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Taking a Russian approach to climate change

Image: Mike MacKenzie

The problem with Russian “fake news” is that it isn’t all that fake.  This is why Western politicians go out of their way to avoid giving examples, while media outlets attempt to conflate it with the output from Bulgarian clickbait factories.

Outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik use a different “Overton Window” to that imposed by media outlets like the BBC or the New York Times.  For example, economist Steve Keen – one of the few to predict the 2008 crash – has received very little coverage in the British media, but has been a regular guest on RT shows like the Keiser Report and Boom Bust – a financial show that also regularly gives airtime to right-wing libertarians like Peter Schiff and Bill Gross.  Where the BBC limits political coverage to a narrow range of views from the Tory soft-right to the Blairite factions of the Labour Party (with Brexiteers and Corbynisters portrayed as extremists) only on channels like RT can we find views as diverse as those of Chris Hedges and Nigel Farage.

Devised by Putin supporter and communications guru Vladislav Surkov, the Russian approach to propaganda is designed primarily to sew confusion.  The point is not to propagate lies – which would be quickly and easily dismissed – but to raise inconvenient truths about Western states that domestic media choose not to cover.  Rather than deny what Russia is doing, the point is to establish that Western states do it too.

There is, of course, little of this in what passes for a US climate change debate.  This is because a large swathe of America, from the President down is in denial.  In Britain, however, it is a different – and far more dangerous – story.  Britain is not in denial about climate science.  As a result, on the few occasions that deniers like Lord Lawson get an outing on the BBC, they are followed by a barrage of complaints from a public that has moved on from the infantile level of debate that Trump’s White House is currently engaged in.

The key UK climate change question is not whether it is real, but what are we going to do about it?  For the most part, the answer has been to leave it to the experts.  However, as Michael Gove so eloquently demonstrated last year, it is precisely in the realm of expertise that Russian-style propaganda works best.  The point is not to challenge what the experts say, but rather to draw attention to what they omit.  It is no accident that the economically deprived regions of the UK were also those that most strongly rejected economic arguments to remain within the EU, because these where where the experts’ failure to mention inequality was felt most acutely.  When it comes to climate change, the three big omissions in the barrage of expert information are:

  1. That so-called “green energy” is not a solution to climate change
  2. That the cost of replacing fossil fuels has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of those who can least afford to pay
  3. The UK is running out of cheap fossil fuels anyway.

Since denying that climate change exists will not wash in the UK (or Europe in general) the supporters of fossil fuels needed to focus more precisely on these three flaws in the mainstream climate change narrative.  Consider the recent speech in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Chester:

“I have become concerned about the rising cost of electricity and its differential impact upon those who, by a socioeconomic judgment, are among the poorest in our society. Levels of fuel poverty have been stubbornly high, underpinned by rises in the cost of electricity…

“What is certain is that the price to be paid for current [climate change] policies, in all sorts of ways, is very high and typically falls disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.”

Who is the Bishop of Chester?  Among other things he is a Trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – and organisation Chaired by Lord Lawson, whose members and supporters, according to Bob Ward, “…are straight from the Who’s Who of current climate change sceptics.  To me, this is pretty much indistinguishable from the websites that are run by rightwing, free-market think tanks in the US. It’s just going to be a way of pumping material into the debate that hasn’t been through scrutiny.”

This, however, is precisely where that Russian approach to propaganda hits the bullseye; because a great deal of the greenwash that accompanies the proposed remedies for climate change are also open to the accusation that they have not gone through adequate scrutiny.

For the most part, the British public have acquiesced in the subsidised deployment of wind turbines, biofuel plants and solar panels in the mistaken belief that these are reducing carbon dioxide omissions.  In the UK (but not in supposedly green Germany) these technologies have drastically reduced coal-fired electricity generation.  But electricity generation only accounts for 20 percent of our energy consumption – arguably a lot less if we include the embodied energy in all of the manufactured goods that we import.  Moreover, gas is the real winner from Britain’s shift away from coal; now accounting for nearly half of our electricity generation and almost all of our heating.

Of course, Britain’s carbon footprint would be even higher if renewable electricity generation hadn’t been deployed.  The problem is that it has come at a cost; one that is beginning to have political consequences.  In his recent review of energy policy, Dieter Helm outlined the problem:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.” (My emphasis)

Worse still, attempting to develop the infrastructure run several million new electric vehicles (which will largely benefit the affluent classes) while simultaneously developing the Internet of Things  (from which the poor will be largely excluded) in the near future will require electricity consumers to pay several billion pounds more than is already committed just to wean our generators off fossil carbon.  These costs hill hit the poorest hardest.  Meanwhile, global carbon emissions will continue to increase due to the over-consumptive lifestyles of the affluent, who will continue to over-produce children, over-use commercial air travel, eat too much meat and import too much stuff.

The climate change deniers correctly see this as the green movement’s Achilles Heel.  But it is not the only one.  In his speech in Parliament, the Bishop of Chester also mentioned imported energy:

“What assumptions are being made about the interconnector capacity, to which the noble Lord, Lord Darling, and others have referred? By 2022, the interconnector capacity will have almost tripled, from the present 4 gigawatts to almost 11 gigawatts. Is supply delivered through the interconnectors to be permitted to enter the capacity market? If so, the important question is: what legal and contractual guarantee of supply will exist? I underline the words “legal” and “contractual”. My understanding is that, at the moment, the supply comes and goes according to who is willing to pay most—it is purely economics. If that 11 gigawatts is to be brought into play for security of supply, what security is really there?”

This, apparently, is the direction of travel for a UK government that has lost its enthusiasm for shale gas.  Although the good Bishop appears to believe that Britain is awash with shale gas and oil, the government has shifted ground; recognising that while there may be shale gas beneath the ground, it could prove difficult to extract it at a profit.  While the UK (English) government is unlikely to ban fracking altogether, it appears content to wait and see if the fracking companies can profitably extract shale gas.  If they can, no doubt the government will add it to the energy mix.  But just in case they can’t, and in the absence of any alternative, the government has given far more attention to imports as a means of plugging the UK’s growing energy gap.

This may well become the green movement’s biggest problem in the near future.  You have to be in your 50s to remember the last time Britain experienced regular power cuts.  And back then we were a lot less dependent upon a stable electricity supply.  A Britain whose coal industry produces less today than at the height of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, and which became a net importer of oil and gas more than a decade ago, faces an immediate threat of power shortages; especially with the closure of the Rough gas storage facility in the North Sea.  By raising imports in relation to energy security, the Bishop of Chester is getting ahead of what could be the final nail in the green movement’s coffin.

When the lights go out – randomly – after all of the additional costs added to our energy bills, renewable energy technology (and those who campaigned for its deployment) will be cast in the role of public enemy number one.  While it is probably true that Britain’s post-North Sea oil and gas lights were going to go out anyway, pro-fossil fuel groups will blame the known intermittency of wind and solar, together with green opposition to nuclear.  No doubt an impoverished population left shivering in the dark will accept this narrative at face value.

This raises the question of whether the green movement can shift its own narrative to get ahead of the game.  There is, in fact, a very easy solution to curbing greenhouse gas emissions – stop producing them.  It is the consequence of this that greens have been running away from for several decades.  Their problem is that they are as wedded to the economics of infinite growth on a finite planet as are their climate change denying opponents.  As a consequence, they have avoided the obvious conclusion that to save the human habitat requires that we shift to a far less consumptive economy (particularly those of us in the developed states that consume most of the planet’s energy and resources).

Instead, the green movement has embraced a techno-utopian narrative in which we simply unplug coal, gas and (especially) oil technologies and replace them with wind and solar coupled to a plethora of yet-to-be-invented technologies like industrial scale electricity storage, lightweight truck and ship batteries, economically viable carbon capture and storage and nuclear fusion.  Of course, some or all of these technologies might put in an appearance in future – it would be foolish to rule them out entirely.  But we are now in a race against time to deploy them before our supply of economically viable conventional energy depletes to the point that the lights stop burning and our transport system begins to grind to a halt.

It is time to spell out just how bad 4, 5 or 6 degrees centigrade of warming will actually be (something that greens have been loathe to do).  Otherwise the Russian propagandists at the Global Warming Policy Foundation will convincingly argue that even six degrees of warming is preferable to increasing poverty and shivering in the dark.

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