade lobbyists keeping their head down so the bill passed unnoticed. The same slight-of-hand could come in useful here if those like Schwarzenegger are able to avoid the overblown battleground of climate science and get on with advancing the technology, in line with the Hartwell Paper’s “indirect approach” thesis.

Schwarzenegger is not the only one choosing his words carefully on this. Reading a typical article on “Renewable Energy News”, like a typically business oriented one on GE’s investment in “clean technology”, there’s a sense of a business community avoiding a guilty secret that renewable energy is associated with this hippie-Guardian-reader-sandal-wearer-tree-hugger stuff. Even after The Stern Review, a UK government cross-bench consensus, campaigning by both presidential candidates from 2008 and big reports by the likes of Deutsche Bank and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, climate change is something some of those business feel a little self-conscious about discussing too openly.

Schwarzenegger also sees himself as a communicator who communicates clearly by simplifying: “I think that I have the talent of speaking the language in such a way so that the world understands it rather than making it complicated,” he said. This was a trait notoriously ridiculed in George W. Bush, but there is little doubt his plain-speaking style won him elections (as well as praise from former sultan of spin Alastair Campbell), and Schwarzenegger shows signs of some of the same talent.

It is well worth browsing Schwarzenegger quotes online. Among my favourites are “Gray Davis can run a dirty campaign better than anyone, but he can’t run a state”  and “One of my movies was called ‘True Lies.’ It’s what the Democrats should have called their convention”. Oh, and the famous “To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: ‘Don’t be economic girlie men'”.

I’m looking forward to more of the same on renewable energy.

This morning Unilever unveiled its big targets for making its supply chain sustainable. Never has it been more clear that it is big business that will now be leading the way in the sustainability revolution.

Unilever: A huge business behind innumerable well-known brand names including Flora, Colman's, Wall's, Cif, Dove...

In brief, Unilever, whose household brands range from Persil to PG Tips, intends to cut the environmental impact of its products by half, in terms of carbon, water and waste in ten years, while doubling sales, i.e. keeping its total environmental impacts steady while still pushing growth. While this seems like a mixed blessing, worldwide environmental impacts in all areas have gradually risen over at least the last 50 years, and levelling off is itself highly impressive. It will also pave the way for further improvements.

Technological fixes developed to meet these targets will have application in other markets. Cutting supply chains is an increasingly high-tech process, as the “food technology” section of IBM’s website demonstrates, and systems and software will be copied elsewhere. Any niches in which they find big carbon-emission cuts will set precedents for the rest of industry. If Unilever turns its own vehicles and those of its supply chain electric, then the surge of demand could have a real impact on some electric car manufacturers, or on setting up the infrastructure needed on regular supply routes for mass electric car adoption.

If, moreover, they recruit a large and well-qualified sustainability department, then it will presumably remain in place and pursue new and more ambitious targets in ten years time. If it is scaled back at some point then at least some of the sustainability-minded staff are like to be reabsorbed into the rest of its organisation, also no bad thing.

John Elkington: Now believes business, not consumers, will be at the heart of sustainability

There will be those who will criticise this initiative as greenwash (there always are) but so far it seems like this is an attempt to push through deep-rooted changes to their supply system, not simply produce eye-catching initiatives to seek headlines. If they had wanted that, surely they would have stopped short of the kinds of promises they are now making. It is revealing that John Elkington, who I know from my academic studies as someone driving a push for sustainability since at least with mid-1990s, has reflected in the Guardian “Now it seems as if the process is going into reverse with companies, rather than consumers, in the green driving seat.”

There will be those who will complain that they are motivated by the wrong things. To those people I say: who cares? If you give someone a gift then your motive does matter, because the meaning of that gift in that relationship is determined by your motive. If you are dealing with an abstract supply-chain change, then this is simply not the case. If Unilever “green” their supply chain, then the motives of those involved will have little or no impact. Moreover Jonathon Porritt has written in his piece on the announcement: “The data-gathering has been rigorous (as is always the case in Unilever)”, a throwaway line that rings very true: when companies as hard-nosed as Unilever decide to do something, they don’t mess around.

As time goes on there will be failures and questions over whether the target can be achieved, or whether the accounting system is effective. This kind of scrutiny is essential to avoid good intentions and grand designs falling by the wayside. Overall, however, we should praise Unilever for its efforts, or risk damaging the incentive for other companies to follow suit.

As an addendum, I will admit to being I am faintly jealous of my boss at the NGO at which I’m now working, who saw the launch with figures including John Elkington. Elkington is a semi-mythical figure for me, the inventor of the much revered “triple-bottom-line” of social business and CSR, referring to combining business, environmental and social goals. Reading about the application of this by Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen bank was a seminal moment for me. As a boy I wanted (for reasons still unclear to me) to be the archetypal big capitalist man, but as I travelled and then became a humanities student, I became very much aware of the other side of life, what might be called a “people and planet” ethos. This was the framework that made me realise I could reconcile the two, and that this was where my future lay.

A recent exchange in The Washington Post reminds us all that in sometimes in PR, as in life, the best defence is a good offence.

Michael Mann: Controversial and adversarial paleoclimatologist

About a month ago, the controversial U.S. climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in The Washington Post attacking the politicians who are making threatening noises towards him and his colleagues. Mann argues that senior U.S. politicians are playing politics with what should be objective science. Senator Joe Barton has written a response completely ignoring this argument and framing the discussion instead in terms freedom of speech and freedom to challenge scientists.

Rarely is it more clear that public debates are won and lost not with different answers to the same question, but by arguing over the nature of the question. Mann has pushing the debate towards greater scrutiny of the right-wing attack dogs that threaten climate science. By pointing to this undue politicisation, the debate is dragged away from bickering over scientific detail and from the community of climate scientists constantly fending off attacks that steadily chip away at their credibility.

Joe Barton: Republican Congressman from Texas in the news recently for attacking the White House's "shakedown" of BP

Climate scientists, like many scientists, are often too happy to bury themselves in their work and ignore the arguments going on around them. The climategate fiasco of last December was largely a result of inaction by the scientists under fire failing to open up and get their message out quickly enough, a classic case of surrendering control of the conversation.

Hoggan the Spotlight: Expert Perspective

James Hoggan, the CEO of the PR firm Hoggan & Associates and the man behind an award winning climate change blog (pictured below) puts it, good PR involves three stages

  • Do the right thing
  • Be seen to be doing the right thing
  • Don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up

With the climate science community we are so often left to wonder what happened to number 2. (See here for Hoggan’s blog’s take on the Washington post exchange.)

On a similar note, after existing for more than twenty years the high profile Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have announced in their most recent press release, which is about as quotable as most tax returns, that they are going to put together a communication strategy.

It’s about time.

James Hoggan: Expert in both good communications and the "Darth Vader" PR of some on the right-wing of US politics

IPCC Plays Defence

After a year that has encompassed “climategate” and the IPCC’s own “Amazongate”, this seems long overdue. The IPCC has long kept its head down and played a purely defensive game in its PR, and while good defense is important, it keeps the conversation on “can the IPCC be trusted?” and “is climate science credible?”. Some proportion of those reading that debate are bound to come down on the side of “no”. If the attacks are fended off well, that may be 20% rather than 80%, but it is still lost ground.

It is widely known in insider circles that the 4th IPCC Assessment Report (2007), the most recent, was written at the conservative end of climate science to avoid giving a platform for its critics. In a 3,000 page report, however, there were bound to be weaknesses found sooner or later. On top of this recent ad hominem attacks (attacks on people to undermine arguments – “playing the man and not the ball”), on its chairman Rajendra Pachauri show that even the defence is not enough. (It is worth reading the column in which George Monbiot lays waste to the claims made against Pachauri.)

While I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the IPCC, say, take out a set of attack adverts against their detractors in true US political style, it’s good to see someone showing a bit of fight-back.

Channel 4’s “What the Green Movement Got Wrong” presents a fairly convincing and useful narrative of the problems with the green movement. The detail, however, was highly questionable, and the programme drew superficial conclusions from a good starting point.

Last night’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong told the story of an environmentalist movement too caught up in its own out-of-date orthodoxies and failing to realistically engage with the challenges of the modern world. Particularly under scrutiny were their histories on nuclear power and on GM foods. It was claimed that environmentalists had over-egged the dangers of nuclear power and of GM foods and that this was harming the people of the world by misrepresenting the realities. In the subsequent debate it was clear this caricatured the position of those under scrutiny, particularly Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Their objections to nuclear power and GM in some contexts was due to specific concerns, including the cost of nuclear and the risks of reducing crop diversity and becoming dependent on big US companies business with reliance on GM.

Environmentalists Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand, who were at the heart of the documentary, were also consistently shot down on factual inaccuracies throughout the subsequent debate by the very environmentalists they claim were ill-informed and dogmatic. In particular Greenpeace representative Dr. Doug Parr shot down Stewart Brand for claiming that Greenpeace campaigned for a worldwide ban on DDT that was later achieved. His failure to provide a source for either claim, Greenpeace’s campaign or a resulting worldwide ban, is being chased by firebrand journalist George Monbiot, who has updated his website during the day with his correspondence.

(As an aside, there was also a revealing criticism from George Monbiot, both in the debate and since on his blog, that the film suffered from being drunk on techo-fixes without widening the discussion to structural problems. While undoubtedly making a good point, this did not undermine the central thesis of the programme.)

Factual questions aside, the film set up a dichotomy between “old” and “new” environmentalists that simply doesn’t exist. Do different self-defined “greens” have a variety of views on policy issues? Of course. But the idea that a new consensus is emerging or that an old one existed is, at best, out of date: there have long been different shades of green (and I’ve written before that to my mind the most useful tool for looking at this is Clapp and Dauvergne’s definitions of market liberal greens, institutionalist greens, bioenvironmentalists and social greens.)

I’ve written recently on the report by Deutsche Bank on climate scepticism. Add to that initiatives by Ernst and Young, and Zurich Insurance and PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the oft-cited reports on abatement cost curves by McKinsey and a picture emerges of strong corporate environmentalism making a real contribution to shaping a new world. (No doubt some of the same firms are under scrutiny by other environmentalists, especially social greens, and that is a process of scrutiny to be highly praised. No doubt there are times when green action and greenwash become confused, but let us not shoot for hypocrisy the chain smoker proud of cutting back, as the chronically self-righteous are so often tempted to do. I digress, however.)

My experience is that there are tribal greens who share certain orthodoxies and for whom beliefs follow identity rather than reason. Where that is the case, there is a need for introspection and change on their part. The idea that this is blighting the environmental movement, however, is nonsense. When Greenpeace representatives speak at events, they are almost always extremely smart, specific and nuanced in their opinions and, most of all, well-informed.

Overall, the argument was not without merit. The green movement should avoid becoming an isolated group bound to its own orthodoxies, especially when the wider world is now relatively sympathetic to its beliefs about climate change and sustainability more general.

Particularly telling was Lynas’s comment “We’re losing the war for public opinion. The response of greens to that wall of public indifference is to shout louder and in some cases to exaggerate. And that of course makes you very vulnerable to a backlash.” The representative from the pollsters IPSOS Mori in the subsequent debate supported this argument, describing apocalyptic stories as “ a turn off”, a truth increasingly widely accepted by campaigners.

The recent 10:10 campaign is perhaps the clearest evidence of this. This premise, however, is not evidence enough to wholeheartedly embrace nuclear power, GM foods and geoengineering as the programme suggests. These are ongoing discussions in which Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups will continue to play a major role.

What the Green Movement Got Wrong and the subsequent debate will stay on the Channel 4 website until early December

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