Victim blaming and misdirection in the climate debate
An edited version of this was printed in Morning Star, 12th March 2020
As the climate crisis gets worse there is a growing tendency amongst the 1% to divert attention from their own complicity, while at the same time shoring up our continued subservience to their exploitation.
Late last year, BBC presenter and patron of Population Matters Chris Packham, made the case that the existential threat facing humanity was being largely driven by global over-population[i]. A year earlier, another BBC presenter and patron of Population Matters David Attenborough, took the same position[ii].
Ten years before that a small group of 0.01%ers met secretly to discuss how best to manage the future of life on earth. Reported in The Times, the meeting was said to have been convened by Bill Gates, and attended by among others Warren Buffet, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey. They also apparently came to the same conclusion that over-population was the key to the problem[iii].
This isn’t a particularly new idea. Over the 1970s and 1980s one of the key organisations discussing this theory has been the Club of Rome[iv]. Which coincidentally boasts Graeme Maxton as a previous Secretary General, who now sits on the expert advisory group of Population Matters, the same charity/company that Attenborough and Packham are patrons of[v].
Back in ‘72 the Club of Rome became famous for issuing a report entitled The Limits to Growth, which argued that a global catastrophe was imminent because economic growth could only ever be finite because of the finite nature of exploitable resources. However, some have argued that their position, was extending out from the 1968 book by Dr Paul Erlich called The Population Bomb. But even that is not the starting point, as this theory really stretches all the way back to at least 1798 and Thomas Malthus’ work on population control[vi].
This argument, in all of its forms, is open to the same principle criticism[vii]. Arguing that “over-population = existential threat”, glosses over the fact that different people, behave differently and therefore impact the climate and the planet differently.
One of the key demographic groups whose importance is lost in the generalisation of the over-population argument today is the one group who live the most unsustainable lives. The impact that this group has on the wider environment is hugely disproportionate to their physical numbers.
For instance, those who know about these sorts of things say that the 2 litre Si4 petrol engine version of the Land Rover Discovery emits around 247g/km of CO2[viii]. So in order to do a 30 mile commute to and from work 5 days a week, each driver would emit 6.2 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, or roughly the equivalent of one person taking four round trip flights from London to Los Angeles[ix].
Now compare that to the UK’s CO2 emissions for 2018 which is 5.3 tonnes[x] per person, or better yet the CO2 emissions for Niger, the country with the fastest growing population on the planet[xi], where the average person creates only 0.1 tonne of CO2 emissions per year[xii].
The reality is that in the 25 years leading up to 2005 over 60% of the population growth around the world was happening in the areas with the lowest CO2 emissions[xiii].
By over-simplifying the relationship between the various lifestyles and the planet, we leave ourselves open to being manipulated by the very people that are benefiting from the behaviour that causes this problem.
And when it comes to misleading the public, few industries have gone to the lengths that the Oil industry has gone to. The list of think tanks, PRs, lobbyists, and scientists- politicians- and civil servants-for-hire, that have been mobilised in order to create doubt over the link between certain human behaviours and climate change is like nothing seen since the Tobacco industry hid the link between cancer and smoking[xiv].
Even the strategies that they are now employing have been tried and tested on us before. Raise doubt and undermine the credibility of scientists comes straight out of the Tobacco industry play-book. Find a powerless minority and blame their lack of character for spoiling it for everyone else comes out of the Alcohol and Sugar industries play-book.
But it doesn’t stop there. When one group of capitalists loses ground, inevitably another group tries to fill the void.
Back in 2003 the Nuclear Industry decided to take the opportunity afforded by the climate crisis to put Chernobyl behind them and reposition nuclear power as ‘climate friendly energy’. The trade association even wrote that phrase across the top of their website. It wasn’t long after this that the biggest player in the UK, British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), employed the PR multinational Weber Shandwick to start repainting themselves green, metaphorically speaking[xv].
The problem is that nuclear power is simply not the answer. The new nuclear reactor being built at Hinkley Point looks likely to become one of the most costly single location PFI white elephants in British history. Current estimates suggest that UK tax payers may well still be paying the French government via EDF and the Chinese government via CGN for it in 2065[xvi]. And it is not just Hinkley Point, there is Sizewell on the Suffolk coast, and at least five more on the drawing board[xvii].
Even ignoring the fact that nuclear power is financially unworkable without massive tax payer subsidies, it produces a waste product that will continue killing life on earth for hundreds of thousands of years to come[xviii]. We don’t even know what to do with the millions of cubic metres of radioactive waste we have already created[xix].
So far the general consensus currently appears to be burying it really deep in the ground. Arguably a little better than some of the previous ideas, like making ammunition out of it and then firing it at people[xx], or simply dumping it into the sea and hoping that no one is looking[xxi]. But none of these are truly sustainable as they produce a huge amount of CO2 in their various production processes.
Even though nuclear power is the definitive dirty energy, the relentless march to nuclear has been occurring over multiple administrations for decades now against an overwhelming tide of public opposition.
One of the key strategies used by the 1%, when faced with any popular opposition whether in politics or business, is to divide, separate and then pick-off the more manageable sub-groups. Like a recipe for subverting democracy it is broken down into nice easy steps. First isolate the radicals from the moderates. Then break the moderates up into idealists and realists. Then cultivate the idealist-moderates into becoming realist-moderates, And then co-opt all the realists into your way of thinking[xxii].
And if I sound cynical take a moment to look back at the establishment response to the anti-war movement, black lives matter, #metoo, socialism in mainstream politics, climate activism, Save the NHS, or the BDS campaign. Even the last Labour manifesto fell under the spell of the nuclear lobby. And that is just in recent years. The list goes on and on and on. And while the language may change, the objective and the strategy remains the same.
The nuclear industry’s ‘climate-friendly’ sleight-of-hand was so effective that the gas industry tried to pull the same stunt. And after one of the most intensive PR and lobbying campaigns in recent years the EU declared the fossil-fuel Gas as a low-carbon energy solution to climate change. And of course then Shale Gas raised their green flag, which the climate sceptic think tank and big player in the new Conservative administration the Global Warming Policy Foundation, got right behind without hesitation[xxiii].
The problem isn’t about overpopulation, it is about the behaviour of certain sections of the global population, and specifically the amount of energy that their lifestyles demand. Pumping tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere to build new electric sports cars for rich people doesn’t help. We have to use significantly less energy, and that energy has to come from sources that the planet can effectively metabolise.
However we do this, the relationship between the 1% and the 99% has to change dramatically. Their leadership is incapable of understanding solutions that don’t include their continued privilege and excess. Without addressing these inequalities we will never be able to minimise or effectively prepare for the existential threat now barrelling towards us.
1 Based on … a 30 minute commute by car on A-roads would equate to about 30 miles. Doing that twice a day, 5 days a week would equate to roughly 14,400 miles. Add a further 10% for other journeys and diversions etc. and you are looking at 15,840 miles or roughly 25,300 km a year.
i https://populationmatters.org/news/2020/01/17/chris-packham-we-need-talk-about-population , downloaded 18/2/2020
ii https://populationmatters.org/news/2018/04/06/sir-david-attenborough-we-need-come-our-senses , downloaded 18/2/2020
iii https://www.globalresearch.ca/billionaire-club-in-bid-to-curb-overpopulation/13736 , downloaded 18/2/2020
iv https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Club_of_Rome , downloaded 19/2/2020
v https://populationmatters.org/expert-advisory-group , downloaded 18/2/2020
vi https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/malthus_thomas.shtml , downloaded 19/2/2020
vii https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/book-incited-worldwide-fear-overpopulation-180967499/ , downloaded 18/2/2020
viii https://www.carbuyer.co.uk/reviews/land-rover/discovery/sports-utility-vehicle/mpg , downloaded 18/2/2020
ix https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2019/jul/19/carbon-calculator-how-taking-one-flight-emits-as-much-as-many-people-do-in-a-year , downloaded 18/2/2020
x https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/?country=NIGERIA&fuel=CO2%20emissions&indicator=CO2%20emissions%20per%20capita , downloaded 19/2/2020
xi https://eu.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/07/10/world-population-day-fastest-growing-countries-guinea-chad-mali/39584997/, downloaded 18/2/2020
xii https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/?country=NIGERIA&fuel=CO2%20emissions&indicator=CO2%20emissions%20per%20capita , downloaded 19/2/2020
xiii Monbiot, George: How did we get into this mess, 2016 – p103, 104
xiv Cave, T. & Rowell. A.: A quiet word, 2014 – p220-222
xv Cave, T. & Rowell. A.: A quiet word, 2014 – p101, 102
xvi https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/dec/21/hinkley-point-c-dreadful-deal-behind-worlds-most-expensive-power-plant , downloaded21/02/2020
xvii https://www.namrc.co.uk/intelligence/uk-new-build-plans/ , download 21/2/2020
xviii https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/21/search-area-willing-host-highly-radioactive-waste-uk-geology , download 21/2/2020
xix https://nda.blog.gov.uk/2017/04/03/how-much-radioactive-waste-is-there/ , download 21/2/2020