- Written by Paul Hoggett Paul Hoggett
- Published: 11 February 2014 11 February 2014
We face a real dilemma. To take the radical actions required to have a hope of mitigating dangerous climate change we need to both reduce energy use and switch rapidly to renewable sources for the energy that we do use.
Neither of these can be achieved without incurring individual and collective losses. For many of us one of the most sudden and dramatic ways we can reduce our energy use is by cutting out flying, but this means giving up things, not the least the exploration of areas of wild beauty in other parts of the world. But switching to renewable sources is not without costs either, particularly the collective costs to our landscape of installing solar and wind farms. I am very aware that people have different views about this, that for some the British landscape of moorlands, hills and estuaries is sacrosanct and once we start planting windmills in such places our renewable ‘means’ have undermined our climate mitigation ‘ends’. But talking to friends who have this view and listening to local and national voices which oppose the spread of renewables I have become increasingly convinced that there is a strong element of denial in such standpoints.
Looking down from the Mendip Hills in early February 2014 a vast lake covered parts of the northern stretches of the Somerset Levels around Westhay and Godney Moors (an area where millions of starlings roost in the marshes at this time of year). Given that this was the part of the Levels least affected by flooding it really made you wonder what Britain would look like 50 years from now. By then the rise in global average temperatures may be approaching 2 degrees (in contrast to the havoc already being caused by our present 0.8 degree rise). Those friends of the British countryside (including the National Trust) who oppose proposals for wind farms such as the Atlantic Array (an opposition campaign spearheaded in North Devon by the reactionary populists of UKIP) would do well to consider what ‘natural landscape’ it will be that they are preserving through their opposition to renewables. There is a strong strand of conservative environmentalism which has deep echoes in traditional rural communities which is still in deep denial about the actuality of climate change and some of this could be heard demanding river dredging and other ‘finger in the dyke’ solutions in south Somerset.
During the 2014 floods the Somerset Levels were in the grip of what some people call a ‘risk panic’, a moment at which underlying social anxieties find expression in a particular crisis. Like ‘moral panics’ such as those surrounding child abuse, risk panics are ripe for exploitation by populists. Rather than the pillorying of a social services department for its failure to prevent child abuse in Somerset we saw escalating attacks upon the Environment Agency for its failure to continue dredging local rivers. Scapegoats are easy meat and conveniently provide a means of distracting attention from more systemic issues.
I found it particularly ironic (tragic?) that as vast swathes of the Levels disappeared under water for months on end for the second year running one group of residents who lived on the edge of the Levels were eagerly waiting what they hoped would be a decision by the Planning Inspectorate to turn down a proposal by Ecotricity to build four windmills just to the west of the M5 south of Huntspill. According to the Huntspill Windfarm Action Group:
These huge machines are little but a large visual political statement of green intentions. If we have to have them put them offshore or in areas that do not affect local residents. Siting them in the middle of six villages on the Somerset levels is not the place to have them. SO if we are called nimbys for that that then fine.
The Huntspill group was affiliated to the European Platform Against Windfarms. I know little about this organisation but their propaganda clearly pits the ‘little man’ against what they construe as the powerful commercial interests involved in many wind farm schemes. The Huntspill Action Group’s website also argues that nuclear is a much better alternative and quotes approvingly a recent article by Griff Rhys Jones in the Daily Mail (31st July 2013). Reading this I was struck by the following statement by this British comedian (no pun intended):
I am deeply worried about global warming: I accept the evidence without demur. The world is getting hotter, and we are going through serious climate change. But the fundamentalist green lobby — and those involved in sponsored research or subsidised industry — react to our legitimate concerns as if they are nothing more than selfish whining. They ask: ‘Do you want to die in a horrible conflagration and for your children to starve to death as a result of global warming?’
I think Rhys Jones (who also advocates the nuclear power option) speaks for many who accept that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and yet who oppose green policies in the name of conservation. Now my own view is that the situation that we face is so drastic that we must use all means possible, which does not preclude nuclear, to move from carbon intensive forms of energy. But nuclear is high risk, expensive and takes so long to come on stream that it is poorly equipped to meet the urgency of our present situation and so we must prioritise wind, solar, wave and tidal.
I think the Huntspill Action Group provided a vivid illustration of what we could call ‘flood defences’. Here they were, situated on the edge of the Levels, on land which was partially below sea level, land which will only exist in 50 years time if there is massive expenditure on local sea defences, opposing the very type of renewables initiative which, at a national and international level, could prevent the complete disappearance of the very landscape that they treasure!
Earlier I called this ‘denial’ but I’ve come to feel that ‘denial’ is a bit of a blanket term which needs unpicking. Let’s look at some of the elements at work here. The flooding of recent years is what we call a ‘harbinger’. It is signalling the approach of something (the destruction of landscapes, habitats and ecosystems such as the Levels as climate change gathers pace). The fact that for the vast majority of local people it does not yet seem to function in this way could be understood in one of three ways. It could be that people are still ignorant of the risk of dangerous climate change. Or perhaps people are not ignorant but lack the collective capacity to imagine something that seems far off in time (a failure of the social imagination). Or, finally, if they were to imagine such a future it would feel like a catastrophe so it is not imagined in order to avoid the anxiety. In this sense denial is not seeing what is in front of our eyes, it is a collective reluctance to know the truth or make the necessary connections.
But there seems to be a second element involved in ordinary denial, something that involves what I think of as ‘internal propaganda’. This refers to the rationalisations, displacements, projections (blame the green fundamentalists), etc. which enable people who accept the actuality of human caused climate change to nevertheless evade responsibility for it. According to this propaganda there’s always another group who needs to act not us, or we would act ‘if only’ everybody else also did something or, even more fatalistically, what is the point of us doing anything at all, a fatalism illustrated in this remark by Rhys Jones:
Even if we hit that 15 per cent target (and we are still far away from that), it will make only the tiniest dent in world carbon emissions…..Meanwhile, look at what we stand to lose. Our heritage is being destroyed by solar plants and wind farms.
There is one issue that I think Rhys Jones has got right, the dilemmas we face about the siting of wind, solar and tidal projects are multiplied by the anarchic market methods through which our energy future is determined. As he notes,
this ugly and expensive intrusion is being left to the ‘free market’. The result is random and opportunist. Wherever a stricken farmer or a greedy landowner can be bribed or hoodwinked by subsidy, we see a wind turbine or a wretchedly blank area of solar panels go up.
Of course to have a national energy plan would fly in the face of the neo-liberal perspective that Labour, Liberal, Conservative and UKIP are all hostage to. One thing we can be sure of is that the kind of drama being enacted on the Levels in the winter of 2014 is going to be an increasingly common occurrence as climate change begins to really bite. Is it that people still don’t yet smell the fire or is it that they do smell it and have already become gripped by panic?