Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/19/eco_astroturf/

Eco computer game cost taxpayers £47 per play

The true cost of astroturf

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Government, 19th February 2010 12:02 GMT

In what may be the most expensive "spontaneous" outburst of grassroots political expression since Mao's Cultural Revolution, the old farming ministry DEFRA paid more than £8m over two years to civic society groups if they spread the correct message about Global Warming.

These included a computer game that was used so infrequently it cost £47 per go, and £160,000 for a man to drive around with a truck sign. The payouts are detailed in files released in response to Freedom of Information requests from pressure group the Taxpayers Alliance. But this is subtly different to your standard quango, taxpayer-money-down-the-pan story - in some quite interesting and non-obvious ways.

The payouts represent a tip of the iceberg (no pun intended, honest) of state funding for climate evangelism, which runs into billions of pounds. These FOIA requests only cover DEFRA, and so exclude cross-department initiatives such as the expensive, umbrella Act on CO2 initiative. And of course it excludes the really big money, such as the £200m a year to the Carbon Trust, a similar amount to the the Energy Savings Trust, and smaller quangos.

Also not included are state-dependent institutions who are sympathetic to the cause, such as the £50m a year Royal Society, the Met Office, or the British Council, for example. It's merely one initiative, called the Climate Change Fund.

The fund was designed to promote "behaviour change", the even creepier-sounding "attitude modification" and the old standby, "awareness raising". The words "empower" and "empowerment" also feature. Beneficiaries between 2006 and 2008 included the Scouts Association, Women's Institutes, drama groups, a community radio station, as well as quangos and a number of councils. Some of the recipients border on self-parody:

"Reasons to be Cheerful, the Carbon Coach, Cheerful Ltd. CarbonSense, Comic Company and National Energy Foundation have come together as Think Purple to help make CO2 visible. The project has produced purple resources for schools, organisations, and the general public which they hope will help transform how they see CO2 and how they use energy," we learn.

But few of the messages were cheery. In an incredible film called Carbon Weevil, humanity "infects" Mother Earth (a she, natch) as a destructive insect:

(The insect has only one purpose, to emit carbon. And mess things up for Gaia.)

£164,000 went to employ somebody to tow a 23 foot x 6 foot accessible trailer around. Three games were produced, costing tens of thousands of each. Cycling Hero cost almost £300,000.

There are more examples in this video.

So apart from a few million quid down the drain, what harm was done?

How's your Awareness?

The most obvious point to make is that the money was wasted. Interest in the issue has waned - while we can't measure how "empowered" people now feel, attitudes certainly have been modified, but not to the sponsors liking.

Secondly, critics surely have a point when they argue that this is political spending, and not educational. All the money was directed to achieve top-down policy goals. The subtleties of climate science were not explained, and all the effort was directed at one particular "solution" to climate change - the one the sponsors wanted.

But in doing so, it's created a feedback loop. Last year Energy Minister Ed Miliband called for activists to get "active" in the run up to the Copenhagen summit, arguing that "there’s a real opportunity and a need here" for a populist mass movement. It was met with indifference, as climate change ranks low on voters concerns, and even ranks low down on lists of voters' environmental concerns.

Apart from a handful of well-heeled campaigners, the only grass roots campaigners who emerged were ones he'd paid to be there.

The terms 'vested interests' often crops up in climate debates. But what this fascinating document shows, is that the vested interests are much broader (if shallower) than many people suppose. A little money means a lot to a volunteer-run community radio station like Wythenshawe FM, one of the beneficiaries of DEFRA's cash splurge. So the availability of easy money for Climate issues mean a lot of people have a finger in the pie. That's something to bear in mind when you next read a blog comment. Try asking the poster: what's in it for you? ®

Download the list here, and a provisional evaluation of the effectiveness of the Fund, prepared for DEFRA by outside consultants, here.®