Global rivalries go green

Climate change will be a central part of government agendas in 2009 - and a rich source of diplomatic squabbles, too.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

There are two schools of thought on how 2009 will play out. Know-it-alls who have recently pored over Marxism for Dummies, believe the economic downturn is bound to put the politics of climate change on the back burner. But environmentalists are pinning their hopes on Barack Obama enacting a Green New Deal, full of spending on renewable energy. In fact, neither side is right. Climate change will be more prominent than ever in 2009, but state-backed green jobs will take second place to international disputes about emissions.

Despite the endless talk from businesses and governments, enthusiasm for cutting greenhouse gas emissions has always been tempered by a concern for hard-headed economics. In Spain, energy developers have been installing fake solar panels, so desperate have they become to benefit from government incentives (1). In countries with plans for wind power, the evaporation of project finance has raised the prospect of ‘homeless turbines’ and a decline in turbine prices of 20 to 30 per cent in 2009 (2). And in Britain, emissions associated with government offices, though decreasing, are behind target (3).

For many, such developments suggest that capitalist resistance to greenery is considerable. After all, this month’s UN climate summit in Poznan, Poland, was inconclusive, settling a plan for what should be negotiated over the coming year rather than making any firm commitments. Meanwhile, greens have interpreted the EU’s ’20/20/20’ agreement, stitched up in Brussels by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the same time as the Poznan conference was in session, as just a token advance.

The EU agreed that by 2020 it will:

  • cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 20 per cent on 1990 levels;
  • raise energy efficiency enough to cut energy consumption by 20 per cent on projected levels;
  • raise the proportion of its energy supply that comes from renewable sources from about 8.5 per cent to 20 per cent.

Yet the EU also seemed to bow down to three lobbies. First, plans to make car manufacturers cut CO2 emissions to 130g/km by 2012 were modified to allow the cuts to be phased in more slowly, over 2012 to 2015 (4). Second, German and other general manufacturers, and especially those in heavy-emissions sectors such as steel, chemicals and cement, will get their permits to emit greenhouse gases free of charge until 2020 or later, rather than being compelled to pay for the permits at auctions. Third, coal-reliant central and east European energy suppliers won’t have to buy as many permits in the period from 2013 to 2020 as was originally planned.

With oil nice and cheap (at the time of writing, it’s at a five-year low of less than $35 a barrel), and a slump on everyone’s mind, today’s vulgar-but-popular economic determinism suggests that both investments in green energy and commitments to green targets and lifestyles are now giving way to realism.

All the President’s Greens

This is only one point of view. As one commentator has put it: ‘A more optimistic group of people say the recession may not only check unsustainable growth, but also provide breathing space for the world to move to more sensible policies. Governments, said leading greens, have a historic opportunity to “climate proof” their economies in response to economic troubles. Obama and Gordon Brown both said that millions of jobs could be created in green building, wind power, solar thermal and other green technologies.’ (5)

To portray the economic downturn as a welcome ‘breathing space’ is bizarre. Nevertheless, many hope that Obama can ‘out-green Poznan’ (6).

Liberal supporters of Obama were shocked by his recruitment of conservatives to look after the economy and defence (7), but a series of avowedly climate-friendly appointments to high offices has delighted greens. Obama’s new labour secretary, Hilda Solis, introduced the 2007 Green Jobs Act while a member of the House of Representatives. Similarly, Geoffrey Lean, the doyen of British green journalists, portrays Carole Browner, Obama’s coordinator of energy and climate policy, as ‘on the radical side of the party’ (8).

As with the old left, the capacity that greens have for self-delusion knows no bounds. Take the best of Obama’s appointments, Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Chu is director of the $650million Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a fan of second-generation (2G) cellulosic biofuels and an expert in solar energy. But his appointment shows that the manipulation of science and scientists for conservative ends has reached new heights.

Chu has said: ‘The history of innovation has taught us that, once people stop thinking politically and start thinking from a scientific point of view, surprisingly all the predictions of “We can’t do this” don’t seem to come true.’ (9)

In other words, people must stop thinking politically, and just obey ‘the scientific point of view’. And what is that point of view? Well, it means that, like every energy secretary before him, Chu’s main business will be the manufacture and maintenance of America’s nuclear weapons. As for nuclear power, Chu has written that it can make a significant contribution ‘only if major concerns related to capital cost, safety, and weapons proliferation are addressed’ – a list of provisos that in fact amounts to a prohibition (10). Chu has also said that ‘coal is my worst nightmare’, and raised fears that carbon capture and storage may prove unsafe (11).

Divided about nuclear and hostile to coal, it’s hardly surprising that, for all his professional attention to energy supply, Chu – like Obama – sets great store by energy conservation through measures of energy efficiency, as well as by putting a price on carbon. Chu has more than once observed that ‘you can’t conserve your way to a solution’ to climate change. But he has also lamented, in a thoroughly condescending way, that the problem with energy efficiency in the home is that ‘the American consumer would rather have a granite countertop’ (12).

Given his political inexperience and the sheer number of deeper-green Democrats that Obama has appointed to competing positions around him, America is unlikely to be treated to the rational side of Chu.

Much more worrying than Chu’s appointment is that of John Holdren as Obama’s chief scientific adviser. Holdren likes to co-author books with the arch-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich. While others spent the 1960s in revolt, Holdren spent much of 1965 to 1967 working for the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, and is somewhat of a specialist in national security (13).

For the London Observer, Holdren’s appointment deserved ‘widespread welcome’ (14). In fact, Holdren showed his true colours when he addressed a summer conference on climate change that was sponsored by consultants McKinsey, philanthropists the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Black Hawk helicopter manufacturers United Technologies and Dow, the company that took over Union Carbide (of Bhopal chemical disaster fame). Holdren’s speech was little more than one long alarmist rant, piling climatic disruption on to drastic, accelerating climate change, tipping points, wildfires, tropical cyclones, heatwaves and droughts (15).

A few rubbish jobs, but plenty of sabre-rattling

Obama’s headhunting amounts to a reinforcement of what spiked has called the New Scientism – the perversion of scientific data to reactionary political ends. Take Hilda Solis and her Green Jobs Act. It amounts to a paltry ($125million) programme to provide training, outreach and career guidance to, and data collection about, groups that include war veterans, the unemployed, ‘at-risk youth’ and ex-convicts.

What will these groups be doing? They will be working around renewable energy, recycling waste and energy efficiency, and they will spend a fair amount of time retrofitting draughty, poorly heated homes. And they will be doing this as part of an all-American quest for energy independence, national security, and consumer protection (16). Obama will introduce a bigger programme than that offered by Solis. But the number of new jobs will be relatively modest; protectionism in energy will be paramount.

Indeed, the ‘radicalism’ of Carole Browner is very relevant here. Browner ran America’s $7billion Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton. But she is also a principal at a firm named The Albright Group LLC. That’s named after Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state who, under Clinton, was one of the chief architects of America’s wars in Yugoslavia. And what does Browner’s company do? Among other things, it boasts of: ‘securing decision by Chinese government to enforce regulations within a regulated industry, giving client new tool to combat competitor’s unethical marketing practices’ (17). It’s nice to know that a firm based in Washington can ‘secure’ a favourable decision from the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

Securing favourable decisions from international rivals will also be the task of commerce secretary Bill Richardson. Once Clinton’s energy secretary, Richardson is likely to bring a convenient climate dimension to policy on imports to America. Richardson is a man who likes to play hard ball. Under Clinton, he arranged for public officials to name Wen Ho Lee, an atomic scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as a spy for China. He then saw to it that Lee, an American citizen with the misfortune of being born in Taiwan, was placed in solitary confinement before his trial. Clinton, the FBI, and the judge presiding over Lee all eventually apologised for their wrongful and shocking treatment of him. Richardson did not (18).

Obama and his team will ensure that America’s changing policy suits the country’s wider national interests. Just recently, France’s ambassador to the US traveled to the home of America’s oil industry, Houston, to crow that Obama had tuned in to the EU’s wavelength in relation to climate change. Meanwhile EU politicians announced that Sarkozy’s 20/20/20 deal was an example to the world. But these people are fooling themselves. Obama will go his way, not the EU’s way, on climate change.

Alarmism about climate will increase, and it will prove more powerful in its effects than any rise in temperature. A genuine cause for alarm was already registered at Poznan. There, delegates from the world’s developing countries said they wanted more than $80million of UN money to help them adapt to the consequences of climate change. But to their fury, the West rejected the idea.

In 2009, climate change will prompt loud, rancorous disagreements in international affairs, detaining diplomats as much, if not more, than tensions in the Middle East. And in every country, energy conservation, energy make-work and energy posturing looks set to substitute a genuine expansion and transformation of energy supply.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. With Joe Kaplinsky, who contributed to this article, he is co-author of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, to be published by Beautiful Books in January 2009. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons interviewed climate change sceptic Christopher Horner. James Heartfield saw protectionism and environmentalism as the culprits in the global food crisis. Tim Black reported from a spiked/CMP debate on the future of nuclear. Joe Kaplinsky examined debates around the oil crisis. Frank Furedi reviewed James Heartfield’s Green Capitalism. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Ucilia Wang, Solar Fraud Could Eliminate Spanish Market, greentechmedia, 15 December 2008

(2) Ethan Zindle, head of North American research at New Energy Finance, Podcast 76, 16 December 2008

(3) Sustainable Development Commission, Carbon Emissions from Offices Sustainable Development in Government, Seventh Annual Assessment, 2008

(4) For details, see European Parliament, European Parliament seals climate change package, press release, 17 December 2008

(5) John Vidal, Change, but at what price?, Guardian, 17 December 2008

(6) Obama can out-green Poznan, Independent on Sunday, 14 December 2008

(7) See Memo to Obama-crush liberals: he’s just not that into you, by Sean Collins

(8) Geoffrey Lean, Obama cranks up the green revolution, Independent on Sunday, 21 December 2008

(9) Quoted in Rick DelVecchio, A warming world: as warnings grow more dire, Nobelist emerges as leader, San Francisco Chronicle, 5 March 2007

(10) InterAcademy Council, Lighting the way: Toward a sustainable energy future, Second half, October 2007, p154. Chu was co-chairman of the panel that produced this report.

(11) Steven Chu, The Energy Problem: What the Helios Project Can Do About It, YouTube, 28 minutes 19 seconds and 35 minutes 53 seconds (coal a nightmare), 31 minutes 17 seconds (dangers of CCS)

(12) Matthew L Wald, Steven Chu; Obama’s Inner Circle: Members and Maybes, New York Times, 10 December 2008

(13) Staff CV, Woods Hole Research Center

(14) At last, science gets a champion, The Observer, 21 December 2008

(15) See Holdren, The Science of Climatic Disruption, Plenary Session 1: The Science and Physical Implications of Climate Change. His slides can be downloaded here

(16) New Direction for Energy Independence, National Security, and Consumer Protection Act, House of Representatives, 110th Congress, 1st session, 30 July 2007

(17) The Albright Group LLC, What we do

(18) George Koo, Remember Richardson’s sorry role in Wen Ho Lee case, San Francisco Chronicle Open Forum, 8 December 2008

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Topics Science & Tech


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