With 24 languages deemed as "official," the European Union shares some characteristics with the ancient Babel Tower (above, the parliament building in Strasbourg). The Babel of languages is one of the problems associated with trying to pass messages to politicians, but not the most important one. Rather, the main problem seems to be a decisional mechanism which favors groupthink. Here are some notes of a recent experience of mine at a hearing on energy security of the European Parliament in Brussels.
As I walk to the hearing on energy security in Europe, I am struck first of all by the size of the hall. The "Alcide De Gasperi" room in the palace of the European Parliament in Brussels was clearly built for impressing people, in addition to its function as a meeting room. One of its most remarkable features is the long row of windows of the interpreters' rooms. Since there are 24 official languages of the European Union, there have to be some 50 interpreters working in there. Then, I also notice how the screens for projecting one's slides are small and located high up, near the ceiling. This is not a place where you are supposed to support your statements with data and graphs. It is a place built for political debate.
As people collect in the hall, I can see that the atmosphere is rather formal, with several members of the European Parliament sitting in the audience. Most people are dressed in suits and many wear ties. On the podium, there are six invited speakers. And there we go; I immediately sense the mood of the conference: this is not a scientific meeting. None of the speakers seem to be an expert about fossil fuels, intended as markets, production, resources, reserves, and the like. Rather, they seem to be mainly concerned with strategic and political issues. The line that emerges from the presentations and from the reactions of the audience is clear: it is a highly confrontational attitude (to put it mildly) toward Russia, accused to be engaging in an economic war against Western Europe. The gist of what I hear is that the European Union must unite in defense; we must follow the example of the United States and get rid of our silly regulations and of the local resistance against drilling and nuclear plants. Europe can exploit its shale gas and oil resources (and also nuclear energy) and attain energy independence, as the United States did. It is "drill, drill, drill" all over.
This line, in various shades, is the position of four speakers out of six. The bias in favor of fossil fuels is shown also by the fact that the lady charged with defending renewables is given the last time slot of the hearing. The fossil oriented attitude seems to be shared by the majority of the audience. Not that it is not challenged by some of the MEPs in the room. One of them (I know him well, he has been a long time ASPO supporter) stands up and tells to one of the speakers: "it is not true that the United States has attained energy independence. You have to stop getting your data from newspapers!". He is right, (you can look at the data yourself). But it is an isolated reaction, and the overall debate remains based on the idea that the US has become energy independent or that, at least, it will soon become independent.
When it is my turn to speak, I tell a different story. I try to explain that the ultimate origin of the energy security problems in Europe is due to depletion, and that drilling more is not the solution. I keep the message as simple as possible; tailored for people who are not specialists in oil and gas. I show the price trends, I tell them something about energy return, and I make the point that renewable energy is not subjected to depletion. I sense that my talk is well received: the people in the audience listen to what I say, and they look up at my slides (but those screens are too high and too small, dammit!). I also get several questions and comments - mostly favorable ones. After the hearing is over, several people stop me to discuss further about what I said. As a talk, it was a reasonably successful one.
But, on the whole, I think I had a very modest impact, if any. As I noticed many times, it is extremely difficult to pass to decision makers messages which are perceived as out of the ordinary, as the message on resource depletion is. The problem has many facets and it has to do, mainly, with the way politicians think. According to my experience, politicians - especially high level ones - are very smart people. The problem is that they are swamped with information; just as most of us. So, in the great mass of data arriving, how do you decide what is the truth? If you are a scientist - or you are scientifically trained - you have ways to evaluate the data and filter out the bad ones. But politicians are not scientists, they are not scientifically trained, so they use a different method. They maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about everything they hear; they don't pay too much attention on data, and they tend to side with the interpretation that they perceive as the most compatible with the general opinion of the group they belong to.
There are reasons for this "groupthink" syndrome that, probably, affects politicians more than most of us. It is because then main tool in the political struggle, today, is the demonization of adversaries. So, a politician is very careful to avoid to be singled out from the crowd of colleagues and subjected to the standard demonizing treatment. For a politician, there is safety in crowds; a traditional strategy well known also by sheep and fish. In practice, you may see a politician as having a built in opinion detector in his head. He/she will sense the position of the majority and try to avoid straying too far away from it. In general, the way for a politician to obtain power is to occupy the center; to be seen as a moderate. That this is the way to success has been known for a long time; even rigorously modeled (in economics, it is known as the "Hotelling's law"). Scientists are sometimes contrarians, politicians almost never are.
So, I think I can figure out the reaction of most of the MEPs to the hearing on energy security in Brussels. It was something like, "Well, that Italian guy who spoke about resource depletion might have a point about what the real problem is. I couldn't his slides so well, so high up near the ceiling, but he seemed to have some good data. But, on the other hand, the other speakers saw the problem differently. If most people in the parliament think that Russia is waging an economic war against us and that drilling more is a good idea, then there has to be something in it. For sure, I shouldn't take the risk of siding with a minority option."
Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy. He is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted, how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)