Friday, April 20, 2007

too profitable to care

The scale of Drax is astonishing. Despite being a company that just runs one power station, it makes enough money to be in the FTSE100.

Unsurprisingly, its carbon emissions are just as colossal. Most countries don’t emit as much CO2 as Drax's one site.

So, if anyone has a responsibility to get a grip on what’s going on, it’s Drax.

This week, the CEO of Drax, Dorothy Thompson, was asked about climate change. She replied

Well, I don't understand. I've read so much on it, but I still don't understand it.

Don’t understand it? It’s very clearly defined in general public perception. Walk down a street and throw a stone in the air, it’ll land on someone who can explain it to you pretty well.

I mean, if you look at the UK in the last five years, and our average temperatures, it's quite breathtaking. They've been very warm. But on the other hand, the Romans were growing grapes here and making wine.

Oh good grief. This is such a hackneyed and pathetic piece of denier's nonsense. Yes, there have always been natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature. But that doesn’t mean we are not doing something to change it too.

Indeed, the deniers usually point out that volcanoes and whatnot give out loads of CO2. In doing so, they are accepting that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. In which case - unless they are suggesting that our CO2 emissions are a different kind of CO2 to volcanoes (the clue to that one is in the name 'CO2') - they are also accepting the anthropogenic element of climate change.

To say there have always been fluctuations therefore the current ones are nothing to do with us is like saying that because the temperature of your house varies from month to month it makes no difference to how hot it is if you turn the heating on full blast.

Oh, and the grapes thing? We still do grow grapes in Yorkshire.

But I sort of understand why she does this. George Marshall from COIN does an excellent blog, Climate Denial. It deals not with the direct politics or science of climate change, but with the psychology of denial.

People have a completely understandable urge to say 'it's not happening'. As that position becomes untenable, they move to either optimism or pessimism; 'I'm sure it won't be that bad, or we'll find a way to fix it in time', or 'it's too late now and there's nothing we can do'

Have you noticed how the very same people who were denying that climate change was happening are now readily accepting it but saying it's nothing to with us?

Jim Bliss noted this phenomenon about people who stick their fingers in their ears over peak oil,

Pessimism and optimism are not natural opposites. Rather they are both manifestations of a desire to deny reality.

In 1938 a realistic assessment of Europe would acknowledge the great likelihood of war in the near future, and it would not be pessimistic to recommend preparation. The pessimistic position is actually to argue that preparation is pointless because it is a foregone conclusion that fascism will triumph.

The optimistic position, in 1938, is that Hitler is going to be satisfied with what he's got up until now, and preparation for a conflict with fascism is completely unnecessary.

Both of these are denials of reality. And the realist is derided as a doom-monger by the optimist and as a wild-eyed loon by the pessimist. Both of whom wallow comfortably in their denial.

Really, if you were in charge of emitting more CO2 than anyone else in the UK, if this role was what you’d based your personal identity, security and circles of friends around, wouldn’t you find it difficult to face up to it?

Especially if, even if you did want to change it, you couldn’t?

Here we get to the central reason why our culture is so fucking insane. Technology isn’t made to help people. Food is not grown to feed people. Houses are not built to shelter people. Nothing is done to be sustainable, fair or wise. At least, not as the primary concern.

The first priority is to make money. Those other motivations, and any others, are secondary at best.

One of the few quotes so good - and so consistently in need of saying - that I have it memorised comes from Corporate Watch’s Corporate Law And Structures report. It has that Orwell-style blunt, straightforward intelligent language and harshness that feels like it should be exaggerating but is in fact just obliterating the bullshit and saying the plain truth.

For most people, economic values are secondary, and social and to a lesser extent environmental values come first: making money is good but only if it doesn’t conflict with believing it’s wrong to murder, steal or cut down virgin rainforest.

For the corporate ‘environmentalist’, profit is absolute, social and environmental values are relative: their first aim is to make as much money as possible, but given two ways to make that money they choose the one that requires the least murder, blatant theft or environmental destruction. Then they pat themselves on the back for being so responsible.

It always felt like a great piece of anti-capitalist writing. But check this, from Dorothy Thompson, CEO of a FTSE100 company;

There's a word we sometimes use: we see ourselves as responsible. If you're faced with two decisions, and one's going to make you a lot of money but give no environmental benefit, and one's going to make the same amount of money but result in an environmental benefit, it's very clear which one you go for.

Holy fucking moly! It's not just the same point, it's almost the same phrasing as Corporate Watch's hardline anti-capitalist polemic!

Being a good journalist, her interviewer asked the obvious next question. Would it be conceivable for Drax to take the eco-friendly decision if it meant a fall in profitability?

No, because my shareholders wouldn't support it. They invest in us for profit.

So there you have it. No equivocation, from the very top rank of the largest coal-fired power station, a facility whose sole activity is environmentally destructive. It couldn’t be more clear-cut and baldly put.

They will not and cannot ever act responsibly unless it is also profitable. Given that much in the way of responsibility involves a reduction in consumption, it cannot be profitable. Thus, the whole corporate-capitalist way of working cannot solve the crisis, and indeed is utterly suicidal.

The World Health Organisation conservatively estimates that, already, 150,000 people a year are dying from the effects of climate change and the number will drastically increase.

But, bound by the overriding need for profit rather than justice, sustainability or even survival, Dorothy Thompson thinks it's worth carrying on.

As the recently deceased and much mourned Kurt Vonnegut recommended, we should carve an epitaph in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find; We could have saved it but we were too cheap.


Anonymous said...

Drax also provides 14% of the UK's electricity & just how do you propose to generate this otherwise (please do not tell me wind power!!). Obviously we could generate more electricity via nuclear power but I some how suspect you will be anti that as well.

Logically we need to firstly confirm properly what effect we are currently causing to the environment (I have read as many articles which tell me that we have very little control over our climate as the main influence is the sun) then work out what we can change that will really have an impact & will work. Currently most of what we are doing is merely pissing in the wind or is about governments raising more taxes. For instance I would not have a problem with the latest increase in flight duties if they were earmarking the money, to say plant new forests or to increase sea defences or whatever makes sense. However this is not what is happening.

Thom Cuell said...

I'm looking forward to the day we can grow grapes here again, and will be investing in 'British Wine' shares forthwith.

That is how it works, isn't it? No nasty side effects that might queer our pitch at all?

merrick said...

Firstly, can I ask that anonymous posters leave a name? Make one up if you like, but I just don't want to start getting confused between different posters.

Anonyperson, let's just deal with your query on anthropogenic climate change.

I agree that the sun is the main influence on the climate. Indeed, the greenhouse effect is all about trapping energy from the sun. I don't think you'll find anyone who disagrees. So forgive me if I'm putting words into your mouth, but I don't think you meant simply 'the sun', and suspect you meant sunspot activity.

You may well have read a lot of articles saying that's the case. I've read a lot of articles about how the ruling elite are a group of shapeshifting lizards. A particular favourite was one with an interview with the Queen Mother's doctor talking about how lizard flesh regenerates itself.

These days, there are no shortages of well-written articles on any subject. The question isn't whether people say it, but whether it's credible.

For scientific matters, peer-review is the most credible process. Someone does their work, writes it up and publishes in a journal of that area of expertise, such as Science, Nature or The Lancet. Others with ideas and research comment and the theory is tested, and the original idea is reinforced, discredited, or modified.

I defy anyone to show me a single peer-reviewed paper proving climate change is to do with sunspot activity rather than a combination of biospheric and anthropogenic action.

The recent lie-fest, The Great Global Warming Swindle, made the sunspot allegation. None of their misrepresented or made-up graphs showed the truth of the data.

According to NASA - the people actually doing the measurements - there was huge sunspot activity in the 1950s which subsided. Yet global temperatures did not rise in correlation with the sunspot activity.

They have, however, risen in line with human CO2 emissions.

A study of the 928 papers on global climate change published in Science found that none of them disagreed with the consensus position.

It concluded:

This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect.

The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known. But our grandchildren will surely blame us if they find that we understood the reality of anthropogenic climate change and failed to do anything about it.

Many details about climate interactions are not well understood, and there are ample grounds for continued research to provide a better basis for understanding climate dynamics. The question of what to do about climate change is also still open. But there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen.

So, on to the electricity thing. Drax doesn't provide 14% of the UK's power, it's 7%. I don't know where you got your wrong figure from, but of course it doesn't alter your basic point; what do we do without it?

My first instinct when I'm rowing towards a waterfalls is to stop paddling, even if I haven't got the maps out and figured an alternative route yet. Per unit of electricity generated, coal emits about 80% more than gas and 30% more than oil.

The most important thing is to reduce our demand. There is no sustainable power source for current Western demand (let alone giving our demand to the rest of humanity).

Around 10% of UK domestic electricity bills are for appliances left on standby; things using electricity when nobody is using them! Stop using standby and we could shut down Drax tomorrow and not really miss it.

Energy efficiency measures have a big part to play (the ban on incandescent light bulbs is to be welcomed; why do most houses with cavity walls not have insulation?).

The power supply needs to be diverse. Solar panels on south-facing roofs could contribute a significant minority of the supply (less efficient than big ones, but no loss of electiricy during transmission over long power lines).

Micro-wind turbines have had their effects somewhat exaggerated by Greenpeace, B&Q and others, but still they can be effective if they're placed in places where they're above the things that surround them. Not for every rooftop, but for isolated houses, for tower blocks, or for larger ones within communities (which can prove to be very popular, such as at Swaffham in Norfolk).

I do believe large-scale wind power has a big part to play.

There are several reasons why newer technology makes it possible.

Firstly, the new generation of turbines are vastly more productive than ones from ten years ago. Also, high voltage DC cables can be used so there's no loss in transmission. This means we could build offshore wind farms up to 60 miles out to sea. The further out to sea, the greater the strength of wind speed.

A 2005 UK government paper ('Offshore Renewables – the Potential Resource') showed that offshore wind generation could produce over 3,000 terawatt hours of electricity, or about 80% of present consumption.

There's a glaring problem or intermittency - the wind doesn't blow and you get no power. But that only applies to one place. If the turbines are spread around, it'll be blowing somewhere.

One study - despite only surveying a minority of potential wind generating areas in the country - showed that there's less than 24 hours a year when electricity demand is high and wind would be producing under 10% of its potential.

Graham Sinden's survey of weather data from 1970-2003 showed there wasn't an hour when there wasn't wind somewhere in the UK.

All intermittent sources - such as wind and solar - will need back-up and that'll probably have to come from fossil sources. Firing them up and turning them off again isn't as efficient as keeping them running, but still, if they're only used sporadically as backup then our carbon emissions will plummet.

That said, wave power has huge potential and is, of course, constant and dependable.

I agree that much of what we've done so far is pissing in the wind. The science is pretty clear, we need a global cut of about 60% in our emissions within about 30 years if we're to avoid catastrophic climate change. An extra few bob on a plane ticket (not really a new tax, just putting it back up to what it was before Gordon Brown reduced it a few years back) isn't going to make any real odds.

It shouldn't only be about ringfencing the money from any green taxes, it will take a lot more than that. It takes serious, committed and bold action. That cannot be market-led, nor can it be demand-led. We need to manage and reduce demand.

We need to all but eradicate the activities that emit the most and cannot be replaced, such as burning coal and aviation.

Coal is by far the most carbon-intensive way to generate electricity. It has no place in a society that wants to avoid catastrophic climate change.

john b said...

"Around 10% of UK domestic electricity bills are for appliances left on standby; things using electricity when nobody is using them!"

I agree with you about the need to prepare for the imminent energy crisis.

However, the standby statistic is precisely the sort made-up nonsense that Dorothy Thompson would cling to - "look, a way we can save 10% of our electricity consumption without sacrificing any consumption or investing in more expensive green fuels!".

Most appliances use virtually no energy when on standby - see,,2054505,00.html

John B

merrick said...

John, thanks a lot for the link, very interesting stuff. Always good to see someone personally testing the things we've been told.

The commonly quoted 'around 10%' figure isn't made up, though.

"stand-by power consumption, which in 2004 used 8% of all residential electricity and is a rising trend"
(Chapter 2, DTI Energy Review 'The Energy Challenge', July 2006. PDF here).

I do believe that we can cut consumption between 10% and 30% pretty painlessly through efficiency measures.

Rather like the guy in the article you cite, I'm sure smart meters and smart plugs have a big part to play; not only can they make the grid less wasteful (eg a smartplug on your washing machine that registers when electricity goes cheap before switching on), but they also point out what's a guzzler and what's not and thereby encourage people to switch the heavy-user stuff on less often.

I also firmly believe that the painless cut of up to 30% isn't enough to stop catastrophic climate change; it is going to take some serious social change, and sharpish.