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Why governments are blind to fossil fuel energy risk

Humans are capable of mass collective blindness to risk. In modern times, the financial crisis of 2008 shows us that clearly. A whole industry pushed a delusional narrative. Regulators bought it. Auditors, ratings agencies and every other segment of the financial chain bought it. We the citizens bought it, bar a few admirable whistleblowers who nobody listened to. The end result was a near collapse of the global economy.

None of this surprises neuroscientists and psychologists. They are well versed in the human tendency to suppress rational thought, individually and collectively, and to favour comforting narratives over uncomfortable ones. None of it surprises anthropologists, who know from history how failed civilisations believed their delusional narratives all the way to the point of collapse and beyond.

So a question arises. Having courted economic Armageddon in the financial sector, might we be capable of repeating the trick in the energy sector?
My answer is a resounding yes. We are doing so. On multiple fronts.

The following statements are all held as comforting core beliefs across much of society today.

Oil supply can keep growing for decades. Climate change is not that big a threat. Fossil-fuels count as assets at zero risk of being devalued by policy action on climate. Fracking shale is a sustainable route to new mass prosperity in the US and beyond.

Each one of these assertions is false, so I and others like me believe. Each one entails a belief system that threatens society with disaster of some kind.

The reasons we believe this are complex and difficult to communicate. This difficulty is compounded because the energy incumbency threatened by our uncomfortable counter narratives pushes a blizzard of hype out into the media, with awesome effectiveness, in defence of its comforting mantras.

America will need to be renamed “Saudi America”, they tell us. Climate change is an invention of anti-growth agitators. Fossil fuels are attractive investments. Fracking is a risk-free route to much-needed jobs.

In 2012, watching capital continue to flow into coal and tar sands, and the new story of shale riches emerging, I wondered how best I could make a personal contribution to sounding the multiple alarms needed. I zeroed in on another lesson of neuroscience and psychology: the one that shows people prefer stories to textbooks.

So, I thought, I have a story to tell. A true one. I have seen these threats to society build over the years, frequently close to, often behind supposedly closed doors. Why don’t I tell that story? As the drama unfolds, hopefully it will show people how brains work in the energy incumbency that is stoking such catastrophe for the world.

I thought hard about the wisdom of this. I would be irritating a lot of very powerful people in industry and government. Some would accuse me of breaking confidences, of talking about meetings that were implicitly private.

But then I reflected, who cares: the stakes in this drama are just too big for that to matter.

And so I wrote The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, published the same week as this column. In it, I tell the story of the energy and financial markets from 2004, the year the oil price began its inexorable rise. I follow all the main subsequent events chronologically, through to April 2013.

I have continued to follow them since in this monthly column, and on my website In the book, I intercut the factual narrative with diary extracts, to show my own experience of the events and of key incumbency figures in industry and government.

These are the bits that will cause the irritation. They were crawled over by libel lawyers sniffing for defamation. I have sailed as close a course to the wind as I have dared in this respect. Necessarily so. Often the tales of dysfunctional human behaviour I have witnessed behind closed doors are stranger than fiction. People need to know this, I figure.

I have also tried, along the way, to paint a vision of a possible road to renaissance. The renewables industries are leading characters in this part of the drama, readers will be unsurprised to hear.

I conclude that a possible road because renaissance is not a given outcome. Advocates of clean energy are in the midst of a complex civil war, as things stand. Our opponents are entrenched right across much of the energy sector, the financial sector, government and the supporting institutions. We could yet lose.

I hope my book will help encourage defectors from the failed belief systems in and around energy markets that so imperil our future. As for fellow revolutionaries in the renewables industries, I hope you will draw encouragement from my narrative. I invite your help in spreading my story of our opponents, and my thoughts about our road to eventual victory.

Read the preface and first chapter of 'The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road To Renaissance'.

Reviews and information on how to order can be found here.


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