Tag Archive: jim durdin


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.

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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.

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

The new video for the 10:10 climate change campaign has attracted a lot of attacks and stirred up a lot of controversy. The film went wrong, however, because it aimed to pick up headlines rather than raise the level of public understanding or slam home a key message.

This has been an interesting discussion to watch unfold in the press. One of the supreme advantages of being a blogger is that I don’t have to jump in with an opinion early on if I don’t want to – I can wait for the dust to settle then poke about a bit more. For those who haven’t followed it, the 10:10 campaign, which seeks to persuade people/organizations/cities to cut their carbon by 10% by the end of 2010, put up a video on youtube (SPOILER ALERT) directed by Richard Curtis in that was quickly rubbished as in bad taste. The film features people who aren’t interested in contributing to reducing their carbon emissions being blown up in a cartoonishly gory manner.

The video was then retracted, but reposted by sceptic groups capitalising on the circus of debate and criticism that followed. 10:1o’s apology (admirably swift and thorough)  revealed the plan behind the video which reveals part of its reasons for failure: “With climate change becoming increasingly threatening, and decreasingly talked about in the media, we wanted to find a way to bring this critical issue back into the headlines whilst making people laugh.” It is not hard to understand where they are coming from – presumably the people at 10:10 spend a lot of time with much of the frankly depressing climate change literature out there that suggests we’re facing a tipping point after which runaway climate change will have dire consequences. Translating the urge to act into hasty strategy trying to be as hard-hitting as possible is understandable, but a mistake.

I also feel the film narrowly missed a chance to more overtly mock the earnestness of climate change activists. This can be read into the film, just, but it’s far from clear. Instead the film seems only to make the opposing case, that climate change activists are all homicidal and intolerant, more widely available. This media-stirring approach is at the heart of the problem here. Climate Change has rarely struggled to grab headlines, partly because of groups like 10:10 being supremely good at this kind of attention-grabbing. Unfortunately it’s not clear what it achieves – by and large everyone knows about climate-change these days: it’s the next bit we’re not sure of.

I referred in my last post to the “Clarkson vs. Monbiot” divide in the country, and I should add that if you put “Clarkson” and “climate change” into google, the story you get (particularly in a 2009 Telegraph piece) focuses less on “I disagree” (although he does also say that), but more “we’re bored with this”. As far as the target audience goes, this kind of stunt seems likely to overwhelmingly preach to the converted. The Clarkson mob won’t be convinced by this kind of activism – it looks too much like the usual activist suspects making noise (as Clarkson puts it “Government, Al Gore, Channel Four News and hippies everywhere”) rather than a grownup conversation. There is even some evidence that association with activism pushes scientists into a more sceptical position to avoid losing face over association with campaign groups, and this may be true of other bodies or individuals seeking to appear mainstream and hard-nosed.

There is, of course, a role for getting key messages in the media by repeating them and using stunts to drive them home.  James Hoggan, president of Hoggan & Associates and behind the influential climate change “DeSmogBlog” describes “the echo chamber” as a technique of “Darth Vader PR” – repeating something so often, at every opportunity, that people just come to accept it. (This is in his compelling book “Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a Skeptical Public”.) This has the potential to be more than a little ethically dubious in its application, but one of the key messages of climate change at the moment is “a consensus/majority of scientists believe climate change is happening and man-made”. Of course there is lots of counter-argument drifting about, with blogs and books citing study and counter-study but overwhelmingly the message gets through. 10:10’s video, however, seems to lack a clear key message beyond the slightly vague “do something”.

10:10 mostly do extremely good work pushing for action on climate change, and the film Age of Stupid by its founder Franny Armstrong is one of the cleverest approaches to explaining climate change and related issues there is out there. But they, like so many of the climate change lobby, need to remember that they’re not a minority cause fighting to be heard, they’re a mainstream cause trying to translate its high profile into concrete action and results.

(See also: Good discussion of this video on the Climate Change Denial blog which points out that the film focuses overwhelmingly on small actions rather than expanding that to political lobbying.)

As well as the trap of believing that climate change is not certain enough to merit action, we must escape the trap of believing it is too late. The science just isn’t that certain. What, then, for those who (almost) said Copenhagen was our last hope?

Lovelock: It's already too late for mitigation

Of the big names discussing climate change, only one, to my knowledge, has announced that it is too late for mitigation, and that is James Lovelock, who’s most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, argues that we must already look only to adaptation to preserve civilisation. Lovelock, the man behind Gaia theory, is smart and insightful has a good grasp of the facts but he comes from a point of view that some academics (Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005) term “bioenvironmentalist” – broadly speaking it means he puts non-interference in the planet first at all costs. Besides the bias that gives him he is also just one voice of many who put the point of no return at many different levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and we must recognise that this is an ongoing conversation. It will be a long time before despair is certain, just as it will be a long time since a safe future climate is assured.

Many others, however, have argued that the point of no return is now or very, very shortly, including NASA’s influential James Hansen, leading activist Mark Lynas and Guardian journalist George Monbiot. Monbiot led the proverbial charge at Copenhagen and all but made it clear he considered this mankind’s last stand. In one subsequent article he pondered “I wonder whether the government of Denmark, whose atrocious management of the conference contributed to its failure, would have tried harder if its people knew that in a few hundred years they won’t have a country any more” and in another concluded: “Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you, not that we really cared. The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.” Moreover in a recent article reflecting on the limits of achievements so far, despair seemed to be setting in to his rhetoric.

Monbiot: Managing the rhetoric carefully but risking crying "wolf" too often

I said earlier he “all but” claims this as mankind’s last stand. He wisely avoids saying anything that nails him too strongly to such a position, I suspect partly because he understands the science too well to believe that it is certainly too late now, but let this blog make it clear that the uncertainties in climate science make it impossible to make such statements with certainty at this stage. It may even already be too late to prevent a set of planet-warming positive feedbacks, or we may have more time than we think, but these are dangerous risks to be complacent about.

This truth puts Monbiot and the others in the position of gently backtracking from an implication that any one point is now or never. It will be hard call to make for them: for those less masterful in their prose every time they say it, it may be true and they may even believe it, but if they cry “wolf” at every conference or major bill passing then their credibility will go down. Making dramatic predictions at this stage make it harder in five years time when the next battles need to be won. No doubt there will continue to be cases of extreme weather, but these are always impossible to connect absolutely to the climate change, and the scientific community are rightly reserved about doing so (see the work of Roger Pielke Jr.): such an overstatement risks being pilloried.

As a result, the commentariat need to find new ways to persuade the public that the big agreements matter, without making claims they can’t stand by. Like the proverbial poker player, they mustn’t bet their whole hand each time.It’s a hard message to sell – “we need progress because it just might be too late this time, rather than last time or next time”. It will involve the language of risk management, another tough thing to get across when news headlines lend themselves to bold statements. Those are the challenges for talking about climate change when the big steps forward are promised.

Good hunting.

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.

Somewhere, a little swamped by the coverage of the (finally) capped oil leak, have been two other environmental stories in the last couple of days, one dry but important, one inspirational.

On the one hand, a UN-backed report tells us that renewable energy has grown steadily. To lift directly from the BBC:

The authors said the year was “unprecedented in the history of renewable energy, despite the headwinds posed by the global financial crisis, lower oil prices and slow progress with climate policy”.

One of the forces propelling the sector’s strong showing, they added, was the “potential to create new industries and millions of new jobs”. (BBC Website)

A different, Swiss-made manned solar-powered plane. Ok, the aesthetics could use a bit of work...

Good to know, and good context to the second story, that a small, solar-powered sports plane has completed a 7-day flight. Now perhaps I’m getting too excited about this, but, a solar-powered plane! I’m not normally one to get excited about technology or new machines, but this one I can get on the wavelength of. At this point we’re just talking about a tiny, unmanned plane (although there have also been short, manned flights) and no doubt we have years, probably decades, to wait before this becomes a commercial technology carrying the masses through the skies, but its potential as a symbol seems to me to be huge. Wind farms carry a lot of baggage with them, solar panels on the ground are very rarely glamorous or beautiful, but the idea of a solar has a kind of excitement factor to it. It’s easy to imagine fleets of beautiful, silent solar planes with huge wings flying through the sky. It’s futuristic, and not in a kitsch way. I highly recommend a google image search for solar-powered planes: this latest story is, of course just one of many developments of this kind, and the machines are mostly a good-looking bunch.

Somewhere in the last fifty years flying has turned from a glamorous pursuit, a symbol of the future and living at a fast pace, to something morally dubious and done by the packed-in masses with Ryanair or EasyJet. Surely there is something left in that original fantasy of taking to the skies to give this idea the kind of thrill that most renewable energy innovations or energy efficiency drives just don’t have. I would be sorry if this happened in a vacuum, but coupled with the UN report which places this story in an optimistic big picture, this feels like a good omen. I hope there are artists, writers, songwriters out there taking note.

For many of us, flying less is one of the most difficult behaviour changes to envision in a world with, say, high carbon taxes. Some of those most concerned about global warming also believe strongly in the value of a smaller world, myself included. This theme is excellently covered in the song ‘Flying’ by highly political folk-pop group Seize The Day, who I think it’s fair to say are slightly to the left of Gandhi reading the communist manifesto while on crack. This was written by a member of the group to show that she, while having stopped flying herself, understands the positions of their friends who still do. Climate change is not an easy subject to write songs about, but they manage it by making it highly personal (and, indeed, slipping in some fantastic vocal harmonies).

“I discovered so much of who I am

Sitting in deserts in the sand

Nothing and no-one to get in the way

No bills to pay

I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea

I don’t want to think about all the places I may never see

Living is hard but flying is easy…”

(from “Flying” by Seize the Day)

Your blogger aged 19, taking advantage of a smaller world by learning the facts of Mongolian nomadic life in the Gobi desert

And this from climate change activists! For anyone who has gained a lot from international travel, (or, indeed, from high quality international imports), the appeal is obvious. For now, many of us are ready and willing to push for local products and cut down our travelling. But hope is a powerful thing.

The PR angle seems to me to be this. “While personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprint are still essential, and the questions posed about our society by the environmental issues it causes remain, it’s looking like technology could make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier. We’re seeing more innovation, more jobs, and some outright excitement, including the possibility of flying up towards the sun, powered by the sun.”

With my dissertation due to be finished in a month on Monday I promised myself less blogging. But some blogs just write themselves…

Superfreakonomics: caused a freak out in the popular discussion of climate change

Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner has stirred up more comment than many books focusing specifically on climate change. It’s semi-official, I’ve been researching the number of references to various climate-change-related books and films in broadsheet newspapers since 2008 and my figures at this stage show more mentions of Levitt and Dubner’s work than of all of James Lovelock’s put together (in the period January 2008 to June 2010) in climate-change-related contexts. Admittedly, the vast majority were in the Guardian, but still.

The section of Superfreakonomics on climate change is not bad though a little prone to stating points that are fairly well known already (e.g. methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) as if they are EXCITING NEW DISCOVERIES FROM BRILLIANT FREAKONOMICS ANALYSIS! Apparently Al Gore exaggerates to get his message across and the media tend to report things in an overly dramatic manner. What next, evidence that environmentalists tend to worry about climate change and that endangered species of bears tend to defecate in woodlands? I’ll allow them all that, though, in the name of popularising the discussion.

It gets interesting, however, when they start talking about geoengineering, their proposals to deliberately manipulate the climate to counteract the effects of climate change. Their case is as follows

  1. Anthropogenic climate change is a very real problem, although over-hyped by the media and particularly Al Gore
  2. Tackling it by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (mitigation) is very expensive, but effective geoengineering could be much cheaper. Injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere could stabilise the climate at a cost of $250 million, compared to the Stern Review‘s $1.2 trillion
  3. There are uncertainties and risks of side effects, so technologies should have cautious test runs
  4. The aforementioned injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling effect of volcanoes is the most promising method, but cloud seeding, spraying seawater into the atmosphere to create more, cooling clouds, should also be considered

Perhaps surprisingly, many climate change activists and writers are ardently against geoengineering. Here, for example, are the key points of a New Internationalist article on the subject, and the growing campaign against geoengineering solutions.

  1. “Unproven scientific ‘fixes’ for global warming are a major threat to the planet”
  2. Injecting sulphur into the atmosphere to mimic volcanoes is dubious: “Such volcanoes have occasionally cooled down the atmosphere before. Unfortunately, they can also cause monsoons to weaken and fail, intensifying hunger in the tropics.”
  3. The actors involved in geoengineering propositions are largely unaccountable and not subject to due process: one scientist has already started in Russia. A Friends of the Earth International spokesman argues: “The same countries and companies that have neglected climate change for decades are now proposing very risky geoengineering technologies that could further disrupt the weather, peoples and ecosystems. We simply don’t trust them to do so equitably.”

An unmanned cloud-seeding ship, floated as a possibility by Superfreakonomics and the preferred approach of Bjørn Lomborg

Myself, I am cautiously in favour of geoengineering being explored. I do accept the principle that kicking-off large-scale climatic change is a risky process full of potential unintended consequences, but given the scale of potential climate change damages, we should absolutely do our homework on this one. Perhaps the solution lies in a variety of small-scale geoengineering projects coupled with mitigation and with adaptation to some level of inevitable climate change.

A thorough and accountable process for testing and investigating geoengineering projects seems like a necessity, but a poor process does not mean a poor idea. There is a risk, admittedly, of side-lining mitigation in favour of geoengineering, when until geoengineering can be proved to work, mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions should continue at full steam. Like most people, I am not in a position to assess the viability of geoengineering technology, but we should absolutely be giving it a chance. There is no question of not saving the planet, but its better still if we can save the planet money along the way.

P.s. I’m very suspicious of cloud-seeding, also the preferred geoengineering method of Bjørn Lomborg (see his article for the New Statesman). Everything I hear about the physical science of clouds stresses uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty. The uncertainty bar in the 2007 IPCC report dealing with clouds as a cause of climate change is huge (see “cloud albedo effect” on the bar graph on the relevant page of the IPCC website). This is not a reason not to try, but bear that in mind.

…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.