Stephen Tindale: climate campaigners should learn to be more pragmatic

COMMENT: Global warming needs urgent action – but activists should accept they can’t change the world overnight

Pic: South Bend Voice/Flickr

Pic: South Bend Voice/Flickr

By Stephen Tindale

The word ‘pragmatic’ is often used as a term of abuse in green circles.

When I wrote an article on shale gas, a senior researcher at a US think tank sent me a message saying ‘well done, you are very pragmatic. I mean that as a compliment’.

I responded that I always take pragmatic as a compliment. Pragmatism often delivers progress; idealism rarely does. We cannot afford to reject effective, achievable climate solutions because other, less attainable, solutions are better.

These best solutions cannot be achieved in time. Climate campaigners should learn to be more pragmatic.

They should temper their ideological stance, their attitude to technology and their mantra that nothing will work without legally-binding international targets.

Debating priorities

Naomi Klein’s This changes everything is the current vogue read among climate campaigners. This is basically a diatribe against capitalism (though, interestingly, cannot be downloaded for free – unlike the excellent Sustainable Energy – without the hot air – by uber-pragmatist David Mackay.

Capitalism is far from perfect. However, the hard left has been trying to replace it for centuries, without notable success.

Whereas the soft left has achieved many successes, through the use of regulation and taxation where possible and nationalisation only where necessary.

Campaigners argue – correctly – that the climate crisis is so urgent that deep cuts in emissions must be made in the next decade.

Many of them then say that capitalism must be abolished. Whether that is desirable or not (I think not), it is not going to happen any time soon. Sensible greens need to set priorities – and socialist revolution should not be one of them.

Technology offers answers

Another term of abuse that deep greens use for people like me is ‘technophile’.

Guilty as charged: I do indeed like technology. I’m writing this using a keyboard, not a pen. I think that all human beings across the world deserve access to the technologies that we take for granted in the UK.

That will mean increased energy use globally. We have more chance of delivering clean energy than we do of persuading people to change their behaviour significantly. And it would be wrong even to try to change people’s desire for some technologies.

Hundreds of thousands of people – most of them women and children – are killed each year by indoor air pollution. Should they stop wanting clean cookers? Should women accept that it is better to wash clothes by hand than to have a washing machine?

I was recently cricised for my technophilia by a Green Party PPC. The criticism was delivered not by carrier pigeon but in a tweet.

Renewable realism

We should be pro-technology, and pragmatic about which technologies to support, because we need lots of low carbon power generation.

Renewables are the best energy source: they will never run out and are spread out across the world. But even with far-sighted, determined politicians who implement sensible policies (granted, a hypothetical scenario), it would take many decades before the world could get all its energy from renewables.

Hence the need for other low-carbon technologies – carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear power. And for the fossil fuel which is not low-carbon but is less damaging than coal without CCS: natural gas.

German greens are – with a few exceptions – are the least pragmatic campaigners I have come across. (And before I am criticised for being anti-German, I should say that I love Germany and its culture, which is why I learnt the German language.)

German greens have always been theologically opposed to nuclear power. Now that they have killed off nuclear, they have turned their attention to opposing CCS.

Some of them dismiss this as ‘putting poison under our feet’ – though carbon dioxide is not toxic. They argue that the Energiewende will deliver greater energy efficiency and much greater use of renewables.

So it will. But Chancellor Merkel’s post-Fukushima decision to close existing nuclear power stations means that more fossil fuels will be burnt during the transition. The concept of low-carbon bridge technologies, which Merkel herself promoted before Fukushima, is no longer much mentioned in Germany.

Most of the German greens with whom I have discussed this issue see natural gas as low-carbon enough, which it is not.

To protect the climate, politicians need to operate internationally, nationally and locally. International negotiations on climate change are ‘ongoing’.

That inelegant word is a particularly appropriate term here: the negotiations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) go on and on and on, at annual summits and in numerous preparatory meetings.

Many green groups are warning that this year’s summit, in Paris in December, is the last chance to save the world. They said the same about the 2009 Copenhagen conference.

Paris 2015 might deliver legally-binding targets for greenhouse gas reductions, but probably will not, because each one of the 192 country members has a veto.

Even if Paris 2015 did deliver a new protocol, President Obama would be unable to get it ratified by the US Congress. The Clinton/Gore administration signed Kyoto in 1997, but did not submit the protocol to Congress because they knew it had no chance of acceptance.

And climate change is an even more polarising issue in US politics today than it was 15 years ago. But let’s take our hypothetical scenario a stage further. Paris agrees a new protocol, and the US Congress ratifies it, so that all the main global greenhouse gas polluters have legally-binding reduction targets.

Would this solve the climate problem? Sadly not, because the targets would not be enforceable. I have asked many experts in international climate policy for examples of a government substantially changing its energy policy in order to comply with its legally-binding Kyoto Protocol target.

I have yet to be given one.

Aim for the money

Targets, whether binding or aspirational, are overused and overrated. Better to focus on money. In 2009 G20 members promised to reduce inefficient subsidies to fossil fuels. Since then there have been the inevitable studies to define which subsidies are inefficient (answer: most of them).

But there has not been much action by governments. The British government has even introduced a new (and very inefficient) subsidy to existing coal power stations – to act as back up to intermittent renewables, which gas stations can do more efficiently and with less pollution.

President Obama has at least submitted proposals to reduce fossil fuel subsidies to Congress each year. Each year, Congress has rejected them. So is this another route that pragmatists should reject as unattainable? I don´t think so.

The fall in the oil price makes subsidies to fossil fuels even less necessary than they were before. Most governments are not flush with cash. And if fossil fuel subsidies were reduced substantially, the actions of companies would change.

So this would be a substantive victory, not a symbolic one. Campaigners´efforts should therefore focus on subsidy not targets, and on the G20 summit in Turkey in November rather than the UNFCCC summit in Paris in December.

Human rights

Are there any limits to my willingness to compromise? Is there a red line that I am not prepared to cross in pursuit of green pragmatism? Yes – respect for human rights. Gas is less bad for the climate than coal is.

That does not mean that the EU should carry on buying Russian gas and funding Putin’s war machine.

However, the EU should not buy gas from Azerbaijan. That country has lots of gas, and is too small to threaten Europe militarily. The EU wants to build a pipeline from Azerbaijan to the EU, via Turkey.

In talking up this project, politicians do not mention the fact that dictator Ilham Aliyev has no respect for human rights.

According to Human Rights Watch, “torture and ill-treatment persists with impunity” in Azerbaijan.

Rejecting Azeri gas would result in the burning of more coal, increasing the danger of climate change spiralling out of control.

But defence of human rights is a principle worth dying for.

Stephen Tindale is former executive director of Greenpeace UK. Follow him on twitter @STindale This article first appeared on the Climate Answers blog.

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