Category Archives: history of climate change

Events, dear boy, events – of oil slicks, rich people and creeping

Musing #1 on Molotch, H. 1970. Oil in Santa Barbara and Power in America. Sociological Inquiry, 40, 131-144.

In January 1969 the first big Oil Slick That Mattered washed up on the beaches of rich people in California. Sure, there had been the Torrey Canyon in 1967, where someone took an ill-advised shortcut and hit a reef. Cornwall copped it, and hands were wrung. (1)

Photo from here.  Turns out, still having health impacts…whodathunkit

But Santa Barbara was different – bigger, more ‘photogenic’ and happening in a place where there were lots of powerful, plugged-in folks who (thought that they) had hands that could pull on the levers of power. They got an education, and this magnificent article, explains how.


Being powerful locally, it turns out, doesn’t give you ‘juice’ nationally. The local yokels should have suspected this when, the year before, they were unable to stop the federal government granting oil leases on seabed that was patently unsuitable (no bedrock, porous as heck). Once the worst happened , sure, there were rallies, marches, lobbying, court cases, and so forth, but over the following months, the good burghers came to realise that access to power-makers doesn’t equal influence (a lesson environmental campaigners should note, but don’t).

There are several points at which Molotch (who is still around and has had a stellar career with a whole bunch of contributions) seems to quite enjoy watching and recounting this dawning realisation. The clearest is near the end of the article (which you should defo read)

Similarly a well-to-dow widow, during a legal proceeding in Federal District Court, in which Santa Barbara was once again “losing,” whispered in the author’s ear:

“Now I understand why those young people at the University go around throwing things… The individual has no rights at all.” (2)

(Molotch, 1970:141)

Molotch was writing before Downs’ seminal ‘Up and Down with Ecology- the ‘issue-attention cycle‘, and doesn’t address the inevitable decline in attention/agitation (though Molotch clearly knew that was coming

It’s a great essay, that stands up as fresh and important today, half a century and so many Big Spills later…

I’ll write at least once more on it, and there is a 1975 piece Molotch co-authored on the national (press) coverage the spill that is also going to get read, but probably not until #afterSubmission.

Meanwhile, those events


Molotch uses Daniel Boorstin‘s then-relatively-recent concept of the Pseudo Event to great effect, (“A pseudo-event occurs when men arrange conditions to simulate a certain kind of event, such that certain prearranged consequences follow as though the actual event had taken place” (p.139)) describing local participation in decision making especially, but also President Nixon’s carefully stage-managed ‘inspection’ flight.

Creeping Events

Molotch then introduces what he calls ‘creeping events’.
“A creeping event is, in a sense, the opposite of a pseudo-event. It occurs when something is actually taking place, but when the manifest signs of the event are arranged to occur at an inconspicuously gradual and piece-meal pace, thus eliminating some of the consequences which would otherwise follow from the event if it were to be perceived all-at-once to be occurring.” (p.139)

This is analogous to the fable of the boiling frog – you get used to anything. Right now we are seeing it with the slow normalisation of pervasive scanning of the population (jay walkers?!).

An historical aside- shortly after  Molotch was writing this there was another famous CREEP going on – the Committee for the  Re-Election the President. But that’s all watergate under the bridge now…

Focussing Events

Later on, in 1984, when John Kingdon was first launching what has come to be called the Multiple Streams Approach, he said that for a policy window (within which major change might be possible) to open, one of the necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions was a ‘focussing event’ – something loud, unexpected/influential.

So, really, creeping events are efforts to avoid the coming of focussing events (Molotch quotes an internal Interior Department memo about the policy of refusing public hearings before oil drilling – “We preferred not to stir up the natives any more than possible.” ((p. 139)

I’ll write something else about this great paper – there is a Monty Python connection worth flagging. In the meantime, around the park and in front of the thesis….


(1) Two ironies. One, the Torrey Canyon was named for a geographical feature in … California and Two, the same company that owned it, Union Oil, was also responsible for the oil well that went splat in SB. Oh, those scamps.

(2) I wonder if she sustained view that after the Bank of America went up


Brilliant neglected book: “Ecological Pioneers” #Australia #environment

ecolpioneersI like to believe I’ve read a lot these three and a half years (even by my own somewhat Rabelaisian standards).  Specifically, on the Australian environment movement/climate change/climate policy etc.  I’ve read a few excellent books, a few stinkers and lots in between (thankfully mostly at the ‘excellent’ end, and towering piles of journal articles (I mean this literally).

And I seem to have inadvertently saves (one of) the best for last (or latest):

Ecological Pioneers: a social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action  by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill is an absolute delight (and largely neglected its seems – I’ve seen very few references to it anywhere else – so hat tip to William Lines’ Patriots, from 2006).

The authors have clearly been involved in various environmental battles, kept their eyes open and figured out who would be worth talking too.  But beyond ‘the usual [and deservedly so] suspects’ of Judith Wright, Bob Brown, the Dunphys, Jack Mundey, Val Plumwood etc, but also great capsule portraits of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Russel Drysdale, the folks behind ‘Keyline’ (a land management system that inspired the Permaculture people – and there’s a great section on David Holmgren too).

Alongside that is a very necessary, well-written and downright useful section on indigenous views of nature/landscape/country and “ownership”, all the way up to the Mabo decision.

Look, I could gush for hours, and quote liberally (I spent three hours today typing up some ‘must-not-forget’ bits.  The tl:dr is this: if you have any interest in ecological thinking, its provenance, Australia etc, then this is a must must read.

Canute in reverse: Macron’s climate summit

Today thousands of the great and the good will gather in Paris for the latest in a long line of climate summits. Initiated in July by French President Emmanuel Macron, it falls on the two year anniversary of the Paris Agreement.  With three goals –  “Take tangible and collective action, innovate, support one another”  – it is part of his efforts to maintain France’s status as the pace-setter on climate change, in ever-growing contrast to the Trump administration’s enthusiastic environmental vandalism.  Trump was explicitly not invited, in fact.

The event is the latest in a much longer line of climate summits which try to focus attention and generate momentum. However, while most previous summits have been involved mitigation policies, motherhood statements and unmemorable memos about more meetings, this one may be different..

Summits going on

While ‘summits to solve problems’ are time-honoured, and can lead to new organisations (the 1975 Rambouillet talks to discuss economic problems led to the formation of the G7) political gatherings on climate change date back to the early 1980s.

Climate scientists and switched on politicians (including a young Al Gore) attempted to sustain momentum that had been building under Carter and was fading under the new Reagan administration.

Eight years later, George HW Bush promised on the 1988 Presidential campaign trail to use the White house effect against the greenhouse effect’ and to hold an international conference within a year of taking office. However’ once in office he dragged his feet.” When the event finally happened in April 1990 it emerged that the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change, Bert Bolin, had not been invited.

The climate summits have come thicker and faster since then, either through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , alongside it (eg. The UK effort at the UN security council,) or in a spoiler role – the efforts of George Bush Jnr and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, both who refused to enact the Kyoto Protocol to create an ‘Asia Pacific Forum on Clean Development and Climate.

The motives of the summit-callers vary. It might be to highlight intent and bask in a contrast (as Macron is doing here). It might be to regain lost ground – in 2007 Kevin Rudd, who would soon become Australian Prime Minister after ‘the first climate change election’, called a National Climate Summit to wrest back the climate agenda, after John Howard u-turned on his climate policy intransigence and asked a senior public servant, Peter Shergold, to investigate an emissions trading scheme.

(Malcolm Turnbull, now Prime Minister and then the new environment minister, dismissed it; “I’m afraid to say that the people who are going, however well intentioned, are being used by Kevin Rudd as props to promote himself.”)

Turning the tide

canuteSo far so normal. The climate debate has always been about managing the politics; political summits have always been about the signalling of virtue and/or holding back the tide as best as possible. This one though, has Macron as Canute commanding the tide to come in.

There are two interrelated reasons why this is one to watch. Firstly, the unity of the fossil fuel industry is splintering. The coal industry fear after the Paris conference that hey would “be hated like slave traders” is coming true, despite Trump’s ‘coal is back’ efforts. The Bonn climate conference saw the announce of a ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance”. Michael Bloomberg is funding a global ‘beyond coal’ effort. Coal is being thrown under the bus.

Secondly, and perhaps not unrelated, is the technological and economic developments which see “clean energy approaching a tipping point.”  The price of solar panels collapsing, new interest in concentrated solar thermal and great enthusiasm (the upswing of the hype cycle ) around energy storage. Investors are shifting to renewables, and doubtless there will be more announcements of new renewables being made. The summit will be not so much virtue signalling as venture (capital) signalling.

There will be trouble ahead

The danger then is not that Macron’s summit will extend a policy stalemate, but that it will entrench the notion – pushed aggressively and slickly by Shell – of gas as a ‘transition’ fuel (it is not) and reinforce the comforting belief that the techno-cavalry with arrive to save us.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s commitment of keeping global warming to less than two degrees (let alone the probably impossible 1.5), we are going to have to accelerate not just the growth of renewables, but also understand that incumbents will fight in clever determined and diverse ways to defend their interests. For those geeks who have pay-wall privileges, here is new academic work on overcoming policy resistance,

For those who continue to need to believe that we can get out of this mess, the real danger is no longer intransigence, but that summits like this will be used to reinforce a business as usual with a green lick of paint.

Lobbying, lies, prostitution, disruption #climate – extraordinary truth-telling

The problem with studying the rich (well, one of many) is that access is hard.  So you end up relying on leaks and whisteblowers. Both can be deeply problematic.  But every so often the curtain DOES get pulled back.  With Australia and climate change two great examples are

a) the leaking of the minutes of the 2004 meeting where then Prime Minister begged big fossil fuel companies to help him kill off the pesky renewable energy target which was working too well

b) the PhD of Guy Pearse, who had talked to fellow lobbyists. They explained how they had captured and ‘reverse engineered’ Australian energy policy.


Now there is another, short and sharp example.  In an article called “Can we be honest about the damage we are all doing?” a chap called Andrew Craig-Bennett dishes it out to the shipping industry’s various trade associations, which have tried to shoot down a recent expose of their activities.

“if you are not influencing the [International Maritime Organisation] and others, there is no point in paying you,and we can all save a few bucks. What we want you to do is to influence the IMO is a less brain dead way.” 

(Later he writes “we can feel nothing but contempt and disgust at the prostitutes employed by our racket to try to put one over on the general public.”)

Craig-Bennet then says he recalls  an incident from more than three decades ago

“I saw a carefully drafted, science-based, regulation, which would have improved safety and been simple to enforce, turned into a pile of scientifically unsound but ‘commercially helpful’ garbage by, in that case, the Australian mining industry, who were pretending to be the Australian government.”

He goes on to extol the virtues of disruptive technologies (“the available means of ship propulsion without emissions are nuclear, solar and wind.”)

It is a fascinating article, that concludes (so, you know, spoiler alert, obvs)

“We all know this change is coming. We can lead it, get rich and be on the side of the angels or we can share the fate of the other rust belt industries. Simple.”




Open letter to Jay Weatherill on #fuckwitgate

Dear Jay,

we are both busy (you with trying to implement climate and energy policy while the Federal Government supplies only ridicule and chaos, me with finishing a thesis) so I will keep this as brief as I can.

When I read what was reported in today’s Australian (1)  ‘Jay says nay on right-wing remark‘  I was both confused and exasperated.  I do not understand why you would wait a week before claiming “I think I might have been misheard. I think I said…” 

I note there are lots of qualifiers there (and no outright denial) and it’s followed by a claim about background noise.  On that, I would point out that you don’t flag any problem with my hearing everything else you said – all those quotes which reflect (well) on your actions since the September 2016 blackout..

I wonder if you worry, that this Clayton’s denial – the denial you have when you’re not having a denial –  just feeds into the public narrative that politicians will try to wriggle out of things they said and that they later wish they hadn’t?

Clearly my prediction that this was going to be a ‘one-day wonder’  was misplaced. Oh well.  I have no interest in continuing this non-controversy, because in the absence of a sound recording, everyone can just say ‘no evidence’ and it goes all Rashomon.  The following  questions seem obvious though-

  • Why did you not claim that you had been ‘misheard’ at the time?  Why is that, as Giles Parkinson pointed out in the Australian article today,  neither you nor your office sought a retraction, correction or apology?
  • Why did you call the remarks ‘lighthearted’ if they were simply indeed ‘rightwing  sceptic’?  That’s not particularly light-hearted, simply banal.  By referring to your comments as light-hearted the day after, surely you were tacitly admitting what you had said?
  • Why did the  entire room burst into laughter and applause if all you did was describe Kenny as a right-wing sceptic?
  • Why did you offer a mock apology ‘oh sorry’ at that time?
  • Why did none of the other 100 people present at the book launch – fans of you and Mark Butler- come forward to challenge my account?  (Of course, some may now do so, now that you have signalled that this is something you want to bury)
  • Why did you call the event – and continue to call it – a private function? It was a book launch, or heaven’s sake!  If you can’t get that right, why should anyone believe what you “think” you said?

Am I surprised by your behaviour? A little. But I  am more disappointed – I thought you had more guts.  But perhaps you have to save those guts for challenging the Federal government’s egregious inaction on climate and energy, and water. If that’s the case, well, then, so be it, and good luck.
Marc Hudson


(1) Of course, the Australian has a very long (27 year) history of reporting climate stories badly. Examples available on request. On the book launch beat up they managed not to credit their source and then mis-identify the location of the book launch (it was at the Publishers Hotel, not the University of Adelaide.  Then, on Friday of last week its stablemate the Advertiser managed to get the day of the launch wrong.  So maybe you were ‘misquoted’ (oh the irony) or were speaking with your tongue in your cheek?

AMEEF – burnishing the mining industry

AMEEF was established in October 1991, as the Ecologically Sustainable Development Process was peaking.  One of the first things they did was a listing of all articles environmental, with a lovely cover.

1991 ameef

Ten years later, it was still going (but would be shut down a bit later).  I stumbled across its magazine, Groundwork, recently.  Not much of interest, but they did get a new logo. And they were run by someone who had done green stuff for the Business Council of Australia back in the early 1990s.  A small world, of course, this green capitalism gig…

2001 ameef logo

and who was stumping up?  The usual suspects…

2001 ameef supporters

Climate change? Eh? 1998 Labor Essays…

So, by 1995/6 the whole idea that you might be able to ‘green’ the Australian Labor Party had kinda fallen apart.  The 1993 election had ignored the issues (with Keating particularly aggressive, blah blah true believers blah blah), and despite Environment Minister John Faulkner’s best efforts, the proposed carbon tax/levy in 1994/95 died an ignominious death (there’s a quote from Cheryl Kernot’s memoir coming up, btw).  And how best to demonstrate this, beyond mere assertion?  Well, this book –

1998 labor essays


has 17 chapters.  Not a one of them on environment, or climate change.  And here are the relevant pages of the index. Nowt on carbon dioxide, climate change, greenhouse effect or global warming.  Two tiny mentions of ‘environment‘.

1998 labor essays index 1

1998 labor essays index2