John Ashton: US climate debate is about confidence and progress

In a speech at the latest ASU Origins Project event in Arizona, former lead UK climate diplomat John Ashton explains why the USA needs to take a more proactive role in setting the global low carbon agenda.

It seems to me that the argument America has been having about climate change is not actually an argument about climate change. It is an argument about progress and whether you still believe in it.

Ashton served as Special Representative for Climate Change to three successive UK Foreign Secretaries from 2006-2012

It is an argument about whether you still have confidence in your ability to build your future.

Above all it is an argument about whether you want to continue setting your course by the compass of reason informed by science – that very compass that has made America the strongest country in the world for 100 years.

Do you still want, as a nation, to make reality-based choices even when they feel hard? Or do you want to pretend that reality is something different, something imagined, so you can choose what feels easier in the comforting shade of the walls some of you have built to keep reality from intruding?

I recall during the first Administration of President Bush the younger an article by the journalist Ron Suskind. He had been telephoned by an official from the White House who, unhappy with something Suskind had written about a Bush policy, accused him of belonging to what he called “the reality-based community”.

The official made clear that the Bush White House did not appreciate the reality-based community, and did not feel in any way beholden to it. “We make our own reality”, the official said.

More recently, in America’s proudest State, a once-great political party called last year for the teaching of critical thinking in schools to be outlawed, on the grounds that the ability to think critically might challenge the student’s fixed beliefs and undermine parental authority.

What kind of parent, what kind of Party, what kind of country would want to turn its children, its budding pioneers of discovery and invention, into pliant receptacles for received ideas?

And for anyone who thought that these might be mere lingering fragments of a passing hallucination laid finally to rest last November, the outgoing Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, felt it necessary to write yesterday in his valedictory letter to DoE staff that “experiments that seek the unbiased truth” should be “the arbiter of any point of view”.

Why should Secretary Chu need to point out such a thing? Not I suspect to celebrate an idea that has become so securely lodged as to be part of the national DNA. More likely because it is under attack from those who would subordinate reality as illuminated by experiment to some other more subjective arbiter of truth.

Barack Obama has promised to address the causes of climate change during his second term in office

And when it comes to climate change, I have been earnestly told, even on this brief visit to Tempe, that it is all a hoax and a conspiracy by scientists to get money from the government – a view that would be easier to dismiss were not variants of it regularly being put forward, with all due solemnity, in the U S Senate.

Anyone who knows anything about the scientific endeavour knows how ridiculous that is. But that it should be believed by any American seems to me a sign of danger. Your science has been your beating heart. As a young physicist in the seventies, my heroes were figures like Feynman, Weinberg, Gell-Mann, Penzias and Wilson in the Bell Labs, and of course Albert Einstein to whom you gave a home as the skies darkened over continental Europe.

Without its scientists, America would not have been the strongest nation for a hundred years. To see anyone in this country turning on your scientists is like watching a once vigorous loved one falling into the grip of some inexplicable autoimmune disease.

And American scientists, people like the late Charles Keeling, Wally Broecker, Jim Hansen, Susan Solomon and Lawrence Kraus, have done more than anyone to elucidate what is happening to the climate, to bring to our attention the peril in which we now find ourselves, and to show how we can best confront it. The world owes them a great debt.

It turns out that what we need to do is not, as they say, rocket science. We need to build, in not much more than a generation, an energy system that is carbon neutral. That is, carbon neutral electricity, based largely on renewables and with no fossil power unless it is abated by carbon capture and storage; carbon neutral transport, off the oil hook at last; carbon neutral industry, with CCS where necessary; carbon neutral heating; and less wasteful use of energy across the whole economy.


We have hardly started. But I promise you, the world is going to do this, and as we do it we will soon be celebrating a new golden age of electrification, in which we use electricity to do more things in smarter ways while moving to clean, emission-free generation. How Edison would have relished that!

Some say that to do this, and to do it so fast, is impossible. But I have learned, in my journey from physics to politics, to be very discriminating, and very suspicious, when I hear the word “impossible”.

It is one thing to challenge the laws of thermodynamics. At least in our neighbourhood of the Universe, they seem to set a clear and inviolable limit, part of the fabric of reality as we currently understand it. But the limits of the politically possible are quite another matter.

Those limits, within the laws of thermodynamics, are what we choose to make them. When people point to them in making any case against reform and renewal, in this or any other area of policy, the first question to ask is “what is the interest of this person, who purports to know what we can and cannot do”? The next question is: “what is the public interest, the national interest?” And question three is: “where is the arc of history so we can bend it in the hope of a better day?”

We are told, further, that a rush to build a low carbon economy will hit jobs and growth. It will be a self-imposed handicap in a global race against other nations that more sensibly put the bottom line first.

Well, the three countries that have so far made the greatest effort and the most progress towards an economy restructured around a low carbon growth model are Germany, China, and South Korea. Last time I looked all three were doing rather better than most in these difficult times. Yes, there are stresses. That is normal in any restructuring. But overall their aggressive approaches to carbon and to energy conservation certainly do not seem to be holding them back.

Green recovery

Unfortunately my own country has not been doing so well. We may even be poised for the first time in our history to enter a triple dip recession. But even as the economy as a whole has been faltering, the low carbon economy in Britain has been growing at close to 4%.

I grew up on Tyneside in the northeast of England. Once a crucible of heavy engineering, turning coal, steel and ships into prosperity, civic pride, and an outstanding soccer tradition, Tyneside in the 1960s and 70s was not a happy place. In some towns up to half the adult population was jobless.

On a visit last Summer to see my mother, who still lives there, we took a boat down the River Tyne. We saw one of Europe’s great industrial rivers coming back to life with the rise of the low carbon economy. New supply chain installations for wind turbines destined for the North Sea. A new processing centre for shipments of biomass to be burned in converted power stations. The all-electric Nissan Leaf, soon to be made in Sunderland and shipped from the Tyne to customers around Europe.

The truth is that in Britain the shift to low carbon production and consumption, far from killing jobs and growth, is one of the engines that will get our economy going again, and start spreading prosperity, including beyond the City of London finance hinterland of the southeast.

I don’t know if the best way to secure our economic interests is to frame them in terms of a supply side race for competitiveness. I rather doubt it. But what is beyond question is that there is a low carbon race, and those who win that race will be the most successful – the most productive, the most nimble, the most innovative, the most resilient against price shocks, the best educated, and the best equipped to deal with the challenges we face today in a world that Tom Friedman has aptly described as “hot, flat, and crowded”.

Of course, this dawn is not long broken in Britain or anywhere else. Even the front-runners are still on the first lap. But wherever I go, I have to tell you that the US is not at the moment seen as one of those leaders. It has come to be seen as a follower and one that now lags ever further behind.

Reality gap

Those who dispute the reality of climate change can be found everywhere, but the US is their heartland and because of them this is seen as the one great nation that has not yet made up its mind about whether it wants to act, let alone to lead.

Moreover, a new narrative of abundance – a resurgent frontier narrative that draws directly from America’s foundational myths – has developed about unconventional oil and gas.

Some of the best analysts, including Ray Pierrehumbert who is here tonight, have pointed out that there may turn out to be quite a gap between the reality and the expectation. But it is the expectation that is being communicated outside America.

There is little accompanying signal, audible beyond these shores, of concern about locking in a new generation of gas fired power stations unabated with CCS; crowding out investment in renewables; and putting off the electrification of the vehicle fleet. The carbon gain from displaced coal emissions, which is marginal and short-term, seems to be distracting attention from the long-term harm of transformation deferred.

Some will no doubt point to the real, in some cases dramatic, progress being made in other parts of the US energy economy. Conservation in Massachusetts. Wind in Texas. Cap and trade (yes, cap and trade) and much else in California. But so far, at least as seen from outside America, none of this matches the momentum building up elsewhere.

Hand of history

It was China that last year invested more in renewable energy deployment than any other economy, some $68 billion, up 20% on 2011. Last year, the US installed 1.8 GW of new solar photovoltaic generating capacity, equivalent to around 2 large power stations.

This year, China intends to install nearly 6 times as much. Germany meanwhile has embarked on a deep restructuring of its electricity system, following the decision to phase out nuclear. There are now times, when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, when Germany is powered 100% by renewables. Yes, you heard that right. 100%.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is at an energy crossroads. The consumer economies – Europe, China, Japan, Korea – are going to get out of fossil energy. Don’t confuse short-term fluctuations with structural trends. The producers – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, OPEC – see less interest in such a transformation and are working to delay it.

America is both producer and consumer. But it cannot be on both sides of this fence at once. On which side of the fence – which side of history – will America choose to stand?


John Ashton Arizona Speech 2013 by

From 2006-12, John Ashton was the Special Representative for Climate Change for three successive UK Foreign Secretaries. He is a cofounder of E3G, a Fellow of the European Climate Foundation, a Distinguished Policy Fellow at Imperial College, London and a visiting professor at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies. He is a Trustee of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, and of Tipping Point.

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