Last month, a senior UK government adviser warned of the real risk of a devastating rise in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius. Professor Bob Watson, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said:
“There is no doubt that we should aim to limit changes in the global mean surface temperature to 2C above pre-industrial [levels].
“But given this is an ambitious target, and we don’t know in detail how to limit greenhouse gas emissions to realise a 2 degree target, we should be prepared to adapt to 4C.” (James Randerson, “Prepare for global temperature rise of 4C, warns top scientist,” Guardian, August 7, 2008)
But what would a 4C rise mean for the planet? According to the 2006 Stern review on the economics of climate change, up to 300 million people would be affected by coastal flooding annually. Water availability in Southern Africa and the Mediterranean could drop by half, and agricultural yields in Africa may be cut by up to 35%, with devastating consequences for millions at risk of starvation, malnutrition and disease. Half of all animal and plant species could face extinction.
Worse, rapid runaway warming could be triggered — for example, by the release of methane hydrate deposits in the Arctic — rapidly escalating the temperature rise far above even 4C. The idea that we should somehow “adapt” to such cataclysmic outcomes is deeply irrational.
Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, has backed Watson’s call to “prepare for the worst.” King said that even if a global deal could ever be agreed to keep carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million (ppm), there is a 50% probability that temperatures would exceed 2C and a 20% probability they would exceed 3.5C.
By contrast, Professor Neil Adger of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has rejected the call for “adaptation”, describing it as “a dangerous mindset.”
Unfortunately, it is considered “improbable” by some scientists that, under current policies, global warming will even be kept below 4C. The authors of a new report say that stabilizing carbon dioxide at the required atmospheric concentration of 650ppm would require industrialized nations to “begin to make draconian emission reductions within a decade”. (Jenny Haworth, The Scotsman, “Temperature rises ‘will be double the safe limit’ for global warming,” September 1, 2008)
The authors also warn that the G8 promise to cut emissions by half by 2050, in an effort to limit the global temperature rise to just 2C, has no scientific basis. Instead, this delusion could lead to “dangerously misguided” policies: “Political inaction on global warming has become so dire” that “nations must now consider extreme technical solutions.” These “geo-engineering options” include dumping iron into the oceans to boost the growth of plankton (which absorbs carbon dioxide) and injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. (David Adam, “Extreme and risky action the only way to tackle global warming, say scientists,” Guardian, September 1, 2008)
As humanity teeters on the brink, the corporate media are sure to give increasing coverage to these dubious and risky “technofixes.” Influential business lobbyists will make ever-greater efforts to push for lucrative, but diversionary, “solutions” to climate chaos. We need to be alert to such self-serving maneuvers and willing to expose them.
This much is clear: after more than twenty years of ever more urgent scientific warnings, and government and corporate obstructionism, we really have arrived at the edge of the climate abyss.
Pushing Carbon Storage — Pushing Profits
Professor Watson’s response to his own dire warning to “prepare” for a 4C rise was to call for the UK to take a lead in research on carbon capture and storage (CCS). This would require an “Apollo-type programme” akin to the huge resources devoted by the US in the 1960s space race.
So what does CCS entail? First, carbon dioxide is “captured” by separating it out from the waste gases emitted by power stations. The CO2 is then liquefied and pumped into underground geological formations, such as former oil reservoirs, and thus “stored.” Proponents of this technology claim that carbon emissions from power stations could be reduced by as much as 90 percent.
The words “carbon capture and storage” have now become a standard buzz-phrase along with “pollution permits”, “joint implementation mechanism” and “tradable energy quotas.”
We conducted a Nexis newspaper database search for “carbon capture and storage” in the British press over the 12-month period of Sep 1, 2007-Aug 31, 2008 and discovered 219 mentions. Almost one half (100 mentions) was in the Guardian alone. This compares with 86 (23 in the Guardian) for the previous twelve month period and 48 (14 in the Guardian) for the year before that. The numbers drop off quickly going further back, with the first mention in a Times article in 2004. This article reported that people who had been interviewed about CCS had, understandably, never heard of it:
“They said it sounded dangerous and unnecessary . . . They don’t like the idea of a quick fix or burying the problem. Most people would rather see a move to renewables and improved energy efficiency.”
But when “the problem of emissions was explained”, we were told, “they came round a bit” and understood that “CCS could solve a problem over the next few decades. People are more inclined to accept it as part of a package of measures, policies and ideas.” (Anjana Ahuja, “A global threat buried,” The Times, May 20, 2004)
As indicated by its rapidly escalating media profile, CCS has been hyped into the foreground with serious discussion of alternative “measures, policies and ideas” left trailing in its wake. Corporate energy chiefs have pushed CCS hard, a greenwashing strategy to protect business interests, profits and power.
The stakes are high for big business. Between now and 2020, the UK must replace about a third of its existing electricity generating capacity. One of those jockeying for prime position is Paul Golby, chief executive of E.ON which runs the Kingsnorth power station, scene of the summer’s Climate Camp protests. Golby has declared a breathless enthusiasm for “a new generation of nuclear reactors, more gas storage facilities and gas stations, and a limited number of new coal-fired stations, built ready to be fitted with CCS equipment, which could cut carbon emissions by 90%.” (Paul Golby, “Protesters at our coal plant are deluded if they think renewables alone can serve Britain’s needs,” The Guardian, July 31, 2008)
We are to believe that E.ON, as “one of the UK’s leading green generators”, is ready to serve the country by doing its bit to minimize any risk to “our security of supply” in the “face [of] greater cost burdens.” Whereas the aspirations of the climate activists for a huge expansion in renewables and energy efficiency are “simply unrealistic”, Golby believes that “if we are to achieve the low-carbon economy we want, then existing nuclear capacity needs to be replaced at least on a like-for-like basis.”
But consider the extent of the hype. A recent report from Corporate Watch warns that CCS technology is unlikely to be proven, scaled up and in widespread use until 2030 at the earliest, and possibly not until 2050 – too late to prevent climate chaos. (Claire Fauset, “Techno-fixes: A critical guide to climate change technologies,” Corporate Watch, 2008, p. 4)
Nick Reeves, executive director of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, comments:
“[I]t is disingenuous of the energy companies to use the promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as a carrot to get the approval they need to build the power station [at Kingsnorth], when they know full well that CCS technology is unproven and costly.”
Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, states emphatically that it may well never be “prudent or politically acceptable” to adopt such risky measures; and, in any case, “they must not divert attention away from efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.” In 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dismissed geo-engineering as “largely speculative and unproven and with the risk of unknown side-effects.” (David Adam, “Extreme and risky action the only way to tackle global warming, say scientists,” The Guardian, September 1, 2008)
Contrary to the assertions of E.ON’s chief executive, Reeves argues that carbon emissions targets can be met without resorting to nuclear power or coal, adding:
“Investment in energy conservation instead of nuclear and coal would result in seven times the reduction in emissions. Renewables can provide the power we need, given the political will.” (Nick Reeves, “No to nuclear,” letter to New Statesman, August 25, 2008)
Nevertheless, huge propaganda campaigns are being launched by powerful companies, such as E.ON, to push both CCS and nuclear energy. The latter is already firmly back on the government’s agenda.
A welcome, but entirely inadequate, note of caution about corporate claims appeared in a Guardian editorial:
“The idea of stripping pollution from fossil fuels is seductive — a quick fix to an overwhelming crisis.” However, the paper added, “for countries that develop it there could also be big profits.” (Leading article, “Climate change: A captivating remedy,” The Guardian, June 2, 2008)
More accurately, the “big profits” would enrich corporations and investors, not the citizens of the countries concerned.
Corporate media coverage has shamefully buried the truth that CCS would be exploited to enhance oil recovery: pumping carbon dioxide into ageing oil reservoirs has the effect of forcing out oil that would otherwise stay underground. CCS and other technical “solutions” to impending climate chaos are thus being used to prop up the fossil fuel industry which remains committed to massive exploration and exploitation efforts for decades to come. David Hone, climate change adviser for Shell, concedes that fossil fuels will remain Shell’s core business “for some time.” (Terry Slavin, “Promise of a green industrial revolution,” The Guardian, July 16, 2008)
The push for CCS then — and, indeed, for nuclear power — is yet another outcome of pathological business greed. It is a fatal display of short-sightedness and arrogance which relies on technical fixes to tackle symptoms, rather than the systemic sickness at the heart of global capitalism. One might as well feed beta-blocking drugs to an obese person with heart disease in an effort to prevent heart attacks, rather than address fundamental issues of health, diet and lifestyle.
Tinkering At the Edges — The Independent’s Environment Editor
The public is encouraged to believe that, if anyone in the media “gets it” on climate change, then it is the environment correspondents and editors of the liberal press. Michael McCarthy, the Independent’s environment editor, wrote recently that, for “the idealists of the green movement”, the threat of global warming meant:
People would be obliged to live in respectful harmony with the earth. They would be obliged to alter their ways: swap their cars for bikes and public transport; substitute renewable energy systems for coal-fired electricity; and consume less of everything. The alternative was catastrophe. It was go green, or die.
It has gradually become clear that this dream is not going to be realised, which is a sad recognition for anyone who sympathises with the environment movement to have to make.
Instead, claimed McCarthy, the best hopes of tackling climate change now lie “most of all with technological fixes.” He even went so far as to claim that CCS is “now the only realistic response to climate change.” (McCarthy, “A simple plan to save the world,” The Independent, August 22, 2008)
And yet, just two years earlier, McCarthy had described “how hard it is to cut carbon emissions by tinkering at the edges of a capitalist economy in full growth mode. It is now clear that the pursuit of economic business-as-usual is simply not an option.” (McCarthy, “Blow for Britain’s fight against climate change as emissions target is missed,” The Independent, March 29, 2006)
McCarthy was responding to the rational analysis of Labour MP Colin Challen, who had argued “the pursuit of economic growth makes controlling CO2 an impossibility… a different path must be sought.” (McCarthy, ibid)
How can the Independent’s environment editor possibly justify the dodgy CCS technofix — which may not even be in place before 2050 — as anything other than “tinkering at the edges” of capitalism in full growth mode? And why has he had so little to say about critical challenges to the political orthodoxy of unsustainable economic growth? McCarthy’s failures and omissions are symptomatic of everything that is wrong with even the best news media.
Fatal Taboo: Endless Growth
We cannot rely on environment editors, far less other journalists, to challenge the elite consensus on the need for relentless economic ‘growth’, a cancerous process that is killing the planet. The issue is rarely addressed seriously in the corporate media, or discussed by politicians, academia, think tanks — or even by the major green pressure groups. George Monbiot calls it “the last of the universal taboos.” (Monbiot, “In this age of diamond saucepans, only a recession makes sense,” The Guardian, October 9, 2007)
Colin Challen courageously challenged this fatal conceit in 2006:
We are imprisoned by our political Hippocratic oath: we will deliver unto the electorate more goodies than anybody else. Such an oath was only ever achievable by increasing our despoliation of the world’s resources. Our economic model is not so different in the cold light of day to that of the Third Reich — which knew it could only expand by grabbing what it needed from its neighbours.
Genocide followed. Now there is a case to answer that genocide is once again an apt description of how we are pursuing business as usual, wilfully ignoring the consequences for the poorest people in the world. (Challen, “We must think the unthinkable, and take voters with us,” The Independent, March 28, 2006)
The media’s obsequious compliance with “the last of the universal taboos” make it complicit in this genocide, in this crime against humanity and against the Earth.
Rather than “slouching towards disaster”, as the Independent’s environment editor once put it (Michael McCarthy, “Slouching towards disaster,” The Tablet, 12 February, 2005), we could take a wise, compassionate and optimistic approach. The fact is that sudden, unexpected radical social changes do occur. As the media critic John Theobald noted, the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe give one example:
“It may be remembered that even weeks before the dramatic events and the short timescale in which they took place, they seemed impossible. Apparently robust social systems, power structures and ideologies… [can] submit to counter-hegemonic pressures for radical change in which popular action plays a significant role.” (Theobald, “The media and the making of history,” Ashgate, 2004, p. 139)
US historian Howard Zinn also reminds us that governments rely on our tacit acceptance of their policies, and on our obedience. Withdraw that obedience, and we truly do have a “power [that] governments cannot suppress.” (Howard Zinn, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2007)
If we can loosen, even a little, the crushing chains of corporate power and thought control, then we still have a chance of averting disaster.