The blogger’s dilemma

A couple of weeks ago, we saw an interesting comment piece by David Roberts on Grist, over across the pond. The starting point for Roberts’ piece is a new report called Climate Shift, which claims to slay some sacred cows amongst US environmentalists (with views such as: the media’s actually pretty balanced, pro-Climate Bill forces spent as much money in campaigns as their opponents etc.). But what is interesting for us about it is that he broadens out the argument, to make a point that it is far easier to get attention for controversy than for a positive agenda.

Roberts’s main target is the authors of The Death of Environmentalism (TDOE), Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who subsequently set up The Breakthrough Institute (BTI). As Roberts puts it, TDOE was a “combustible mix” of good ideas about the need for technological innovation in clean energy and an attack on a green Establishment that was “the fount of all error”. He goes on:

“If S&N had come forward with nothing but a positive agenda for the future of clean energy, they likely would have been politely ignored by the mainstream media just like dozens of earnest green agenda-bearers before them…But S&N capitalized on an insight that had been ignored by their forebears: nothing, but nothing, draws media interest like liberals bashing liberals”

Roberts’s point is that this creates a perverse incentive structure: “the wonky stuff – and BTI cranks out some genuinely good wonkery – doesn’t get clicks. What gets the attention…are the attacks on hippies doing it wrong.”

We’ve got a lot of time for Michael and Ted over at BTI, and they have been very successful in raising some important issues in a sharp way, creating debate and a profile. Indeed, we see ourselves as a somewhat paler, more polite and lower profile British version (and without the funding to have an Institute or do the wonkery). But Roberts’s argument did give us pause for thought.

It’s definitely true that our critiques of green hippies – particularly of the anti-growth literature produced by the likes of the New Economics Foundation and Tim Jackson – are what have brought us by far the largest audiences on this blog. By comparison, we get pretty low numbers of hits when we’re talking about low-carbon innovation and technology policy. An unavoidable conclusion is that you good people out there prefer a scrap between lefties and greenies to serious discussion about what we need to do to save the planet.

So we thought about that, but what we concluded was that there are still two problems that remain.

One is that we still think the greenies (by which we mean the anti-growth camp) are wrong. It may be wrong to give in to the temptation to court attention by picking  fights on these issues, but that doesn’t change the arguments. In other words, we still think that we need a story on tackling climate change that is economically and politically credible. But the fact is that, these days even Greenpeace thinks that, so it’s probably not that controversial any more.

The second problem is more serious (and is actually where we’d throw down the gauntlet to the environmental campaigning groups). This is that Roberts is right about the wonkery. It doesn’t get attention. Another way of saying this is that, even though the arguments about the need for a LOT more support to low-carbon innovation, surprisingly few people are interested. Even Stephen Chu (US Energy Secretary) makes those arguments, but no one listens to him (apparently he’s fed up and wants to go back to academia; let me tell you Stephen, I’ve done that – think again, mate). In the UK the Climate Change Committee said it, partly to ward off the spending cuts. Some good defensive lobbying by the Green Alliance and others managed to keep most programmes alive, but a massive expansion of support to low-carbon innovation, which is what we need,  is simply not on the agenda.

At first glance, this is surprising. Surely this should be appealing to governments who are supposed to like technological solutions (“ecological modernisation” in the jargon), and surely there are plenty of big business interests out there to lobby for the money.

But our view is that this is part of the problem. Everyone is vaguely in favour of more low-carbon innovation, but no major interest is really fighting for it. Innovative low-carbon businesses are usually quite small, or are part of large conglomerates that also do high carbon (think Siemens, which builds wind turbines but also turbines for coal-fired power stations), and so aren’t going to lobby that aggressively for the next industrial revolution. In any case, the business lobby can always be dismissed as chasing the “technology pork barrel” , as Dieter Helm so charmingly puts it.

Meanwhile, none of the big environmental groups will commit to a major campaign for a huge boost to investment in low-carbon innovation. There are probably two reasons for this. One, amongst some of the campaigners, is an underlying  cultural suspicion of the technological route to sustainability. The other is that it doesn’t make for good campaigning. There is no clear baddie in the way that there was (the energy company E.ON) in the campaign back in 2008-09 to oppose new coal, the last really successful environmental campaign in Britain.

So where does that leave us? It’s probably a good idea to give up bashing the anti-growthers, as it isn’t that productive. It may also be a good idea to make the techno-stuff less geeky, and try to make the case for its importance in a much more basic and visceral way. And if we can’t find a classic, evil corporate target for a campaign for a new Manhattan Project-style technology push (and yes, we know that’s not the right analogy, but you know what we mean…), maybe we can make people see that a complacent government makes a target that’s still good enough.

Expect more along these lines from this blog in the future.


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