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.


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.

2007 – Will Brown do anything useful about climate change, or just try to make money off it?

Mersey View

A big piece of the Arctic broke off the other day. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to review the situation with regard to climate change and to do a bit of speculation about what the next year may bring. The big event towards the end of last year was the publication of the Stern Review, produced at the behest of the British government. It’s probably a fair indicator of what Gordon Brown’s policies on climate change mitigation are likely to be, and since Blair is likely to finally leave office (not alas via a short boat-ride from Parliament to Traitors’ Gate, as he so richly deserves) those are the policies that are most immediately relevant in the UK.

Stern Review

Here’s the URL for the Stern Review site at the Treasury.

Stern is proposing policy aimed at stabilising emissions at around a 550 ppm CO2 equivalent, a figure which on most projections I’ve seen indicates some serious risks. Particularly to people in the developing world. (According to the Hadley Centre model, 550ppm has about a 70% probability of taking us to +3C)

What he’s saying is in effect ‘450 is not achieveable without giving up growth, so let’s just forget about it.’

He’s then saying (and here I’m paraphrasing something he explicitly says) If we can reduce emissions by 1-3% per year, while growth continues at rates that can satisfy investors and if some optimistic assumptions about the biosphere’s ability to regulate atmospheric greenhouse gasses are and remain true while we experience the effects of the emissions that have already happened, then stabilisation at 550 ppm may be feasible.

I say ‘remain true’, because one of the unpleasant things that the models say is quite likely around 550ppm is that several key carbon sinks stop working so it’s by no means certain that his assumptions about the rate at which the biosphere can self-regulate greenhouse gases will apply if we’re going to approach 550ppm. That in turn calls into serious question his assumption that by reducing emissions growth by 1-3% per annum will do the trick, even if that is possible while growth increases at a rate acceptable to investors, which I personally beg leave to doubt.

At 550ppm, we’re also in with a strong chance of seeing melting ice sheets, sea level rises of several metres and possibly runaway feedback caused by things like methane release due to melting permafrost and such.

He’s talking about maybe stabilising at 550ppm, if a whole lot of things come together for his approach. Meanwhile a lot of people in the poor South are in very bad trouble, which is why he mostly discusses adaptation (ie learning to live with sea level rises, fresh water shortages, ecosystem collapses etc) in connection with the developing world. It also looks like part of the growth he’s so keen on is going to come from lending them the money to adapt, so they can buy seeds with adapted genetics (presumably for growing under 2m of seawater) from Monsanto etc. Ch 12 and 26 make that bit fairly clear.

What he seems to be trying to do is make a case that by doing a little bit of regulatory fiddling here, at little bit of taxing there and a tiny bit of pump-priming where there is no alternative, that reducing carbon emissions globally can be turned into an attractive investment opportunity. I can see that if this were to be the case, they’d be able to keep economic growth and maybe there would be some impact on carbon emissions too.

If you’re still promoting economic growth in the developed world though, which is his primary objective, how can this possibly result in lowering carbon emissions sufficiently to level out at some reasonable target figure?

This bit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. For that to happen, economic growth would have to somehow be separated from the strong correlation with energy use which has historically existed, so that the one could carry on growing while the other levelled out and started to fall to the point where it could be sustained by solar flows rather than fossil fuel stocks.

I’m sure that by promoting investment in efficiency, alternatives and so on, you can get closer to the most carbon efficient system for a given level of growth. But if you’re still getting a fat return on investment, which seems to be his priority over and above mitigating climate change, the overall trend is still onwards and upwards.

You’ve still got a bunch of destructive positive feedback loops running, albeit slightly damped down in places. So I don’t see how you can still keep the economy growing, without eventually busting whatever limit you set.

In the quotes on the Stern Review web page, Paul Wolfowitz (who despite demonstrating that he is an incompetent moron over Iraq is now President of the World Bank) says how he really approves of the report and how he and his pal Gordon Brown will be getting together next year to put together an energy investment framework for sustainable development that will ‘stimulate private investment.’

I’m sure everybody will feel much better for knowing that .. right?


The problem as I see it with the Stern report is that it condemns several hundred million people in the developing world to experience the effects of severe climate change. This is already happening due to the 430-odd ppm CO2 equivalent already in the atmosphere.

This is why many greens, based on the science, are arguing for a target in the vicinity of 450 ppm CO2e, which Stern dismisses as ‘too expensive’ to achieve, quickly moving on to the many delightful opportunities offered by climate change mitigation and adaptation for profitable capital investment.

This is the reason why I would call continued economic growth into question, not because I believe poverty and economic recession is morally uplifting in some perverse way, but because continuing with an economy that crashes if annual economic growth drops below a certain figure seems to me fundamentally incompatible with sustainability. In this case (there are other arguments than climate change) because there is sod all chance of stabilising at a reasonable figure while continuing to depend on economic growth year on year to stop the economy falling to bits around our ears.

If you take a look at the papers delivered at last year’s Hadley Centre conference, which represents the current state of scientific knowledge on dangerous climate change impacts, e.g. this pdf … it’s pretty clear that:

a) We want to stablise under 2C average temperature rise if we possibly can, otherwise a whole lot of really bad stuff almost certainly happens and some truly awful stuff very probably happens, especially to the poor South.

b) If we aim for 550ppm CO2 equivalent, as Stern proposes, the probability of overshooting +2C is 70-99%. More likely we end up at least +3C, maybe worse because that’s the threshold where several key carbon sinks stop working. See e.g. this pdf

Stern’s report targets a threshold (assuming they could really stabilise at 550ppm CO2 equivalent in the way he proposes) where we have a russian roulette player’s chance of avoiding runaway climate change, and where the impacts on the UK, US and most of at least Northern Europe, are within a range that we can probably handle, given our fairly impressive technical and financial resources. It’d be pretty horrible, but not doomsday by any means.

The impacts at the threshold he’s set of 550ppm are only likely to be massively fatal and otherwise completely disastrous for a few hundred million poor people in the developing world. Of course trying to save them, by aiming for stabilisation at 450ppm say, would probably be impossible while maintaining the reproduction of capital on the scale to which we, or at least the ruling class, have become accustomed.

Which is why a few hundred million poor people are a sad but necessary sacrifice in the minds of our leaders (and a potential investment opportunity, let’s look on the bright side chaps!).

I think he’s aiming for a level of 550ppm CO2 equivalent, that is dealable-with (at a fat profit for some) in the UK, irrespective of the effects elsewhere, and that he thinks is compatible with continued economic growth. If he’d aimed for what the climate scientists are mostly suggesting as ‘safe’ (please take a paragraph or two of qualifications about levels of certainty and what ‘safe’ is meant to mean as read here) which is 400ppm, then the impossibility of continued economic growth would call the whole neo-liberal economic programme, and perhaps capitalism itself, into question.

So I think they’re going to turn on the PR machine, reveal Gordon the Green as our ecological saviour, and try with all their money to marginalise any scientific dissent.

To stabilise at 450 ppm CO2e, without overshooting, global emissions would need to peak in the next 10 years and then fall at more than 5% per year, reaching 70% below current levels by 2050. This is likely to be unachievable with current and foreseeable technologies. Now it’s interesting that he is suggesting that it’s the technology that doesn’t let us achieve this. I think that’s misleading, perhaps deliberately so. It’s certainly possible in theory if not in terms of political reality to get under those limits with current technology. What you can’t do is maintain ‘healthy’ economic growth at the same time.

He’s assuming that what all those scientists are saying is out of the question and so unrealistic, from his perspective and on his unexamined assumptions, as to not be worth considering. If we were to have a debate about whether to aim for something around 450ppm CO2e as a stabilisation target, then the whole idea of a growth-based economy would have to be called into question (not least because we’re probably already at about 430ppm). Maybe we do have no choice about this, but at least let’s be clear about why that’s so.


What this report looks like to me is an attempt to re-frame the issues in order to facilitate a profitable investment environment, nicely greenwashed for electoral purposes, while having your media stooges marginalise the critique of environmentalists and deliberately conflate that science-based position with a bunch of primitivist or deep green bollocks.

That’s a lot easier to argue with than the case that letting a few hundred million people in the poor south get fucked over and running right up to and possibly over, the edge of runaway positive feedback loops in order to maintain profits for investors is not acceptable, and that we need to look at changing capitalism in order find a way to behave like a civilised species instead of a bunch of malthusian predators.

Meanwhile, talking of media stooges, here’s Nigel Lawson getting on board. Deliberately conflating the scientists with people who want us all to live under piles of old leaves and eat berries.

“In primitive societies it was customary for extreme weather events to be explained as punishment from the gods for the sins of the people; and there is no shortage of examples of this theme in the Bible, either – particularly but not exclusively in the Old Testament. The main change is that the new priests are scientists (well rewarded with research grants for their pains), rather than clerics of the established religions, and the new religion is eco-fundamentalism.”

I think what we’re going to see over the next year or two is a concerted attempt to re-invent nuLabour, and that due to the evident electoral concerns about the environment, this will involve a lot of really dodgy PR promoting, among other attempts to mislead the public, Jolly Green Gordon and his pals at the World Bank as ecological saviours.

That absolutely requires that real scientific dissent to stuff like Stern’s apparent agenda to be marginalised and conflated with eco-moralists and nutters.

The minute you start seriously thinking about the consequences of 450ppm rather than 550ppm (to take the present example) it becomes pretty clear that the former target calls into question the economic status quo in our own country and with it, standards of living and all that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, I would say that 550ppm is not likely to be a picnic for the UK unless you’re comparing to Africa or Bangladesh or Egypt or someplace that’s totally fucked on those sort of numbers. So even within the UK there are some serious questions to be asked about how much our immediate desire for consumer goods or the ruling classes desire for return on their investments can be balanced against the possibility of seriously fucking over our own descendants and probably seeing some pretty bad local consequences in our own lifetimes, including various economic ones that Stern is on about. I think 550ppm poses a serious risk of runaway climate change. I don’t think the science would yet sustain a claim that it’s certain at that level, but that’s the right on the edge of key carbon sinks ceasing to work and very likely past the point where ice sheets start melting.

So I think we might get away with it in the UK (from Stern’s point of view, despite what happens to the South), especially if we didn’t peak too high before we stabilised, but the odds of doing so appear to be about the same as walking away from a round of Russian Roulette.

I think Stern thinks it’s worth that risk and the near certainty of hundreds of millions of people having their way of life destroyed and possibly losing their lives, so that capitalism isn’t called into question, which it seems to me would inevitably happen if people seriously started trying to work out how to stabilise at 400ppm.


Adaptation to climate change, unlike mitigation, is largely a local matter. So perhaps the most pragmatic approach is to focus on figuring that out right now. That is an area where unilateral action within the UK is worth considering. It’s pretty cold-blooded, but on the other hand isn’t in principle incompatible with striving for effective mitigation at the same time.

Given the recent appearance of the Stern Review and the strong indications that Gordon Brown is already talking to people like World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz about a ‘sustainable development investment summit’ next year, I think there are some potential clues we could use to figure out what the government will be trying to achieve.

Where he’s talking about mitigation, ie preventing the problems, he’s largely talking on a global scale, because for obvious reasons you have to. Where he’s talking about adaptation, ie dealing with the problems once they arise, the discussion of local action is much more prominent, although he seems to envisage a lot of that action happening, particularly in the developing world, by means of investment and guidance from the existing international organisations, the World Bank, IMF and so forth.

Where he’s trying to build a positive case for prompt action, what he’s doing is identifying issues of concern to e.g. the UK government and the City and arguing that there is an early adopter advantage to investing in both mitigation and adaptation technologies and programmes. So in terms of the UK, a lot of this stuff would translate into technology and investment policy as well as being used to justify ‘green taxes’ on individuals, in preference to penalising the companies who are profiting from causing ecological damage.

His arguments to convince other nations of the need to join in global action are along the same lines. “It’ll cost you more to let this happen than to invest in preventing it” but I suspect from some of the stuff he’s talking about, insurance markets and so on, that the main audience for that stuff is the City.

Several key papers at last year’s Hadley Centre conference were identifying 550ppm equivalent as the point where runaway positive feedback loops may start happening, so Stern picking that as his target is very worrying. It’s why, given that he says he’s talked a lot with Sir David King and hence can’t be unaware of those results, I’m deducing that he thinks the scientists proposed target of closer to 450ppm equivalent while it may be the sane one, isn’t feasible under any assumptions that a chief government economist or the City can accept. In the report he’s airily dismissing 450ppm CO2e as unrealistic, so I think he’s aiming for ‘Lifeboat Ethics’ and preserving capital accumulation as far as possible whatever the cost.

Worst Case Scenario

The fact that the sun has been getting slightly warmer over time hasn’t stopped the glacial cycles from happening. The equibrium point of the biosphere seems to be what we’d call an ice age, and yet, despite the fact that the sun has been getting warmer, the climate has remained in homeostasis, with the help of life, for many glacial cycles.

We are riding high on a possibly extended warm period in the cycle. A clear impact of the climate models, no room for doubt, is that excess CO2 will keep us artifically in the warmest phase of the cycle.

I’m stepping well outside the solid science here into James Lovelock territory, but it absolutely scares the hell out of me that species are going extinct left right and centre. The great extinctions, of which we are now in the sixth, correlate very strongly with radical changes, where the biosphere moves to a very different relatively stable state. I try to stick strictly to the IPCC type probabilities, because I know I can defend that with well supported science, but that other stuff scares me absolutely rigid.

Our government, and very likely also other governments of the same general type, are most likely to respond to this threat by playing Russian Roulette with the planetary ecosystem and looking to make money out of the situation. I don’t believe that this is in our interests as a species.

The world in 2006

Russia cuts off gas to Ukraine, just because they can.

The UK becomes dependent on Russian gas because the North Sea has been depleted past the point where we can be self-sufficient. This raises the question for many people in the UK about a) what’s going to happen now that we’re at the mercy of Russia for our energy supplies and b) where all the oil money went? Norway have a fat social fund earning interest against a rainy day, built up using their North Sea oil revenue, but strangely enough, the UK doesn’t. One therefore wonders what Thatcher, Major and Blair spent all the revenue on, or indeed if they acted in the interests of the British people, or someone else, when they set the level of taxation on those companies who lifted the oil, during the peak period over which they presided.

Republican politician Tom Delay announces that he won’t stand for re-election due to his role in massive corruption scandals.

Dick Cheney shoots an old man in the face. Bush expresses renewed confidence in his VP.

A bomb blows up the Al Askari mosque in Samarra, a major Shiite holy site.

Big fuss about Iranian uranium enrichment. Iranians make fun of American blustering, neo-cons renew their demands for the US to attack Iran.

Israel invades Lebanon again, fails to make any significant impact on Hezbollah, but kills lots of civilians and pounds civil infrastructure to rubble.

Tony Blair works hard to prevent a ceasefire so that the Israelis can try to finish off Hezbollah (or perhaps the Lebanese civilians and infrastructure, given that they weren’t doing too well with Hezbollah.)

August (silly season):
Massive media circus in the UK over an alleged airline terror plot by some guys who didn’t have any bombs or in some cases, any passports.

Lordi, a Finnish heavy metal band dressed as monsters, wins the Eurovision Song Contest instead of the usual drippy folk singer.

Bush gets some legislation through, with the help of spineless Democrats and a supine US media, intended to provide his employees with working immunity from the provisions of the Geneva Conventions against any crimes like torture that they may feel the need to commit. This was presented as an anti-torture bill, but nobody with half a brain seems to be fooled.

North Korea announces nuclear weapons test.

A new Lancet study estimates approx 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the US invasion and subsequent occupation. Once again the right wing noise machine tries to pretend that there is something wrong with their methodology, but only statistical illiterates are fooled. Meanwhile, long-silent Iraqi blog-girl Riverbend has something to say about it.

Saddam sentenced to death. In a what many around the world see as a blatant Bush PR stunt, given that the verdict was right on the eve of the US mid-term elections.

Democrats win elections anyway, take control of Congress but still have no detectable spines.

Bush finally sacks Rumsfeld, architect of the ongoing bloodbath and strategic disaster in Iraq.

Massive series of car bomb attacks in Sadr City Baghdad kills hundreds. US strafes mourners.

Poll finds that 6 out of 10 Iraqis support attacks on US troops. Bush expresses renewed confidence that the US will succeed in bringing ‘freedom and democracy’ to Iraq.

Blair interviewed by police in Cash for Honours scandal, but not arrested. Policeman in charge of the inquiry promoted. British public becomes slightly more cynical.

John Scarlett, who was in charge of putting together the notorious ‘sexed-up’ WMD dossier, is to receive a knighthood. British public becomes slightly more cynical.

Police and intelligence sources tell their contacts in the media to expect major terrorist incidents in the UK over xmas. Nobody takes any notice though.

Saddam hangs, much of the world (see BBC comments page) apparently wonders why Bush and Blair aren’t hanging next to him.

A big chunk of the Canadian Arctic breaks off. The right-wing noise machine still tries to claim that global warming isn’t a real problem, but only fools believe them.


It’d be nice to hope for something better next year, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.