Naomi Klein on climate change and growth, BBC Radio 4 – a comment

BBC Radio 4’s Start the week programme on 6 October featured Naomi Klein and others discussing climate change and growth.
A simple journey home in the car, listening to trusty old BBC Radio 4, was almost the cause of my divorce earlier this week. My husband turned off the show at least twice, only for me to scream, unconvincingly I am sure, through my bile and spit, that “I was enjoying that!” The BBC was airing a live discussion between authors, journalists and consultants on the global energy future and climate change. Quite a remit for a 40 minute show. To understand my issue with the debate, you must understand a bit about what we do. At the CCC we are educated to be neither pro- nor anti-coal. We merely accept that coal is being used and advise on the cleanest and most efficient way of doing this. But that does not mean that we can’t have opinions. It merely means that when we do have opinions, we hope that they are more reserved and balanced than most. And so listening to a rather random debate on everything from carbon pricing to rising water levels in Bangladesh was a challenge for me.

The discussion, whilst extremely engaging, was at best unfocussed, and at worst, misleading. It began with a proposal that the global public should be rallied against the fossil energy industry to convince these power giants to leave 2/3 of the remaining fossil reserves in the ground. Whilst this is an understandable proposal in theory, it does need more thought. The idea that power companies burn coal simply because they want to is naive and pervasive in the media and public. Power companies will provide power by the most economic means possible and, when the price of power rises, the media and public are the first to complain. Policies and legislation are the sticks and carrots with which we can make these energy giants make changes and, in many regions, these changes ARE happening. And yet the panel seemed rather more concerned with moral obligations and positive human nature – all a bit too fuzzy for me.

It would have been fascinating for the debate to move further into this problem of what the public want and how much they are prepared to pay for it, especially when much of the talk focussed on energy in developing economies with energy poverty. Instead we suddenly had a random two minutes back on the issue of rising water levels in Bangladesh and whether the monies moving to these regions should be renamed from “foreign aid” to “compensation”. That is not to say that this part of the debate was not valid nor important, just that it smacked somewhat of the speaker from Bangladesh needing to bring the topic back to something on which she felt qualified to speak. But it did raise an interesting dichotomy: that money from fossil fuel combustion should be used to reimburse those who have adversely affected by environmental damage that can be traced to the fossil fuel industry – while that industry is the very same industry that has brought 300-400 million people in China alone out of energy poverty over the last 10 years.

The phrases “dirty coal” and “dash for gas” appeared at least once, unsurprisingly. The suggestion of using gas as the clean bridge between our coal past and our green future seemed somewhat gas-centric. The argument that only gas could be that bridge ironically collapsed in on itself when it was acknowledged that carbon capture and storage (CCS) would be needed for gas to be effective as a bridge to a low carbon future. If CCS is acceptable for gas, then there is no reason why coal can’t be the bridge, especially as coal is more widely accessible and generally comes with lower political and economic risks than gas. But, once again, before the argument could get into any depth with some real answers, we were back to Bangladesh and the potential boom of renewables. There was the hint of acceptance that renewables are not yet ready to provide base-load energy needs but not enough to satisfy someone who knows the reality of keeping the lights on in the face of fluctuating generation feeds.

And finally, amidst growing list of unanswered questions and unfinished chains of thought, the debate closed with some final sweeping statements on energy morals and lack of political will. For me the debate certainly held my attention. But I know for a fact my husband did not enjoy the car journey one tiny bit. It was too random and unfocussed for me not yell out loud in frustration. Every time I thought we were about to get to the crux of the issue, we were back, knee deep in water in Bangladesh. Whilst an important reminder of the heart of the issue, the constant harking back to Bangladeshi water levels had the adverse effect of taking the focus from the part of the debate that could actually have had some use in the potential solution to the Bangladeshi problem. For a debate that COULD have dealt with some real issues and come up with some interesting insight, the panel and the questions were simply too diverse. Or perhaps, as my husband suggested, I simply expected too much of a 40 minute debate on the radio.