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Gormley contra mundum: In defence of the Greens June 17, 2007

Posted by smiffy in climate change, Environment, Global Warming, Greens, Irish Election 2007, The Left.

Like Worldbystorm, the recent negotiations and formation of a coalition government have reminded me of a cold December night in 1994. December 14th, in particular, and the conference to decide whether Democratic Left would enter into government with Labour and Fine Gael, the latter described as ‘neo-fascists’ by one over-enthusiastic delegate (he was opposed, I should make clear).

In particular, I keep thinking about a brief conversation I had with a friend of mine at the back of the conference room in the Gresham, after the decision had been taken. I was disappointed, but unsurprised at the result, and was lamenting the future of the party, the Left … the usual kind of thing. His response was short, but to the point: “Better us in there than the fucking PDs”.

Even though I didn’t agree with him at the time, it was a very hard point to argue against and it’s something which has stuck with me ever since. While it’s easy to stand back and make the argument that parties of the left should stay out of government until they can present a truly left-wing alternative in Irish politics, those who adopt such a position (and it’s a valid one) need to face up to the fact that, in the short-term at least and possibly for longer, it condemns the most vulnerable in society to a worse government than might otherwise have been the case. And it’s for that reason that I’ll try and defend the decision of the Greens to go into government, even if I’m not entirely sure that it’s the right one.

There is something very amusing about listening to the radio, or looking at politics.ie, and coming across the denunciations, the lamentations, the screams of ‘betrayal’ and ‘selling out’. It’s particularly rich coming from members of Fine Gael (as if their policies on important issues were in any substantial way different from Fianna Fáil’s) and Labour (who had the decency to sell out before the election, in their alliance with Fine Gael and particularly with the tax policy announced by Rabbitte at conference, rather than waiting until after the results were in like the treacherous Greens). Sinn Féin members have been a little less hysterical, probably because they were never part of the putative ‘Alliance for Change’ but a nasty part of me might also suggest that a party which is willing to share power with arguably the most reactionary political grouping on the island isn’t really in a position to throw stones.

Frankly, anyone who claims to be all that surprised at the Green’s decision is either extremely naive, or deliberately disingenuous. The party never ruled out the principle of coalition with Fianna Fáil. Why should they? They made it clear in the course of the campaign that they wanted to enter government, and there’s no particular reason why coalition with Fine Gael would be any more favorable, from a policy perspective, than coalition with the dreaded Fianna Fáil.

What the more shrieking of the critics seem to forget is that the choice the Green Party was presented with wasn’t either coalition with Fianna Fáil or coalition with ‘the Rainbow’. It was coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats or back to opposition and the continuation, in effect, of the current government. One of the Green TDs (I think it was Paul Gogarty) made the point well on the radio yesterday, citing the protesters outside the conference with signs saying “Save Tara – Vote No”. Now, while entering government with Fianna Fáil may very well not save Tara, staying out of government most certainly won’t.

There is, of course, the argument that parties of the left (with the Greens generally, although not always, included in this grouping) shouldn’t let themselves be used by right-wing parties to help them consolidate their hold on power. Rather, they should be looking at building a ‘left alternative’, usually at grassroots level, in order to achieve real and substantial change at some unspecified point in the future.

A couple of problems with this, however. Firstly, none of the left-wing parties (except the Socialist Parties and the micros) actually subscribe to this. Labour’s entire election campaign was based on cooperation with a Christian Democrat party. Sinn Féin remind us that they’re willing to work with anyone. Unless all parties agree to work together in building the elusive ‘alternative’, it’s not going to happen and it’s unrealistic to expect a single party to stand aside from government in the full knowledge that its rivals on the left would jump at the chance if they were presented with it.

More importantly, though, is that the ‘broad left’ strategy is, inevitably, a long-term one, lasting decades rather than years. In the recent election, after much soul-searching, I gave my first preference to the Greens. This was based on one issue: climate change. While it didn’t factor as one of the big issues during the campaign, in my view it’s the single most important issue facing the country (and, indeed, the planet). And, if there’s one issue that can’t be left aside for ten, twenty or more years, it’s this one.

The climate change policies included in the Programme for Government couldn’t, by any standards, be described as radical or mould-breaking. However, they’re unquestionably better than they would have been had the Greens remained in opposition. Similarly, they’re a lot less concrete than they might otherwise have been, substituting rather vague ambitions for specific targets. This presents a challenge for the Green members of government but also, I would submit, an opportunity. While the more cynical (or, perhaps, astute) observers will state that this allows Fianna Fáil to wangle out of any move on carbon emissions, it also provides gives the initiative to Gormley and Ryan, in their respective Departments to drive the policies forward, put specific proposals to Cabinet and insist that they be accepted.
It’s not going to be easy, however. The party already has a bitter taste in its mouth, with Dick Roche’s extraordinarily cynical and disrespectful stunt on Thursday, signing the S.I. to commence work on the M3. It has the imminent difficulty of having to defend co-location (collective responsibility and the fact that they’ve agreed to the presence of the Progressive Democrats at the cabinet table doesn’t allow them to shrug their shoulders and blame it on the other gang). How will they deal with the possibility of Beverley Flynn being given a junior Ministry? It’s also going to have to face whatever fallout arises from the Mahon Tribunal, and think seriously about exactly how bad things have to get before they might consider leaving.

It’s this last question that’s, perhaps, going to be the hardest for the Greens. At all costs, it must not allow itself to become another Progressive Democrats, a mudguard for Fianna Fáil. It must not be afraid of walking away from power if the circumstances dictate. The great myth of PD participation in government is that they punched above their weight, and forced Fianna Fáil to enshrine their views as policy. In fact, Fianna Fáil never had any difficulty with PD policies. They were never led anywhere other than where they wanted to go. This will not, one hopes, be the case with the Greens. If the Greens don’t find themselves fighting to implement their policies, that’s when they need to start asking themselves some hard questions.

If I was a member of the Greens, I have to admit that I don’t know how I would have voted. Despite the considerations above, the agreed Programme for Government is deeply flawed. franklittle‘s criticism of it that it has very little in it to tackle social exclusion is a fair one (although I would disagree with his argument that the environmental policies are ‘middle-class’ ones. The fact that working-class people may not be particularly concerned with an issue doesn’t necessarily making the issue itself bourgeois, any more than the fact that working-class people support Fianna Fáil makes that party the voice of the proletariat).

As I think Mary White said at the conference, not a great deal, not even a good deal, but, ultimately, I think’s probably better than the alternative (the same government formation, but without the Greens). At this point, though, it has the potential to deliver real change on certain vital issues. It’s up to the Green Party to make sure it does.

Why, bad as it is, climate change isn’t the only threat: Near Earth Objects and December 2004. March 11, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Technology.

Not sure if anyone caught this in the Guardian on Wednesday. With the day that was in it it seemed possible to briefly raise our eyes from the electoral gutter to the clean fresh sky above us and beyond that space itself.

Er…no, actually best not. Let’s go back to the Assembly Election, because I read one of the most disturbing reports in a newspaper I’ve ever seen.

The Planetary Defence Conference is taking place soon with the aim of establishing ways to deal with asteroids that threaten to impact with the Earth. Near-Earth Objects ranging from grains of dust to moving mountains kilometers in size are fairly certain to have caused up to extinction level events in the past.

Various techniques have been suggested for dealing with them and the Conference will consider them in some detail. These range from attaching propulsion systems to them in order to deflect them to attempting to destroy them with nuclear weapons and such ideas are well known from films such as Deep Impact and Armageddon. Still, interesting and all as that is what really my eye was the information contained further down the story. When discussing one possible threat to the planet it noted:

    All eyes for the moment are on Apophis, a 390-metre wide asteroid discovered in 2004, which has an outside chance of hitting the Earth in 2036. If it struck, Apophis would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole planet would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere. There could be dark skies for a year or more and crops worldwide would be destroyed.

But it could actually be worse.

    Many smaller objects around the Earth’s orbit break up when they reach the atmosphere, with no impact beyond a short fireworks display. An NEO wider than 1km, however, collides with Earth every few hundred thousand years and an NEO larger than 6km, which could cause mass extinction, will collide with Earth every 100m years. Experts agree that we are overdue for a big one.

This potential threat has led the Conference to consider the following…

    The critical question psychologists will address is whether details of an impending impact should be kept secret, to avoid widespread panic. In December 2004, for example, scientists calculated that if Apophis were to hit it would land somewhere along a line that crossed central Europe, parts of the Middle East, the most populated district on Earth (the Ganges River valley), and on out across the Philippines. At the time, the information was kept secret and many NEO scientists agreed it was the right thing to do.

Wait a second. The threat assessment was of such significance (i.e. it was thought that the chances it could actually happen were sufficiently high) that it was felt better in the interests of public order to keep a lid on the information? Isn’t that sort of remarkable and how come we’ve heard so little about it up until now? Granted the threat passed. We’re still, mostly, here. But even so…

    But Clark Chapman, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, says secrecy goes against the advice of many experts in risk management. “There are myths about the downsides of putting all information out, used as rationalisations by astronomers and space agency officials for withholding information, but which are counter to the policies of expert social scientists.”

    He says the perception that members of the public would immediately panic about an impending impact has no support from studies of social psychology. “If risk communication is done poorly, people may become unduly alarmed, they may lose faith in the veracity of official statements, they may misunderstand what’s being communicated, they may ignore important warnings.”

To be honest it’s not so much the threat of panic that worries me, but the threat of a giant rock hitting the planet.

And, to my mind, it indicates how parochial much of our thinking is. We’ve been discussing climate change here over the week, and it’s always struck me that whether caused by anthropogenic sources or otherwise there is an imperative to act, if only because it forces us to think smarter about our technologies, our utilisation of resources and our place on the planet…

There is of course an appeal, and it’s understandable, for a simpler way of life, but I think that’s a serious error, indeed it’s hard to see how that can be achieved with a planetary population in the billions short of some very unpleasant measures.

This as a great opportunity to shift ourselves forward into using much more clever technologies in transport, energy and conservation. If we are dependent upon land transport or slower air transport then it makes sense to use the most advanced technologies available and make them more efficient.

And, like it or not, to sustain our planetary environment we must, of necessity, have a presence in space both to monitor the biosphere and to warn of and guard against incoming problems, must, of necessity have a high technology civilisation. Not for puerile issues of national or international pride or because technological progress is an end in itself (although arguably it can be when developed appropriately) but as a matter of survival and since it’s the smart thing to do. And also because, to be honest, this universe we find ourselves in is implacably hostile in it’s simple indifference not merely to human life but to the biosphere in general. The current efforts to establish a means of dealing with climate change are enormously important, but climate change isn’t the only threat we as a species or the planet faces, yet, ironically we are, as ever, the only species on the planet in a position to do something about it.

SwindleWatch ’07 March 4, 2007

Posted by smiffy in climate change, Environment, Environmentalism, Film and Television, Global Warming, Media and Journalism.

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been had”? I can’t be sure, but I’d bet Johnny Rotten’s famous quote will crop up in next Thursday’s Channel 4 documentary on climate change, The Great Global Warming Swindle, taking its name from the not-very-good Sex Pistols film.

According to the Channel 4 website:

In a polemical and thought-provoking documentary, film-maker Martin Durkin argues that the theory of man-made global warming has become such a powerful political force that other explanations for climate change are not being properly aired.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Imagine what it could mean if it were true: that there’s a vast conspiracy of vested interests including, most recently, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, collectively lying to use about the nature and cause of climate change, and that all our concerns about energy conservation and reduction of greenhouse gases have been a complete waste of time.

Don’t go rushing to buy shares in Ryanair just yet. The Observer’s science editor Robin McKie has a pretty damning piece in today’s edition rubbishing the programme. While I’m not sure I’d go along with his comparision with CFC gases and with his proposed solution, he makes the point that many of the claims on the programme are untrue and simply a rehash of the same so-called ‘scepticism’ that, until relatively recently, used to get an amount of coverage in the media disproportionate to the weight of scientific support it attracted in the name of a ‘balanced debate’ (i.e. until the BBC realised that it was a load of old rot, and that there was little or no support for the view that contemporary climate change was anything but man-made).

Something McKie doesn’t point to, however, is the background of the director. Martin Durkin has quite a track record in this kind of programme. George Monbiot writes about him here, pointing to his some of his previous output including a report on how silicone implants reduce the risk of breast cancer (initially proposed to the BBC’s Horizon but dropped when the commissioned researcher contradicted the claims, then shown by Channel 4), a series (again for Channel 4) called Against Nature, which essentially argued that environmentalists were proto-Nazis out to control the world (which misrepresented the views of many of those interviewed, for which Channel 4 was forced to apologise) and a programme (once again, Channel 4) on genetically-modified foodstuffs which one of the participants described as having “rendered great disservice to science generally and to the scientific debate on GM-food particularly“. For someone with no scientific background, one has to wonder how Martin Durkin keeps being commissioned for programmes like these. Or, as Private Eye wrote at the time “What does Channel 4 do with programme makers condemned by the TV watchdog,the Independent Television Commission (ITC), for using underhand editing techniques? The answer is, er, hire them to make another programme.”

One intriguing element to the whole affair is the link to the Revolutionary Communist Party, also known as the Living Marxism group, also known as the Institute of Ideas, also known as Spiked Online, also known as Sense About Science. Phew! It’s hard to keep up, even for an ex-DL member, so for an introduction to the bizarre and murky world of this sect which went so far left it came out the other side, check out George Monbiot’s pieces and ‘The Revolution has been Televised‘ and ‘Invasion of the Entryists‘, as well as Nick Cohen’s ‘The rebels who changd their tune to be pundits‘. All of these pieces highlight the role played by RCP members and friends in Durkin’s films and, while it isn’t claimed that Durkin is a member of the RCP, an article on the group by What Next states that “The day after (a piece on Against Nature appeared in The Guardian), the paper reported Martin Durkin, the Against Nature producer, saying that the RCP had been dissolved a year previously. Not known as an RCP member or supporter, it’s not clear how he was privy to such information”.

It’s hard to do justice to the sheer strangeness of the ideology behind this group in its various guises. Essentially, it presents an uber-libertarian view of the world, where everything suggestive of state intervention in private lives, or which might limit scientific exploration or experimentation to any degree is charged with being ‘politically-correct’ or totalitarian, part of a creeping statism which aims to control the actions of everyone on the planet. Whatever you’re for, these professional controversialists will be against it. Indeed, if John Waters scrubbed himself up a bit, he might even be admitted as a member.

Much of what they write, particularly from The Times’ Mick Hume or the New Statesman’s Brendan O’Neill seem, at first glance, to be run-of-the-mill contrarianism. Worried about emissions for air travel? Just leftie elitists trying to stop working class people going on holidays. Use a green bin for recycling? Council plot to regulate our lives. Concerned that maybe homophobic or racist abuse shouldn’t be thrown around on a college campus? Politically-correct Big Brother attack on freedom of speech.

Pretty standard, Magill-type rubbish, all in all.

But poke a little deeper and you find an ideology far odder than anything dreamt up by Eamon Delaney in a rare, sober moment. This is also the group which denied the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia, as well as describing Neil Hamilton as a ‘sacrificial lamb’. For a real indication of how nuts they can get when questioned, check out the stunned response of the presenters of Little Atoms (not known for the tough interrogation of their guests) to Brendan O’Neill’s (Spiked contributor and New Statesman columnist) claim that intervention is always wrong, even in the case of genocide, because it’s paternalistic and disempowering.

Many profiles of the RCP-group try to understand their almost Ayn Randian ideology. Some think that they continue to be Marxists, religiously so, and are promoting the market and global capitalism in order to hasten its inevitable demise (rather like those fundamentalist Christians who want to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem in order to bring about the Apocalypse). Others see them as having abandoned the class-struggle and economic elements of Marxism, leaving only an ultra-humanist fanatical devotion to ‘progress’ for its own sake. Others still see them as just in it for the money.

I’ve no idea. All I would say is that if you do sit down to watch the programme on Thursday, treat everything you hear with some scepticism, and do some research into who is speaking. You wouldn’t want to be had!

[As a side-note, looking back over that Nick Cohen piece in the New Statesman for the purpose of writing this post, one quote in particular jumps out immediately:

Former lefties can make a good living in the media by attacking their ex-comrades – I’d do it myself if the price was right.


Mmmm….Soylent Green…tasty! November 17, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Global Warming.

Fascinating watching Soylent Green on TCM digital. And for those who haven’t seen it, and don’t know the central conceit – well click away now folks.

Firstly as the cliche has it, it’s much more of it’s time than of any potential future (and based on Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!). Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson in his 101st role. A group of elderly Europeans who uncover the awful truth about the oceans and just what that means about the food supplies. A black chief of police. Sexual politics that are one step removed from – well, from Planet of the Apes to be honest, another Heston classic. Breton style hats and cravats predominate, making it look curiously like the mid-1980s on Grafton street.

The score by Fred Myron is interesting combining funky jazz, and weird burbling electronica that sounds a little like Can, a little like Neu and a whole lot like the roster of artists who would later be on WARP such as early Aphex Twin, B12 and Black Dog.

Secondly the depiction of a world in the throes of catastrophic ecological collapse from pollution and overpopulation (no climate change here, but no airconditioning either) varies between good and not so good. The waste reclaimation trucks which bring people from the voluntary euthanasia centres (Your favourite colour sir for the euthanasia room? Orange. Your favourite music? Classical, light classical – cue Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and a collage of grainy film of running streams, sunsets and unspoilt landscapes) are fairly well done. Central Park filled with abandoned cars in which people live, and a pervasive smog somewhat less so.

The general tenor is not dissimilar to Silent Running (even more depressing in it’s own way) where the last plants and forests are tended to on spaceships by Bruce Dern. And each is a crie-de-couer from the early 1970s about the state of the planet. Now of course the idea that by 2022 we’d see total ecological collapse seems unlikely, at least from the standpoint of 2006, but in 1972 that was a good 50 years away so perhaps one can forgive them that. In any event the scale of the problem has changed, we seemingly can do both less and more damage to the planet simultaneously.

When I last saw it, probably around 1975 or so, I have to be honest it made quite an impression. I was surprised to realise that I remembered lines. Not great lines it has to be said, but hey, I was younger then.

And yet when we get to the idea at the heart of it, that the dead are brought to plants which mulch them into the eponymous Soylent Green (and what was Soylent Red made out of if Green is humans?) it’s oddly difficult to get too worked up about it. Sure, as the elderly Europeans mutter about it being ‘expedient’ and necessary to bring the information to the ‘Council of Nations’ – one wonders what period of history they’re echoing – and all who discover it are deeply shocked including a city politician and a priest who pretty much go off the rails at the bad news about what’s on the menu. Yet despite Heston’s impassioned cry about ‘next they’ll be breeding us like cattle’ something about the movie deadens the impact. Probably it’s the production values, but perhaps not. It’s not that one would be sanguine about such a state of affairs, instead that it seems almost like an inevitability, like the logical outcome of such a corrupted world. Although as someone asks, why Soylent Green?

Speaking of dystopian futures I haven’t seen Children of Men, but fully intend to do so when it returns on DVD, but having seen the trailers for C of M I’d like to see Soylent Green reworked in more talented hands. Or perhaps it won’t work, perhaps we’re that bit more cynical. Pollution and overpopulation, it’s been coming a long time. Euthanasia on a mass scale? Logical really. De facto cannibalism? Unpleasant, sure, but them’s the breaks.

“Soylent Green is people!” as Heston shouts at the end of the movie …and the real problem is that some might ask what exactly is the problem?

When being right isn’t quite enough… The political mainstream, climate change and the Greens October 30, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, climate change, Global Warming, Greens, Irish Politics.

It was truly startling to see the co-option of the Stern Report on climate change by the British Government today. The report makes for depressing reading, positing a future which would see a 20% decrease in global GDP in the event of uncontrolled climate change – and lest that sound not so bad it’s worth considering that in the crassest terms it’s the developed world which would be hit hardest by that decrease in GDP in terms of material comfort while the developing world would be hit as hard or worse in terms of the human effects.

But the stray thought that struck me was that the impact of the implementation of Stern et al would mean, to a significant degree the validation of a broad range of ideas generally associated with the Greens (both in political and social terms). This is, to my mind at least (and as someone long influenced by the red-green thinking of those such as that of Bahro and Gorz), welcome in terms of conversion away from a high carbon economy to one which utilises technological improvements and considered use of resources in the framework of a low carbon environment.

But isn’t this also the point at which Green ideas are subsumed, as socialist ideas were before them, into the general paradigms of mainstream politics. The UK example is particularly instructive. Here we have all three major parties, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives engaged with considerably more determination than one might have ever previously anticipated in such ideas.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that it sounds the death knell of Green parties, but it does perhaps indicate that their political role will remain perhaps more marginal than they or we might hope for in the future, that their relationship will be similar to that of Sinn Féin to Fianna Fáil as regards ‘Republicanism’ where the larger more mainstream party picks the elements that are most voter friendly, or indeed both the larger parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in relation to social democracy.

Of course, is this a surprise? No-one has expected the Greens to coast to state power on the back of simply being right on many of the big issues, but it seems to me slightly unfair that they may not reap any reward for sterling work over the past number of decades. And while the current poll ratings for the Greens, as seen in the RedC figures from the weekend are good, it’s hard to believe they reflect anything much more than our local political concerns rather than – say – the influence of those who have seen ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.


Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the Greenest of them all? September 22, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Energy consumption, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Greens, Uncategorized.
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There is an interesting debate rumbling through certain portions of the environmental movement.
A piece in the New Statesman by John Gray this week under the heading ‘Clear and Present Danger’ reviewed George Monbiot’s latest work Heat. The book is about global warming, and has been serialised in the Guardian this week. It’s good stuff, but extremely depressing. Monbiot is convinced of the necessity to implement sweeping changes in the society.

Yesterday Monbiot criticises the report from the Tyndall Centre, which we’ve noted here previously, but I’ll look at that in a moment.

Let’s start with John Gray the interesting, if mildly misanthropic, philosopher who has made a career from taking contrarian positions on a range of issues.

The essence of the debate, actually let’s call it a three way debate because of course Friends of the Earth and the Tyndall Centre are also involved, hinges on this. The Tyndall Centre has proposed a report which calls for specific cuts in emissions in selected areas. Monbiot considers that the Tyndall Centre figures are too little and are ‘two decades too late”. John Gray considers that Monbiot might well be right, but that global warming is, as James Lovelock has proposed, now all but inevitable and it’s now a matter for battening down the hatches and preparing for it’s impact.

So who is right? Well, essentially all three are right but perhaps some are more right than others.
The Tyndall Centre proposals are probably overly cautious. Something needs to be done, but attempting to implement that in a democratic society is going to be incredibly difficult (note the way in which Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian admitted last week that it was only An Inconvenient Truth which finally brought home to him the reality of global warming – if he found it difficult to get you can bet 90% of the population is in some form of denial). That’s why Tyndall have pitched towards the political centre and acceptability. Tyndall seeks to rein in temperature rises to only two degrees above preindustrial levels, something they believe can be accomplished by a 90% decrease in emissions by 2050. Monbiot disagrees since he believes Tyndall have got the figures wrong and that even a 90% decrease is too little unless achieved by 2030.

Monbiot characterises this in the following terms in the Guardian piece:

“In other words, Friends of the Earth [who initiated the Tyndall Centre Report] had already set the target before it asked its researchers to find out what the target should be. I suspect that it chose the wrong number because it believed a 90% cut by 2030 would not be politically acceptable.

This echoes the refusal of Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist, to call for a target of less than 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, on the grounds that it would be “politically unrealistic”. The message seems to be that the science can go to hell – we will tell people what we think they can bear.”

He’s right. But he’s also wrong. Unfortunately it is politically unrealistic and unacceptable. The nature of the changes Monbiot believes are necessary are such that it’s hard to see anything short of a very authoritarian government being able to push them through. Perhaps that’s what we’ll have by 2030.

John Gray points to a further problem with Monbiot’s thesis and implicitly that of the Tyndall Centre which I’ve already noted. The developing world is simply not going to alter it’s energy consumption in such a way as to alter global warming even if the UK does follow the Tyndall Centre/Monbiot path.

“However sensible it may be in parts, there is a profound unreality surrounding the programme of action Monbiot proposes. “Curtailing climate change must be the project we put before all others,” he writes. But who are “we”, exactly? Humanity at large is ridden with intractable conflicts, and delusional bigots rule its most powerful state. An American air attack on Iran would produce an oil shock greater than any that has yet occurred, triggering the search for other sources of energy – many of them dirtier than oil. Moreover, continuing growth in human numbers (a crucial factor in the worsening en vironmental situation that Monbiot mentions only once in the book, giving it less than a single complete sentence) is increasing resource scarcity around the world. It is always claimed that the human environmental impact is a matter of per capita resource rather than sheer numbers, but there is an upper limit. By conservative estimates, there will be some two billion more human beings on the planet 50 years from now. Coming decades are far more likely to bring intensifying resource wars than concerted action against climate change.”

More pointedly Gray comments that:

ˇThere is, in fact, not the remotest prospect of the world adopting anything like Monbiot’s programme, but once again this may not matter. As he recognises, it may already be too late: “Because the carbon released now stays in the atmosphere for some 200 years and causes climate change many years into the future, there is perhaps a 30 per cent chance that we have already blown it.” It is a sobering admission, from which Monbiot immediately retreats. “I am writing this book in a spirit of optimism,” he declares, “so I refuse to believe it.””

I don’t think that’s to Monbiot’s discredit, but I would tend to think along with Gray that the pass may already have been sold, that global warming is now on an unstoppable path and we’re going to have to adjust to it. This adjustment is going to be painful in the extreme, whether as painful or more so than that proposed by Monbiot is an important point to consider.

Let’s think about it a bit further. If global warming is unstoppable what we can expect are radical, but not unheard of, shifts in the nature of the planetary environment. Sea level rises, increased temperatures, the destruction of certain species, indeed of whole ecologies. All this is survivable, for much of the human population of the planet, but the point isn’t really survivability but how much of what there is now we should seek to preserve.

And that’s where Monbiot is absolutely correct . If global warming can be halted or at least softened in impact, it makes sense to plan our society in terms of much smarter energy consumption. If Gray is correct, and it can’t, then exactly the same holds true – if not more so. Frankly I’m not a huge fan of narrow energy sustainability, and am particularly suspicious of those who would see us retreat from technology. I would hope that we can find new sources which will leap-frog us beyond such constraints – but I’m realist enough to recognise that the world we live in is one where energy sources are decreasing and therefore in the short to medium term we must utilise them wisely.

Gray concludes by saying that:

“There are some useful things that can be done. In Britain, we can increase flood defences against rising sea levels, secure our electricity supplies by commissioning replacements for existing nuclear power stations, develop new technologies for cleaner coal and create wildlife corridors to help other species adapt. But first we have to accept that we cannot control the process of climate change we have set in motion. Unfortunately this requires an insight into the limits of human power that is beyond most environmentalists. Like the rest of humankind, they cannot bear very much reality.”

I think Gray is being unnecessarily harsh. Monbiot in particular has paid greater attention to this topic than many before him. One cannot fault him for retaining a sense of optimism in the face of catastrophic change. Environmentalism has been aware of these dangers for a considerable period of time – and now it shapes much of the debate, note the way in which capital (even if only in the form of Richard Branson) is finally waking up to the issue. Whether, though, the changes they seek to implement can realistically alter the dynamic of global warming is a different question, but at least some of the range of measures proposed will be worthwhile particularly if integrated into new technologies…

Perhaps that sounds like a new, somewhat greener, spin on techno utopianism. If so I plead guilty, but I genuinely see this as an opportunity for progressive technologies to be allied with environmentalism in the face of a fundamental change in global climate. If eventually we can’t ameliorate it perhaps we can be sure we won’t exacerbate it further.

The first cut is the deepest – or how curbing emissions may not be so painful… September 16, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Energy consumption, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Uncategorized.
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A great, illuminating article in the Guardian yesterday about a report from the UK based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research which for once actually maps out a clear strategy to carbon cuts in order to reduce greenhouse gases to a level that would actually make an impact. Granted these are for the UK, but they have a clear application on this island, North and South. You can find the details at the Tyndall Centre and the article here, but for your reading convenience the details are as follows.

A sustainable effect i.e. one that would prevent a 20C increase in temperature necessitates a 60% cut in emissions by 2050. That’s a huge figure but one that Tyndall Centre believes is realistic. They propose concentration on specific sectors but as Kevin Anderson, research director at the centre notes: “Our research demonstrates that the UK can move to a low carbon economy…but the journey will become much more demanding the longer the government leaves it to act.”

So what are the areas. Train transport: with the introduction and extension of the network, double decker trains and their use as a substitute for short haul flights (great, just as I get over my fear of flying the damned things are grounded).

Energy consumption: with a shift towards renewables – in fact a jump from 5% to 36% by 2030. Energy saving in industrial processes will be necessary with the introduction of smart technologies.

Car Transport: or goodbye the car. Well no, not quite. Simply by shifting from oil to alternatives would cut emissions. But it will also necessitate a reduction in car numbers, some 13% by 2030.

Buildings: A new emphasis on energy saving houses. Insulation, energy saving devices and bulbs and domestic energy generation alone would make a significant dent in the overall figure. Now they step into PARECON territory by suggesting we would all as individuals trade emissions. Interesting to see if that might work, but the possibility is there with greater integration of domestic electronic controls which various companies have been releasing into the market over the past decade or so, allied with the internet. Utopian? Perhaps not.

Aviation: A significant player, but not quite as significant as one might expect. Lighter aircraft, slower aircraft, updated turbo props for short haul flights and such like should be sufficient to negate the negative effects of aviation. And trains will take up some of the slack.

So, in a way it’s not about forgoing present societal standards, but making them ‘smart’.

Why do I like it? Well firstly because global warming is the single most pressing issue that we face, bar none. Secondly because this report doesn’t run around screaming with hands in the air pretending that technological society can suddenly shift into reverse gear, but instead approaches the topic in a measured fashion that places technological progress at the heart of social progress and – to my mind the security of our societies. The report accepts that air travel and car transportation will remain features of our civilisation but that they must be improved to be sustainable. Thirdly because it gives clear, attainable goals for action that don’t require herculean efforts on our part, merely a logical approach to the issue. Fourthly because weaning ourselves away from fossil fuels ensures, or at least improves, the security of our societies. Any criticisms? Well this isn’t a criticism but it doesn’t see a place for nuclear power, which is fair enough, my internal jury is still out on that one. Implicitly for it to be successful it would require a similar response from the rest of the world, a tricky job persuading those industrial behemoths India and China to sign up to this sort of regimen. It also is predicated on some new technologies and some fairly significant improvements in others. Perhaps they’ll work, we’ll see. But all in all a good days work.

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