The nomination of Scott Pruitt has rightly caused much gnashing of teeth at sites like Climate Home.
Green groups reacted with bitter hostility calling Pruitt a “fossil fuel industry puppet” (350.org), “an arsonist in charge of fighting fires (Sierra Club) and “destined for the environmental hall of shame” (NRDC).
But how exactly did Pruitt – and us – get to this position? All three of the above organisations fought Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s all of the above energy plan because it promoted the use of of natural gas alongside nuclear, efficiency and renewable. The Sierra Club, is the oldest environmental organisation in the US (1892) and has 2.4 million members today. Yet their Beyond Natural Gas campaign doesn’t have any actual plans, simply a whole bunch of feelings. A large part of the anti fracking movement narrative depends on fake news, just as reprehensible coming from the green left as from the right:
Natural gas drillers exploit government loopholes, ignore decades-old environmental protections, and disregard the health of entire communities. “Fracking,” a violent process that dislodges gas deposits from shale rock formations, is known to contaminate drinking water, pollute the air, and cause earthquakes. If drillers can’t extract natural gas without destroying landscapes and endangering the health of families, then we should not drill for natural gas.
Yes this is the same Sierra Club who once took money from Aubrey McClendon’s American Clean Skies. They still take money from Michael Bloomberg for the end coal campaign, even though Bloomberg doesn’t agree with them at all on natural gas.
To keep coal-fired power plants in upstate New York and not frack doesn’t make any sense at all.
We also have Bill McKibben of 350 in 2009
On March 2, environmentalist Bill McKibben joined demonstrators who marched on a coal-fired power plant in Washington D.C. In this article for Yale Environment 360, he explains why he was ready to go to jail to protest the continued burning of coal.
What caused environmental organisations to change their mind about natural gas is one of the mysteries of the age. Much blame can be found in the intersection of the social media echo chamber where the Tea Party met the Fake News movement and produced the Post Truth Era. This is the Wikipedia definition, and they at least thanks to donations like mine and I hope yours, are one of the few remaining on line oases of sanity:
Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance. While this has been described as a contemporary problem, there is a possibility that it has long been a part of political life, but was less notable before the advent of the internet. In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell cast a world in which the state is daily changing historic records to fit its propaganda goals of the day. Orwell is said to have based much of his criticism of this on Soviet Russian practices.
The contemporary origin of the term is attributed to blogger David Roberts who used the term in 2010 in a column for Grist. Political commentators have identified post-truth politics as ascendant in Russian, Chinese, American, Australian, British, Indian, Japanese and Turkish politics, as well as in other areas of debate, driven by a combination of the 24-hour news cycle, false balance in news reporting, and the increasing ubiquity of social media. In 2016, “post-truth” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, due to its prevalence in the context of that year’s Brexit referendum and US presidential election.
Tea Party, Green Tea Party, Brexit and Trump were all enabled by two key trends in what was previously called the Main Stream Media.
One is the financial catastrophe that hit newspapers and TV networks as they lose advertising and eyeballs. But especially in the UK, where luckily , to my progressive lefty opinion at least, we have the BBC, there was another force present. We saw the trend in the UK on first the fracking debate, and secondly the EU referendum debate. The second problem is false balance. The BBC’s great strength in the main stream media era was that as a public broadcaster they were required to have a neutral stance and reflect a variety of opinion. I’m happy to concede here that the neutrality does not often extend to the climate debate, but that isn’t the issue here. This from Open Democracy gives a summary of the problem:
There is now widespread agreement that the BBC failed the nation by botching its coverage of the referendum. Viewers and listeners seeking information were instead bombarded with contradictory and impenetrable claims and counter-claims. As a result, many ended up confused, frustrated and sometimes unsure how to cast their votes. BBC representatives have half-admitted that this was so, but have offered an excuse.
It’s worth underlining that the UK shale gas is “controversial” meme stems from giving a platform to all views. Let me make clear, all views should be represented, but at the same time, this result from the Referendum campaign could also describe much of the fracking “debate”. Simply substitute “campaigners” for politicians:
One effect of this approach was to draw politicians (anti -fracking campaigners) into making ever more extravagant and less well founded claims. It therefore actually reinforced both the opacity and the mendacity of the campaign. Attention had to be concentrated on the often trivial or diversionary assertions of campaigners instead of the real issues.
So in the interests of either balance, or simply to create an interesting twist on the very boring subject of natural gas supply, a very small minority were given a platform far bigger than votes would otherwise have allowed. The Lancashire Nana Tina Rothery for example got 3.8% of the vote when she stood for election. The UK Green Party, which cost Lib Dems previously safe seats throughout the UK, thus destroyed the Lib Dam/Conservative coalition got the same percentage nationally. They thus set the stage for the Brexit Referendum.
Nowhere in the UK, including Lancashire, London or Yorkshire, do actual hard core opponents of shale number more than a tiny percentage. Yet eccentrics such as Gayzer Frackman, who also believes in chemtrails, or 9/11 conspiracy “theorists” like Ian R Crane are given platforms for public debate that would make anyone who knows little about the subject think they are credible. This “balanced” “debate” where the eccentric or just plain cuckoo are given equal weight to thousands of mainstream energy experts confuses, not informs.
The false balance about fracking is one in which even the UK government colludes, if accidentally, by giving the choice as one between fracking or renewables as the DECC/BEIS opinion poll trackers insist on presenting. Renewables always win and if it was a true choice, with a gun to my head, I’d choose renewables too. Going against wind or solar of the oil industry is a false choice. The reality is that it’s BOTH. To pretend otherwise is false balance.
False balance can sometimes originate from similar motives as sensationalism, where producers and editors may feel that a story portrayed as a contentious debate will be more commercially successful than a more accurate account of the issue. However, unlike most other media biases, false balance may actually stem from an attempt to avoid bias; producers and editors may confuse treating competing views fairly—i.e., in proportion to their actual merits and significance—with treating them equally, giving them equal time to present their views even when those views may be known beforehand to be based on false information
Fracking in the UK is continually described as “controversial”, despite it only being so to a tiny minority. The all of the above option is notably absent in the fracking debate. June 23rd showed how binary choices, presented in an emotional post truth feeling over fact debate, have not helped democracy, but subverted it.
No where is this more true than the Keep It In The Ground (KIITG) movement, which was given initial credence by the UK Guardian newspaper.
Interestingly, several present and previous Guardian journalists have told me privately that they were horrified by the KIITG campaign. Since the departure of Alan Rusbridger the editor at the time, it often , but not often enough, seems to have disappeared – along with 250 jobs.
Rusbridger and Murdoch have similar sorts of motivations: both men have used money-losing papers in pursuit of political beliefs – and in so doing, as each would argue about the other, placed politics above journalism.
It’s clear now that the Keep It In The Ground campaign has failed. Trump and Brexit showed how post truth triumphed. The UK anti fracking campaign that is centred on Adam Vaughan of the Guardian may have slowed things down, but certainly not triumphed.
The folks at Climate Home, 350, and Keep It In The Ground got to where they are today in large part by rejecting any pragmatism for the role of natural gas – again a fuel they fully supported when the debate was about facts not feelings, science not emotion. This is the “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” meme that went from Cicero to Goldwater to Malcolm X and now apparently resides both in Trumpism and radical anti frackers.
I fear that some of the Keep It In The Ground tendency will take the wrong conclusion. They, somewhat like the UK Labour Party under Corbyn, feel that the only reason they failed was due to not being extreme enough in their policies.
Just as Corbyn will take the left down with him, environmentalist extremists won’t learn lessons. That would be devastating for the environment, but devastating for democracy too. We need a new centre for a new world, in both politics and environment, before we end up with neither. We’re standing on the edge of an abyss. What the answer is I don’t know but we have to realise where we stand and how we got there. This from Michael Lewis in the FT is depressing and instructive, but only if the Green movement engages in some self criticism and learns from the new world:
(Trump’s) rise to power, in this sense, marks the triumph of the irrational in US politics.
“Every which way, Trump is exploiting the faulty mechanisms in people’s minds,” …. “It feels like we are in a world where, to me, some meaningful part of the electorate is beyond reasoning with — beyond fact, anti-science. All the mental faculties that lead to human progress, they are opposed to.”
Faulty mechanisms are in everyone’s minds, not just Trump’s and Farage’s, but in Alan Rusbridger’s too. It’s time to abandon outdated concepts before they drag everyone down.