Book Review: "Climate Change: From a Fossil to a Solar Culture"

In International Review for Environmental Strategies (IRES) Volume3 Number2 (Winter 2002)
Peer-reviewed Article

Book Review: "Climate Change: From a Fossil to a Solar Culture" by Carl Amery and Hermann Scheer.
Publisher information: MÙnchen: Kunstmann, 2001 (in German). a
ISBN: 3-88897-266-3, 143 pp., ó10 (pbk).
Reviewer: Axel Michaelowa, b Head of Programme "International Climate Policy," Hamburg Institute of International Economics, Germany.

Foreign observers often do not understand why Germany is subsidising renewable energy with enormous sums of money. This is due to a particular political culture. German social democrat parliamentarian Hermann Scheer is widely known as a radical fighter for the promotion of renewable energy, particularly solar energy, but in 2001 he made headlines for opposing the Kyoto Protocol. The reasons for these seemingly irreconcilable positions are nicely explained in his book, which contains a moderated discussion between Scheer and writer Carl Amery, though the latter appears just to serve as a background to focus readers' attention on Scheer.

The starting point of the book is sketched out in the foreword: fossil and nuclear energy should be completely substituted by renewable energy as soon as possible. The ensuing decentralisation of energy production will automatically lead to an equitable (socialist) economy and the dismantling of the large energy utilities that currently block democratisation. A cultural revolution is necessary to tear down the mental barriers for this energy revolution to occur.

It is not easy to grasp the thread of this cultural revolution in the animated discussion. At first, Scheer complains that the environmental movement argues only incrementally, not understanding that it "has to be a solar movement." Energy determines the whole culture, Scheer argues, and all ecological problems will be automatically solved once the energy problem is addressed. He goes on to say that liberation from local energy supply has "destroyed cultural diversity and led to a uniform structure of work and life." I would contend, on the contrary, that the current abundance of energy is not seen as an evil by the common man-and it has certainly led to a huge diversification. In the era of pre-industrial agriculture, determined by local energy supply, life was short, uniform, and hard. An argument brought forward by Amery seems more convincing: The consumer is no longer aware of the negative effects of energy production, due to the spatial disconnection of energy production and consumption, and exhibits a "culture of irresponsibility." Amery sets his hope on the development of an "ascetically trained, conscious citizen"-a positive utopia.

Scheer rightly recognizes that renewable energy must become a target of luxury consumption. Whether the citizens really want a "social and political activation" by decentralised energy production is another question. Unless one is born a carpenter, the thought of having to operate a complex technology of energy production is more distressing than liberating.

The real opponent of Scheer is the "supreme power of economics." It is clear that under current conditions solar energy in Germany makes no sense; it is just too expensive. Thus economic reasoning has to be banished, and this is described by the term cultural change. Even Scheer, however, concedes that it is important that the costs of renewable energy have been falling due to innovation. Then, however, he again launches attacks against economics that are sometimes grotesque: he argues that solar energy is the first innovation that has had to fight against a powerful established industry. He should have consulted economic history, which shows an unending occurrence of such processes! The pinnacle of this criticism is reached when Scheer says efficiency orientation is uncultured.

This fight against economics explains Scheer's crusade against global climate policy, which is particularly directed against the Kyoto Mechanisms. The "disgusting haggling at world climate conferences" raises his ire. This is understandable, as market mechanisms clearly show the lack of competitiveness of photovoltaics. He simply ignores the fact that only the success of the Kyoto Protocol can pave the way for a lasting rise of renewable energy.

Scheer launches his next attack against policies aimed at increasing energy efficiency. This would be "unrealistic from an energy-sociological point of view." Moreover, it would not entail enough conflict. "The world crises rages and we change light bulbs," he writes. The rebound effect, i.e., the increase of energy consumption due to spending of monetary savings achieved through efficiency increases, would immediately eat up any energy savings. The social democrat, Scheer, sees it as a priority to fight so that "every citizen can take a holiday in the Caribbean." He also adds that solar energy does not have to be saved. Fortunately, some pages later he accepts that consumption cannot be unlimited. I am surprised that this cultural revolutionary thinks that human behaviour can't be changed when it comes to consumption.

A large part of the book laments that the current German social-democrat-green government does not act in a more revolutionary way. A consensus culture is seen as structurally conservative. Moreover, researchers are criticised-their aim is to get funding through reports biased in favour of large-scale energy production.

The book nicely shows the risk of cultural revolutions that fail to take basic economic rules into account. Scheer does climate and energy policy a great disservice as he provides fuel for the arguments of climate sceptics. He has thrown out the baby with the bath water.


International Review for Environmental Strategies (IRES) Volume3 Number2 (Winter 2002)

Axel Michaelowa