Rosebank decision based on myths, half-truths and disinformation from failing politicians – Joyce McMillan
Last week, the environmental campaigner Chris Packham, presenter of the much-loved television series Springwatch, caused some controversy with a 45-minute Channel 4 documentary called Is It Time To Break The Law? In the programme, Packham contemplated the absolute failure of climate campaigners, so far, to reverse the frightening rise in global carbon emissions; and asked what he, as a leading environmental campaigner, should be doing about it.
The scientific evidence and figures which have driven Packham into this dilemma are indeed terrifying, and all global leaders are well aware of them. Thirty-four years on from the moment in 1989 when President George Bush Sr first issued a statement saying that “stabilisation of carbon dioxide emissions should be achieved as soon as possible”, emissions today stand at their highest level ever, almost 70 per cent higher than in 1989.
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is now 50 per cent higher than it was before the industrial revolution, far higher than at any time in human history; a heartbreaking half of that increase has taken place since 1989, when humanity – following heavy lobbying by the oil industry – missed this precious chance to act. And the rate of warming is now so rapid, compared with previous natural climate shifts, that it is hardly surprising that we are now beginning to see for ourselves ever more dramatic signs of climate change and breakdown.
Or at least, so the science tells us; but it is increasingly obvious that, faced with the scale of this crisis, too many of our leaders are suffering their own crisis of cognitive dissonance, where they simply dare not match their plans and actions to what they know; and the most obvious current victim of this dissonance is, of course, the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who last week announced the rolling back of several major UK climate targets, and this week welcomed the go-ahead for the development of the massive new Rosebank oil and gas field, west of Shetland.
The arguments for this decision range from the weak to the blatantly dishonest. The first argument, popular with purple-faced “patriots” of both Scottish and British varieties, is that for the UK or Scotland to give up its oil and gas production achieves nothing, because it is a small percentage of the global problem; although I suspect that even Winnie The Pooh, that bear of very little brain, might have worked out that if every nation follows that logic, the habitable planet will be toast before the grandchildren of those so-called patriots even reach their 50s.
The second argument involves the assertion – plastered across recent UK Government statements, but calmly and completely demolished by BBC radio’s More Or Less programme of 6 September – that the carbon footprint of UK oil and gas is “four times less” than that of imported liquid natural gas, and that opening up new fields is therefore a carbon reduction measure. Even if we accept that gas must always be replaced with gas – when of course the whole point of the current transition is to incentivise the move towards renewable energy sources – those figures are bunk. If emissions from burning the gas are included, North Sea gas is only 16 per cent – not 300 per cent – cleaner than imported LNG; and it is around 12 per cent dirtier than gas imported by pipeline from Norway.
Then there is the third claim, which is that the new oil field will create jobs for British workers, give a new lease of life to our oil industry, enhance our energy security, and help to enrich us all; and once again, these claims turn out to be largely untrue, even in their own terms. The company developing the Rosebank field is Norwegian. The revenue to the British Exchequer will be strictly limited by new UK energy tax rules which allow oil and gas companies to offset new investment against their tax liability at the rate of 95p in the pound; if any citizens benefit, it will be the citizens of Norway, and their massive sovereign wealth fund.
Even the friends of the project are predicting only 2,000 new jobs, of which only a minority are likely to come to UK workers; and every industry expert who has commented so far has confirmed that the Rosebank development will in fact have no impact on UK energy security, since the oil and gas will be sold onto the open international market, and British suppliers will have to bid for it alongside everyone else.
In order to sell this decision to the British public, in other words, the UK Government has had to wrap it in layers of disinformation and half-truth; myths that will reduce the pressure to move rapidly towards the energy systems of the future, while feeding the “business as usual” myths to which climate change deniers cling. It’s certainly not surprising, given this abject failure of leadership, that activist-scientists like Chris Packham are now wondering whether they should start using their power as well-known public figures in more radical and transgressive ways. They see, if governments do not, that thoughtful young people are in despair over the likely future they face, and that millions of voters repeatedly express their concern and anxiety in opinion polls, without ever being offered a clear route towards a sustainable future for their children.
Yet until new leaders raise their voices, and a political force emerges that brings together serious thinkers from governments at all levels, from industry, from science, and from grassroots communities, with the single aim of tackling this crisis and giving our children a sustainable future, it seems we are fated to live in an age of mounting despair and helplessness, a grim time made all the more unbearable by the lies and obfuscations of a failed generation of politicians, and the now failing system they seek to defend.
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