Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Stumbling over the stones

A 15 August BBC news story picks up on issues raised in Nick Robins’s Twenty trillion dollar question, published on 3 June in the debate on the politics of climate change. But it doesn't go far enough.

For example, it mentions an estimate that greenhouse gas emissions from the UK's one hundred largest companies accounted for about 1.6% of the global total in 2003/04. But it doesn’t mention a more striking and potentially more significant figure from the report it cites but does not name - that is, carbon dioxide emissions from products sold by five UK oil and mining companies account for over 10% of total global emissions.

The BBC piece does have some uses, though, as a contribution to general awareness raising. For example, it refers to this 11 July Letter from Institutional Investors to the Electric Power Sector, which looks like another important, albeit small step.

The financial community is one of the "stones" identified in my 8 August article for a forthcoming issue of New Humanist magazine. The editor has kindly agreed that I can pre-publish it on this blog. So if you want a sneak preview (of last week or next month, depending on your point of view), read the attached comment.

A couple of points further to the article:

One, the "groping the stones" metaphor: I owe this to Christine Loh at Civic Exchange (who I first met in Hong Kong last June on the way to Palau, and interviewed here and here). We've talked a little about the climate change issue in China, and she still thinks a good tactical approach for now is via campaigns on air quality (something that "Angel Green" seems to agree with).

Two, the article is fairly dismissive of "peak oil". For some, this probably needs further explanation (MarkLynas, for example, has said he'd be glad if I'd write something about it).

I've argued previously that the analysis Running on Empty (Jan 2004) remains broadly correct (and I do note George Marcus's comments on peak oil in the article linked in this post earlier today). Taking it from there:

There are significantly larger contributory factors to high oil prices on a relevant timescale than an oil peak. Among these are a lack of production capacity and geopolitical instability. If oil goes to $100 a barrel or even $150 (the level Bin Laden has called for) in the next few years it won't be because markets are pricing the depletion of long term reserves.

Further, expensive oil can be good news for the environment (but not, in the near term at least, for poor countries that import it) if it drives efficiency improvements. By itself, however, dwindling, more costly oil is not going to solve climate change, as there is more than enough coal to burn (as a solid or convertible to liquid or gas) to fry the planet.

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

Moving forward by groping the stones

What should humanists do about climate change?

(For New Humanist magazine, forthcoming)

How many times have you heard that climate change is this most tremendous big thing, requiring a fundamental rethink, now, of the way the world is organised and the way we live?

And how many times have you thought, yeah sure, and changed channels? If the world's most powerful leaders, assembled like Solomon in all his glory at the G8 summit in Scotland last July, can hardly agree on the basics their predecessors signed up to back in 1992 then what's the point?

And anyway, in an age when millions of children die from easily treatable conditions and nuclear proliferation is the stuff of nightmares, isn't climate change really a problem for other people's grandchildren?

What, in the wake of the G8 summit and failure where it really matters - a US energy bill that gives a $14.5bn boost to fossil fuel producers, for example, or rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions in “climate leader” Britain - is the way forward? Is there a way forward at all?

No great leaps, please

Success – in a definition attributed to Winston Churchill – means going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. In my view, one should also learn from the experience of the more sensible members of the Chinese Communist Party, who have long since abandoned the Great Leap Forward and now talk of progress as being like crossing a rushing river on foot by “groping the stones”.

I am not saying that there is no place for grand visions in meeting the challenge of climate change. It’s great to have an idea of your destination – say “the zero carbon economy”. And an idealised route for how you get there – say “contraction and convergence” which would assign everybody in the world equal rights to pollute – may not be hurt.

I am saying that there is likely to be quite a lot of stumbling and falling as you move from boulder to boulder and that sometimes you have to turn back as the pressure of water will be too great.

The point is to study the stones close at hand and (sorry if I flog this metaphor almost to death) look for shapes and rock types that may be a good bet. Here are six that I think humanists and other responsible but busy human beings should keep an eye on.

Rock n’ roll

1. The science. Breakthroughs are coming thick and fast. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to stay on top of what the scientists are saying. BBC news online is one of the good places to start, while gives the necessary depth.

Understanding more about the science is not enough by itself, of course. It’s also necessary to grapple with the way science is presented and perceived.

Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus on the essentials, many people think the science of climate change is unresolved. This is thanks to hard work by lavishly funded think tanks, especially in the US, which produce and promote reports that look like peer-reviewed research but aren't.

(The economist and New York Times commentator Paul Krugman identifies at least three reasons why fake research is so effective. One is that nonscientists sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between research and advocacy. Two, the conventions of confrontational, “he-said she said” journalism get in the way of conveying actual knowledge. Three, the self-policing nature of science can exploited by skilled purveyors of cultural resentment against elites.)

The balance is probably tipping. A joint statement this summer by the academies of science of the world’s biggest and richest and industrialized nations, plus those of Russia, China, India and Brazil sets out the case for timely action that no rational person can deny, and points the way.

An important step here is a modest bit of reframing. The word scepticism must be reclaimed for its correct meaning (Wikipedia defines it as a “scientific, or practical, position in which one questions the veracity of claims, and seeks to prove or disprove them using the scientific method”). This, as British Antarctic Survey climatologist William Connolley points out, is an honourable activity. But the word has been appropriated by people who go beyond reasonable doubt to a position of extreme and irrational prejudice. They need to be called by their right name: “denialists”.

2. Alliances. There’s no shortage of thoughtful, articulate voices with ambitious and in some cases appealing suggestions for how to make real progress towards more sustainable energy and development policies. (One that makes me chuckle, championed by Friends of the Earth in their “Big Ask” campaign, is that the salaries of government ministers be docked if the UK fails to meet a timetable of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions).
But challenging ideas and campaigns are not enough. Even the most well resourced NGOs are two ounce mice running around the feet of the eight hundred pound gorillas of modern society. The crucial point is where are the emerging alliances between different sectors of society?
From autumn 2005 onwards, a coalition of professional campaigning organizations in the UK will be trying to build a climate movement. Whether or not this reflects and learns from the strengths – and weaknesses – of the Make Poverty History campaign remains to be seen. And whether alliances can become more international to include not least players in emerging industrial giants like China and India is also unclear.

3. The financial sector. Top investors and insurers are waking up to the climate change. These guys – through groupings like the Investor Network on Climate Change, and with the aid of reports from the likes of Henderson Global Investors (The Carbon 100) and Mercer Investment Consulting for the Carbon Trust – directly influence not billions but trillions in pension and investment funds. They have a clear picture of the emerging risks from climate change, including – and this may be one to watch – lawsuits, and action plans for addressing them.

4. Carbon capture and storage. Technology is not the solution to climate change, but there will be no solutions without new technology. Typically, people tend to frame future energy generation choices as either renewables (wind, solar etc.) or nuclear. (Energy efficiency is sometimes thrown in for the motherhood and apple pie effect, even though it may be fundamental). But this is not a full picture of the options that matter.

As someone who spent years investigating renewables, I remain a keen supporter. But even with spectacular rates of growth, exceeding those already achieved, renewables and nuclear together are unlikely to meet demand in the foreseeable future or make a difference to the global rate of emissions growth that “matters” as far as the climate is concerned.
It is probable that a large part if not the lion’s share will continue to be from fossil fuel resources (coal, oil and gas). There are several reasons for this, including of course price and availability (coal, which can relatively easily be turned into other fuels, is widely available in the US, China, India and other places that do not want to be wholly dependent on Mid East oil).

Fossil fuels are too energy dense and too cheap for people to avoid the temptation to burn them. It’s feasible, though currently quite expensive, to capture and store the carbon dioxide resulting from their combustion deep underground. This is a less bad option in my view than nuclear power to meet the rapid growth in “heavy lifting” base-load power in the big economies and elsewhere over the next few years on grounds of cost, security, and practicability.

In Britain, two House of Commons select committees – Environmental Audit, and Science & Technology - will this autumn be scrutinising the options for renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage. We have another chance to play an important role here if we see that the issues are connected, and promote rational and informed debate.

5. The oil price. There has been too much chatter in recent years and months about “peak oil”. Ignore it. Large parts of Iraq, Libya and other oil-rich countries have scarcely been explored, and the idea of oil running out is not relevant on a timescale that matters. In any case there’s good evidence that more has already been discovered than we can afford to burn if we want to avoid a greater than one in five chance of a more than 2 degrees Centigrade temperature rise, which would in all likelihood cause global catastrophe.

The oil price does matter, though, in that it can provide one of the strongest signals to rethink the way we use energy, and to make the kind of huge improvements in efficiency that – for example – Japan achieved after the 1973 oil shock. The collapse of the house of Saud could be one of the best things that ever happened to the global environment – if, that is, it comes to pass without extreme conflict and regional destabilization.

6. Your own life and those in your circle. This is the stone right in front of your nose. As the American envrionmental writer Bill McKibben says, one of the challenges of climate change it is a drama “starring everyone with a car”.

There’s a little or a lot you can do. Consider putting your savings or investments, if you have any, with an organisation that has a better handle on environmentl risks and opportunities. Encourage young people to learn Chinese so that they can just maybe be part of the 21st century’s necessary alliances for understanding. Encourage them to go for a year to India and take part in rural or urban energy and development projects.

Calculate your “ecological footprint” using, say, one of the many tools a Google click away. (I don’t actually have a car, but I do take long haul flights, and if everyone had behaved as I had over the last couple of years we would need nearly seven planets to sustain ourselves).

Even down the pub, your behaviour has political and practical significance. The paradox here is captured by Louis Menand in The Unpolitical Animal (The New Yorker, August 2004). Menand was talking about voting in the US presidential election, but the lesson applies to all kinds of actions with political and economic consequences:

“Man may not be a political animal, but he is certainly a social animal. Voters do respond to the cues of commentators and campaigners, but only when they can match those cues up with the buzz of their own social group… For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act”.

It may almost ridiculous to say this, but anyone interacting with a thoughtful, dynamic reader of New Humanist will pick up social subtle social cues that can, cumulatively influence the planet.

Take me to the river

The stones I’ve mentioned here are probably necessary but definitely not sufficient for the crossing. There are many more out there.
Earlier this year I put together an online debate on the politics of climate change. Working with the British Council and, we billed it as the world’s first truly global high quality encounter on this topic. It included “the great” – including the UK government’s chief scientific advisor and the celebrated writers Ian McEwan – and the less well known, including young activists from India, China and Brazil. I’m looking to work with others on the next stages of this project and will be glad to hear from you.

Caspar Henderson is a writer and activist. He writes an occasional blog at and can be contacted at

Further reading

BBC online – planet under pressure:

Real Climate

Lewis Menand - The Unpolitical Animal

The politics of climate change: