Dublin airport censorship just doesn’t fly

There is a rich irony in the fact that an airline company sponsors the weather on RTÉ Radio One, with its ‘smart flies Aer Lingus’ tagline transmitted into a million homes, on the hour, every hour. After all, aviation is the world’s fastest growing source of climate-altering carbon emissions, so in a very real sense, Aer Lingus is changing the very weather whose forecasts it sponsors.

There are, as far as I’m aware, no grounds on which RTÉ, a state broadcaster could be compelled to stop accepting money from a company whose very business model is fuelling the dangerous destabilisation of the global atmosphere upon which we all depend.

After all, if the climate-destroying, biodiversity-thrashing Bord Na Mona can pass itself off as ‘Naturally Driven’, who could possibly object to Aer Lingus sponsoring the weather? And this of course assumes there exists even an iota of political will to be mustered in our collective defence (here’s a link to an Irish Times article on climate I wrote some years back; the stats may be a little out of date, but the gist is still correct).

So, if you can’t beat them, join ‘em? To test this idea, I developed a simple advert on behalf of An Taisce’s climate change committee, and submitted it to the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), the semi-state that operates all commercial activities at the airport. The draft advert read: ‘Frequent Flyer? Is your flying costing the Earth?’ I explained the rationale for placing the advert (with an extremely modest spend) at the airport as follows:

As a charity, our budget is very limited, but we did feel the Airport would be an ideal location to address the issue of the impacts of flying (especially frequent flying) on climate change. Research has shown that the flying public greatly underestimates the impacts of aviation-based carbon emissions, so we are hoping to begin to bridge that gap with ads that encourage the public to think about their flying and to better understand its impacts.

Not, I hope you will agree, a very menacing or unreasonable explanation. It took over a week to coax a response from DAA’s commercial department, as follows:

“Dear John,

I am sorry but we are not in a position to accept your advertisement for display.   DAA has a statutory obligation to grow its business at Dublin Airport and as our customers are the airlines we are unable to accept advertisements which attack our customers.  I trust that you understand our position”.

I was at a bit of a loss to understanding where exactly we were involved in an ‘attack’ on DAA’s customers. Surely if RTÉ can accept sponsorship for its weather bulletins from a company that is involved in an actual attack on our climate, then DAA can tolerate one or two modest ads from a charity pointing out that aviation carries grave, measurable environmental impacts? Well, apparently not. Whatever happened to free speech?

Undeterred, I decided to give it another lash, and wrote once more to the DAA, offering them a homoeopathically watered-down version of our proposed ad wording, one that surely no one could reasonably refuse to publish?

The revised wording was as follows:

“Want The Facts About Climate Change & Flying? Visit Antaisce.org/climate

I accompanied this revised wording with the below email:

This line is, I’m sure you will agree, not attacking anyone, but simply offering links to factual information, based on peer-reviewed science.

We hope you will review the above advert and find it to be in no way offensive, misleading or inaccurate, and this being the case, there are no reasonable grounds, we believe, on which the DAA can refuse to allow us to advertise this message.

You mentioned the DAA having a ‘statutory obligation to grow its business’. You may be familiar with the provision in section 15 of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 for Public Bodies (including DAA) to have regard to:

“(c) the furtherance of the national transition objective, and
(d) the objective of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change in the State.”
http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2015/act/46/enacted/en/print#sec15

Briefly, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 puts a legal onus on all Irish public bodies to promote mitigation of climate change. This too is a ‘statutory obligation’ and makes it clear that Public Bodies have obligations that cannot be waived by statements such as “growing our business”.

I thought it not unreasonable to point out that since DAA defended its refusal to run our ad by sheltering behind its ‘statutory obligations’, surely they should also have cognisance of other statutory requirements too?

It took another two weeks and a series of reminder emails to elicit a response to my revised proposal, and this was issued on February 15th, as follows:

“Dear Mr Gibbons,

Thank you for your recent email and please accept my apologies for the delay in replying.

In relation to your query regarding the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, 2015, DAA is fully aware of, and is committed to managing and reducing its carbon emissions in line with best practice.

  • DAA manages and reduces its own direct emissions in line with our public sector agreement with SEAI for improved energy efficiency and actively participates in the voluntary Airport Carbon Accreditation Programme.  DAA has signed up to achieve 33% efficiency in its own energy use in buildings and vehicles by 2020. Dublin Airport is well on track to meet this target through a wide range of energy efficiency measures such as the installation of LED lighting, the purchase of electric vehicles and the upgrading of its buildings.
  • DAA continues to influence others to manage their emissions and supports, in line with the National Aviation Policy, the implementation of a global scheme for managing international carbon emissions.
  • In terms of aircraft-related emissions, we work with our stakeholders such as the Irish Aviation Authority and our airline customers to reduce delays on the ground and in the air. We also support the use of fixed electrical ground power on aircraft parking stands.
  • International aviation emissions fall outside the scope of the Climate Act and do not form part of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) targets under the Paris Agreement (COP21).  International aviation emissions are dealt with through the international aviation body ICAO. Agreement on a global scheme for aviation emissions was reached in ICAO on 6 October 2016. Ireland, as part of the 44 member European Civil Aviation Conference, has made a declaration to adhere to the international scheme from its first implementation phase.

While cognisant of all of the above, we do have a statutory obligation to grow our airport business for the good of the Irish economy and also to promote Dublin as a hub airport as outlined in the State’s National Aviation Policy.

We therefore cannot accept an advertisement that may have the effect of encouraging consumers not to use the services of our airline customers. “

Well, that was that. The only route of appeal to this DAA diktat lay in the court of public opinion, so I contacted the Sunday Times and provided them with the trail of correspondence, and the below piece, penned by reporter Valerie Flynn, appeared on its news pages at the weekend as follows:

Airport blocks green advert

The Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) has refused to sell advertising space to an environmental charity for a campaign highlighting the impact of air travel on climate change.

An Taisce wanted to take out an ad in Terminal 2 with the slogan: “Frequent flyer? Is your flying costing the earth?” DAA would not accept it. “As our customers are the airlines, we are unable to accept advertisements which attack our customers,” the authority said.

An Taisce proposed the more conciliatory wording: “Want the facts about climate change and flying? Visit AnTaisce.org/climate.” However DAA rejected this proposal too, saying: “We cannot accept an advertisement that may have the effect of encouraging customers not to use the services of our airline customers.”

It said it had a “statutory obligation” to expand the business “for the good of the Irish economy”.

Air travel accounts for about 2% of emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide. Emissions from EU aviation rose by 80% between 1990 and 2014 and are forecast to grow a further 45% between 2014 and 2035. Dublin was Europe’s fastest-growing airport last year with 28m passengers, up 11%.

John Gibbons of An Taisce’s climate-change committee said a return flight from Dublin to New York generated as much CO2 as a year of driving a diesel car. He called the advert “fairly innocuous”.

The DAA said it takes its “responsibilities to climate change seriously”.

Another member of An Taisce’s climate committee, half in jest, suggested that the final sentence might better be reworded as follows: “The DAA takes its responsibility to change the climate seriously”. Funny or otherwise, it’s a whole lot closer to the truth.

Meanwhile an Austrian court has just blocked a 3rd runway at Vienna airport, arguing the new runway will work counter to the country’s pledges made as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. This ruling comes at a very interesting time, considering preparatory work on runway 3 at Dublin airport has just commenced. Planning permission for this project was originally issued in 2007 (with DAA applying in 2008 for amendments to remove numerous restrictions on nighttime use of the airport placed on their permission) but the recession led to the whole project being put on ice for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, the Green Party’s David Healy, a member of Fingal County Council, put out a statement this week that this proposed expansion may well contravene our Climate Act.

Many people in Ireland are now looking askance at political developments in the US, as the Trump regime installs climate deniers, oil company hacks and assorted shills to shred the hard-won regulatory oversight that keeps water safe, air breathable and entertains at least the possibility of climate change being addressed.

It’s easy to point at such ghastly caricatures as Scott Pruitt and Myron Ebell and console ourselves that at least Ireland does not harbour such anti-science ideologues and zealots. Yet, when you look at our semi-states, from Bord Na Mona to DAA to Coillte to Bord Bia, each pushes a self-serving agenda fundamentally at odds with our national and international obligation to rapidly and permanently decarbonise all aspects of the Irish economy.

Each in turn can argue, as DAA has done in the small instance cited here, that they are acting rationally, citing their ‘statutory obligation’ to grow, grow, grow, and devil take the hindmost. But then, it might seem entirely unreasonable to expect semi-states to take the lead when their political masters are rooted to the spot.

To give one final glimpse into the madhouse that is Irish climate policy, look no further than the recently published ‘Briefing Document on Ireland’s First National Mitigation Plan’. Here, Denis Naughten’s document claims, in language approaching Trump-speak, that ‘flat-lining in (agricultural) emissions represents enormous ambition rather than complacency’.

Success is inevitable when you set the bar so ridiculously low as defining abject failure to reduce emissions in our single most polluting sector as showing ‘enormous ambition’.

 

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Time to push fossil fuel sponsorship beyond the Pale

Below, my article, as it appeared in the Irish Times earlier this month. Having had family members as past winners of the Texaco Children’s Art Competition made me leery about taking on writing about this long-running sponsorship, but then I realised part of the formula for corporate sponsorship of events or competitions actually depends on producing feelings of guilt and/or gratitude among the part of us adults. So, with a slightly heavy heart, I put them on hold on this occasion.

THE GLOBAL movement to delegitimise fossil fuels received a boost in recent days with the passage through Dáil Eireann of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill. This historic bill, introduced by Thomas Pringle, TD directs Ireland’s €8 billion Strategic Investment Fund to avoid investments in oil, coal or gas. Ireland is the world’s first country to make such a bold move.

While this decision is by itself unlikely to make even a dent in the trillion dollar hydrocarbon energy business, its real significance is symbolic, sending out a political and economic signal that the fossil fuel industry is to be regarded as a necessary evil, to be tolerated only until viable, safe alternatives can be brought on stream.

While this might sound harsh for an industry that has fuelled the world for the last century and more, in reality, the sector has been the author of its own misfortune. Oil giant Exxon, for example, first became aware of the dangers posed by climate change four decades ago, when its own senior scientists warned the board in 1977 that continued burning of fossil fuels would in time dangerously destabilise the global climate.

Faced with clear evidence of catastrophic future harm from its business model, Exxon did not simply decide to hush up the scientific evidence and keep drilling. It instead teamed up with other industry players and invested millions of dollars in funding doubt and disinformation about climate science in the media, politics and among the general public.

It worked. Simply creating the impression of doubt and controversy was enough to muddy the waters. They followed a playbook pioneered in the 1960s by cigarette manufacturers to downplay the dangers of smoking.

That strategy was hugely successful, shielding vast corporate profits for decades while millions of smokers died of a habit they had been conned into believing was largely harmless. The US government eventually prosecuted the entire industry, culminating in fines totalling over $200 billion in 1998.

The appointment of former Exxon chief, Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state paradoxically underlines the weakness of the hydrocarbon industry and its desperate attempts to hijack the political process to prop up its precarious, reality-denying business model by enabling a reality-denying president.

Mainstream businesses, mindful of their reputations, are slowly backing away from the energy dinosaurs. Danish toymaker Lego at the end of 2014 cancelled an €80 million deal with Shell to distribute their toys at fuel stations. A year later, the UK Science Museum announced that it would not renew a bizarre sponsorship deal with Shell for its climate change exhibition.

Ireland’s longest running sponsorship programme is the Texaco Children’s Art competition, which has operated since 1955 and has undoubtedly done much to promote and encourage young artists over the decades. Entries for this year’s competition close on February 28th.

My then five-year-old daughter was a prizewinner back in 2008 and it was a proud day out for the family. At that time, Texaco was owned by Chevron. Its CEO this week praised the Trump regime’s plans to demolish life-saving environmental regulations.

Texaco Ireland’s new owners, Valero Energy, were rated by the US Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in a 2012 report as among the three most “obstructionist” energy corporations on climate change. The UCS found that Valero’s corporate PR was ‘pro-climate’ while its all-important ‘corporate actions’ were strongly anti-climate.

I realise now what I failed to notice in 2008: the real climate radicals are not the handful of eco activists battling impossible odds. The true radicals are in fact fossil fuel companies and their senior executives and shareholders whose science denial and cynical profiteering have taken us to the brink of an unfathomable global catastrophe.

Ignorance of the consequences of their actions is no longer tenable. The hydrocarbon industry has done this knowingly, and continues to collude with rogue politicians and corrupt regimes, from the Middle East to the Niger delta to Washington. Radicals indeed.

For all its history, ultimately the Texaco Children’s Art competition is a clever distraction from the true nature of its sponsors, and an industry’s reckless disregard for the future these same children must face. In hindsight, we as a family were wrong to participate.

Tobacco company PJ Carroll sponsored the GAA All Stars until 1978. Who today would find a tobacco firm sponsoring a sporting event or children’s competition acceptable? We as individuals may feel powerless, even complicit. After all, so many aspects of our lives, from home heating to transport, depend on these same fuels.

Yet, despite the industry’s tireless lobbying efforts, change is possible. Passive house technology for new homes is already here, while retrofitting would save billions in imported fuel costs. A national electric fleet is set to break our dependence on liquid fuels for public and private transport and lead to cleaner, safer air. The missing ingredient is political will.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

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A wealthy, kick-ass climate NGO: what are the odds?

There is never a shortage of stupid things to do with money, especially if you suddenly find yourself with loads of it. US socialite Theresa Roemer, for instance has a three-storey, 3,000-square foot closet; that’s a space twice the size of the average Irish family home…to store her shoe collection.

Then there’s the €180 million Palazzo di Amore mansion in Beverly Hills — with 12 reception rooms, 22 bathrooms, a 50-seat cinema, swimming pools and a 12-acre vineyard. This property has been entirely vacant for the last eight years.

Oxfam recently published figures confirming that the world’s richest 62 people control as much wealth as the combined assets and incomes of the world’s poorest 3.7 billion people, and this trend is, if anything, accelerating.

With yet another EuroMillions winning ticket sold in Ireland recently (giving some indication as to how disproportionately much we are gambling per capita), our media went into overdrive with advice on how to spend the estimated €88 million fortune. The Sunday World’s staggeringly banal list of suggestions includes buying an island, or 17.4 million pints of beer, or 355 Audi R8 V10s.

The Irish Examiner helpfully suggested buying Middlesbrough football club or, yes, another island. Or how about the Sycara V yacht, just the ticket for you and 20 guests, for €62.5 million. And, the Examiner added, no doubt tongue in cheek: “beat the devastating effects of global warming and melting ice-caps by sailing the yacht around the planet. But, avoid roaming pirates”.

Our love affair with lotteries is not new, but the scale is certainly unprecedented. The hollowing out of income for the working classes and much of the middle class is now a worldwide phenomenon, all part of a zero-sum game in which the global elites have pulled off the most outrageous wealth grab since the Medicis, while conning the same public with the outrageous lie that the only way to make the rich work harder is to pay them more, yet conversely you make the poor work harder by paying them less.

The massive surge in interest in the US Powerball lottery was a forerunner to the EuroMillions phenomenon. More and more people have come to slowly realise that the system is completely rigged against them, and end up resorting to ever more desperate measures to break out of the cycle of poverty, low pay and debt. This reached its mad apotheosis in January 2016, when the Powerball jackpot hit $1.6 billion.

Mega lotteries operate as a bloodless version of the Hunger Games, giving the proles the illusion that anyone, with a bit of luck, can slip through the concrete ceiling that separates privilege from poverty and arrive in a heartbeat in the sunlit uplands where the gilded classes reside.

Call me crazy, but let’s just imagine for a moment doing something actually useful with such a horde instead. Having volunteered with environmental NGOs for the last several years, one thing that’s clear is how hopelessly outgunned they are in almost every department imaginable, usually lacking even the proverbial pot to piss in.

I can now let you in on a secret: I am in fact* (*alternative fact) the lucky winner of the January 2017 EuroMillions draw. Before you sit down to write the begging letters, unfortunately, the cash is already safely out of reach. I can now exclusively reveal just where the money will go. Introducing the Irish Climate Action Network (I-CAN). Headquartered close to Dáil Eireann in Dublin city centre, the network has already completed its first round of hiring.

We now have three environmental lawyers, five researchers, a media/online unit with ten staff, three PR officers, two education officers, three political lobbyists, two fund-raisers and general staff, comprising 30 in all, with an annual payroll of €1.5 million. Nobody is going to get rich working for I-CAN, but everyone earns a decent living wage.

Our media unit has its own production and web broadcasting facilities. The website Climatechange.ie is undergoing a complete rebuild and will have its own staff and annual operating budget of €500,000. We will be large-scale content creators on climate and environmental issues, syndicating output to maximise its reach and providing high quality multimedia content for national and international media.

We have completed negotiations with RTE to secure a three-year blanket sponsorship of all its radio and TV weather bulletins. This means climate change reminder ‘stings’ on the hour, every hour, on the national broadcaster, as well as on the TV bulletins. It’s expensive, with a total cost running to close to €1 million per annum, but it’s going to be pretty hard to miss and it’s an editorial match made in heaven. And besides, it might even encourage Met Eireann to engage more vocally in discussing the rapidly shifting climate baseline that underpins the science of meteorology.

As an EU member, Ireland is part of a much larger bloc when it comes to limiting emissions. That does not, however, mean that we don’t have the power to influence this process, for good or ill. Witness how the Irish government, working tirelessly at the behest of domestic special interests in recent months has managed to water down our 2030 commitment to achieve 30% emissions cuts versus a 2005 benchmark to a farcical 0.4%.

The IFA and IBEC are among the special pleaders who maintain a strong presence in Brussels, where they work the lobbies and cocktail parties, schmoozing with the decision-makers, diplomats and opinion leaders. I-CAN will have its own Brussels office and staff, with a €1 million annual budget with which to battle the well-oiled machinery of disinformation and spin.

We have another €1 million annual advertising and sponsorship budget available. Some of this will target traditionally hard-to-reach audiences, including via local radio and newspapers, as well as trade press like the Irish Farmers Journal. We are also holding a €500,000 discretionary budget for more creative approaches, such as flash mobs and guerrilla marketing. We will also host an annual conference on communicating climate science and wider ecological issues.

On the capital side, we’ve spent €1.5 million to buy our Dublin HQ outright, and another €4 million on a 3,500 acre estate in rural Tipperary with extensive accommodation and river frontage, farmyards and outbuildings. Most of the land will be sealed off as a nature reserve, with 2,500 acres to be reafforested with native species. A combination of wind, hydro and solar energy mean it will be a net energy exporter to the national grid, and the revenues will help fund this project. An electric bus will provide connectivity.

The estate is being developed as a live-in model for sustainable building, renewable energy, organic farming and kitchen gardening – in other words, many of the skills that up until three or four decades ago, were commonplace in almost every farm in the country. Apart from the high-tech aspect of new energy technologies, this estate is also being developed as a hub for traditional skills, from carpentry to weaving, bee-keeping, food preservation etc. The estate will run courses for farmers interested in reskilling to be fully organic and moving away from beef/dairy.

It will also welcome school tours to explore the woodlands and connect children with nature. We are budgeting €500,000 for the annual running costs of the estate, as well as a once-off €2.5 million to be invested in the capital costs of the afforestation and renewable energy programmes.

We are also looking at the inspiring model of the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs. This was set up in 1978 by Matthijs Schouten, a Dutch research student who had come to Ireland to work on an academic project. Schouten was horrified to see the wholesale destruction of Ireland’s boglands, and set about raising funds, in conjunction with the then newly formed Irish Peatland Conservation Council, to buy three peatlands, Scragh Bog, Co. Westmeath; Clochar na gCon Bog in Co. Galway and Cummeragh River Bog, Co. Kerry which were then gifted to the Irish state for preservation.

While the tireless work of Bord Na Mona and a small army of turf contractors have ensured little now remains of the unprotected peatlands that still stood when Schouten first arrived in Ireland, it reminds us it is never too late to fight to protect what remains and restore what we can.

So, what of our initial €88 million capital? Around €8 million went on capital costs, from the Dublin offices to the estate, including the afforestation and energy programmes. All the activities above can be delivered on an annual budget of €5.5 million, minus projected revenues of around €500,000 a year, leaving a net €5 million running costs. That means a fully funded programme locked in for the next 16 years – the critical period in which whatever remaining opportunities to achieve political and societal shift on climate change will either be taken or squandered.

Or maybe I’ll just buy an island or 17.4 million pints of beer instead. Now, if only I could remember what I did with that ticket…

(*This is the original version of the article published in the February 2017 edition of Village magazine)

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Media | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Toothless watchdog lets its Standards slip

{PROLOGUE}

LOCATION: Bord Na Mona conference room*

DATE: Early 2016.

TOPIC: Ad planning meeting (*fictional)

BnaM Marketing Exec: ‘I’ll cut to the chase. Here’s the challenge: we’re a company that, pound for pound, is the biggest polluter in Ireland. We’ve wrecked nearly 80,000 hectares of boglands right across the country, increased flooding in the Shannon basin and polluted a lot of the waterways. Oh, and we get bunged well over a hundred million quid a year to keep three hopelessly inefficient peat-burning stations open; the dogs in the street know it’s the most expensive JobBridge scheme in the country. People are starting to wise up to climate change as well, and, to be honest, we’re a disaster area on that front too. Jesus, even some of the politicians have noticed. It turns out that simply draining bogs turns them from carbon sinks into carbon pumps. And as for the biodiversity, well, let’s just say, once our machines have ripped up a bog, it looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Total dead zone, nothing much bigger than an ant survives peat harvesting. Nada. Zip’.

Agency Suit: ‘Guys, guys, guys. Take it easy! For starters, how many people have ever been out on a Bord Na Mona bog – or a living bog, for that matter? Not many, right? So, they haven’t a clue what happens out here. How many know or care about carbon sinks and climate whatsit? Right again. Ladies and gents, welcome to 2016. The truth, or the post-truth, if you prefer, is precisely what we tell them. And as for the media, no problemo. We’ll organise to bus a few of them down from RTE, the Times, Indo etc. and give them the ‘conservation tour’, you know the one, where we do the touchy-feely talk about hares and sphagnum moss and restoration, the standard PR drill. We can bring in some friendly conservation types to give the gig a bit of cred, then just sit back and wait for the positive coverage. No problemo. Fish in a barrel’.

BnaM Marketing Exec: ‘That all sounds good in theory, but do you really think the media are that gullible? Surely if we focus on the handful of ruined bogs we’re restoring, it’s going to draw attention to the godawful mess we’ve made elsewhere? What if these journalists start digging for the real story; what if we start making a play of giving a shit about nature and the public smells a rat? This could turn into a PR disaster…’

Agency Suit: ‘Please, try to keep up. First of all, there’s nobody left in any of the papers that would know a live bog from a bale of briquettes. Second, even if they did, they’re all on deadlines, they’ll take the tour and the handouts, write it up in the morning and by the afternoon they’ll be off reporting on how much dogshit there is on Dollymount strand. Now, if I can have everyone’s attention, I’d like to unveil the title of the new campaign: ladies and gentlemen, I present ‘Bord Na Mona – Naturally Driven

(Ripples of laughter around the boardroom table, followed by sustained applause as the video clip comes to an end).

Agency Suit: ‘As I said earlier, it’s 2016, people. Reality is exactly what we say it is, and remember, we get to put this message up on billboards, in newspapers and on the radio, TV, Facebook, Twitter, morning, noon and night, until, well, that’s what you are, Bord Na Mona, the newly minted Naturally Driven, ecologically friendly and progressive organisation – smelling of roses, you might say. The real genius, if I may be so bold, is that you get all that without having to change a single thing about what it is that you actually do. So, business-as-usual. Perception, people, is the new reality. Say it often enough and it becomes a fact. Reputation by repetition.’

BnaM Marketing Exec: ‘OK, I’ll accept what you’re proposing is a bold, ballsy play. Saying we are the exact opposite of what we actually are. And I’ll grant you that the media will probably play along – especially when we grease them up with some advertising spend – but there’s a fly in the ointment: what about the Advertising Standards Authority? There’s no way they are going to fall for this bullshit, no matter how you dress it up. Getting an ASAI ruling that our whole campaign is a pack of lies would be a disaster. Look at their Code of Standards. Up-front it says the following: All marketing communications should be legal, decent, honest and truthful and should not mislead the consumer. All marketing communications should be prepared with a sense of responsibility both to the consumer and to society’. There is not a chance that this will be seen as honest and truthful, never mind the stuff about ‘not misleading the consumer’. And as for wider responsibility to society, don’t even go there. They’ll skin us alive, and then the media won’t be as docile as you seem to assume. This thing could still turn really ugly for the whole company…’

Agency Suit: ‘Oh ye of little faith! This is Ireland, boys and girls. Nobody takes any of this eco stuff too seriously. And besides, who do you think will be adjudicating on the ASAI panel? A bunch of agency types like me! And what do you think they know or care about bogs and carbon and yada yada? As far as most of them are concerned, Pete Briquette is that bloke from the Boomtown Rats! Oh, and did I mention, the ASAI is fully funded by the advertising industry? Or as we like to call it, regulation, Irish-style! Just like I said, no problemo. Honestly, you people worry far too much’.

=============

Bord Na Mona’s 2016 ‘Naturally Driven’ campaign is arguably one of the most dishonest, cynical and misleading campaigns ever to air in the Irish media. And that is saying something. Quite how board chairman John Horgan (formerly chair of the Labour Court) and CEO Mike Quinn ever signed off on this remains a mystery. You can view the entire current board of the organisation here. For a ‘Naturally Driven’ organisation it is remarkable that not a single person at board level has any background, qualifications or expertise in the ecological or environmental areas (one board member, an educationalist, is listed as having presented a programme on environmental issues on local radio, and that’s about it).

I’ve written in detail earlier this year about the campaign, and why I believed it was so objectionable. I also helped draw up a press release on behalf of An Taisce some months back, setting out our strong objections to the ‘cynical’ campaign, and this got some limited media pick-up.

The next obvious step was to write directly to the ASAI with a formal complaint, which I did in September last. The wording of my complaint is set out below. Rather than being too general, I tried to address specific parts of the ASAI Code of Standards I believed the ad campaign breached:

In its current radio advert, Bord Na Mona describes itself as “a company born of the land, that rehabilitates and preserves that land”. The advert continues: “To ensure a sustainable future is not just an ideal, but a reality – Bord Na Mona: Naturally Driven’.

This advert also points out that Bord Na Mona “already powers over 100,000 homes with green energy, that turns organic materials into renewable fuel, even converts household rubbish into electricity…”.

 Based on the above statements, any reasonable member of the public would be led to believe that Bord Na Mona is primarily a renewable energy company, which is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Bord Na Mona’s core business is in fact the strip mining of millions of tons of peat from some 80,000 hectares of bogs. This business is extractive, massively ecologically damaging and adds hugely to carbon pollution as a result of the draining and destruction of tens of thousands of hectares of boglands.

 The ‘rehabilitation’ that Bord Na Mona refers to in its radio ad amounts to around 1,000 hectares (or 1/80th of its total land bank) on which it has carried out remediation work to recover it from the damage inflicted on said bogs by Bord Na Mona itself.

 This radio advert focuses on minor, non-core areas of its business to deliberately present a false and misleading public view of Bord Na Mona as an environmentally driven, ecologically responsible company. Their track record shows this to be nothing more than window dressing. The ASAI code states, inter alia, that adverts “should be legal, decent, honest and truthful” and “should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society”.

I believe the Bord Na Mona advert is in clear breach of Section 15 (‘Environmental Claims’) of the ASAI code. Section 15.2 states: “Environmental claims should not be used without qualification unless advertisers can provide substantiation that their product will cause no environmental damage. Absolute claims should be supported by a high level of substantiation”.

Bord Na Mona makes extravagant claims about the environmental benefits of some of its practices, while deliberately evading the fact that their core business is carbon-intensive, ecologically damaging, completely non-renewable and is a major contributor to climate change.

Section 15.5 states the following: “The basis of any claim should be explained clearly and should be qualified where necessary. Unqualified claims may mislead if they omit significant information.” I contend that Bord Na Mona’s advert is, under Section 15.5, misleading as it manifestly misleads by “omitting significant information”.

Section 15.6 states, inter alia: “Advertisers should ensure claims that are based on only part of the advertised product’s lifecycle do not mislead consumers about the product’s total environmental impact”. I contend that Bord Na Mona’s advert is wholly misleading in that it omits critical information about the advertised product’s total environmental impact’. For a company to publicly claim to be “sustainable” because it repairs some of the damage it has inflicted on 1/80th of its land bank, while continuing to unsustainably exploit the remaining land is, in my opinion, a gross misrepresentation of reality and manifestly aimed to confuse and mislead the public as to the true nature of the company and its products.

So, and open-and-shut case, you might say? Not so fast. On December 16th, I received the ASAI’s ruling, which ran to six pages, almost all of which were copy-and-pasted from Bord Na Mona’s response to the five written complaints to the ASAI this campaign attracted. Rather than troubling itself to address any of the points I set out in my complaint, this was the self-regulation agency’s generic summing up, in full, to all five complaints:

All complainants considered the advertising to be misleading and disputed the fact that Bord Na Mona were an environmentally friendly company or ‘naturally driven’ as proclaimed in their advertising. All complainants posed the question how Bord Na Móna could substantiate the claim that they powered Irish homes with “green energy” when they were using turf and peat from Ireland’s rapidly diminishing bogs to fuel power plants, domestic fires and the horticultural market.

And the ASAI’s Jesuitical Conclusion, having no doubt carefully weighed up all complaints, was as follows:

The Complaints Committee considered the details of the complaint and the advertisers’ response. They noted that the advertisers had identified a lack of knowledge amongst consumers in relation to the various facets of their business, other than the peat/turf/briquettes area and that they wished to expand the understanding of the public in relation to these other elements of their business.

The Committee understood that part of the complainants’ concerns related to the absence of a reference in the advertising to the use of turf and peat in the advertisers’ energy generation. They noted that the advertisers had demonstrated that they were powering homes in Ireland through “green energy” but that the advertising had not claimed or suggested that they were powering all homes in this fashion; the advertising had clearly referred to the number of homes currently receiving this type of power and the number of homes which the advertisers hoped to expand to in the future. The Committee did not consider that the Code required advertising to reflect all aspects of an organisation’s business or products and that it was acceptable to focus on a selected element provided it did not mislead. In this case, the Committee did not consider the advertising to be misleading and did not uphold the complaints.

A red herring lobbed in by Bord Na Mona in its Response was to the effect that the problem with their business practices was not their actual practices but ‘a lack of knowledge amongst consumers in relation to the various facets of their business’ and this piece of glib nonsense was faithfully parroted in the ASAI’s Conclusion.

Quite apart from the staggering lack of critical thinking on display from the ASAI in its Conclusion, I was more than a little bothered by the fact that my specific complaints had not been addressed, and wrote to CEO Orla Twomey on December 19th to this effect. She replied two days later to explain that, by the time they had received my complaint, ‘we had in fact already started an investigation into the advertising arising out of four earlier complaints’. She went on to explain that: ‘Whilst your complaint contained much detail we considered that the core elements had been covered in our earlier complaints’.

It is, she added, ASAI practice ‘where complaints are received after a response has been received and where no new issues have been raised, not to include the latter complaints in the final formal case’. In other words, they never actually adjudicated on my complaint, nor did they in fact put my complaint to Bord Na Mona, who had already issued their stock responses.

And for a final kick in the teeth, I had asked Ms. Twomey as to what review or appeals process exists when a complaint is rejected. ‘An application for a review will only be accepted from the parties to the original complaint and as explained above your complaint does not fall into that category’.

This gloriously Orwellian ruling means that since they threw my original complaint into the bin and admitted to having failed to actually put it to Bord Na Mona, therefore I am not a ‘party to the original complaint’ and so an application for a review arising from my complaint is automatically rejected. You really have to stand right back and admire the rigours of the self-regulating, industry-funded ASAI.

Twomey signed off her letter as follows: ‘I hope that the above provides you with context and clarity on how the ASAI have thoroughly dealt with all complaints received’. To which my two-word answer is: absolutely not. Let’s recap briefly:

Section 15.2 states as follows: “Environmental claims should not be used without qualification unless advertisers can provide substantiation that their product will cause no environmental damage. Absolute claims should be supported by a high level of substantiation”. To have failed to rule against the blatant ‘environmental claims’ being made by Bord Na Mona on this one defies logic. How exactly did Bord Na Mona substantiate’ that their products ‘will cause no environmental damage?

Section 15.5 states that: “The basis of any claim should be explained clearly and should be qualified where necessary. Unqualified claims may mislead if they omit significant information.” Quite how Bord Na Mona got away with omitting the ‘significant information’ that 95%+ of their business is in pure ecological wreckage is something the suits on the ASAI might like to explain sometime, but don’t hold your breath.

Section 15.6 states: “Advertisers should ensure claims that are based on only part of the advertised product’s lifecycle do not mislead consumers about the product’s total environmental impact”. This is the killer section. Bord Na Mona focuses obsessively on its token remediation and minor renewables business while grossly misleading consumers about the product’s total environmental impact. And the ASAI, disgracefully, lets it away with this blatant sleight of hand.

Given the rigorous approach adopted here by the ASAI, now might be a very good time for the tobacco industry to apply to be allowed to start running ad campaigns again. They could after all focus on the fact that tobacco leaves are ‘100% natural’ – naturally driven, you might say, and then explain (truthfully) that cigarettes can helpful in losing weight and relieving stress. And as for the product’s ‘total environmental impact’, let’s not get hung up on such trivial detail. Besides, think of the jobs being created in tobacco growing, marketing and distribution.

Finally, buried deep in Bord Na Mona’s response is a telling statement: ‘In the past year they have sourced 320,000 energy tonnes of biomass and this is projected to grow to over 1m energy tonnes by 2020’. This is a critical part of the company’s ‘transitioning to 100% renewable energy’, according to its annual report.

Great news. So, what exactly is this ‘biomass’ and where does it come from? You may be a little taken aback to hear that some of it is a product called PKS, or palm kernel shells. These are a by-product of the mass rainforest clearances taking place in Indonesia and elsewhere, from where Bord Na Mona imports this product that helps make rainforest felling for palm oil plantations commercially viable.

The company acknowledges that it is buying them from unsustainable sources as follows: ‘An early output of the review (of future supply of biomass) will see the company cease to source, import and use PKS (Palm Kernel Shells) in 2017 once we have alternative sustainable supply chains in place’. CEO Mike Quinn confirmed to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation last year that they buy these PKS from both Indonesia and Malaysia. Lord, let me be sustainable, but, to paraphrase St. Augustine, just not yet.

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Today is the last day of the hottest year in Earth’s recorded history, unseating 2015 from its briefly held no. 1 position. Absolutely unprecedented Arctic ice melt and temperature spikes could, scientists warn, trigger ‘uncontrollable climate change at a global level’. In recent months, we have also learned that East Antarctica is far less stable than previously assumed.

Its massive Totten glacier holds in place an ice shelf larger than the state of California, and this is being undermined by vast currents of warmed ocean water. It is losing height at the rate of 10 metres a year. Were this land-based ice shelf to collapse entirely, global sea levels would rise by around four metres.

How long such a collapse would take to play out remains in question, but we can say with confidence that every tonne of peat harvested in Ireland and every tonne of ‘biomass’ we import from south east Asia moves the countdown clock towards global catastrophe forward another second or two.

As far as the rest of the natural world is concerned, the countdown to oblivion is already in full swing. WWF data this year confirmed that more than two thirds of all the world’s wildlife are on target to be gone by 2020. Since 1970, there has been a 58% overall decline in the numbers of fish, mammals, birds and reptiles worldwide, according to the WWF’s bi-annual Living Planet Index. Meteors notwithstanding, there hasn’t been a global mass extinction event on this scale for around a quarter of a billion years. You have to go back to the end-Permian period for any historical analogue.

That catastrophe almost extinguished all life on Earth, yet human activity over the last 200 years and projected over the next 50 will put as much heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere as the totality of emissions from the Siberian Traps over a period in excess of 100,000 years that precipitated what is known as The Great Dying.

2016 has seen our uncontrolled experiment with the foundations of life on Earth edging closer towards its logical, if tragic, conclusion. What will 2017 bring? We’ll know soon enough.

Posted in Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Irish Focus, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

Nine years later, and deeper in debt

It’s nine years to the week since my first posting on ThinkorSwim went live – on the last day of November 2007. It was, in many ways, a different world. The mood was radically different too. For starters, the Greens were in government, holding both the Environment and Energy & Communications portfolios. The needle was moving alright; you couldn’t quite see it but you could sense the palpable energy for change.

While not exactly mainstream, green was certainly in vogue. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report had been delivered earlier that year in a blaze of overwhelmingly positive publicity. The huge success of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ a year earlier seemed to have struck a real chord with public and media alike. And the dismal failure of the Copenhagen Summit and the Climategate hoax were still two years in the future.

I kept a scrapbook that year of newspaper clippings, mostly from the Irish Times and Sunday Tribune, on climate-related coverage, and by late November, it was bulging. Expert contributors included the late great Dr Brendan McWilliams and of course the indefatigable Prof John Sweeney. The overall editorial tone was, viewed in hindsight, surprisingly serious and business-like. The contrarians and outright deniers were then rarely seen. They were, as it transpired, lying low as the prevailing tide swept a stream of positive coverage along. Continue reading

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A new age of endarkenment draws ever closer

Like millions of people all over the world, I’ve spent the last almost two weeks in a state of shock and disbelief. I had sat up with friends late on the evening of Tuesday November 8th into the early hours of the following morning. It started well enough. Preliminary polling numbers had Clinton ahead in both Ohio and Florida. Clinton winning either of these would seal off any possible path to victory for Trump, the TV pundits opined reassuringly.

As it transpired, and rather like the visit of Mr and Mrs Lincoln to the Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, this night too was not to end well. I crashed into an agitated, dreamless sleep sometime around 6.30am on Wednesday, and on waking some three hours later, for a few blessed moments my addled brain actually fooled me into thinking I had imagined the whole wretched event.

No such luck. As the Nightmare-Elect unveiled his chorus of bigots, crooks, crypto-fascists and religious zealots to stuff into the critical positions in his new administration, the feeling of dread was all-encompassing. I sat down more than once to write up a blog post on how I felt this would play out, but abandoned each effort. Continue reading

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A crisis in media and climate communication

Overlaying the climate crunch, there is a parallel full-blown crisis, in Ireland and elsewhere in the Anglophone world in climate change communications. This will not be news to regular visitors to this blog, but happily, there is now a lot more solid evidence to back up this impression.

A valuable new addition to our national understanding of this crunch issue has just been published by the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Climate Science. Its paper, entitled ‘Climate Change Communication in Ireland’, was authored by Emmet Fox and Henrike Rau.

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The paper sets out to review and assess existing research on climate change communication in Ireland, rather than engage in primary research in the field. It points to the “marginalization of climate change in the mainstream media, which is further amplified by its segregation from closely related topics of major public concern in Ireland such as extreme weather events, flooding, energy resources, or economic recovery”. Continue reading

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Cultivating hope, managing despair

There have been countless millions of words written and spoken in recent years on how humanity can and must begin at last to grapple in earnest with the existential challenges of climate change, resource depletion and the ongoing global biodiversity crash.screenshot-2016-10-30-21-38-48img_4683 img_4682

A lot less attention has been focused on how we, as aware individuals and our societies are coping to come to terms with the realities of what it means to be alive right in the middle of the Sixth Extinction.

This week, a workshop, held in Dublin’s Tailor’s Hall entitled ‘Cultivating Hope, Managing Despair’ took a tentative step down this road. It attempted to open a dialogue among a group of around 30 people in attendance, many of who might describe themselves as Early Accepters. The sub-title of the workshop catches the mood more concisely: ‘How to positively respond to the mess we are in without going insane’. Continue reading

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Raising the bar on climate change coverage in Ireland

I’ve often wondered aloud what it might be like to live in a place and in a time where climate change, the world’s biggest, baddest and most persistent crisis, was given media coverage something even vaguely approaching its actual significance.

As we’ve covered before in depth, Irish media performance on climate and environmental coverage in recent years would actually have to improve quite a bit before it could even be labelled abysmal. Notwithstanding the odd well-intentioned foray by its part-time environment correspondent George Lee, the national broadcaster has been truly awful (and none more so than the senior editorial crew of its flagship show, PrimeTime).

The rest of the broadcast media are little better, while climate coverage in the print media, what remains of it, best resembles scorched earth. The erstwhile Paper of Record, since the retirement of its environment corr, Frank McDonald in January 2015, has not so much dropped the ball as picked it up and gone home with it.

The best of the rest over the last year or so has tended to be the Irish Examiner, but even here, its recent coverage of Danny Healy-Rae’s flat capped flat earther insights have given aid and comfort to the lunatic fringe.

Continue reading

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Battling for Ireland’s battered biodiversity

My interview below, with Dr Liam Lysaght, Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, was published in the September edition of Village magazine:

IRELAND’S largely dysfunctional relationship with its natural environment was neatly summed up by former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, when he moaned that his ill-fated Celtic Tiger was being stymied “because of swans, snails and the occasional person hanging out of a tree”.

While the Ahern era was hardly a high watermark of environmental awareness and ecological literacy, one useful resource to emerge from this time was Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, which was established by the Heritage Council in 2007 and is funded by the it and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The Centre was set up to collate, manage, analyse and distribute data on Ireland’s biodiversity. Headed by Dr. Liam Lysaght, the Centre is based in Waterford city. “We are trying to put in place systems to track changes in the countryside”, Lysaght told Village in a recent in-depth interview. “It’s about building the evidence base to support biodiversity policy”. Continue reading

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Welcome to the Climate Madhouse

Below my article, as published in the September edition of ‘Village’ magazine

IMAGINE for a moment the dilemma: you’re a celebrated climatologist whose work has helped shaped the modern science of climate change. In the course of your work, you have gradually come to the same basic conclusion as pretty much all of your professional colleagues: humanity and the industrial civilisation we have constructed is on a one-way collision course with physics.512JfC3iFlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Clearly, as a scientist, your job is to check and re-check the numbers, then, once the evidence is solid, alert the politicians and policy makers and provide them with the expert guidance so they can make the tough-but-necessary decisions to avert the worst of the projected negative impacts, while hunkering down for those which can’t be entirely avoided.

That, in a sane world, is how the system works. This is not, however, the world in which we live, and it certainly is not the planet that renowned paleoclimatologist, Prof Michael Mann inhabits. He sprung to fame in 1999 with the publication of a reconstruction of the global climate record stretching back some 1,000 years, which became known as the ‘Hockey Stick graph’ since, from past to present, it slopes gently downwards, before turning sharply upwards in recent decades, like the blade of an American ice hockey stick.

Continue reading

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Who’d choose to bring a child into a climate-changed world?

Below is my article, as published in yesterday’s Irish Times, under the headline (not my wording) ‘Is having children bad for the planet?’ I’ve added in some of the sources below that I used when researching this piece. The features editor suggested adding a picture of me with my two daughters, given that I had mentioned my own circumstances. I have tried as far as possible to keep my personal life out of my writing, but having penned a piece posing the question as to the wisdom or otherwise of bringing a child into a climate-changed world, I felt it only fair to put my cards on the table regarding my own situation and how it has informed some of the choices I have made.

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ONE OF the biggest decisions any of us will ever face is whether or not to become a parent. While for women, bearing children was until recently almost a foregone conclusion, today in Ireland one in five women, either by choice or circumstance, will never become mothers.

The drive to reproduce is as ancient as it is powerful, but can become derailed, in humans as in other species, in situations of extreme stress. For instance, birth rates have plummeted in Greece since its economic crash. This also happened during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s.

More modest but marked declines in fertility rates have been measured since 2009 across most of Europe, the US and Australia as widespread anxiety about the future caused people to postpone or abandon plans to start families. Continue reading

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It’s a Vision thing

Last week the Visions 2100 international roadshow came to Dublin. I first encountered it, driven by the irrepressible John O’Brien, as a side event at last December’s COP21 conference, where, as one of 80 contributors to the book from around the world, I attended and spoke at the Paris launch (click here for a backgrounder piece I wrote at the time).

The venue for last week’s event was the newly refurbished Great Hall in Tailors Hall, Christchurch, home of An Taisce. The hall was packed out for the event, with standing room only. Speakers included former communications minister, Alex White, Dr Cara Augustenborg of UCD, Aideen O’Hora of Sustainable Nation and myself.

Climate committee chair, Phil Kearney welcomed the launch on behalf of An Taisce. Cara’s account of the meeting is here, and there’s another report by sustainability blogger, Aideen O’Dochartaigh here.

Since there are ample meeting reports above, I’ve added a video recording I made of the event below, for anyone who might be interested in catching up.

For the record, below is my ‘vision’ for the world in 2100, as published in John O’Brien’s book. Some would call it dystopian, but as was pointed out at the meeting, my estimate of there still being 50 million humans alive in 2100 is exactly one million times more optimistic than the lowest estimate in the book!

“First, the good news. Against the odds, we made it to 2100. Only fifty years ago it looked like it was game over for homo sapiens. It sounds crazy now, but back in my grandparents’ time they really did carry on for a while like there was no tomorrow: tearing down rainforests, flattening mountains, poisoning the seas, waging war on nature – all in pursuit of this strange idea they called ‘growth’.

There aren’t that many books now, but our teachers describe the Age of Madness, as it’s called, when the scientific community repeatedly warned that Earth systems were in extreme danger. But nobody listened, and few chose to act.

How could this have happened? Everyone, it seems, was competing with everyone else for money, resources, status. No one seemed to notice that this spree couldn’t last forever. Even the revelation back in 2015 that half of all the world’s wild animals had been wiped out failed to ring the alarm bells. And as for all the warnings about climate change, they always seemed to be about someone else, or some time in the future…

Well, that future is now. This generation has learned the hard lesson of hubris – and humility. There’s barely fifty million of us now globally. Life is tough, but we’re managing. This time, we’re keeping it simple. They say the Earth is healing, maybe they’re right. Maybe we can at last live in a world where, in the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme”.

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Flights of folly at Dublin airport

Fallout from the recent Brexit vote may prove something of a gift for the Dublin Airport Authority’s (DAA) ambitious plan to have a second runway built and ready for business by 2020.

The huge cloud of economic uncertainty now parked over Britain may put the kibosh on its own 2015 Airport Commission recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow, at the eye-watering cost of almost €23 billion. The fact that Boris Johnson fiercely opposes the Heathrow expansion plan hardly increases its chances of success.

Another heavy hitter against the Heathrow plan (on cost grounds) is Willie Walsh’s IAG, owners of Aer Lingus. One of the reasons IAG splashed out for Ireland’s national carrier was to access Dublin as a cheaper hub.

Planning permission for Dublin airport’s second runway was issued in 2007, using a land bank bought up by the DAA as far back as the 1960s. The crash of 2008 saw expansion plans mothballed. However, since 2011, passenger numbers have rebounded strongly, growing by some 35% to over 25 million in 2015. Continue reading

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An Inconvenient Truth – 10 years on, it’s truer than ever

How’s this for a deeply unpromising script idea: making a movie about a failed politician trailing around the world presenting wonkish slide shows on his laptop to mostly small audiences about, of all things, climate change?

It hardly helped that the ex-politician in question, former US vice president Al Gore was reviled across the political spectrum. Democrat supporters blamed him for gifting the White House to George W. Bush with his incompetent run and premature concession in Florida in November 2000, while Republicans hated him mostly for not being a Republican.

It might have been only a slight overstatement to call Gore a pariah in the mid-2000s. For him to then choose to relaunch into public life by campaigning on one of the few topics even more unpopular than himself seemed to underpin his tag as a serial loser.

The film that emerged from Gore’s travelling slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth, didn’t exactly blow Hollwood away either – at least not at first. Director, David Guggenheim recalled that prior to its debut at the Sundance Festival in June 2006, they brought the film reel to a major studio for a preview, which Gore attended.

Continue reading

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