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.