Peak weather overcooks climate campaigns

The El Nino phenomenon has stretched the envelope of weather extremes, delivering an unforeseen flow of headline drama. These are halcyon days for climate campaigns, or would be, if only the script were followed.

It’s no secret that the bedrock strategy of climate activism is to latch on to any story of extreme weather, amplifying the implied causation of global warming. This approach is inspired by an accepted theory of change – that a prolonged drip-feed of contextual campaign messaging will eventually sway public opinion and government policy.

The movement’s most shrewd and successful campaigner, Bill McKibben, leads by example. His twitter stream is punctuated by sardonic commentary on the latest flood, drought and thermometer reading. Last week was typical:

This campaign tactic has been turbocharged over recent months by a series of extreme events and record-breaking data. Last week we learned that February’s global temperature was the highest on record, by a margin of scary magnitude. A week earlier it was the storm in Fiji, its intensity unprecedented.

Yet problems may be piling up behind this apparent fulfilment of disaster foretold. It’s surely now or never for the strategy to yield results. And can the drip-feed be sustained in the aftermath of such devastating records – or will climate activists hooked on the hottest, wettest, driest adjectives become as impotent as long-jumpers who followed Bob Beamon? We’ve already seen in recent weeks how the over-egged culture of climate communications has had nothing left in its language toolbox to convey the alarm we should be feeling about data sets which are off the scale.

The question about results is the more pertinent. The current circus of the US presidential election is an indictment of climate activism. Of the three leading candidates for the Republican nomination, not one has passed the potty training stage of climate science.

We all wanted to believe that Hurricane Sandy in 2012 would put an end to this embarrassment. But New York picked itself up, raised tens of billions of dollars to repair the damage and construct new defences, and then carried on. I fear this will be the future pattern – that rich countries will tackle the climate threat with dollars, not votes.

Those of us who have been uneasy about weather-based advocacy will not be sorry if it stumbles. Climate change is an accelerator and booster of extreme events, not their cause. This inconvenient truth plays back into the hands of those who, like Republican politicians, hide behind the non-linear complexities of climate science.

The campaign teams at the big environmental groups like 350.org and Greenpeace are certainly smart enough to know all this. They will be looking beyond this peak weather year and I hope they make radical changes in their core strategy.

The lesson of history of environmental activism suggests that it’s the health impact of pollution that finally tips the balance of public opinion. And for corporations, the threat of litigation is most feared. There’s plenty of scope for these targets, especially in North America.

I wondered last week if Bill McKibben is already making a move towards the personal health and safety front. You have to hand it to the guy, he does go straight for the jugular:

Here in the UK, our island status should protect us from invasive reptilian species. But insects are a different matter. The real prospect of a disease-carrying mosquito or two buzzing around the bedroom darkness of suburban London taps deeper fears than the wind and rain.

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February Smashes Global Temperature RecordsIndependent

Plague of mosquitos carrying deadly diseases is headed for BritainTelegraph

Salutary Clips from Copenhagen COP15

As world leaders descend on Paris today for the climate showdown, I couldn’t resist digging out the corresponding moments of the doomed Copenhagen COP15 in 2009, filmed by indefatigable colleagues at OneWorld.

First, the grand entrance of Angela Merkel. Although the OneWorld crew* extracted only a single word from the doughty Chancellor, this was almost certainly more than she offered to anyone else, as you’ll see.

In opting for economy of expression, Frau Merkel momentarily forgot that it is better to travel hopefully to climate negotiations than to arrive. Asked whether she was optimistic about the outcome of the talks, her response was an emphatic “always”.

Although the soundbite is momentary, this clip covers the full minute preceding the exchange so that you can enjoy the desperate choreography of interviewer and camera operator as they scramble to penetrate the media scrum.

Fast forward a couple of days to the end of the Copenhagen COP – the very bitter end – a solitary UK minister exiting the desolate conference centre, the mood transformed utterly, the media vanished into the night.

Again I’m showing the whole clip as a bravura ensemble – the minister for sustaining a thoughtful discussion about the “pain and effort…of this odd process” when others would have resorted to the single phrase, the interviewer for finding each new question when a moment’s hesitation would have ended proceedings and the camera for its nerveless tracking – all at unbroken walking pace at 4.30 in the morning after two weeks of relentless live presentations.

Back to the present in Paris, optimism about the climate negotiations is once again the refrain, but you sense that the trauma of Copenhagen has not quite been exorcised. Now a more influential figure, often called the “climate Chancellor” in her own country, Angela Merkel wisely conveys determination rather than optimism. Both she and Barack Obama are searching for political legacy; Paris this week could be the time and place.

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*the interviewer in both clips is Adam Groves. I haven’t checked whether he also held the camera; more likely this was Jamie Walker. Sadly, OneWorld will not be covering COP21 but you can follow the climate media and advocacy work of our founders, Peter Armstrong and Anuradha Vittachi, on Twitter @OneClimate

Agility trumps analysis for international NGO strategy

The holiday season for those of us grappling with the management of international NGOs can’t come soon enough. Over recent months the sector has behaved like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen by the complexity of strategic decisions which seem no longer to fall within our humble intellectual capacity.

NGO programmes to improve people’s lives in poor countries may be changing radically because the major participants are becoming restive.

Aid donors talk about channelling funds direct to social welfare organisations in the beneficiary countries. Recipient governments openly crave the end of aid dependency. Such talk implies cutting out the intermediaries in London and Europe – which busts the international NGO business model.

However, these political assertions remain unsubstantiated, especially in the very poorest countries where NGO strategy traditionally has most to offer. Donors are as spooked as ever by fears of losing tax-payers’ money to corruption and poor standards of project delivery. The old device for laying off this risk to experienced international non-profit organisations, piggy-backing their robust standards of governance, has not yet been consigned to history.

This interplay between politically fashionable grandstanding and uncertain reality creates an impossibly shaky evidence base for strategic planning. The outcome is inertia, accompanied by blogs and papers by NGO researchers, typically those who don’t have to make the decisions.

At the same time, the challenge of strategic complexity has been downplayed in some quarters as just another chapter in the business school textbook. This tells you to wait for events to unfold and then change your plans, however surprising the detail. The secret is to have the organisational agility to react quickly and decisively.

That approach works quite well in project management, subject to a sympathetic sponsor of your project. But it doesn’t work at all well in strategic planning which, by definition, calls for bets to be placed on which way the wind will blow. And it certainly doesn’t work well for finance which hates surprises because the damage they cause tends to be irreversible.

Hence the unspoken sense of inadequacy amongst overseas development NGOs. In contrast to those overconfident investment banks who “didn’t see it coming” in 2007, we see everything coming from all directions and feel overwhelmed.

It doesn’t help that the big global issues we care about are hitting the same insoluble wall. The abandonment of international law on refugees, the disintegration of Syria and Greece, the platitudes of climate negotiations – such failures occur, not because nobody cares, but because the politicians are out of their depth.

Even in my own domestic microcosm, problems weigh heavier than the capacity of well-intentioned local governance to resolve them. A necessary regeneration of part of Winchester’s city centre is patently too complex for local government officials and representatives. Even my cricket club is floundering in its response to the pace of change in sport. Perhaps we should welcome the era of artificial intelligence after all.

The vacation period this year may therefore fulfil less the traditional stress relief than a desperate need to rediscover the old confidence in decision-making. A simple choice of ice-cream flavours will feel like salvation.

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How can big aid organizations become Fit for the Future? – blog by Duncan Green

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Guilty as charged on science of GM food


I have to confess to intellectual lethargy in siding with opponents of genetically modified (GM) crops as the answer to global food security. In the New York Times last week, Mark Lynas was right to invoke hypocrisy in those who lambast the ignorance of climate change denial whilst deploying comparable disdain for scientific opinion that GM food is safe for the environment and for consumption.

That’s not to say that I’m convinced by Lynas’ assertion that “there is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues.” GM science has nothing to match the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, independent peer-reviewed analysis of scientific papers, whose verdicts presented to global decision-makers betray barely a whisper of doubt on the underlying premise.

Understanding the technology of splicing genetic material from one species into another is fiendishly difficult. The healthy flow of excellent books about genetics tend to explain how evolution works in nature rather than how to intervene.

I therefore flounder about in the relative vacuum of GM science, influenced more by individuals who I admire, such as Anne Glover. Her position as Scientific Adviser to the European Commission was allegedly terminated on account of her support for GM crops.

When in doubt on climate science, I seek reassurance by superimposing informed common sense on expert opinion. I have a reasonable grasp of how elements such as carbon and nitrogen move in slowly changing cycles through land, ocean and atmosphere, in different chemical combinations.  Tampering with the carbon cycle within a couple of hundred years to the extent of increasing atmospheric concentration by 40%, with ocean acidity in close pursuit, strikes me as the height of folly for intelligent civilisation. This sort of precautionary principle science has no need for 1,000 page reports.

However, I’m uncomfortable with the common sense approach on GM crops because it’s too damning. Tinkering with millions of years of evolutionary struggle seems indefensible, reflected in inflammatory anti-GM headlines and public opprobrium.

The weakness of this populist stance is that it focuses on the principle of genetic modification, rather than its impact. Our food is already dosed with chemical additives, our bloodstream a cocktail of toxic pollutants, our environment in a spiral of decline. A little genetic deviation seems unlikely to be material, subject to the normal standards of food testing. I concede that I’d have no problem with eating the stuff.

However, this is a policy of despair, a resigned tolerance of unsustainable agriculture, riddled with unanswered questions about allergies, collapsing ecosystems and water scarcity. These problems cannot necessarily be laid at the door of GM crops, but the world’s poorer countries are entitled to question the wisdom of importing a US model of food production.

This direction of travel in the search for global food security has a solid foundation, backed by important US donors and the powerful agribusiness lobby. They argue that Africa cannot feed itself without radical transformation of its current low yields.

The debate therefore moves beyond GM science into concerns about inappropriate exercise of corporate power within weak national economies. Key GM food technologies are locked up in a tiny number of large companies, led by Monsanto. The worst case scenario would see a monopoly of so-called “climate-smart” seed varieties, protected by a smothering matrix of patents and locked into proprietorial chemical products – the agricultural equivalent of Microsoft’s Windows operating system recognising only the Internet Explorer browser.

Understanding the potential role of private finance in agriculture in the world’s poorest countries is almost as difficult as the technologies deployed. But we must bracket the topics together – it’s not enough to brandish scientific endorsement of GM crop technology.

Meanwhile, here in the UK I fully expect that, if returned to power in Thursday’s election, a Conservative administration will facilitate the introduction of GM crop planting over the course of the next parliament. Public resistance will fail unless better informed by science.

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How I got converted to GMO Food – Mark Lynas in New York Times

Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing – Tread Softly Briefing

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BP projections defy divestment logic


Like many of a certain age, I’ve been happy to indulge in nostalgic Star Trek sound bites prompted by the death of Leonard Nimoy. I’m less comfortable with developments over the last fortnight which have seen international bond and equity markets apparently content to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The European Central Bank is about to embark on an orgy of printing money, the device known as quantitative easing. The objective is to keep interest rates low and release resources for banks to ramp up lending. But interest rates are already negative for gold chip borrowers in the eurozone, a phenomenon not normally featured in economics textbooks, nor in the experience of contemporary bankers.

This tolerance of negative yields in bond markets has a curious parallel in the oil and gas sector of equity investment. Current share valuations assume that reserves on a company’s balance sheet will be exploited, contradicting international climate agreements which resolve indirectly to leave most fossil fuel resources in the ground. Share prices are therefore heading for a fall, unless we prefer our children to live in a world which will have warmed by more than the two degree tolerance threshold.

BP has meanwhile published its influential annual Energy Outlook 2035. Seeking to reinforce the legitimacy of current stock prices, it concludes that “(global) demand for oil will increase by around 0.8% each year to 2035.” Shamelessly, the report acknowledges that “such a path would be materially higher than one which would be generally regarded as consistent with limiting the rise in global mean temperatures to 2 degrees…..the projections are based on our view of the most likely evolution of carbon related policies.”

In other words, BP invites investors to value its stock on the assumption that the UN climate negotiations will fail; by obvious extrapolation, other sectors of the stock market dependent on fossil fuels should be valued on the same basis.

However, there’s no reference to the other side of the equation – the long term investment risks associated with a global economy grappling with the impact of runaway climate change. Like the negative-yielding bond market, this notion of equity valuations defying political and environmental gravity leads us into unchartered waters.

Both markets justify their offside positioning by reference to the untouchable pursuit of economic growth, as currently measured and as currently powered by fossil fuels. Any consequences are viewed as acceptable collateral damage, subservient to this higher goal.

The collateral damage of global warming in excess of the two degree tolerance threshold is recognised as particularly acute for the world’s poorest countries – which also struggle with the volatile capital flows already brought about by quantitative easing programmes in the US. In the UK, these programmes have generated windfall profits for banks, whilst reversing two generations of progressive housing policy. The property market has become the playground of owners of cheap capital, squeezing out young middle class purchasers.

Bond and equity markets are therefore displaying curious similarities. Both offer perverse negative returns; and their valuations are blind to the consequences of unconditional economic growth, the most pernicious of which is the intergenerational injustice of deteriorating access to environmental and monetary capital.

Institutional investors come across as unwise and rudderless in drifting across their increasingly dysfunctional universe. We could do with more of the boldness and leadership of the lamented USS Enterprise.

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Unfortunately, two of the best recent articles on these topics are both gated, but they are:

The riches and perils of the fossil-fuel age  by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times

Draghi ready for last roll of the dice  by Philip Aldrick in The Times

Alan Rusbridger (Editor of The Guardian) has also written a major article on keeping carbon in the ground

BP Energy Outlook 2035

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