Some of you will know of a project called “All Our Yesterdays – 365 Climate Histories’, [Twitter @our_yesterdays] run by Environmental Politics’ social media editor, Dr Marc Hudson. Below is a repost of the latest blog (June 14th) , a guest post by Dr Kristoffer Ekberg [original link here].
“The messy inclusion of #climate change in energy politics”
On this date, 14 June 1979, the Swedish government gave the state-owned utility Statens Vattenfallsverk AB or short Vattenfall (meaning water fall) the task of undertaking a large scale investigation into ways of introducing more coal into the energy mix without harming the environment or the health of the population, Kol-Hälsa-Miljö (Coal-Health-Environment).
The aim was to increase the use of coal. The task might not seem strange given the fear of volatile oil prices during the 1970s and the fact that in the beginning of the 1970s up to 75% of Sweden’s energy consumption came from imported oil. Transitioning to a source of energy that was seen as more secure due to the possibility to source it from the proximity in northern Germany seems like a rational choice when only looking at this development.
But understanding this as a strategic move based on solely energy security shows only part of the picture and obscures the dubious enterprise, given the already-existing knowledge of climate change present among the political elites.
Famously hosting the first UN meeting on the human environment in 1972 the issue of climate change was already present among the leadership of the Social democratic party and Swedish political leadership. Bert Bolin (who would later become the first chairman of IPCC), had the year before also convened with the world’s leading climate scientists in Sweden.
In 1974 the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme publicly stated that climate change was one of the most pressing issues in the period up to the year 2000. In 1975 climate change was mentioned in the energy plan that would guide Sweden’s actions the coming years, clearly influenced by Bolin’s work. Climate change science was not unanimous but the Swedish leadership nonetheless engaged with the threat.
In these years, climate change became a useful argument for a Social Democratic leadership wanting to push for nuclear power. As opposition to nuclear grew larger and more forceful every year, partly resulting in the loss in the election of 1976 ending a 40 year period in power, nuclear became a problem but so was oil.
In governmental reports in 1978, climate change, which had initially been framed as a concern in relation to national energy production and consumption became associated solely with future threats on a global scale.
Even though the coal investigation was tasked with incorporating all available knowledge, the issue of climate change and CO2 was in most parts excluded, despite the previous reports from Bolin and others. Further, during the investigation the issue of CO2 came to the fore through trips to – for example – the Department on Energy, in the US but was deemed a problem not for Sweden but for high emitters like USA, Soviet Union and China.
When finished in 1983, the report mentioned climate change but these formulations were critiqued by the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) arguing that the investigation had failed to account for the impact on CO2 emissions from introducing more coal.
Why this matters
The episode told here speaks to the messy ways in which climate change entered discussions and speaks to the different strategies that have been used to keep climate change of the table in periods when energy issues are highly debated. The construction of delaying arguments is not new in contemporary society but is something that has happened constantly since climate change entered on the political arena.
*The above text is based on the research conducted by Kristoffer Ekberg and Martin Hultman for the article “A Question of Utter Importance: The Early History of Climate Change and Energy Policy in Sweden, 1974–1983″ in Environment and History.
Kristoffer Ekberg is an historian working at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. His research focuses on the political history of climate change and the environment, corporate anti-environmentalism as well as social movements and utopian thought.