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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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14 August 2014

It's not about who YOU can trust, but about who THEY can trust...

oil pricesI'm thoroughly enjoying the first phase of our family summer holidays visiting my parents in my home town of Belfast. My dad has become something of an investor, and I'm starting to dip my toe into clean tech investment, so it was a good opportunity to get some hints and tips.

The only slight tension was he's an archetypal Telegraph reader who invests in traditional blue chip companies and I'm looking at the much riskier emerging green markets. To bridge this gap, I made sure that data I showed him came from sources he would trust rather than sources an environmentalist would naturally reach for first.

This is a classic green jujitsu move. If you want to sell sustainability to a Telegraph reader, then use Telegraph-type sources rather than, say The Guardian. If you want to sell sustainability to an economist, use analyses from major business schools or respected economic sources. And so on...

It's good discipline to challenge yourself in this way anyway. If you use sources that will almost always agree with your gut instinct, confirmation bias is a serious risk.

So, while ignoring the climate change denying lunatic fringe, I deliberately seek out well argued opinion and analysis that I wouldn't naturally gravitate towards. It broadens my mind, challenges my assumptions and keeps me on my toes.

 

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31 March 2014

Why I Hate IPCC Climate Change Reports

IPCCI hate the IPCC climate change reports and I'm kind of avoiding the latest one published today.

Why?

Well, firstly, getting told climate change impacts will be "severe, pervasive and irreversible" first thing on a Monday morning is no good start to a week of tireless working to avoid those impacts happening. I've only glimpsed the top headlines today and that was enough to make me want to go back to bed.

Secondly, doom is not an easy sell when you are trying to persuade others to act. As Anthony Giddens once pointed out, Martin Luther King did not stir his audience in 1963 by saying "I have a nightmare". A survey of 700 businesses out this month from 2degrees found that the biggest two sustainability challenges are engaging the boardroom followed by employee engagement in general. We need to channel MLK and evoke the dream of a sustainable future instead.

And, lastly, the report will give all those poorly-qualified climate 'contrarians' another hour in the sun, trying to persuade us, in face of that avalanche of evidence, that there's nothing to worry about as it was a bit nippy in Scunthorpe this morning.

Of course, I am only (half) joking. Later today, I will man up and wade through the main points of the report. But then I will go back to focussing on the dream, not the nightmare.

 

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12 February 2014

Nigel Farage has a soggy experience

There was a comedy gold sequence on Channel 4 News last night when Garry Gibbon asked a couple of climate-sceptic politicians, including UKIP leader Nigel Farage, what their views on climate change were as they were knee deep in floodwater (it's towards the end of the sequence above). Wonderful squirming with the normally bullish Farage admitting "I don't know" when he was asked whether he thought climate change was man-made.

But behind the schadenfreude there's a serious point here. It's one thing to sneer at climate science when you're sat at your computer blogging or sinking a pint in the golf club bar, quite a different thing when you are standing slap bang in the middle of its (probable) impacts. We learn much better from first hand experience than being told something second hand.

I often talk about my road to Damascus moment on the road to Monchegorsk in Arctic Russia (below) where I saw and even taste in the air the damage done by acid rain from a nickel smelter. This propelled me from armchair environmentalist to actually doing something about it.

monchegorsk

But experiences don't have to be negative. Nestlé allowed their employees to try out and even borrow electric cars so they could gain positive experiences and reduce the fear of the new. Other bodies such as Sustrans run guided cycle trips to give adults confidence to get back in the saddle.

Primary school children are taught to "show, don't tell" - something that sustainability practitioners - and the environmental movement in general - should take to heart.

 

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6 January 2014

Is it time to stop banging on about climate change?

Climate ChangeThat title may be a surprising one, it even might get some people foaming at the mouth, but bear with me.

'Risk perception' is the science of how we subjectively judge risks. And we are very subjective - a few years ago I went through a moderate phobia of flying but never worried about driving when the latter is much more dangerous. There's a woman who cycles slowly around my neighbourhood wearing a helmet, fluorescent jacket and a lit cigarette firmly clamped between her lips. By any judgement her risk assessment makes no logical sense, but she'd rather take her chances with the fags.

There are all sorts of theories on what we fear and why, but basically we fear something less when it doesn't appear to impact on us directly, it is intangible, and/or its effects are delayed and/or geographically distant. A bit like climate change. Very much like climate change, in fact.

The complexity of climate change science is vast. We can't even answer a simple question like "Are these storms battering the South of England due to climate change?" without giving an lecture on statistics and weather systems. It is no wonder that so many fall for the intellectually vacant logic of Boris Johnson's "if it snows, the world can't be warming."

On the other hand, the resource crunch is right here, right now. Every time you fill up your car with fuel, pay your utility bills or go to the supermarket you get walloped right where it hurts by high commodity and energy prices. You don't have to explain any complicated science.

Now here's the clever bit.

The solutions to the two problems are broadly the same - as they are two sides to the same coin. To tackle the resource crunch, we need to accelerate the uptake of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Solutions to a shortage of other resources such as the circular economy also have a positive impact on carbon emissions. So apart from a few specialised areas, such as refrigerants, we can tackle both the same way. It's just a question of how we sell them.

What I'm basically proposing is large scale Green Jujitsu. Instead of trying to explain a complex, distant and intangible problem to people, why not sell them the same problem packaged in a different way whose solutions can make a real difference to their quality of life here and now? We don't have to 'give up' on the climate crisis, just use its sibling to get action going in the short term.

What do you think? Genius or idiocy?

 

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5 June 2013

How to deal with a climate sceptic

rantWhen I originally came up with the concept of "Green Jujitsu", it was in the context of 'dealing with difficult people' in The Green Executive. Difficult people from a sustainability practitioner's point of view are those who reject the whole idea that man is having a negative impact on the planet.

Now the natural habitat of the climate sceptic is blogs and below the line comments on newspaper websites. And as long as they stay there, repeating their zombie arguments ad infinitum, they're not doing any harm.

But it can be a real nightmare if you get one in your organisation trying to obstruct your sustainability efforts, throwing half-remembered snippets of rubbish they've read about where the Romans grew their grapes into the conversation. As soon as you knock one argument down, they'll bring up another and another until they land on something you can't answer on the spot and then they'll triumphantly say "See?" You can't win.

So how do you deal with sceptics? The Green Jujitsu way is...

  1. Get highly visible buy-in from the leadership - sceptics will have to feel very confident to go up against the CEO;
  2. Design the process to get people involved in the development of the strategy - then lots of people will have a stake in the results and peer pressure will sweep sceptics along;
  3. Ask people why (not whether) they think the business should take sustainability seriously - they end up selling it to themselves;
  4. Ask sceptics directly for help if possible. If they're an accountant, ask for help on carbon accounting etc;
  5. Choose your language to suit your audience. A sceptic may respond better to "risk management", "cost efficient" or "brand enhancement" than to "save the planet";
  6. Don't try to explain climate change science to employees - you're just asking to get bogged down in "How come Mars is warming?" type nonsense;
  7. Don't preach. Ever;
  8. In your employee engagement, ask teams of people to think of ideas to green their area of business. This makes it directly relevant to their day job and resistant to "none of my business";
  9. Create peer-pressure by running competitions between departments or teams;
  10. Make sure everything (language, imagery, tone, process) is aligned to the prevailing culture in the organisation, so the sceptic can't denounce it as tree-hugging.

In my client engagements I have worked with a couple of thousand employees, but because I use Green Jujitsu I have only ever had a couple of sceptics try to cause trouble - and they failed to disrupt the process.

 

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26 October 2012

Who's the leech, Mr Delingpole?

I've pretty much given up paying attention to "contrarian" anti-environmental bloggers - the purveyors of zombie myths that just won't die - but it came to my attention that James Delingpole of the Telegraph has recently labelled my profession "leeches on the productive sector." Given that Mr Delingpole earns a living from winding people like me up, I really shouldn't rise to the bait. But, hey, it's a Friday...

Let's have a look at the sustainability consultancy profession. Like all business consultants, we operate in the marketplace. We have to offer something to our clients which is of value to them above and beyond the price we charge for it. If we fail to do that we go bust - simple free market economics of the kind that Mr Delingpole claims to be a fan. And to insult our profession is to insult our clientele - Delingpole's "productive sector" - as that's where the demand comes from.

Mr Delingpole would presumably disagree with the pressing business case for sustainability - that by going green you can win more business, protect your brand, attract and retain staff more easily, cut costs and avoid current and future risks. But, as with his views on climate change and renewable energy, he is proved wrong by any objective look at the facts - to take one recent example, this 2012 Harvard Business School study which concludes "sustainability-focused companies outperform their peers."

Sustainability consultants help their clients unlock this competitive advantage and charge commensurate fees in return. But, hey, let's not let evidence, scholarship and market forces get in the way of histrionic polemics.

Far be it for me to cast aspersions back, but which profession delivers more for the economy and society? One that helps businesses thrive within the limits of the natural environment, or a job which appears to consist of copying and pasting unscientific nonsense off the web, adding some snark at the top and bottom, and presenting yourself as some kind of expert? Over to you, Mr Delingpole...

 

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17 August 2012

Objectivity is Subjective

One of the most frustrating things about this business is the politicisation of environmental issues, and how difficult this makes getting objective analyses. Whether you want a view on climate change, acid rain or peak oil, objectivity seems in short supply. Distorted graphs, cherrypicked data and straw man arguments are plastered across the web and much of the media.

For example I read a piece on peak oil this week which described the concept as "idiocy" as oil "will never run out" because long before it did, prices would rise and force investment in alternative energy sources. Er, that's peak oil theory you're agreeing with there, pal, if you bothered to find out what it actually is.

Readers of my books will have seen a version of these perceptions of the environment (the red ball) in a slightly different format. The three here are:

  • Individualist: believes the environment is robust and there to be exploited - the red ball will always roll back to the safe centre - typical of free marketeers and those who 'disbelieve' in climate change;
  • Hierarchist: believes the environment can be exploited within safe limits - the red ball is OK unless you push it too far - typical of Governments and scientists;
  • Egalitarian: believes the environment is fragile and should be protected at all costs - the red ball is doomed if you move it even slightly - typical of green pressure groups.

The problem with the extreme mindsets is that people tend to develop them and stick to them tribally, exaggerating data which supports their position and ignoring anything that disagrees with it - a phenomena known as confirmation bias. Conflict happens when the hierarchists start to see society nearing one of the safe limits - then from the viewpoint of the individualists, they start to look like the destested egalitarians and all hell breaks loose.

I find all this tremendously frustrating, as I'm basically a hierarchist and I'd really like to know where exactly we are in relation to, say, peak oil. It takes too long to check out every 'sceptical' argument from individualists or wild claim from egalitarians yourself (and I've been through a hell of a lot of them on climate change), so it comes down to trying to find someone you trust to be objective. So I have these rough rules of thumb:

  • Never trust a think tank or pressure group - you can tell what the Adam Smith Institute and Greenpeace's position will be on renewable energy before you open the report, so why bother?
  • Dismiss any argument derived solely from commentators - if anyone validates an argument using either James Delingpole's or George Monbiot's words (to pick two from opposite ends of the spectrum above) then I stick my fingers in my ears and sing "la, la, la";
  • Peer reviewed science is more reliable than non-peer reviewed science, but peer review in itself doesn't mean it is 'right';
  • Consensus of evidence is more important than consensus of opinion. The important point about climate change science is not so much that 98% of qualified scientists believe climate change is real and manmade, but that they can validate the theory using lots of different methods and evidence;
  • Analyses which acknowledge their own limitations and provide error bars etc are usually more reliable than those which don't;
  • Watch out for University press releases which are increasingly often exaggerating the findings of 'controversial' academic papers to make them more newsworthy (which is a disgrace and undermines the whole idea of scholarship);
  • Any piece which contains personal abuse should be disregarded, especially if evokes the Nazis.

Well that's my (subjective) view anyway.

 

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9 July 2012

Taking The Extremes Out of Sustainability

Last week, political broadcaster Andrew Neil (right) hosted a debate on climate science. He invited libertarian polemicist James Delingpole and Friends of the Earth campaigner Andrew Pendleton to give their views. Presumably the choice of participants was to give the debate 'balance', but Delingpole and Pendleton have one very important thing in common which should disqualify both - neither is a climate scientist. If Neil really wanted light rather than heat, why didn't he simply ask someone who actually knows what they are talking about?

If I want to understand a bit more about, say, the Higgs Boson, like everyone else I listen to Prof Brian Cox, because he does know his stuff and is great at explaining it in context: "It's 99.999% sure [we've found the Higgs Boson], which actually, in particle physics, is only just sure enough." Brilliant.

The two worst nightmares I come across in the culture change programmes I run are:

  • Someone who has loaded themselves up on nonsense spouted by Delingpole, Christopher Booker or the rest of the denialosphere and sits there regurgitating it to show off in front of others;
  • Someone who has loaded themselves up on self-righteous drivel about how we all just don't get it and need to and live in yurts. One woman at an event I attended asked "How can we just sit here and talk about climate when people are dying in Syria?" I had to restrain myself from shouting "Well if that's what you think, why are you just sitting here yourself?"

Fortunately both are quite rare, but to avoid getting bogged down in lengthy, pointless debates, I try to avoid talking about "problems" and focus instead on solutions. You can't debate climate science properly in a short session, just as you can't debate the Higgs Boson - you can only talk in broad terms. Climate solutions, however, focus the mind much more productively. If you do get one of my stereotypes holding forth, you can set the solutions exercise going and invite the show off to discuss their pet subject with you in the sidelines. But never let yourself or your sessions get hijacked by such people - life is way too short.

Photo © FT Creative Commons Licence

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23 May 2012

Why rational argument will only take you so far...

Every so often (more often than I'd like to admit) I check the Amazon pages for my two books for new reviews, sales figures etc. Earlier this week I was shocked to see The Three Secrets of Green Business had got a one star review when all the others have been 4 or 5. But my surprise turned into a resigned sinking feeling when I saw the review consisted of the usual old climate denial nonsense:

"So we all now agree that CO2 emissions must be reduced to save the planet? Not really, most of the world disagrees with the theory [...wrong...] The earth has been cooling for the last decade for example, contrary to the IPCC conclusions [...wrong...] Much of the book is thus based on false assumptions, and the rest is simply managerial mumbo-jumbo. Don't buy this work, and save your hard earned cash for a better book."

Even worse, it is out of date denial nonsense - the denialosphere has quietly dropped the "global cooling" meme as long term temperature trends continued to rise and now talks about "slow warming" instead. Looking at other reviews by the Truth Hound (as he dubs himself), he appears to be on a mission to give 'green' books one star reviews with lengthy but scientifically illiterate rants about climate change science. Intrigued, I googled his name and he's certainly not stupid. He's got a PhD in engineering and lectures for the Open University, so you would think that, in his dogged search for truth, he would respect academic evidence over tired myths he's found on the internet or reactionary newspaper columns. But no.

Immediately I thought of the cartoon above I recently saw online - we all have issues where our beliefs are based on voodoo rather than rationale analysis of the evidence. This goes for the green movement as well, factions of which are just as guilty of denying the scientific evidence on, say, GM or nuclear safety as the libertarian right is in denying the evidence on climate change or passive smoking.

This is why I use the elephant-rider-path model of culture change for sustainability. We like to think we are rational (the rider), but it is our emotional subconscious (the elephant) which tends to make the final decision. Getting the elephant on board is the key to successful culture change and that takes a lot more guile.

Image © someecards.com reproduced under "fair use"

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