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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Warm Weasel Words

Today the Institute for Public Policy Research published a strange report, Warm Words, about how climate change is presented to the public by the media and government agencies.

The BBC ran an "alarmist" report claiming that the Media was being attacked for 'climate porn' (that term was used in the IPPR's press release).

Energy Bulletin, commenting on the BBC report, said:

"There's no question that the level of discourse needs improving, but the report seems to be blaming the messenger. The "alarmist" camp encompasses a wide spectrum - it's a camp I might be proud to belong to."

Count me in as a member of that camp too.

The report's conclusion turns my blood cold:

"Inevitably, these conclusions lead us to treat climate-change communications in the same way as brand communications: we have to approach positive climate behaviours in the same way as marketeers approach acts of buying and consuming. This is the relevant context for climate change communications in the UK today - not the increasingly residual models of public service or campaigning communications. It amounts to treating climate-friendly everyday activity as a brand that can be sold".

Spin, anyone?

This study is so one-dimensional it's not funny.... It sets up a bunch of straw men and then demolishes them one by one, trivialising the whole issue in the process.

Their idea is to turn Joe public into "ordinary heros" who via peer pressure and hype just happen to do the right thing... Which seems to be consuming a bit less, as far as I can see.

But, if the "alarmists" are right (and the evidence to date suggests that they are, IMHO) maybe we need to shock and scare the populace so that some are moved to take radical actions, like the drastic political / societal / belief system changes which I believe are necessary to successfully deal with the problem.

The concept of "public duty" is sneered at in this report, and any form of radicalism is unthinkable to the authors.

We need nothing short of a revolution to deal with this one. Tinkering with energy-saving light bulbs isn't going to be enough.

Something which has always bugged me about saving the world from one's armchair is the situation of doing next to nothing and patting yourself on the back and smiling smugly.

Even governments do this, of course, the Kyoto Protocol being one of the most cynical frauds of this type.

The Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, in its first report in 1991 stated "we calculate with confidence that... the long-lived gases would require immediate reductions in emsissions from human activities of over 60% to stabilise their concentrations at today's levels". They explain why in great detail, and subsequent reports from the IPCC indicate that the situation is worse than first feared 15 years ago.

So what did Kyoto do? It came up with minimal cuts (which the EC countries have failed to meet) and a lot of (undeserved) self-congratulatory talk, with government and "business as usual" lobbyists "spinning" that all we had to do was meet our Kyoto commitments and all would be well with the world.

I think the "lets do a little nothing and pretend we're making a difference" approach is akin to the mythical ostrich's head in the sand.

Footnote, August 12th

Dr Clive Hamilton, in a review this week of Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers in The Sydney Morning Herald, says

'The assignment of individual responsibility is consistent with the economic rationalist view of the world, which wants everything left to the market, even when the market manifestly fails.

Yet it is at best a naive, and at worst a reckless, approach to the looming catastrophe of climate change. The world did not eliminate the production of ozone-depleting substances by relying on the good sense of consumers in buying CFC-free fridges. We insisted governments negotiate an international treaty that banned CFCs. We did not invite car buyers to pay more to install catalytic converters, the greatest factor in reducing urban air pollution. We called on government to legislate to require all car makers to include them.

When pressed, Flannery will call on government to act, too, but his consistent headline message is an appeal to consumers. Thus, when accepting a prize for his book recently, he gave a four-word acceptance speech: "Install a solar panel." Green consumerism such as that advocated by Flannery privatises responsibility for environmental decline, shifting blame from elected governments and industry onto the shoulders of individual citizens [my emphasis - Phil]. The cause of climate change becomes the responsibility of "all of us", which, in effect, means nobody. It is obvious why a government that wants to do nothing finds such an approach appealing: it can pretend to be concerned while protecting powerful business interests.

Flannery's "firm belief" that we can be saved only if consumers take the initiative is one he shares with the ideologues of the right-wing think tanks who argue that environmental problems should be left to the unfettered market.'

Well said!

It looks like this is going to be the trend. As we begin our downward spiral our governments will increasingly refuse to govern, instead blaming easily targetted parts of the populace for our woes. And when the energy crunch starts to hurt, they'll move from blame to punishment1, lashing out blindly as the rug is pulled from beneath their feet.

Welcome to the new fascism.

Postscript, October 25th:

Jonathan Freedland, writing in today's Guardian, makes a similar point:

"Climate change is too big a problem to be solved simply by virtuous individuals hopping on a bus instead of taking the car, or disconnecting the tumble dryer, valuable though those moves are. This is one responsibility that can't be saddled solely on activists and consumers. This is a job for government."

1: It looks like this will happen sooner rather than later, with a parliamentary select committee proposing punitive road taxes for gas guzzlers2. It is easier to do that than to legislate for fuel economy, I guess, and it doesn't directly upset big business.

2: Pure lunacy!

Let's do a simple thought experiment. Mr A has a car which does 20MPG, and he drives 40 miles a week in it. Fuel consumed per week = 2 gallons. His neighbour, Mr B, has a lovely new tiny diesel car, which does 60MPG, but he drives 300 miles a week. Fuel consumed = 5 gallons. Who's the waster?

Now, if it's carbon emissions we're trying to stop, tax the emissions, i.e. tax the petrol and diesel fuel. Oh wait....

If we want efficient cars, we have two options. The first is to simply ban the sale of new gas guzzlers. Or we impose a high sales tax on new cars with high fuel consumption. And then let the improved efficiency trickle down as the new cars become second hand cars.

Posted by Phil at 11:36 PM
Edited on: Saturday, February 03, 2007 1:49 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment