Category Archives: energy

Energy “futures”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

Sociologists like to talk about the sociology of expectations, the manufacture of futures. You can’t just say “it’s the future, take it” (or at least you can’t and not just sound like a bit of a tool). But futures are made, not least by imagining what we might expect, and those expectations can be managed. Or, as the sociologists put it, ‘the future of science and technology is actively created in the present through contested claims and counterclaims over its potential’ (UCL has a good overview, if you want to read more).

A nice study of making the future in action can be found in Megan Prelinger’s book ‘Advertising the Space Race: Another Science Fiction’. We’re all quite used to the idea that science fiction may interact with actual science and technology (nice report on this from NESTA or just go have a nostalgia over Jetson’s videophones). What Prelinger’s book does is show how science fictional ideas and images were really reflected in 1950s and 1960s adverts for space technologies. Amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century, Prelinger shows how some of the most fascinating discourses of hope for the future weren’t in the pages of pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. As such, they actually worked to construct this future too.

What has this got to do with energy?

Much of this Dialogue on energy was about offering us imagined futures from which to make decisions about today. Because so much of the energy debate comes down to ideas of economic growth and climate change, it is deeply futuristic; obsessed with forecasts. Technological forecasts. Economic forecasts. Climate forecasts. All uncertain – indeed, we saw several of the Dialogue speakers joke about having forecasted incorrect oil prices – but all powerful too. Just the very idea of what the future could be can provoke a particular response, used as tools to both close down and unlock policy ideas. Forecasts frame futures, they are part of the materials we make tomorrow from, even if they can’t predict or determine what is going to happen, or we act in spite of them rather than with them.

The futuristic aspects of the energy debate were played out quite reflexively at the end of the Dialogue with the concluding discussion ‘mapping scenarios for our energy future’. The panel – Fatih Birol, Steven Chu, Karin Markides, Johan Rockström and Semida Silveira – reflected in a reasonably dramatic way where they might imagine being at some date in the future. Or at least it was more dramatic than the usual abstracted graphs of the business (which we’d all seen many examples of during the day) though less dramatic than traditional science fiction, rooted in their expert ideas of what they feel to be real and likely rather than simply what would make a good story. Day After Tomorrow this wasn’t.

Earlier in the day saw some interesting debate around the role of technology in building the various environmental and economic models. Rajendra Pachauri in particular argued that we were not baring in mind technology enough in terms of forecasting. We need to consider technology prospects and work out how to better fold them into our energy projections. We need to think about disruptive technologies (e.g. that shale gas revolution we’re always being told about). Such arguments have a long history. The Limits to Growth report in the 1970s was criticised at the time by people such as Chris Freeman, arguing that, for all that yes, the Earth only contained so many resources, their particular projections had failed to give enough attention to technology. One might argue, however, that we already work too much influence of technology into our forecasts as we fold in still under-developed technologies such as CCS into our forecasts (Kevin Anderson is interesting on this, even if you don’t agree with him). Or as Greenpeace’s Isadora Wronski tweeted in response to one of the Dialogue’s talks, ‘every year @IEA projections gets closer and closer to ours, but they overestimate the role of nuclear and CCS in the decarbonisation.’ Maybe the IEA are right. Or maybe Greenpeace are. I don’t know. My point is simply that it is contested. And that you may have to expect the unexpected, but you can’t count on it.

Above all, I think we need to think more about how we might involve a larger number people in this sort of imagining. As my colleagues at the STEPS Centre might say, too often it’s narrations of the future built by powerful actors and institutions which become ‘the motorways channeling policy, governance and interventions’ overrunning a host of often valuable and more diverse pathways which stem from and respond to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values.

Because nice as the scenarios session at the end of the Dialogue was, it was a line up of the great and the good giving us stories. It wasn’t an exercise in collaborative story-making. And we need to take more time to do that. Otherwise I doubt the futures we make will be nearly robust or fair enough. And the policy-makers, scientists and engineers need to get better at devoting large chunks of time to talking with a diverse set of people about what they are doing, in a very routine way. Relying on technologies such as CCS or geoengineering into the various forecasts we use for energy policy before they are even built is one thing we might fight about, but doing so without first explaining what these are to the public and inviting them to be part of decisions around them is another.

“We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

The UK Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander recently claimed the new government energy bill cutting plan was a “win, win” policy.

But can there really be any such thing as a win-win policy when it comes to energy? Because even putting aside specific scepticism about the UK context of that line, the simplistic binary of ‘win-win’ limits the sorts of questions, perspectives and expectations we might have about energy policy. It glosses over the diversity of people within such groups and the diversity of ideas or impacts they might have. There are more people on the planet, and more people yet to be born in the planet to consider than simply those charging and playing bills in one country today. There also other businesses, other ways people interact with energy than simply bills, other ideas, other frames, other ways we might weight our concept of winning.

As Sujatha Raman, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham, said when I asked for questions to take with me to the Nobel Dialogue: ‘Can we have affordable uninterrupted energy supply (the International Energy Agency’s definition of energy security) without the exploitation of somebody somewhere?‘

With that in mind, one of the most interesting themes I saw emerge in the Nobel Prize Dialogue was discussion of difference. As Chris Llewellyn Smith, Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, started off his discussion on energy outlooks: ‘We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way.’ On a very simple level, some people are getting to use more energy than others. There are big emitters, who also get the value of these emissions, and low ones, who simply don’t have access to such value.

Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, stressed issues of difference perhaps most of all the introductory morning talks. As well as making a moral case for a pro-poor global energy strategy with drive to even out access to energy resources, he outlined some of the complexities of the global energy market, showing that what is true for one country is very different for another. He also stressed change; difference over time. Or, as he put it, the ‘job descriptions of key energy players are being re-written’. Countries which had previously been major energy importers are being significant energy exporters. There’s the US and its so-called shale gas ‘revolution’ but also Brazil, which is becoming a significant exporter due to the impact of two major policies – increasing production, but also pushing biofuels – which are quite different from the picture we’ve seen in America. Conversely, more established energy exporter countries are looking for new markets, largely in Asia. Back to the pro-poor dimension, he also discussed how divergent prices for energy are in different countries (gas is cheaper in the US than in Asia) and how this price differential provides an important dimension for different economies. Above all, perhaps, Birol stressed the role of subsidies to change to appearance of energy prices, especially in terms of picking between energy choices: ‘For me, fossil fuel subsidies are number one public enemy of sustainable energy development’ as governments are putting money from their own citizens to push the price of fossil fuels down, encouraging us to use them in a wasteful manner.

We also heard a moving speech from the UN’s Richenda Van Leeuwen outlining why increased energy access is so important; not just in terms of fuelling economic growth and improving lives by opening up new possibilities but also to save people, especially women, from the sorts of energies they current rely on. Fuels that cause burns. Fuels that choke. Fuels which put young women in danger of rape if they go out to collect firewood.

What we hadn’t heard much of however – at least by lunchtime when I wrote this – was the impact of climate change on poorer parts of the world. References to poverty are often used in calls for greater use of one energy or another – and it was indeed mentioned by BP’s Carl-Henric Svanberg in his address at the start of the dialogue – but unless the views of the people in the countries you are talking about are discussed, with full inclusion of concerns about the impacts of climate change too, it seems a bit like empty rhetoric. I’m totally in agreement with Van Leeuwen about this element of the energy challenge, but I can’t help thinking that if we in the west really want to take the well-being of the rest of the world seriously, some sort of sense of their ‘growth’ is going to have to give. And pro-poor rhetoric from the likes of BP looks a bit crass. Because I still have hope that Raman’s wrong and that we don’t need to exploit people for energy, but we might have to change how we live our lives, and recognise how much exploitation it is built upon.

A postnote though: As Christof Rühl (also of BP) noted in his talk on energy outlooks, we’re seeing a convergence in fossil fuel mix, and this is a big deal because for the first time in human history, we don’t have a dominant fuel. Maybe there’s a sign of hope for change there, even if the use of non-fossil fuel options are still way behind.

Book review: The Burning Question

The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke (London, 2013: Profile Books). This review first appeared on New Left Project

We used to worry we might run out of oil or gas. That’s one of the reasons why we talk of ‘peak oil’ and refer to various energy choices with the word ‘renewables’ and non-renewables, rather than focus on low or high carbon. But this is a relatively old frame for the problem. Now we’re more aware of the problem that we might actually try to burn the oil and gas we have. Moreover, new or improved technologies such as fracking mean we can access materials we’d previously thought unobtainable, or at least too expensive to bother extracting. And we can’t burn them. Or we can’t burn them if we care about climate change.

You might be forgiven for forgetting this, seeing as how little climate change gets mentioned in media coverage of energy. But it’s a key issue; many would argue the key issue.

So, now, instead of ‘peak oil’ we increasingly hear the term ‘stranded assets’ to talk about fossil fuel reserves we could use in as much as they are there for the burning, but we shouldn’t if we want to avoid even more global warming than we’re currently set towards. We are probably going to have to get used to talking about this because it looks like it’s going to dominate a lot of the debate about taking action on climate change. Just as action on CFCs was mobalised around the then new idea of a ‘hole in the Ozone layer’ in the 1980s, ‘keep it in the ground’ has become a mantra of aspects of the green movement in recent months. Bill McKibben’s article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math became a viral hit last summer, with a wave of campus activism of following it.

It is also what Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke’s new book The Burning Question is about. An explanation of a slightly different concept of ‘peak’ oil, and how we should consider fossil fuels as stranded assets. As their sub-title puts it ‘We can’t bun half the world’ soil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?’

The book has received a host of warm reviews and comes baring endorsements from George Monbiot, Kevin Anderson and Al Gore. It even made the list of books MP like to tell people they are reading over the summer, heartening maybe considering most of the other titles were simply about other politicians. I can recommend it too. Berners-Lee and Clarke provide a great overview of why this stranded assets issue is both important and so intractable a problem. It reflects a mature and evidence-based approach to energy policy. It has some strong, explanatory prose and is refreshingly short, with a tightly plotted, clear structure. Titles like this could all too easily be one of those great tomes you feel you should read but, textbook-like, really can’t be bothered to get much beyond the first chapter. But something about the coherent, lively prose and the sense of urgency sitting in the background keeps you going. I should also add that this book isn’t hectoring. It’s passionate and urges action, but any more strident campaigning is largely left offstage.

Berners-Lee and Clarke give their readers a host of useful metaphors and some clear graphs, both of which are simplifications in their own ways – giving particular lenses on the larger issue – but both incredibly useful too. In a field whose discourse often places contingencies and uncertainty above all else, it was refreshing to read such clear prose. Some may well find the book too simple and clear in places, and it is worth remembering that most ‘simplification’ tend to include some personal take on the issue. Such personal takes might not be bad – indeed, they can reflect a lot of prior thought – but not everyone will agree what the essential points are. The book offers the idea of reframing peak fossil fuel for climate change I started with, as well as an image of saving energy as like ‘squeezing a balloon’ to explain the often esoteric ‘Jevons paradox’, repeating Myles Allen to talk about ‘loading the climate dice to flood, or that if we talk about being addicted to fossil fuels, we should start looking at the dealers, not users (a line I’ve since seen Naomi Klein use in talks). These are all great explanations, but they won’t please all.

Still, Berners-Lee and Clark are very open about the complexity, reflecting a sense of climate as a multi-layered ‘perfect storm of money and power, science and politics, technology and the human mind’. The book offers you the big picture and then if you want detail, look to the endnotes. They leave the various ends untied for you to unravel if you so wish. We maybe spend too much time thinking about how intractable climate change and energy policy are. Yes, it is complex, but lots of things are complex. It’s also riddled with a lot of uncertainty, but again so are many other things. A strong sense of the complexities and uncertainties at play are crucial for scientists to help them think about new ways to learn more but is not exactly useful for getting things done. Clarity is rarely scientific. It washes over all the contingencies and possibilities of thorough work. But if it’s not your job (or simply favourite hobby) to work through the details of the issue, they become a barrier for involvement. Where as simplified versions of many other areas of science and technology are readily available as introductions for non-experts, there is somewhat of a dearth of explanatory materials for climate change. All in all, I felt this book is welcome as a contribution towards filling that gap.

One of the reasons it isn’t hectoring in its style is arguably because it doesn’t really advocate any strong suggestions. For all that the book is subtitled “We can’t burn half the worlds, oil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?” but that question was left rather unresolved. It offers frames and questions and information which may well help us towards better conversations to deal with this question, but it is a long way from providing some itself. I also finished the book unsatisfied that they didn’t seem to want to dig into deeper political issues or really challenge the systems at play.

They do ask us to think about ownership of resources and the book ends with an answer to the question “What can I do?” which I’m personally quite strongly behind. Namely, rather than just small individual actions at home like recycling, remember you are part of a global social system which runs the larger infrastructures at fault and put pressure on politicians and business leaders to change.

Many of us feel that we’re too insignificant to make a difference, but the social and political ripple effects of our efforts may be more powerful than we’d expect. After all, human society is every bit as much a complex system as the climate itself. Everyone is influenced by everyone else. And most of us are only a few degrees of separation from someone in a prominent role. Every helpful action or comment lubricates every other; every unhelpful action is a brake on progress

Nice sentiment. But this point is a scant three pages long. It may well be all that point needs – say it, then put the book down and get on with it – but I’d have liked a bit more reflection on how power is expressed and might be unpacked to run throughout the book, and think this conclusion could well have been extended with some examples.

The discussion of stranded assets – which comes largely via the Carbon Tracker Initiative – frames the debate very much within financial systems. This is useful, and helps open a new and important area of activism. At the very least, it focuses public attention on a form of social infrastructure which all too often gets to fester away unnoticed. Similarly, McKibben likes to juxtapose the difference between the huge challenge of changing the financial system with the even bigger one of changing nature. This is an important juxtaposition, I think; one that has sat behind much environment politics for decades and is only likely to become more obvious in years to come as we debate it more in the context of new technologies such as geoengineering and more philosophical frames like the anthropocene. Why should money, not nature, be the limiting factor? Money is just something we made up to help us make society run more smoothly. Why should we let this make-believe tool rule us to the extent we endanger our planet? When did we get more scared of this thing we made up called economics than the planet we were born to?

Still, there is something about the emphasis on the idea of stranded assets that leaves me uneasy. I don’t think we should necessarily give in to seeing the planet in such a way. Moreover, I don’t think the issue is as simple as that. People sometimes talk about a new industrial revolution – a green one – which will transform the way we live to a more sustainable future. It’s another one of those simple analogies which can be very useful. But as ever, beware of the spin on reality it takes. Because it’d have to be a very different form of industrial revolution from previous ones. No one will make gazillions of pounds from find new technologies we didn’t realise we wanted/ needed. It’s not about making markets. If anything, it’s about closing them. And that’s a hard sell (so hard we use the word ‘sell’ as a way to even talk about it). Because it is not just about changing finance rather than the planet, it’ll require a host of cultural and social changes too, and the rarefied graphs of Much of the Burning Question, like McKibben’s insistence that we just need to ‘do the math’, is in danger of loosing a sense of that, even if they also offer some really important starting points.

The Burning Question offers a very clear introduction to questions of energy and climate change but, as with any expression of clarity, it’s a slight spin on things. If you think it’s the way we do capitalism which is at heart of the climate change problem, you’ll probably enjoy its more normative points. However, if you have larger economic questions and more revolutionary aims in terms of the sorts of changes required (for more than just the climate) you’ll probably find its prescription a bit of a sticking-plaster. Much I’d recommend this book, I can see why politicians felt comfortable being seen to read this book: It doesn’t really challenge them much.

Occupy RCUK! Or why science funding matters

This first appeared on the Greenpeace EnergyDesk.

Compared to Canada and Australia, Brits might be forgiven for feeling a bit relaxed about the relatively pro-science stance our government seems to take (the odd “flat earth love-in” notwithstanding).

But beware politicians who come baring science scented rhetoric, or at least be ready to ask which bits of science they are so keen on, put to what ends. Because it’s not just the size of the science budget that matters, it’s what you do with it.

See, for example, yesterday’s report from Scientists for Global Responsibility; on how research is being directed towards developing aggressive weapons rather than talking the roots of conflict. Or the University of Manchester’s £64 million deal with BP last year, to explore “Advanced Materials.” Advanced materials which are especially useful for squeezing those hard-to-extract fossil fuels out the ground. Or the big smiles from Cameron and Cable at the Big Bang Fair last spring, as they ushered our nation’s youth towards careers with Shell and BAE Systems, Or when the Natural Environment Research Council, our official body for environmental science, decided to celebrate its ability to help “de-risk”  the activities of oil companies in the polar regions. Whose hopes for our collective future do those bits of science serve? Whose pockets?

Many important debates about how we might best apply scientific energies get obscured by arguments about the need for “pure” research. But put down the spherical physicist (imaginary ideal case that doesn’t exist in real world) because large chunks of science are already being directed. And so they should be.

The idea that at least some scientific work should be focused towards key social challenges informs how we organise science the world over, and has done for as long as we’ve been doing science on a large scale. This doesn’t mean we tell scientists what to find. It just means that, because we believe in science’s power as an engine for change, we think about which direction we point in in. The idea that science should be directed really isn’t – on a policy level – controversial at all. The question is who gets to direct it.

For example, the environmental sciences body NERC has, as its number one strategic goal, “enabling society to respond urgently to global climate change and the increasing pressures on natural resources”. Dealing with climate change is their moonshot; NERC are our people who keep an eye on these things. I for one am glad we invest in some brains on that issue.

Considering this expressed goal, we might be a bit taken aback by a call for expressions of interest to run a new Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas research which was quietly offered with a very short deadline a few weeks back. A cynic might argue they wanted it to slip out reasonably unnoticed over the summer. We might even possibly wonder if it was delayed so as not to coincide with the Balcolme protests. Because it is a bit suspicious.

Before you get too angry, there is also a DTC in wind funded through the EPSRC (engineering council). But this new centre does seem a bit odd, especially coming from NERC. It’d perhaps be simplistic to say they are using public money to run PhDs in fracking. But they are kind of using public money to do PhDs in fracking. When the BP materials centre was announced last year, the Nature news blog mused that that, as corporate labs wither, industries were looking to campuses to fill their research needs. Similarly, this new centre from NERC does feel a bit like someone, somewhere is taking the piss.

PhDs are important. That’s why research councils are strategising at the level of organising doctorial training centres. DTCs are controversial across academia for this reason – strategy is easily a code for cuts – and there was some fuss when NERC said they’d bring them in. PhDs are a key part of scientific labour in that they do a lot of the actual research, but they also train and make new scientists, so a centre for training like this is designed help encourage more work in an area and strengthen it as a long-term academic field. They are a way to plan the future of science, and with it a way to plan the future of our planet.

It would be understandable if other NERC funded scientists, not to mention the British public at large, asked questions. Who decided this was a good idea? As I’ve argued before, the governance of the research councils are far from open, and that’s a failing in terms of both doing good science and democratic accountability. It’ll be interesting to see the results of the Platform/ People and Planet work on the fossil fuel industry’s involvement in UK universities, but I suspect one of the most interesting results will be what they haven’t been able to find out about.

Unpicking the politics of science funding gets harder still as public research does more and more work with industry (see George Monbiot’s “monstrous proposal”). This issue of collaboration connects to another issue in the structure of science funding we should all be paying a lot more attention to; the move to collaborative funding where it is easier to access public funds if you can also bring some resources from industry. There are lots of advantages to this, but if over-applied, it limits us to research which serves the status quo rather than disrupts it.

Science is one of the places we can find hope when it comes to dealing with climate change. But it’s also, potentially a source of a lot of damage too. Protest camps at sites for possible exploration – as we saw at Balcombe – perhaps show activism moving further upstream than equivalent targets at power stations or airports. But a really forward-thinking protester might want to consider occupying Research Councils UK.

Climate, fuel and social justice

Science for PEOPLE 70s socialist science magazine

Some old copies of Science for People – the magazine of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science – landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been lost down archives of the 1970s radical science movement ever since. The following comes from the editorial in issue 25 in 1974.

Energy supply is seen as a purely technical problem to be solved by “experts” with a technical fix: nuclear fission and North Sea oil. These, we are told, will satisfy energy “demand” for the next twenty years. After that, we will only have plutonium waste and memories of the beauty of northwest Scotland. The most important questions are never asked: why will the “demand” for energy continue to grow? Do we really need so much energy? Technical answers will never solve the energy problem, since the problem, short or long term, is not technical but social and political. Cheap and abundant energy, chiefly oil, has been essential for the policy of sustained economic growth that has been pursued by all political parties (and the TUC) since the end of the Second World War. Economic growth has enabled the capitalist system to survive and evolve into its present interventionist, mildly social democratic form, by buying off and suppressing class conflict. The conditions which made it possible no longer hold: commodity prices have greatly increased, the international monetary system is in chaos, the balance of payments deficit is enormous, and oil is neither abundant nor cheap. Policies are polarising, the class structure of Britain is exposed and we must choose either authoritarian capitalism or socialism

I share it partly because aspects of it remind me of a debate on social justice and climate change I chaired last week as part of the Brighton Fringe (video below). The point about a choice between “authoritarian capitalism or socialism” was less overt, but there were aspects of a similar tension running through it, as was a sense that relying on simply technical answers would be foolish, because many of the speakers saw the problem as chiefly political. Or in some contrast, Myles Allen went full technofix in the Mail on Sunday over the weekend.

I don’t know if the similarities in these discourses say something depressing about lack of progress in energy policy or our ways of critiquing it. For all that I generally agree that issues of energy supply are political, not technical (and, moreover, the technical is political) it did feel like the scientific and technical issues were drowned out at that event. I also think that 21st century nuclear should be accessed on 21st century terms, not 1970s ones. Maybe I’m wrong about that though. You can watch for yourself.

Thanks to our panel (Thurstan Crockett, Jim Watson, Doug Parr and Kirsty Alexander) as well as Julia Day for putting it all together. Thanks also to Jon Agar for drawing this Science for People editorial to my attention.

John Hayes MP and the bourgeois

Goveart

Gove-themed streetart, Brighton.

Our energy minister John Hayes seems to enjoy the word “bourgeois”. I don’t blame him, it’s a fun word to say.

Back in October, he described the idea of onshore wind farms as “a bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective”, arguing that “We need to understand communities’ genuine desire” instead “These things are about the people and I am the people’s minister” (as the Telegraph said, this seemed odd from a Tory minister). I heard him make similar claims to be on the side of the real people in a lecture at Imperial College later that month too. Yesterday he used it again, this time while dismissing David King’s perspective on clearing rainforest for biofuels as “detached, bourgeois views” (from 2hr 40 mins in). Within hours, this line had made it into Hayes’ Wikipedia entry, nestled between references to his low Stonewall rating and membership of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

If Hayes is going to apply the language of class war, we might as well run with it, especially as his perspective reminds me slightly of Soviet agricultural policy. I’m not being facetious. It’s also where I find some worth – as well as the ultimate poverty – of Hayes’ perspective. Let me explain.

Soviet agricultural policy is fascinating stuff. Short version: There is a long-standing Marxist issue with reductionist and determinist nature of genetics (and honestly, Francis Galton was a bit of a dick). A chap called Trofim Lysenko offered an alternative, and ended up dominating Soviet biology and agricultural policy to the extent that dissenters would be sent to the Gulags. Aside from a more socialist view of how nature worked and should be managed, he also offered a character of a self-taught, plain-speaking “barefoot scientist” of the people. It was worked in contrast to an idea of isolated lab-based ivory tower academics apparently more interested in animals and chemicals in bottles than people (good In Our Time on Lysenkosim). It was an attractive message. Even though if was also largely wrong, with disastrous consequences to boot.

In the same way, Hayes’ claim to be for the people sounds attractive too. Many scientists today, even David King, do seem distant and bourgeois. Hayes has a point in that, even if I think it’s ultimately used to disempower the public voice and be anything but as egalitarian as he implies. Who exactly are the publics against wind power? (they prefer it to a shale gas well, at least). And the landgrabs issue behind much of the biofuels story this week? All about inequality.

The last few decades have seen a lot of good work on public engagement with UK science. However, this challenge is huge, especially in the more politically charged issues like climate. It amounts to a quantity of work which frankly we haven’t come close to scratching the surface of investing in enough. Also, at the same time as all the increased public engagement work’s been going on, science education has managed to alienate many members of the general public. There are fees, etc, limiting access to universities but there are deeper problems too. The school-science curriculum is still largely designed to prepare people for A-level then undergraduate science, even though most people won’t take it that far. It’s also (oddly perhaps) influenced by the lobbies who want to keep a distinct identity for chemistry, biology and physics, meaning multidisciplinary, political topics like climate science don’t get the attention they deserve. There have been movements to try to design a science curriculum more focused on making educated publics, not scientists. But the scientific lobby largely manages to undermine it. Interestingly, one of the first UK politicians to really push for this “school science for the people” was Thatcher, Hayes’ Tory class war around science isn’t exactly new.

In recent years, the science lobby has also been actively arguing for “triple science” GCSE as the gold standard for those who want to do science at the top universities. Except there aren’t enough science teachers to go round, so this puts certain schools at an advantage. Tories seem to love triple science. The cynic in me says it’s because they know it keeps the proles out. Science used to be seen as a field open to working class kids – especially compared to classics or literature – but increasingly, it’s not the case. Access to scientific careers is a public relations issue in many ways, because if science is see as something “people like me” wouldn’t do, it’s culturally distant. Simply having friends and family who work in particular fields is one of the most powerful forms of engagement there is.

School science is the only time everyone learns together. We should do it better, and the scientific community need to take a good, hard look at themselves and think about how the choices they make in constructing themselves – or at least their undergrads – may further social inequality. And how this can come back to kick them in the bum when they get called bourgeois.

On the Today Programme, Hayes claimed to be talking about pragmatics: “my principle concern is to keep the lights on, and if the lights went off it’d be no good saying it was for the right reason, energy security is fundamental. It’s all very well having these kind of detached, bourgeois views but I have to deal with the practicalities”. In comparison, King had just been asked if saving the rainforest was a hippie-ish concern to save orangutans. He replied very calmly: “never mind the orangutans, it’s about the oxygen that we breathe, we’re talking about something quite serious”.

Precisely because the desire to breathe isn’t “bourgeois” it’s important scientists work harder to keep the public onside.

Pseudo Tory revolutionary art, Brighton

Energy and Climate Change: Some Good Reads

scary

This post originally appeared on the New Left Project

A friend recently asked me for book recommendations on energy and climate change. “I want books” they stressed, “not policy briefing papers or essays or scientific reports. Something to curl up on the sofa with, something that digests and explains the issues and spins a few good yarns along the way. A good read.”

Here are my suggestions. I know I’ve missed loads: e.g. Merchants of Doubt, The Carbon Age and The Oil Road. I’ve stuck to factual literature, but if anyone wants to suggest some fiction, please do. Arguably we could do with some better fiction on this issue (good essay in the LA Review of Books on this), and I could also have included long form journalism like Bill McKibben’s piece for Rolling Stone last summer, or books for kids. What would you add?

The Discovery of Global Warming. Spencer Weart (2nd edition, 2008).

Global warming, like most scientific discoveries, was less a singular moment and more a long process of many discoveries. Weart weaves a tale involving many people over many years, gradually learning about the phenomenon and coming to terms with it (as continues to be the case).

Such a picture of slow, gradual development, refinement and sharing of human understanding of climate change might seem a bit depressing. A simple “eureka!” (or perhaps “oh, bugger” would be more appropriate) might seem easier to deal with. We’d see, know and just do something about it. Except the world really isn’t that simple and in many respects, discussion of the complexity is liberating. It’s crucial for understanding where we are now on the science and the policy and, I think, key to thinking about what we might do about it too. It also makes for a much more interesting read. Eureka tales don’t really take you anywhere.

It’s also, in a way, quite a hopeful book, as Weart is keen to stress that we have taken actions to learn more and do something with this knowledge in the past. We can continue to do this, and do more. It’s a story of change, with a real sense that more change is possible.

As well as being the best introduction to climate change I’ve read, this book is also simply a great case study in how scientific discovery works, and fascinating in terms of the interactions between international policy and science in the 20th century. It’s also reasonably short, clearly written and engrossing. Weart’s published a hypertext version too but the linear dead tree version’s my favourite.

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas (2007).

A neat bit of narrative non-fiction which won the 2008 Royal Society science book prize, turning scientific modeling into a very literary experience worked step-by-step as we’re invited to imagine first a world where the average temperature is one degree warmer than now, then three, then four, and so on. It’s a form of fantasy fiction, perhaps, but where the rules of this different world are based on scientific research, not simple make-believe (comparable with the way the Mr Tompkins stories tried to explain modern physics in the 1940s). This is a global story, as any on climate change will be, although this time the characters are largely waters, winds and other non-human entities. It’s a science book, although political in a way, it’s about things, not people, and expect a small amount of numbers, but it’s not hard to understand at all.

It’s a bit scary in places. But climate change is scary. I re-read the four degrees chapter at the end of last year, while the Doha conference was crawling on and we were going through quite a cold snap, and found myself hiding under blankets with jumpers and legwarmers, the howls of the sea ominously mingling with the noise of the traffic outside, the heating resolutely off and only a small solar powered torch to read by. It’s when it gets to six degrees it really gets a bit scary. As the climate modeling scientists he’d been using as a guide up till then fall by the wayside, generally falling short of simulating six degrees warming, he starts to uses sketchier geological information about extreme episodes in the Earth’s distant past. There’s something of the horror movie narrative to it, starting in the relatively familiar, gradually unraveling into chaos as he invites readers into “the sixth circle of hell”.

This is another book that manages to end on a relatively hopeful note, arguing we can build a low-carbon society, and leave it as a gift to the future so the nightmare image he presents really is just a nightmare. You might disagree with him on his version of how, which is arguably the rub, but if Weart provides a “yes we can” message, Lynas’ book says “you better bloody get on with it”.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Daniel Yergin (1991).

This isn’t a short book, but it’s a page-turner, and if you give it time, you get really drawn in. It’s got a lot of characters, spanning many countries and covering a historical sweep of over a century. But it’s well structured, so you won’t get lost. It’s choc-full of stories, and would make a good commuting read if it wasn’t so bloody heavy, because you can read it small chunks (perhaps this is what e-readers are for).

You’ll find that learning about the history of the oil will teach you a lot about other aspects of the world (insert your own joke about oiling the wheels of modernity here). Just as Weart teaches you something about the way we invested in climate science partly as an odd attempt at peacekeeping during the Cold War, from Yergin you can expect to learn something about the slow construction of the type of capitalism we’ve built for ourselves over the last few centuries. You’ll also read a lot about war. And you’ll never look at a petrol station in the same way again.

Did you know Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells? (In the East End of London, not by the seashore, sadly) Or that the American oil market started off selling small veils for medical purposes? (burning came later).

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Alexis Madrigal (2011).

We might think of wind energy community co-ops or electrical taxi cabs as something new, a recent response to concerns over climate change and peak oil, but they’re not. There is a long history to both, as there is for solar power, wave energy and more. Madrigal even suggests that, at one point in the late 19th century, it looked like the future of transport in America would largely be a matter of electrically powered public systems, not the fossil fuelled individual vehicles we have today (apparently it’s partly the bike’s fault this didn’t happen). Electrical cabs were reasonably common in Manhattan in the 1890s. Londoners can see one built for their own city in 1897 in the ground floor of the Science Museum.

In some respects, this is a book of roads not travelled and, like Weart’s description of the slow, gradual ongoing story of the discovery of climate change, it could be quite depressing, yet it also manages to be inspiringly hopeful. It is a story of how energy could once have been something different, and so might be something else again. More explicitly than Yergin’s epic, this book helps you realise technology is something we make, and invites you to think about can we might remake it, or at least pay more attention to the structures which build such things so new technologies can be built to meet the needs of the planet, not exploit it.

Madrigal also makes some interesting comments in the concluding chapter about the way we imagine environmentalism, especially with respect to any sense of division between people, technology and nature. The “creation myth” of American environmental movement might be that they put the protection of nature first, but many environmentalists are highly aware that an idea of “natural” is both complex and not necessarily a substitute for “good”. Madrigal stresses the worth of a human focused environmentalism (or at least one rooted in an idea of the anthropocene) which acknowledges how much of an impact humans have had on the Earth and aims to be clever about our role in its future. He weaves into this ideas of national identity and the idea of the American sublime – American wilderness as some ultimate authenticity – and nods to David Nye’s sense that there is a strong history of the American technological sublime too. My critique of Nye’s (in many ways brilliant) book is that he doesn’t unravel the inequality involved in politics of the human construction of this sublime, something which a human focused environmentalist critique, for me, would have to do. But I think Madrigal’s book does help us reflect on this political aspect.

The Portslade “Gassie”

portland gassie

In Scotland, it’s traditional to give people coal when first greeting them in the new year. It’s meant to symbolise hope for warmth and light for the future, rather different from the tradition of giving naughty children nothing but coal in their Christmas stocking (from other parts of Northern Europe, I think).

I don’t have any coal, but here’s a picture reflecting another way in which our reliance on fossil fuels runs deep: the “Portslade Gassie”. It’s a piece of public art – not the most aesthetically striking of objects, stuck by a rather dull bit of road and covered in litter when I stumbled across it this afternoon – but marking an interesting piece of energy history. Gasworks were built in Portslade in 1884, after local demand outstripped the smaller works at Black Rock (built in 1818), partly because the location allowed easy delivery of coal by ship. By the 1920s, the site occupied 40 acres, providing work for many local residents (some more details on this local history blog, including a fascinating history of lighting the Brighton Pavilion). Workers were ferried across a canal by small boats nicknamed “gassies”, which this slightly angular, statue of a man in a boat represents.

This artwork doesn’t help us think about what our energy future should be, but it does at least prompt us us think about the past. It also reminds us that energy infrastructure is something made by people. I re-watched Brassed Off over Christmas, which is more directly about coal, and helps make a similar point.  How we find, distribute and use energy is something that changes over time, not always due to the wishes of these people or what is necessarily best for the world. It’s something we’ve made, and should be thoughtfully remade.

Information, advertising and the fracking debate

frack off

For a while this autumn, one of the first things I’d see from my train as it approached London was a giant advertising billboard celebrating British reliance on Norwegian gas, perhaps placed for commuters en route to Westminister via Victoria. This was balanced by a rather less slick “Frack Off” banner which greeted us on arrival home in Brighton. I was often struck by the differences in style of presentation, and the very different approach to energy policy.

Though both posters have now gone, I remembered them today while reading a report from risk consultancy on the global anti-fracking protests. My personal view on fracking – or rather “unconventional gas” – is that we probably need to try to keep fossil fuels in the ground and there is a worrying about of hype around shale gas because, at least, we should have a debate about such policies, but maybe I’m wrong. The report makes their view reasonably clear:

Unconventional natural gas is often described as game-changing and transformative, a revolution heralding a golden age of cheap, plentiful energy for a resource-constrained world. But only if it makes it out of the ground. [...] As unconventional gas development spreads worldwide, and becomes more central to government energy policy and corporate investment strategy, a better understanding of the anti-fracking movement – its goals, structure, methods and trajectory – is essential for companies, policymakers and other observers of the emergent energy boom.

It’s a fascinating read, for many reasons. It argues the movement has worked largely through the mobalisation of grass-roots activism (p 6-7), facilitated by the inter-connectedness allowed by social media. They note the involvement of large NGOs (notably Friends of the Earth in Australia) and suggest this has pulled it towards an climate change agenda (p9) but that the rhetoric of grassroots activism lends the movement “legitimacy, credibility and authenticity” especially with policymakers and the media.

The report also credits the film Gasland with a lot of influence. One might laugh at their idea of a film-fulled grass-roots movement as a bit contradictory, but it’s worth thinking about the way Gasland was made and distributed (as well as the style of storytelling); it’s not like saying some Hollywood movie caused alarmism. This report may not be very reflexive about the politics of a call for shale gas, but they aren’t patronising the activists who oppose it. They go on: “the industry has underestimated the sophistication, reach and influence of the anti-fracking movement. It is not simply ‘NIMBy-ism’ masquerading as environmentalism, but a diverse coalition of ideological and vested interests unlikely to be swayed by industry-funded studies or glossy public relations campaigns” (p.2). I’d agree with that.

I think my favourite bit is when they note how good the anti-fracking websites are at monitoring the the unconventional gas industry and publicising industry information (p8). I got the report via the Frack Off twitter account, appropriately enough.

1958 advert for Shell nature studies guides

You know when you pick up an old book and there’s something tucked inside a previous owner was using as a bookmark? And it’s amazing?

This weekend’s find: An advert torn from a 1958 edition of Punch, for the Shell guide to “Life in the Corn”. If you can’t make out the blurb of text, it starts: “In the growing and ripening stages corn and hay are a sanctuary for wild life which man does not invade”. The small print on the right hand side recommends books based on similar posters, and I found a few other examples of the series in the Advertising Archives (put “Shell” into search). It ends with a tagline that might make some gasp: “You can be sure of Shell. The key to the countryside”.

I would have guessed the thing we now call “greenwash” wouldn’t have started to emerge until the growth of the green movement from the mid-1960s onwards (and a Greenpeace USA history describes it as a phenomenon of the 1970s onwards). But I suppose the energy industry has always had a significant impact on the landscape, people will have noticed that, and so companies will have sought to minimise negative reactions. More simply; nature is nice, lots of companies draw on allusions to it in advertising.

Has anyone done a history of adverting the oil industry? That’d be a fascinating project.

EDIT: (via twitter) Shell sponsored nature guides because people drove to see nature. Of course! It’s a mid-20th century rise of the car and suburban life thing. I’m such a city kid that didn’t occur to me (parents didn’t have a car a lot of my childhood, I never learnt to drive). I didn’t find the Wikipedia entry on the Shell guides when I was having a google for this post, but it’s quite clear there. These were edited by John Betjeman and focused on different parts of Britain. However, re-reading the small print on this advert, I’m not sure this series are quite the same thing, even if they may well come from same relationship between nature and the oil industry. The Betjeman Shell guides were rooted in places, like a tour guide, these were themed around nature (flowers, birds, insects, etc).

EDIT2: (again, via twitter) Guardian piece from 2009 on a recent re-issue of a similar book and great online archive.