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Energy Quest: Low Blows in US Chamber of Commerce as Revkin Gets Real

August 5, 2010

When I wrote earlier this year about major companies leaving the US Chamber of Commerce because of that body’s ‘obstructive attitude’ to climate change, I believed this was a clear sign of things to come. My reasoning is simple (as even my detractors will confirm): profit means more than ideology.

When ideologues exert great influence at the national level of the US Chamber, and do so out of commitment to a Republican agenda, the policies can end up being little more than sticks with which to beat the Obama administration (like the democrats needed help).  Apparently, climate change is one stick too many – a breakaway group of local chambers has formed a coalition called the Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy (CICE) who plan to lobby Congress, urging them to implement more, and more effective, measures to address climate and energy issues. You can read the full story on Grist; how, in a letter send out to all local Chambers, the national body has attempted to smear CICE.

On the same day, I got a tip from fellow-traveller Hengist McStone about a podcast featuring NYT’s Dot Earth climate blogger Andrew Revkin – as Hengist reminded me, he’s the nearest thing to Monbiot they have over there. He was discussing the politics of climate legislation. When asked where the US is going next – after the failure of cap and trade – he started to talk more about energy imperatives than climate change, suggesting that by shifting the emphasis it would be possible to “go round the road block of divergent public feelings about global warming”, refocusing attention on what he called an ‘Energy Quest’, which I rather liked (I’ll like it even more if Sigourney Weaver’s in it!).

An energy quest is something the political right cannot take issue with, not because they wouldn’t try, but because significant factions are forming within the conservative sphere that would oppose the obstructionists. Those for whom ideology is paramount – like the US Chamber of Commerce – will find their position undermined quite rapidly if they effectively lobby to constrain the opportunities for their own members, through energy shortages or stiff price hikes, both of which are likely when demand for oil exceeds supply of economically extracted crude. Indeed, the Lloyds, ISS (Chatham House): Sustainable Energy Security Report released in July 2010 carried warnings about failure to invest in energy alternatives, the same report that suggested oil might reach $200 a barrel – the subject of my previous post.

(As an aside, I noticed looking back over my posts of the last year a gradual shift in emphasis, away from climate change, and towards commercial energy issues).

The Switch

I believe the climate change debate can never be settled. There will be no point at which the electorate will support climate change legislation if it means a reduction in the standard of living. Such reductions, to be acceptable, need to be externalised – there has to be a scapegoat. Obviously, it’s not very productive to blame a group or nation. Better to blame something fatalistic: the end of cheap crude oil.

Make no mistake. There’s a big invoice on its way and everyone in the west is going to contribute, like it or not. Afterwards, we’ll all be that bit poorer (most of us, anyway) and we’ll be obliged to live more modestly, within not only our own means, but that of the Earth. That transition will be painful but governments must act now, and act decisively – else the pain will be more intense, more sustained, and a damn sight more expensive, than it needed to be

Our leaders will need to raise money, and they will need political cover when they screw up, which they certainly will. If we call our next steps ‘climate change mitigation’ there will be endless riots, martial law and electoral anarchy. If we call it an ‘energy quest’, and industry, commerce, pension funds, insurance companies and the US Chamber of Commerce – if it can just wake its stupid self up – all support it vociferously, the government will take notice. Politicians give only the deference to public opinion that the electoral cycle demands. To industry , to commerce and finance, they pay a great deal more attention and their compliance is somewhat easier to obtain, because you can’t run a country on votes. For that, you need money.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2010 8:33 pm

    Hey thanks for the hat tip dude. But we have to part company at ” There will be no point at which the electorate will support climate change legislation if it means a reduction in the standard of living. ”

    The populus supported WWII which brought about a great deal of austerity for a generation. Of course WWII was an ‘easy sell’ , compared to AGW .

    Ordinary people will happily dedicate their lives to achieve a common goal if they are properly informed of what needs to be achieved and why. For some reason the building of the pyramids springs to mind for supporting evidence. What is missing today is a decent common goal. Thus today we have the cult of celebrity and consumerism.

    Until you look at climate change. Now there is a decent common goal and if people were properly informed of the scale and nature and urgency of the problem you would get the popular upswell/riots because we are NOT mitigating. ‘Energy quest’ sounds like window dressing to me.

    IMHO The campaign to deny global warming, though funded by Big Oil, only really gets it’s traction from innate resistance to change.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 5, 2010 11:14 pm

    Why Hengist, you’re a romantic!

    The populus supported WWII which brought about a great deal of austerity for a generation. Of course WWII was an ‘easy sell’ , compared to AGW .

    There was a great deal of dissent before, during and after the war. Rationing was resented, especially during the ‘phony war’ between the declaration in November 1939 and the start of air raids in May 1940. The press were highly critical – Churchill was still resented and distrusted even as they put him into the Admiralty – so it isn’t as clear as you suggest: hard not to support the defense of your own country when it’s being bombed.

    Ordinary people will happily dedicate their lives to achieve a common goal if they are properly informed of what needs to be achieved and why. For some reason the building of the pyramids springs to mind for supporting evidence.

    I’d ask you to give me a non-religious example of a reasonable-scale human endeavour from any part of history that demonstrates this claim. The pyramids certainly don’t since they were build in part by slave labour, and in part by natives who travelled great distances to get there, because the work was reliable, unlike agriculture, and the food was provided by the state. I don’t think many historians think they were built out of some noble motivation among the people.

    What is missing today is a decent common goal. Thus today we have the cult of celebrity and consumerism.

    We could not possibly be said to be short of decent common goals. To alleviate the poverty, disease, ignorance and subsistence lifestyles of so many would be one – or many, depending on how you break it down. Getting rid of nuclear weapons would be a common goal. So would ending wars – is that too mad to suggest? Anyway, we’re not short of goals, but we are short of commitment to achieving them.

    …if people were properly informed of the scale and nature and urgency of the problem you would get the popular upswell/riots because we are NOT mitigating. ‘Energy quest’ sounds like window dressing to me.

    You put it in a passive context – people being informed. Actually, they have all been tipped off – which is all you can do unless you start running compulsory indoctrination sessions – right before singing the company song, I expect 🙂 What I mean is this: people can’t be lazy about this – it’s their future, right? The information is all out there, easy to find. People can’t be bothered – it’s too distant, too equivocal, too vague. I look at the people in the supermarket checkout queue and I know full well that what they know about climate change is acquired the same way as everything else – through casual media exposure on the TV. There is no depth at all to the general public’s perception of climate change – and that’s true of pretty much everything else in the topical domain. Do they know what quantative easing is? What caused the Greek meltdown?

    So energy quest isn’t window dressing, it’s the angle. This is a sales pitch, and climate change is a bad presentation. It’s been bungled to a certain extent, but it is also too abstract for the public to keep their eye on the ball. When a culture moves as fast as this one now does, all one’s attention is on today and a bit of tomorrow, because so many things can change so fast, nothing can be taken for granted any more. Climate is theoretical. Energy availability – the lights being on or off, bills being paid or not – these things the public, business and government all understand. They are also, by the way, harder to frame in an ideological context.

    IMHO The campaign to deny global warming, though funded by Big Oil, only really gets it’s traction from innate resistance to change.

    Perhaps, but where does this innate resistance come from? I believe it is fear – anxiety about a world it is now very hard to understand – the fear of science is manifest in this way, resented by the public because it is the force that at once provides such benefits, while disenfranchising those who do not know the ‘codes’ of science. We fear that which we do not understand.

    And here, I think education is the problem and the key to all this. We are not raised to be independent, mature, self-reliant and forceful. We are educated simply to the standard required to fit us into the machine in some capacity deemed productive. As we consume, so we are slaves to the machine that services that consumption. It isn’t capitalism that’s the problem, it is our patronage of the system. Instead of bothering to get a better education once we’re out of ‘job training’, we just grab the credit cards, max them out and spend all our days doing some dull job, resentful and sullen.

    I can’t indulge in a romantic view of what’s happening. This is the information age. You make it sound like the information isn’t being proferred. It is, but you have to want it, you have to want to know, and when you know you have to do something about it – which is why most people avoid the detail in the first place.

    But I do like the generosity of your spirit.

  3. August 6, 2010 12:04 pm

    Graham,

    “We could not possibly be said to be short of decent common goals.”

    Now you’re being romantic. Poverty (in the UK)and ignorance support the class system ; disease, yes it’s bad but it’s always been with us and it thins the population; subsistence lifestyles – what have you got against subsistence lifestyles? Getting rid of wars, no it’s not mad, but there’s a military-industrial complex dedicated to creating them so it’s an uphill task. What I am saying is that with the exception of fighting world hunger none of those are common goals exclusive to our time. Needless to say, climate change will trump world hunger, witness the Russian grain harvest going up in smoke.

    Sorry. Can’t think of a non religious example of mass human motivation except warfare, and we’d be going round in circles. But as you say this is the information age. The religions have such a powerful track record in motivating because they have always monopolized information, they catch ’em young, and provide a philosophy shared across the hierarchy of the state and they provide the answers to those really deep questions which trouble the soul. OK those answers may well be wrong but none of that mattered ,the pyramids still got built and were a great legacy.

    I’d like to address your slavery points but I fear we would be getting sidetracked.

    Humanity is not much different today than when the pyramids were built. Today’s ridiculous edifices being carbon concentration in the atmosphere; and our slavish devotion to consumer culture being the great motivator .

    “You make it sound like the information isn’t being proferred. It is, but you have to want it, you have to want to know, and when you know you have to do something about it – which is why most people avoid the detail in the first place”.

    I agree wholeheartedly. The media offer the information in a take it or leave it fashion. It’s left for people to join the dots. There are a myriad of other distractions so only a few of us join the dots. I’m still a newbie as a climate geek and I’m shocked and amazed by how people (in my day to day life) whose opinion I have respected has plummeted when I tried to talk to them about climate change. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.

    Peace and love, Hengist

  4. August 6, 2010 12:12 pm

    PS Im not trying to be romantic, Im trying to “think outside the box”

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 6, 2010 1:38 pm

    Ignorance is bliss

    To cut to the chase then – my article suggests that people will not support rationing and the frugality of the war years, in the name of climate change. It may be ignorance that stops them, or indolence, or plain stupidity. It doesn’t matter: my point is that if we change the name to something else, something that is no more arcane than the price of petrol or the lights staying on, the public get it, can’t fight it (you can’t make war on a scarcity that everyone is suffering) and can’t dispute it through misdirection and obfuscation. We can be pissed off about the shortages, but kicking the crap out of Johnny Foreigner isn’t going to help, nor make us feel better (too expensive anyway – I’m going to write something about the US military in a mo…).

    But don’t get me wrong, Hengist. I admire your generous interpretation of human nature. I’d just like to see it in action, because altruism, philanthropy, morality, dignity and honour seem to be discredited currency these days.

    (BTW – in respect of the quote formatting, it’s standard blockquote tags – the rest is in the CSS of this theme).

  6. August 9, 2010 5:05 pm

    So Graham, your basic point is that there is more political mileage in appealing to short term self-interest (the lights staying on) than long-term global interest (a liveable climate) and so peak oil gives governments a scapegoat for addressing climate change on the sly?

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 9, 2010 5:50 pm

    Basically yes, although I’m saying there is more practical mileage, not political. I try to consider how things might get done, how obstacles might be overcome. Perception is the key to getting public support, and since the public attention span seems rather short, perhaps the tenets of advertising apply more than enagement (or not) with electoral politics?

  8. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 10, 2010 7:17 am

    Apologies by the way to those who contributed comments on the $200 oil post – I’ve had to remove that for the moment, for reasons that will be clear shortly.

  9. August 10, 2010 2:41 pm

    Yes, you might be right. Though I thought this was an interesting rant claiming that we need to beat our head against the wall at greater velocity.

  10. August 11, 2010 3:16 pm

    Ah, the reasons are now clear. Congratulations!

  11. Graham Wayne permalink*
    August 11, 2010 3:21 pm

    Thanks Byron – I’m going to reinstate it here once I’ve acknowledged The Guardian correctly and updated it, since a bit more work went into the piece as a stand-alone item. Your comments will also return, and I will then answer your last one.

  12. August 11, 2010 3:59 pm

    Ah good to hear. I’m afraid I’m too late to really contribute to the CiF discussion (once it passes 50 comments, few people continue reading them).

  13. August 11, 2010 4:00 pm

    Or at least fewer people.

    And it takes so long to read through what others have said and the pooling masses of disinformation that I just know will raise my blood pressure. Still, I added a small correction.

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