Climate change. By starting this sentence with these two words, an unfortunate truth is that you, the reader, may already have stopped reading, closed this tab and gone to look at a cat. Or perhaps lots of cats.
'Green crap,' British prime minister David Cameron calls it. And many of us sigh and despair. Especially those of who have dedicated ourselves to trying to prevent the black crap of fossil fuels from being burnt and choking the planet in a smog of greenhouse gas.
Duncan Clark, an environmental journalist, co-wrote a book with Mike Berners-Lee about our climate dilemma, and yesterday I went to listen to him explain his main arguments at the RSA.
Clark is fantastically blunt. In a previous life, Clark worked on the 10:10 campaign. The idea was for companies and individuals to sign up and promise to reduce their carbon footprint by 10 per cent in the year 2010.
'It was just too boring,’ he said cheerfully. A common reaction, he recalls, to this drive to make small changes in our lifestyle was: 'Yeah, whatever.'
Clark calls for us to throw out what has become the established wisdom - don’t tell people to save the planet, it will turn them off with images of hippies. Don’t tell people about how bad the climate crisis is - it’ll make them give up because the problem’s too big to solve.
Instead, Clark proposes to leave behind this small-scale thinking, and address the dinosaur in the room: how are we going to as a planet decide to quit fossil fuels.
All of this is based on a serious of depressing conclusions about our current efforts to stop rising carbon emissions. As our devices and homes get more efficient, needing less energy to achieve the same result, we simply use more of it for other things - or spend the money we save elsewhere, on other products that in turn drive the global engine of fossil fuel production and burning.
Wind turbines and solar panels don’t displace coal or gas - they just increase the amount of energy our global economy runs on.
Climate negotiations, which are about slicing up a shrinking pie of the total amount of fossil fuels we burn, go nowhere fast.
Clark’s response to this dire conclusion runs from the specific to the general. Specifically, we should be investing in carbon capture and storage, he argues, a technology which fits a CO2 filter on the end of power stations, to prevent the greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere.
That technology has its pluses (as Clark says, preventing the world from exploiting fossil fuels is a startlingly difficult political proposition, and the wheels could be greased by a technology that allows us to continue to burn gas and coal).
But also it has significant minuses - not least a colossal decrease in efficiency of the power plant, which must be overcome if the technology is to succeed. The average coal-fired power plant (the sort most economic for CCS) is only 33 per cent efficient - in other words, for every three lumps of coal burnt, two go up in smoke and only one is turned into electricity. Depending on the type of CCS technology you add to your power plant, this technology will reduce your energy efficiency again, perhaps by another 30-odd per cent.
Drax is western Europe’s biggest coal-fired power station, burning about 10 million tonnes of the stuff a year. Increase that by another 3 million tonnes, with coal prices today at about $83 a tonne according to the FT, this works out at almost 250 million dollars extra a year.
But the more powerful aspect of Clark’s challenge is less specific. He wants us to renew the urgency with which we address climate change. He believes we have gone wrong in focusing on the small actions in a grand plan for a big problem. Our great social movements haven’t, after all, focused on small changes, but instead on big responses. Don’t shy away from arguing we need a big, giant, global response - it won’t scare people, it will give us something to rally around.