05 Dec 2014, 15:25
Nigel Farage said something ridiculous this week, or rather he said something else ridiculous this week.
Prior to suggesting "it isn't too difficult to breastfeed a baby in a way that's not openly ostentatious" the UKIP leader reportedly offered one of his periodic takes on the latest climate science. As you would expect, it was about as well informed as his views on modern parenting, even if the less high profile comments on global warming failed to spark questions as to the precise nature of the experiences that qualify him to judge the correlation between breast-feeding difficulty and ostentation.
Answering questions from young people at a Leaders Live event in London, Farage reportedly responded to a question about whether he believed in climate change with an answer that suggested he had wrestled with one of the most widely reported and closely analysed phenomena of our age and concluded he had no idea what he thought. "Do I believe in global warming? I have no idea," Farage said, an answer which at least had the benefit of honesty even if it runs counter to the old Neil deGrasse Tyson truism that "the good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it".
Farage then went on to offer some utterly bizarre non-sequiturs that suggested he cannot even be bothered to try and properly master the climate sceptic arguments he would obviously like to adhere to. "The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was set up to prove global warming, so it is doing its job," he said. "Since the 1970s temperatures are warmer now than they were. But I remember that in the early 70s the consensus then was we would be going in for a period of global cooling. Be careful of the scientific consensus." What, no spin about a global warming 'pause'? No nuanced argument about how it may be more cost effective to prioritise climate adaptation? Just a garbled recollection that some scientists once thought temperatures may cool, as if all the best scientific inquiry simply ceases once scientists have identified a trend that fits with your ideology.
In fairness, this is not even close to the most ridiculous thing Farage has said about climate change. For that we have to go back to his performance on one of those relatively rare occasions he turned up in the European Parliament, during which he lambasted Commission President José Manuel Barroso for his pushing through green policies at a time when some US scientists were predicting we are "going into a period of between 15 and 30 years of global cooling". To support this claim Farage offered two photos of the Arctic ice cap showing that the more recent year showed more ice than the previous year, as if this was the smoking gun disproving decades of scientific evidence. In fact, for Farage these two data points were so compelling that when Barroso responded by highlighting how the vast majority of scientists are concerned about manmade global warming the UKIP leader thought he would win this particular debate by grinning and ostentatiously holding up his two satellite images in a manner that would make anyone who values the scientific process deeply uncomfortable.
As always with Farage it is tempting to ignore this scientific illiteracy and gloss over the anti-clean tech, Climate Change Act repealing policies it informs, just as it is tempting to ignore the racism and sexism the UKIP leader occasionally spouts (and if you cannot see that sneering "you know what the difference is" about different nationalities is racist or accept that suggesting women attempting to feed their babies should sit in a corner is sexist I can't help you).
But the three main political parties, the business community, and the vast majority of people who would never countenance voting for UKIP have tried ignoring the party's more ridiculous and offensive policies and statements for several years and it hasn't really worked. As a growing number of political commentators have begun to observe, the answer for the mainstream parties lies not in trying to emulate the insurgent UKIP, but in taking it on and arguing long and loud about the many flaws in its policies and the misinformation and divisiveness it peddles. Climate policy is just one of the many, many areas where UKIP's recklessness deserves to be interrogated.
Earlier this week, both the CBI's John Cridland and Green Alliance's Matthew Spencer told an audience of green executives at the Environmental Industries Commission Annual Conference that while most voters do not consider environmental issues directly when putting a cross in a box they tend to regard it as a basic competence issue when assessing political leaders. Climate change may not be a top priority for voters, but numerous polls have shown majorities of the public are concerned about climate risks, place huge value in their environment, and are broadly in favour of clean technologies. Serious political leaders know this and know that a credible position on environmental issues is essential if they want to be taken seriously by both the public and the business community. Farage's position on climate change and complete lack of a position on other environmental issues is one of many policies that demonstrate he is not a serious political leader.
As the mainstream political leaders continue to thrash around for a strategy for tackling UKIP, they should consider the weaknesses inherent in an apparently libertarian party that wants to block renewable energy projects regardless of what local communities may want, as well as the ridiculousness of a leader who reckons two photos of the Arctic can somehow be taken as evidence climate change isn't worth worrying about. They should also declare publicly that if you want to be taken seriously as a politician you need to have a serious response to serious challenges - simply shrugging your shoulders and saying you have "no idea" what you think is not good enough.
01 Dec 2014, 14:22
It is possible to overstate the significance of E.ON's surprise announcement that it is to split itself in two in a bid to refocus the business on renewables, smart grids, and energy efficiency. After all, the company is not about to shutter its coal and gas plants, while the management is at pains to point out that the new 20,000-strong spun out fossil fuel, nuclear and hydro business will still have a crucial role to play in the transition to a low carbon economy. In addition, there are no guarantees that this drastic shake-up of one of Europe's largest utilities will work. And it is the renewables company that will be laden with E.ON's existing debts, granting the new fossil fuel-focused firm with the freedom to invest once again in expansion. It is also worth noting that the energy market remains staggeringly volatile and complex and E.ON is attempting to make its "bold new beginning" from a position of not inconsiderable financial stress.
But those caveats aside, the decision by one of the Big Six to align itself so explicitly with the transition to a low carbon economy still feels like a watershed moment. In one stroke of a pen, E.ON will soon recreate itself as a 40,000-strong green corporate powerhouse focused exclusively on renewables generation, distribution networks, with a particular focus on smart grids, and services for its 33 million customers, which translates as smart meters, energy efficiency upgrades, and microgeneration installation and maintenance.
The reasoning behind this dramatic bet on the primacy of renewables in E.ON's core markets reads like it was written by Greenpeace, rather than the board of one of Europe's largest utilities. "We are convinced that it's necessary to respond to dramatically altered global energy markets, technical innovation, and more diverse customer expectations with a bold new beginning," said chief executive Johannes Teyssen. "E.ON's existing broad business model can no longer properly address these new challenges. Therefore, we want to set up our business significantly different. E.ON will tap the growth potential created by the transformation of the energy world."
E.ON will "place a particular emphasis" on wind energy and "strengthen" its solar business, while making energy distribution networks smarter "so that customers can take advantage of new products and services in areas like energy efficiency and distributed generation", continued the company.
This new vision has numerous implications, almost all of which are encouraging for the green economy. Firstly, it throws some more investment muscle behind Europe's low carbon transition with the company confirming it will increase capex for next year by €500m on top of the €4.3bn already planned for 2015. This, in turn, tilts the Brussels, Berlin and Westminster lobbying battlefields a few degrees in favour of clean energy and away from fossil fuels. One of the many fascinating questions raised by E.ON's new strategy is how long will it remain a member of those industry lobby groups that pay lip service to the idea of decarbonisation while quietly arguing against green policies?
E.ON's bold decision also creates overnight a case study that everyone in the European utility sector will be watching with hawk-like vigilance. In recent years, I've lost count of the number of times executives at Big Six energy companies have explained their desire to see their companies become energy services firms. Now one of them looks set to back up this rhetoric with real action. We are about to find out if a giant energy company can profitably reinvent itself as a green energy services powerhouse.
One of the reasons E.ON is confident it can make this transition is that it will start to give customers what growing numbers say they want. The new renewables-focused E.ON will continue to sell its customers a mix of fossil fuel and renewable energy, but it would stand to reason that this mix will now start to decarbonise at a faster rate. Meanwhile, this greener energy will be offered alongside smart meters, onsite generation technologies, and other services, all of which are designed to give people easier access to the clean energy that a majority of people in the UK and Germany consistently say they want. This transition is also likely to be mirrored in the business market, where E.ON and the rest of the Big Six have spent several years watching large blue chip clients get increasingly frustrated at the inability of mainstream suppliers to give them the green power they want.
Most importantly, however, the new strategy is a massive vote of confidence in the EU's energy and climate change strategy and the general direction of travel for energy policy across the bloc. In splitting the company, E.ON is to an extent hedging its bets and backing both the renewables and the fossil fuel horses. But the balance of the workforces at the revamped E.ON and the new spun off business indicates where the board sees the long term future lying.
For years, many within the energy industry have continued to invest huge sums in fossil fuel infrastructure on the assumption that Europe's politicians were bluffing when they said the bloc would have to rapidly decarbonise. When that bet started to look shaky they spent millions more on lobbying to try and ensure politicians did indeed end up bluffing. E.ON's planned transformation is what happens when a large company recognises that policymakers aren't bluffing, clean technology improvements aren't slowing, and the transition to a low carbon economy is really happening.
It is possible to overstate the significance of E.ON's transformation, but it could yet prove to be an important turning point in Europe's transition to a genuinely low carbon economy.
28 Nov 2014, 16:49
Serious question: Can anyone think of an environmental regulation that has crippled an economy? I don't mean shaved a few per cent off a polluting company's share price or forced the lucrative fly-tipping trade out of business. I mean properly knocked a handful of points off GDP and fatally eroded the competitiveness of a former economic power.
There are no doubt examples of poor environmental regulations. Laws that applied the precautionary principle with a bit too much, y'know, precaution. Legislation that blocks activities that would provide an economic boost without causing too much damage to the environment (supporters of GM and fracking would no doubt argue the current regulatory frameworks for these technologies fall firmly into this category). But are there any environmental regulations that unequivocally damaged the economy to such an extent that the rules were eventually axed?
I know, I know. You can't prove a negative. You can no more conclude that introducing an environmental regulation dealt a three per cent blow to a country's GDP than you can 100 per cent conclusively prove what would have happened if we had managed to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the 1980s instead of waiting until the 2030s (hopefully). But still, is there a single piece of environmental regulation where you can construct a credible argument to show the economy is a lot worse off because of its existence? Because, I can't think of one.
The reason I ask is because this week the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the latest move in President Obama's green policy push, unveiling plans to tighten smog standards under the Clean Air Act. The result was a wearingly familiar skirmish between the EPA and green groups on one side and the Republicans and industrial groups on the other. The greens welcomed the regulations as a welcome step that still did not go far enough in tackling a serious environmental problem, and the industrial groups warned it would push up costs and harm the economy.
So far, so predictable. Except this time the industry warnings comprised of a particularly acute form of panicked hyperbole. "This new ozone regulation threatens to be the most expensive ever imposed on industry in America and could jeopardize recent progress in manufacturing by placing massive new costs on manufacturers," thundered Jay Timmons, chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers. A tightening of smog rules would potentially represent "the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public", warned Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute (API).
I'm sorry, but what? In the nation of prohibition and Jim Crow regulations, tightening ground level ozone standards from the current level of 75 parts per billion (ppb) to within a range of 65 to 70 ppb could be the "most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public"? The recent recovery in US manufacturing driven by Silicon Valley innovation and relatively low cost natural gas and renewables is apparently so fragile that businesses can't cope with the cost of deploying proven technologies for tackling smog and keeping their workers and communities healthy? The EPA's extensive modelling showing that improving air quality will deliver net economic benefits counts for nothing, because some bought and paid for lobbyists say so? I'm not sure how US industry groups can expect anyone to buy such exaggerated claims. And then you look at the utter credulity of the modern Republican Party on environmental issues and understand fully who is buying this fatuous analysis.
Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic a similar battle is playing itself out. BusinessEurope has this week continued its tribute act to a pin-striped 1990s industry lobbyist, attacking everything from maternity rights to circular economy proposals and air quality standards, with warnings that the Commission's attempts to enhance resource security and deliver clean air will cause significant harm to the economy. In the UK, the steady drumbeat of criticism aimed at the Climate Change Act from UKIP and the Tory backbenches similarly implies the UK's position as an economic powerhouse would be assured if we just ditched our long term carbon targets.
The problem with each and everyone of these campaigns is not in their opposition to environmental regulation per se. The counter argument to green legislation put forward by responsible industry groups is extremely valuable. Some environmental regulations don't work perfectly and impose more economic cost than is necessary. When it comes to introducing and reforming policy measures, the Hegelian dialectic (there's one for all the philosophy graduates) created by those for and against a new regulation is critical. It is in constantly justifying themselves that green regulations become ever more effective.
No, the problem with these various anti-regulation campaigns is that they are so exaggerated, so lacking in nuance, that they quickly lose credibility, ensuring that what should be a productive debate descends into a slanging match. (Yes, I am aware some of the more alarmist green groups are guilty of this hyperbole too).
Is there any independent observer who really thinks a tightening of US smog regulations that, remember, will be phased in between 2020 and 2037, represents the most expensive regulation in history? Is there anyone outside the climate sceptic cabal who looks at the performance of the UK economy over the last five years and thinks, 'forget global economic crisis, an economy overly reliant on finance, and woeful productivity, the real cause of our problems is that our power costs fractionally more than some of our European neighbours'? Is there anyone who looks at the recent economic recovery and re-shoring of some manufacturing operations and thinks our GDP growth would be three per cent higher again if we didn't have legislators demanding we deal with the toxic air pollution in our cities? It takes a pretty special leap of ideologically-moulded imagination to suggest the UK economy would be basking in sunlit uplands if we simply gave up on decarbonisation, but that is essentially what some pretty respected commentators appear happy to suggest.
In a speech last year, Obama offered the perfect assessment of how tired these depressingly predictable arguments are becoming, skewering each and every complaint that would be levelled at his climate change regulations. "What you'll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end American free enterprise as we know it," he predicted, with unerring accuracy. "And the reason I know you'll hear those things is because that's what they said every time America sets clear rules and better standards for our air and our water and our children's health. And every time, they've been wrong."
It is worth quoting Obama's riposte at length:
"For example, in 1970, when we decided through the Clean Air Act to do something about the smog that was choking our cities... some of the same doomsayers were saying new pollution standards will decimate the auto industry. Guess what - it didn't happen. Our air got cleaner. In 1990, when we decided to do something about acid rain, they said our electricity bills would go up, the lights would go off, businesses around the country would suffer - I quote - "a quiet death". None of it happened, except we cut acid rain dramatically.
"See, the problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can't or they won't do it. They'll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that's not true. Look at our history.
"When we restricted cancer-causing chemicals in plastics and leaded fuel in our cars, it didn't end the plastics industry or the oil industry. American chemists came up with better substitutes. When we phased out CFCs - the gases that were depleting the ozone layer - it didn't kill off refrigerators or air-conditioners or deodorant. American workers and businesses figured out how to do it better without harming the environment as much."
The recent Grantham Institute report detailing how "green tape" has consistently boosted economic growth by triggering innovation and technology deployment offers a more in-depth analysis of the phenomenon Obama so effectively elucidated.
There are legitimate reasons for challenging environmental regulations and lobbying to ensure they are as effective as possible. But apocalyptic warnings suggesting cleaning up our air and water or stabilising our climate will bring economic collapse and eye-watering costs aren't just inaccurate scaremongering, they are staggeringly defeatist as well.
If a government ever tried to ban fossil fuels overnight or block all cars from entering a smog-choked city then, yes, the short term damage on the economy would be immense. But that is not how environmental regulations work. They tend to be measured, phased in over time, based on the best available science, and designed to keep short term costs to a minimum while maximising long term benefits. That is not to say policymakers always get it right, but crying wolf all the time about excessive economic impacts that never materialise helps no one, least of all those polluting businesses who have to adapt to changing environmental realities.
So, I ask again: Can anyone think of an environmental regulation that has crippled an economy? Because I can't.
25 Nov 2014, 14:27
The green Twittersphere is abuzz today with DECC's first tweetathon to promote climate action and encourage an already surprisingly engaged public to recognise the climate risks they face and take steps to tackle them.
Leaving aside the legitimate questions about why it has taken until the fag end of the parliament for the government to attempt any sort of co-ordinated climate change engagement initiative, this is a welcome, and judging by the way #backclimateaction is trending, popular initiative. However, it sparks one obvious (and intended question), what climate action are we being asked to back?
The tweetathon is being managed by environmental engagement charity Hubbub (full disclosure: I am a trustee of Hubbub) and, as founder Trewin Restorick explained on BusinessGreen today, the aim is to spark a debate, not set out a prescriptive set of actions. "We are encouraging organisations to share what they are doing, specifically highlighting how this will impact upon daily lives," he writes.
So far it appears to be working, with Mayor Boris Johnson tweeting about how London's CO2 emissions are down 12 per cent since May 2008 while the "green economy alone [is] worth over £25bn", Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey praising how "renewables now provide 15% of Britain's electricity and 35% of our electricity is low carbon", and a host of green businesses touting their environmental achievements.
But, if the goal is public engagement, what are the climate actions that everyone from Emily Thornberry to Dan the White Van Man should consider? I'd argue that despite the tendency amongst some environmentalists to downplay the contribution any one individual can make to tackling climate change there are four simple steps people could actively consider as part of #backclimateaction. Here they are, starting with the easiest to achieve and ending with those actions that should be simple, but can prove harder than you think to deliver:
One of the biggest steps you can take to encourage climate action in the UK is to simply exercise your democratic right. An election is not a referendum on a single issue, but equally if you are one of the three quarters of Brits who want to see more co-ordinated climate action then it makes sense to vote for a party that offers exactly that. The Greens, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives will all argue at the next election they are serious about climate action (and UKIP gleefully won't) and it will be up to green-minded voters to decide which argument they find the most credible. If you want to back climate action, you need to back the politicians who are committed to delivering it.
Voting as a form of climate action is also the first step towards a more general political engagement on climate change. As any environmental campaigner will tell you, it is possible to drive climate action step-by-step by making a nuisance of yourself, asking MPs, councils, and businesses what they are doing to tackle climate change and why more is not being done. It requires a willingness to invest time and energy, but it can and does work.
2. Embrace green "gestures"
A lot of criticism is aimed at the small steps we can each take to help tackle climate change, but while some measures can be dismissed as gestures most help to both curb emissions and create markets for cleaner technologies. So, turn the lights off, don't leave the TV on stand-by if you can avoid it, use public transport when possible, walk, cycle, recycle. All the steps we can individually take to curb emissions make a difference and serve to normalise environmentally responsible behaviours that were anathema to many of us just a few short years ago.
And then there are the bigger gestures that help cut emissions and leave you with more money in your pocket at the end of the month. Improving the energy efficiency of your house may be a sizeable undertaking, but it adds value to your property, cuts bills, and can now be achieved at no upfront cost. Similarly, if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford it and it is right for you, solar panels, electric cars, and heat pumps are all now mature technologies that deliver proven benefits. Climate action on this level is now possible, effective, and often more affordable than people think.
As a typically financially lazy/illiterate Brit, this is the climate action I procrastinate around the most, but it is also one of the easiest means of delivering emissions cuts. The emergence of credible green crowd-funding offers and ethical bank accounts makes it possible for people who care about climate action to ensure their money is compatible with their values. It would be a whole lot easier if George Osborne delivered on the Green ISAs he promised, but it is possible to invest as little £5 relatively safely in renewable energy projects. If you want climate action, it really is worth putting at least some of your money where your mouth is.
4. Don't leave your green ambitions at the office door
As I've argued before, I'm all for greater public engagement on climate change and the need for climate action, but to deliver real decarbonisation it needs to be married with structural change at an economic and business level. However, every member of the public is also a participant in the economy and most work for the private and public sector organisations that can deliver the structural change that is urgently needed. Talk to the businesses that are pioneering green investments and technologies and all too often the initial spark for a world-leading sustainability initiative is provided by one or two people within the company requesting action. If you want to deliver climate action ask what your employer is doing and propose some of the simple yet effective steps it could take. You would be amazed how many green business transformations start this way.
These are the four climate actions I would recommend everyone to consider. I'll reluctantly admit I struggle to live up to all of them all of the time, but they represent tangible and achievable actions that aren't too daunting, yet can still make a genuinely positive contribution to the fight against climate change. You'll have your own ideas, and if you want to share them #backclimateaction is the place - there's only a few hours left.
19 Nov 2014, 00:05
It is a challenge that has thwarted provincial DJs for generations: how do you get a quiet crowd to make some noise. I've been thinking about this problem a lot recently. In part because the run up to next year's Paris Summit will see businesses and NGOs focus intently building public support for climate action, in part because as clean technologies move from blueprint to production line green businesses will have to get much better at engaging with the public to promote their wares, and in part because I was recently asked to become a trustee of the new environmental charity Hubbub, which, as the name suggests, is focused on turning up the volume of green engagement initiatives.
My interest in Hubbub relates to the lengthy essay I published back in 2012 defending the so-called "New Environmentalism" and the emergence of a certain strand of pragmatic, pro-business, realistic, and yet optimistic green thinking. Since then, the recognition that the transition to a low carbon economy is both essential and desirable has become ever more widespread, as evidenced by everything from the latest US-China Climate Pact to the rapid expansion of the green bond market. But the environmental movement has struggled to match this progress in the realm of communications, repeatedly struggling to articulate a vision that can harness wider public and business support for economic decarbonisation and green behaviour change. The question New Environmentalism now has to address if it is to build on its recent success is how to present a more compelling vision - one capable of appealing to the extensive constituency that is already quietly supportive of what the global green economy is attempting to achieve. The answer, I suspect, lies in the language of "freedom" and "justice" that has successively driven so many of the cultural, political, technological and economic transitions of the past.
It is these questions that Hubbub is wrestling with. The charity was founded this summer by Trewin Restorick, who previously founded Global Action Plan and over 15 years established it as one of the UK's leading environmental NGOs and green behaviour change specialists. By his own admission, Restorick, while remaining rightly proud of Global Action Plan's many achievements, became a little tired of the staid and incremental nature of many behaviour change initiatives, not to mention the tendency of some businesses to use modest gains on recycling or energy efficiency as a sticking plaster that singularly failed to conceal the unsustainable nature of their core business models.
Consequently, Hubbub was launched this summer with the goal of bringing a more visible, vocal, and radical approach to environmental engagement initiatives. The goal is as simple as it is daunting: to help make green and sustainable lifestyles and technologies attractive, cost effective, and, above all, fun. The charity gave a hint at its approach last month with the launch of a Pumpkin Festival in Oxford to highlight the tonnes of food waste created by Halloween and encourage people to make good use of their lantern once they are done with it. It may sound like the kind of initiative that results in incremental environmental savings, but the plan is to fit the festival into a wider effort to tackle food waste. The campaign will then form part of a network of 'hubs' that will seek to promote sustainability in spheres of activity where people are already highly engaged, such as sport, fashion, and neighbourhoods.
In addition to highlighting how attractive green behaviours are, these hubs and their related campaigns will seek to build on the wisdom of Jonathan Rowson's fascinating recent work for the RSA on A New Agenda on Climate Change, which highlights how simply encouraging people to take action on climate change is largely worthless and potentially counterproductive if you do not offer them a tangible course of action. Hubbub wants to show how tackling food waste saves you money, how moving away from resource-intensive fast fashion needn't be dreary, how environmentalism is not the worthy preserve of eco-nerds and can help make your park more attractive, your local pub cosier, and your neighbourhood school more successful. By giving people tangible and attractive steps they can take it helps tackle the "stealth denial" Rowson identifies and serves to embolden the two thirds of people who typically accept manmade climate change is a serious issue but do little about it.
On the surface this looks like an effective approach that should help cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide a further boost to environmentalism's slow and steady march into the mainstream. And yet, behaviour change initiatives such as those planned by Hubbub are not without their critics. Too middle class and elitist, complain climate sceptics, many of whom are middle class and a fair few of whom are ennobled. Too condescending and inaccessible for poorer communities, grumble critics whose own record on campaigning for social mobility often appears as thin as their climate science credentials. Too ineffectual and incremental, argue some fellow environmentalists, maintaining that behaviour change initiatives will never deliver the drastic structural change that is required to decarbonise the global economy.
Behaviour change v structural change
It is this last point that gives me pause for thought; mainly because I am sympathetic to the argument that behaviour change initiatives make a modest contribution to the low carbon economy at best and constitute little more than greenwash at worst. (On the other two points of criticism, environmentalism is all too often a middle class pursuit and there are some components of climate policy that appear regressive in the short term, but the idea environmentalists are gleefully ignoring these facts is an appalling slur. Hubbub and many other green NGOs and businesses are actively engaged in broadening their appeal and there are numerous examples of environmental projects that seek to involve poorer communities. Similarly, in my experience there is a willingness within the green movement to wrestle with policies that are regressive in the short term, even if their long term goal is to protect some of the world's poorest societies from economically crippling climate impacts. Finally, what exactly is wrong with leaning heavily on the middle class? From the industrial revolution onwards the middle class has played a crucial role in almost every successful technological, economic, and social transformation we have undergone, environmentalism is unlikely to be an exception).
The criticism of behaviour change initiatives efficacy cannot be easily dismissed. There are two big and inter-related fault lines within the environmental movement currently, which are likely to be the subject of intense debate in the run up to next year's Paris Summit. One is between structural change and behaviour change, while the other is between the top down, international treaty, supra-national government approach to decarbonisation and the bottom up, business-led, city-level, regional administration approach to cutting emissions. (Actually there are three big fault lines, in that the divide between New and Old Environmentalism remains, but given my position as an avowed New Environmentalist I'm not about to revisit that particular argument).
If I had to pick a side in these debates (although the point I am working towards is you don't have to pick a side) I would lean towards structural change and bottom up decarbonisation at almost every turn. Brendan May, founder of green consultancy Robertsbridge and former chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, offered a convincing demolition of behaviour change initiatives earlier this summer, arguing the sheer scale of the environmental challenges we face means the embrace of greener behaviours by a globally insignificant slither of the population will not make one iota of difference. The only hope of avoiding a climate crisis, May argues, is through drastic technological and infrastructure change led by the world's corporate and economic superpowers. "The risks of climate change, resource scarcity, pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and social inequality require politicians and business to wake up," he writes. "That's where campaigners should focus their efforts, not in wasting time and resource trying to mobilise a global public that may well follow, but will never lead the charge. To those who say that it is easier for business or government to move if there is a public movement in place to create the political will or commercial incentive, I say good luck, but we can't afford to wait that long."
In May's reading, green behaviour change efforts are, if anything, a distraction from the more serious business of mobilising capital and transforming business models. Similarly, Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance has convincingly argued for some time that the long-running UN climate change negotiations risk detracting from the "bottom up" decarbonisation efforts that will ultimately determine whether or not a low carbon economy is built. In an excellent essay on The Rocky Road to Paris he argued the focus for the United Nations talks had to shift towards the practical, on the ground efforts that will enable deep emissions reductions. "After Copenhagen, it became fashionable to argue for a combined 'top-down and bottom-up' approach to the climate challenge," he wrote. "My concern in 2011 was that 'the more time, energy and credibility is wasted pushing for a binding, top-down deal on emissions, the less we have to devote to the sort of initiatives we know work'... I remain an unashamed and almost unalloyed bottom-upper."
I instinctively support both these arguments. If you asked me which is more likely to prove successful at cutting emissions over the coming decades, convincing people not to travel or inventing a genuinely low carbon aviation fuel or hyper fast train, I'd pick the technological and structural option every time. Ask me to choose between an international agreement that in and of itself does nothing to slash emissions and a living and working low carbon city, I'd take the bottom up technological leap forward knowing if it can be shown to work other cities would emulate its success.
So, why get involved with a charity focused on behaviour change? Because the attempt to paint these debates as an either/or decision is the most blatant of false choices. Climate change and its associated challenges are so big we need both structural change and behaviour change, as well as top down and bottom up decarbonisation efforts. In fact, each side of these two divides is mutually reinforcing of the other. Green behaviour change enables green structural change, and vice versa. Regional level low carbon infrastructure makes international climate policy progress more likely, and vice versa. Last week's US-China climate pact was enabled by both countries' recent progress in accelerating clean tech deployment, which provided political leaders with evidence the new emissions targets they have agreed are achievable. But the agreement in turn provides a significant boost to green investor confidence, enabling further bottom-up action to curb emissions.
Building a green constituency
The reality is no economic, cultural or political transformation has ever been achieved without a solid constituency demanding and enabling that transformation.
The good news is all around the world there is a sizeable and growing group of people that wants to see action on climate change. Polling shows climate scepticism is an almost uniquely Anglo Saxon phenomenon, and even in those countries where the environment has become a deeply politicised issue clear majorities support climate action and clean energy. More broadly, there is almost a universal human desire to live in clean and biodiverse environments that nourish body and soul alike. I am yet to meet the person who likes litter or the individual who is happy about air pollution.
The bad news is this huge constituency is remarkably diffuse and staggeringly weak. Recent US polling confirms while concern about climate change is a majority position, people do not see it as a priority when they come to vote - hence the Kafka-esque sight of a climate sceptic as chair of the Senate Environment Committee. Similar results are evident in other countries, as people asked to prioritise between short and long term concerns err towards the old truism that in the long term we're all dead. People love the environment, they care about it deeply, but they rarely translate that care into action.
Which brings us back to my original question, how do you get a silent majority to make some noise?
A green constituency that translated its quiet concern about climate change into tangible climate action, into clean technologies bought, and political demands made, would enable a drastic acceleration in decarbonisation and low carbon development. It would provide politicians with the cover they need to enact ambitious green policies - it is notable how legislation we take for granted like the smoking ban or driving with a seatbelt only came about once politicians were sure there was an overwhelming constituency either actively in their favour or indifferent either way - and it would provide businesses with the mass market they need for new clean technologies.
Most importantly, it would provide a conducive audience for the massive structural change that is required to decarbonise the global economy, change that in some areas will be so drastic that it simply cannot be achieved without an engaged public that understands the context for the infrastructure transformations we are being asked to make. Structural change is essential to tackling climate change, but you can't decarbonise on the quiet.
How can environmentalists create, or more precisely, enable such a constituency? I am not talking simply about public support for banning unsustainable and environmentally damaging economic activities (although a legally-backed end to the most egregious environmentally unjustifiable practices - food waste to landfill, toxic levels of air pollution, unabated coal power - would be great). Nor am I suggesting environmentalists try to engineer public support for banning anything and everything without a green label, regardless of how some will attempt to interpret these arguments. The question is not simply how do you secure narrow public support for renewables, or electric cars (we already have that), but how do build a constituency that translates its pent up interest in the environment into a comprehension of the need for a green economic transition?
I suspect Hubbub is right in its belief that environmentalism needs to be made more fun. The benefits of cleaner technologies and communities need to be made more explicit and there has to be a willingness to engage people with environmental issues through avenues that already interest them. The recent pumpkin festival is a perfect, if relatively narrow example. If you can engage people who are interested in food and family activities and show them how you can easily bolt saving food onto behaviour they already enjoy, not only are they more likely to take steps to reduce food waste, crucially, they may be more willing to push their council to provide food waste recycling. It is at this point that incremental environmental gains delivered through behaviour change suddenly morphs into policy and structural changes that deliver much greater gains. The snowball starts to roll.
A green Chicago School?
However, to achieve this momentum the communication of environmental messages needs to be made much more concise and compelling. This summer I shared a platform at an event hosted by the Green Economy Coalition on climate change communication with the always inspiring US writer and activist Hunter Lovins. She was brutally dismissive of the environmental movement's inability to communicate an attractive vision to the public, contrasting it with the conscious decision the Chicago School took to appropriate the language of freedom and liberty to build support for a neoliberal economic system that provided millions of people with neither.
Lovins point, one which I agreed with, is that all great movements seeking social and economic change have a unifying narrative, an origin story if you will, an explanation of where they came from and where they are going. We understand (or at least comic book fans understand) how Bruce Wayne became Batman and we have a sense of the mission that defines him. More pertinently, we know what the anti-slavery movement wanted, we know what civil rights campaigners want, we know what feminists want (no matter how much misogynists attempt to argue that feminism's central demand for equal treatment is somehow unclear), we also know what neoliberalism wants and we know the arguments its supporters deploy to get it.
Can we say the same of environmentalism? Do we even know what we want? Sure, we can come up with a long list of goals: an effective response to climate change, an end to ocean acidification, a more efficient economy, a reduction in air pollution, restoration of the natural world, some form of social justice. But what unifies that lot (and a lot more besides)? Where is the narrative that stitches the key goals of the modern environmental movement together, that commands public recognition and provides a basis for public, business, and political support?
Looking at those successful transformations of the past it is worth noting how their core narratives can be distilled down to one or two words. The industrial revolution marched under a banner of progress and no little sense of duty and patriotism. The anti-slavery movement had its simple, one word, unanswerable arguments: liberty and justice. The civil rights movement and feminism have similarly defined themselves through simple calls for justice and equality. Neoliberalism annexed liberty and grafted it on to competition, alongside a whispered ‘I can't believe the proles are buying this'.
But what is the banner environmentalism marches under? What is its story? It is hard to fit ‘We demand an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 for industrialised nations and a 50 per cent cut for emerging economies by the same date' on a banner. "What do we want?" "A decarbonised and circular economy where green growth is measured using a new metric that replaces the dysfunctional GDP measurements that distort our current economic models." "When do we want it?" "By 2030."
Not greener, but better
Speaking on the panel alongside Lovins, I repeated my oft-voiced and rather clunky line about how the narrative the green economy should be pursuing is "not greener, but better". Green business communication efforts should be focused exclusively on the way in which clean technologies, business models and lifestyles represent progress and technological improvement. We should revive the underlying narrative of the first industrial revolution and demonstrate how green businesses can replace inefficient and flawed technologies with alternatives that are quite simply better than the incumbents across almost every metric. In the 21st century, fossil fuel firms will end up like the bankrupted cart makers and whale oil trades of the 19th and early 20th century. It is a solid argument that becomes ever more compelling as clean technologies mature. Who doesn't want to live in a warm and efficient house rather than a cold, costly and draughty one? Who doesn't want cars that end the blight of air pollution?
This narrative is playing a big part in Hubbub's plans and you now see it every day in the advertising and promotion of emerging clean technologies. The Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S are not advertised as being explicitly green, they are promoted as cool, attractive cars with ultra-low running costs. Similarly, the new digital heating controls that are suddenly being advertised anywhere and everywhere by the likes of British Gas, Npower, and Nest are being positioned as cool gadgets, not green gadgets.
And yet, "not greener, but better" is still too complicated. It is not unanswerable. It invites a debate over whether what you are proposing really is greener and better - a debate that is hard to win when you are battling vested interests, misinformation, and the most powerful incumbents in corporate history. No one is going to fight for a slogan that sounds like the strapline for the latest eco-gadget. You can't build a powerful and engaged green constituency around "not greener, but better", you need something more.
Some environmentalists have retreated to the movement's more spiritual fringes and argued it is "love" that can provide this something more. But as I've argued before, "love" is far too vague and poorly defined term to build tangible climate action around. If we make tackling climate change conditional on a global spiritual awakening then we're screwed.
However, there is a recurring theme in the narratives that have nourished successful economic and social transformations. Maybe, once again, it is the concepts of freedom and justice that hold the key. Freedom from polluted air, freedom from toxic water, freedom from climate risks, freedom from volatile fossil fuel prices, freedom from cities without enough green space, freedom from corporate and political power that has no interest in our long term future. What environmentalists are essentially demanding is freedom from pollution that delivers environmental justice to the victims of that pollution and the future generations that will face the climate impacts we are bequeathing them. As Robert Kennedy Jr argues, the biggest subsidy in the world is not the one handed to renewables companies, or even the much greater financial kickbacks gifted to fossil fuel companies, it is the subsidy we hand everyone when we say you can dump pollution into our air and waters for nothing.
An environmental narrative based on freedom and justice has the potential to unite left and right, even if in the current climate that looks about as likely as Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage enjoying a pint together. It might seem like an improbable alliance, but in the US there are some fascinating examples of Tea Party activists and environmentalists joining forces to embrace renewables that enable self-sufficiency and free people, in one important respect, from reliance on both the state and corporations.
An appeal to see environmental progress and clean technology as a mechanism for enabling greater freedom and genuine justice appeals to one of the oldest impulses in human society and would resonate powerfully across the political spectrum. Obviously it is difficult to create a narrative centred on freedom when the oppressor you are setting yourself against is an invisible gas and a hugely complex global economic system. Moreover, I remain somewhat conflicted about the strategy, pioneered by 350.org, of painting fossil fuel companies as the enemy of climate action. But it remains possible to argue that clean technologies and green business models give us freedom from environmental damage and freedom to better enjoy the world that surrounds us. For businesses, a green economy also gives freedom to innovate and freedom from tired and dysfunctional 20th and 19th century infrastructure.
Supporters of the status quo would inevitably mock this narrative and argue that true freedom comes with the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels. But as the climate cost associated with that particular "freedom" becomes ever more apparent and clean technologies demonstrate they can compete on costs with fossil fuels, those arguments look increasingly outdated and isolated.
Could a narrative based on green freedom work? Could it create a more coherent environmentalism that is attractive to the significant constituency that is quietly concerned about the state of the environment and supportive of the technologies that may herald a better and greener economy? I don't know.
But I do know that to deliver real change, both in terms of behaviours and economic structures, you need a constituency that will demand, support, and then enable that change. And if you are going to embolden such a constituency and get it to make some noise you need to give it something to get excited about. It is hard to get that animated about the minutiae of climate change science, not least because so much of it is bloody terrifying. But people do get excited about their local park, about cool technologies, about saving money, and improving their neighbourhood. They do get excited about freedom. The freedom from looming climate catastrophe and a busted growth model that can offer us little but volatility and risk is something the public and the business community might be willing to fight for. Indeed, there are ever more signs that they already are. The freedom to live our lives in beautiful, sustainable environments is something we all desire. New Environmentalism, at its best, can offer that freedom. It is time to make some noise about it.
ABOUT JAMES' BLOG
Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray