Hit the Fossil Fuel Industry Where it Hurts: Science

by Alice Bell

There was another one of those International Panel on Climate Change reports published last weekend. Having already outlined the physical science basis back in September (i.e. it is happening, yes, really, we triple-checked, sorry), and then a report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability at the end of last month (i.e. it’s going to get really shit), we had a third on mitigation (i.e. there’s stuff we can do to stop it being really, really, really shit).  

WWF’s Leo Hickman summarised the reports neatly with the simple nugget: "Climate change is real. We are to blame. It will get worse if we fail to act. The solutions are available and affordable. But time is short." If that's still too long to digest, he also offers an extra-short version: "Please. Get. On. With. It." And if you want it in the words of a scientist, here’s Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College London: “We should stop wringing our hands and just get on with it.”

Even before this most recent intervention, after the adaption report, activist Bill McKibben, suggested that the time had come for scientists to strike:

At this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more. Work with what you’ve got. We’re a quarter-century ahead – when you deal with the trouble we’ve already described then we’ll tell you what’s coming next.


I like this idea. But even if you could inspire climate scientists to down tools (good luck...) I suspect it would be a misplacement of our energies. As is often the case, people not listening to the science acts as a distraction from other aspects of the political debate, including what science itself is up to.

Desmond Tutu’s call last week for an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet was rousing, and it reminded me of something Hilary and Steven Rose wrote about Israel. Hit them where it hurts: Science. 

The fossil fuel industry is often described as anti-science. Although undoubtably bits of the fossil fuel industry are what might be dubbed anti bits of science, they are also heavily dependant on other areas of it too. Public structures of science and engineering train staff for the oil and gas industry, they also help develop new techniques, provide cultural credibility and open social spaces within which to lobby. Too few climate campaigners appreciate the activity that goes on here, not nearly enough political activism and political light is shone on it. The industry itself knows it though, and so keeps aspects of science and engineering very close indeed.  

Not for nothing did Shell sign a collaborative research framework with Cambridge, and a Memo of Understanding with the NERC. Not for nothing are EDF sponsoring the Cheltenham Science Festival. Not for nothing is the next President of Imperial a board director at Chevron. Not for nothing is the list of industrial sponsors at the Heriot-Watt Institute of Petroleum Engineering quite so long. Not for nothing does the National Centre for Universities and Business’ latest report devote several pages to BP. This is just the tip of the speedily melting iceberg though. For more, I can recommend the Knowledge and Power report 350.org, People and Planet and Platform put together last autumn (the bit after they talk about divestment, which really is only a small part of the story).

Just as Mariana Mazzucato tells us everything smart in the smart phone was funded by the state, a lot of the oil and gas industry is supported by publicly funded science. With the case of smart phones, we might ask why are we selling our work so short, but when it comes to fossil fuels, we might ask why are we giving it to them at all? One of the key ways in which the extractive industries are able to not only operate, but actively extend those operations is through their involvement in the structures of publicly funded science. If you want to act on climate change, it is worth considering this. Rather than beating people ever-more over the head with climate science and going off in a strop when they don’t listen, if we want action on climate change, we need to cut off the science and engineering the fossil fuel industry relies upon.

Unlocking the ties between science and fossil fuels involves remembering one simple point about science: It is a social system. This idea is sadly tarred with the idea that if something is socially constructed it is somehow not real. It’s fun for the odd philosophy seminar, but it’s also largely bollocks. Just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t also real. St. Paul’s was constructed by society, but it still hurts me if I kick it. Understanding science as a social system merely means reflecting on the fact that it is both directed by society and does more than just make research. It isn't to deny science in anyway, only to want to make it work better.

Science as a social system has outputs other than just research. I don't just mean spin-off products. It offers social situations for people to network. It offers events upon which we can pin larger social debate (IPCC reports, for example, or papers, conferences, festivals). It has a lot of cultural capital too. A recent study of public attitudes to science found 90% said they trusted scientists working for universities. That is very, very high (no wonder Centrica wanted academic scientists to do the talking for them). And it trains people. Because of the way science is constituted, with a lot of junior (cough, cheap, cough) researchers at the bottom, most PhD students won’t stay in academia. They’ll go elsewhere, including the oil and gas industry.

Another element of this social system to remember is that some bits of science are funded and others aren’t. Choices are made over what studies get done. Some science is designed to have particular applications, some is more curiosity-driven. This is ok. The problem is when limited set of people get to direct what we are doing so the social systems at work is run to serve a rather narrow interests. It's not just how big the science budget is, it is what you do with it that counts. This is a problem Canadian scientists have learnt the hard way, as whole areas of environmental research have very strategically been cut. It is also why it is worrying when the NERC/ Shell memo of understanding includes agreements to 'Influence academic behaviour by articulating Shell long-term research' especially when NERC centres already contain references to extracting oil and gas from polar regions.

We’re crap at discussing any of this. It is too easily dominated by fantasyland complaints that ‘no one should interfere in science,' ignoring the fact that many people already do. We have to recognise the politics here, because it is quietly happening under our noses. Last year's BIS/ DECC oil and gas strategy is possibly the most brazen example of this. Aside from a bit where the government agrees to consider its role in improving public perception of the UK oil and gas industry (apparently we incorrectly perceive it as unsustainable and deflecting progress towards a greener UK economy, silly us), the strategy expresses much concern over the supply of skilled staff and R&D spend in the sector, with a clear expectation that the government should support industry here. But no one much critised the government about this strategy when it was published. I doubt many people knew it existed.

This week Caroline Lucas asked a parliamentary question about NERC’s oil and gas innovation programme. She didn’t get much of an answer, but these are the sorts of questions green activists - and scientists themselves - need to be asking more often. The oil and gas industry needs our science to operate. We don’t need to give it to them. Sorting this out is just one of those things we need to be getting on with.

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First published: 17 April, 2014

Category: Environment

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