Through the whole year of 2009, building up to the failed Copenhagen “climate summit”, climate change was heavily promoted by a small but powerful group of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) political leaders and their corporate, press and media elites as a major challenge to the planet and to our way of life. It was also the big signal for selling Low Carbon energy: everything from nuclear power and wind farms to landfill methane gas recovery or electric cars. Anything not needing oil or seeming not to, was a great big emerging and breaking business opportunity.
By midyear 2010, however, the climate change and green energy transition to “a new ecological society” theme had imploded and fallen off the teleprompters of the few political leaders who had taken this theme as serious, and had invested political “face” or capital in it. Climate change almost disappeared from public view. The USA’s voluntary but legally binding CO2 emissions trading exchange, the CCX in Chicago, announced that it was scaling back its activity, and possibly going out of business, as the traded value of a ton of CO2 fell to 10 US cents. The UN IPCC has since swivelled back into view with the role of scapegoat: its climate experts panel had delivered the wrong newsbytes and soundbytes to the few but important politicians who ran with the climate change ball up to 2009.
By 2010 it was a ball and chain, the IPCC needed reform, and the IPCC’s communication needed serious reconstructing.
Reconstruction of news, science data, other views and different opinions is a long-term stalwart in modern society and its politics. From organizing public support for wars, even when the public itself may be attacked or subject to economic loss, to ensuring that political leaders are re-elected, or that women start smoking and the public keeps buying the consumer products which rack up the highest profits, the role of “communication” is primordial. Communication and Public Relations (PR) are most basically propaganda, because the underlying facts and reality have to be reconstructed to make the message easy to sell. The climate change theme of 2009 was an example of this process, but in its quest to serve its masters and lever up its own prestige, the UN’s own IPCC had gone too far in reconstructing climate science and data.
THE CRITICAL PR MOMENT
The window of opportunity for “saving climate change”, and perhaps relaunching it as the new dominant social, political and business theme, is narrow and likely already closing. For climate change this is a critical moment. The largest of its lies, or “enhanced truth” in PR newspeak have been exposed, and lesser extremes of generating constant fodder for the press, media and TV to uncritically recycle were also heavily criticised in the Climategate process. This underlines the critical challenge for attempts at saving the Climate Change and Anthropogenic Global Warming (CC and AGW) theme. When a big lie starts being exposed in public, or a previous completely accepted and slickly sold “truth” starts to slip in the opinion polls and lose traction in the minds of average consumers, the theme is in danger. At this time the role of PR is critical.
To save the theme, or in ecological parlance to “recycle” it needs a repowering of the propaganda machine. This also needs political leaders prepared to stick their necks out a second time, but due to the presence of new truths and new doubts about the basic reality of climate change also competing for dominance, the so-called public debate is necessarily chaotic and clumsy, unsure and uncertain. The outlook for saving CC and AGW is therefore doubtful.
One key fact concerning the failed launch of climate change fear and admiration of green and low carbon energy is that this effort only concerned four major political leaders. To be sure, these were from the four leading OECD ‘Old World’ rich nations, but this was always a minority – or elite political quest. Their year-long and massive PR campaign on CC and AGW, ending in farce and chaos at the December 2009 Copenhagen Summit, was only a minority endeavour.
Until December 2009, the four leaders- Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy and the soon-voted-out Brown gave regular interviews where emotive soundbytes of the type “catastrophe”, “saving the planet”, “our last chance” were regularly utilised. Their doomster rhetoric was so extreme it was hard to believe they were much concerned about the trifling problem of their economies being mired in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s Great Depression, according to the equally hysterical International Monetary Fund (IMF). Their handling of the economic crisis tended to confirm this conclusion.
The alternatives offered by these four-only leaders was typically confused. Supposedly an “ecological” society totally dependent on “green energy” would arise, perhaps by about 2035, but this magical transformation would just as magically not affect sales of BMW cars, Boeing airplanes or French nuclear reactors in the meantime. CO2 emissions trading would of course vastly expand, but to what end ? How would this cash be “recycled” to build the bicycle-dependent eco-society just around the corner, in an eye blink of time ?
Proving the theme was launched in haste, with bad planning and logistics, the missing strands were more substantial than the substance of the magical transformation dangled by these four political leaders at the microphone, through 2009, but dropped like a lead weight in 2010. Since their failure at the Dec 2009 Copenhagen meeting to vendre la meche and obtain worldwide support for a supposed global transition to an ecological society depending on green energy, the four leaders have predictably “walked away” from the issue (this was especially easy for Gordon Brown). Today, the implosion of this new social, political and business theme is starkly evident.
RECONSTRUCTING THE PAST
With CC and AGW we are still in the “shock” phase following the effective collapse of what was launched as a new and dominant theme. These new dominant social themes are not painstakingly built, using large amounts of funds and the investment of “face” or personal prestige by political deciders and corporate elites for the fun of it. Rather, such new themes are launched to either reinforce existing, or build entirely new economic and financial, business and commercial themes. The personal investment by the four leaders was made clear by the speeches and pronouncements of this four-person OECD launch team with CC and AGW fear and public admiration of so-called ecological lifestyles and alternate or renewable energy, throughout the whole year of 2009.
Failure of the launch process was made concrete by the North-South divide, between Old World and ‘New World’, on all parts and components of the new theme. This culminated in open stand-offs between the four OECD leaders and powerful emerging economy leaders, at the ill-fated Copenhagen meeting. Quite shortly after this, culprits and scapegoats had to be found, and this was materialized by the UN’s IPCC group of experts on CC and AGW, who were blamed for various faults. These extended from plain lying, to exaggeration, distortion and more technical failures such as “imperfectly quantifying uncertainties”, yet another example of the incoherent, confused and unrealistic values and goals surrounding the CC and AGW theme.
Today, a “decent interval” after the Copenhagen farce and the resignation of its Director, Yvo de Boer, the UN’s IPCC is now fully playing its scapegoat role. It is now in “reform and reconstruction”, and in major part this concerns its communication. The remaining figurehead, Rajendra Pachauri, may however not be forced to immediately quit, given the further loss of prestige for the IPCC that this would inevitably cause, a point well appreciated by Pachauri himself.
In a Times of India interview, 3 September 2010, Pachauri had this to say about what the IPCC is supposed to communicate. Speaking of how he would go about “repairing” the panel’s governance and methods and keep his job, he said:
“At the (IPCC) meeting, we dwelt at length on Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which says the central objective of the convention is to prevent the anthropogenic interference with the climate system which is in terms of ecosystem, ensuring food security and ensuring that development can take place. These are the three central pillars”.
The newspeak or PR speak stands out in this confused mix-and-mingle of dominant social themes. Keywords like “ecological” and “anthropogenic interference” are jumbled with “pillars”, “food security” and economic development, while the now-controversial roles of green energy and energy transition are totally downplayed. This signals that green energy is at least on hold or has already been “recycled” to the waste bin of IPCC “communication”.
GIVING UP ENERGY TRANSITION
In early 2009, when the four-only world leaders who most openly nailed their colours to the mast or “pillar” of CC and AGW took their supposedly courageous, or foolhardy political decision to launch this totally new theme, world oil prices were still declining from their most recent all-time high of about US$ 145 a barrel, attained in July 2008. Natural gas prices would soon fall even more massively than oil or traded coal prices, due to the recession and the “supply side miracle” of shale and fracture gas reserves, at least in the USA. Due however to the slow-moving process of political thinking (or slow thinking by the persons who write politicians’ speeches), the very high price levels for oil and other traded fossil fuels in 2008 were a “founding fact” to exploit, as a key motivation for preaching energy transition away from oil and other fossil fuels.
The global economy had entered recession, also offering the CC and AGW theme as a way to get the public distracted from economic rout. The recession slashed economic growth, energy demand and traded energy prices along with employment, raised government debt and budget deficits to new and extreme highs in the Old World OECD countries – but not in the “decoupled growth” Emerging economies of Asia.
The political pressure, as well as economic rationale for “jumpstarting” and “ramping up” green energy was always different in North and South, or East and West: recession sharpened and intensified this. The high oil and gas price driver, or rationale for green energy development greatly declined through the year of 2009, thanks to recession and the gas supply breakthrough. This made the December climate conference a conference too late for the OECD team’s announced goals of creating new and massive funding and financing mechanisms for green energy in the low income countries, mainly in Africa, to prevent them “getting the oil habit” and to siphon off more of their growing oil production. Similarly, the rationale for “ramping up” carbon finance and CO2 credits trading, to generate funds for investing in the Old World’s own transition to green energy also greatly declined in a single year, notably because the “feed through” from trading, to on-the-ground and real world green energy projects was so low. This was quickly reflected, in 2010 by “fledgling carbon markets” showing every sign of being crippled birds unable to fly, even if they chirruped loud and strong in their cash-stuffed nests.
To be sure, this left two of the IPCC’s supposed “pillars” – ensuring food security and economic development, but this through using more and more oil and other fossil fuels, as in China and India. World agriculture’s link with and dependence on climate and weather is of course well known, but its extreme, near-total dependence on oil and other fossil fuels is less well known or carefully ignored. Notably in the ‘developed’ Old World North, in the OECD countries, farming and food production can attain extreme highs of oil intensity, as in Japan, exceeding 10 barrels of oil per hectare, per year, of direct farm input oil energy. Food security, very simply, is oil security. Using windmills and solar collectors to raise food output very simply lacks any credibility.
Also the IPCC’s role in preaching energy transition away from oil was never direct: the logical framework created to buttress this PR role of the IPCC was complex. It firstly posited large or even near-apocalyptic CC and AGW, established this was heavily due to CO2 emissions by a careful choice of exaggerated data, and the identified mainly oil as being responsible for these CO2 emissions. This was despite the clear and massive role of coal-fired power stations as CO2 emitters, as underlined by James Hansen and the wind-power, nuclear power, and other “low carbon” energy lobbies. The role of natural gas or methane, of which extremely large and fast increasing unburnt amounts are emitted each year, was never given high prominence by the IPCC, and will probably be given less in the future due to natural gas returning, provisionally of course, to the nice-price fold of cheap energy.
RECONSTRUCTING THE IPCC
It is certain the IPCC will be reformed and reconstructed, if only because of the heavy loss of face suffered by the three remaining political leaders of the 2009 four-person OECD leadership team advocating CC and AGW, and accelerated energy transition. From this year, the IPCC will be expected to be more scientific and less controversial, that is less easily faulted and harder to expose. Despite this “new moderation”, Pachauri engaged in “fighting talk”, in his September 3 Times of India interview, seeking a second term as chief of the IPCC, and promising, or threatening: “(I will) certainly shed any inhibitions or feelings of cowardice. I believe this is now my opportunity to go out and do what I think is right. In the second term I may be little more uncomfortable for the people than I was in the first”.
While oil prices stay relatively low – and as set by present ‘realistic anticipations’ of political and business leaders this would be anywhere below US$ 90 a barrel – and the OECD group remains mired by extreme public debt and huge budget deficits, the need for massive PR to achieve a quick transition away from oil has melted away much faster than even Pachauri’s melting Himalaya glaciers. Energy transition is now the “long term issue” it always was, and for political leaders, a long-term issue is anything which extends through all or most of their mandate- a cycle which lasts about 4 years. This further places the CC and AGW theme outside the range and out of time for the real world temporal framework of political deciders.
The IPCC may therefore be allowed to die a timely death. Its budgets can be cut or frozen, and its transition to the added status of becoming a full-blown UN agency pushed further back. To be sure, the vast quantities of impressively imaginative studies and scenarios produced under its aegis, some of which was the “meat” of Climategate, will continue being recycled in the press and media, on the inside pages, and in TV documentaries at off-peak hours, but as a new and powerful social theme announcing large scale economic, financial, business or commercial action the time has passed and the theme has failed. Reconstruction will shade into destruction – unless the IPCC and budding green energy czars get the windfall gift of much higher oil prices and a raft of climate catastrophes to feed on.
CFACT thanks Patrick Henningsen and 21st Century Wire for sharing this article with our readers.
Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.