23 08 2018

By Alice Friedemann, originally published by Energy Skeptic

Since there’s nothing that can be done about climate change, because there’s no scalable alternative to fossil fuels, I’ve always wondered why politicians and other leaders, who clearly know better, feel compelled to deny it. I think it’s for exactly the same reasons you don’t hear them talking about preparing for Peak Oil.

1) Our leaders have known since the 1970s energy crises that there’s no comparable alternative energy ready to replace fossil fuels. To extend the oil age as long as possible, the USA went the military path rather than a “Manhattan Project” of research and building up grid infrastructure, railroads, sustainable agriculture, increasing home and car fuel efficiency, and other obvious actions.

Instead, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on defense and the military to keep the oil flowing, the Straits of Hormuz open, and invade oil-producing countries. Being so much further than Europe, China, and Russia from the Middle East, where there’s not only the most remaining oil, but the easiest oil to get out at the lowest cost ($20-22 OPEC vs $60-80 rest-of-world per barrel), is a huge disadvantage. I think the military route was chosen in the 70s to maintain our access to Middle East oil and prevent challenges from other nations. Plus everyone benefits by our policing the world and keeping the lid on a world war over energy resources, perhaps that’s why central banks keep lending us money.

2) If the public were convinced climate change were real and demanded alternative energy, it would become clear pretty quickly that we didn’t have any alternatives. Already Californians are seeing public television shows and newspaper articles about why it’s so difficult to build enough wind, solar, and so on to meet the mandated 33% renewable energy sources by 2020.

For example, last night I saw a PBS program on the obstacles to wind power in Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. Difficulties cited were lack of storage for electricity, NIMBYism, opposition from the Audubon society over bird kills, wind blows at night when least needed, the grid needs expansion, and most wind is not near enough to the grid to be connected to it. But there was no mention of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or the scale of how many windmills you’d need to have. So you could be left with the impression that these problems with wind could be overcome.

[ED: read this about the impossibility of California going 100% renewables]

I don’t see any signs of the general public losing optimism yet. I gave my “Peak Soil” talk to a critical thinking group, very bright people, sparkling, interesting, well-read, thoughtful, and to my great surprise realized they weren’t worried until my talk, partly because so few people understand the Hirsch 2005 “liquid fuels” crisis concept, nor the scale of what fossil fuels do for us. I felt really bad, I’ve never spoken to a group before that wasn’t aware of the problem, I wished I were a counselor as well. The only thing I could think of to console them was to say that running out of fossil fuels was a good thing — we might not be driven extinct by global warming, which most past mass extinctions were caused by.

3) As the German military peak oil study stated, when investors realize Peak Oil is upon us, stock markets world-wide will crash (if they haven’t already from financial corruption), as it will be obvious that growth is no longer possible and investors will never get their money back.

4) As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest in being the “Last Man (nation) Standing“. So leaders want to keep things going smoothly as long as possible. And everyone is hoping the crash is “not on my watch” — who wants to take the blame?

5) It would be political suicide to bring up the real problem of Peak Oil and have no solution to offer besides consuming less. Endless Growth is the platform of both the Republican and Democratic parties. More Consumption and “Drill, Baby, Drill” is the main plan to get out of the current economic and energy crises.

There’s also the risk of creating a panic and social disorder if the situation were made utterly clear — that the carrying capacity of the United States is somewhere between 100 million (Pimentel) and 250 million (Smil) without fossil fuels, like the Onion’s parody “Scientists: One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?

There’s no solution to peak oil, except to consume less in all areas of life, which is not acceptable to political leaders or corporations, who depend on growth for their survival. Meanwhile, too many problems are getting out of hand on a daily basis at local, state, and national levels. All that matters to politicians is the next election. So who’s going to work on a future problem with no solution? Jimmy Carter is perceived as having lost partly due to asking Americans to sacrifice for the future (i.e. put on a sweater).

I first became aware of this at the 2005 ASPO Denver conference. Denver Mayor Hickenlooper pointed out that one of his predecessors lost the mayoral election because he didn’t keep the snow plows running after a heavy snow storm. He worried about how he’d keep snow plows, garbage collection, and a host of other city services running as energy declined.

A Boulder city council member at this conference told us he had hundreds of issues and constituents to deal with on a daily basis, no way did he have time to spend on an issue beyond the next election.

Finally, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett told us that there was no solution, and he was angry that we’d blown 25 years even though the government knew peak was coming. His plan was to relentlessly reduce our energy demand by 5% per year, to stay under the depletion rate of declining oil. But not efficiency — that doesn’t work due to Jevons paradox.

The only solution that would mitigate suffering is to mandate that women bear only one child. Fat chance of that ever happening when even birth control is controversial, and Catholics are outraged that all health care plans are now required to cover the cost of birth control pills. Congressman Bartlett, in a small group discussion after his talk, told us that population was the main problem, but that he and other politicians didn’t dare mention it. He said that exponential growth would undo any reduction in demand we could make, and gave this example: if we have 250 years left of reserves in coal, and we turn to coal to replace oil, increasing our use by 2% a year — a very modest rate of growth considering what a huge amount is needed to replace oil — then the reserve would only last 85 years. If we liquefy it, then it would only last 50 years, because it takes a lot of energy to do that.

Bartlett was speaking about 250 years of coal reserves back in 2005. Now we know that the global energy from coal may have peaked last year, in 2011 (Patzek) or will soon in 2015 (Zittel). Other estimates range as far as 2029 to 2043. Heinberg and Fridley say that “we believe that it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.” (Heinberg).

6) Political (and religious) leaders gain votes, wealth, and power by telling people what they want to hear. Several politicians have told me privately that people like to hear good news and that politicians who bring bad news don’t get re-elected. “Don’t worry, be happy” is a vote getter. Carrying capacity, exponential growth, die-off, extinction, population control — these are not ideas that get leaders elected.

7) Everyone who understands the situation is hoping The Scientists Will Come up With Something. Including the scientists. They’d like to win a Nobel prize and need funding. But researchers in energy resources know what’s at stake with climate change and peak oil and are as scared as the rest of us. U.C.Berkeley scientists are also aware of the negative environmental impacts of biofuels, and have chosen to concentrate on a politically feasible strategy of emphasizing lack of water to prevent large programs in this from being funded (Fingerman). They’re also working hard to prevent coal fired power plants from supplying electricity to California by recommending natural gas replacement plants instead, as well as expanding the grid, taxing carbon, energy efficiency, nuclear power, geothermal, wind, and so on — see http://rael.berkeley.edu/projects for what else some of UCB’s RAEL program is up to. Until a miracle happens, scientists and some enlightened policy makers are trying to extend the age of oil, reduce greenhouse gases, and so on. But with the downside of Hubbert’s curve so close, and the financial system liable to crash again soon given the debt and lack of reforms, I don’t know how long anyone can stretch things out.

8) The 1% can’t justify their wealth or the current economic system once the pie stops expanding and starts to shrink. The financial crisis will be a handy way to explain why people are getting poorer on the down side of peak oil too, delaying panic perhaps.

Other evidence that politicians know how serious the situation is, but aren’t saying anything, are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett’s youtube videos (Urban Danger). He’s the Chairman of the peak oil caucus in the House of Representatives, and he’s saying “get out of dodge” to those in the know. He’s educated all of the representatives in the House, but he says that peak oil “won’t be on their front burner until there’s an oil shock”.

9) Less than one percent of our elected leaders have degrees in science. They’re so busy raising money for the next election and their political duties, that even they may not have time to read enough for a “big picture view” of (systems) ecology, population, environment, natural resources, biodiversity / bioinvasion, water, topsoil and fishery depletion, and all the other factors that will be magnified when oil, the master resource that’s been helping us cope with these and many other problems, declines.

10) Since peak fossil fuel is here, now (we’re on a plateau), there’s less urgency to do something about climate change for many leaders, because they assume, or hope, that the remaining fossil fuels won’t trigger a runaway greenhouse. Climate change is a more distant problem than Peak Oil. And again, like peak oil, nothing can be done about it. There’s are no carbon free alternative liquid fuels, let alone a liquid fuel we can burn in our existing combustion engines, which were designed to only use gasoline. There’s no time left to rebuild a completely new fleet of vehicles based on electricity, the electric grid infrastructure and electricity generation from windmills, solar, nuclear, etc., are too oil dependent to outlast oil. Batteries are too heavy to ever be used by trucks or other large vehicles, and require a revolutionary breakthrough to power electric cars.

11) I think that those who deny climate change, despite knowing it is real, are thinking like chess players several moves ahead. They hope that by denying climate change an awareness of peak oil is less likely to occur, and I’m guessing their motivation is to keep our oil-based nation going as long as possible by preventing a stock market crash, panic, social disorder, and so on.

12) Politicians and corporate leaders probably didn’t get as far as they did without being (techno) optimists, and perhaps really believe the Scientists Will Come Up With Something. I fear that scientists are going to take a lot of the blame as things head South, even though there’s nothing they can do to change the laws of physics and thermodynamics.


We need government plans or strategies at all levels to let the air out of the tires of civilization as slowly as possible to prevent panic and sudden discontinuities.

Given history, I can’t imagine the 1% giving up their wealth (especially land, 85% of which is concentrated among 3% of owners). I’m sure they’re hoping the current system maintains its legitimacy as long as possible, even as the vast majority of us sink into 3rd world poverty beyond what we can imagine, and then are too poor and hungry to do anything but find our next meal.

Until there are oil shocks and governments at all levels are forced to “do something”, it’s up to those of us aware of what’s going on to gain skills that will be useful in the future, work to build community locally, and live more simply. Towns or regions that already have or know how to implement a local currency fast will be able to cope better with discontinuities in oil supplies and financial crashes than areas that don’t.

The best possible solution is de-industrialization, starting with Heinberg’s 50 million farmers, while also limiting immigration, instituting high taxes and other disincentives to encourage people to not have more than one child so we can get under the maximum carrying capacity as soon as possible.

Hirsch recommended preparing for peak 20 years ahead of time, and we didn’t do that. So many of the essential preparations need to be at a local, state, and federal level, they can’t be done at an individual level. Denial and inaction now are likely to lead to millions of unnecessary deaths in the future. Actions such as upgrading infrastructure essential to life, like water delivery and treatment systems (up to 100 years old in much of America and rusting apart), sewage treatment, bridges, and so on. After peak, oil will be scarce and devoted to growing and delivering food, with the remaining energy trickling down to other essential services — probably not enough to build new infrastructure, or even maintain what we have.

I wish it were possible for scientists and other leaders to explain what’s going on to the public, but I think scientists know it wouldn’t do any good given American’s low scientific literacy, and leaders see the vast majority of the public as big blubbering spoiled babies, like the spaceship characters on floating chairs in Wall-E, who expect, no demand, happy Hollywood endings.


If you want an article to send to a denier you know, it would be hard to do better than Donald Prothero’s “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused“.

Fingerman, Kevin. 2010. Accounting for the water impacts of ethanol production. Environmental Research Letters.

Heinberg, R and Fridley, D. 18 Nov 2010. The end of cheap coal. New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future. Nature, vol 468, pp 367-69.

Patzek, t. W. & Croft, G. D. 2010. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy 35, 3109–3122.

Pimentel, D. et al. 1991. Land, Energy, and Water. The Constraints Governing Ideal U.S. Population Size. Negative Population Growth.

Smil, V. 2000. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

Urban Danger. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett youtube videos:

Zittel, W. & schindler, J. energy Watch Group, Paper no. 1/07 (2007); available at http:// go.nature.com/jngfsa


Delusions of Grandeur in Building a Low-Carbon Future

31 01 2018

With many thanks from Ugo Bardi who first published this on Cassandra’s Legacy…… 

Some excerpts from Carey King’s excellent paper titled “Delusion of Grandeur in building a low-carbon future” (2016). By all means worth reading: it identifies the delusionary approach of some policy proposals. Image Credit: K. Cantner, AGI.

…. the outcomes of economic models used to inform policymakers and policies like the Paris Agreement are fundamentally flawed to the point of being completely delusional. It isn’t the specific economic assumptions related to the “low-carbon” transition that are the problem, but structural flaws in the economic models themselves.

There is a very real trade-off between the rate at which we address climate change and the amount of economic growth we can expect during the transition to a low-carbon economy, but most economic models insufficiently address this trade-off, and thus are incapable of assessing the transition. If we ignore this trade-off, or worse, we rely on models that are built on faulty premises, then we risk politicians and citizens revolting against the energy transition midway into it when the substantial growth and prosperity they’ve been told to expect will accompany the low-carbon transition don’t materialize. It is important to note that citizens are also told that doubling-down on fossil energy also only provides growth and prosperity. But this is a major point of this article: mainstream economic models can’t tell the difference. There are foreseeable feedbacks of a fast transition to a low-carbon economy that increase the risk of major recessions.

The AR5 indicates that if the world invests enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time — such that total annual greenhouse gas emissions are practically zero by 2100 — to stay within the 450 ppm and 2-degree-Celsius target, then the modeled decline in the size of the economy relative to business-as-usual scenarios is typically less than 10 percent. In other words, instead of the economy in 2100 being 300 to 800 percent larger than in 2010 without any mitigation, it is only 270 to 720 percent larger with full mitigation. Meanwhile, there is no reported possibility of a smaller future economy. Apparently, we’ll be much richer in the future no matter if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or not.

This result is delusional and doesn’t pass the smell test.

Another flawed piece of the framework in the IAMs is that they assume that factors in the economy during and after a low-carbon transition will remain at or return to the statistically positive trends of the last several decades — the trend of growth, the trend of high employment levels, the trend of technological innovation. Those positive trends change over time, however, so it is faulty to assume they’ll continue at historic levels independent of the need for rapid changes in the energy system. They also assume that energy costs will not significantly increase over the long term. Further, they extrapolate trends in growth, employment and technology from the past and current carbon-based economy to apply to a future decarbonized economy in ways that represent guesswork at best, and ideology at worst.

Perhaps most importantly, IAMs do not consider the substantial negative feedback between high energy costs and overall economic growth. Negative feedback means that when one factor increases (energy prices, for example), another factor consequently decreases. Many of us know from practical experience that if gasoline costs too much — like when it was near $4 per gallon in 2008 — it may eat into our budget to such an extent that we can’t pay all our bills or can’t pursue hobbies. On a personal level, then, we see that increased gas prices cause decreased discretionary spending — a negative feedback. This idea can be extended to the entire economy’s budget and income.
….. the models currently answer a question that is barely useful: “If the economy grows this much, what types of energy investments can we make, and at what rate?” The models should address the question we really need to answer: “If we make these energy investments at this rate, what happens to the economy?”

There is a fundamental conflict between achieving low- or zero-carbon energy systems and growing an economy. Both the scale and rate of change during a low-carbon transition matter. So, let’s create macroeconomic models that can plausibly replicate historical trends of the most important energy and economic variables in times of high energy investment, recession and growth, so that we have confidence that we can ask relevant and informative questions about how low-carbon investments impact economic growth. Let’s stop deluding ourselves by using models that assume answers we want to see.

Read the complete paper (open access) at this link

Russell Brand Takes On The Crisis of Civilisation. But What Now?

26 10 2013

Republished from theguardian.com


Dr Nafeez Ahmed

During his Wednesday night interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight, comedian and actor Russell Brand said what no politician or pundit would ever dare say: that without dramatic, fundamental change, the prevailing political and economic system is broken, and hell-bent on planetary-level destruction:

“The planet is being destroyed. We are creating an underclass and exploiting poor people all over the world. And the legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political powers.”

Yesterday, Brand published an extended essay in the New Statesman fleshing out in detail his case for a “revolution” – not just a political and economic transformation, but one fundamentally rooted in a shift in consciousness toward a new way of thinking.

Brand’s interview and article elicited overwhelming support from the general public in social media, but widespread detraction from journalists and commentators. In the Telegraph, Tom Chivers insisted:

“But the political system – or, more precisely, the wider human system of society – is working… generally speaking, humans have it better than ever before. There is more food per head of population, despite the population growth. We live longer. We are less likely to die violently.”

The Independent described Brand as “Britain’s most trivial revolutionary”, slamming his Newsnight performance as the:

“… ultimate expression of Slackerism, a political theory with roots in teenage angst, mild rebelliousness, and a pie-in-the-sky leftism that wants to pull down the walls of the politics then sit around smoking pot in the ruins.”

Andy Dawson in the Mirror scoffed:

“What we do know is that we won’t have a ‘government’ under Brand’s vision of the future – instead we’ll have ‘admin bods.’ Sadly, he didn’t seem to have any idea how the admin bods would be chosen though… Brand’s overriding message was ‘be more apathetic.'”

But these and other critics simply missed the point, by focusing obsessively on one issue: that Brand has never voted in his life, and rejects democracy in its current form as a viable system. “Like most people, I am utterly disenchanted by politics,” Brand writes:

“Like most people, I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.”

Yet the response of many pundits – which has consisted largely of ad hominem attacks on Brand’s inauthenticity due to his stance on voting and his own personal wealth – illustrates precisely his point. It is not Brand that is trivial or apathetic. It is the prevailing political, economic and cultural system. And the very inability of so many media commentators to engage with the substance of this issue, the crux of Brand’s argument, is symptomatic of the complete state of delusion this system revels in as it accelerates its trajectory toward environmental annihilation.

It is a sad reflection of the dire state of politics and the media that it falls to a celebrity comedian such as Russell Brand to speak truth to power – and an even sadder reflection that mainstream cultural commentators find themselves incapable of even understanding his key message.

“Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people. A system that is apathetic, in fact, to the needs of the people it was designed to serve.”

To this, the critics simply insist ad nauseum that there is no viable alternative to our current bankrupt form of representative democracy – the solution, the Mirror claims for instance, is for “the disillusioned and disenfranchised to become re-engaged with the democratic process.” But what about the fact that the democratic process has become hopelessly compromised by corporate power?

Take the issue of environmental policy. As I’ve shown in my previous articles here, both the Tory and Labour parties’ approaches to the questions of fracking and energy prices are incoherent. Ed Miliband’s lofty declaration of intent to freeze gas and electricity bills, just like David Cameron’s promise to review green taxes, were simply hot air that overlooked the fundamental deeper systemic crisis: that we are transitioning to a new energy era in which fossil fuels are now increasingly dirtier, costlier, and more difficult to extract. And yesterday, I revealed the financial connections of Cameron acolyte, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, illustrating that his stance on deregulation and fracking was hardly objective.

The British political stalemate is not unique. In the US, President Obama has exerted his executive authority to push through climate change powers which are, however, fatally compromised by his government’s unyielding commitment to exploiting unconventional oil and gas – and which, in any case, are so timid in emissions reduction pledges that even if implemented, they would not avert catastrophe before close of century. And even this is under threat from a deeply irrational Republican Party stocked with oil industry-funded climate deniers.

The US and UK stalemate on climate change illustrates the impasse continually reached at international climate change negotiations, which have consistently failed. It is a stalemate that is fundamentally irrational. Cutting edge research looking at the complex interconnections between planetary ecosystems suggests we are on track to see as much as an 8C rise in global average temperatures by 2100 – but even half that would create a near uninhabitable planet facing collapse of the oceans, world crop yields dropping by almost half, and over 4.8 billion people experiencing water scarcity.

Confronted with these prospects, however, governments remain structurally beholden to the hegemony of giant energy corporations tied into the old, defunct, carbon-dependent system. And we would be truly foolish to think we can separate out looming climate catastrophe from the other crises Brand highlights.

Wealth inequalities globally and within nations have spiralled out of control even as exploitation of the planet’s resources has accelerated for the benefit of the corporate few under the prevailing paradigm of endless growth for its own sake. A comprehensive study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington DC gathered data on the period from 1980 to 2005, widely hailed as neoliberal globalisation’s ‘golden age’ of growth. The study found that in this period, under IMF and World Bank reforms, the vast majority of the world’s economies had been systematically retarded, facing declines in progress on growth and other key social indicators such as literacy, health, and so on.

Even worse, those of us in the west, particularly the centres of neoliberal capitalism such as the US and UK, are not necessarily lauding it up. Amongst our most wealthy are growing numbers who are deeply unhappy and suffering disproportionately from mental health challenges, even while our increasingly unequal societies correlate with all kinds of social problems including more violent crime, higher teenage births, more obesity, more people in prison, and so on.

So when Brand in the same breath says that the system is simultaneously destroying the planet and widening wealth inequalities while the political class prevaricates pointlessly, he is absolutely right.

We are currently at the helm of a dysfunctional political, economic and cultural system which is plundering the earth’s resources at unsustainable rates, accelerating environmental degradation, concentrating wealth in a tightening network of unaccountable corporate entities, spawning rampant unhappiness, amplifying the risk of economic crisis, and potentially culminating in planetary-level species extinction.

Should Brand be taken to task for rejecting the vote in this context? Yes and no. No, because his rejection clearly resonates with, and is reflective of, a growing sentiment in wider society where, in fact, actual majorities in our liberal democracies do not vote – not because they are apathetic, but because of the abject apathy of a broken political system in the face of the crisis of civilisation. Yes, because simply disengaging from the prevailing political system is another extreme reaction that is, in fact, part and parcel of the very system it purports to reject. Because the more the majority disengages, the more a decreasing minority is able to dominate the political class.

It is precisely the reactionary disengagement of the majority that permits powerful corporate lobbies to inordinately influence the democratic process, and even allows proto-fascist parties like the now defunct British National Party (BNP) and the meteorically rising UK Independence Party (UKIP) to enter the political scene and channel the direction of political discourse – apathy fueling apathy enabling insanity.

If anyone wants a glimpse of what happens when you simply reject the existing system without the slightest clue where else you’re going and why, look at Egypt and Syria.

Both countries are microcosms of the global crises we face as a species, encapsulating the challenges of peak oil, climate change, economic inequality and political repression. The convergence of those crises triggered food price hikes that, in turn, sparked uprisings which may well have overturned and undermined prevailing state structures, but which have been unable to offer viable alternatives.

That does not mean the solution lies within the prevailing political paradigm. Brand’s call for revolution, for a fundamental political, economic, cultural and cognitive shift, is on point. But rather than entailing disengagement resulting in anarchy, this requires the opposite: Engagement at all levels in order to elicit structural transformation on multiple scales through the overwhelming presence of people taking power back, here and now.

That could include civil disobedience and occupying public spaces. But it should also include occupying mainstream political spaces – not just as an act of protest, but as an act of constructive engagement that is difficult to ignore, through intensive, organised grassroots campaigning, lobbying and dialogue with political actors; occupying media narratives by mobilising organised critical engagement with journalists and editors; occupying economic spaces by experimenting with new equitable forms of production, consumption and exchange; occupying food and energy spaces by pooling community resources to grow our own food and produce our own energy in our communities; and so on.

And in doing so, we might begin to realise that it is precisely the lack of a single, top-down manifesto that is our greatest strength – because, unlike the old, dying, fossil fuel dependent paradigm of endless growth for its own sake for the corporate few, the new, emerging post-carbon paradigm will be co-created by people themselves from the ground up.

That is why Brand’s answer for the way forward is so compelling:

“We shouldn’t destroy the planet. We shouldn’t create massive economic disparity. We shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people.”

If we want our children to inherit a habitable planet, rather than bashing Brand for not having a more coherent solution, we need to start being part of it.

Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It among other books. Watch his film, The Crisis of Civilization, for free. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed

Image above: Russell Brand at Birmingham Symphony Hall performing his Messiah Complex show. Photograph: Tony Woolliscroft/WireImage

IPCC report will make no difference in culture of denial

28 09 2013

A guest post by Clive Hamilton, Vice Chancellor’s Chair, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University

This week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report will be compendious, cautious, thorough and as authoritative as a scientific report can be. But it will not make much difference.

Clive Hamilton

In the world we used to live in, the one in which the ideal of scientific knowledge held true, the report would give a further boost to an already valiant world effort to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels. It would give hope that we could head off the catastrophes of a hot planet.

But we no longer live in that world (otherwise known as the Enlightenment), the one in which we thought of ourselves as rational creatures who gather evidence, evaluate it, then act to protect our interests.

While the IPCC must continue to tell those who are listening what the science is saying, it ought to be obvious to any careful observer that the debate over climate change is not about the science.

Of course the deniers, who are out in force attempting to spike the IPCC report before it appears, must pretend that it is about the science, because to admit that they are on an ideological crusade would undermine their own position. Yet it is the weapon they hide that is most powerful.

Those who believe that more scientific facts will win the day cleave to the “information deficit” model of classical science. This says people act irrationally because their knowledge is deficient. Yet facts are no match against deeply held values, the values embedded in personal identity.

The debate has not been about the science since the early to mid-2000s. Then, climate denial moved beyond the industry funded lobbying campaign it had been in the 1990s and became entrenched in the new right-wing populist movement. This was represented by the Tea Party in the United States, and has subsequently been taken up by elements of the Liberal Party in Australia.

In the 1990s a citizen’s views on global warming were influenced mostly by attentiveness to the science. Now one can make a good guess at an American’s opinion on global warming by identifying their views on abortion, same-sex marriage and gun-control. That global warming has been made a battleground in the wider culture war is most apparent from the political and social views of those who reject climate science outright.

In the United States, among those who dismiss climate science, 76% describe themselves as “conservative” and only 3% as “liberal” (with the rest “moderate”). They overwhelmingly oppose redistributive policies, poverty reduction programs and business regulation. They prefer to watch Fox News and listen to liberal-loathing shock jock Rush Limbaugh.

Like those whose opinions they value, climate deniers are mostly white, male and conservative — those who feel their cultural identity most threatened by the implications of climate change.

A similar division has opened up in Australia, with more conservative voters deciding they must reject climate science in order to oppose the kinds of values they see environmentalism representing. Right-wing demagogues like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones have taken up the denialist cause as a means of prosecuting their war against progressive trends in Australian society.

The same is true here in Britain where the culture warriors of the conservative press have all felt it necessary to sacrifice their faith in science in pursuit a larger ideological struggle. Even the BBC repeatedly undermines public confidence in the IPCC by “balancing” the vast authority of climate science against the cranky views of a handful of unqualified “sceptics”.

Once the debate shifted from the realm of science to the realm of culture, facts were defeated. If the science challenges the values, the values will win. The braying donkeys of the Murdoch press understand this better than those of us who naively insist on the facts.

In fact it has been shown that, once people have made up their minds, providing evidence that contradicts their beliefs can actually entrench them further, a phenomenon we see at work with the upsurge of climate denial each time the IPCC publishes a report.

We are often preoccupied with visceral fears that are grossly exaggerated, and have to use our cognitive faculties to talk ourselves out of baseless anxieties. It’s the method of cognitive behavioural therapy.

In the case of climate change it is the other way around; we must persuade ourselves to be fearful using abstract information.

At present it seems easier to mobilise people by invoking fears of higher petrol and electricity prices due to carbon abatement policies than it is to persuade people to fear the vastly greater harms expected from climate disruption. We must use our cognitive faculties to take the evidence very seriously and talk ourselves into responding to something we cannot yet see. But isn’t that the essence of the Enlightenment?

So what will make a difference? When will science begin to count again? Perhaps we have evolved to respond only to immediate visible threats to our own safety, and so we are simply not programmed to react to abstract threats some way off into the future.

If so, the grim truth is that the world will give up its childish tendency to block its ears against the scientists’ unpleasant warnings only when we see large numbers of white-shrouded American bodies, the victims of climatic disasters.

David Suzuki: Australian scientists should be up on the ramparts

24 09 2013

And for something completely different, today a guest post by my hero, David Suzuki…….


Despite the enormous success of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s, we have fundamentally failed to use each of those battles to broaden the public understanding of why we were battling. It wasn’t just the power of environmentalists against developers, environmentalists against the oil industry. It was because we had a different way of looking at the world.

Environmentalism is a way of seeing our place within the biosphere. That’s what the battles were fought over. But we have failed to shift the perspective; or in the popular jargon, we failed to move or shift the paradigm. We are still stuck in the old way of seeing things.

I come to many of the politicians and corporate executives that environmentalists have been fighting all these years. They are driven by a totally different set of values, by the drive for profit, for growth, and for power. In that drive, they fail to see the bigger picture that environmentalism informs us about.

Look at the largest corporations like Apple, Walmart, Shell, Exxon, Monsanto – they are bigger and richer than most governments. And we treat them as if they are people. They are corporations, they’re not people. Why do we allow them to fund politicians, for God’s sake? They’re not people.

Politicians are running to look out for our future. But because corporations have the wealth to fund to a massive amount, after an election, guess who gets in the door to talk to the ministers and the elected representatives? It’s corporations. What we find is that governments now are being driven by a corporate agenda, which is not about our wellbeing and our happiness and our future.

Politicians today have very few tools with which to shape behaviour in society. One of the tools they do have is regulation. You set targets and you pass laws mandating them. And of course they are hated and fought tooth and nail by corporations – largely successfully.

Another tool they have – an enormous tool — is taxation. Taxation can be used to tax the things that we don’t want and pull the taxes off the things that we do want to be encouraged. We know that taxes work as a way of changing human behaviour. The carbon tax — putting a price on carbon — is by far the most effective way to begin to get corporations, to get companies, to get people to reduce their carbon footprint.

Your new Prime Minister ran on a promise to eliminate the carbon tax. I have no doubt he is going to do that, and will probably make this politically toxic now for at least a decade before it will be able to come back on the agenda. And this, of course, is just what corporations have wanted. But it works.

In Canada, we have the same kinds of arguments. We argue: oh, we’re a northern country; if we try to begin to reduce our carbon footprint it will destroy the economy. But we don’t look at what’s happening in a country very much like Canada – Sweden – a northern country which imposed a carbon tax in 1992.

They now pay $140 a ton to put carbon in the atmosphere. They’ve reduced their carbon emissions by 8% below 1990 levels, which is beyond the Kyoto target, and during that interval, their economy grew by more than 40%. So all this argument that we can’t afford to put a price on carbon – it will destroy the economy – is just what the corporations want believed and said.

There is in Canada a legal category where people can be sued and thrown in the slammer, called wilful blindness. If people in positions of power deliberately suppress or ignore information that is vital to the decisions they’re making, that is wilful blindness. I call it more than wilful blindness. I call it criminal negligence because it’s a crime against future generations, to avoid facing the reality.

That is what Mr Abbott is doing, by cancelling the (Climate) Commission, by firing Tim Flannery. It is criminal negligence through wilful blindness.

In my country we have a government that, I am ashamed to say, is even more intensely on this path because it has been in power longer than Mr Abbott. Stephen Harper, our Prime Minister, was a big admirer of John Howard and of George Bush, and he has cancelled virtually all research going on in Canada on climate change.

He has muzzled government scientists: they are not allowed to speak out in the public, even in areas in which they are expert, unless they are first vetted by the Prime Minister’s office. Scientific papers must go through the Prime Minister’s office before they are allowed to be submitted for publication. So we’re now getting science being moulded to fit a political, ideological agenda. He is laying off scientists in sectors like atmosphere research, forestry, and fisheries. So we can go into a very uncertain future basically blind.

In the book 1984, George Orwell speaks of “newspeak”, that when you can convince people that black is white and that war is peace, you can tell them anything. And what better way to allow people to believe whatever you say, by shutting down all avenues of serious, hard information.

How can we make truly informed decisions if the scientific community itself is shut down? I say to you, that in your society scientists better be up on the ramparts making sure you don’t fall on the path that Canada is on right now. When politicians are relieved of having to pay attention to real information – to science – they can base their decisions on what: the Koran? the Bible? My big toe has a bunion?

As a Canadian, I beg Australians to think hard on what’s happening in Canada, and please avoid that in your country.

So what do we do? For years in British Columbia, I’ve battled the forest industry over their clear-cut practices. To ward off these big battles, the British Columbia government set up a series of round tables where all of the stakeholders with a vested interest in a feature of that forest could come to the table and you’d then negotiate. They’re doomed to fail because what you do is you are fighting for your stake. Ultimately, what results is compromise. I just don’t think we’re at the point where we can compromise.

I’ve been asked by the vice president of Shell to meet with other environmentalists and his executives to talk about future energy strategies. But again, it was all couched within the perspective of “how do we pay for this” and “what is the economic cost of doing the right thing”? Same thing, the CEO of a consortium of tar sands companies, visited me and said: “will you talk to me?” And I said: “sure, I’m happy to talk, but I’ll only talk to you if we can agree on certain basic things. I don’t want to fight anymore. There’s no point fighting. Let’s start from a point of agreement.”

So, how about this? How about starting by saying, we are all animals, and as animals our most fundamental need, before anything else, is clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity.

But we’re also social animals, and as social animals, we have fundamental needs. What are our most fundamental social needs? Our most fundamental social need, it turns out, to my amazement, is love. Now, I’m not a hippie-dippie whatever. If you look at the literature, our most fundamental need for children is an environment of maximum love, and that they can be hugged, kissed, and loved. That’s what humanises us and allows us to realise our whole dimension.

If you look at studies of children growing up under conditions of genocide, racism, war and terror, children deprived of those opportunities, you find people who are fundamentally crippled physically and psychically. We need love, and to ensure love, we need to have full employment, and we need social justice. We need gender equity. We need freedom from hunger. These are our most fundamental needs as social creatures.

And then we’re spiritual animals. We emerged out of nature and when we die we return to nature. We need to know there are forces impinging on us that we will never understand or control. We need to have sacred places where we go with respect, not just looking for resources or opportunity.

I believe we are doomed to failure unless we come together to agree on what our most basic needs are. And then we ask: how do we create an economy; how do we make a living; how do we keep viable strong communities?

We’re doing it all the wrong way, because we take ourselves so seriously. And we think we’re so smart we create things that dominate the discussions. That’s the challenge and what has to change.

This is an edited excerpt from the 2013 Jack Beale Lecture on the Global Environment, “Imagining a sustainable future: foresight over hindsight”, delivered by Dr David Suzuki at the University of New South Wales on Saturday 21 September 2013.

To view David Suzuki’s speech in full, click here.