Category Archives: PR

Is the UK debate about energy being framed by nuclear industry PR to exclude sustainablity?

Rose Glow

For the last couple of years we’ve been hearing stories about the long-rumoured plans to build a number of new nuclear power stations in the UK.

One thing I don’t see any discussion of is reducing UK demand for grid power by improving our energy-efficiency and by integrated local energy schemes. I think it’s a great pity that demand reduction has been largely left off the media agenda and that the subject of new nuclear builds is being framed in terms of the need for extra grid capacity and excludes any discussion of reducing demand for unsustainable energy systems.

Spin: Nuclear Power will save us from Climate Change

The latest PR justification for scaling up nuclear power in the UK is that it helps to mitigate the effects of climate change and will reduce our dependence on e.g. Russian natural gas over the coming decades. This is not exactly a cut-and-dried argument however. There is currently some debate over whether nuclear energy does have a significant net effect on greenhouse emissions and whether it’s even a viable source of energy, if the costs are fully accounted and limits to the supplies of high-purity ores are considered.

Here’s a site with a great deal of detailed information making a strong case against nuclear power being able to live up to the promises being made for it.

The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favourable conditions, approximately one-third as much CO2-emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within three years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly.

The arguments to this effect are presented at a technical level comparable to a popular science article in this article

There are other more technical documents available on the site for anyone who wants the heavy details, but that article I linked is pretty accessible.

There is clear evidence of a pro-nuclear industry PR campaign in the UK, which will explicitly try to leverage the climate change argument.

Regaining public acceptance of nuclear power will be one of the PR world’s biggest challenges according to PR guru, Dejan Vercic. Speaking at the 2004 AGM of the UK’s Institute of Public Relations, in June, he said that within 5-10 years PR agencies would have to win back the nuclear industry’s (and biotechnology’s) “licence to operate”.

As the articles I quoted above illustrate, the issues are already being framed in terms of meeting demand using nuclear, rather than reducing that demand. The media debate we’re being presented with currently frames the question about the UK building more nuclear plants, in such a way that improving efficiency of energy use and reducing demand is already excluded in advance. In fact, it appears that no serious consideration of this approach has been made at government level and it is not being discussed in the media now that the debate has reached the public sphere.

I’m suggesting that it should be on the agenda for public debate.

Simply saying “there is no alternative” doesn’t convince me one bit.

According to the Carbon Trust, who aren’t proposing any sort of radical measures, the average business can cut use by 10-30% cost-effectively. At the family level, something on the order of 46,000 kW/hr per household per annum of overall savings are forseeable, through better insulation, by rationalising transport and by evolving away from supermarket consumption of industrial agriculture products and towards sustainable local food systems

In addition, integrated community energy systems can usefully be employed to take a large chunk of the remaining demand away from the national grid.

None of these measures seem to be up for discussion in what passes for public debate on these matters.

Instead the debate is being framed as “Do you want Nuclear or Climate Change?” which seems like industy PR bullshit to me.

The problem I’m describing above seems to me to illustrate one of the key issues with privatizing public services, in this case energy services. When it’s a matter of maximising profitability, the firms in question deliberately distort the debate with the aid of PR companies and lobbyists in order to survive.

Whereas if we were maximising sustainability, a very different set of solutions which are potentially detrimental to the profitability of those firms would tend to emerge. These are precisely the kinds of solutions which are invisible in the public debate we’re now witnessing about the UK’s energy future.

I would frame the question differently. Instead of saying “Do you want nuclear or climate change?” let’s frame it as “Do you want an Enron-ised energy future or a sustainable one?” Markets and the state will never give us the latter of their own accord, so if we want to put real sustainability on the agenda we have to put it there ourselves.

It may perhaps be that nuclear is the only feasible alternative in the circumstances, but I don’t think it’s legitimate to act as though that were a given, without first showing how these other possibilities were considered and eliminated for reasons supported by proper evidence.

Alternatives

There are obviously a great many possibilities. The one I’m most interested in is community level autonomous action to reduce demand. The most effective measure overall, when you do the maths, is probably moving towards sustainable food systems, e.g. by urban agriculture, effective nutrient reclamation and ruralisation measures to reduce food system energy inputs.

In terms of grid electricity, it’s probably insulation and passive measures, followed by integrated community energy systems. (e.g. Combined Heat and Power, various kinds of solar, local storage etc.)

It’s worth considering though, just to get a baseline on this issue, that when the Soviet Union went out of business, Cuba had to adjust to losing, and that means losing virtually overnight, not just 70-odd% of its energy inputs but 70-odd% of its food imports, fertilisers and pesticides and 80-odd% of its raw material inputs. They had a really tough decade or so, but they managed to adapt

We’re talking about building a whole bunch of nuclear plants, a short-term measure at best given the global supply of high-quality ores, apparently in order to cover a much smaller shortfall, someone above said 20%. That seems rather odd unless you factor in the impact of nuclear industry lobbying.

Getting Sustainability onto the Agenda

I think autonomously doing something about it ourselves is an excellent way to help put it on the agenda, because it demonstrates in a concrete way that reducing demand and improving effciency is quite possible. If you can get a whole bunch of people moving in that direction together, its also a flat challenge to the corporate/state approach, and it forces the issue, especially when combined with well-established environmentalist campaigning methods for doing that stuff.

One straightfoward thing to do is start badgering the media and your MP and so on via a letter writing campaign for leaving this question off the agenda.

Where is the uncertainty in climate change?

Industrial Mordor

It occurs to me that it might be useful to summarise just where, to the best of my knowledge at least, the scientific uncertainty is, given that PR organisations being paid to misinform the public by large corporations and loony right-wing millionaires, often like to exploit it.

First thing to say is that some things are well established. The science predicting the ‘greenhouse effect’ has been around a long time and is not in doubt (I’m going to take the phrase ‘among qualified scientists writing in relevant and respected peer reviewed journals … ‘ etc. as read here to save repeating it every paragraph) That we humans have significantly changed the quantities of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is not in doubt. We also understand pretty well the additional amount of solar energy these gasses (see this diagram ) trap in the climate system. We know that the Earth’s surface temperature has warmed significantly since we started burning fossil fuels and destroying forests etc.

When we put all these things together, by building mathematical models of what the science says should happen and what the data says did happen, they correspond closely enough that we can now conclude with reasonable certainty that the steady increase in average temperature is mainly due to greenhouse gases we caused to be emitted. Here are some graphs showing the predictions of the models against the data for real temperature changes.

In order to test this conclusion, more and more detailed models have been built and their more detailed predictions have been tested against real data.Increasingly, they show that the models accurately predict the data. So increasingly, science concludes that human-induced warming is for real. As we are continuing to increase the levels of greenhouse gasses to the point where the models predict very alarming things There are grounds for grave concern and hence increasingly strong calls from the scientific community for action.

Now if you follow that ‘very alarming’ link above, you’ll see the uncertainty ranges within the various different climate models shown as I-shaped bars. Each one shows the predictions for a different set of assumptions about the next 100 years. You can find details here basically they are different assumptions about how the global economy and population develop to 2100.

There are some consequences that are fairly straightforward to predict, for a given rise in temperature. For example, that 0.5-1.5m rise in sea level is pretty straightforward to predict and hence can be considered high-probability. Other changes are triggered at some hard to determine threshold though. For example the irreversable melting of major ice sheets and the switching off of the Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation are predicted to happen at some point if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise, but we’re not really sure a) what that point is and b) how much more emissions will rise given that we don’t yet know the outcome of the struggle between those who want to mitigate the effects now and those who want to keep emitting (and who are currently paying PR companies to lie about all this stuff so they can)

This brings us to the realm of value judgements, another area of uncertainty. In general, the PR people push some combination of three propaganda lines.

1) The science doesn’t prove this is happening (it does, see links above)
2) It’ll be fine anyway, we like warm weather (150million refugees is nice?)
3) It’ll be too expensive to fix (define “too expensive” you corporate leech)

The thing is, the science does prove this is happening, but it’s harder to show exactly what the effects will be. Some of them are regional for a start. So it’s not just a matter of uniform warming. It’s also a matter of changes in weather patterns and knock on effects like the extinction of species providing valuable ecosystem services or the wider spread of disease causing species.

So there is a sort of cascade of uncertainty. The basic climate models have some uncertainty in them but we pretty much understand how much. They can’t predict local weather in detail though, because limitations in computing power mean they have to work in units rather larger than Belgium and you need to model much smaller units to get an accurate idea of what effect a given mountain or forest has on local weather conditions. Once you get down to knock-on effects, like where and when crop failures will occur, or just when Wales becomes malarial, the uncertainty is also magnified by the inherent uncertainty of predicting behaviour in complex natural systems.

In addition, we have some potential problems with very grave impacts where the problem occurs at some undetermined threshold. One might use smoking as a metaphor here. We know it can cause cancer, but we can’t say with confidence just exactly how many cigarettes one needs to smoke to get it.

There are well established techniques for dealing with these kinds of uncertainty in science though, and they’ve been used as far as possible, but in the end, value judgements must be made and the uncertainty becomes polticial. The people you find regurgitating Exxon-sponsored disinformation online may be propaganda-spewing drones with damaged critical faculties, but it’s extremely unlikely that the CEO of Exxon is such a credulous dimwit.

Behind the PR, some calculations are being made and primarily I think, the last of the three points above is the one that counts. A value judgement has been made, by many political and business leaders that their interests will be better served by continuing economic growth and business as usual, no matter what the consequences for e.g. people in places like Bangladesh and especially, for people in Africa where the effects are likely to be severe even under some of the more moderate scenarios.

Mitigating action centres on limiting the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Usually this is expressed as parts per million of CO2, the main greenhouse gas at present. In pre-industrial times, the level was stable in the range 180-300ppm, it’s now heading for 430ppm CO2 equivalent and rising fast.

One of the papers from the recent Met Office conference Parry (pdf!) suggests the following relationship between stabilisation levels and dangerous consequences.

Indications are:
– Stabilisation at 750ppm does not avoid most dangerous effects and very possibly triggers runaway climate change
– Stabilisation at 550ppm probably does avoid most, but at considerable human cost (this is the target suggested in the Stern Review)
– Stabilisation at 400ppm avoids dangerous effects.

The problem here is that we’re almost at 450ppm already and even the actions to stablise around 550ppm are being violently resisted by any number of wealthy interests. This is primarily because they imply significant costs (~1-3% of GDP) and distruption to the business models of some major companies. It’s also probably not unconnected to the high probability that the worst of the suffering associated with scenarios in the over-500ppm range are likely to be experienced by people in third-world countries who a) get the worst of the effects anyway in many cases and b) are much less able to mobilise economic and technical resources to mitigate the damage effects. (Although the Stern Report argues for using the IMF to make them accept adaptation on credit)

Between 550 and 750ppm though, the science increasingly strongly suggests that things start to get very bad for all of us. This is the level where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Greenland starting an irreversable disintegration and adding several metres to sea levels becomes a significant probability and numerous major cities are under threat from rising seas. Where billions experience water shortage (pdf!), food shortage (pdf!) and disease (pdf!) because weather effects, changes in rainfall patterns and so on are likely to get so extreme that they’re highly damaging to ecological systems on a global scale. This is the level where our remaining tropical forests are likely to become a net carbon source (pdf!) rather than a carbon sink and various other threshold effects and postive feedback loops may come into play leading to a significant likelihood of rapidly accelerating climate change, taking us into apocalyptic territory. Some of these effects, for example ~20m sea-level rises, even if emissions then stablised, are irreversable over thousands of years.

Even if we somehow stabilised at 450ppm right now, various other factors like population growth, soil erosion and so on are very likely to cause significant food shortages through much of the developing world this century. On the higher emission scenarios though, if business as usual (unconstrained CO2 emissions, unconstrained deforestation and so on, taking us beyond 750ppm) continues to 2100, we’re probably facing mass starvation for hundreds of millions in the third world and significant shortages even in much of the developed world, along with wars over water and hundreds of millions of starving refugees trying to escape to less damaged environments. As far as I can tell from the science, this is the world that corporate interests are foisting on us to protect their “prosperity”

The Heidelberg Appeal – A case study in climate change disinformation

Rock Ferry Oil Terminal

The Heidelberg Appeal was the brainchild of PR wizard Michel Salomon and was associated with his PR front-group the International Centre for Scientific Ecology An organisation which had the grand-daddy of all professional science deniers, Dr Fred Singer on its board. Salomon is now associated with SEPP, one of Singer’s other front groups (there is a fairly rapid turnover of these groups, as they get recognised for what they are, new ones need to be created to preserve the illusion) – a group part-funded by the Rev Sun Myung Moon.

The clever trick about the Heidelberg Appeal was to make it sufficiently vague and to include wording about ecology that many reasonable scientists endorsed, including the 49 of their 72 Nobel Laureates who also signed the World Scientists Warning to Humanity at approximately the same time. The nature of the second document makes it very doubtful that the 49 laureates who signed both would have had much respect for the uses to which the Heidelberg Appeal was then put by the PR people who originally circulated and promoted it. Here is a collection of documents demonstrating the agendas of the PR people behind the Heidelberg AppealDesigner Front Group is a particularly juicy specimen. Salomon appears to have been initially funded by the tobacco industry, who were early pioneers of many of these techniques while they were trying to dispute the science that showed their products were carcinogenic.

Salomon’s associate Fred Singer was also responsible for the Leipzig Declaration a similar use of the third party scam, which also succeded in the purpose of getting lots of favourable press and in misleading members of the general public into thinking that numerous qualified scientists had serious doubts about climate change. This document was produced several years after the Heidelberg Appeal and it appears that real scientists had become wary of PR scams by then, because its signatories are quite as dodgy as those who signed Seitz’s fake NAS petition

Seitz appears to have become involved in science denial in the late 70’s when he was paid to lend his scientific reputation (in electronics) to pioneering cancer disinformation campaigns run by major tobacco companies. Seitz, along with Singer and Balunias (one of the authors of that article attacking Mann’s research that caused the editors of Climate Science to resign) are also members of numerous similar industry funded PR front groups identified in this useful little page from the Union of Concerned Scientists. For example, Soon and Balunias are employed, along with Seitz by the Exxon funded Marshall Institute who are also currently involved in a UK campaign, with the Scientific Alliance PR front group, to cast doubts on climate science.

This then is the core of the anti-science propaganda technique, pioneered by cancer merchants but now adopted by the energy lobby. Get something superficially plausible into the popular press, endorsed by the same tiny group of PR-friendly scientists and media pundits associated with almost all of these PR front groups, which causes the public to believe incorrectly that there is significant doubt among qualified scientists about some science your clients find inconvenient. Then just keep doing it shamelessly whatever the vast majority of scientists, writing in peer-reviewed journals that the general public doesn’t read, are saying.

That way the public gets this vague sense that the science is unproven or somehow doubtful, unless they check what the vast majority of qualified scientists are saying in peer-reviewed journals. Which most of them probably don’t. They just vaguely remember hearing there were scientists who had doubts about climate change.

[Update] The Union of Concerned Scientists has just published a report which confirms the case I’m making above and adds a great deal of substantive detail on how this approach has been funded over the last few years, including tables showing how $16m of Exxon’s money has been disbursed to the same small group of professional climate change sceptics mentioned above.