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18 June 2018

Football, Tribes & Sustainability

So In-ger-land kick off their World Cup campaign tonight. As a Northern Irishman who has lived in England for almost 30 years, I'm not terribly excited. I'm not churlish, I'd like them to do well, but, hey, they're just not my tribe.

Tribalism was the topic of discussion at our terribly middle-class dinner party on Saturday night. I read Amy Chua's Political Tribes on our recent holiday and it hit its target – Liberals like me and my guests who can't get their head around why Brexit happened, or how Trump got elected, or how ISIS manages to recruit people to do terrible things – and the answer, according to Chua, is tribal identity.

Sport is the ultimate in tribalism – while I can watch Portugal vs Spain as a fascinated objective neutral, if Northern Ireland are playing, I go off at the deep end – shouting, cheering, crying. Likewise when Ulster or Ireland play rugby. In fact I could fill pages here on the bizarre contortions of Irish tribalism and rugby – how even the most trenchant Northern Irish Unionist will support the (united) Ireland team over any of the mainland UK teams. There is no logic to supporting a particular team, just tribal identity.

Tribalism explains quite a lot in the Sustainability debate. UK climate change deniers tend to belong to a right-wing nationalist tribe defined by Euroscepticism, traditional values and "that's political correctness-gone mad!" tendencies. There is a much smaller (very) left-wing tribe of deniers – the kind of people who think Margaret Thatcher dreamt up climate change to destroy the coal industry. The green activist tribe is far too often exclusionary, raising barriers to entry (often through competitive self-sacrifice), rather than making Sustainability open to all (which it must be by definition to succeed).

My Sustainability tribe is the Mangoes – green on the outside and (liberal) orange in the middle. But I'm always very interested in how other tribes interpret Sustainability whether it's the watermelons (red on the inside) using Sustainability to argue against capitalism, or when right-wingers make the economic case for Sustainability. To me, the latter is actually the most important, just as some US Republican mayors are enacting climate friendly policies under the radar to avoid the opprobrium of their tribe, removing barriers to progress is critical to Sustainability.

So let's not support Sustainability like we would a football team. We need tribes to work towards that common goal, even if they all insist on taking different paths.

 

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26 April 2018

Eyes on the (Sustainability) Prize

There's a new, if rather clunky, phrase going around the political commentariat at the minute - 'tribal epistemology'. Coined by US journalist David Roberts, the concept is confirmation bias writ large where the validity of any statement, whether it's blindingly obviously based on measurable facts or the craziest conspiracy theory, is determined by whether or not it suits the tribe you are part of. Tribal epistemology often renders rational debate redundant and often takes us deep into tin foil hat territory.

The climate 'debate' has long been defined by this phenomenon. The climate change denial movement believes that climate change is a cover for dangerous socialism, many of its leading lights noting that the science emerged into the public sphere at about the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. QED. There is even a far-left denial clique who believe that climate change was invented by Margaret Thatcher to destroy the UK's coal miner unions. Both views, of course, require a massive, highly-disciplined conspiracy by the scientific community sustained over decades, which is hilarious if you've ever spent time in a University faculty tea room.

Feeding the paranoia of the reds-under-the-climate-bed deniers of course are the various people who claim that we cannot cure the climate problem under the capitalist/free-market system and that only socialism is the answer. This makes me smile as my inspiration to dedicate my life to Sustainability was witnessing ecological devastation in Russia wreaked by Soviet-era industry.

As I wrote last month, those of us who cling to enlightenment values of rational debate shouldn't feel we have to beat the tribal loons into submission – because we won't win arguments with people who have invested so much personally in irrational concepts. The most dangerous belief in Sustainability is that we have to get everybody on board. We don't, we just have to do Sustainability.

This time last year, the UK had its first coal-free day since the industrial revolution. This week we had three days straight with no coal-fired power. The Sustainability revolution is happening, tribal epistemology or no tribal epistemology. Let's make it go faster.

 

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19 March 2018

Sustainability in an age of unreason

© istockphoto.com

I was very taken with Nick Cohen's column in yesterday's Observer bemoaning the rise of conspiracy-theory-driven, narrowly nationalist, identity politics around the globe. Cohen rightly singles out climate science as one area where the denialist fringe now has a seat at certain top tables against all rational argument.

Those of us who cling to a credo of liberal, rationalist enlightenment values seem stuck with an unenviable choice: hunker down until the cycle swings back as it has always done, or fight back, slaying the beast of gut instinct with the sword of logic and evidence. The problem with the first is that many of our environmental challenges require change now; the problem with the second is that human psychology is set to favour emotion over logic.

There is of course a third way, if we can liberate that phrase from its association with venal political chameleons of the 1990s. Despite all the noise of Trump, Putin, Modi, Xi et al, the world is still largely moving in the right direction – the Paris Agreement still stands, carbon emissions are stalling, and clean technology is hitting new records on a monthly basis. Instead of throwing our hands in the air, we have to find clever ways of keeping that momentum building.

My Green Jujitsu approach to behaviour change is based on one fundamental principle: everybody is an environmentalist deep down, you just have to find the right button to press.

Take the Daily Mail – it may be a nest of climate change deniers and cyclephobes, but they are also leading the populist battle against plastic pollution in the oceans. Instead of deriding their inconsistency, we should be leveraging that message to the public to get real change happening. More recycling = less plastic in the oceans + fewer carbon emissions. If we have to focus on the former rather than the latter, then so be it.

Now more than ever we have to fight smart rather than fight hard.

Join us next week for our annual Green Jujitsu webinar – full details here.

 

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14 March 2018

The Boxer vs Green Jujitsu

Last week I was reading a newspaper article on simmering tensions in Northern Ireland (from whence I hail) where somebody quoted The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel:

All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

Despite having heard this song a zillion times, I'd never really paid attention to the last two lines.

This delicate description of confirmation bias was still bouncing around my head when it was announced that climate sceptic Mike Pompeo had been appointed the new US Secretary of State by Donald Trump. Pompeo is on record saying:

“There are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change. There’s some who think we’re warming, there’s some who think we’re cooling, there’s some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment.”

Which is technically correct, but only if you are prepared to stretch to breaking point the statistic that the first group represents 97% of climate scientists and the other two just 1% between them (the other 2% aren't sure). But even though this statement is in reality a steaming pile of horse manure, I have no doubt that Pompeo believes it, because he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

And this is why shouting about climate change doesn't really change very much – it falls on deaf ears. There's a neat synergy between my thinking on engagement and Paul Simon's songcraft as I often liken the standard engagement approach to boxing – try to pummel the other guy into submission, and they'll instinctively put their guard up.

My Green Jujitsu approach to engagement gets around this by reframing Sustainability into something that gets through that guard. If people want to hear about engineering, we talk engineering, if they are interested in finance, we talk money and if they're healthcare professionals, we talk health.

Our next Green Academy session on Green Jujitsu is on 28 March at 14:00BST. Click here for more details. Alternatively check out our on-line Green Jujitsu training course.

 

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2 March 2018

Hot takes on The Beast from the East

So, much of the UK is gripped by a long cold snap with blasts of some pretty horrendous weather. While the Press whips itself into a frenzy over the country's supposed inability to cope, I can still walk to the corner shop every morning and get a couple of litres of milk to feed the mob (although the Guardian didn't make it this morning – quelle horreur!).

Here's my hot takes on the Beast from the East:

  • Sudden extreme weather is very difficult to prepare for. The reason the UK isn't equipped with all the paraphernalia for deep snow is that we haven't had any for 8 years, so it makes no sense to maintain all the snow chains etc 'just in case'. A couple of years ago I visited the usually damp Portland, Oregon in the middle of a crazy heatwave and they were struggling to cope too. Unpredictability will make climate adaptation a real challenge.
  • Many people expect no disruption during extreme events. From the guys trying to get up the steep hill outside my house when a couple of inches of snow has just fallen and failing (pic), to those stuck on motorways, I can't help thinking the phrase 'essential travel only' gets interpreted very loosely. Hats off, though, to all the brave souls who are keeping the country running, from the gritters to the carers who really do have to battle through the elements.
  • The old 'I can see snow, therefore climate science is bunk' zombie myth has risen again (two letters in our local paper today). Trying to persuade people that, as in 2010, the cold spell is being caused by anomalous warming in the Arctic is a hard sell as it is so counterintuitive – maybe not the best time to rebut such nonsense.
  • One thing that we should be flag waving about is that at a time the country's gas reserves are running low, the fact that 25% of electricity is coming from wind power is a very good thing indeed.

 

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15 November 2017

Sustainability Signal vs Noise

Fascinating piece of research by Sustrans which found that 78% of city-dwellers would like to see more segregated cycle lanes even if it meant losing road space for motor vehicles. This flies in the face of the raging media battles where you would think lycra-clad cyclists were a widely detested menace to society.

I was asked to comment on the research as a local Councillor and gave it a full-throated welcome. In a way I'm lucky as the patch I represent is very liberal and generally pro-walking and cycling –we're 20 minutes walk from the city centre, which also helps. Colleagues in the suburbs often feel under more pressure as there is nothing noisier than the anti-cyclist and leaving the car in the driveway isn't as easy. A recent court case where a cyclist on a road-illegal bike fatally collided with a pedestrian hogged the headlines for a week; 35 people died in car-related accidents in that same week and didn't garner a mention.

Such noise obscures other Sustainability trends such as the strong public support for renewables. In fact the climate change denial movement relies on noise in environmental trends to detract from the worrying signals. But the left can be as guilty as the right: I often read about soaring inequalities in the UK when inequality measures haven't changed significantly for 30 years and are actually lower than just before the financial crash and the subsequent austerity. That's not a political statement, that's simply a fact.

I have made it a rule to do some simple fact-checking on anything before I comment in public – I even check the provenance of oft-used quotes before using them in this blog which can be very interesting... Let's look for the signal, rather than the noise.

 

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8 September 2017

I never learn!

blinkers

I really have tried to ditch the habit of responding to those who are way beyond redemption when it comes to Sustainability. One such chap is a fellow member of a mailing list for engineering consultants. He seems to have toned down his climate denial since I challenged him to a bet on his assertion in 2010 that global temperatures may be falling (he refused to put his money where his mouth is).

Anyway, a couple of days ago he said of renewables "anything that requires a subsidy is uneconomic." I couldn't resist responding with a link to a report saying G20 nations were subsidising fossil fuels four times as much as renewables. He dismissed the report as "superficial and devoid of analysis."

That just made me smile as none of his assertions came with any evidence or analysis whatsoever. I know it wouldn't matter how much evidence I produced, it would never be good enough. It shows once again that we are wasting our time arguing with people with such entrenched views; better to work around them, or find a clever way to engage them on their grounds. Butting heads just gives both a headache.

 

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14 August 2017

Ignore Lawson et al, get on with the job in hand

Opening eyes

You can't have missed the furore. Al Gore was touring the British media last week promoting his new climate change movie, An Inconvenient Sequel. After his interview on Radio 4's Today programme, the BBC (disclosure, a Terra Infirma client) let climate sceptic Lord Lawson spout a few climate/clean energy zombie myths by way of 'balance'.

Twitter went into meltdown. Scientists, environmentalists and environmental scientists tore into the BBC for 'false balance' (presenting a minority view with equal weight to the consensus). Carbon Brief did their usual methodical debunking of Lawson's claims which forced Lawson's Global Warming Policy Forum to withdraw his erroneous claim that global temperatures were flatlining. Everybody else, huffed and puffed as if it was the end of the world.

Now I agree with the frustration, but I think the sound and fury is misplaced. Why?

  1. You ain't gonna stop Lawson. He's invested too much personally in this bunkum to back down, he is/was a significant political figure, and we have free speech in this country, which means hearing what you don't like as well as what you do. He will get on the media whether we like it or not.
  2. When was the last time you changed your mind on a subject because you heard a politician say something? The listeners probably came away with the view that Lawson didn't agree with Gore rather than believing Gore was wrong. I would be very surprised if anyone changed their minds.
  3. If people are susceptible to Lawson's message, then we're not going to bring them back on board by screaming at either Lawson or the BBC. It just creates more noise and plays into the sceptics' claims that environmentalism is a religion rather than based on sound scientific evidence. We need cleverer ways to sell sustainability to those people (I would of course recommend Green Jujitsu).
  4. Lawson, along with Monckton, Ridley, Lomborg et al, have been spectacularly unsuccessful at slowing the shift to a low carbon economy (see graph of the UK's renewables growth as an example). Yes, it could always go faster, but I would suspect that institutional inertia, the planning system, the immaturity of supply chains, and short termism are all more potent brakes than a few smart arses writing newspaper columns, tweeting or getting a few seconds on the wireless. UK_renewables_generated
  5. We each have limited time, energy and cash. We can choose to spend those resources moving our society to a more sustainable footing, or we can jump up and down in rage. I responded to Donald Trump's election by making a modest investment in renewable energy as it was the only thing I could think of which would make me feel better at that moment. It did, and it will have a much more positive effect on the planet, and my sanity, than spending the same time raging ineffectually on social media.

When I made this point on social media, a colleague responded that we had to "remove ALL barriers to climate action". This is not the case: perfectionism is the enemy of success. Some barriers are insignificant and should be ignored as they are a waste of energy. We need to focus on the significant barriers, remove those that can be removed, and work around those that can't.

Let's do it!

 

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28 June 2017

Killer Sustainability anecdotes (and not in a good way)

ReadersLast week I retweeted a gif showing a well designed cycle crossing being used by a steady stream of ordinary people on bikes – the text of the tweet pointed out that better infrastructure meant more cycling. Somebody replied with a photo of one woman cycling on the pavement beside a cycle lane (she was cycling slightly away from the lane, so may have been heading for a cycle rack or a shortcut, who knows). I thought of half a dozen ripostes, none of them very witty, before deciding to ignore it.

Setting aside what urges would inspire someone to take time out of their day to dig out a picture to try to criticise cycle infrastructure, this illustrates the trap of anecdotal evidence. Apart from a highly-numerate few, we are naturally inclined towards stories and away from robust statistical analysis. So when somebody says "Huh, climate change is nothing new, the Romans used to grow grapes in York." the general public are more likely to file that factoid away than complex graphs of global temperature reconstructions. In the same way one out-of-context, statistically insignificant photo undermines my point regarding infrastructure.

Countering beside-the-point anecdotes is difficult; throwing the question back to the storyteller ("What is that meant to show?") is usually better than trying to argue or fight story with stats.

The flip side is in your own communications you should balance statistics and facts with stories – those anecdotes are what people will remember and relate to.

 

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27 February 2017

Ambling towards a low carbon economy

grass feet small

A funny thing has been happening in the UK over the last 7 years. We have had two Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010 who have rarely paid more than lip service to sustainability issues in general and tackling climate change in particular. We have a press which is largely sceptical about climate change science, or possibly worse, cynically calculate that climate denial sells papers. Green activists fume and rage about all of this, but how come UK renewable energy is booming and coal is dying?

Here's a few things which might explain things:

1. Ninja legislation: Some simple legislation, such as Feed-In Tariffs, the press and green activists can get their head around, but there are other bits and pieces which are more complex and stealthy in operation. A good example is the Carbon Price Floor, which has been  lurking quietly in the background putting the coal-fired power sector to the sword and boosting the opportunities for renewables.

2. Supply and Demand: one good reason for cutting solar feed-in tariffs is that they have been far more effective than their designer, one Ed Miliband, expected, leading to a precipitous fall in solar PV installation prices. Cutting the tariffs may have slowed the original goldrush, but installations continue to make financial sense. Demand not only pushes down prices, but incentivises innovation – a virtuous cycle which will drive ever more demand and remove the need for any subsidy in time.

3. Responsible Business: as businesses grasp the full business case for Sustainability (ie going beyond a simplistic 'go green, save money' mindset), they are investing in renewables whatever the direct financials as they know the indirect benefits (PR, winning business, attracting and retaining staff) will deliver many times the return.

4. High fossil fuel prices: while the price of oil plummeted from its 2008 peak, at $55 a barrel, we are still facing historically high oil prices and the $147 peak in 2008 is a brutal reminder that nailing your colours to the fossil fuel mast brings significant risk.

Which all begs the question, how good could the UK be if senior politicians showed real leadership and the press woke up and smelt the coffee? I live in hope, perhaps naively.

In the meantime, if they don't do it, the rest of us will get on with the job!

 

 

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2 November 2016

Stand up for science!

newton-apple-tree

At the weekend the family headed down to Bedford to catch up with my brother-in-law and celebrate the middle one's seventh birthday. As is usual on our (rare) long car journeys, we stopped at a National Trust place on each leg to break up the monotony and avoid the horrors of the motorway service station. On the way south, we had a planned break the wonderful Fountains Abbey/Studley Gardens, but on the way back we picked one at random from the road atlas, called Woolsthorpe Manor.

We pulled into the modest carpark, which couldn't have taken more than 40 cars and no coaches. It was only as we walked up to the ticket hut that we saw a sign telling us that this was the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton. Not only that, but it was here, on an enforced break from plague-ridden Cambridge, that Newton sat under an apple tree in the orchard and had his eureka moment on gravity (and the tree still stands – well, slumps – to this day, behind the family in the pic).

And the most incredible thing about this incredible place is that no-one really knows about it. I mean, not only did Newton's Laws dominate science for the next 300 years, he also invented the reflecting telescope, proved beyond doubt that the planets circled the sun, co-invented calculus and a whole bunch of other important mathematical stuff (we'll draw a veil over the alchemy obsession – nobody's perfect). It's hard to imagine any one person having a bigger influence over our modern lives and yet there's no fuss.

We go on pilgrimages to religious sites, literary sites (Stratford upon Avon), historical sites and architectural sites, but the science which underpins our wealth, health and entertainment hardly gets a look in. When I was at Cambridge, the building where Walton and Cockcroft split the atom was being used as a bike shed when it should arguably be a museum.

Is this lack of respect for science the reason why thousands of armchair philosophers reckon they can disprove the central tenets of climate science which have been painstakingly developed, tested, revised and re-tested for almost 200 years? Is it why the Global Warming Policy Forum can produce a report claiming almost all science is dubious without meeting roars of laughter? Is it why otherwise intelligent politicians can casually dismiss hard evidence that doesn't fit with their worldview?

In this supposedly 'post-truth' world, I think it's about time we stood up for science, evidence and rationality.

 

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21 October 2016

Are wind turbines green? Do bears...

viz-turbinesCame across this clipping from the satirical Viz magazine that made me chuckle, but it isn't a million miles from some of the nonsense I've seen printed in the supposedly serious media over the last few decades. My own esteemed engineering institute's journal printed a letter about a decade ago postulating that climate change was actually being caused by wind turbines slowing air movements around the world. Of course the letter cited no actual evidence, it was purely opinion.

What gets me about all this anti-green stuff, whether from those who hate cyclists or full on climate change deniers, is the assumption that 'experts' are idiots and can't see what's in front of their nose (Viz nailed that in the 'letter'). Boris Johnson's "I can see snow in the garden, therefore the world can't be warming" is one of the most unintentionally funny examples.

I never take anything on blind faith, but if I want to know about my health I'll talk to a doctor, about my car or bicycle, I'll talk to a mechanic and on climate I'll listen to a climatologist. If I'm not convinced about what they tell me, I'll dive deeper. But I never listen to armchair philosophers with extraordinarily high confidence in their own opinion.

 

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18 August 2016

There's no talking to some people (about the environment)

Crazy WomanTwo things made me smile this week.

First, Prof Brian Cox's face as he realised what level of idiocy he was up against when debating with an Australian climate sceptic. The debate can be summarised as:

ACS: There is no proof.

PBC: Here's the evidence (holds up graph demolishing ACS's arguments).

ACS: That data's been manipulated.

PBC: By who?

ACS: Nasa.

[Audience bursts out laughing, PBC doesn't know where to look]

Secondly, I've seen a number of letters in newspapers and comments on blogs where the author clearly believes the UK is lagging the world, if not moving backwards, on renewable energy. The reality is, as the FT points out, the UK is ranked No 2 for renewable energy amongst G20 nations having gone from 6% of electrical power from renewables to 24% in the last five years.

It is simply impossible to argue that this surge is not impressive without contorting reality beyond breaking point. But these guys manage it with remarkable ease.

Both ACS and the green doomsters are suffering from extreme cases of confirmation bias – our tendency to grasp any tiny sliver of evidence to back up our gut instincts, while ignoring everything which contradicts that feeling, no matter how strong that counter-argument is. We all do it, shouty people just do it much more than the rest of us.

The moral of the story? Evidence is not enough. We need to engage with people's gut instinct as that's where change happens or doesn't.

 

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18 July 2016

Changing Hearts and Minds for Sustainability

world brainBefore the horrors of the last few days, it must have been a slow news period as the Telegraph rolled out another of their 'lycra lout' articles about the village of Great Budworth which claims to be under siege from the two-wheeled menaces. I think one anecdote summarises the story:

"One nearly crashed into my brother's car as he was pulling out of the drive and shouted at him."

Or, translated into objective language:

"My brother pulled out on to a road without looking properly, nearly knocked someone off his bike, endangering his life, and was surprised that the guy was angry about it."

What surprises me is that neither the story-teller, the brother, the journalist or the editor realised the stupidity of this line. I'm sure they're all intelligent people, but they regurgitate this nonsense because it backs up the way they have already made up their mind. This is known as confirmation bias.

As a Sustainability practitioner you will have come across this phenomenon time and time again. The presumption that Sustainability must cost more, despite all the facts and figures you provide. The presumption that renewable energy will never be cost effective despite plunging prices. The presumption that Sustainability is not a core business issue despite the fact that those who do Sustainability better have been shown to make more profit. The 'zombie arguments' from climate change deniers refuse to die for this very reason.

Like those in the Telegraph article, there is no point in trying to confront those 'misconceptions' head on (just have a look at all the Godwin's-Law-breaking arguments on Twitter for proof). My Green Jujitsu approach works on the heart as well as trying to appeal to the mind, by getting people involved in Sustainability using their core skills and interests. For example, it's said that the Netherlands doesn't suffer from this us-and-them battle between motorists and cyclists because almost all drivers cycle as well, so they identify with being on two wheels.

So if you are locked into a war of attrition over a Sustainability issue or project, stop, take a step back and think about how you can make it appealing to your opponents' hearts as well as minds.

 

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14 December 2015

So is the Paris climate deal any COP?

people hands

It's the Monday after the week before. They did it in Paris, signing an international treaty to tackle climate change, the world is rejoicing and the climate change deniers are left bleating ineffectually into their beer.

What did we get? Just this:

  • A commitment by 195 countries to keep temperature rises to 2°C, with an aspirational target of 1.5°C;
  • A mechanism to keep updating and reporting individual countries' commitment (known as INDCs);
  • Various mechanisms to transfer technology and cash from richer countries to poorer.

There was an interesting transition while the ink was drying on the agreement. The knee-jerk reaction of many NGOs was to condemn the proposals as 'weak' and a 'betrayal' – mainly because the INDCs were not 'legally binding'. By this morning's papers, those same NGOs seemed to have reeled in their reaction to 'good, but not perfect'.

Indeed 'good, but not perfect' seems to be the verdict of the commentariat, but I disagree. I think the flexibility of the part-binding/part voluntary agreement will turn out to be its strength, much in the way a tree will flex in the wind but not break.

For a start, I don't think there's any such thing as 'legally binding' when it comes to such agreements. As one wag put it, "who's going to invade Canada if they fall short?" Rigidity will encourage default, not enforce it and a rigid agreement would never have been signed. Peer pressure got the agreement signed, lets use it to drive it forward.

Secondly, Governments, technology and society changes, often abruptly. Different countries have differently cultures, demographics and geographic – the UK won't be doing concentrated solar any time soon, Chad unlikely to invest in offshore wind. The flexibility will encourage innovation, investment and bring market forces to bear.

Thirdly, the part-voluntary nature undermines the argument from the loony end of the climate denier scale that climate change was invented by communists angry at the fall of the Soviet Union who wanted a world socialist Government. Left-leaning Governments can use more interventionist efforts, right-leaning Governments can use market mechanisms. Horses for courses.

And lastly, let's congratulate the French. Just weeks after those horrific, nihilistic attacks in Paris, the French President François Hollande and his colleagues steered through an agreement to make the world a better place. It helps restore my faith in humanity. Bravo!

 

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25 September 2015

A surfeit of -isms? Eco-modernism, new environmentalism, pragmatic environmentalism

world brainThis week saw the launch of 'Eco-modernism' the brainchild of Mark Lynas and a host of other green thinkers. It pretty much fills the same space as BusinessGreen editor James Murray's New Environmentalism concept and my own, completely ignored, idea of Pragmatic Environmentalism – viz we need to reclaim the environmental movement from leftwing politics and place it square in the centre so people of left, right and middle can relate to it and not fear it is creeping communism in disguise (the old 'watermelon' trope).

Under eco-modernism/new/pragmatic environmentalism, the anti-science of parts of the green movement (GM, fracking, nuclear are all EVIL*) are challenged as hard as the anti-science of right-wing neoliberalism (climate change denial). We do what works, what science indicates, what technology and society permits, not what dogma dictates.

The seeds of my pragmatic environmentalism were sown when I was part of a political team bringing in a new recycling system here in Newcastle. We proposed moving from a source separated system to a semi-mixed collection of recyclates to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to participate. The local green movement went apeshit, to put it mildly, accusing us of betraying our principles and screaming that the whole thing was doomed to failure. We decided to ignore them, and rightly so, as the already good recycling rate jumped by 50% overnight.

You could argue that most of the big wins in sustainability have come from pragmatic environmentalism. Last quarter the UK produced a record 25.3% of power from renewables, up from 16.9% last year and beating down coal for the first time. Add in nuclear and low carbon sources produced just short of 50%. That's been achieved by harnessing rather than smashing capitalism, using market levers to create a virtuous cycle of volume and economies of scale (sorry, Naomi, but that's how it is). Despite the UK Government sending out all the wrong signals, this rise is likely to continue for a few years at least.

My only worry about eco-modernism was the strange bedfellows at its launch. Ex-environmental minister Owen Patterson and shamed banker Matt Ridley used the event to explain that everything was alright really. That's not the point. The threats are real and they are coming thick and fast. We have no time for either neoliberal complacency or anticapitalist utopianism – we've just got to knuckle down and get the job done.

 

* Note: I have reservations about all 3 technologies, but I try to base those on science rather than gut instinct. This annoys the antis more than it annoys the pros.

 

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11 September 2015

Thinking Fast and Slow about Sustainability

KahnemanYears ago, I got into a lengthy, but pretty pointless e-mail argument about climate science. On paper, I had no chance. My opponent was a pre-eminent chemist with a lengthy publication list and a reputation for debunking bad science in his field – including exposing a high profile 'breakthrough' which made the mainstream media. But, the debate soon settled into an unexpected pattern, the inverse of what you would expect.

He, the scientist, would challenge me using unsupported 'evidence' copied and pasted from right-wing libertarian US websites (his own politics were firmly left of centre) and I, the layman, with much needed signposting from SkepticalScience.com, would come back with peer-reviewed research which debunked his debunking. Eventually, he half-backed down with a much caveated admission that maybe, just maybe, carbon emissions were driving long term climatic trends.

The question that has bugged me ever since is "How could someone so clever be so dumb?" Reading Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's superlative book Thinking, Fast and Slow this summer has answered my question – and it's all about how our brains really work.

Sciences such as chemistry are carried out under very controlled laboratory conditions. After years of working in a particular field, practitioners build up a strong intuition for what is probable and improbable (the 'fast' thinking of the title). They can generally trust their intuition as long as they keep to what they know.

More unpredictable, real world, highly complex issues like economics and politics (and, almost certainly, climate) cannot be judged by hunches – 'expert' pundits in these fields are wrong in their 'off the top of the head' predictions far more often than they are right. Kahneman argues that in such disciplines even the simplest mathematical model based on data from past experience (ie slow, analytical thinking) will comfortably out-perform expert intuition.

My colleague had got himself into a vicious cycle of trying to back up his intuition by grasping at anything, no matter what its provenance, that supported it. This is classic 'confirmation bias' – where instead of the analytical part of our brain keeping the intuitive part in check, it tries to find evidence to justify the hunch. His biggest mistake was backing his scientific intuition over the knowledge of others (those climatologists I was quoting) in a field he knew little about – a little humility would have saved him a lot of embarrassment.

I've believed for a long time that psychology is the missing piece in the sustainability. Nothing will change unless people start making different decisions – whether that's choosing to recycle a cardboard box at home or setting ambitious national climate targets. And if you want to encourage people to make different decisions, you have got to learn more about how they make those decisions and what can possibly change them.

I can't adequately summarise Kahneman's book here, except to say that it will change the way you think about how other people think. For example, if you try to force change on someone, their brains will exaggerate the downside and ignore the benefits. However, if people come to that conclusion by themselves, that flips around – they exaggerate the benefits and downplay the risks. I have made a career out of doing this – facilitating change rather than proposing it – and now I know why it works!

Highly recommended.

 

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19 June 2015

A week's a long time in (climate) politics

George_osborne_hiIt's been quite a week in terms of political positioning on climate change.

One of the most interesting statements came from UK Chancellor George Osborne who was standing in for his boss at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday – the weekly ritual of verbal violence in the House of Commons. He got three climate-related questions, probably stimulated by the climate march outside. His first answer, in relation to fracking, was no surprise – he's pro-. But to two questions on climate commitments and carbon leakage, he gave a reasonably solid commitment to getting an international agreement at COP21 in Paris and for the UK to meet its climate targets, although with the slightly unnecessary caveat "in the cheapest way possible".

This commitment is significant as Osborne has long been said to be a 'luke-warmer' ie believes the threat from climate change is much exaggerated and the impacts are manageable. And he made it twice, just in case anybody was in doubt.

However, the "cheapest way possible" was undermined by the announcement the next day that the Government would be ending subsidies to onshore wind a year early as its targets had been met. Given that onshore wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy in the UK context left much of the industry scratching their heads. New DECC minister Amber Rudd made a spirited case for solar PV instead, but this seems to be policy by aesthetics – for what its worth I prefer the graceful blades of a turbine than a field covered in black panels – but that's just a personal point of view, not a sound basis for policy.

Another big problem I have is that the Government seems to be seeing those targets as a maximum commitment rather than a minimum. And the third and most important is the lack of consistency – we need clear leadership, not politicians blowing hot and cold (pun intended).

Then came the Pope's encyclical on climate change. Now, as an atheist, I find a faith leader appealing to people to listen to the scientific rationale for action more than a little ironic, but the employee engager in me realises it is more important to appeal to hearts than minds. It will be an interesting intervention as many climate deniers are very religious. Christopher Booker is a creationist and Roy Spencer has signed a declaration that God wouldn't allow catastrophic climate change (despite the fact he apparently allowed The Black Death).

Lastly, Green MP Caroline Lucas showed exactly how not to appeal to those who 'don't get it', writing in the Independent:

It’s been a mixed week for those of us who care about protecting our environment and securing a decent future for generations to come.

Taking the attitude that we are morally superior to everybody else will get us nowhere.

On that note, have a great weekend!

 

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2 March 2015

Obama's Litmus Test is Keystone XL, What's Yours?

iStock_000004249001SmallBarack Obama knows that his commitment to tackling climate change will be critically tested by his decision whether or not to permit the Keystone XL pipeline which would massively increase the flow of oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. There was something of a false alarm last week as it was reported that he had vetoed the pipeline, but he had in fact vetoed a bill in Congress trying to force approval - keeping the decision for himself (source Grist).

These big decisions can take on a symbolic significance way beyond their actual environmental importance (although this is important). Personally, I would like to see the environmental movement adhere to the same faith in scientific evidence with which we berate the climate change denial movement, but it's a fact of life that symbolism matters. This is a litmus test, whether Obama likes it or not.

You may think your decisions are insignificant compared to the POTUS, but they carry the same symbolism within your organisation. It is relatively easy to start doing 'good' stuff, but the litmus test is whether you will stop doing 'bad' stuff.

Great examples include Interface killing off profitable product lines because they involve hazardous flame retardants and B&Q refusing to stock patio heaters because they were against their environmental commitments. In both cases planet was given preference to profit.

So your litmus test is what are you going to STOP doing?

 

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12 November 2014

The military has climate change in its sights

sniper

Despite all the jibes about 'military intelligence being an oxymoron', armed forces around the world spend an awful lot of time and effort analysing geopolitical trends, identifying potential causes of conflict and scoping out what preparation is required. Back in my days at the Ministry of Defence in the mid-90s, water resources were regarded as a key flashpoint, but in recent weeks both the US and UK military have come out to say that climate change is a major risk to national security and peace.

The Pentagon’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap says:

“Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks.”

Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti told UK MPs earlier this week:

“Climate change will require more deployment of British military in conflict prevention, conflict resolution or responding to increased humanitarian requirements due to extreme weather impacts. It is posing a risk to geopolitical security, which is a prerequisite for economic growth, good health and wellbeing for all of us.”

The military isn't renowned for its wishy-washy lefty-liberal tree-hugging. If they see risks, we can be pretty sure those risks need to be considered seriously.

I had hoped that such unequivocal statements and respect for the military from the political right would jolt the latter out of their doubts about climate change science.

But no.

In May, Republicans in the US Congress passed an amendment to stop the Department of Defense from spending money on any climate-related initiatives, including planning programs. Republican David McKinley put it like this “This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda.” The Democrat-controlled Senate threw the amendment out (source Businessweek). The mid-term election results mean that the US is likely to see more such moves, not less, for the foreseeable future.

Let's hope the military keep making the point and the penny eventually drops. In the meantime it looks like the old George Porter quote "If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago." mightn't be so far from the truth.

 

 

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