Past Work

In the last five years, we have worked to radicalise environmental debate in the UK, giving others the space to push for deeper change in policy, attitudes and values. This has ranged from highlighting the urgency of the problems we face (in Climate Safety and The Green Investment Gap) to producing pioneering research into the potential for transforming our energy system (in Zero Carbon Britain and The Offshore Valuation) to advocating radical policy solutions (in Energy Bonds and Carbon Omissions).

Green Investment Bank: too little, too late

George Osborne’s Spending Review, just announced in Parliament with the full document available online here, makes provision for a new Green Investment Bank (GIB). This is a vital piece of policy to take forward the low-carbon transition. But the announcements look to be too little, too late.

The Government has pledged just £1bn of direct public funds for the GIB – despite a previously anticipated figure of £2bn – and falling far short of the £4-6bn that analysts and campaigners had been calling for. Read more

What Danny Alexander’s gaffe says on climate spending

Yesterday evening Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was photographed reading an internal Treasury briefing on Spending Review announcements. When enlarged, the paparazzi shot contained some revelations: most of the coverage has focused on the Government”s acknowledgement that budget cuts could see the loss of 500,000 public sector jobs. But few have picked up that the other page of the briefing discussed environment spending.

A few points emerge from the document: Read more

Climate spending: invisible to the naked eye

Information design extraordinaire David McCandless has produced a new bubble graphic looking at Government spending on much-maligned quangos. As with the Guardian”s colourful maps of total Government spending, you”ll have to squint to find the bits dedicated to tackling climate change.

In fact, McCandless” beautiful infographic shows only two agencies dedicated to cutting emissions – the Carbon Trust and the Energy Savings Trust. That”s because most of DECC”s agencies receive only tiny amounts of funding – and bodies with budgets less than £25m are excluded from the diagram. Much online casino climate spending is, in McCandless” diagram, invisible to the naked eye.
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Climate change: where are we now? 2

With the number of polls I’ve written about here, it’s been a while since I’ve taken stock of the different results and what we can learn from them. Fortunately, MORI produced a handy collection of slides (a few months ago), which brings together a lot what we’ve seen into a single place:

My conclusions from the charts are: Read more

No Pressure: An ill-advised piece of climate change communication 6

Imagine you were part of a highly successful environmental campaign group, that had spent the best part of the last year enthusiastically building a broad coalition of organisations – from schools, to local councils, to football teams – committed to cutting their carbon footprint. How might you choose to mark such a successful 10 months?

An attention-grabbing stunt of some kind? Great idea. A controversial and challenging video? That could work, yes. A poorly executed ‘joke’ about peer pressure involving the violent deaths of children and office workers who don’t subscribe to your campaign? Err, possibly not…

But yet, bizarrely, this is precisely what the otherwise well-respected 10:10 group opted to do. If you’ve not yet seen the video No Pressure, then you can now only view bootlegged versions as the original was wisely taken down just hours after it was launched. It made the front page of the Guardian Environment section, took a predictable bashing from the far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole over at the Telegraph, and sent the, ahem, ‘data libertarian’ blogs into a spin. Read more

This week’s top climate science links

Dive right in:

  • Why positive feedback doesn’t necessarily lead to runaway warming – Positive feedback happens when the response to some change amplifies that change. For example: The Earth heats up, and some of the sea ice near the poles melts. Now bare water is exposed to the sun’s rays, and absorbs more light than did the previous ice cover; so the planet heats up a little more. In both of these cases, the “effect” reinforces the “cause”, which will increase the “effect”, which will reinforce the “cause”… So won’t this spin out of control? The answer is, No, it will not, because each subsequent stage of reinforcement & increase will be weaker and weaker. The feedback cycles will go on and on, but there will be a diminishing of returns, so that after just a few cycles, it won’t matter anymore.
  • Himalayan Glaciers: Wrong Date, Right Message – Is the AR4 terribly flawed? It is important to note that this is one error in a roughly 3000 page technical document, an error percentage similar to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The 2035 claim was not included in the Technical Summary, the Summary for Policymakers, or the Synthesis Report. Does this error show the IPCC has an ‘alarmist’ bias – a tendency to exaggerate the negative impacts of climate change? In fact, there are far more documented instances of the AR4 being too conservative, rather than too alarmist, on emissions scenarios, sea level rise, and Arctic sea-ice melt. Many of the Himalayan Glaciers are retreating at an accelerating rate (Ren 2006) and roughly 500 million people depend on the melt water from these glaciers (Kehrwald 2008).
  • A history of international climate change policy – An overview of the history of international climate policy over the last 30 years, divided into five periods. The article shows (1) the increasing complexity of the definition of the climate change issue from an environmental to a development issue; (2) the inability of the developed countries to reduce their own emissions and raise funds commensurate with the nature of the problem and their initial commitments; (3) the increasing engagement of different social actors in the discussion and, in particular, the gradual use of market mechanisms in the regime; (4) the increasing search for alternative solutions within the formal negotiations—such as the identification of nationally appropriate mitigation actions for the developing world, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the use of geo-engineering solutions; and (5) the search for solutions outside the regime—the mobilization of sub-national policies on climate change, litigation, and markets on biofuels.
  • Coffee threatened by beetles in a warming world (!) – The Arabica coffee grown in Ethiopia and Latin America is an especially climate-sensitive crop. It requires just the right amount of rain and an average annual temperature between 64 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 degrees Fahrenheit to prosper. As temperatures rise — Ethiopia’s average low temperature has increased by about .66 degrees F every decade since 1951, according to the country’s National Meteorological Agency — and rains become more variable, Ethiopian coffee farmers have suffered increasingly poor yields. Last year was especially bad, with exports dropping by 33 percent. Some have moved their coffee trees to higher elevations, while others have been forced to switch to livestock and more heat-tolerant crops, such as enset, a starchy root vegetable similar to the plantain. Now, there is evidence that a warming climate may be linked to one of the major threats facing the coffee industry in Ethiopia and elsewhere…

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40% cuts… in green spending 1

Cutting by 40%… but these campaigners wanted to cut emissions, not spending

I’m at the Labour party conference in Manchester this week, doing the rounds of the climate fringe events and asking whether ‘Red Ed’ will rediscover his previous persona as ‘Green Ed’. Expect a number of posts reporting back over the next few days.

First up, the future of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) itself. This emerged as a key concern at this morning’s Fabians discussion on green jobs, with speakers Emily Thornberry MP (Shadow Energy & Climate team), Michael Jacobs (former environment advisor to Gordon Brown),  Alan Whitehead MP, and Tony Hawkhead (CEO of environmental charity Groundwork).

The panel expressed great disquiet about the impact of the looming spending cuts on DECC. The department’s current budget is some £3.2bn; cutting its spend by 40% – as the Treasury asked all departments to model earlier this year – would leave it with just £1.92bn to spearhead the low-carbon transition. But it was pointed out that £1.7bn of DECC’s existing budget is spent on nuclear clean-up: liabilities that have to be taken care of and that Government can hardly divest themselves of. Assuming DECC would still be saddled with this responsibility, a 40% budget cut would leave the department with a paltry £220m to support renewables, energy efficiency, low-carbon cars and all the rest. DECC would effectively cease to function as a meaningful department – and it’s understood that DECC officials have said as much to the Treasury.

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Cutting red tape? More like axing the green economy 2

 

Green wood is not meant to burn well. But it appears that the Government is stoking its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ with over 15 environmental bodies, and considering the abolition of many more, blowing another hole in its claim to be ‘the greenest government ever’. At the same time, the confirmed abolition of the Regional Development Agencies will lead to £40m being cut from low-carbon investment programmes.

In Cabinet Office papers leaked to the Telegraph yesterday, it was revealed that 177 non-departmental public bodies (‘quangos’) are set to be abolished, with a further 94 currently under review. Examination of the list reveals that environmental regulatory and advisory bodies constitute a significant proportion of those being culled – despite only saving an estimated £6.75m in public spending, and with many of the bodies operating at no cost to the public purse.

Amongst the bodies for the chop include the Renewables Advisory Board – an expert panel drawn from industry that advises on renewable energy policy; the Commission for Integrated Transport, which researches how to reduce transport emissions and congestion; and the Regional Development Agencies, responsible for £40m of low-carbon research & development over the past financial year, according to recent analysis by the Committee on Climate Change.

Incredibly, bodies as central to the Government climate programme as the Carbon Trust and the Forestry Commission are not yet off the ‘endangered list’ of “Bodies still under review”.

The privatisation of the Forestry Commission has been mooted before, but what this would mean in terms of retaining a national forest stock is unknown. It is possible that the Carbon Trust is being eyed up for assimilation into the proposed Green Investment Bank – as suggested by the Green Investment Bank Commission earlier this year – but simply moving funds around, rather than earmarking new money, will be insufficient to stimulate private sector green investment.

Nor is this the last of it. As the Telegraph reports, “Other bodies that are likely to survive but face significant budget cuts are the Environment Agency, the Energy Savings Trust and the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group.” The revelations follow hot on the heels of the announced abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission, and recent concerns that the promised £60m Ports Fund – for developing ports into manufacturing hubs for wind turbines – is under threat.

The cull of public bodies follows a worryingly ideological pattern. It is no secret that the hard-right Taxpayers’ Alliance has been lobbying for years to squash environmental regulation and spending. As I highlighted in July, Caroline Spelman’s decision to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission had been presaged with repeated lobbying by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, who called it “…a Government-sponsored campaign for an increase in green and environmentally aware policy”. The TPA’s Policy Director Matthew Sinclair boasted on Twitter that it was a ‘#tpapolicywin’. In a blog piece posted yesterday, the TPA revealed its desire to see even more green government bodies swept away, stating: “Whilst the news is initially encouraging… the Telegraph also lists a number of bodies still under review. It names the Carbon Trust, The Advisory Council on Public Records and the Energy Savings Trust among others whose future is yet undecided. This shows that there are still lots more quangos that can be added to this growing bonfire.”

Others on the right are clearly rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of rolling back bodies that attempt – heaven forbid – to tackle global warming. Andrew Porter, the Telegraph’s political editor, wrote yesterday: “The abolition of the British Council would be welcomed by many… Critics have accused it of being hijacked and used to promote such causes as climate change.” Imagine!

The irony of such small-statist antagonism towards green quangos is how little they cost the taxpayer, despite their value in providing expert advice to government. By the admission of the Taxpayers’ Alliance themselves, the Renewables Advisory Board cost precisely £0 in 2008-9. The same was true of the Advisory Committee on Carbon Abatement Technologies, and many other similar bodies earmarked for abolition. Interestingly, six quangos that deal with nuclear liabilities appear to have escaped the guillotine, despite eating up over £800m of public funds – and despite the Coalition pledge to remove public subsidy for nuclear.

Nick Clegg claims he did not enter politics to cut public spending, and I am not interested in politics because of some bizarre wish to defend unelected civil servants. But taking an axe to dozens of environmental regulators and funds threatens to choke off the green economy just as it is coming to life. It is quite some irony that, on the same day as the Energy Secretary sings the praises of the nascent British offshore wind industry, the Renewables Advisory Board is abolished and £40m cut from low-carbon funding. If only it were a laughing matter.

Great Johan Rockström presentation on planetary boundaries concept 4

Johan Rockström recently appeared on TED to present the ‘planetary boundaries’ approach, published in Nature last year. It’s a great presentation well worth the time. (You can get the paper the approach is based on, or read Nature’s special feature.)

I’ve heard a few scientists complaining about what they see as arbitrary boundary choices, or the false confidence such an approach can arouse.

Nature’s editorial acknowledges:

[E]ven if the science is preliminary, this is a creditable attempt to quantify the limitations of our existence on Earth, and provides a good basis for discussion and future refinement. To facilitate that discussion, Nature is simultaneously publishing seven commentaries from leading experts that can be freely accessed at Nature Reports Climate Change (see http://tinyurl.com/planetboundaries).

Defining the limits to our growth and existence on this planet is not only a grand intellectual challenge, it is also a potential source of badly needed information for policy-makers. Such numerical values, however, should not be seen as targets. If the history of environmental negotiations has taught us anything, it is that targets are there to be broken. Setting limits that are well within the bounds of linear behaviour might therefore be a wiser, if somewhat less dramatic, approach. That would still give policy-makers a clear indication of the magnitude and direction of change, without risking the possibility that boundaries will be used to justify prolonged degradation of the environment up to the point of no return. Read more

Public engagement & climate change 2

It is the beliefs and values that our citizens bring to such difficult debates which puts breath into the inanimate skeleton of scientific knowledge. Censor or mock beliefs, and we are nothing: our knowledge counts for naught. – Mike Hulme ((In Andy Revkin’s discussion on whether scientists are from Mars and the public are from Venus, Dot Earth, June 2010 http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/29/scientists-from-mars-face-public-from-venus/))

In the latter months of last year and the earlier months of this one, public debate on climate change became particularly charged and divided. The media’s fragmented reporting became more and more confused following a cold Northern hemisphere winter and the CRU email-hack, dribbling out contradictory reports about apparent (later largely disproved) IPCC mistakes, and there seemed to be disagreement between everyone. As an organisation thinking about various ways of communicating climate change, we started thinking about the broad idea of ‘public engagement’ and whether it could usefully be applied to discussing climate change. Public engagement – an umbrella term for a set of different approaches to getting citizens involved in issues to do with pretty much anything, usually related to society or politics – has become a widely used tool in decision-making processes in the last ten years. Read more

Advertising and bigger-than-self-problems

This piece by Tom Crompton, originally published in the Common Cause report (Sept 2010), presents a possible campaign for a change that could have generic benefits in promoting concern about a range of bigger-than-self problems– for example, environmental challenges, development challenges and inequalities– at a ‘cognitive’ level. It preceded and was the inspiration for the PIRC-WWF report “Think Of Me As Evil?”.

There is not space to develop this case in full here, but there is clear evidence that high levels of exposure to commercial marketing – the average adult sees some 3,000 advertisements a day according to some estimates – has an impact on a person’s values. Greater exposure to commercial marketing is correlated with higher levels of materialism, and lower levels of concern about a range of bigger than-self problems, and there is also good evidence that exposure to commercial advertising actually causes increased levels of materialism (as opposed merely to being correlated with them) (see Section 2.5).

Much advertising directly promotes the self-interest frame, which we know to be unhelpful, and serves to strengthen the goals of financial success, popularity and image, and the values of power and achievement.

There is therefore common interest across a range of civil society organisationsworking to tackle bigger-than-self problems to campaign for reductions in people’s exposure to commercial best online casino advertising – particularly, further reductions in children’s exposure. Such campaigns might be best presented in terms of the impacts of commercial marketing upon people’s freedom to ‘think for themselves’ (particularlyin the light of mounting evidence that the most persuasive effects of advertising are unconscious); rather than in terms (for example) of advertising having the effect of increasing the material consumption of unhealthy or unsustainable products. Important as this latter effect is, a crucial benefit of a campaign focused on advertising would be to raise public awareness of the indirect impacts that advertising has on levels of happiness, community feeling, parent-child conflict, etc.

It is possible to envisage a great many other campaigns, each designed to engage at the level of values. These might range, for example, from initiatives to address income inequality, to campaigns that encourage the uptake of wellbeing indicators (rather than economic indicators) as primary measurements of national progress, to projects to encourage the conversion of streets into ‘home zones’, with attendant increases in community cohesion.

Sustainable development? So far, it’s mostly been slash-and-burn

The bonfire of the quangos is in full swing, and the Government has started to throw green wood onto the rising flames. Last Thursday, to barely a whisper in the press, not one but two environmental bodies were axed: the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP). No mere kindling, these pair: the SDC has existed for 10 years, whilst the RCEP was established by Ted Heath back in 1970. These branches of government have now been sacrificed in the name of cost-savings.

Those few who spotted the announcement reacted with shock and exclamation. Green MP Caroline Lucas branded the move an “absolute disaster”. George Monbiot called it “irrational and counter-productive”.  Jonathan Porritt, former chair of the SDC, bitterly lamented its axing as being “dogma-driven and brazenly cynical”.

But the demise of the SDC is in many ways no surprise. One need only consult the auguries – that is to say, the small-statist think tanks whose position papers have prefigured much of the Coalition’s programme of spending cuts.

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This week’s top climate science links

Dive right in:

  • And yet it works. Adam Corner on ‘ClimateGate’, transparency & peer-review. – “Open access is based on the premise that there are those outside the inner circle of peer reviewers who are competent enough to provide a second opinion on the science. This is indisputably true. But while talk of throwing open the lab doors might be rhetorically satisfying, it would provide only an illusion of democracy. Certainly there are non-academics competent enough with statistics to find errors in a piece of published science. Correcting errors in science would be a valuable service for an auditor to offer. But if several auditors reached conflicting conclusions, then somehow a judgement would have to be made about their respective competence. And who should make that judgement? Presumably a group of suitably qualified, honest individuals with a proven track record in a relevant discipline – in other words, peer review.”
  • Climate email inquiry: bringing democracy to science | Richard Horton – “Scientists need to do more to emphasise their uncertainties, not recoil from them. Uncertainty may be uncomfortable, but its admission builds trust. It demonstrates integrity. One of science’s great strengths is its quantification of doubt. Fourth, scientists need to take peer review off its pedestal. As an editor, I know that rigorous peer review is indispensable. But I also know that it is widely misunderstood. Peer review is not the absolute or final arbiter of scientific quality. It does not test the validity of a piece of research. It does not guarantee truth. Peer review can improve the quality of a research paper – it tells you something about the acceptability of new findings among fellow scientists – but the prevailing myths need to be debunked. We need a more realistic understanding about what peer review can do and what it can’t. If we treat peer review as a sacred academic cow, we will continue to let the public down again and again.”
  • Economics Behaving Badly – A great NYT article on behavioural economics & its failings, important for climate policy.
  • Institute of Physics disbands Energy Sub-Group following ‘skeptical’ ClimateGate submission – Hopefully the end of the embarrassment for the IoP.

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The Guardian’s “Climategate” debate: a mixed blessing 1

The Guardian's "Climategate" event in London

The Guardian’s recent “Climategate” event – picking over the fallout from UEA’s hacked emails – was always going to be a weird one, and I left with decidedly mixed impressions. For some, this event clearly represented the rehabilitation of climate denial in even the more progressive end of the mainstream media. One friend described it as “like being in 1998”, which was not far off the mark. Two of the panellists – Doug Keenan and Steve McIntyre – fall broadly into the “sceptic” camp, while a good third of the room at least seemed to be composed of elements of the denial lobby. Benny Peiser – a serial paid advocate for mining industry frontgroups – was in attendance, as was the eccentric weather theorist Piers Corbyn – whose constant heckling at one point saw him threatened with ejection from the room (to loud applause).

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