10 Feb 2015, 14:34
How do you define 'anti-business'? For the Tories, Ed Miliband's inability to remember the deficit and tax-and-spend instincts make Labour inherently hostile to business leaders. For Labour, the Tories penchant for hedge fund donors and tax avoiders results in policies that damage the majority of businesses who pay their fair share. For many business leaders, Labour's talk of higher taxes and price controls are inherently 'anti-business'. But equally, many executives regard Conservative talk of a politically motivated exit from the UK's largest market as anything but 'pro-business'.
The problem is they all have a point. The business community is as varied and volatile as any form of human community. Some businesses are inspiring innovators and engines of prosperity. Others are polluters and monopolists who do genuine harm to society. If this diversity wasn't confusing enough, some businesses occupy both extremes at the same time. It is possible to admire Google's track record of innovation and long term investment in clean energy, while condemning its tax practices.
Consequently, it is impossible to establish a universal definition of what is or isn't 'anti-business'. Some policies and political rhetoric do more harm to more businesses than others, but you'd be hard pressed to find a policy that is bad for each and every business. Some regulations damage businesses, but other regulations help create new markets and opportunities for commercial innovators. To take just one example, were vehicle emissions standards an 'anti-business' cost imposed on auto manufacturers, or a 'pro-business' means of stimulating demand for clean technology developers and protecting the health of the workforce for millions of other firms?
In the UK political context, the Conservatives are traditionally regarded as the party of business and are seen as being more likely to introduce 'pro-business' policies, as evidenced by David Cameron's announcement today of intriguing new plans for a Help to Grow scheme to support fast-growth firms and the latest pledge to cut 'red tape' (although how a party can get away with saying it has identified £10bn of legislative savings and then not say what they are is beyond me). But this is not a zero sum game. The Tories occupation of 'pro-business' territory does not mean they are pro every business, nor does it mean Labour are automatically anti every business. In an election year, people will be reluctant to inject nuance into this debate, but this is not an issue that allows simple polarisation and sensible business leaders and politicians should recognise that, not least because the public certainly does.
This is the debate that one of the UK's most high profile green business leaders, Ecotricity's Dale Vince, waded into this morning with the announcement the company is to donate £250,000 to Labour's election campaign.
My understanding is there was a lengthy debate at Ecotricity about whether to take this step. No consumer-facing company relishes getting involved in party politics, given the obvious potential for alienating customers. But eventually Vince concluded the Conservative's policies were so 'anti green business' that the company had little choice. As a spokesman explained, a Conservative victory and the enactment of the party's effective ban on new wind farms would make it extremely difficult for Ecotricity to keep its promise to customers to invest their bills in new wind turbines. In contrast, the company is satisfied Labour's support for renewables and decarbonisation, coupled with its plan to remain within the EU, means that from its perspective the party is 'pro-business'.
Will other green businesses, or even mainstream businesses who back decarbonisation and climate action, now reach a similar conclusion and publicly provide Miliband with some much-needed business backing? Or will they conclude the Tories' promise of tax cuts, deficit reduction, and conventional support for the business community outweighs concerns about Cameron's commitment to growing the green economy?
The reality is that while the Conservatives are broadly regarded as 'pro-business' there is mounting disquiet among green firms and investors that the supposed party of business is increasingly 'anti green business'.
Ecotricity and other onshore wind farm developers are most obviously in the firing line and have to now ask themselves whether they wish to get involved in the election and try and stop a party that would cause massive disruption to their medium to long term plans. But there are plenty of other clean tech sectors that harbour similar fears. Conservative ministers have signalled their opposition to solar farms, the Chancellor has previously sought to water down carbon targets and clean energy funding, the coalition deliberately downgraded support for circular economy policies, and there is scant evidence Conservative Central Office has much to say about energy efficiency, electric cars, or smart technologies. Meanwhile, climate sceptics periodically pipe up from the Tory backbenches to decry anything and everything that seeks to reduce emissions and drive green investments.
Again, the picture is complicated by the fact some Conservative MPs remain supportive of the green economy and powerful advocates of the need to decarbonise our economy. But it is equally clear that, for the first time in a generation, there are clear dividing lines on a host of green policy issues between the only two parties that have a hope of forming the next government.
Faced with this choice will more green business leaders emulate Ecotricity and declare a political allegiance? Plenty of business leaders have evidently concluded Miliband poses enough of a threat to the economy to pile in, will green business leaders conclude Cameron, or perhaps more pertinently, Osborne, May or Boris, poses enough of a threat to the green economy to get involved?
I have little doubt if Labour looked more convincingly like a government in waiting, was a few more points ahead in the polls, and could offer a handful more policies that were demonstrably 'pro-business' in a conventional sense green business leaders would be more vocal in their criticism of Cameron's slide away from his previous stance on environmental issues and his failure to prioritise the UK's climate and energy security. But currently support for Labour's green business policies tends to be balanced with continued concern about the party's wider business and economic policies.
With the election on a knife edge green businesses and investors will have no desire to alienate a Conservative Party that could yet secure another five years in power. And yet, for Ecotricity, with a business model based primarily on developing onshore wind farms, there is nothing left to lose from publicly siding with a party that will allow it to continue to invest. Others will have to undertake their own cost-benefit calculations and decide whether to follow Dale Vince and Lord Stuart Rose and join this election battle or else keep their head below the parapet and hope the green economy can adapt to the electoral fallout.
What is clear, is that despite what Tory spin doctors claim there are no clear-cut 'pro-business' and 'anti-business' candidates on offer at this election. It has always been more complicated than that, as green business leaders can certainly testify.
06 Feb 2015, 15:06
Today is the last day of Cold Homes Week, although sadly many people will have been too cold, too broke, or too dead to notice.
The perennial nature of the UK's fuel poverty crisis/scandal/national shame (delete as appropriate) means statistics revealing the true scale of the problem become dulled by repetition. But they shouldn't be; they are little short of a disgrace. Each year the UK typically experiences up to 30,000 excess winter deaths and this year it is on track to hit 40,000. Not all those deaths are directly due to cold homes, as increases in road traffic accidents and the limited success of this year's flu vaccination programme indicate, but poor housing stock is a big contributory factor to the spike in the death rate during the winter months.
Anyone who doubts that should consider this: each winter Sweden's death rate rises by around 10 per cent, in the UK it soars by 30 per cent. The main difference between the two countries? Our homes are much less efficient. Around six million low income households in the UK live in homes that have energy efficiency rating of Band D or worse, while over two and a quarter million households are officially living in fuel poverty. That is more than one in 10 households really struggling to pay energy bills and having to make choices between healthy comfort and other necessities. In one of the richest countries in the history of humanity, thousands die as a result of this unenviable choice.
It is a wilfully emotive comparison, but would we be so indifferent to these deaths if they were happening on this scale on the roads or as a result of medical negligence or military action? Sadly, cold grannies do not make for eye-catching headlines.
Instead, when the media or the political class deign to address fuel poverty at all it is to decry high energy bills and complain about corporate fat cats or renewables subsidies. I am no apologist for the energy companies who are often their own worst enemies, but focusing on energy prices is a distraction. Blaming energy companies for fuel poverty is like blaming supermarkets for food banks; confusing tariffs and sharp practices don't help, but they are not the root cause of the problem.
The uncomfortable truth is that energy prices in the UK are not high by European standards. A government study last year confirmed that "in 2012, average UK domestic gas prices, including taxes... were the ninth lowest in the IEA, third lowest in the G7, and were 18.9 per cent lower than the IEA median". Electricity prices were similarly competitive, and yet our domestic energy bills are among the highest in the EU. Why? Because our inefficient homes mean we use far more energy than many of our international competitors.
However, if there is one thing more scandalous than the UK's fuel poverty crisis it is the government's faltering and flawed response.
In fairness, some encouraging progress has been made. Winter death rates have been steadily falling thanks to flu vaccines and the gradual installation of insulation. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey this week introduced new rules to stop landlords letting the coldest homes and again highlighted how one million homes have received energy efficiency upgrades through the government's Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation (ECO) schemes.
These improvements should be welcomed, but they are akin to a relegated football manager arguing they should not get the sack because they won a couple of games over the course of the season. As an analysis from the UK Association for the Conservation of Energy this week revealed the number of households receiving upgrades through government schemes slumped 80 per cent between the winter of 2011/12 and this winter. Had the rate of delivery seen in 2011/12 been maintained it would not be one million people enjoying warmer homes this weekend, it would have been nearly 2.8 million.
If the current rate of improvement continues over the next decade less than 30 per cent of the six million households enduring poor levels of efficiency will be improved. And yet, as BusinessGreen revealed, late last year, it is unlikely the current rate of improvement will continue - it is about to get a lot worse. The government's decision to water down the ECO scheme means energy company energy efficiency targets will be met in the coming months, bringing property improvement programmes to a grinding halt.
There is an obvious environmental angle to this failure to address the weaknesses in the UK's building stock. Around 40 per cent of emissions come from buildings and enhancing energy efficiency using proven technologies remains the most cost-effective means of tackling emissions. A genuinely ambitious programme to improve domestic energy efficiency would not just tackle fuel poverty, it would cut emissions and reduce the cost of decarbonisation by curbing demand for new wind farms and nuclear reactors. If we can't deliver the clean technologies that make financial sense regardless of climate change it does not put us in good stead for the big ticket clean energy generation investments that will be required over the next 15 years.
The bulk of the blame for this scandal lies not with Davey and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but David Cameron, the Treasury and Conservative backbenchers. The Prime Minister's decision to axe "green crap" from energy bills did not so much throw the energy efficiency agenda under a bus, as lock it in a freezing cold room and wait for nature to take its course. The Treasury's repeated refusal to properly back a pay-as-you-save financing scheme that remains the most effective means of delivering national-scale energy efficiency improvements with serious funding and tougher regulations fatally undermined the Green Deal from the start. Tory MPs willingness to put the concerns of rentier investors above the health of their cold tenants meant energy efficiency rules that have finally emerged for the private rental sector are much weaker and later than they should have been.
However, the political blame game offers nothing for those currently considering whether they need to put on a third jumper of an evening. The question is what can be done to bring the UK's six million cold homes up to scratch?
The Energy Bill Revolution campaign has a relatively simple answer, designating domestic energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority and providing £3bn over the course of the next parliament on top of the £5bn you could raise by keeping the ECO scheme going would allow the UK to improve two million homes in five years to a Band C energy efficiency rating.
The proposal has significant business backing, not least because savvy executives recognise that money not spend on heat that flows out of single pane windows is spent on the High Street, driving economic growth. They also understand that a healthy workforce is more productive and that energy efficient buildings will help bolster UK energy security and reduce clean energy investment costs. It is no surprise that an analysis of the Energy Bill Revolution proposal suggests it could boost GDP by nearly £14bn by 2030.
And yet this eminently sensible proposal is struggling for traction in Westminster. Labour has revealed a domestic energy efficiency strategy that looks like an encouraging step forward, but is reluctant to endorse anything that smacks of increased Treasury expenditure. The Lib Dems are also likely to propose a beefing up of the ECO and Green Deal schemes, but are yet to back the kind of national retrofit programme that is needed. There is little evidence the Conservatives are planning any move on energy efficiency that extends beyond maintaining the status quo. David Cameron would be delighted if the words fuel poverty are not uttered once throughout the election campaign.
The standard response to proposals to spend taxpayers' cash on tackling fuel poverty is that there is no money. The government can't afford it. You do not need to belittle the debt challenge the UK continues to face, to point out that this is demonstrably untrue. There is infrastructure money available, the question is what do you choose to spend it on. The current government would prefer to prioritise roads at a time when car use appears to have peaked, runways at a time when aviation emissions have to start falling, and big energy projects at a time when reducing energy use offers better returns. It would prefer to throw emergency cash at the NHS rather than tackle one of the root causes of winter health crises. Some MPs would prefer to quietly argue the fuel poor do not deserve government largesse, while voting through much more costly measures designed to reduce energy bills for middle class voters.
There is a relatively simple way to tackle fuel poverty, reduce excess winter deaths, boost the economy, cut carbon emissions, cut the cost of decarbonisation, and improve the lives and health of millions of people. Whether it is short-sightedness, indifference, or incompetence that has stopped the government seizing this opportunity will be sadly irrelevant to the millions of people shivering through this winter.
02 Feb 2015, 12:23
Most political crazes follow a familiar firework-like trajectory. They soar skywards, sparking headlines and excitement, before peaking as the unforgiving gravity of our first-past-the-post electoral system takes effect. However, with fewer than 100 days to go to the election questions are now seriously being asked as to whether the Green Party can break this historical template. Can the Green surge defy political gravity? How can it increase its chances of doing so? And what happens for the wider green economy if it does?
Last week may have seen the first wave of negative headlines since the Green surge started, as Natalie Bennett received an old-fashioned shellacking at the hands of Andrew Neil and several of the party's more radical policies struggled to survive first contact with a sceptical press. But it ended with the party announcing that it has switched its spring conference in Liverpool to a larger venue to accommodate the now 50,000-plus membership base. That news came as the party launched a crowd-funding push to raise the £72,500 required to put forward a candidate in every constituency in the country this May. Given the level of recent support it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this historic first for the party will be achieved.
However, last week's contradictory fortunes highlighted how the election campaign is going to be a lot tougher from here on in. The broadcasters may have gifted the insurgent environmentalist party a platform and a cause they could have only dreamt about six months ago, but in establishing themselves as a genuine electoral threat in a host of crucial swing seats the Greens have invited the kind of scrutiny and political hatchet jobs they have previously been avoided. Quite frankly, if the Green leadership isn't spending every waking moment thinking long and hard about how to address this scrutiny and build on its recent surge it deserves to see momentum fizzle out.
There are two important questions the party needs to address: how can it deliver a strong electoral showing and how can it use its influence to advance the issues it cares about?
This begs the question as to what constitutes a strong electoral showing. There is an understandable tendency within the party to try and manage expectations. To note that beating the Lib Dems vote share would be a great achievement, to acknowledge that first past the post means retaining Caroline Lucas' seat and being competitive in a couple more seats represents solid progress. This is a mistake. Given the party has moved from being a rounding error to having a tenth of the vote in the space of a few months the target should be to build on, not consolidate, recent momentum.
If I was a Green Party member, and I'm not, I'd want to see a strategy for securing 15 per cent of the vote and a credible set of tactics for winning at least three seats and being competitive in plenty more.
It is this ambitious target which brings us back to last week's series of car crash interviews and headlines. It is no secret that as soon as an insurgent left-wing party moves from being a marginal concern to a genuine threat to the political status quo it is going to face tough questions, and rightly so. But did the Greens have to make it quite so easy for their right-wing critics?
A citizen's income is not quite as daft an idea as it sounds, even if there are legitimate concerns about how it is funded and whether it actually ends up being regressive. But if you are going to have such a radical policy you need to do a much better job at explaining and defending it than the Greens did last week. There are ways to position yourself as a party that opposes the concept of "thought police" without making it easy for opponents to characterise you as an apologist for ISIS. Equally, urgent reform of drugs and prostitution laws are eminently justifiable liberal policies, but savvy politicians know there are ways to make this case without scaring off centrist voters - there are reasons why governments love a royal commission or public inquiry.
Finally, and in many ways most importantly, attacking corporate tax evasion is entirely fair enough, doing so using language that appears to attack all businesses is self-defeating, particularly when it is a combination of private and public sector that has developed the technologies we so urgently need to tackle climate change. A chunk of the Greens' appeal is that they challenge corporatism at a time when trust in many businesses is through the floor, but there is a difference between being anti-business as usual and anti-business full stop. It is a distinction the Greens often struggle to make.
The party is letting itself be painted as anti-growth, advocating steady state economics without credibly explaining how clean energy, circular economy models, and new economic metrics can make aspiration, growth, and continued improvement in quality of life compatible with environmental sustainability. Many within the Green Party know this to be the case, they need to get much better at explaining it when under hostile questioning.
A fascinating recent study demonstrated in a blind survey more people favour the Greens' policies than any other party. I suspect the reason this support does not translate into more electoral success is a combination of the first past the post straight jacket and the manner in which policies that would have once been regarded as firmly of the centre-left are undermined by hair shirt rhetoric and some of the party's wilder policy touchstones.
It is possible for the party to remain true to its left-wing and environmentalist tendencies by foregrounding radical policies on rail nationalisation, much more ambitious climate action, and an end to austerity measures without muddying the picture with universal incomes and peace and love inspired defence reforms. It will be fascinating to see if the party's eventual manifesto makes a more centrist pitch for electability or whether it is happy to let gravity take effect on its recent bounce. It will be equally fascinating to see if the leadership is willing to fast-track some of the new talent that has joined the party and strengthen its roster of spokespeople as quickly as possible. It is encouraging that there have already been indications from some of the party's senior figures that the manifesto could make some of its more radical ideas aspirations rather than firm policy commitments.
Some veteran Green campaigners may hate it, as the admirable Baroness Jones acknowledged in an interview last month, but the significance of a more measured, realistic and, dare I say it, pro-business approach is that it will not only aid the party's electoral chances, it will also increase its influence over those main parties that will inevitably form the next government.
The fascination for business leaders with the Greens is not so much the number of seats they win (first past the post means even in its wildest dreams the Greens will remain a minor player post-May), but the extent to which the party can emulate UKIP in shaping the political rhetoric and policies of the main parties.
UKIP's Nigel Farage has got increasingly adept at deflecting questions about the party's wilder policies and spinning his response back to his core issues of Europe and immigration. The Greens have no desire to aspire to Farage's reductive view of the world, but they could usefully work out how to condense their message so that it is more centred on ending austerity and protecting the environment. Currently, by focusing on some of its more radical policies and speaking less about its core environmental concerns, the Greens are at risk of diluting the influence they can bring to bear on Labour, the Lib Dems, and even the Conservatives.
After the last set of US Presidential debates failed to mention climate change, CNN's Candy Crowley explained the omission: "Climate change, I had that question. All you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing."
One of the big advantages of having the Greens in the TV debates is that it should ensure this short-sighted failure to tackle one of the biggest issues of the age is avoided. The Greens presence should mean all of the party leaders are forced to talk about climate change, not to mention fuel poverty, fracking, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and the inherent inefficiency of our economic models. But this will only happen if the Greens seize the opportunity to speak about these issues, relate them to people's lives, and vigorously attack the flaws in the environmental record of the main parties. Unfortunately, I'm yet to be convinced this will happen.
Bennett's primary goal should be highlighting Cameron's inconsistency on fracking and climate change or pushing Miliband even harder to promise more funding to tackle fuel poverty and drive clean tech investment. If she can achieve these eminently attainable goals she would have done the entire environmental movement a huge favour, regardless of what then happens in May. But Bennett won't be able to credibly challenge the mainstream parties if the Greens have to spend the debates and the wider campaign defending policies that they should have recognised long ago make more sense in a academic seminar room than on the doorstep.
The Greens' recent momentum could yet prove hugely significant for British politics and the UK's green economy, but only if the party seizes the opportunity it has been presented with, ditches some of its unworkable policies, and modifies its message to broaden its appeal. The opportunity is there to put rocket boosters under the Green surge, but is the party bold enough to seize it?
26 Jan 2015, 12:46
Finally, about three years too late, the debate on fracking is moving onto the territory it should have always been played out upon: climate change.
There are myriad reasons to oppose fracking in the UK, varying enormously in their legitimacy, but the one source of opposition that trumps all others is the very real threat that a successful fracking industry is incompatible with long term efforts to tackle climate change. As Environmental Audit Committee Chair Joan Walley argues today, "ultimately fracking cannot be compatible with our long-term commitments to cut climate changing emissions unless full-scale carbon capture and storage technology is rolled out rapidly, which currently looks unlikely". Bravo.
As I've argued before the problem with fracking in the current UK context is that if it were to prove as successful as David Cameron and George Osborne hope it would quickly prove incompatible with our climate change goals. Walley uses the "oil tanker" metaphor, arguing that adding ever more fossil fuel infrastructure makes it ever harder to turn the trajectory of UK's energy sector towards decarbonisation. I prefer the Chekov's Gun metaphor: if you build a fracking industry it is going to get used. Either way, in a carbon constrained world you can't construct a new fossil fuel industry without a credible plan for quickly deconstructing it.
There is, of course, a way to square this circle in the form of the 'get out of jail free' card that carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers the fossil fuel industry. If we had a large scale CCS industry up and running (or even the promise of one) you could legitimately continue to pursue large scale fracking activity, assuming of course you could overcome the still legitimate concerns over methane emissions, flaring, air pollution, water pollution, earth tremors, noise, traffic congestion, house price impacts, and any of the other concerns I have forgotten.
But we don't have a large scale CCS industry up and running, we don't even have the vague pretence that we are likely to have a large scale CCS industry up and running at any point in the near future. After almost 10 years of two steps forward, one and three quarter steps back, the UK and Europe are now lagging badly behind other nations in their pursuit of CCS. If there is one environmental failure that this government deserves condemnation for, one failure that undermines the good work it has done on other forms of clean technology and torpedoes the Prime Ministers' flawed decarbonisation strategy for the 2020s it has been the inability to mobilise the CCS industry.
Without proof that CCS can work in the UK, building a fracking industry is the height of environmental and economic irresponsibility. George Osborne and co are effectively encouraging investment and political heartache to develop a sector that would almost certainly have to be shut down within 15 years to meet legally binding climate targets. Those who argue the contrary are still clearly yet to reconclie themselves with what decarbonisation means for industrialised economies.
In addition, the government is seeking to tap into relatively costly oil and gas resources at a point when we know the world's more costly reserves need to be kept in the ground. Meanwhile, the Ministerial obsession with fracking only distracts political and financial capital from the energy efficiency and renewables projects that could make a real and immediate contribution to the economy and efforts to curb emissions.
It is at this point that supporters for the fracking industry - many of whom remain bought and paid for industry lobbyists or have spent a lot of time lunching with said lobbyists - start trotting out their tired arguments in favour of ever more fossil fuels. 'Shale gas can cut emissions by replacing coal', they say; 'what about the gas we use for heating and cooking', they ask; 'the IPCC and the IEA say we can pursue fracking while combatting climate change', they argue; 'if we don't drill for oil and gas, others will', they protest.
These are reasonable arguments, but they still fail to address the central concern: that fracking in its current form is not compatible with tackling climate change. Shale gas can replace coal, but if that were the true goal why won't the government close loopholes that allow coal power to continue well into the 2020s? The IEA and IPCC may nod to shale gas' potential role as a 'bridging fuel', but they also say over and again that we need CCS at scale, which we still do not have. Gas does have a role to play in heating and cooking, but the government's long term decarbonisation plans make plain we need to decarbonise heating as well through the 2030s - again, why build an industry we won't be able to use?
Finally, the argument that 'if we don't supply it, others will' has a name, it is called the drug dealers' defence.
Meanwhile, the government's arguments for fracking - led by Chancellor George Osborne's arrogant attempt to order his colleagues to support the technology - has descended into the parroting of the line the UK has "one of the most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas". No it doesn't. The most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas in the world are those that ensure the controversial practice poses no environment threat by banning it outright.
If the government really wanted to deliver a robust regulatory regime for fracking it would support Labour's 13 amendments to the Infrastructure Bill, each of which seem to be entirely reasonable, as well as the separate amendment requiring the Committee on Climate Change to keep a close eye on the industry's development. After all, the fracking industry has indicated that many developers are already following the best practices proposed by Labour and insists it can play a role in a low carbon economy. If that is the case, why is the government not backing the amendments? Why aren't the shale gas industry's vocal lobbyists demanding that these amendments pass as a means of building public support? Where is the shale gas industry's support for a power sector decarbonisation target for 2030? The only explanation is that the government wants to give the industry the freedom not to follow these environmental best practices and adhere to these climate change safeguards.
The reality is that as MPs are given their first opportunity to vote on the UK's nascent fracking industry the government's support for the sector is descending into chaos. Arguments in favour of cutting energy bills, tackling climate change, and limiting local environmental impacts have all been found wanting, and public opposition looks stronger than ever.
The real tragedy for Ministers, fracking companies, and, yes, those who care about decarbonisation, is that it didn't have to be this way. A fracking strategy developed in tandem with a successful CCS programme and backed by tighter legislation requiring the closure of coal power plants and genuinely world-leading environmental standards could have played a credible role in the UK's low carbon economy. A fracking industry that eschewed cheerleading headlines in favour of modest pilot projects could have built public support without sparking a political fire-fight.
Instead a heady combination of arrogance, incompetence, and a desperate desire to revive the 1980s cash cow that was the oil and gas industry has backed the fracking industry and the government into a corner they will struggle to get out of.
21 Jan 2015, 14:58
Can a comedy night be said to have been successful if you leave feeling rather downbeat? Judging by last night's RSA event on Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change, I'd have to say yes.
The event to mark the launch of the latest report from the RSA and COIN on The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change, brought together seven comedians to reflect on each of the dimensions identified by report authors Dr Jonathan Rowson and Dr Adam Corner - just with added jokes and occasional swearing.
The central premise of the report is that climate change is a multidimensional challenge that is affecting almost every aspect of our society and yet we continue to address it through a narrow lens that rarely widens beyond 'The Science' and poorly defined calls for 'Action'. Consequently, what is needed to break the political, cultural and societal impasse that is allowing climate change risks to escalate is a multi-faceted approach that 'reframes' our understanding of climate change through seven inter-related dimensions: science, law, economy, technology, democracy, culture, and behaviour. Put like that, you can see why Rowson and Corner wanted to get the jokesmiths in to bring some levity to their critique.
Each of the comedians was tasked with delivering a five to 10 minute show on one of the dimensions and how climate change can be better understood by seeing it as a democratic challenge or a technological challenge or a cultural challenge and so on. The results were unsurprisingly varied and it is fair to say some acts were more successful than others, but the combined impact was thought-provoking, profound, challenging, and, most importantly for a comedy night, funny.
The brilliant punchline from the Pappy's comedy troupe delivered after they had eaten through their allotted 10 minutes delivering their standard non-climate related set of (brilliant) sketches deserved its ovation, as did Marcus Brigstocke's face as he admitted that he found insulating your home and shopping less to be extremely sexy. It is worth catching the set online to get the full effect.
However, if the jokes were good it was the manner in which they were harnessed to make some deadly serious points that gave the evening its power. Brigstocke's exceptional Dr Seuss inspired poem on the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit highlighted the absurdity of our leaders' inaction more effectively than any petition, just as Steven Punt's sceptic-baiting monologue on "so-called science" hammered home the anti-intellectualism that defines that particular clique.
But it was the two most challenging performances that served to highlight the paucity of our collective response to climate change.
Rob Auton's shift from one liners to a genuinely moving poem on the world we stand to lose hammered home the risks inherent in trusting technology to save us. In taking the self-satirising analysis of those who believe technology will always protect us from environmental crises to its logical extreme and imagining "anti-hurricane missiles" and "ice cap rebuilding apps", Auton perfectly articulated the uncertainty those of us who believe in the promise of clean technologies wrestle with every day. It made for an uncomfortable yet inspiring listen.
Holly Burn's eccentric sketch (you need to see it) was equally thought-provoking, seizing on the theme of culture's response to climate change to imagine a former lover who as a writer had seen environmental damage being wrought and chosen not to explore it as a topic. "Why didn't you tell us what we were doing to the world?" she asked her imaginary beau, while simultaneously challenging an audience that had been completely wrong-footed.
You can see why I was left feeling somewhat downcast by these performances, despite there also being plenty of laughs. In many ways, I found several of the sketches more serious and hard-hitting than Professor Chris Rapley's wilfully serious and hard-hitting 2071 lecture on the latest climate science.
Having been asked to find comedic potential in climate change pretty much all of the performers had been forced to settle on gallows humour, some of it pretty dark. There was little on the identification of the tangible and clearly defined actions that Rowson and Corner argue will be needed to genuinely start to tackle climate change. At times it felt more like one long, and yet funny, sigh at the daunting reality we face.
Moreover, the effectiveness of the comedians' analysis of our collective failure on climate change only served to highlight the inadequacy of what has gone before. As the excellent compere Pippa Evans observed at the start of the evening, the question for those who are concerned about climate change is how do you make it "as interesting as Kim Kardashian's bottom"? Reading this morning's analysis by George Monbiot on the criminal extent to which environmental issues have been sidelined by mainstream media only underlines the enormity of that particular challenge.
However, it is a challenge that has to be taken on and the RSA's new report and the communication skills demonstrated by the seven comedians last night provide some important pointers as to how it might be overcome.
Rowson and Corner's seven dimensions hypothesis offers a useful reminder to business leaders and policymakers that climate change cannot be confined to a clearly defined silo. Companies that are serious about tackling climate change need to wrestle with the issue through their operations, investment, risk management, marketing, customers, supply chains, and even culture, not just through a sustainability department. Politicians cannot credibly declare that they care about tackling climate change while simultaneously maximising fossil fuel production. You need to attack climate risks from multiple angles.
Meanwhile, mining the comedy that comes with environmental catastrophe - and there is definitely comedy there - reminds advertiser, marketing departments, and campaigners that there are more effective ways to build support for green technologies and initiatives than the traditional approaches deployed by public awareness-raising exercises. I hope it is a lesson Al Gore, Pharrell Williams, and the latest Live Earth shindig are willing to embrace.
Most of all though, it is Burn's plaintive inquiry - "why didn't you tell us" - that resonates. If you accept that climate change is happening and serious, the question for every individual, every business, and every politician is what are you going to do about it and how are you going to build support for the actions you want to take. If you accept that climate change is one of the most serious issues we all face, you need to prioritise building this support and taking these actions as a matter of urgency. How many of us - in business, politics, or civil society - can honestly say we have done that?
Last night, Marcus Brigstocke challenged the audience, if you think climate change is serious and you are confident in that fact, how far are you willing to go? It was as part of a joke, but as Winston Churchill famously observed, "a joke is a very serious thing".
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray
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