Clogs in the works: The transition to a sustainable energy economy and its deliberate and unconscious sabotage

“Nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders. For the introducer has all those who benefit from the old orders as enemies, and lukewarm defenders in all those who might benefit from the new orders.”

Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince.

Clogs in the works: The transition to a sustainable energy economy and its deliberate and
unconscious sabotage

An essay for the Netherlands Council for Environment and Infrastructure

‘Clogs in the works’ was written at the request of the Netherlands Council for Environment and Infrastructure (RLI) by Jan Paul van Soest, the delegated partner for this project at the De Gemeynt cooperative. All the views expressed in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author.

Translation from the Dutch: Nigel Harle, Gronsveld.

To be cited as: Jan Paul van Soest, 2011. ‘Clogs in the works’.
Published by De Gemeynt, Klarenbeek, The Netherlands.

This publication can be downloaded at

© De Gemeynt, 20 October, 2011 (copyright is retained by the original copyright holder; reprinted at Planet3.0 by permission)

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Jan Paul van Soest
20 October, 2011


This essay explores how vested interests obstruct change, in this case change towards a more sustainable energy economy. The picture to emerge may surprise you, perhaps even shock you. Over the last few years, Lobby 1.0 – recognisable promotion of specific interests – has been surreptitiously superseded by Lobby 2.0, with public thought now being increasingly moulded by private interests. Attitudes towards climate change and the energy transition that work out well for vested interests are becoming mainstream, while the pursuit of truth based on evidence is becoming steadily snowed under. As Jan Rotmans, professor of transition management at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, tweeted so succinctly: ― “On the battlefield of transition the first casualty is truth. Power is triumphing over truth.”

It is not just private interests that are driving this process. The utopian varieties of free-market thinking described by the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis in his award-winning book De Utopie van de Vrije Markt (‘The Utopia of the Free Market’, untranslated) are just as important, perhaps even more so than those interests as such. It is this combination of a neoliberal utopia and private interests that has come to set the tone of today‘s political and public discourse. Consequently, policies fostering a transition to a sustainable energy economy have now been reduced to a trickle.

A climate-denial and anti-transition cocktail, originally mixed in the United States more than anywhere else, using a recipe concocted by the tobacco lobby, has gradually wormed its way into Western Europe, too. There it’s coming home to roost in a post-modern culture in which opinions are deemed at least as important as facts, and all authority, including science, has been toppled from its pedestal. Today, traditional media no longer have the time or funds to go about establishing the truth, but are satisfied if they can present ‘both sides of the story’. Whether one side is the truth and the other sheer nonsense can no longer be ascertained, however. Critical analysis has pretty much gone out of the window anyway, given the intertwining of journalism and power we see around us today, as Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk has so lucidly analysed. The influence of the new media, finally, has grown enormously, and in this realm checks on factual accuracy are now virtually non-existent.

As things now stand, it seems the Netherlands is more vulnerable to these trends than many of its neighbours and is well on its way to adopting a variety of discourse that in the US is known as ‘fact-free politics’. Over the past 10 or 20 years the Netherlands, more so than any other north-west European nation, has turned its back on the ‘Rhineland model’ and embraced the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’, or ‘Washington consensus’, and the neoliberal mind-set on which it is based.

While reading this essay, you, the reader, will probably be just as amazed as I was when penning it. Is the picture really as alarming as you make out, you may ask? Are you trying to tell me there‘s a conspiracy? You might even feel personally accused or even attacked. Is it really necessary for someone sceptical about the causes and gravity of climate change to be lumped together with nefarious lobbyists and Tea Party extremists?

Let me try and settle these issues at the outset. Yes, the picture is fairly alarming. But no, there‘s not a conspiracy.

What‘s alarming is the realisation that a trend has been gradually unfolding that for years we failed to recognise: the transformation of our intellectual heritage into a mindset – a frame – that works out particularly well for vested interests. That frame is obstructing the process of sustainable development. It is steered by deliberate campaigns orchestrated by private parties and the unconscious, creeping transformation of the notion of the free market from an efficient way of doing things to an ideological end that justifies any means. There can by definition be no conspiracy, for we were all in this together – and fell for it hook, line and sinker. That holds for me as the author of this essay just as much as for you, the reader.

It‘s not my intention to attack or denounce anyone. Everyone is obviously free to exercise their own judgement and make their up their own mind about whether or not climate change is a pressing issue. Of course one is free to conclude that the costs of mitigation far outweigh any benefits, or that the Netherlands – or any other country for that matter – would be better off going for fossil and nuclear rather than energy efficiency and renewables. All this is entirely legitimate, and I would go further and say: this is a debate that has unfortunately failed to materialise – as if the findings of the IPCC provide an automatic roadmap for addressing climate change. For such is not the case: between the IPCC and policy-making lies a minefield of social and political issues meriting thorough consideration and debate.

No attack, then, and no condemnations, but an analysis that I hope will stimulate readers to consider the following question: what are your views on climate policy and the energy transition based on? Could it be that information on climate change and renewable energy that‘s coloured by specific interests has played a role without you even realising it? Could it be that the spectacles through which you view reality have subconsciously coloured the information you were reading and believed? This is virtually inescapable, of course – I regularly catch myself doing it, too. The challenge is to be aware of the spectacles on one‘s nose. But this is precisely where the difficulty lies: in the torrent of information and disinformation coming out of the new media it‘s become almost impossible to determine what is authentic and selfless, and what informationto the contrary serves a specific interest or stems from a biased view of reality rather than from reality itself.

The quest that led to my writing this essay began at the end of November 2009, with what has been come to be known as ‘Climategate’, when climate scientists were accused of blunders, fraud and manipulation of results. I took a long and detailed look at, first, the arguments employed by the climate sceptics and, later, above all, their backgrounds, methods and convictions. I spoke to sceptics and scientists and read innumerable articles, reports, blogs and books, by those who support the idea of human-driven climate change and by those who vigorously oppose it. The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and later, contacts with the first author, were an eye-opener, as were James Hoggan‘s Climate Cover-up, Chris Mooney‘s Republican War on Science, George Lakoff‘s Don’t Think of an Elephant and last but by no means least Hans Achterhuis‘ De Utopie van de Vrije Markt. My own investigations have led me to understand how the ideas coming out of utopian free-market think-tanks and vested interests are blowing across the ocean to Europe and are now influencing discourse and policy-making in Western Europe and the Netherlands, too.

I am very grateful to the Netherlands Council for Environment and Infrastructure and particularly to the committee chair Professor Annemieke Roobeek and vice-secretary Dr. Erik Schmieman for giving me the opportunity to set out my analysis in the form of the essay presented here. I sincerely hope it will provoke plenty of debate, not only on climate change and the energy transition, but above all on vested interests and the notion of evidence-based truth. For it is my deepest conviction that if the legacy of the Enlightenment is consigned to the dustbin of history and we hold that the issues of the day can be resolved by recourse to mere opinion and positions of power rather than scientific knowledge and evidence, then we are headed for a new Dark Age.

1. Clogs in the works

The word sabotage probably dates back to 1886, when workers in the Belgian city of Liège brought the brittle, cast-iron production machinery to a standstill by jamming a wooden clog (French: sabot) in the works, fearful and angry that progress was threatening their jobs. Since then, sabotage has come to refer to any use of subversive action to deliberately thwart, hamper or slow down a process or plan. This was already happening long before 1886, of course, but it was not yet referred to as sabotage. It‘s still going on today, all around us, though it‘s by no means always sabotage in the traditional sense. Nor is it always as deliberate or conspicuous as it was in that 19th century Belgian factory.

But if you look carefully, attempts at deliberate sabotage can sometimes be discerned behind apparently everyday discussions – on climate policy, for example, and the transition to green energy systems.

Merchants of doubt

Take climate change. To the casual observer it may easily seem that scientists are still very much undecided on the issue, that there are still major uncertainties in the science, and that there are countless scientists who disagree with the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, perhaps even that scientific fraud has been perpetrated and that those arguing the reality of human-driven climate change are doing it to line their own wallets.

Perhaps you, too, have your doubts about climate change or about anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases being the cause. There‘s a reasonable chance you‘ve got this impression as a result of the sabotage attempts of major oil and coal interests, particularly in the US, Canada and Australia, which are funding countless neoliberal and conservative think-tanks in order to undermine effective climate policy. In their book Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway disclose how lobbyists paid by threatened industries (tobacco, energy, chemicals) have dressed up as scientists and embarked on a mission to create an atmosphere of permanent doubt and thus managed to hold back effective legislation for years. ‘Think-tanks’ and ‘policy institutes’ are putting out an unending stream of studies and reports that are incessantly repeated and rehashed in the blogosphere and which are now leaving their mark in other countries, too, including the Netherlands. The aim of these think-tanks is not science or a quest for truth, however, but advocacy pure and simple: the defence and promotion of specific political, normative views. They are driven primarily by ideology, in line with the views and interests of their principal funders (Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008). And in a post-modern society where authority – including the authority of science – has been toppled from its pedestal and where ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are held to be nothing but relative notions, or perhaps even rejected altogether, their message is being lapped up like warm milk.

Deliberately unconscious

Take renewable energy. To the casual observer it may easily seem that it will take unimaginably large sums of money to create a sustainable energy supply,  that wind power is pointless and achieves absolutely nothing in terms of carbon emission cuts because for every wind turbine a coal-fired power station must be kept turning over to chime in when the wind stops blowing, and that we‘re almost through our gas reserves and that nuclear power and coal are the only route to cheap electricity.

Anyone delving a little deeper into the matter will soon discover, though, that fossil-based energy pays for only a fraction of the social and ecological damage caused by its use right here and now, as well as elsewhere and in the future, and that there are numerous regulations and schemes in place reflecting the fact that although all forms of energy are equal, some are more equal than others.
Many of these regulations have grown historically, being rolled out to address the problems of the day, but in the light of a transition towards sustainability they have frequently lost their logic. While adhering to these conventions can hardly be termed deliberate sabotage, choosing not to recognise them nor discuss any revision thereof can certainly be seen as hindrance of the ‘deliberately unconscious’ kind, in that marvellously English turn of phrase. The fact of the matter is that many a regulation or scheme works out extremely well for vested interests while at the same time obstructing the transition. When it comes to sustainability, the playing field is simply lopsided.

Shifting frames

Over the past few years there has been a major shift in the perceived urgency of climate change in the Netherlands, and the same holds for policy targets and instruments geared to a transition to sustainable energy systems. In this essay I examine the background to these developments. One of the crucial factors is the changing ‘frame’ colouring our take on reality: the prism through which we view the world. There has been a major shift in that frame. A shift in worldview is of course never down to a single cause, but one factor whose importance cannot be overstated is the unending stream of climate-sceptical and anti-transition discourse coming above all out of the United States, spearheaded by an amalgam of powerful fossil-energy interests and conservative-neoliberal think-tanks sponsored by those very same interests. In Western Europe and the Netherlands, too, that worldview is now beginning to shape collective thought.

For this reason this essay looks into the background of the American ‘merchants of doubt’ lobby. Trends in the US are casting their shadow before them, and the developments seen over there are now starting to unfold in this country, too.

This issue is this: climate-sceptical and anti-transition attitudes have moved into the cultural-political mainstream, becoming part of the frame through which the world is now perceived and assessed. Science as a basis for policy is being abandoned if it fails to conform with this frame, and the merchants of doubt have done much to reinforce this trend, if they didn‘t in fact conceive it.

Recognising and knowing the background, working methods and strategy of the merchants of doubt and the consequences of their activities is vitally important if are to understand why thinking on global climate and the energy transition has changed in the Netherlands and why government policy in these areas has come to a standstill or is even being reversed.

2. Machiavelli: alive and kicking

2.1. Power beneath the surface

“Nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders. For the introducer has all those who benefit from the old orders as enemies, and lukewarm defenders in all those who might benefit from the new orders.”

Thus spoke the founding father of political science, Niccolò Machiavelli, in his best known work The Prince (Il Principe), written between 1513 and 1515 (Machiavelli). In Machiavelli‘s world it‘s all about interests and power, factors that today are all too easily forgotten. After all, everyone has equal access to the internet, where they can find out exactly what‘s happening and where the truth lies. Over the past few years ‘transparency’ has become the new buzzword. Are we today not blessed with free and open exchange of thoughts and ideas? In today‘s era of open social and political debate it‘s all about arguments, isn‘t it?

It‘s a remarkable fact, though, that in the NWO/Senternovem Energy Research programme set up in the Netherlands to examine both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science aspects of the energy transition, the notion of ‘power’ proves to be a complete blind spot (Van Soest, 2009). Anyone visiting the website of the now defunct Energy Transition Programme (Dutch only) and entering the search term macht, i.e. ‘power’ in its Machiavellian rather than technological sense, gets only four, not particularly relevant hits; the term hindermacht, ‘obstructive power’, doesn‘t feature at all.

There are obviously interests, though, and with interests come power. It is a characteristic feature of power that it‘s more often to be found beneath rather than above the surface. Power prefers not to be out in the bright light of day; behind the scenes its influence is often greater than in the spotlight of public debate. Which echoes a quote attributed to Dutch footballer and national treasure Johan Cruyff: ―You only see it once you‘ve got it!

Transparency lost

And this is precisely where the problem lies. It‘s perfectly legitimate to defend certain interests. In many countries there‘s a code of conduct for classical ‘public affairs’, as is the case in the Netherlands’ Code of Conduct of the Dutch Association for Public Affairs:

“Those engaged in public affairs must always be frank and honest in their contacts with politicians, civil servants and other interested parties. They:
1.1. should always speak the truth about who they are and for whom they work and what interests they represent;
1.3. are responsible for the reliability and accuracy of the information they provide on behalf of stakeholders;
4.1. … always identify themselves and state who they are working for”

The problem is this: thanks to the Merchants of Doubt strategy, such transparency has now been abandoned. Lobbyists and ideologues are now disguising themselves as experts and scientists, muddying the waters and creating confusion – precisely as intended.

Before going on to describe and analyse the methods employed by the merchants of doubt, let me first briefly consider the various positions adopted in the debate on the energy transition and climate change. To that end we need to take a closer look at the motives and objectives being cited for that transition. There are a variety of motives around and, as I‘ll explain, it‘s no coincidence that of all of these it‘s above all the motive of climate change that‘s being targeted by the forces of subversion.

2.2. Positions in the transition arena

More measured reflection shows there to be not just one controversy: urgent climate policy/energy transition versus none at all, but two controversies that are intertwined (Figure 1). The first is indeed the controversy of yes or no to climate policy and an energy transition. But the second is this: are we to run society on the basis of science- and evidence-based policies or according to policies rooted in material interests and/or ideology, whether by design or unconsciously?

I use the term ‘ideology’ here in a broad sense, as a set of views about how society should be run, particularly when those views are held to be absolute rather than relative and (morally) superior to other views. That may be either consciously and explicitly or unconsciously and implicitly, it should be added. This is one of the things that Hans Achterhuis makes so clear in his ‘Utopie van de vrije markt‘ with regard to the utopian variety of free-market thought (Achterhuis, 2010).

Here, then, lies a key challenge for those promoting climate policy and transition to sustainable energy systems. Today, the motives for stepping up climate policy and the energy transition are being sought first and foremost in the rational domain of science, analysis and future scenarios. Before these can filter through to the domain of values, feelings and emotions from which action springs, these motives will have to be accepted, though. And the problem is that a primarily ideologically coloured frame based on different values, feelings and emotions will not be open to facts and evidence that are at odds with that frame. This is also why the values, feelings and emotions that the current ‘transition movement’ is appealing to are not resonating.

Not by facts alone

As the above diagram makes clear, countering climate scepticism or opposition to green energy systems (which often go together) by presenting a different set of facts will not on its own be convincing. Armed with this insight, there are essentially four strategies available:

  • Facts and figures. Over and against the (alleged) inaccuracies, present solid facts and evidence. Although this will always remain necessary, on its own it is not a sufficient condition for change. Beyond simple presentation of facts and figures, consideration should also be given to whether and how the lost domain of science and evidence can be reclaimed as a policy basis.
  • Reframe one‘s own motives for pursuing climate policy and an energy transition in terms of the opposition‘s worldview, in essence tagging along with arguments apparently crucial for those opposing such policy and such a transition. While this strategy may provide some breathing space, its effectiveness is ultimately limited, though, because the strengths of one‘s own arguments can never be rolled out completely, nor can one‘s own vision ever be realised. The mirror image of this strategy is to do the framing oneself, i.e. formulate one‘s own message so appealingly and convincingly as to steer the public and political discourse of the day. A quick reality check shows this is not happening, though: in the current climate and transition debate it is the neoliberal frame that is overwhelmingly dominant.
  • Undercurrent. Within one‘s own potential for decision-making, engage in independent transition and climate activities. Today, this undercurrent is certainly engaged in plenty of useful activity: a sustainable parallel economy is emerging, comprising not only producers and consumers pursuing sustainability, but also local and regional governments, neighbourhood groups and other civic initiatives, for example. More about these later. For now, suffice to say that such bottom-up initiatives can never achieve a form of sustainability in line with their own goals for society unless additional top-down policies are implemented as well, i.e. robust limits to ecological impacts.
  • Build up a power base, so that stronger policies (like these ‘ecological limits’) gain wider support and are eventually implemented. Of importance here is obviously the legitimacy of that power base – but this holds equally for the legitimacy of the powers that are now deliberately or unconsciously blocking the transition.

To decide on an effective strategy (or better still a combination of strategies) it‘s important to understand the nature of the opposition we‘re up against, and that indeed is the aim of this essay. For it‘s abundantly clear that current strategies – in the Netherlands at any rate – are not getting us any further: rather than intensifying its climate and transition policies, our country is now rolling back downhill: targets are being relaxed and policies revoked, there‘s increasing opposition to tougher climate policy, and climate scepticism has grown and meanwhile permeated parliament, too.

Inadequate response

It is my conviction that both the nature and the background of the opposition to climate policy and the energy transition are being seriously underestimated and that as a result the strategies being adopted fall short of what is urgently needed.

In the early days there wasn‘t much of a ‘facts and figures’ strategy at all. For a long time climate scepticism and, more broadly, opposition to environmental policy was regarded as little more than a marginal phenomenon. Recommendations for active dialogue with representatives of the ‘sceptical’ current (Van Soest & Gimbrère, 2006) were not followed up. With a few notable exceptions, scientists felt that debating the issues with sceptics was basically a waste of their time. Only after the commotion that came in the wake of the inaccuracies found in IPCC reports and the publication of hacked emails from the University of East Anglia‘s Climate Research Unit (‘climategate’) did climate scientists feel prompted to step up their contribution to the debate.

An additional remark is in order here, because for the scientists, too, there was initially little need to get involved in any major way in the public debate. In parliaments and governments, after all, the IPCC‘s reports were seen as the ‘gold standard’, right across party lines. This was the message put out by the political class in the broad sense: the IPCC has spoken, and climate policy there will be – but at the same time that political class failed to engage in the oh-so-essential debate on normative, political issues. Scientific establishment of the fact that CO2 leads to a warming of the Earth‘s atmosphere, that the bulk of the increase in atmospheric CO2 is due to human activity and that continued CO2 emissions will lead to further warming, with in its wake a whole spectrum of impacts, does not automatically imply that climate policy must necessarily be pursued, nor what policy targets or measures should be adopted to that end. And while, despite all the firm targets, climate policy remained de facto above all an exercise in no-regrets politics, the lack of a normative, political debate culminating in explicit choices, an explicit balancing of pros and cons, reinforced the perception that (climate) science was apparently the sole driver of government policy. Although there is every reason to blame politics rather than science in this regard, the outcome remains the same: those who instinctively do not care very much for climate policy will all too soon come to mistrust the climate science behind it.

From the very outset, those advocating an energy transition have adopted a strategy of reframing, casting the transition as a ‘basket’ of objectives and motives for change from one which can pick and choose according to one‘s worldview. The benefits are clear: opponents of the envisaged changes are brought on board by appealing to key concerns and arguments within their worldview. For me it might be climate change that‘s the prime motive for wanting the transition, while your main concerns are security of supply and energy independence from nefarious states run by people with a medieval ideology – so let‘s work for those changes together. And while we‘re at it, why not let those pursuing the transition so our economy doesn‘t miss too many business opportunities jump on board as well.

There’s no denying that disparate motives can go hand in hand for a while, but when push comes to shove, and real action is needed, disparate motives lead to disparate policy measures, to disparate levels of policy intensity and to disparate roles for the various echelons of government, for civic society and for market parties (consumers and producers). At which point a real conflict does arise between disparate objectives and motives, which cannot be overcome without social and political debate and a struggle for power.

The consequences of this are so great that the issue needs to be examined more closely. For with this analysis in mind, one can also see why the obstructive forces and counter-lobby are focusing above all on the climate argument and climate science: the other arguments and considerations vis-à-vis the transition are considerably less threatening to both their worldview and their interests.

In broad brushstrokes, there are five main motives for pursuing a sea change in energy systems, built up around the following five themes:

  • Climate change, caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuel consumption.
  • Opportunities and innovation: timely transition can lead to new products and industrial activities.
  • Cost: the cost of exploiting energy resources (extraction, processing, transport, use).
  • Security of supply: sufficient energy availability, now and in the future.
  • Reserves: the (absolute, physical) scarcity of fuel resources.

Motives for transition

By way of a simple thought experiment, let‘s view each of these motives through the prism of the available (scientific) evidence and ‘monolithically’ derive what kind of policy would be the best if only that one specific motive were valid and the others did not apply. I‘ll do so in reverse order:

  • Reserves: on the scale of human existence, physical reserves are no problem at all for the time being. There‘s enough coal for several centuries yet and the world‘s gas reserves are currently also estimated to be at least as large. Reserves of so-called unconventional resources (shale gas) are particularly vast. Crude oil reserves are relatively limited – enough for another few decades – but at the same time there are unimaginable quantities of unconventional oil available in the form of tar sands. Technologies to extract the unconventional reserves are improving and getting cheaper all the time. It‘s also important to note that with existing technologies all forms of fossil energy are interconvertible: solid fuels (coal) can be converted to gaseous and liquid fuels, and gaseous fuels to liquid. Argued purely from the angle of physical reserves, the conclusion can only be that no policy initiatives are required for the next century or so.
  • Security of supply (geopolitics): reserves are obviously not spread evenly across countries or continents, with stocks of conventional oil, in particular, concentrated in relatively few (OPEC) countries. Until now, keeping the oil flowing from these countries has relied very much on diplomacy and power games, sometimes pursued in their more extreme variants, i.e. military intervention. Unconventional stocks are more widely distributed and lie moreover in regions with which the west feels happier doing business than with the OPEC nations. Purely on the basis of security of supply considerations, as if the other motives had no validity, the appropriate policy would be continued mutual (financial) dependence and diplomacy when it comes to conventional reserves (with the military option as a big stick), diversification of sources (suppliers) and development of technologies and markets for unconventional fuels.
  • Cost: the playing field is determined by market prices for the various kinds of fossil fuel, which in the short term will be subject to substantial fluctuation, because boosting production from unconventional reserves takes time. In the longer term, though, prices will be constrained by the cost of extracting the most abundantly available fuel, with a mark-up for the conversion costs involved in getting that fuel into the desired form plus a return on investment appropriate to the risk being borne. Although this technical-economic price ceiling may well be regularly exceeded as a result of short-term market frictions, over the longer term it will still dictate basic energy prices. Given the reserves and extraction costs of resources like tar-sand oil and shale gas, around $ 100 per barrel of oil-equivalent would seem a reasonable estimate. The main policy option for the hypothetical situation in which it is only the cost argument that holds is to promote free-market competition between the various energy sources and technologies (including renewables), backed up by R&D geared to reducing the cost price of all energy options.
  • Opportunity and innovation: new technologies and business concepts often come with a first-mover advantage: with their new products and technologies, the first companies to move, as well as the first countries in which those companies operate, can make good earnings in an expanding international market. Broadly speaking, the strategy will then be to pursue an active R&D policy and create a favourable investment climate in one‘s own country, in a generic sense, and if the reply to the ‗make or buy‘ question is ‗make‘, perhaps also tweak the investment climate more finely if in the course of time it transpires that certain options are more than averagely interesting. This is the route adopted by France with nuclear and by Denmark with wind power.
  • Climate change, finally: the scientific establishment is unanimous in its conclusion that the world is currently warming at an unprecedented rate and that it is human-induced carbon emissions that are mainly to blame. On this issue there is not a shred of scientific doubt. What is being debated is the question of whether there is a ‘safe limit’ and where this lies precisely, given the range of estimates for ‘climate sensitivity’, i.e. the temperature change resulting from a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. This limit is generally taken to lie between 1.5 degrees Celsius (= 350 ppm CO2) and 2 degrees Celsius (= 450 ppm): if these concentrations are exceeded, self-reinforcing, irreversible effects may be triggered. If climate change were the sole policy motive, there is but one option available: capping (global) atmospheric CO2 emissions, by either or both of the instruments available to that end: an emissions ceiling that leads to a CO2 price, or a pricing mechanism (carbon tax) that keeps emissions below a predefined limit.

From here, let us now consider whether and to what extent the various motives and objectives conflict or, conversely, reinforce one another, based on a hypothetical policy mix sufficiently effective to resolve the specific individual problem. The following cross table provides a rough estimate based on expert judgement:

As is immediately clear, climate policy is in a class of its own. While the other motives/objectives can be reasonably well combined (neutral, or some synergy), monolithic policy geared to any one of those objectives or a combination thereof cannot resolve the problem of climate change, but will in fact only exacerbate it. While a policy thrust geared to opportunity may provide a little breathing space, in the absence of a robust ceiling for carbon emissions any progress on climate change through innovation will be offset by volume growth and rebound effects.

Conversely, (rigorous) climate policy brings no benefits for policies geared to reserves, security of supply or cost-saving, though it may lead to business opportunities and innovation. At the same time, with regard to this last point it can be argued that climate policy perhaps leads not so much to more and faster innovation and opportunities, but merely steers them in a different direction.

2.3. The day of reckoning

While advocates of a rapid energy transition often tend to gloss over the incompatibilities between these various objectives and motives in order to get their message across, the countervailing forces seem to have intuited with great alacrity that it is climate policy, in particular, that threatens the motives so dear to them. Those interested in seeing such perceptions in their raw, unexpurgated form should dip into the (Dutch-language) blog De Dagelijkse Standaard  or any of the many English-language blogs, more so than mainstream conservative newspapers and magazines like The Daily Telegraph or Fox News, which at least cover their deep-seated aversion to transition and climate policy with a veneer of journalism and editing. De Dagelijkse Standaard fulminates endlessly against climate policy, wind turbines, biomass, solar power and their advocates: climate scientists, environmental NGOs and left-of-centre political parties. It‘s no coincidence that it‘s above all climate scientists that the Merchants of Doubt are targeting and not, for example, geologists estimating fossil energy reserves, or economists suggesting how the workings of the market might be improved. It is, in short, no coincidence that there‘s a dictionary entry for ‘climate scepticism’, but not for ‘reserve scepticism’, ‘security-of-supply scepticism’ or ‘economic-efficiency scepticism’.

The above thought experiment also obliges those advocating a change in energy systems to come clear about their motives and objectives. On what grounds are you in fact arguing for solar energy and wind power? And why do you oppose carbon capture and storage and nuclear power? With your vision of the future, how do you plan to address your opponents‘ concerns: things like security of supply and affordability? And during the process of change how do you intend to deal with concrete interests if these indeed suffer as a result of your proposals for change? For example: some of the scenarios for a renewables-based energy system in Europe by 2050 assume that all coal-fired power plant will have then been shut down. But that generating capacity is being built as we speak and will not have been written down by mid-century. So how are investors to be compensated?

In the initial phase of the energy transition, the notion of that transition as a basket of motives and objectives that was always kept deliberately vague and undefined so everyone could find a motive that suited them undeniably got the ball rolling. But opposition has grown, the playing field has altered and the transition is now in a new phase. The day of reckoning has arrived, and the motives and measures that are being proposed or rejected must be openly declared, by those advocating the energy transition, too.

A thousand flowers

Now we‘ve identified the various motives for an energy transition along with their synergies and incompatibilities, we can understand why that transition is proceeding as it is.

As a ‘movement’ from the bottom up, the energy transition is in full swing. A thousand flowers are blooming: across the country, sustainable initiatives are underway. Plans and projects for solar panels, electric vehicles, recycling, local energy companies and so on are flourishing, like so many crocuses in spring. There‘s no denying it: the bottom-up movement for sustainability is enthusiastic, motivated and professional (Hawken, 2008).

But what‘s failing to materialise is top-down support: no action is being taken on things that need to be steered and guided from above, such as internalisation of social costs. Initiatives on such issues remain rare, while existing incentive schemes are being dismantled, and all the while new base-load generating capacity is being built that effectively puts paid to the business case for renewable energy (Van Soest & Wiltink, 2009). For renewables the playing field remains anything but even (IEA, 2011).

The energy transition as a movement is tolerated by the powers that be so long it poses no real threat to vested interests. The energy transition as a movement is acceptable so long it remains compatible with the neoliberal frame: citizens and businesses are free to take initiatives on rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and energy conservation programmes, but as soon as local or national government needs to get involved things become problematical: government action to help move the energy transition forward, particularly when it comes to measures to cut carbon emissions, simply doesn‘t fit in with that neoliberal frame (as discussed in Three storylines, one plot, below, and elsewhere).

Power and influence

And so we come to the crux of the matter: until such time as there is structural or systemic change, no bottom-up movement, however strong, can ever spawn an economy that respects the limits of global ecosystem resilience, or more specifically: an economy in which CO2 emissions are controlled to such an extent that atmospheric CO2 levels do not exceed, say, 450 ppm (Rockström & al., 2009),(Benchekroun & Ray Chaudhuri, 2011).

The bottom-up movement is inspiring, encouraging and a source of hope – but it will flounder in its own ineffectiveness if it fails to convert its growing importance into the power and influence required for the playing field to be smoothed out from the top down – and it is precisely here that there‘s such major opposition and the forces of obstruction are so strong.

The quotation from Machiavelli is more relevant than ever: pursuing a new order turns those with interests in the status quo into active foes, while the new interests are not yet fully manifest.

3. Doubt, the spice of life

3.1 Of tobacco and watermelons

How come legislation on smoking – first active smoking, later ‘passive’ smoking – took so long to materialise, even though researchers had already produced a wealth of evidence documenting the public health damage caused by tobacco smoke? How come there were so many years of inaction before steps were taken to address the problems of acid rain or ozone layer depletion? How come US senators – particularly Republicans like James Inhofe and Fred Upton – continue to stick to their guns that the average temperature of the planet has decreased since 1998 and that there is still no evidence for human-driven climate change? In the run-up to the last US elections, climate change denial was a sine qua non for selection of Republican candidates in the primaries.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, science historians at the Universityf San Diego and California Institute of Technology respectively, spent five years sifting through reports, minutes of meetings, technical studies, revisions to drafts and other documents and wrote a landmark book entitled Merchants of Doubt – How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). The strategies and tactics of this movement to subvert the truth had already been documented (McCright & Dunlap, 2000), (Dunlap & McCright, 2010), (Michaels, 2008), but not in as much depth nor as systematically as Oreskes and Conway do in their magnum opus.

As this book shows, there is every reason to take a good look at the strategy pursued in the case of tobacco and smoking, for only then can we recognise the obstructive power today being wielded in the context of the energy transition and climate policy for what it is, and counter the ‘top spin’ being put on these issues with effective ‘back spin’. For this is absolutely necessary: we have been rather naive in our attitudes towards this kind of anti-lobbying, certainly in the Netherlands, by taking its contrariness for authentic opinion rather than the tip of a vast lobbying iceberg, which a decade or so ago we moreover expected or hoped would be no more than a rearguard action.

More recently, James Lawrence Powell has documented the attacks on climate science in his book The Inquisition of Climate Science (Powell, 2011).

And so I repeat the words of our venerated footballer Johan Cruyff: you only see it once you‘ve got it. The forces opposing climate policy and the energy transition are far stronger than advocates thereof ever realised or held possible, their campaigns far better organised and funded than imagined, as well as far more effective than anyone at the time deemed feasible.

Three storylines, one plot

In the movement to subvert the truth, three storylines come together in a single plot.

The first storyline concerns a number of distinguished scientists who came to oppose the new sciences of the natural environment and human health. The second concerns several industries that as a result of new scientific understanding came under increasing fire and saw their interests threatened. The third is the tale of a nefarious but extremely sophisticated lobbying campaign.

Through each of these runs a common thread: a neoliberal-conservative ideology and the economic interests with which it is inevitably associated. It is the Ideology of the Free Market, which in its utopian variants is seen not only as a means (for efficient allocation of scarce resources) but as a morally superior end in itself. In his book, Hans Achterhuis illustrates this with reference to Ayn Rand, a philosopher with enormous influence in the US, and her roman-à-clef Atlas Shrugged (Achterhuis, 2010). For decades now, Atlas Shrugged has been among the best-selling books in the United States.

On the grounds of this perceived moral superiority, the end hallows the means, and any science that fails to fit the mould may be passed off as ‘bad science‘’or ‘junk science’ (storyline 1); lobbying for particular interests is in fact nothing of the sort, merely pursuit of the common good (storyline 2); and subverting science and scientists is not a lobbying campaign, just a balanced way of informing the citizenry (storyline 3).

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

Objectivism is a philosophy defined by the Russian-American philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand (1905–1982). Objectivism holds that reality exists independent of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest, that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in laissez faire capitalism, and that the role of art in human life is to transform man’s widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and to which he can respond emotionally.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In this thinking, any form of government intervention is intrinsically wrong. As economic theory, this position stands diametrically opposed to the analysis and remedies of people like Mancur Olsen cum suis (Olsen, 1965), whose work convincingly shows that if everyone were to pursue only their own interests, public goods would not be protected or produced, because these are, in the jargon, ‘indivisible’ and ‘non-excludable’. The scope for free-riders to use public goods without helping pay for their production or maintenance undermines the collective effort. From this perspective, public goods can only be guaranteed if binding rules are set and some form of binding funding is provided by an agency standing above all individual interests, which in most cases will be the government. Nature conservation and environmental protection are textbook examples of this kind of collective and public good, for which it can be argued that sustainability – in the sense of everlasting usufruct of the Earth‘s resources, without that natural capital being eaten into – can never be attained without binding rules and/or binding funding. The lessons to be drawn from the ‘prisoner‘s dilemma’ in game theory lead to similar conclusions.

Ayn Rand‘s ‘objectivism’ is more than mere economic theory, though, as Achterhuis makes clear: it is a utopian philosophy, an evangelical dogma complete with disciples, including such prominent figures as Alan Greenspan, who as president of the Federal Reserve for years shaped US financial policy. It‘s therefore hardly surprising that the supposed moral superiority of pursuing self-interest has penetrated so deep into the financial sector. The exorbitant bonuses paid out in recent years are just one example of the practices deemed to be morally justified in this philosophy. In this respect the response of Goldman Sachs’ top executive Lloyd Blankfein when asked about his role in the financial crisis speaks volumes: ―”I‘m doing God‘s work,” he said.

It‘s abundantly clear just how much the ideas of Olsen and the ‘tragedy of the commons’ described above are at fundamental odds with the utopian varieties of laisser-faire capitalism based on Ayn Rand‘s ‘objectivist’ philosophy. In that philosophy it is not simply that government intervention is dismissed out of hand; more dangerous still, the framing adopted means that potential reasons for such intervention are not even perceived. These simply cannot have any validity, because they undermine the utopian Idea of laisser-faire capitalism as a morally superior social system. In the vocabulary of objectivism, concepts like the commons (communally managed resources) and external costs simply do not feature: it is only the individual and his or her rights that are perceived and recognised. In this vision, collective problems, if they exist at all, derive from insufficiently rigorous pursuit of free-market principles (and the associated allocation of private property rights). On the latter point see, for example, the philosophy of the Property and Environment Research Centre, PERC, which in the same vein consistently refers to ‘free market environmentalism’.

It is within this broader context that the Merchants of Doubt have built their arena.

A new cold war

Oreskes and Conway analyse how, at the end of the cold war, a number of scientists of long-standing repute, particularly physicists who had put their scientific and technical skills in the service of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, also known as ‘Star Wars’) of then-president Ronald Reagan set their sights on the emerging environmental and health sciences. Those scientists, with Robert Jastrow, Frederik Seitz, Bill Nierenberg and S. Fred Singer as their most prominent representatives, had identified themselves and ‘their’ science with the struggle for freedom, the struggle of capitalism against the ‘evil empires’ of socialism and communism.

The ‘new’ environmental and health sciences uncovered the social and ecological consequences of ever-expanding production and consumption and provided plausible evidence as to the causes. Toxic substances in tobacco smoke harm people‘s health in countless ways, and it‘s not only active smoking that proves to be harmful but passive smoking, too. The chemical industry was producing chemicals that deplete the ozone layer and scientists were relatively quick to identify the mechanism involved. Emissions of sulphur and nitrogen compounds, due mainly to combustion of fossil fuels, leads to acidification of the environment, with damage to ecosystems, public health and our cultural heritage as a result. And the carbon dioxide that is likewise emitted when fossil fuels are burned is the single largest cause of the climate change that has set in over the past few decades. The driving mechanism had in essence been recognised since the mid-19th century, thanks to the work of scientists like Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius.

When the Strategic Defense Initiative collapsed, it was in the ‘new’ sciences and those practising them that the SDI physicists found a new adversary. After all, the consequences of the new scientific understanding would be that the free market does not just bring blessings, and that the government might see itself compelled to take regulatory action – which would mean the environmental movement with its loopy ideas might well come to power. Environmental protagonists were (and still are) referred to as ‘watermelons’: green on the outside, red inside, i.e. under the cover of environmentalism in fact pursuing a socialist or communist agenda. You find yourself laughing? In countless blogs and forums, here in the Netherlands too, such mantras are repeated endlessly day after day.

In the eyes of the SDI physicists the new sciences simply couldn’t be true or correct; they had to be based on ‘junk science’, and they proceeded to take an aggressive and concerted stand, making full use of the political clout they had built up during the cold war era to tackle the environmental sciences head-on.

Fred Singer is still active as a professional denialist, while the others cited are now dead, but they have meanwhile been superseded by a new battalion of doubt merchants dressed up as experts, including half the Idso family (Craig, Keith and Sherwood), the eloquent buffoon and soi-disant ‘Lord’ Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, a string of emeritus professors and a gaggle of research fellows at conservative think-tanks who are forever being put forward as contrarian climate experts.

Stormy weather

In the 1960s and -70s the tobacco industry, followed later by other industries like chemicals and energy, ran into increasingly stormy weather as a growing mountain of scientific studies began to establish the links between industrial activities and products and their many and varied impacts on health and ecology. Early on in the story, the tobacco industry realised the science was probably right. The remedy, thought up by public relations titans like Hill & Knowlton and the Weinberg Group, along with the pre-eminent spin doctor Frank Luntz, was as simple as it was effective: undermine the credibility of the underlying science and the scientists concerned (Michaels, 2008), (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009). These tactics dovetailed perfectly, and not entirely by chance, with the strategy that had been adopted by the Republican party, helped in part by the very same consultants in the pay of the tobacco industry. What that strategy sought to do was strengthen the Republicans‘ ideological base, through the efforts of dozens of think-tanks, attack any science that appeared to contradict that ideology by conducting what has come to be known as the Republican War on Science (Mooney, 2005) and with the aid of the conservative think-tanks and their research frame the debate in such a way that the opposition is forever being overtaken by the facts (Lakoff, 2004).

The main elements of this strategy seem to have been successfully copied by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who is on good terms with leading figures in the Tea Party movement like Pamela Geller (note the name of her blog: Atlasshrugs2000). The success of Wilders and his ‘Freedom Party’ is sure proof of the results to be achieved through careful framing of the debate: it forces the other players to debate within the imposed frame, automatically putting them on the defensive – unless, that is, they manage to come up with a superior frame themselves.

Smoke and mirrors

The lobbyists and PR consultants serving the threatened industry knew exactly where to find the former SDI scientists in search of new adversaries. Out of this meeting of minds the new lobbying strategy emerged. From that moment on, a pseudoscientific spectacle of smoke and mirrors was created, with apparently science-based campaigns being rolled out whose sole purpose was to sow seeds of doubt and thus postpone government action.

Thanks to generously funded research programmes, regular scientists were kept from their proper work for years by paying them to go down side-tracks and investigate scientifically irrelevant issues. Studies that did have relevance were cast into doubt, as was the integrity of those conducting them, with it all being put down as ‘junk science’. By cherry-picking from the mountain of evidence and putting their own spin on the significance of the cited results and – last but by no means least – ensuring that smoking was positively framed and measures to address it negatively, effective policies were held back for 20 or 30 years, even though the evidence about the impacts of smoking has been exceptionally convincing for at least as long.

It is during this period that the phenomenon of astroturfing also emerges: what on the face of it appear to be citizen groups prove, on critical examination, to have been set up and funded by the tobacco lobby. The term comes from ‘astroturf’, a brand of artificial grass, to mark the contrast with a true grassroots movement. This is still happening, not only in the US, but in the Netherlands too: according to the tobacco expertise centre Stivoro, two of the main groups working to oppose the Dutch ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants (Stichting Rokersbelangen, Stichting Red de Kleine Horeca-Ondernemer) were created and are funded by the tobacco industry.

Once again the conservative-neoliberal think-tanks proved very handy: these think-tanks, with all their ‘research fellows’, ‘senior scientists’ and ‘visiting scientists’ (often seconded from a colleague think-tank) provided the perfect shroud of credibility for studies and analyses in which the links between smoking and health damage were cast into doubt. And a shroud, too, for reframing the terms of the debate: smoking equates to freedom, the free market, free choice, personal responsibility, while anti-smoking policy is the work of a socialist, anti-market, ‘nanny’ state.

The concept of echo chambers was thought up: empty organisations created for the sole purpose of incessantly repeating the assertions of other (lobby-derived) sources, for as long as it takes for them to seem true and authentic and find their way into the mainstream media. With the gamut of internet-based media available today, it‘s now child‘s play to set up an echo chamber.

The well-known Dutch conservative weblog De Dagelijkse Standaard is one such climate echo chamber, which in turn translates and rehashes masses of material from other echo chambers like the Europäische Institut fur Klima und Energie, EIKE. When one delves more deeply, this proves not to be an institute at all, just a website, a P.O. box and a telephone number. The president of EIKE, Dr. Holger Thuss, is also president of CFACT Europe, a subsidiary of the US think-tank Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, CFACT, co-funded by companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil as well as a series of private trusts like the Carthage Foundation and Scaife Foundation (Gulf Oil, Alcoa and other industrial interests).

In the same way, numerous other conservative think-tanks have been funded directly and/or via a string of friendly foundations by oil, coal, electricity and mining interests, which in many cases indeed also established them. This is funding that runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, Koch Industries (annual turnover: 100 billion US dollars), unheard of in the Netherlands, is one of the main funders of neoliberal think-tanks, anti-climate campaigns and the Tea Party movement. At a wealth of data on these issues has been gathered and collated. In December 2010 Corporate Europe Observatory , set up in pursuit of greater transparency among European lobbies seeking to operate under the radar, analysed as best it could (a recurrent problem is the murkiness of so many funding flows) how the European climate denial machine is being financed. It transpires that Koch Industries has now also extended its financial tentacles into Europe. According to CAN Europe (Climate Action Network Europe, 2010), various European companies are in turn sponsoring climate-sceptic senators in the US, with Lafarge, GDF-Suez, Eon, BP, BASF, Bayer, Solvay and Arcelor-Mittal specifically cited.

3.2. Climate and transition parrots

Disguises and framing

With its apparatus in place, the tobacco industry elaborated a lobbying concept that was and indeed still is being applied with extraordinary success, not only to tobacco and smoking but to other issues too: chemicals and ozone layer depletion, electrical power generation and acidification, and meanwhile, in a new tour de force, to climate change and fossil fuel combustion as well.

Two elements of this strategy stand out as being particularly shrewd and effective.

First, the variety of disguises adopted by the forces of subversion. It proves extremely hard to prove that climate and transition undermining assertions are being produced with financial support from vested interests rather than by disinterested, generically funded scientists. But reality is being turned on its head even more, with scientists whose funding is in no way dependent on the outcome of their research being derided as ‘interested parties’ pursuing their own political agenda. What we‘re seeing today is a veritable Umwertung aller Werte, with lobbies dressing up as independent experts, disinterested truth-seekers being pilloried as manipulators and deceivers, private interests disguising themselves as the common good, and public interests being sidelined as idealistic, naïve or even socialist or communist.

Second, the successful framing of the debate, so that as time progresses even the original countermovement is sucked into the newly imposed frame. As an example: the smoking expertise centre Stivoro cited above saw itself compelled to go along part of the way with the frame “we‘ll resolve this ourselves, without interference from the nanny state”, under penalty of losing funds for confrontational campaigns that have proved effective, in contrast to the ‘soft’ approach (ITC, 2010).

As linguist Lakoff reports (Lakoff, 2004): ―It is a general finding about frames that if a strongly held frame doesn‘t fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept!

If smoking is associated with freedom, free choice and personal responsibility (‘people should be allowed to smoke’, ‘we’ll sort this out together’) and not smoking with unnecessary interference by the ‘nanny state’ and with hounding out small pub and restaurant owners, i.e. hard-working Dutch men and women, then that frame comes to determine the general perspective on the debate, the communis opinio, the ‘received wisdom’ of the day. Like water on a duck’s back, the facts about smoking then simply do not stick. Facts about climate change or about the social and ecological benefits of the energy transition don‘t gel with the neoconservative frame and so are vigorously rejected. Scientific evidence is no longer the yardstick; the worldview clouds the evidence and determines what‘s to be taken as true and authentic, and what is not.

Scepticism in the policy arena

Meanwhile, climate scepticism has reached the heart of national decision-making. Parliamentarians now flirt openly with sceptical arguments, with some of them going all the way down the denialist road. This seems to be the case for Wilders‘ Freedom Party (PVV), with Martin Bosma and Richard de Mos manning the front lines, but even in the long-standing Liberal Party (VVD) there is now an undercurrent that appears to have little truck with climate change and climate science, arguing that ‘more research is needed’ the moment there‘s any snow – as if there could be no more snow in a warming world.

In various branches of industry, particularly the most energy-intensive sectors, until recently it was considered politically incorrect to express any doubts about climate change, but in the new political reality one can now ‘come out’ in semi-private meetings and say what used to have to remain in the closet.

High-ranking government officials are being told to relax their efforts on mitigation and adaptation policies, on the pretext that the whole business of serious climate change is probably just a hype. The apparatus built up in the Netherlands around the energy transition (interdepartmental directorate, a coordinating agency, various platforms, budgets, an agenda, manpower) has meanwhile been expertly demolished (Hisschemöller, 2008). In policy circles we now hear the very same things being parroted that for years have been echoing round the internet: wind turbines don‘t run on wind but on subsidies (squawk, squawk), wind power does nothing to reduce CO2 emissions (squawk, squawk), nuclear power is cheap (squawk, squawk).

In the meantime, the Netherlands has adjusted its overall climate targets as well as those for renewable energy and energy efficiency downwards and the government‘s toolkit, already pretty meagre, is now being emptied ever further before our very eyes. Even policy instruments that have proven effective and economically efficient, such as ecological tax schemes, are being revoked; as a result, several green institutions are now having to discontinue their work.

The framing of the Dutch debate

See here, in a nutshell, the elements of the frame that over the past few years has been effectively constructed around the issues of climate change and the energy transition and that has now been successfully transplanted into policy arenas.

It is a predominantly reactionary frame, which seeks to combat the successes of the ‘sustainability movement’ in recent years and the influence it has evidently acquired.

At times it is also a vindictive frame, involving elements of revenge on that movement and the results it has achieved.

Finally, it has elements of nostalgia, a longing for the ‗good old days‘ of the Netherlands‘ Golden Age (the ‗East India Company mentality‘ about which then-Prime Minister Balkenende so enthused) and for the period of reconstruction following World War Two, when everyone simply rolled up their sleeves and worked together so the Economy could Grow, with no uncalled-for obstruction from obscure species of snail, newt or hamster deemed in need of protection.

When it comes to the energy supply, the catechism runs roughly as follows:

  • The liberalised energy market should be left to do its work.
  • The government should not align itself with any energy options or technologies.
  • In physical and geographical terms, the Netherlands is an attractive location for coal-fired generating capacity (cooling water, logistics).
  • Economically, the Netherlands has great potential for exporting electricity to its neighbours.
  • The CO2 emissions of (new) power stations are no problem; these are taken care of under the international emissions trading scheme.
  • The Netherlands‘ energy-intensive industry needs cheap electricity.
  • Coal-fired and nuclear power stations supply cheap power, which in the case of nuclear is also zero-carbon.
  • Subsidies are evil: they make entrepreneurs lazy and distort the market.
  • Renewable energy is too expensive and will achieve its rightful market share in due course once prices have fallen.
  • Renewables make no contribution to reducing carbon emissions, because every wind or solar megawatt has to be backed up by a coal- or gas-fired plant that needs to be kept up and running even when the wind‘s blowing or the sun‘s shining.
  • Biomass goes at the expense of valuable farmland or nature, which none of us should want.
  • Windmills are a blight on the landscape.
  • Carbon capture and storage is unnecessary, requires extra energy, is expensive and lacks public support.
  • There are plenty of renewable energy initiatives; the government should not be interfering in them.
  • By pursuing a rapid energy transition the Netherlands is pricing itself out of the market.

With respect to climate change, the scriptures read as follows:

  • The climate issue is being hugely exaggerated.
  • Alarmist scientists have a personal interest in doomsday scenarios.
  • Climate scientists are not to be trusted.
  • We are a long way from confirming that CO2/human activity is the cause; there are still major uncertainties.
  • There are plenty of scientists who disagree with the IPCC.
  • This isn’t the first time there‘s been a doomsday scenario; humanity is inventive enough to resolve the issue.
  • Let the market do its work; energy will then automatically become more expensive and carbon emissions will fall.
  • Technological solutions will emerge.
  • Acid rain was also a hoax.
  • It‘s still snowing in the winter, so there‘s no climate problem.
  • The warming trend ceased in 1998.
  • Insofar as there is a climate problem, it should be tackled internationally.
  • There‘s not a lot the Netherlands can do; to run out ahead of the pack is economic suicide; the Netherlands is not an island.
  • The focus should be more on the opportunities that climate change brings rather than on the alleged problems.
  • It‘s been internationally agreed that the temperature rise is not to exceed 2 degrees.
  • The only ones benefiting from emissions trading are Al Gore and Goldman Sachs.
  • There‘s only limited adaptation required, as global warming isn‘t much to worry about.

Note that there‘s no need for the individual elements of the overall frame (the subframes) to be mutually consistent. That the market, not the government, must decide can just as readily be defended as the position that the government must opt for nuclear. The notion that there‘s scarcely if any climate problem is defended with just as much verve as the position that nuclear power is a zero-carbon technology.

The above way of thinking has come to dominate the public debate and is now being translated into a radical review of Dutch energy and climate policy.

Indeed, I would go further and say that those advocating robust climate policy and new energy systems are themselves being gradually sucked into the frame of the forces of obstruction. To state that the chances of global warming staying below the two-degree mark are now virtually zero (Anderson & Bows, 2011) is entirely taboo, with any such talk derided as ‘doom-mongering’. It‘s no longer bon ton to mention the likely disastrous consequences of climate change – no, all eyes must be on the opportunities. That the global economy has already vastly transgressed the resilience of the planetary ecosystem in a variety of ways (Rockström & al., 2009) is preferably hushed up.

As I‘ve already stressed, even with all the wonderful, inspired and heart-felt initiatives and plans all around us, it‘s inconceivable that a bottom-up transition can squeeze the economy back into Rockström‘s ecological limits unless a decision is made to impose robust top-down policy measures, i.e. emission ceilings, pricing mechanisms or both (Benchekroun & Ray Chaudhuri, 2011).

All of which brings the problem of tobacco industry-style lobbies into sharp focus: the goal and methods of this kind of (anti-)lobbying strategy mean the distinction between lobbying and worldview and between private and public interests becomes blurred. As time progresses, in the mish-mash of disinformation, half-truths, true concerns, spinning and framing, and endless recycling of (dis)information via the blogosphere and countless echo chambers it becomes impossible to find out who has put out what message, what their interests are, and which items are true and authentic, and which manipulated and distorted.

In the classical ethics of public relations and public affairs, laid down in clear codes of conduct, public affairs consultants are under formal obligation to disclose who it is they are working for and what interests they are serving. In the world of the tobacco industry-style lobbying groups, based as it is on manipulative framing and a lack of transparency, any such criteria have been abandoned. As a result, it‘s now virtually impossible to discover what elements of the frame have been contributed by which interested parties.

The Belgian worker who at the close of the 19th century literally ‘put a clog in the works’ could be found and punished. When groups of workers began to carry out collective acts of sabotage, that was already a whole lot harder. Today, the saboteurs of climate policy and the energy transition are almost impossible to identify as individuals, precluding any possibility of ‘naming and shaming’.

All one can do is apply reverse logic and note that the anti-transition and anti-climate policy framing that has become so dominant today works out especially well for certain specific interests, which can be named. We‘re talking about the big energy corporations, the energy-intensive industries, along with their lobbying organisations, the sluggish pace of which is generally determined by the interests of the slowest mover, and the free-market utopians and politically conservative currents in society that are so closely interwoven with this frame, in terms of both ideas and material interests. It‘s no coincidence that the campaigners who dreamt up the tobacco lobby‘s strategy are just as willing to advise other industries and are today, in their role as campaign ideologues, such a defining force in the US Republican Party.

As they resonate with the media and with public opinion, the three converging storylines of utopian libertarianism, private interests that know their survival is threatened and covert but all too effective public-affairs methods have created what Dutch author Marten Toonder once called the ‘Trotteldrom Monster‘ (Toonder, 1964): the general public is losing sight of its own common interests, destroying them without even realising that they themselves are the perpetrators.

3.3 Shooting one’s own foot

The consequences of the growing influence of the anti-climate and anti-transition paradigm are nothing short of appalling, for the Netherlands at any rate. On numerous indicators and indices this country is now in the bottom league. Obviously, this is not something that‘s happened over the past few months. Although it‘s plain to see that the present cabinet led by Mark Rutte, in contrast to the previous government, has embraced the reactionary climate and energy frame set out above, the steady march downwards on international rankings began far earlier, at any rate around the beginning of the eight years of government under Jan-Pieter Balkenende (Van Soest, 2010). And while the last Balkenende government was often a vociferous advocate of a more sustainable economic order, this led to few if any rock-solid policies, mainly just ‘pledges’ and negotiated agreements that the new cabinet could sweep aside with equal ease.

What‘s remarkable is that the Netherlands is not only losing ground in the realm of sustainable development, but also when it comes to innovation and the economic investment climate. Let me cite a few rankings.

On the Yale University Environmental Performance Index, the Netherlands now ranks surprisingly low, coming 47th out of 163 nations. On the Sustainability Society Foundation index we score little better: 35th out of 151.

According to the Boston Consulting Group (Boston Consulting, 2010) the Netherlands has the worst investment climate for renewable energy of any country in Europe. Ernst & Young (which ex-prime minister Balkenende recently joined as a partner) reports that the Netherlands has lost its appeal as a location for sustainable innovation and continues to lose ground compared with most other countries (Ernst & Young, 2011).

When it comes to innovation generally, the Netherlands is also merrily backtracking. According to the analysis behind the Dutch Knowledge and Innovation Platform‘s 2011 ‘snapshot’ (KIA, 2011), in the realm of innovation the only EU country scoring worse than us is Spain.

This leads to the paradoxical conclusion that the neoliberal-reactionary framers are in fact shooting themselves in their own foot. By pursuing economic growth in the classical sense of the term (production and consumption growth, GDP growth) by strengthening the workings of the free market, they are creating stagnation. In country rankings of GDP growth, too, the Netherlands is surprisingly far down the list.

Is this national decline the result of deliberate obstruction and lobbying? No, it is not. But what can be concluded is that the now dominant and resonating anti-climate and anti-transition frame has led to an array of policy measures that work out marvellously well for vested interests, while holding back any newcomers – which in turn means a country that is pedalling backwards.

So why is it we‘re facing not only ecological decline but also decline in terms of the economy and innovation, compared with numerous other countries? For an answer to that question we must return to the fundamental contradiction between Ayn Rand and Mancur Olsen.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and other massive disruptions of key ecological processes and biological resources that together give the Earth its in-built resilience (Rockström & al., 2009) are all examples of public, collective goods being violated that according to Olsen cannot be protected, produced or maintained by pursuing rational self-interest, as Rand would have us believe, but can only be guaranteed through cooperation and (binding) agreements. These natural public goods not only have an intrinsic value (about which opinions may differ), but certainly just as importantly: they form the indispensable natural substrate on which economies can flourish. Eating up the Earth‘s natural capital leads automatically to growing damage to the economy: functions otherwise delivered ‘free of charge’ by nature now have to be provided by the economy itself, the use of increasingly scarce resources becomes ever costlier, and the damage caused by climate change-related extreme weather events, to cite but one example, rises ever upwards.

Conversely, companies that succeed in responding innovatively to ecological decline and seriously improve their resource productivity (added value per unit natural resource consumption) gain a competitive edge over rivals who fail to adopt such a strategy. In all likelihood, then, countries pursuing active policies to make their economies sustainable will also do better in economic terms than those ranking somewhere in the middle or bottom of the league in terms of policies on the environment, biodiversity and climate change. In recent years that trend has become all too apparent and is reaching a (provisional) climax in the policies of the present Dutch government, which has so enthusiastically embraced the anti-climate and anti-transition frame.

Ayn Rand will be laughing in her grave: in her analysis, as in so many utopias, before we reach the Promised Land there will be a period of misery, Verelendung, due to humanity‘s failure and cowardice to accept the redeeming doctrine hook, line and sinker.

Mancur Olsen, for his part, will somewhere be frowning.

Niccolò Machiavelli had seen it coming all along.


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  1. I wonder if there's a slight difference in connotation between Dutch and English for the word "Utopie/Utopia". In English I think Utopia pretty much means "paradise", so "the utopia of the free market" seems to imply that the free market would lead us to paradise. On the other hand, the Dutch word "Utopie" means "unattainable ideal" or even "mirage/chimera". Which means that Achterhuis' book title "De Utopie van de Vrije Markt" implies that the free market is an unattainable, even misguided, ideal.

  2. victotronics, not exactly. Utopianism is more about having a "perfect" social, political, economic system.

    The presumption of utopians is that this 'perfect' arrangement will lead to an ideal or perfect life for the individuals within it. Often this conceals a real distaste for the way inconvenient, real live people actually think or behave, but the 'perfection' of the system will ensure that individuals will be educated or transformed by living with this marvelous guidance. They will then become 'better' people. (Whatever better might mean for a particular utopian ideal.)

    This can then be sold as 'paradise' or somesuch to the population at large. Because everyone will have exactly the same needs, desires and wants as the system provides, no-one will be dissatisfied, let alone unhappy.

    The paradise offered is highly conditional. It only works if everyone agrees. And we know perfectly well that various utopian projects have failed dismally even when everyone agrees at the outset. Kibbutzim couldn't possibly work everywhere, because even the people most highly committed to the initial ideas about organising social and family life couldn't overcome their natural parental inclination to protect and prefer their own children.

    Seeing as any social arrangement would work forever only if everyone agreed with everyone else forever, the utopian idea falls flat on its carefully groomed face. It's basically silly.

  3. victotronics:

    I wonder if there's a slight difference in connotation between Dutch and English for the word "Utopie/Utopia".

    That question'll have to wait for some other bilingual person to chime in on. My initial wild guess is that you may well be right -- words in different languages tend to experience semantic drift and acquire or lose connotations as time goes by. (But if so, what'll be a more accurate translation of "Utopie" in this context? Perhaps some verbose phrase like "misguided utopianism", but that sounds a bit too... verbose. Or perhaps we can translate it "The Chimera of the Free Market", but that seems to be taking too many liberties.)

    -- frank

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