The Risk-Monger

Five years ago, on the eve of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, I wrote an article coining the phrase: The Environmental-Industrial Complex. I was observing an unhealthy confluence of a selection of stakeholders from industry, government, the scientific community and environmental NGOs driven to pursue their common interests outside of the domain of open, rational debate – presenting their mutual interests (opportunities) as common sense that needed no further introspection. From their interference on open debate and faux consensus-building PR, I decided to create this counter-intuitive blog character known as the Risk-Monger.

In 2009, of course, the world was (yet again) on the precipice of an Armageddon-like catastrophe: man-made climate change was destroying the planet. Glaciers were reportedly melting from the highest mountains at unheard of rates, coral reefs were collapsing, droughts and famines were widespread and waves of environmental refugees from the soon to be submerged Pacific islands were purporting to be massing on the borders of the rich western countries (all UNEP predictions for the near term). I don’t know how we survived all of the forecasts of doom and destruction – indeed like the manufactured fear of Communism in the 1950s, this fear of climate devastation was designed to get authorities to act in a certain (favourable) manner to industry, environmental NGOs and academics creating a pot of good will and opportunity similar to the Military-Industrial (Congressional) Complex of Eisenhower’s day.

Within the Environmental-Industrial Complex itself, in 2009, things were going very well.

  • Governments were restoring their legitimacy after the embarrassments of the financial crisis of the previous year – showing themselves as concerned and responsible.
  • Industry saw the opportunities to develop and market green alternative products and subsidies (from electric cars to solar panels to biofuels) were making everyone giddy for this new green future (an economy built on “green jobs” … remember that one!). This global calamity conveniently came as industry consultants were recalibrating their PR strategies away from Corporate Social Responsibility towards a more nurturing concept of sustainability.
  • The scientific community spent half of their time dividing up all of the funding they were receiving to prove their ominous climate models and justify public policies on climate change (anything that did not prove their theories simply went unpublished and we are now haunted by this mountain of grey literature), and, as seen in the University of East Anglia emails, the other half of their time seemed to be spent personally tearing down the scientists who disagreed with them.
  • The environmental NGO community found itself in the driving seat, whether it was by submitting unsubstantiated and uncriticised chapters to the IPCC or dictating to world leaders how they had to change in order to save the world. Some of the groups have grown so large, so fast, that they have become, to find a better word: Industrialised NGOs (blog on that to come). When the continued growth of an NGO is more important than the issues it was founded on, then the only thing that separates it from a corporate entity is its lack of shareholders and dividends. Patrick Moore observed that fifteen years ago with the evolutions in Greenpeace – the organisation he helped found – which now spends around a third of its revenue on fundraising to meet their growth projections.

So what has changed in the last five years (besides the fact that the Risk-Monger has had many rich opportunities to confront all actors in this Complex in blogs that have landed him, at times, in a bit of bother)?

  • Governments still drag their heels on tough decisions but are now blaming industry for the lack of progress. They continue to meet at conferences to set out lofty, albeit cryptic goals over long-term time-frames comfortable in the knowledge that our attention spans are too feeble to ever hold them to account.
  • With the decline in subsidies for solar and a levelling out of the demand for electric vehicles, industry have taken a step back and have therefore become society’s PR piñata. They of course have seen their credibility and public trust decline even more as they are not donating all of their revenue to saving the planet by stopping climate change.
  • Researchers are still getting funds for climate research but are learning to temper their political declarations (I suspect most of them are relearning what role scientists are supposed to assume in policy issues). Those who haven’t learnt to be more modest have formed or joined NGOs, becoming activist scientists.
  • The environmental NGOs have grown to such a state of influence that they are starting to expand and export their ideology to developing countries. For them, the Environmental-Industrial Complex was just a co-opting stage for what has become a grand expansion into global governance.

The foundation for the Environmental-Industrial Complex has always been the fear of catastrophe (five years ago, the impending doom was climate change) that would keep the funding bountiful and the public trust plentiful. Like the fear of Communism in Eisenhower’s time, one learns to trust more easily when in a state of desperation. Fear (or even better, a Heideggarian “dread”) motivates man to act much more efficiently than the tastiest carrot. But despite the best PR, this mass public hysteria about the climapocalypse seems to be waning. This loss of potential revenue poses the greatest risk for the research and NGO axes.

It comes as no surprise then that the impending doom today has come from other environmental stresses: human extinction from endocrine disrupting chemicals, mass human starvation from the bee colony collapse disorder and the destruction of the rainforests and biodiversity. Pick your poison.

There is, among this gloom, some good news.

  • Governments have learnt to limit or control the hysterical pronunciations. Traditional vocabulary like “jobs” and “innovation” are no longer prefixed with certain colours.
  • A more sensible debate on means to adapt to the possible effects of climate change is starting to replace the resolute, Herculean belief that we can stop the world from warming.
  • GMOs will soon be more freely available on EU shelves and there is a certain sensibility that not all biotech interventions are evil aspirations of industry to poison people. Bill and Melinda Gates came to Brussels recently and reminded us of how stupid the anti-GMO crowd are. Baby steps, I know, but it takes a long time to unwind even the most irrational of fears.
  • In other fields like endocrine disruptors, there is an indication that credible scientists are being listened to, although activists still have a fairly hefty war chest and have identified individuals in the scientific community who feel frustrated and disenfranchised. I was heartened to see that EFSA recently ruled that bisphenol A (BPA) posed no risk at all to human health. This was not a surprise – the science on most suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals has been far from serious or legitimate. I would be very surprised though if the anti-chemicals campaign movement would simply let a little science get in their way.

There are still areas that need to be improved.

  • The greatest disappointment of 2014 was Juncker’s bowing to the demands of the NGO community to remove the post of Chief Scientific Adviser, leaving future policy decisions without an impartial individual whom the president of the European Commission could trust. Couple that with the elimination of the involvement of industry researchers in scientific meetings and the NGOs are freer to have their PR machines determine what the scientific position is. There have been echoes of the post being brought back, but seeing is believing.
  • There are too many people wandering around Brussels demanding the blind use of the precautionary principle for anything they personally do not like. The bee debate and the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides is a good example of how environmentally destructive they can be, let alone causing great risks to food security and farmers’ livelihoods (as well as killing more bees).
  • The European Environment Agency is slowly removing several of its most destructive flower children (sadly, some of them have migrated to UNEP) but more progress is needed there.
  • The efforts to denormalise all industries (based on the successful anti-tobacco industry campaign model led by the WHO) has had a certain degree of uncomfortable success. Excluding industry experts from giving advice has impoverished the quality of scientific evidence; brandishing industry reps as “lobbyists” while other stakeholders bear the more trust-laden title of “advocate”; and blacklisting anyone who has ever worked with industry through naming and shaming campaigns – all of these bias-driven practices need to stop.

The Environmental-Industrial Complex, like its forbearer, cannot be easily unwound and may go through several iterations in the decades to come. What would I like to see, positively, for a future Complex?

  • There should be some recognition that our emerging social media communications tools are being manipulated by clever campaigners trying to build consensus around ideology rather than evidence, and politicians should show a bit of courage to stand up to these activists with facts. Just because a group of anti-globalisation activists in AVAAZ can be subcontracted to raise a few million signatures in a weekend (as they did with the bees and their anti-crop protection campaign) does not mean that they are using any evidence. The “No-Poo” lunatics could likewise pay AVAAZ to run a petition (or perhaps the more ruthless Sum-of-Us, who are expanding quickly across Europe) – it doesn’t mean the European Union should ban shampoo or soap. Stupid is stupid, no matter how many people sign it. Until social media matures as a communications tool and is able to fact-check in a more robust manner, policy-makers will have to learn to think for themselves (or have reliable scientific advisers).
  • Clearly more control, transparency and ethical codes of conduct for the NGOs are needed. Groups like CEO, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace continue to call for tighter monitoring of businesses, but they seem perfectly fine with their organisations acting outside of any similar standards of good conduct. Like industry, they need to establish their own ethical codes of conduct and be measured against them. I am alarmed at how many NGOs are buying off journalists and running very influential campaigns on limited evidence and anecdotes. Because they can take advantage of the poor economic opportunities for journalists, and have used them to outsource their campaigning, Brussels badly needs a transparency registry for journalists.
  • The campaigns for the denormalisation of industry have to be checked. A scientist working for industry is not an evil scourge and denying him or her the right to be involved in the determination of expert advice is ridiculous. In some fields, like food additives and crop protection, the best scientists have all contributed to industry-funded projects. They are trained scientists and should be respected (and their data is far richer than academics who may also have certain “ivory prejudices”). Excluding them like they were some Salem witches is primitive and naïve.
  • Food security will remain the most serious issue – far greater than climate change or the less than 2% of pesticides that are synthetically manufactured. Climate opportunists have exacerbated the situation – either by diverting scarce resources away from much needed development programmes or by increasing vulnerabilities with ill-conceived policies like biofuel subsidies or reforestation projects. Too many of our policy actions are spent on late, reactive and curative measures concerning food scarcity issues and it seems like only certain agri-industries are working proactively to prevent a food security crisis. There are far too many campaigns (against biotechnology, pesticides, fertilisers, land-use …) that are merely preventing preventative measures from succeeding and leaving us vulnerable to a greater food security crisis. The EU can still afford to import food to feed its citizens and livestock – but they are causing stresses in African agricultural systems and creating unnecessary vulnerabilities.
  • Within this Environmental-Industrial Complex, there needs to be some environmental integrity – dare I call it sincerity. In other words, the Complex needs to address real environmental issues and not to build issues around their political or economic interests. Everybody seems to be running around campaigning for their favourite interest (either due to funding availabilities, opportunism or the ability to achieve small victories) while real environmental issues remain too unpopular to address. The Risk-Monger has often argued that if we really were honest about doing something for the environment (and not just “playing cute”), then we would need to stop eating meat and get the cars off of the roads. Those truths, to quote Al Gore, are just too inconvenient for anyone within the Complex.

If the Environmental-Industrial Complex would work together to address these problems, then the Risk-Monger would gladly put down his pen. I somehow suspect though that this character will follow me to the grave.

 

 

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