26 August 2010

Battles over Symbols

Much of the debate over climate change occurs as a battle over political symbols, adding much heat but little light to the issue.  Consider this scathing report from the FT Energy Source Blog:
Nothing like the words “Arctic” and “oil drilling” to get the environmental campaigners excited.

Add banks to the mix, and you have the perfect mix for a modern day witch-hunt.

The latest targets are Cairn Energy and the Royal Bank of Scotland. In a joint press release,  PLATFORM, Friends of the Earth Scotland and the World Development Movement on Tuesday said they “condemn [the] link between public money and Cairn’s Arctic drilling - RBS provided loan to oil company one month before it acquired rig for arctic drilling.”

The amount in question is a reported $100m lent by RBS - majority owned by UK taxpayers - last December.
The (first) problem with their point, however, is that RBS is a corporate broker to Cairn -so the $100m is likely to be just a fraction of the total it lent to the oil company last year. There seems to be no evidence to show that this particular $100m and the Arctic drilling are linked.

Secondly, the environmentalists’ outrage at taxpayer money financing oil drilling bizarrely stops with the Arctic. Drilling in Rajasthan - where Cairn in fact gets most of its oil - doesn’t seem to be a problem. Yet why is it less acceptable to drill near barely-populated frozen landmass than in the middle of India, where actual people may be affected by the drilling operations?

Maybe because polar bears are much cuter than people?
All of the protests in the world will add up to very little without a practical, politically feasible alternative way forward.  The lack of wide open debate on climate policy options -- and indeed efforts to squelch such debate -- is why most climate activism is simply empty exhortation.  Perhaps such exhortation is at least therapeutic for those involved.  Simply adding intensity to a political debate is a recipe for all sorts of problems -- including policy gridlock.


  1. "The lack of wide open debate on climate policy options..."

    What makes a policy option qualify as "climate?"

    For there to be a climate policy it seems there must be some demonstrable effect, symbolic gestures aside, on arresting or bending climate trends. I look forward to your explanation.

  2. I see the debate on climate policy options as plenty wide-open, occupying a spectrum from denial of a climate problem and advocacy of business-as-usual, to advocates of delay on any climate policy changes like Lomborg, to advocates of technocractic policy solutions via large infusions of research dollars into decarbonization technology (such as yourself and the Breakthrough Institute), to advocates of adaptation approaches instead of GHG mitigation, to advocates of transition to nukes for decarbonization, and then to a mix of decarbonization options including renewables and nukes, and finally to purist visions of increased efficiency and distributed generation renewable solutions for full decarbonization and a return to 250ppm CO2. How is that range of climate policy debate not wide-open?

  3. -2-Sam

    Yes, good question.

    Certainly there is diversity out there for those who look, but once you get into the actual political process (e.g., what options are discussed in IPCC, US, UK, Australia, Japan, EU etc. gov't reports, the focus of attention in academia, in thhe media etc. I'd suggest that the scope of options is pretty limited.

    That said, it has opened up considerably over 2010, which is a good thing.

    But to the extent that activism focuses on the need "to act" and fights against "denial" especially thru battles over science, policy making will suffer.

  4. "Secondly, the environmentalists’ outrage at taxpayer money financing oil drilling bizarrely stops with the Arctic. Drilling in Rajasthan - where Cairn in fact gets most of its oil - doesn’t seem to be a problem."

    /loony conspiracy hat on
    Viewed from outside the US, the United States is an Empire(some believe evil) and it's Achilles Heel is oil. There are more then a few people who would like to keep it that way.

    The movie The China Syndrome depicting a nuclear core meltdown at a US nuclear plant was released on 16 March 1979. On the 28th of March in 1979 a partial nuclear core meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island.

    What are the odds that the timing of the two events was 'coincidence'?
    /loony conspiracy hat off

  5. Roger --3

    Policy making suffers when the sales pitch encapsulated by the descriptor, such as "climate," is not supported by demonstrable science showing investment of resources and effort to achievable results that reflect the policy descriptor.

  6. -5-Craig 1st

    For better or worse, policies focused on controlling greenhouse gas emisisons are called "climate policies."

    I agree that this is not the best condensation of the actual policies that might be considered. But it is what it is.

    If you'd like, call then "greenhouse gas policies" as I did in my most recent post.

  7. For professors and scientists to use the misleading language popularized by policy advocates, simply because the lemmings are walking in unison towards the precipice of disbelief, tends to bring out the "jaded stink-eye" by those who discover they have been mislead.

  8. First, it makes sense to focus on protecting the Arctic. There is a lot of pristine wilderness and an enormous amount of wildlife. Also, the difficult access makes it harder to deal with accidents.

    But symbols are a problem. NGOs of all political stripes find symbols like cute polar bear cubs to be very effective fundraising tools. But it's one thing for people to send a check to help polar bears, much different for a society to make difficult choices.

    I think that the US political system gets into ruts very easily. On almost any issue, it is very difficult to change directions once people are on record supporting or opposing a specific method. It's a serious problem.

    I read Breakthrough and was not much of a fan of their proposals. Nonetheless, new thinking is needed, and open-mindedness to go with it.

  9. There were a tiny number of 'protesters' and they made a fool of themselves by having a twitter page which was overwhelmed by scorn.


    The impression in Britain is that these kids are from wealthy backgrounds, and this is just a silly, little hobby for them. Promoted by the Guardian, which was sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell (carbon trading) at the height of its mendacity world record attempt last year.