Monthly Archives: February 2016

Meat and climate change: an interview with Chatham House’s Laura Wellesley

Meat and climate change: an interview with Chatham House’s Laura Wellesley
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 February 2016

In an interesting and important detour from its usual focus on international conflict and diplomacy, in 2014 Chatham House – the Royal Institute of International Affairs – established a research project on Diet and Climate Change. Working with the Glasgow University Media Group, the project aims to “review public understanding and behaviour in relation to meat and dairy consumption and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions.”

With the research finding “public awareness of the link between diet and climate change is very low”, I interviewed Laura Wellesley, a Research Associate in the Energy, Environment and Resources department at Chatham House and project leader, in an attempt to get the research results out to a wider audience.

Ian Sinclair: What is the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and climate change?

Laura Wellesley: Our appetite for meat and dairy products is a key driver of climate change. Globally, the livestock sector contributes 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions – that’s the same as exhaust fumes from every car, truck, plane, train and boat on the planet.

IS: How, exactly, does meat and dairy consumption contribute to climate change?

LW: Greenhouse gases are emitted from every point along the meat and dairy supply chains. Methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most potent greenhouse gases, are released by the animals themselves, from their manure and from the fertilizers used to grow their feed, combining with CO2 emissions emitted when land is cleared for crop production and grazing, and from machinery used to house, feed, slaughter, process and transport animals and animal products.

IS: You argue that a significant reduction in meat consumption would be a “win-win”. What do you mean by this?

LW: Global meat consumption has already reached unsustainable levels and is expected to increase by 76% by 2050. That means that, even with ambitious mitigation to lower the emissions intensity of livestock production the world over, emissions from the sector will continue to rise, eating up a huge slice of the remaining carbon budget. The upshot is that, without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below two degrees will be nearly impossible.

But a global shift to healthy, sustainable levels of meat consumption would also be a ‘win’ for global public health. Meat consumption in most industrialised countries has reached excessive levels: across the EU, the average person currently eats around twice as much as is deemed healthy; in the US, it’s three times this amount. And the emerging economies are fast catching up.

Overconsumption of meat products – particularly red and processed meat – is contributing to a rise in obesity numbers and in the incidence of non-communicable diseases like type-2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Encouraging a reduction in meat consumption amongst those populations who are currently over-consuming meat would help to tackle the growing social and economic costs of diet-related diseases.

IS: You argue that one reason meat remains off the policy agenda is because the government fears a backlash from the voting public. What has your research discovered about public opinion and possibilities for reducing our meat consumption?

LW: Our research showed a considerable awareness gap around the links between diet and climate change. While familiar with the notion of GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions from transport and heavy industry, focus group participants in Brazil, China, the UK and the US were largely unaware of the way in which our consumption patterns contribute to climate change. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, findings from our multinational opinion survey and focus groups showed that concerns over environmental sustainability are far less important in influencing people’s food choices than more immediate factors like health concerns, taste and price.

But what our research also suggests is that the public’s disengagement with the diet-climate relationship is not the result of active resistance. Instead, it’s the product of a lack of awareness that has been sustained through government inaction. And findings from the focus group discussions point to a public that expects governments to intervene on their behalf, that is unlikely to stage sustained resistance to policy interventions, and that looks to governments to spearhead change where it is needed.

Encouraging a reduction in meat-eating will not be easy. But these findings indicate that, were governments to signal the urgent need for change and to initiate a public debate around the need for dietary change, the public’s disengagement would likely dissipate.

IS: What practical steps do you think governments should be taking to produce a reduction in our meat and dairy consumption?

LW: There’s no one silver bullet: a comprehensive package of policies and strategies will be needed if diets are to change at the scale needed.

Awareness-raising will be an important first step, but it won’t be enough. Governments will need to work with industry, civil society and the media to implement ‘nudge’ tactics in retail environments, and to make it cheaper, easier and more appealing to eat more plant-based foods. Including sustainability standards in public procurement guidelines and changing the default option in school and hospital canteens will be important pieces of the puzzle, but governments will also need to consider more interventionist measures like a carbon tax on animal products if we are to realize change at the scale required.

These strategies will work best when implemented by a range of actors – governments, industry, civil society groups, public figures – working together to promote a common message. But the bottom line is that governments need to initiate a conversation around unsustainable meat consumption – at the national level, but also through international platforms – and overcome the taboo associated with policy interventions on diets. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, we cannot afford to continue on the current path of inaction.

Heading for 4oC: interview with Professor Kevin Anderson

Heading for 4oC: interview with Professor Kevin Anderson
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13 February 2016

Amid all the backslapping and self-congratulation by governments and commentators about the December 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the most famous climate scientist had an altogether different take. “It’s a fraud really, a fake”, argued James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who brought global warming to the world’s attention in 1988. “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

Professor Kevin Anderson, in London to give a lecture at the London School of Economics, has a more nuanced take on the 21st conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “From a diplomatic point of view I think it was a huge triumph”, Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells me. He believes it was very important the agreement agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2oC – and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5oC. 2oC is the global temperature increase world leaders in the West agree we cannot exceed if we wish to stop dangerous climate change. “I also think it really undermined a lot of the credence the sceptics have had unreasonably for far too long”, he adds. “Every world leader says climate change is important now. And every world leader has tied themselves, to some extent, to these temperature thresholds.”

However, Anderson, 53, is “very concerned” because while “the headline message was appropriate and sound” the rest of the final document is “just fluff and eloquence.” He goes further: “I would argue Paris locks out the success of its own targets, locks out the ability to achieve its own targets.” For example, the agreement omits any mention of aviation and shipping, two high emitting sectors which anticipate huge increases in their carbon emissions going forward. More importantly, Anderson notes the agreement includes hidden assumptions “that we will have negative emissions technology that will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere” in the near future, such as Carbon Capture and Storage.

Similarly, Anderson notes that the pledges nations submitted before Paris to reduce their future carbon emissions – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – are also based on these hidden assumptions. So while the consensus is these INDCs will lead to a 2.7oC temperature rise, Anderson believes these calculations are “extremely misleading” because there is only a small chance these “non-existent, highly-speculative technologies will actually work at scale”.

Rather, he says it is “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that”, though he is keen to stress the science is not precise. 2100 is the year usually given for when we could expect to hit 4oC, but Anderson warns that modelling work by the Met Office found that high emissions combined with being “unlucky with some of the uncertainties around the science” could lead to 4oC as early as 2060.

What would a 4oC temperature increase mean for the world? Noting this figure will probably translate to a 5.5oC increase on land (the oceans tend to take longer to warm), Anderson lists a number of likely impacts: sea level rise of one metre by 2100; an increase in the frequency and severity of storms; reduction in staple crop yields by 40 percent (“at the same time the population is heading towards nine billion”); dramatic changes in rainfall patterns; large refugee flows. While these effects will likely be felt hardest in the Global South, Anderson notes that work done by the Hadley Centre shows the consequences will be serious for the West too, with a 4oC rise leading to additional warming during heatwaves. “If you take the 2003 heatwave in Europe where 20-30,000 died, you add eight degrees on top of that”, he explains. “Our infrastructure simply isn’t designed for that.”

At this point I interrupt Anderson, repeating back to him his belief a 4oC world will likely be “incompatible with organised global community”. “Yes, global chaos and collapse I think would be a fair assessment”, he replies. “I’d say it is a different planet. It is not the one we live on.”

I push him further, asking if he agrees with the author Naomi Klein that “climate change is an existential crisis for the human species”.

“If we don’t respond soon I think yes”, he says.

Such a frightening future has led Klein and others to argue that we need a radical transformation of society on the scale of the national mobilisation during World War Two or the Marshall Plan. When I mention the latter, Anderson demurs. “Even the World War Two Marshall Plan is not as significant as what we would need now. We have to transition every part of our infrastructure to address climate change”, he says.

“We sit in this room and everything about how we are here, why we are here relates to carbon”, he elaborates. “I’ve got a plastic bottle here – made out of carbon. The varnish on this table? Made out of carbon. We travelled here using carbon. The carpet is synthetic and made out of carbon. My jacket’s dye will be made out of carbon, probably some of the materials will be carbon. Oil and carbon infuses every facet of our lives. We’ve never had to change something quite like that before.”

In response, he believes the West needs to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions as soon as possible – by 10 percent a year. Making reductions as early as possible is key, he notes, “because that means we will burn less fossil fuels and that means we will not use the carbon budget up as quickly which gives us slightly longer to put the low carbon supply in place.”

He is particularly keen to stress the global and national inequities surrounding carbon emissions, citing work done by Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty from the Paris School of Economics that shows about 50 percent of emissions come from just ten percent of the world’s population. “The top one percent in the US have carbon footprints that are about 2,500 times the bottom one percent globally”, he adds.

As with politics generally, arguably the media play a central role in climate change. Does he see the media as having a positive or negative influence? “My immediate take on that is that it has historically been part of the problem. But I think going forward it has to be part of the solution.” Why has the media been part of the problem? “It has been a significant part of driving a particular approach towards consumption” which is “one of the reasons we find it difficult to address the issue of climate change”, he says. “It has helped reinforce a political message which is one where we value ourselves by the material consumption that we have. We don’t tend to use other forms of value. To the extent it is how big our house is, how big our car is, where we go on holiday, what we can choose.”

Anderson ends by turning his attention to the role of his own profession when it comes to the threat of climate change. “I have quite a simplistic view of this”, he says, noting that scientists have two jobs: “To do careful, robust analysis but with a sense of humility that we get things wrong” and then “to communicate those findings clearly, directly and vociferously. And if anyone tries to misuse the information I think we should counter them very directly.”

As his extensive academic work and public outreach implies, Anderson is communicating evidence-based information and arguments that are of the upmost importance to humanity and the planet. The question is this: are we, as a society, really listening? And, more importantly, are we living and acting in ways that are consistent with the deeply alarming science?

Kevin Anderson blogs at


Has the West and its allies “failed to seriously arm the revolution” in Syria?

Has the West and its allies “failed to seriously arm the revolution” in Syria?
by Ian Sinclair
5 February 2016

Here is my (unpublished) letter to the Guardian Review:

Dear Sir/Madam

Robin Yassin-Kassab argues “The Syrian people’s supposed ‘friends’ failed to seriously arm the revolution” (Guardian Review, 23 January).

In reality, the Financial Times reported in 2013 that Qatar had given $3 billion to the Syrian insurgency, while the New York Times recently noted estimates put Saudi Arabia’s support for the rebels “at several billion dollars.” In addition, the CIA’s $1 billion programme has trained and equipped 10,000 rebel fighters, according to US officials cited by the Washington Post

Yassin-Kassab’s implicit support for more arms to the rebels will likely escalate the conflict. As Oxfam America noted in 2013, “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths, more long-term damage to infrastructure and the economy, and greater poverty in Syria.”

Kind regards

Ian Sinclair

Brimstone missiles target the British public, not Islamic State

Brimstone missiles target the British public, not Islamic State
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
27 January 2016

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) press office must have been popping the corks in celebration of the prominent role the Brimstone missile played in the debate about whether the UK should start bombing ISIS in Syria.

Opening the parliamentary session before the vote to go to war, the prime minister explained that “Britain conducting strikes in Syria will really make a difference” because “our Brimstone missiles” provide a “high-precision strike capability”. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon went one further, stating the Brimstone missiles “eliminates… civilian casualties because it is so precise”.

Proving George Orwell’s dictum that “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip,” significant sections of our free press and many so-called independent experts faithfully echoed the government’s official line.

“The missile uses a low-powered but highly focused explosive warhead to reduce shrapnel hitting civilians,” noted the Telegraph. “The Brimstone is capable of hitting moving targets travelling at speeds of up to 70mph” and “can be launched from an aircraft up to seven miles away from as high as 20,000 feet.” The Daily Mail transformed from a newspaper into a sales brochure: “The missile that never misses: watch the incredible moment a drone launched Brimstone hits a car moving at 70mph from seven MILES away’. The Sun was equally enthusiastic just a week before the parliamentary vote: “Raining hell on IS: RAF missile will pinpoint jihadists SEVEN miles away.” The online media watchdog Media Lens accurately dubs this kind of overexcited narrow focus on the technical aspects of weaponry as “war porn”, with the BBC a big culprit.

Though their identity is based on notions of objectivity and critical thinking, academics can be just as susceptible to repeating government propaganda narrative as anyone else. For example, Dr James Strong, a Fellow in foreign policy analysis and international relations at the London School of Economics, was happy to sing Brimstone’s praises on both CNBC and Al Jazeera.

Those of independent mind with a basic knowledge of recent history will be far more sceptical of the claims made about, and the emphasis being put on, the Brimstone missile.

In the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War, the general public was repeatedly told about the precision weapons that would be targeting Iraqi forces. In reality 70 percent of all US bombs missed their targets, with precision-guided bombs making up just 7 percent of the US tonnage dropped on Iraqi targets. In his 2011 book The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, John Tirman explained that US bombing is estimated to have killed 20,000–30,000 Iraqi civilians.

On the day after the start of the illegal, unprovoked and deeply unpopular US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sun published a double page proclaiming ‘THE FIRST “CLEAN” WAR’, with the sub-headline “Civilian deaths could be zero, MoD claims”. In actual fact “thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed or injured during the three weeks of fighting”, according to a December 2003 report from Human Rights Watch. Ten years later a peer-reviewed study published in the PLOS Medicine journal estimated the war and occupation directly and indirectly claimed the lives of approximately half a million Iraqis from 2003 to 2011.

Just as the government emphasised precision bombing in 1991 and 2003, in making the case for war in December 2015 the Prime Minister claimed there “had been no reports of civilian casualties” in the over 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq since September 2014. And, just like 1991 and 2003, independent analysis suggests a very different reality.

Air Wars, a not-for-profit transparency project staffed by journalists, estimates that between 72 and 81 civilian deaths in Iraq could be linked to British air strikes. Unfortunately, confirmation will be all but impossible because the MoD apparently only investigates reports of civilian deaths that come from UK military personnel and “local forces” deemed friendly.

Air Wars’s findings raises awkward questions for the Brimstone believers: either Brimstone missiles were used during these strikes that likely caused civilian deaths or they were not used, which suggests the extreme focus on the Brimstone missile by the government, military and media is unwarranted. Indeed, Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, argues the Brimstone’s role is “far more important symbolically” than militarily because it will account for a “tiny proportion” of the total air strikes carried out on ISIS.

More broadly, the skilful public relations campaign pushing Brimstone probably has larger objectives other than simply defeating ISIS. First, as always, we need to follow the money. “MBDA, the manufacturer of the British Brimstone missile, is set to be the main economic beneficiary of” the decision to launch air strikes in Syria, notes the Sunday Herald. MBDA’s current order book of £7.8bn “is now set to increase significantly as missiles used in Syria and Iraq are eventually replaced.” With Brimstone missiles also used by the Saudi Arabian Air Force (which we don’t like to talk about because Saudi Arabia has probably used them in its UK-backed slaughter in Yemen), the Guardian recently reported the British Ambassador in Washington has been trying to get the US armed forces to adopt the missile.

Second, it is important to remember there was and continues to be considerable resistance to the British bombing in Syria, with a majority of Labour MPs and the Labour shadow cabinet opposed, along with the SNP, Plaid Cmyru, the Green Party, and a number of national newspapers.

The celebration of Brimstone, along with repeated references to “precision bombing”, was very obviously an attempt to gain public support for the military attack by neutering people’s concern about civilian casualties. Indeed, this propaganda play has likely had an additional worrying influence. “Politicians and public opinion in the West seem to be convinced that air power is less ‘messy’ than the use of ground forces,” according to Captain Steinar Sanderød of the Norwegian Air Force. “Such a perception of air power has greatly contributed to lowering the threshold for using force among Western politicians.”

All of which leads to a worrying realisation: the primary target of Britain’s Brimstone missiles so far has not been ISIS, but the British public.

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