4 Oct 2010

Good Gracious, George, don't give up

Just back from a wet weekend in Wales, attending the AECB Annual Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology. Star turn there was local resident George Monbiot who made great use of the fabulous clay amphitheatre (OK — lecture hall) that forms the heart of the new WISE building. George talked without notes or slides for 75 minutes in the gathering dusk, and as the evening light faded, his mood grew ever darker. I was spellbound.

Much of the content of his thoughts will be familiar to those who read his columns in the Guardian. (Or you can RSS his articles here). Copenhagen - a disaster. Cancun - don't expect anything at all. Obama can't deliver and without the USA on board there is no hope of replacing Kyoto with anything much at all. The problem is that the nation states are each arguing their particular corner and that no one is prepared to deliver anything really substantial in the way of carbon emission cuts. And for the first time the whole political process is going into reverse, as more and more people are becoming sceptical about climate change, further weakening any political resolve that once existed.

So far, so bad. That much I anticipated. But he finished with an examination of why the climate change campaign had been so spectacularly unsuccessful, concluding that at least part of the problem was that it had been conceived as a liberation movement similar to other great campaigns of the late 20th century, like feminism, gay rights, civil rights and anti-roads protests. But in reality, combating climate change isn't really like any of these other issues: it's fundamentally a rather boring economic, rational matter that the world either acknowledges and acts upon, or doesn't. There is no liberation involved anywhere. Quite the reverse.

I would go one stage further and suggest that climate change negotiations have also become bogged down with issues regarding equity of resources in general, and human wealth in particular. This is because the amount of carbon we burn is closely related to how much money we have, both as individuals and as nations. And you can't equalise the amount of carbon we all consume without equalising the wealth of nations.

That might be on the agenda for some people, but most people in the West want to stay rich, and don't want to see their wealth level down to something like they enjoy in, say, Turkey, or Brazil, or wherever we need to be in wealth terms to get our carbon habit down to an acceptable level. Now the way the climate talks are presented, this part of the agenda is pretty well hidden from us, but my guess is that people are wise to what is really going on, which is why the right is so quick to spot "communist conspiracies" and the like every time they hear the phrase "global warming."

In that sense, they are right. The debate has been shaped by the Monbiot's of this world. They have hijacked a technical issue and turned it into a moral crusade, using climate change as a vehicle to bring about a worldwide redistributon of wealth. That's not to say they aren't justified in pointing out the anomalies of carbon use across the world, but it's hardly surprising that the presentation of the issues has brought about a huge and powerful counter-reaction by the lobby groups that want to keep wealth where it is, thankyou very much.

It's not as if capitalism itself is the enemy (as someone in the audience suggested). Capitalism as a way of organisng human endeavour is full of examples of self-restraining ordinances where laws are put in place to stop free-market practices running riot. The pharmaceutical industries only exist thanks to the laws of patent; design, software and entertainment are each underpinned by copyright law, and even the arms industries concur with various conventions on what you can and can't make. And we have a working example— in the Montreal Protocol — of chemical industries stopping the use of various gases implicated in climate change. Capitalism is easily reformable, if it's seen to be in the common good.

So why is carbon reduction so intractable? Just why is it proving so difficult to get a meaningful political framework we can all sign up to? Are we all so hooked on cheap energy that we can't imagine a world without it? Does carbon underpin the very basis of Western society? Does its removal from our lives threaten our civilised values? All good stuff for another day.....

Meanwhile, you could do worse than dip into Zero Carbon Britain 2030, a CAT publication that was also given an airing at the conference.


  1. Hi Mark,

    You make a good point here. However, I'd challenge the idea that its all being presented from the redistributionist's perspective.

    In the UK we manufacture very little as almost all of our industry has been exported abroad. By basing our emission reduction targets on how much we produce (as is the case with Kyoto etc) the West has massively skewed the debate in its favour.

    Its nigh on impossible for the developing world to produce all of the things that we consume together with what they need without increasing their CO2 emissions in the process. Its a little like us powering London using 10 coal-fired power stations based in North West France and claiming that we've managed to make the capital Zero Carbon.

    It seems untenable to expect developing nations to stay poor so that people in the West can continue enjoy lifestyles that consume many times as many resources.

    You might be interested in this document that goes over these issues in a lot more detail: www.bioregional.com/news-views/publications/capital-consumption

  2. By the way. One of the reasons that the Montreal Protocol worked so effectively is that it involved a few relatively small industries and the impacts on the Ozone layer were so tangible.

    Climate Change is a much more complex issue and involves much more powerful stakeholders and this makes it a much tougher nut to crack.

  3. If you want to find out how much of a moral crusade the enviromental cause has been turned into just look up 10:10 and the "No Pressure" video controversy which has just blown up.

    Basically the extremist enviromentalists think it right and proper to blow people up who aren't on track with saving the planet. Very much like extremist Muslims who think it right and proper to blow people up who aren't of the same religion.

  4. Oh no we might get a few degrees warming, lets ruin all our industry!

  5. Does carbon underpin the very basis of Western society?

    Short answer is yes.

    Industrial production depends on really vast inputs of energy and non-carbon sources don't even come close to providing it, with the possible exception of nuclear and the added cost would stop most economies in their tracks. We're not exactly flush now are we?

    I don't understand why you are puzzled by the lack of political will. To ask people to take really significant falls in living standards to reduce problems that will probably not happen in their lifetimes (certainly not mine) is a very big ask indeed. Look at the fuss caused by just reducing the rate at which government debt is growing. Major reductions in carbon use would have blood running in the streets and politicians hanging off lamp posts.

  6. I see you do note that the costs of nuclear are a concern. This seems almost an understatement. Ditto with the costs of renewables (at least the "unlimited" ones such as solar or wind).

    There've been several discussions on theoildrum.com suggesting that oil going above a certain price causes a collapse in economic activity. On this line of argument, it doesn't go up any further, simply because people can't afford prices of, say, $150/barrel.

    When you consider that wind or nuclear electricity produce energy at the equivalent of about $400-500 per barrel of oil, you tend to suspect that a big problem is heading our way.