Category: Climate Change: What’s in the news?


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 Deutsche Bank report debunking out-of date climate sceptics’ science will help to lock up the centre ground and disprove ill-informed rants like that by Michael O’Leary. “Red greens” linking climate change to left-wing politics should ally with center-ground thought like this until climate change is under control.

The Deutsche Bank Logo: A valuable sign to have next to a thorough rebuttal of weak and disproven arguments

Last Wednesday saw the publication of a Deutsche Bank report systematically taking apart the main out-of-date climate sceptic arguments that still seem to get repeated at every opportunity. This is an invaluable reference point, not because the arguments are new, but because it’s published with the logo of Deutsche Bank on it. No doubt there will be a backlash, other studies cited and counter narratives drawn up by journalists in the right-wing American press. Understandably so, given that the report explicitly aims to secure investment in climate change technologies and relies on Colombia University experts: they are wide open to accusations of bias that are fairly unarguable. This blog has always been keen to point out that not all sceptics are right-wing, oil-funded sultans of spin, but such right-wing attack dogs exist, and no doubt they will make themselves heard. Watch this space.

The other benefit of this report, is that it can’t be accused of shutting down debate. Well, I’m sure someone will find a way, but come on. This is not about science, it’s about PR: the arguments the report rebuts are out of date arguments that have been widely disproven by the scientific community but continue to be widely cited. A case in point is the recent interview with Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, which one commentator described as like “inviting the audience to play ‘climate sceptic bingo’, such is the density of clichés and canards contained within each of the sentences he utters”. Several the claims regurgitated by O’Leary’s are rebutted by this report. Quotes are mostly taken from the one page summary on their website for simplicity, but the report is exhaustively researched and referenced:

O'Leary: Not convinced by climate change

O’Leary: “It used to be [called] global warming, but now, when global temperatures haven’t risen in the past 12 years, they say ‘climate change’.”

Deutsche Bank: “In fact, the decade of 2000 to 2009 is the warmest since measurements have been made. Multiple factors affect global average temperatures, including the long-term warming trend from GHGs. This time-varying interaction of climate drivers can lead to periods of relatively stable temperatures interspersed with periods of warming. The anomalously high global average temperatures in 1998 associated with the El Niño have been followed by comparably high values that reflect a combination of long-term warming and shorter-term natural variability. Periods of relatively constant temperature are not evidence against global warming.”

O’Leary: “We’ve also had a couple of very hot spells during the Middle Ages, so nobody can deny [natural] climate change.”

Deutsche Bank: “Northern hemisphere temperatures in the Medieval Warming Period (MWP) may have been comparable to today, but the estimates have high uncertainty because there are so few records and spatial coverage is spotty. However, a MWP warmer than the last decade does not challenge the case for anthropogenic warming.”

O’Leary: “Scientists argue there is global warming because they wouldn’t get half of the funding they get now if it turns out to be completely bogus”

Deutsche Bank: Page 14 of the report points out that climate change accounts for a relatively small amount of government budgets and barely filters through to individual researchers.

O’Leary: “it is absolutely bizarre that the people who can’t tell us what the fucking weather is next Tuesday can predict with absolute precision what the fucking global temperatures will be in 100 years’ time.”

Deutsche Bank: “We do not rely only on models for our understanding of the effect of greenhouse gases on climate. Theory (i.e. the physics and chemistry of the planet’s atmosphere and ocean) and observations are the foundation of our ability to understand climate and to assess and quantify forcing and impacts. Models represent the most formal way in which to project and quantify future conditions. Despite well known limitations to climate models such as the uncertainties of clouds, aerosols, and spatial resolution, climate models are increasingly able to reproduce a range of physical processes and feedbacks. They unanimously predict warming with increasing greenhouse gases of a magnitude consistent with estimates independently derived from observed climate changes and past climate reconstructions.” (Incidentally, no-one would argue that climate models show “absolute precision”, but they are considered at their most accurate between 40 and 60 years into the future. In the short term natural variability can mean temperatures don’t fit the models, but these tend to average out over time. In the longer term there are more and more incompletely understood factors playing a role).

Deutsche Bank: Not an obvious ally to left-wing agendas like climate camp (picture bottom right)

What’s important with these kinds of scientific arguments is not that they shut down debate, which they don’t, but that they contain it. One only has to look on the blogosphere, on news websites or on Amazon.com to see that there is not a lack of climate change debate, and the idea sometimes put about that the liberal intelligencia is trying to shut it down is self-evident nonsense. Scientific debates and discussions are important, but they tend to dominate discussion, including in the media. When climategate, “glaciergate” and various other more minor “gates” drag discussion back to scientific bickering over temperature records, we lose sight of managing mitigation and adaptation. If this report is widely distributed, the summary of the arguments will prove invaluable in debunking sceptic myths.

The hockey stick controversy gets significant attention in the report (indicative of its continued high profile) and recognises the role of legitimate criticism by McIntyre and McKitrick while still puncturing the over-hyped “breaking of the hockey stick”. This distinguishes effectively between real criticism and types of “attacks on science” spelled out in the introduction. The report is careful to cast its net wide, dealing with both the scientific disputes and other claims, like the argument that climate scientists spin results to secure funds.

Climate Camp: Capitalism needs to be rethought alongside climate change

This presents a problem for the “red greens” campaigning on climate change, who are probably unwilling to jump into bed with the likes of Deutsche Bank. Less than a month ago protesters at “climate camp” in Edinburgh were arguing that one can’t engage with climate change without rethinking the capitalist system . In all honesty I’m not unsympathetic – is there a link between the western world’s addiction to economic growth and various environmental problems, including declining finite resources (oil, precious metals), deforestation and climate change? No question. Unfortunately it is widely thought that the point at which catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable is about…now. Rethinking the world’s relationship with what goes into its economy (natural resources) and what comes out (pollution) is an important project, but one on a much longer timescale. It’s not going to happen overnight, while effective climate change mitigation and adaptation must. To put it another way: guys, Deutsche Bank is now your friend. Deal with.

Sustainability: A herculean task of modern times

At a meeting at PR firm Fishburn Hedges last week on communicating sustainability, one of the discussion topics was how much sustainability should be treated as one issue and how much a multitude. According to their own write-up, a “key conclusion” was: “A variety of ‘sustainability’ messages from water to conservation can conflict and cause confusion.” My impression was that it was a more contested discussion than that. In particular, Alan Knight OBE, who has a long history of making corporate sustainability happen, argues in favour of issue-specific eco-labelling, floating the benefits of seventy separate labels for different causes and rejecting the suggestion of one sustainability brand to rule them all. I have some concerns with this, not least the lack of scrutiny eco-labels currently get and the inability of consumers to get their heads around them.

To deal with the general point, however. I square this circle by viewing sustainability as a many-headed hydra: different issues have different faces and personalities, but are fundamentally one core problem. When Hercules cut one of its heads off the Hydra of classical mythology in the second of his twelve tasks, two more heads appeared in its place. The same can be said of taking a narrow view of individual environmental issues: if CO2 or over-fishing is tackled without reference to a broader systemic shift in society’s attitude to consumption and resource management, then we get nowhere. This problem was demonstrated in practice when at the same talk Doug Johnston, director for climate change and sustainability at Ernst & Young, referred to many companies only reporting their carbon emissions with little or no reference to other areas.

Cutting off one head of the hydra: A carbon capture and storage site, one of many images of this developing technology from a feature article on the website of Scientific American

To stretch the metaphor further than is probably a good idea, that is not to say there isn’t a case for lopping off the head that’s biting you at any one time. Let’s take the example of carbon capture and storage (CCS): this technology, which captures CO2 from major sources like power plants and pumps it underground, achieves nothing except CO2 reductions, so is not ideal overall. That said, given the difficulties of reducing CO2 emissions, it is probably a good idea to have a broad portfolio of approaches. But if we can find ways to instead improve the supply of cheap renewable energy, that also solves our fossil-fuel supply problems and builds towards a future of cheap sustainable energy for the whole planet, not to mention easing the geopolitics of energy security.

Where this metaphor falls down, of course, is with the complexity of climate change outside a sustainability issue. I have previously argued that climate change should be disentangled from left-wing politics. I am increasingly of the opinion it should be disentangled from “green” issues and treated as a general policy issue (like universities policy, say, or debates on primary care trusts that appear regularly in the UK news media). Green messages engage an engaged minority, but climate change should be integrated into other areas.

It is a well-known argument in academic circles that the ultimate goal of environmental policy should be to fully integrated with all strands of policy making, but in the case of climate change an especially strong case is made by the recent Hartwell Paper, with a variety of impressive authors, on “A new direction for climate policy, after the crash of 2009”. This seeks to link climate change in with not only wider sustainability goals but also supplying low-cost energy globally for a growing world population,  equipping societies to “withstand the risks and dangers that come from all the vagaries of climate, whatever may be their cause” (p.8).

In the News: This week saw the end of funding for the Sustainable Development Commission. Hopefully this will not damage understanding of environmental sustainability as one interconnected issue in policy-making circles.

…Both – needing to grasp that brevity is a virtue

Monbiot: A strong and surprisingly impartial chair considering his strong views on all things climate-change

Wednesday 16th July, 7.00 p.m. A five-person panel debate on “climategate” including some of its most active critics. The panel were far from perfect, but by-and-large spoke intelligently and with impressive grasp of the detail of the issues under discussion. Not full marks – I’ll go into detail later, but some very impressive performances. (Full marks go to Monbiot’s masterly chairmanship of a turbulent audience).

The questions from the floor, however, were decidedly mixed. While good points were made, there was excessive grandstanding from many, ardent sceptics and consensus fanatics as much as each other. There was tedious rehashing of debates that have been well thrashed out elsewhere with points and counterpoint played out all over the internet and in the books for anyone interested in doing their research. When speakers made points that came down strongly on one side or another, typically a third to half of the room clapped as, I strongly suspect, confirmed climate changed sceptics were joined by a few who were actually impressed by the point cheered on the one hand, and confirmed climate change true believers joined by the same or other floating cheers clapped the other. One man whose question (well, mini-rant) about solar influences on climate was threatened with ejection. One could not have wanted a better metaphor for the furore that surrounded “climategate” itself.

A very pleasing contrast was the amiability of the panel to each other. As we waited for everything to begin we saw George Monbiot, who is frequently unsympathetic (to say the least) to climate sceptics chatting animatedly to Steve McIntyre, the now infamous critic of the hockey stick. After the debate most of those taking part, certainly including McIntyre and the two guardian journalists involved, Monbiot and Fred Pearce, were seen going to a pub together. Ye fanatics take note.

Many congratulations to the guy at http://omniclimate.wordpress.com/ for getting his comments out before mine and providing, I believe, the first online coverage of the debate. Hats off. He does a good summary of everyone’s position too.

Detailed coverage of individual positions to follow later tonight. We are told a podcast and a video will be available online – will give details when available.

Kudos goes to the panel for a (mostly) civilised debate. It was more a question of their setting out their views than examining them in the light of opposing views, but one can't have everything

A failure of brevity throughout (miniature rant – please feel free to skip)

Striking in this debate was the unwillingness, or perhaps sheer inability of the panel AND the audience to restrict their speech to the time limits that Monbiot so rigorously (thank heavens) imposed. It would not be fair to accuse the whole panel of going on, and curiously it was the two critics, Steve McIntyre and Doug Keenan who seemed least able to recognise that such a short debate demands a certain brevity of speaking style.

As for the audience members, it baffles me why people who hold their hand up for a whole debate and then struggle to phrase a question in simple, direct terms, as if they hadn’t thought about it already and were surprised to be called on. (I apologise for being a grumpy old man before my time, but really.) Perhaps worse still there were a couple of questioners (I shall not shame them by mentioning the questions, for the podcast and video recording comes out soon) who managed the singularly annoying feat of talking in a tone of voice that asks why, why does no-one on the panel, and perhaps the world, recognise the value of the simple and yet essential point that I, your speaker, am raising in the impassioned tones of one who is the only person able to see clearly through the confused haze that has blighted you on the expert panel and your associates. I wouldn’t say for a moment that lay experts don’t have valuable contributions to make to these debates, but there is tone of voice denoting a certain arrogance of feeling the only clear-sighted one in a room of fools that is barely sufferable.

The Speakers

One would be forgiven for noting the lack of content analysis in my post so far. This is largely due to very little of any interest being said. The two critics complained that the two enquiries were whitewashed, and the other three, Trevor Davies, Bob Watson and Fred Pearce, a well-respected science journalist with a book out on climategate (The Climate Files) argued that the enquiries were more or less right and there was a need for greater transparency and more open debate, but no-one’s really sure what that means yet.

I am presenting these with plenty of detail for those who many be interested.

Trevor Davies

Trevor Davies: East Anglia’s Pro-Vice Chancellor with strong links to the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) under criticism from “climategate”

He has been criticised heavily by omniclimate: “He mouthed platitudes by the shedload” argues omniclimate “but was unfamiliar with the details of any of the subjects likely to be raised.”

I saw this rather differently: it seemed more to me that Davies had accepted the lessons of “climategate”, specifically on the need to engage with the public more effectively and to “explain the uncertainty spectrum better”. Unfortunately he clearly had no idea how to do this yet, which struck me as fair enough. It is true that on more than one occasion he showed less detailed knowledge than critics McIntyre and Keenan, but there was no reason to have expected him to have huge levels of detailed knowledge on specifics on who interviewed who in the “climategate” enquiries (McIntyre discussion) or the detail of Jones’ papers (Keenan’s bugbear).

He also criticised “the media” and “the press” for failing to read the Oxburgh review, and pointed out that none of his many interviews were broadcast. Evidence if ever there was that scientists should stop complaining about the media and start learning to manage it. I doubt very much his many interviews were recorded with the intention of non-release, most likely he simply failed to be interesting enough to merit air time.

Steve McIntyre

Steve McIntyre: retired mining engineer who took issue with the hockey stick graph and whose requests for data stirred up many of the “climategate” problems

McIntyre is a soft-spoken, unimposing speaker, who read straight off his rather stiff speech for his opening position, was vague and prone to waffling when asked direct questions (one suspects through poor public speaking skills rather than evasion) and tended to talk about rather arcane details, which he had an impressive grasp of, rather than the big picture. He didn’t especially lay out a position except to show scepticism of the two “climategate” enquiries discussed, Lord Oxburgh and Sir Muir Russell, and provided details to back that up that I suspect only the journalists in the room took in.

Perhaps surprisingly, he told the room he did not know how far the recent recorded warming is anthropogenic, strongly implying this wasn’t really his area of interest, and later said firmly that it is absolutely right for governments to act on uncertain information and to take advice from a specialist community. (The first point in response to a stroppy question from someone who managed to keep referring to his own “simple question”, when the question itself was so convoluted in how it was expressed that his first response was simply a confused “what?”)

I was able to grab him briefly on the way out to ask him why he’d been number crunching for nearly 10 years. His answer was mostly that it interested him, and now his children had grown up he was able to pursue things that interested him.

Bob Watson

Bob Watson: chief scientific advisor at Defra, visiting professor at the University of East Anglia and former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Watson Spoke glowingly on the “high integrity” panels by both Lord Oxburgh and Sir Muir Russell, and argued strongly that opposing views in the IPCC (like sceptic atmospheric scientist Richard Lindzen) were always presented when he was in charge of it. Slammed the printed press in particular for condemning “climategate” without trial, and argued that 90-95% of science overall argues for primarily human-caused global warming.

In the course of the debate he spoke calmly about the nature of uncertainty in the climate science process and the nature of policy. Came across as intelligent, moderate and reasoned, but said very little that was new or of much interest. As omniclimate puts it: “Very much the Scientific Establishment figure.”

Doug Keenan

Doug Keenan: a former financial analyst now examining statistics from various scientific sources, seeking to improve accountability

In some ways the most interesting panellist, and certainly the most controversial. He has had a series of peer reviewed articles published, listed on his website and was perhaps the best public speaker of the group. There were, however, clear signs of stirring up trouble from Keenan’s description of both enquiries as “clearly whitewashes”, his dramatic assertion that none of climate science stands up to scrutiny and his continued accusations of fraud towards Phil Jones, the climatologist at the heart of “climategate” more than any other which he said tonight he would be prepared to defend in court if challenged. It is interesting, to say the least, that he and McIntyre share a background in the use of statistics for business, McIntyre as a mining engineer and Keenan in the city. Keenan argued tonight and McIntyre has argued elsewhere that many leading climate scientists do not show the kind of rigour in their analyses that is demanded in the business world. A.W. Montford’s version of McIntyre’s story argues that McIntyre first became suspicious of the hockey stick from his experience with salesmen using hockey sticks as sales tools in business. With the detail of statistic analysis lost on many of us following these debates, this similarity lends credibility to both of them.

Fred Pearce

Fred Pearce: a long-standing and prolific environment journalist and author of The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming

Perhaps the most impressive member of the panel in sheer grasp of the key overall issues.

Argued:

  • There were some key areas the reviews didn’t go, mostly to do with the science
  • The reviews were done with relatively little grasp of the context
  • The scientists involved adopted a “siege mentality” against requests for information due perhaps to years of “fighting off politically- and commercially- minded critics”. The search for truth has been replaced by battle-lines being drawn, and by both sides
  • This was misplaced towards the “new generation” of climate sceptics who are more like “data libertarians”
  • There was no “grand conspiracy”, only some “grubby” behaviour
  • The IPCC has a “subliminal effect” of reducing legitimate debate

(It will be clear from this section that Pearce was both clear and highly quotable in his explanations)

Conclusion

Overall an interesting an entertaining night out, but very little new ground covered. It gives me hope to see the disagreeing panelists get on so well and manage civilised debate, and despair to see some of the audience.

There is a page on the Guardian website on this event, a page which will hopefully provide a link to the podcast and video when they come. Thanks again to omniclimate for pointing to this

I have chosen speed over proof-reading to get this out. As I write this it is the early hours of the morning and I am going to bed, but feel free to point out mistakes to me and I will correct them asap. Thanks, and apologies for any really glaring ones.

Sir Muir Russel, head of the latest 'climategate' enquiry to report back

On Monday days ago, the IPCC was (mostly) cleared by an enquiry by The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Yesterday ‘climategate’ was (mostly) cleared by the six-month enquiry by civil servant Sir Muir Russell. The arguments over nitty-gritty details and over motives could not be further away from the rhetoric that surrounded the Copenhagen summit, and will undoubtedly surround the Cancun summit at the end of this year.

The evidence of the new ‘climategate’ enquiry was that there was no manipulation of data or abuse of the peer-review process to prevent disagreeing scientific papers from publication. The main complaint was the UEA scientists’ defensive attitude to releasing their data, even when pressed under the Freedom of Information Act. It is clear from the e-mails that they aim mostly to hold off the sceptics by withholding their date to prevent it from being challenged. This is particularly clear in the e-mail published in the Guardian today dealing with Climate Audit, website of climate sceptic Steve MacIntyre. Scientist Phil Jones refers to explaining to ” the F[reedom ]O[f ]I[nformation] person [who] said we had to abide by the requests” why they didn’t want to provide their data , because of “the types of  people we were dealing with”. Without having met or spoken to any of those people I will reserve final judgement, but it sounds suspiciously like the demonisation of the opposition as boogeymen. (By contrast the book dealing with MacIntyre’s perspective of his work, The Hockey Stick Illusion, puts him in a very different light but is less than charitable towards various scientists implicated in ‘climategate’.)

'Hopenhagen' posters like this one by Joachim Ladefoged were on display in the run-up to the conference, adding to the mood of high expectations and high drama

Unfortunately for those of us in favour of major climate change mitigation, this discussion coincided with the Copenhagen summit. While a certain amount of gory detail crept out into some of the papers, there was a buzz of enough high rhetoric to make anyone with even a slight streak of cynicism reach for the bottle (or, in my case, the biscuit bag). We had the Mayor of Copenhagen calling for “Hopenhagen”, we had interviews with protesters talking about “saving the planet” (it’s still going to be there guys – we just might not be able to live on it) and the TckTckTck campaign film short showing us suspiciously environmentally aware children promising to change make a difference (unsurprisingly attracting accusations of brainwashing by YouTube commenters). There were liberal references to children, grandchildren, and children’s children, who are like grandchildren but more profound.

One would be forgiven for a certain cynicism at seeing Coca-Cola's 'Hopenhagen' advertising campaign

Do I disagree with the arguments of these many voices? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t take much to bring that kind of rhetoric down to earth when the difference in style and in substance between the passionate campaigners and the gory details is so pronounced.

The job of those involved in communicating climate change is to plug that mid-level gap between the four ‘climategate’ enquiries and the high-flown rhetoric of campaigners. For a start, let’s hear:

1. Why ‘climategate’ doesn’t matter on the scale of the whole science of climate change. Three or so main points, lots of evidence please

2. What the specific threats to society are from runaway climate change. Economic statistics please, not just more and more dramatic adjectives

3. Why that uncertainty is not a reason for inaction (the phrases you’re looking for may include tipping points, the precautionary principle and risk management)

Dramatic campaigns do an important job, but they are not enough to get your message across. They do well at getting the main message out “We need a treaty to save the world from climate change”. Someone needs to follow on with the sentence that comes after that, and all the rest that follow on.

One of Greenpeace's Copenhagen Posters

(Note: it is often pointed out that the precautionary principle is only used as a reason to act, never a reason not to act to safeguard economic growth. My answers to this are

  1. Tipping points – beyond largely unknown points the costs of climate change will suddenly skyrocket in ways some economic analyses may not recognise
  2. Irreversibility – if the Greenland ice sheet melts, a species dies out or the upper ocean warms enough to increase the likelihood of hurricanes. If a factory is not built, or even a hospital a road to provide key food supplies to a starving community, that can be built the next year. The impacts of climate change happen over a longer timescale

This is not to say that economic growth and other social objectives don’t matter. They do, and of course we must recognise the need to balance of mitigation costs and benefits. But that is why the precautionary principle applies mostly the one way.)

Thanks to the Bernstein & Andriulli blog for information on the ‘Hopenhagen’ adverts.