What the greens still keep getting wrong

As a general rule, the environmental movement does not take kindly to criticism. Or as I put it in a recent Telegraph article: “The greens can dish it out, but they can’t take it”.

The reaction to this article, and the Channel 4 programme (What The Greens Got Wrong – video here) it focused on, rather proved my point for me. To say it was visceral is to stretch understatement. After the studio debate that followed the airing of the Channel 4 film, I was physically confronted by angry members from one of the NGOs which had been criticised in the documentary. (Don’t worry – having dished it out, I can take it.) I returned home to a rash of angry emails, one of which suggested I attend some kind of eco re-education retreat for psychological appraisal.

I am glad to report that tempers have cooled since then. Most of the feedback I received turned out eventually to be positive – though this overwhelmingly came from people outside the green ‘tribe’. But I don’t see much sign that the points of – admittedly rather polemical (this was telly after all) criticism being seriously considered by green thinkers. Certainly Friends of the Earth did not see any reason to question their previous judgment on issues like GMOs and nuclear power after the film, according to FoE’s Craig Bennett.

One of the American contributors – apart from the estimable Stewart Brand – was Adam Werbach, who seemed to get cold feet before the broadcast about what he had said on camera and rather bizarrely claimed to have been set up by the producers. Enough said about that.

A much more better choice of contributors – who would certainly have had the courage to stand up for their convictions afterwards – would have been Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus from the Breakthrough Institute. Shellenberger and Nordhaus have some very penetrating insights into what has gone wrong in the environmental movement, which were first articulated back in 2004 in a landmark essay provocatively titled ‘The Death of Environmentalism‘ (pdf).

They have since gone on to found The Breakthrough Institute (TBI), which seeks to move beyond the polarised politics of green activism vs. global warming denial, which so disfigures the climate change debate in the United States. Not everyone approves: the ClimateProgress blogger Joe Romm frequently rails against TBI, and has ‘debunked’ (his word) Shellenberger and Nordhaus in several blistering attacks.

Now the free-thinking pair have struck again, in a must-read essay/speech entitled The Long Death of Environmentalism. I think anyone who considers themselves a green needs to read this piece – and to read it with an open mind. I do not agree with all of it (see below), but there is sufficient wisdom there to give any senior member of a green NGO great pause for thought.

The Democrats had a once-in-a-lifetime chance with the Obama Administration and both houses of Congress, the authors argue.

Yet today, environmental efforts to address climate change and build a green economy lie in ruins. The United States Congress this summer once again rejected climate legislation that even had it succeeded would have had virtually no impact upon U.S. carbon emissions over the coming decade. The magnitude and consequence of this defeat are poorly understood outside of Washington. Greens had the best opportunity in a generation — a Democratic White House and large Democratic majorities in Congress. But they banked everything on a single bill and walked away with nothing — or rather worse than nothing, since today environmental credibility with lawmakers of both parties is today at an all-time low.

Ouch. But even more damningly, instead of looking at their own failure, the greens looked only to blame the usual suspects:

In the wake of the crash, environmentalists pointed their finger at the usual bogeymen. They claimed that the problem has been that fossil fuel interests have massively outspent underdog environmental groups, funding skeptics to mislead the public and duping the media into giving too much credence to skeptical views about climate change.

In reality, the environmental lobby massively outspent its opponents. In just the last two years, by our rough estimate environmental organizations and philanthropies spent somewhere north of $1 billion dollars advocating for climate action. In contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Exxon-Mobil, the Koch Brothers, Big Coal, and the various other well publicized opponents of environmental action might have spent, when all was said and done, a small fraction of that. Indeed, much of the U.S. energy industry, including the largest utilities, helped write and lobbied for U.S. climate legislation.

Instead of seeing the sceptics as a well-funded industry blocking tactic, as the conventional environmentalist paradigm tends to, Shellenberger and Nordhaus see a very different political landscape on climate:

The truth is that the disparate crew of academics and bloggers who make up the skeptic community have toiled in relative obscurity and have been largely ignored by the mainstream media. That skeptics have nonetheless succeeded in raising substantial doubt among many Americans about the reality of global warming suggests, at the very least, that the environmental community has profoundly misframed the issue.
The propensity to blame skeptics and fossil fuel companies for the serial political failures of the environmental movement should be understood as a tribal defense of the collective green ego, not the logical conclusion of a dispassionate analysis.

Ouch again. And here is what went wrong:

From virtually the moment that “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, public skepticism about global warming began to rise. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that from July 2006 to April 2008, belief that global warming was occurring declined from 79 percent to 71 percent. Gallup polls also revealed similar backlash to the movie, with the percentage of Americans who believed in global warming was exaggerated, rising from 30 percent in March of 2006 to only 35 percent in March of 2008.

Gore famously claimed, “the truth about the climate crisis is an inconvenient one that means we are going to have to change the way we live our lives.” Those apparent calls for sacrifice by Gore and other green leaders drove rising partisan polarization. John Jost, a leading political psychologist at New York University, recently demonstrated that much of the partisan divide on global warming can be explained through the psychological concept of system justification. It turns out that many Americans have a strong psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order. When Gore said “we are going to have to change the way we live our lives” he could not have uttered a statement better tailored to trigger system justification among a substantial number of Americans.

At the same time, environmentalists increasingly conflated acceptance of climate science with acceptance of green policy prescriptions. To oppose cap and trade was, implicitly among many greens and explicitly among the most apocalyptic, to deny the reality of anthropogenic warming. But this just further polarized opinion on climate science rather than uniting us in the effort to address global warming. Environmentalist appeals to scientific authority led conservatives not to abandon their opposition to state intervention in the energy economy but to reject climate science. (my emphasis)

I think this absolutely gets to the heart of it. Indeed, I have come to a strikingly similar conclusion. Because belief in the science of climate change is now so closely aligned with the ‘green’ political programme right-wingers view as objectionable, the response of those who oppose green climate policies is to deny the existence of global warming on ostensibly ‘scientific’ grounds. Or, as I have found on numerous occasions, if you tell people that climate change means they have to give up flying on holiday, their response is that they no longer believe in climate change.

So what should be do? Once again, I think Shellenberger and Nordhaus hit the nail on the head with this quotable quote:

Skepticism about climate science has been motivated by concerns about the remedies that greens have proposed. The solution is not more climate science but rather a different set of remedies.

And, as I have repeatedly insited, most recently in the DECC debate on future energy pathways for the UK,

…we need to stop imagining that we will solve global warming through behavior changes. There are no doubt many good reasons for those of us with enough affluence and control over the material circumstances of our lives to turn away from accumulative consumption. But we should not imagine this to be a climate strategy.

Quite. But I don’t agree with every aspect of their analysis. In particular I take issue with Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s dismissal of inter-governmental agreements like Kyoto as a necessary pre-condition for a low-carbon transition.

…we will not regulate or price our way to a clean energy economy. Regulatory and pricing solutions tend to succeed when we have good, low cost alternatives to the activities which we are attempting to discourage or eliminate. We dealt with acid rain once we had access to low sulfur coal from the western United States and reached an international agreement to phase out CFCs only once DuPont demonstrated that they could produce a cheap alternative at scale.

Not true, so far as I can tell in a detailed reading of the ozone-depletion issue at least. In his landmark book on the subject, Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy, Edward Parsons shows that actually the idea that governments sat around waiting for substitutes to CFCs to be developed before acting is a myth. What really happened was that governments acted – creating the Montreal Protocol in 1987 – before CFC substitute technologies were either properly developed or commercially available.

In reality the big CFC producers like DuPont all shut down their research programmes on technical alternatives as early as 1981 in order not to be forced to develop them. The industry decided it would rather not know about substitutes for CFCs, and instead decided to carry on attacking ozone science and lobbying politicians to avoid action. That worked for a while, but what mattered was that governments – led by the US – showed real leadership, and forced the companies to act by passing internationally binding legislation.

Once the Montreal Protocol was in place, a tipping point was passed where the chemicals industry knew the writing was on the wall and the race was on to achieve better market positioning in the non-CFC alternatives. Why this never happened with Kyoto and climate is a whole other debate, but I think it has a lot to do with the US withdrawal from the treaty at an early stage.

In my view, the lesson is not that cheapening technology is an alternative to political leadership on environmental regulation, but that political leadership – and binding regulation – must happen in order for the alternative technologies ever to be developed and deployed on a large scale (which they must if costs are to come down). In other words, there is no easy fix. To solve this problem, governments are going to have to do what (most of them) were elected to do, and exercise some leadership. There is no way around that.

Yet today, environmental efforts to address climate change and build a green economy lie in ruins. The United States Congress this summer once again rejected climate legislation that even had it succeeded would have had virtually no impact upon U.S. carbon emissions over the coming decade. The magnitude and consequence of this defeat are poorly understood outside of Washington. Greens had the best opportunity in a generation — a Democratic White House and large Democratic majorities in Congress. But they banked everything on a single bill and walked away with nothing — or rather worse than nothing, since today environmental credibility with lawmakers of both parties is today at an all-time low.

© Mark Lynas
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