Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Energy saving &/or the nuclear option

In April last year, I posted a guest article about energy saving, written by Paul Parrish of QCEA. He was writing in response to an earlier post of mine about the then current state of the nuclear debate. I posted a comment in response to him, writing:
I don't, of course, disagree with anything that Paul says here. All of this is obviously necessary. The question is: is it sufficient? Sufficient, that is, to enable an orderly transition to a low/zero carbon world, and not a chaotic collapse of the present order. There's more interesting discussion of all this on the Political Climate blog.

Paul had planned to post a response to my comment, but there were technical problems . . . anyway, he's now sent me a piece, and I'm happy to post it here. It's also a 'farewell and best wishes' to Paul, whose position at QCEA ends in a few days' time.

Paul writes:

Second-order change: energy savings & social efficacy

It's a good question, thank you for your comment.

First of all, rationally, and as far as I am aware, even with 80% energy efficiency globally, we will still have to make difficult lifestyle choices elsewhere – making it a really difficult task, on the back of an incredibly big ask. So yes, by implication, you are correct. But if this vision looks implausible, consider the alternatives; we simply can not go on living beyond our means.

While it's true there is no silver bullet to meet our energy needs, there are also definitely a number of duds that we need to remove from further consideration as soon as possible. [Once again, and at the risk of repeating myself, there are faster, cheaper, and less environmentally damaging ways of realising our sustainable energy potential than by embracing nuclear.] By doing so, and grasping with both hands the genuinely sustainable energy solutions with the greatest potential (at the lowest cost!), we also bring the sufficiency threshold closer, making it easier to obtain.

It is also imperative that we avoid the self-fulfilling premise that energy savings and efficiency can't help to meet Europe's energy requirements. As long as the conventional wisdom remains that efficiency savings will be no more than a marginal contributor to our sustainable energy solution in the foreseeable future, policy-makers, private investors and members of the public will be less inclined to take the moon-shot that would allow truly sustainable energy to achieve its full potential.

For me, our supply of energy does not primarily depend on the availability of "natural resources", but on the awareness and the human potential we have at our disposal. First of all, we should recognise and counter the tendency in society to belittle and ‘fence in’ the change required – a tendency promoted so that people can carry on life as normal. Secondly, we need to actively counter the undermining effect of low self- or social-efficacy – the belief that nothing can be done. Research shows that where self-efficacy is low people do not adopt ambitious goals and give up easily when they encounter setbacks in pursuing them. This is, for example, the case with addicts who do not believe that they can maintain sustained control over their habit.

More importantly, as long as problems are seen as merely transactional decisions, and we continue to devote most of our resources to technological solutions, rather than scaling up human-change processes, we will only manage first-order change. That is to say, we will only manage the minor tweaks and the improvements at the margins of our existing cognitive, behavioural, social, and institutional systems that leave the basic goals, structures and – most importantly – outcomes of those systems in tact. Change that gets results – second-order change – is needed. Resembling a social alchemy of sorts, second-order change results in authentically transformative shifts in values, beliefs, and thought processes that produce fundamentally different types of behaviours, practices, institutions, technologies and policies. The challenge being, second-order change does happen(!), but principally through major crisis(!!).

And that is why this is a Quaker issue. Genuine sufficiency not only depends critically on our approach to risk, but also our inward transformation. While I agree, it is absolutely crucial to foster scientifically informed, evidence-based sufficiency policies, frankly, none of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess, because no forecast, scenario or 'roadmap' is ever going to give a sufficiently correct prediction of our mutual future. Which is unfortunately anathema to a political class eager to believe that nature’s complexity has been mastered. But more significantly, because Quakers have distinctive gifts that the World needs, namely:

• our listening spirituality;
• our approach to discerning the greater good; and
• our experience of striving to live according to that discernment, even when it cuts against societal norms.

And thus, in the spirit of the radical Quaker tradition, by highlighting the tremendous potential and underutilisation of energy savings in our sustainable energy challenge, my purpose is to make hope possible, rather than despair (nuclear power) convincing.

Thanks to Paul for this post.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Why we find it so hard to act against climate change

Last week I commented on the fact that we know what we should be doing about climate change - the question is: why aren't we doing it?

This week's guest post comes from George Marshall who wrote this article for Climate Action, the Winter 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Unlike the science, which evolves as we gather new data, the human behavioural conundrums are are pretty much unchanged in the almost three years since George first wrote this.

George is founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN). He is the author of Carbon Detox: Your Step by Step Guide to Getting Real About Climate Change and posts articles on the psychology of climate change.

So, with many thanks to George for his permission to use this text, here is his take on:

Solving the 'It’s Not My Problem' problem: a psychologist's view on what keeps us from coming to terms with the climate crisis.

It should be easy to deal with climate change. There is a strong scientific consensus supported by very sound data; consensus across much of the religious and political spectrum and among businesses including the largest corporations in the world.

The vast majority of people claim to be concerned. The targets are challenging, but they are achievable with existing technologies, and there would be plentiful profits and employment available for those who took up the challenge.

So why has so little happened? Why do people who claim to be very concerned about climate change continue their high-carbon lifestyles? And why, as the warnings become ever louder, do increasing numbers of people reject the arguments of scientists and the evidence of their own eyes?

These, I believe, will be the key questions for future historians of the unfurling climate disaster, just as historians of the Holocaust now ask: 'How could so many good and moral people know what was happening and yet do so little?'

This comparison with mass human rights abuses is a surprisingly useful place to find some answers to these questions. In States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen studies how people living under repressive regimes resolve the conflict they feel between the moral imperative to intervene and the need to protect themselves and their families. He found that people deliberately maintain a level of ignorance so that they can claim they know less than they do. They exaggerate their own powerlessness and wait indefinitely for someone else to act first—a phenomenon that psychologists call the passive bystander effect. Both strategies lie below the surface of most of the commonly held attitudes to climate change.

But most interesting is Cohen’s observation that societies also negotiate collective strategies to avoid action. He writes:
'Without being told what to think about (or what not to think about) societies arrive at unwritten agreements about what can be publicly remembered and acknowledged.'

Dr. Kari Marie Norgaard of the University of California reaches a very similar conclusion, and argues that 'denial of global warming is socially constructed'. She observes that most people are deeply conflicted about climate change and manage their anxiety and guilt by excluding it from the cultural norms defining what they should pay attention to and think about—what she calls their 'norms of attention'.
According to Norgaard, most people have tacitly agreed that it is socially inappropriate to pay attention to climate change. It does not come up in conversations, or as an issue in voting, consumption, or career choices. We are like a committee that has decided to avoid a thorny problem by conspiring to make sure that it never makes it onto the agenda of any meeting.

There are many different ways that the proximity of climate change could force itself onto our agendas. We already feel the impacts in our immediate environment. Scientists and politicians urge us to act. The impacts directly threaten our personal and local livelihoods. And, above all, it is our consumption and affluence that is causing it. 

However, people have decided that they can keep climate change outside their 'norms of attention' through a selective framing that creates the maximum distance. In opinion poll research the majority of people will define it as far away ('it’s a global problem, not a local problem') or far in the future ('it’s a huge problem for future generations'). They embrace the tiny cluster of skeptics as evidence that 'it’s only a theory', and that 'there is still a debate'. And they strategically shift the causes as far away as possible: 'I’m not the problem—it’s the Chinese/rich people/corporations'. Here in Europe we routinely blame the Americans.

In all of these examples, people have selected, isolated, and then exaggerated the aspects of climate change that best enable their detachment. And, ironically, focus-group research suggests that people are able to create the most distance when climate change is categorized as an 'environmental' problem.

If we take a step back we can see that the impacts of climate change are so wide-ranging that it could equally well be defined as a major economic, military, agricultural, or social rights issue. But its causes (mainly pollution from burning fossil fuels) led it to be bundled with the global 'environmental' issues during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. From that point on it has been dealt with by environment ministers and environment departments, and talked about in the media by environmental reporters.

The issue was then championed by environmental campaigners who stamped it indelibly with the images of global wildlife and language of self abnegation that spoke to their own concerns. The current messaging of climate change—the polar bears, burning forests, calls to 'live simply so others may simply live' and 'go green to save the planet'—has been filtered through a minority ideology and worldview.
Thus, within a few years, the issue had been burdened with a set of associations and metaphors that allowed the general public to exclude it from their primary concerns ('I’m not an environmentalist'), as could senior politicians ('environment is important but jobs and defense are my priority').


Progressive civil society organizations also avoided the issue because of its environmental connotations. Two years ago I challenged a senior campaigner with Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organization, to explain why Amnesty did not mention climate change anywhere on its website. He agreed that it is an important issue but felt that Amnesty 'doesn’t really do environmental issues'. In other words it was outside their 'norms of attention'.

Far more aggressive responses that stigmatize environmentalists create further distance. In a 2007 interview, Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, the world’s largest budget airline, said:
'The environmentalists are like the peace nutters in the 1970s. You can’t change the world by putting on a pair of dungarees or sandals. I listen to all this drivel about turning down the central heating, going back to candles, returning to the dark ages. It just panders to your middle-class, middle-aged angst and guilt. It is just another way of stealing things from hard-pressed consumers.'

O’Leary’s diatribe—which could be echoed by any number of right-wing commentators in the United States—plays further on the cultural norms theme. By defining climate change as an environmental issue that can be placed firmly in the domain of self-righteous killjoys who want to take away working people’s hard-earned luxuries, his message is clear: 'People like us don’t believe this rubbish.'
But, as is so often the case with climate change, O’Leary is speaking to far more complex metaphors about freedom and choice. Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that an October 2008 American Climate Values Survey showed that three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that 'too much fuss is made about global warming'. Another poll by the Canadian firm Haddock Research showed half of Republicans refuse to believe that it is caused by humans.

This political polarization is occurring across the developed world and is a worrying trend. If a disbelief in climate change becomes a mark of someone’s political identity, it is far more likely to be shared between people who know and trust each other, becoming ever more entrenched and resistant to external argument.

This being said, climate change is a fast-moving field. Increasingly severe climate impacts will reinforce the theoretical warnings of scientists with far more tangible and immediate evidence. And looking back at history there are plentiful examples of times when public attitudes have changed suddenly in the wake of traumatic events—as with the U.S. entry into both world wars.

In the meantime there is an urgent need to increase both the level and quality of public engagement. To date most information has either been in the form of very dry top-down presentations and reports by experts or emotive, apocalyptic warnings by campaign groups and the media. The film An Inconvenient Truth, which sat somewhere between the two approaches, reinforced the existing avoidance strategies: that this was a huge and intractable global issue. The film was carried by the charm and authority of Al Gore, but this reliance on powerful celebrities also removes power from individuals who are, let us remember, all too willing to agree that there is no useful role they can play.

It is strange that climate communications seem to be so deeply embedded in this 19th-century public lecture format, especially in America, which leads the world in the study of personal motivation. Al Gore, after all, lost a political campaign against a far less qualified opponent whose advisors really understood the psychology of the American public.

How people get involved
How can we energize people and prevent them from passively standing by?

We must remember that people will only accept a challenging message if it speaks to their own language and values and comes from a trusted communicator. For every audience these will be different: The language and values of a Lubbock Christian will be very different from those of a Berkeley Liberal. The priority for environmentalists and scientists should be to step back and enable a much wider diversity of voices and speakers.

We must recognize that the most trusted conveyors of new ideas are not experts or celebrities but the people we already know. Enabling ordinary people to take personal ownership of the issue and talk to each other in their own words is not just the best way to convince people, it is the best way to force climate change back into people’s “norms of attention.”

And finally we need to recognize that people are best motivated to start a journey by a positive vision of their destination—in this case by understanding the real and personal benefits that could come from a low-carbon world. However, it is not enough to prepare a slide show and glossy report vision that just creates more distance and plays to the dominant prejudice against environmental fantasists. People must see the necessary change being made all around them: buildings in entire neighbourhoods being insulated and remodeled, electric cars in the driveway, and everywhere the physical adaptations we need to manage for the new weather conditions. If the U.S. government has one strategy, it should be to create such a ubiquity of visible change that the transition is not just desirable but inevitable. We need to emphasize that this is not some distant and intractable global warming, but a very local and rapid climate change, and we need to proclaim it from every solar-panel-clad rooftop.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How many months to save the planet?

You may remember the big publicity campaign that was launched on 1 August 2008 called '100 Months to Save the Planet'. What interests me about this is that, at the time, '100 months' sounded frighteningly short (quite rightly so) but looking back now, August 2008 feels like a long time ago. This is an effect of our media-induced very short-term attention-span. As I pointed out last week, the big panic about the Arctic ice-melt faded from the news media faster than an ice-cube in a sauna.

But now we're down to 50 months - half of that very short time has vanished already, during which Britain's 'greenest government ever' has been exposed as a sick joke, the new Minister at the Department of the Environment reportedly doesn't believe in human-induced climate change, and the George Osborne, as chancellor, wants to reduce and weaken the few 'green' requirements that we have. The big worry of governments and business is 'lack of growth', whereas a contracting manufacturing economy might buy us a little breathing space - a few months, perhaps - in relation to the damage we're doing to the planet.

But what is it that will happen in '50 months' (or thereabouts)? This is about what are called climate 'tipping points', where events occur from which there is no turning back, and this is why the arctic ice-melt is so significant. When large areas of open water become ice-free in the summer, the winter freeze produces a much thinner ice layer, which in turn melts more quickly the following year. When the Arctic warms so that the permafrost starts to melt (is no longer 'permanent') the melting of this soil, rich in decayed but frozen organic matter, releases methane into the atmosphere; methane is a greenhouse gas, so warming produces more warming . . . and so on. After such events become established we lose the capacity to return to the climate state that we had before, and something new and unknown is inevitably coming down the tracks at us.

Andrew Simms, of new economics foundation, is heading up a new 50 month awareness initiative. There's an interactive section on The Guardian's website where invited contributors and readers propose new ways forward. Andrew's own article for The Guardian explains the position, and the actions needed. To people on nef's email list, he asks, 'What will you do?'

In my Swarthmore Lecture book, addressing the same question, I wrote that it involved
all the easy things we already know about, but may not have yet implemented in our own lives – and we are aware what they are: insulate our houses, use less gas and electricity, reduce our travelling and change our means of travel, eat less meat (or none at all), reduce all consumption and waste, re-use, repair and recycle everything we can, shop less and shop local, reduce food miles, grow your own, compost food waste, buy without packaging, cook fresh food from scratch instead of buying processed food . . . and so on. Many of us are already doing some of this, some of the time; we all need to do all of it, all of the time, consistently and reliably, forever.
These are all individual actions - we know what to do, and the question is why we aren't doing it. I'll write about that on another occasion. In the book I also wrote:
Beyond our private lives, how about tackling the carbon emissions of the places where we work? This might involve us in difficult conversations with management; if we are ‘the management’, then it might involve us in difficult conversations with trustees or shareholders; if we are the trustees or shareholders, then it’s time we faced the fact that increased costs or reduced profits in the short term are not an argument for doing nothing.

And then there’s our local area, the place where we live and the local government structures there. Have we got Transition Town activity already happening? If so, are we involved? If not, can we, as Quakers, help to start it?

Do we know what our local councillors are doing, or not doing, about sustainability? Are they actively supporting local food initiatives and markets? Are they actively seeking land to supply more allotments and get hopeful growers off the waiting list? Can we find out, question them, make it an election issue for next time? Might a few more of us be called to take our Quaker values into the public, political arena and stand for election as local councillors.

What about our local MPs? Do we know their views? We can start writing letters, holding public figures to account. These are all the basic minimal things that every responsible citizen needs to do, whether or not they have any religious underpinning. For those of us who profess a faith, how can we countenance doing less?