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Climate Business: Chu’s appeal is xenophobic, but it might just work

November 30, 2010

Nobel prize winner Steven Chu: “What I am trying to tell the American public is that this is an economic opportunity…”

This quote is from a speech given yesterday by US Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “We face a choice today. Are we going to continue America’s innovation leadership or are we going to fall behind?” Chu said in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington.

But the message may not be aimed at the public, but at politicians who have forgotten not only which side their bread is buttered, but who makes the butter in the first place. The twin assaults of climate change and peak oil are buttressed by formidable commercial advances in two of the most populous nations on earth – India and, of course, China.

While the US public may filter their news and views through very parochial preconceptions, one can forsee a significant problem for the US political system that a large proportion of the US public remain blissfully unaware of. For although the funding and lobbying of both political aspirants and encumbents is certainly a corrupting force – dollar democracy – it isn’t going to change any time soon. So some acknowledgement of the interests of the donors must be made if the electorial coffers are to be routinely topped up. And getting hold of that money may become rather difficult if those running for office do so on a platform that inherently disadvantages the very people they ask for money. 

As commercial institutions belatedly realise that the polarised debate about climate is entirely ideological, and has no meaning in the boardroom – where profit is the only thing that matters – they are considering strategies that are better suited to address the dual imperatives of the environment and peak oil. Over the last few years, business lobbies have been quietly shifting their focus, as ideological opposition to AGW mitigation has been replaced with a pragmatism in keeping with the only imperative that matters to the business community and the shareholders who depend on it – making a profit. 

So it is that one by one, the big institutions, driven by long-term forecasts by pension fund managers and insurance companies (those parts of the commercial world obliged by the nature of their business to eschew short-termism) are coming round to the ‘green’ way of thinking, although I suspect this gradual evolution is not driven by care for the environment, but the same quest for continued growth and new market opportunities that the current paradigm will no longer support.

So Chu is right: appeals to the instincts of the business community – both in terms of keeping up through innovation, and a natural distaste for the inevitable eclipse of their historic predominance by a bunch of foreigners. As US Democrat Congressman Jay Inslee memorably put it (admittedly lifting the phrase from Republican Bob Inglis): “China is going to eat our lunch”. This is hardly the dignified rhetoric we might hope for, but it is telling the both a dem and republican representative share the sentiment, and target not the public, but the business community. (Worth noting too is that the republican Inglis could only speak out once it was clear he wasn’t going back to Washington any time soon – see what I mean about paying the piper?).

So here’s the tricky bit: those staunch friends of big money, the Republican party, are deeply invested in thwarting any kind of attempt to address climate change. They are also – whether they acknowledge it or not – wholly beholden to the same business interests who will suffer the most. The pain will be felt in many ways. Economic instability, loss of market share, reduced innovation revenue (for the first time ever, last year the US Patent office registered more foreign patents than domestic, a sure sign of things to come if the US doesn’t gear up for the coming revolution), increased energy costs, less disposable domestic income, market volatility, border conflicts, water and resource shortages – the list goes on, but the point is clear.

China’s ascendancy is at the expense of the US, not parallel and equal to it. New markets are not developing fast enough for the US to keep pace, so China is indeed ‘eating America’s lunch’.  Appeals to a form of commercial xenophobia are hardly edifying, but hey – if that’s what it takes to shake America, and particularly the Republican leadership, out of their complacency, then I guess we’ll have to settle for an ignorant solution to a stupidly intractable problem.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. adelady permalink
    November 30, 2010 1:33 pm

    I’m very much in the camp of those who are forced to say that, if that’s the only avenue out of the mess the USAnians have got themselves into, then so be it.

    Of course, such a policy change might flow into Oz politics. Our current government is marginally better than our opposition – but they’ve set a target of 5% reduction in emissions by 2020. 5%!! In a country with more and better solar and geothermal resources than 95% of the countries in the world.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 30, 2010 1:53 pm

    Adelady – the situation down under is baffling to me, but as I understand it, the fossil fuel lobby have a great deal of influence (didn’t they do a huge deal to supply coal to China?). As you say, there is such tremendous potential and vast tracts of land available, although I wasn’t aware that you had geothermal resources too.

    I cannot understand, given the current circumstances, how any government would fail to exploit such an opportunity. Must be quite frustrating for people like you to watch the opportunities passing by.

  3. November 30, 2010 2:55 pm

    It is getting more and more expensive to dig coal out of the earth to pump oil out of the earth yet we see them still being the big players in energy supply. Renewable is still seen as the expensive not realistic option. Yet these fossil fuels are getting lots of subsidies and tax breaks from government all around the world.
    The big business is in governments pushing daily for more support of the governments to support their ‘dirty’ business.
    Renewable can be done by small business or even individuals so not the big business scenario, who are in governments right now i am writing this.
    That is my opinion anyway.

  4. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    November 30, 2010 5:16 pm

    This is an interesting piece Graham and Adelady also is raising a good question about the Australian situation. It is rather strange that they behave this way when they have so much sun. I think we try much harder in Sweden but we are not quite so well given with the strong sunlight!

    I talk with my good friend on the weekend about this site. She is working in the Swedish International Development Co-operation and very strong on the equalities issues. She is also rather appreciating your website but a bit shocked when you say “Between the wars and the injustices, brave men and a few women have created great art, music, sculpture, architecture, and of course the marvellous edifice of knowledge that is culture, history, science and technology. ” in another page. Of course I know this is not intended at all by you to be sexist but Anna-Maria think perhaps there should be some small changes here.

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 30, 2010 5:55 pm

    Well Birgit, you can thank Anna-Maria. I hope she can forgive me such sloppy writing. I’ve now changed it, and it reads;

    “Between the wars and the injustices, brave men and braver women have created great art…”

    I think this makes the historic point I was after. Hope you and Anna-Maria agree.

    And thank you.

  6. Graham Wayne permalink*
    November 30, 2010 5:59 pm

    Hi clegyrboia,

    You are right about renewables being deployable at much smaller scales. I guess the problem comes when you try to run an industrial plant, a factory etc. But there are plenty of solutions worth developing, and I think this makes sense because it seems that a mixture of sources – including domestic – will be required.

  7. December 1, 2010 1:51 am

    Australia can be entirely powered by renewables by 2020 at a cost of $8 per week per household (total cost AUD$370 billion over ten years). See here.

    Stupidity, short-term thinking (Australian elections are every three years – even worse than elsewhere), habit, and a powerful and very active coal lobby combine to make “the lucky country” just one more myopic country.

    (I’m an Aussie, though currently in the UK).

  8. adelady permalink
    December 1, 2010 5:21 am

    Birgit, no need to fuss about with the sun. Have a look at page 7 here and scroll down to the astonishing number for geothermal resources. (Then go back to the top and look at the coal numbers- we are the world’s *biggest* exporter of coal, and that number looks feeble compared to the geo numbers.)

  9. Birgit Kvarnstrom permalink
    December 1, 2010 12:41 pm

    Well Graham I can say that Anna-Maria is very pleased with this result. A good wording I think. For me though the first wording was not so bad because it is really true that the women were so to say smaller in number than the men so you were saying the truth. But I need to take care here or A-M will make some objections!

    Also you seem to have many Australians on this site. Does this new Prime Minister, Julie Gillard, make a change on the climate change position now that I think she has some support from the green party. Adelady this was a good publication I think you show us. Maybe this Ms Gillard can be a Mrs Thatcher against the carbon industries?

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