Climate Change Denial

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October 30, 2006


George Marshall @ 11:48 pm

The Stern report released today provides yet further proof that information alone cannot create belief in the threats of climate change.

The Stern Review is about as pukka as any report can be: written by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist to the World Bank, commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, advised the former Vice President of the United States, launched at the Royal Society by the Prime Minister etc.

Stern avoids any of that soppy liberal stuff about people and human rights- his appeal is to the interests of the conservative financial elite. The review spells out the catastrophic impacts as trillions of dollars loss, negative growth and undermined investment interests. It recommends a vast new speculative commodity market in carbon as the best solution. Maybe the less said about that the better.

Reading the papers today is an object lesson in climate denial. Large articles, typically spread across two pages, present government endorsed predictions of the imminent collapse of the global economy. This is without precedent during my lifetime so I will say it again…government endorsed predictions of the imminent collapse of the global economy.

But there is not a word about any of it on the business pages where the lead story is that Qantas has put in an order for eight new airbus A380 super jets to add to the thirteen it has already bought. Good news for Airbus, we are told.

Other news today? 20 police forces oppose lower speed limits on A and B roads. Mercedes Benz World has just opened at Brooklands race track – a temple to combustion containing a car museum, interactive displays and race track simulators. The first low cost long haul airline has just been launched offering non-stop flights from Gatwick to Hong Kong for a laughable £75 one way.

Despite high profile coverage for the Stern report, the editorial in the Telegraph reminds us that ‘some scientists maintain that climate change is due chiefly to the cyclical warming of the sun’ and generously adds that ‘given the stakes we ought to err on the side of caution’. It then goes on to argue that the Kyoto protocol exists to serve a left wing agenda and that we could eliminate malaria for a fraction of what we are being asked to spend on compliance.

The Daily Mail rants about green stealth taxes. It gives resident Queen of Denial, Melanie Phillips, a whole page to recycle the tired lies of professional contrarians.

The Times is one of the few newspapers not to mention the Stern Report on its front cover- presumably because it had to make room for a huge banner offering ‘a flight to Europe for every reader. Start collecting your airmiles today!’ Inside it has a special business travel supplement that tells us that air travel is at a five year high, that flying around the world for 60-70 hours on a single airline is now possible, and that Easijet is on the shortlist of the Times Best of European Business awards for ‘opening up Europe to travelers’.

The liberal media indulges in its speciality combination of hand wringing and lifestyle indulgence. The Guardian gives over three pages to pictures of cracked earth and starving Africans. The supplement – no irony intended- is called ‘20 Works of Art to See before you Die’. ‘If you want truly to appreciate a work of art there is no substitute to seeing it in person’ it says. Pollock and Rembrandt in New York, rock art in South Africa, Rothko in Texas, Paris, St Petersburg, Rome, etc. Flying is fine in the interests of art. Fly now die later.

And so on. And so on. I have often heard a naïve argument that things will change when the richest and most powerful individuals and corporations are shown of the threat to their own interests. But people will not believe that they do not want to believe, whoever they are.

[as a postcript, after loading this up, I caught the Newsnight special on the Stern Report. On the panel was Nigel Lawson, former City Editor of the Daily Telegraph, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Energy,Chancellor of the Exchequer, President of the British Institute of Energy Economics, and current Chairman of the Central Europe Trust. In the face of the meticulous arguments of the Stern Report he was adamant that climate change is stil unproven, that most scientists are unconvinced and that any changes are the result of natural variation. It was a staggering performance of faith over reality proving the remarkable energy that powerful and strong willed people will put into denying facts that challenge their world view, however they are posited].

[Another postscript. The next day, when most of the newspapers had given up on the Stern story, the Independent dedicated most of its issue to a full report and summary-the cover (with a picture of a burning sun) followed by nine pages.

There was just enough space left for its motoring supplement which gives glowing reviews to three of the most inefficient and ludicrously overpowered cars ever built:

The 3.2 litre Land Rover Freelander four wheel drive
The 6.12 litre Mercedes Benz Rocket, which can reach 125 mph in 10 seconds and has a top speed of 225 mph
The 6 litre Bentley GTC convertible with a top speed of 195 mph

The Independent is aware of this disconnection so, whilst drooling over the torque, it makes coy references to climate change: ‘the waiting list will give you time to fight your conscience over the CO2 emissions’; ‘we’re not fans of SUVs on this newspaper but if you must buy one…’, and says that ‘you can even salve your conscience’ because £80 of the cost of the Land Rover goes to an offset company.

The issue is not that a newspaper actively promotes the glamour of high carbon living- its job is to sell papers after all. Surely the real dissonance is on the part of the readers, many of whom are clearly confused about where their loyalties really lie].

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October 17, 2006

Anti environmental architecture

George Marshall @ 3:12 pm

I watched the Stirling Awards for Architecture on Saturday with a deep despondency.

These awards are the Booker of Buildings. Although all manner of croneyism, politics and fashion determines who makes the short list they are as good a reflection as any of what the architecture and arts world see as the cutting edge of new design.

Watching it I can only conclude that architects exhibit a particularly interesting and complex form of denial. Architects are, in my experience, aware people with progressive politics. As a profession they have a huge responsibility for causing climate change (the energy consumed by buildings and their materials are the single largest source of greenhouse gases) and a huge opportunity to develop the forms and structures of a low carbon economy. And, to be fair, they do talk about climate change a fair bit in magazines and conferences and books.

But the people at the top of the profession who get the Stirling and Pritzker prizers and the Gold medals and the gongs and the big fancy projects are not building anything that remotely reflects the realities of climate change.

This is an extremely interesting period for architecture- the most inventive and expressive in thirty years- and that expression is being achieved through technologies and materials that are the antithesis of a low carbon sustainable economy.

Take concrete for example. Cement has horrible CO2 emissions- very high temperatures are needed to slake the lime which produces yet more carbon dioxide as a by product. Cement manufacture accounts for 5% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions. If we were serious about climate change it would be used very sparingly indeed.

phaeno.jpgAnd yet the bookies favourite to win the Stirling prize was Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Phaeno Science Centre. It is is a symphony in ‘compacted concrete’ – the concrete floors sweeping up and around the museum to create one organic whole. It creates a thrilling new language for concrete that will be imitated widely. But it pays a high price. It used 27,000 cubic metres of concrete which produced nearly 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Given that a sustainable level is probably not much more than one tonne of carbon dioxide per person per year, that is a huge footprint.

caruso.jpgArchitects adore reinforced concrete because it combines strength with immense sculptural potential. Another Stirling shortlist was a ‘brick house’ by Caruso St John, the most striking quality of which, despite its name, is the neo-expressionist crumpled lines of its concrete roof slab. There’s an awful lot of concrete in that house. It pays clear homage to Louis Kahn and the formal language he developed 40 years ago, a long time before we knew of the impending collapse of the world’s weather system.

The winner of the Stirling Prize is Richard Rogers’ Barajas Airport. An airport wins the prize! A parking garage for the fastest growing cause of climate change! The top architects probably spend half their lives in airports and are especially subject to the near universal denial about the impacts of flights. Yet, if we are going to deal with climate change this building type needs to become as obselete as the bear pit.

One reason that people don’t see planes as polluting is that it doesn’t feel dirty. There are no smokestacks or piles of coal. Planes feel (and feelings count more than reality when we assess impacts) very smart and white and clean. Rogers and his team have concentrated their creativity on creating an airport that extends that feeling- all open and bright and fresh.

But the openness and brightness of the interiors is made possible by large expanses of plate glass (and a lot of steel to hold it up). What we don’t see in the pictures is the huge cooling and heating plant which keeps it at a tolerable temperature. No doubt Rogers, who speaks often about climate change (his shortlisted Welsh Assembly building appears to have made a serious attempt to be green), has achieved a very high energy design by using lots of clever technology and design to keep the energy load manageable.

This is the nub. Modern energy saving technology is not being used to create buildings with zero emissions but is enabling increased transparency and expressive potential. This is exactly what is happening in the car industry where the main market for LPG and fuel cells is for sports utility vehicles- the heaviest cars ever built.

And one could expand on this point endlessly. All around the world the best and most creative architects are using new technologies to push the expressive potential of their buildings. Gehry faces his buildings with sheets or stainless steel and titanium (the most energy intensive metal of all). Rem Koolhaas has built a new library in Seattle with entirely glass walls and roof. Work was suspended on Herzog and de Meuron ‘s Olympic stadium in Beijing because of the costs of the 80,000 tonnes of steel involved in its construction. That’s 152,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide- an incredible indulgence…and so I could go on. None of these designs are models for a sustainable future. All the architects have won the Pritzer award- the highest award for architecture.

As you can tell, I love architecture but despair of what is being done with it. Modernism arose from an entirely valid critique that traditional building was not able to meet the needs and opportunities of the modern world. In fifty years time, as the seas are rising and the hurricanes are crashing every month into Florida these buildings will appear pathetically dated- the last decadent rococo flourish of the carbon age. So why, when all the scientists agree on the problem, are they still be built and lauded?

[A postscript-an article in the Guardian points out that many of the ‘iconic’ previous Stirling prizewinners have performed very badly. LINK

OK, so we know that when you do creative things to roofs leak, and that some people can never be pleased, but my main worry relates to environmental performance. Many of these buildings have turned out to have awful heating/cooling/lighting-which can only be remedied by increased energy use. This only justified my prejudice that these buildings look good precisely because they defy good building precedence

Thanks to Nick White at Hockerton Housing Project (check their ecobuild out at for telling me about the article]

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