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There’s no Plan A

A couple of weeks ago, Nick Butler at the Financial Times opined about the uselessness of various campaigns to address climate change:

“When companies fail to deliver, managers and investors are forced to change their strategies. The process is often difficult, but always essential. Non-governmental and campaigning organisations are not commercial businesses driven by the profit motive but they do have clear objectives. When they fail to meet their objectives, they too need to reassess why their strategies are not working and what to do instead.

“This is what the NGOs campaigning on climate issues should be doing now. The energy transition is stalling. The world is burning more coal than ever before. Oil and gas consumption is increasing. Last year, hydrocarbons accounted for more than 80 per cent of total energy consumption — the same percentage (of a bigger absolute number) as 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Investment in renewables such as wind and solar has flatlined and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“As a result we are on track, on the best available scientific evidence, for an increase in temperatures averaging not 1.5C or 2C but 3C or 4C by 2100.”

It is a fair point as far as it goes.  Butler, however, goes on to spout the same green capitalist approach which has failed us for decades:

“Consumers are not wedded to existing energy sources. They want low-cost, low-carbon energy along with the equipment that allows them to use it. Technology is moving quickly and would do so even faster if stimulated by mass demand — as with mobile phones.

“Protest is a tactic not an answer. It has raised consciousness and climate change is now part of the common vocabulary across the world. What is missing is the link between the fears that have been raised and the answers…

“There is no need for a hard boundary between campaigning and doing business. Commerce is more likely to be effective than noise in delivering necessary change.”

As with all techno-utopians, Butler is guilty of misapplying Moore’s Law to an area that is far more obviously susceptible to the second law of thermodynamics.  Condensing a silicon chip to fit into a smartphone is one thing, inventing a technology that can concentrate extremely diffuse solar energy to the density achieved by millions of years of subterranean compression and heating of solar energy locked up in prehistoric plants is a different matter entirely.

Butler does, however, inadvertently stumble upon a reality that, once you see it, explains a large part of why humanity is currently hurtling toward our own extinction despite fully understanding what we are doing.  This is, quite simply, that nobody on Earth has a mission to halt or reverse climate change.

Butler writes about the charity Greenpeace’s apparent failure.  But, like all charities that employ people (I know because I ran one for a decade) Greenpeace’s unwritten primary aim is to raise the funds required for Greenpeace to exist.  Beyond this:

“Greenpeace’s goal is to ensure the ability of Earth to nurture life in all its diversity.

“Greenpeace stands for positive change through action to defend the natural world and promote peace. We investigate, expose and confront environmental abuse by governments and corporations around the world. We champion environmentally responsible and socially just solutions, including scientific and technological innovation.”

In other words, Greenpeace is not in the business of reversing climate change, but rather exposing corporate and state harms and, through protest and campaigning, seeking to change government and corporate behaviour.  The latest manifestation of protest in the shape of Extinction Rebellion is much the same.  The tactic of protest may help raise awareness (although outside the USA this is unnecessary) but the aim is to get government to tell the truth about the mess we are in and then take the action required for change.  And so, once again, it is the governments and corporations that cause climate change that we are relying on to bring it to an end… good luck with that!

Even the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is merely an advisory body:

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 by the WMO and UNEP to assess the available scientific, technical, and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change…

“The IPCC prepares, in regular intervals of approximately 5 years, a comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of the policy-relevant scientific, technical and socio-economic dimensions of climate change. It prepares also Special Reports and Technical Papers on specific topics and it develops guidelines and methodologies for calculating greenhouse gas emissions and removals, and to assess the impacts of climate change and to evaluate appropriate adaptations.”

The IPCC advises but it is for states to take the necessary action (or, more usually, pretend to take the advice while continuing with business as usual).  Indeed, for political reasons, the IPCC has a track record of being ultra-conservative in its assessment of climate science and in the policies it suggests various governments adopt.  So even where states do take action, it is woefully inadequate.  Once again though, it is the states and corporations responsible for causing climate change that we are relying on to reverse it. 

What about those states and corporations?  Extinction Rebellion’s campaigning appears to have fallen for the myth that there is a conspiracy between the fossil fuel companies and various governments around the world to obstruct the switch to an entirely viable alternative energy system.  But neither states nor corporations are homogenous in this way.  The state is nominally directed by politicians whose primary goal is to get re-elected.  Those politicians may be influenced by lobbying; but they must also keep an eye on public opinion.  In any case, most of the business of state falls to various departments; each divided into myriad sub-departments and headed by permanent staff; whose role is to address just one piece of the governmental jigsaw.  And nowhere within this structure is an all-powerful environment Ministry with the power to coerce every other department of state into reversing climate change.

Corporations may have an easier time turning aims into action.  Even these, however, are subject to external pressures from shareholders and lenders.  And while the threat of divestment can have a degree of influence; the reality is that if environmentally-conscious shareholders divest; their shares will merely be bought by shareholders more concerned with profits than with the environment.  In any case, any attempt to embark on change that is considered financially risky will meet enormous opposition from the banks, the shareholders, and very likely senior management themselves.  Moreover, since few of us are prepared to boycott the 100 corporations that are responsible for nearly three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions; there is little incentive for the corporations to change their behaviour.

While this may sound cynical, it is the reality of how the world actually works.  When I point out that charities’ primary concern is to keep the funds flowing in, I am not suggesting that they do not also seek to fulfil their charitable aims.  Rather, they are only pursuing those aims that align with the aims of their funders.  In the same way, corporations will make environmental changes – even coal and oil companies use wind and solar to power their operations these days – that align with their need to continue servicing debts; provide returns to shareholders; and pay the salaries of their senior managers.

The same corporate practices are rife across the non-elected regions of state.  Only the elected politicians are impacted by public opinion; but even then, they have to balance such things as the long-term projected impact of climate change against the immediate economic catastrophe that would ensue if we ceased burning fossil fuels immediately.  And so they will make various not insubstantial changes – like deploying wind turbines on an industrial scale – that give the appearance of addressing climate change even as global greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures reach record highs.

Plan B, you will remember, is that we relatively rapidly reduce our population, our activity, our production and our consumption to a level that can be supported with renewable energy alone.  The last time we did this was some time in the seventeenth century, when there were less than a billion humans on Earth.  I leave it to the reader’s imagination as to how quickly we might make such a transition.  But I also ask readers to note that while Plan B is extremely unpalatable; Plan A doesn’t actually exist.

As you made it to the end…

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