Category Archives: Environment

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 September 2020

2019 was an extraordinary year for UK activism on the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion’s April 2019 rebellion, the school strikes and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change: The Facts all helped to radically shift public opinion. June 2019 polling from YouGov found “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before.”

“The sudden surge in concern is undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion… and activism from Greta Thunberg during the same period”, Matthew Smith, YouGov’s lead data journalist, explained.

More concretely, the House of Commons declared a climate emergency in May 2019. Introducing the motion, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the recent climate activism had been “a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say ‘We hear you’”.

The motion – one of the first in the world – showed the will of parliament but didn’t legally compel the government to act.

Then, in June 2019, following a recommendation from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Tory government committed the country to reducing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This move made the UK the first major economy in the world to pass a law to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.

Be in no doubt: parliament declaring a climate emergency and the government implementing a 2050 net zero target are huge wins for the UK environmental movement. However, speaking to the Morning Star in June 2019, Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Rupert Read called the CCC report which recommended the 2050 net zero target, “essentially dead on arrival”. And in September 2019 Ed Miliband said “2050 isn’t the radical position and now it’s seen as a conservative ‘small c’ position.”

So what are the problems with the 2050 net zero target?

First, the CCC’s 2050 target is derived from the October 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C – the maximum increase in temperature the 189 signatories of the 2016 UN Paris climate agreement pledged to limit global warming to.

However, as many climate experts have noted, the IPCC tends to be conservative in its predictions. “This is simply due to its structure”, Dr Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam University noted in 2014. “The IPCC report will contain only things that a whole group of scientists have agreed upon on a kind of consensus process. This kind of agreement tends to be the lowest common denominator.” He noted that sea level rise in the last two decades “has overtaken the speed of the upper range of previous projections of sea level of the IPCC”. Writing in Business Green in May 2019, Will Dawson from Forum For The Future, explained the ramifications of this: “The CCC is therefore using scenarios that are likely far too optimistic. Emissions have to be cut much faster than they assumed to keep to 1.5C.”

Second, the CCC admits the 2050 target, “if replicated across the world”, would deliver only a greater than 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C – reckless odds when you are talking about the fate of hundreds of millions of people.

Indeed, Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, recently stated “The problem is the framing the CCC has for net zero is already far removed from what is needed to meet our Paris commitments.” Anderson has co-authored new research, published in the peer-reviewed Climate Policy journal, highlighting this disconnect. The Guardian summarised the article’s key finding: “The UK’s planned reductions in emissions, even if it hits net zero by 2050, would be two or three times greater than its fair share of emissions under the landmark 2015 Paris agreement.”

Finally, the CCC report on 2050 is based on various questionable political assumptions. For example, the CCC admits the target date is partly informed by what is “feasible” and “politically acceptable” – and what is “credibly deliverable alongside other government objectives”.

The CCC also has a very conservative view about the possibility of large-scale behavioural change, with Chris Stark, the CCC’s Chief Executive, stating the 2050 target “is technically possible with known technologies and without major changes to consumer behaviours.” The report recommends a hardly radical “20% reduction in consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy” (to be “replaced by an increase in consumption of pork, poultry, and plant-based products”), and predicts a 60% growth in demand for air travel by 2050. They advise the government to curtail this surge rather than cut demand overall.

In short, the 2050 target date is not simply following the science but is underpinned by conservative assumptions about the likelihood of change, and intangible and changeable factors like public opinion and government priorities.

Worryingly, like a Russian doll the serious problems with the 2050 target sit within an even more concerning national and international policy context.

In its June 2020 progress report the CCC confirmed the steps the UK government has taken “do not yet measure up to meet the size of the Net Zero challenge and we are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change.” A new report from the Institute for Government is similarly critical of the government’s lack of action. “There is… little evidence that the government, and the politicians who waved the new target through with little debate, have confronted the enormous scale of the task ahead”, it notes.

Internationally, one of the most frightening facts I have ever read was effectively hidden in paragraph 13 of 19 of a page 27 report in the Guardian in July. “According to the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco [out of 189 signatories] is acting consistently with the [2016] Paris agreement’s goals, with the global temperature rise on course to exceed 3C by the end of the century even if the current pledges are met.”

Meanwhile the mercury keeps rising. Earlier this month the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation warned the world could exceed the key threshold of 1.5C by 2024, climate experts Pep Canadell and Rob Jackson noted on The Conversation website.

According to a leaked January 2020 report from US multinational investment bank JP Morgan, the earth is on track for a temperature increase of 3.5C by 2100. “Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory”, the paper notes. “Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive”.

We need, then, to massively increase the level of ambition and action of the UK’s response to the climate crisis. Professor Anderson argues the scale and timeframe of the transformation required needs to be larger and faster than Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after World War Two.

A positive step would be the adoption of an earlier net zero target date. Both Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, and Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, back a net zero target of 2030. Under Corbyn’s leadership a Green New Deal with a target date of 2030 was approved at the 2019 annual Labour Party conference (though didn’t fully make it into the party’s December 2019 general election manifesto). Impressively, in July Ed Miliband, now the Shadow Business and Energy Secretary, confirmed he backs the 2030 target date.

The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill recently tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas and co-sponsored by a group of 11 cross-party MPs is another ray of light, encapsulating many of the concerns about the UK’s lack of ambition set out above. Co-drafted by Professor Anderson and Professor Jackson – and already backed by 52 other MPs – the Bill pushes for a strengthening of the UK’s response the climate crisis, ensuring UK emissions are consistent with limiting average global temperatures to 1.5C.

Asked at Davos in January what she would like to see happen in the next year and a half, climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a typically wise answer: “That we start listening to the science and that we actually start treating the crisis as the crisis it is” because “without treating this as a real crisis we cannot solve it.”

Ian Sinclair tweets @IanSinclair.

Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill: Andrew Boswell interview

Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill: Andrew Boswell interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 September 2020

On 12 August Green MP Caroline Lucas, with the support of a group of eleven cross-party MPs, tabled the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, a private members bill, in parliament.

According to the campaign backing it, the Bill “has the potential to become the most significant move forward since the Climate Change Act 2008.”

Dr Andrew Boswell, an independent environmental consultant and former Green Party councillor who assisted in the drafting of the Bill, tells Ian Sinclair about its key components and why it is so desperately needed.

Ian Sinclair: The UK government often proclaims itself as a world leader when it comes to responding to the Climate Emergency. Can you explain the current legal targets and laws the government is required to adhere to, and what the problems are with these and the government’s response to them? 

Andrew Boswell:  Each year, globally, the world emits more carbon than the previous year, and atmospheric CO2 levels increase. The Climate Emergency will only stop getting much worse when all carbon pollution stops, and atmospheric levels stabilise.

The original Climate Change Act (CCA) targets set in 2008 allowed emissions to continue beyond 2050 at a fifth of 1990 levels. Fossil fuel companies could go on extracting, corporations could continue destroying nature, politicians could avoid acting, and the public could be lied to about the scale of the emergency. Continuing to suit corporate interests, the recently legislated “net-zero 2050” is only a small change to this pervading mindset, as it allows carbon pollution to continue, atmospheric levels to continue upwards, and the emergency to rapidly worsen for another 30 years.

In short, the Climate Change Act (CCA) targets reflect the extremely limited ambition of governments globally to tackle what is an emergency, and failure is built to their architecture.

First, the targets frame the policy response as incremental steps over decades. This is convenient for a Whitehall culture not fit to step up to the emergency: policy development can be played out as a slow-motion waltz of documents bouncing back and forth between the Committee of Climate Change (CCC) and government. It suits the lobby and media giants, who block and slow change at every step, and were exposed so well by Extinction Rebellion recently. 

Second, CCC carbon budgets are artifices. Far from being science-compliant budgets, they are politically-set, via huge Whitehall wrestling, to keep vested interests happy. The Treasury seeks to weaken them (bit.ly/CB_4thCB) as just another policy wrangle. Further, they are defined for five-year periods whilst the climate emergency is moving much faster.       

Third, recent science is providing real budgets which show how way off CCC budgets are. UK scientists (bit.ly/KAnderson2020) have recently shown that the UK is set to emit more than twice its Paris-compliant budget. Instead, the UK must reduce emissions at greater than 10% year-on-year reductions starting now. 

Further, cynical governments cherry pick dealing with the easiest half of the problem: they avoid accounting for emissions from shipping and aviation, and emissions from imports and exports.  These quietly forgotten consumption emissions are around 45% of UK emissions. Tariffs for home renewable energy production have been slashed whilst fossil fuels are funded with billions.  Secondary legislation in planning has allowed roads and airport expansion to proceed irrespective of their climate impact.

IS: What are the main tenets of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill? What is new in the Bill? 

AB: The Bill gives equal weight to both the climate and ecological emergencies with expert drafting from scientists, and fully frames the massive step-change and revolution in mindset required, and firmly places responsibility across all of government.

On the climate side, the Bill’s key objective is to limit UK emissions to a science-based carbon budget consistent with the Paris Agreement, including the Paris equity principle whereby the UK must reduce emissions faster compared to developing nations, and compensate for its historical contribution to global heating.

On the ecological side, the objectives are to restore soil, biodiverse habitats and ecosystems, reducing the human impact on them. The Bill links ecological renewal to carbon sinking by natural climate solutions (naturalclimate.solutions). Climate and ecology are two sides of the same coin and the Bill fully recognises this interdependence.

The Bill amends the CCA and creates an enhanced role for the CCC: this is expanded to cover the health of UK ecosystems including species abundance, quality of biodiversity and habitats, and soil quality, and to evaluate import/export supply chains for their impact on natural resources, land, waste and pollution. Legally binding annual targets are introduced for both climate and ecology to replace the slo-mo five-year budgets.

A Citizen’s Assembly (CA) is immediately set up, under the Bill, to develop a strategy, and the government is legally bound to legislate and develop policy from its recommendations. A non-binding UK climate assembly (climateassembly.uk) held recently demonstrated that the public take Climate Emergency very seriously and want to engage (bit.ly/Melia_WakeUp, bit.ly/C4N_CA).  Citizens want to solve this crisis, with expert advice: they see the benefits of acting and are generous in their time. This is true democracy which challenges the corporate controlled mindset against change, whilst giving political cover to the politicians willing to act.

IS: The Bill states it does not allow for negative emissions technologies. What are these and why is the Bill opposed to them?

AB:
Negative emissions technologies (NETs) seek to remove carbon from the atmosphere. For example, carbon capture and storage (CCS) proposes capturing post-combustion CO2 and burying it under the North Sea. It is proposed for UK electricity production from both gas-fired and biomass-fired power stations: both should be avoided on policy and technical grounds.

CCS does not exist at scale: it does not meet the urgency and will lock the UK into policy fail. This is because greater than 10% year-on-year emission reductions are required from now which means the UK reaching emissions levels around one fifth of those now by 2030. NETs will not be developed at scale by then, and therefore cannot significantly contribute to this crucial decade where steep and real cuts in emissions are needed to eradicate four fifths of current emissions. Depending on CCS will result in the unforgiveable policy fail of overshooting the Paris Agreement 1.5C target.

CCS has only emerged in policy to enable the same fossil fuel interests to delay real emission cuts despite compelling, but complex technical reasons against it. These include emissions leakage, biodiversity impacts, water and food production impacts, public health and air pollution. Non-burning technologies like solar, wind and energy storage are cheaper, can already be rolled out at scale, and can provide for our energy needs.

The Bill removes any dependency on NETs so that the UK can meet its overall objective of Paris compliance with reliable and existing technology, and by real emissions cuts. It does allow some niche use of NETs where emissions cannot be eliminated in steel and cement processes.

IS: The Bill mentions the Precautionary Principle (PP). What is this and how is it relevant to the climate crisis?

AB:
The 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration introduced the PP which says that where there are threats of serious, irreversible environmental damage, the lack of full scientific certainty is no reason for postponing cost-effective mitigation measures (bit.ly/RioArt15). The appeal judgement in Plan B’s case against Heathrow airport (bit.ly/PlanB_Heathrow) makes clear that the PP is part of UK law: properly applied it is a strong legal and policy tool for forcing governments to act on climate change (see my review at: bit.ly/Boswell_PP).

The Bill is both revolutionary and precautionary. Revolutionary:  it is a law for the future of a liveable planet for all species, and can lead radical global action. Precautionary: it obliges the UK government to take the maximum preventive action on the climate and ecological emergency now.

We need it on the statute and working as soon as possible. No surprise, the government have already delayed its parliamentary progress. Please ask you MP, especially Labour MPs at this stage, to support it.

Campaign resources for the Bill can be found at ceebill.uk. Andrew Boswell tweets @Andrew9Boswell.

Best books of 2019

Best Books of 2019
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” From its first sentence The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Penguin Books) by US writer David Wallace-Wells is a deeply frightening book chronicling the existential threat the climate crisis poses to humanity.

He notes all the commitments made at the 2015 Paris United Nations climate summit by the 195 signatories would still mean a deadly 3.2oC of warming by 2100. If this isn’t terrifying enough, he explains that as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”.

Answering Amitav Ghosh’s call for more fiction devoted to climate change, John Lanchester’s allegorical novel The Wall (Faber & Faber) considers how British society and politics could react to a climatic event called “the change”. Giving a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, Lanchester imagines a dystopian near future in which a colossal wall has been built along the entire coastline of the nation, manned by conscripted soldiers (“Defenders”) tasked with keeping out climate refugees (“The Others”) trying to get into the country.

Two other novels made an impression on me this year. Set in Chicago, Halle Butler’s The New Me (Orion) is a cutting, pathos-filled exploration of millennial work and social life, the bored and depressed female narrator is full of loathing for her work colleagues, so-called friends and, most of all, herself. Comic novelist Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (Simon & Schuster) also has a laser-like focus on the foibles and hypocrisies of contemporary Western culture, brilliantly skewing self-help gurus, hipsters, liberal parenting and mid-life crises – hell, pretty much everything and everyone is a target for satire. Rarely have I read an author where each sentence is so full of rich, imaginative language. And like the New Yorker’s 2010 novel The Ask it’s also hysterically funny, often in the most dark and delicious ways.

The new Glasgow Media Group (GMG) book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Pluto Press) is an essential read for anyone interested in the accusations of antisemitism directed at the Labour Party. In addition to showing how the media have played a key role in massively exaggerating the scale of the problem, the authors provide some welcome advice on how Labour can communicate much more successfully to the general public on this crucial issue. Heavily influenced by the GMG tradition, Mike Berry’s The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan) highlights how the British print and broadcast media, including the BBC, played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests.

Taken together these two books have much to teach about contemporary British politics and the hugely negative role played by the media. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

First we stop London City Airport, then Heathrow

First we stop London city Airport, then Heathrow
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 August 2019

On a muggy evening last month over 100 people attended a public meeting in a school hall in Wanstead, east London to hear about the proposed expansion of London City Airport (LCY).

Opened in 1987, the airport primarily services business travellers and the City, handling approximately 80,000 flights and 4.8 million passengers in 2018 (there is an annual cap of 111,000 flights).

The airport’s new masterplan proposes a maximum of 151,000 flights and 11 million passengers a year by 2035, and more flights early in the morning and late at night (night flights are not allowed). In addition the airport proposes dropping the weekend break that is currently in place for residents living under the airport’s flight paths – there are no flights from 12:30 on Saturdays to 12:30 on Sundays.

These would be “modest changes”, said Sean Bashforth, Director of Quod, LCY’s planning advisors since 2006. “We are committing to no noisier aircraft than fly at the moment.”

This attempt to placate opposition mirrors the airport’s slick public relations campaign, which is full of assurances about the expansion. “This is not going to be significant or uncontrolled growth”, Robert Sinclair, Chief Executive of LCY, told the BBC recently. “It will be done in a way that is very, very sustainable and responsible, and incremental.”

In contrast, John Stewart, Chair of HACAN East, a campaign group giving a voice to residents impacted by the airport, told the meeting “City Airport’s assurances in the past have not been good”.

“We were told it would be a small airport” when it was first built, he explained. “Then a series of planning applications went through and it got bigger and bigger, so the size of the airport now is a totally different beast to the one that was promised… I think that’s why there is mistrust and there is anxiety about the future”.

The proposed expansion would likely lead to nearly double the number of flights at the airport. “The density of the population around London City exceeds that of any other airport in the UK”, noted a briefing paper from HACAN East. Therefore, LCY “impacts more people than any UK airport bar Heathrow and Manchester”, with 74,000 people living within its “noise zone”, as defined by the EU.

“Major studies and reviews have concluded that aircraft noise is negatively affecting health and quality of life”, a 2016 report from the NGO Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) observed. “Exposure to aircraft noise can lead to short-term responses such as sleep disturbance, annoyance, and impairment of learning in children, and long-term exposure is associated with increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke and dementia.”

“There is evidence to suggest that aircraft noise may also lead to long-term mental health issues”, the AEF added.

Speaking at the meeting John Cryer, Labour MP for Leyton and Wanstead, said he has written to the government asking for an inquiry into the effects of air and noise pollution on communities living close to airports: “There has never been a government inquiry into this and I think it’s about time that we had that.”

In addition to noise levels, climate change is increasingly a concern for many people. In April the Guardian noted “Worldwide, aviation is one of the fastest growing sectors for greenhouse gas emissions, which increased by 76.1% between 1990 and 2012, according to the UN’s climate body.” Paying lip-service to the ongoing shift in public opinion on climate change engendered by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the student climate strikes, Liam McKay, the Director of Corporate Affairs at LCY, told the meeting “Carbon is very important… The airport is committed to being net-zero by 2050”.

A young woman in the audience wasn’t impressed. “I am a Mum. I’m going to have two little girls who are going to be living in this country and this world in 70, 80, 100 years’ time. And you are talking about continuing to expand the ruination of our environment.” To applause she directly asked the representatives from LCA “Do you have children? Do you care about what happens to their future?”

And LCY’s impressive-sounding commitment to be “net-zero by 2050”? Turns out this refers to the airport estate itself – not the hundreds of thousands of flights in and out of the airport, of course.

There are indications the government is waking up to aviation’s key role in exacerbating the climate crisis. In its report recommending the adoption of a net-zero carbon target by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) raises the possibility of constraining aviation demand, noting they plan to write to the government about “its approach to aviation” later this year.

Similarly in May 2019 the BBC News website reported that a senior civil servant from the Department of Transport had said it may be necessary to review the UK’s expected aviation growth in light of the CCC’s report.

Interviewed by the Morning Star earlier this month, Dr Declan Finney, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, and Dr Giulio Mattioli, a research associate at TU-Dortmund in Germany, were blunter in their analysis: “expanding airports is not a neutral technical measure, it’s a political choice with important consequences. And it flies in the face of the Climate Emergency declaration passed by the House of Commons.”

Stewart, as readers may be aware, has form when it comes to opposing airport expansion, having led the campaign which stopped the proposed Third Runway at Heathrow in 2010 – one of the biggest and most important wins for grassroots activism in post-war UK history.

In his inspiring pamphlet Victory Against All The Odds: The Story Of How The Campaign To Stop A Third Runway At Heathrow Was Won, Stewart highlights the central role played by direct action activists – Plane Stupid – in this victory. “As well as dramatizing the issue, it put real pressure on the Government and frightened the construction industry in a way that conventional campaigning on its [own] could not have done”, Stewart explains about the direct action undertaken in the 1990s opposing road building, and why he was so happy when Plane Stupid started campaigning on Heathrow.

On LCY’s proposed expansion, it is possible Stewart will, once again, be joined in his campaign by direct action activists. In a newly published memo discussing XR’s strategy and tactics moving forward, Rupert Read, a member of the group’s political strategy team, discusses focussing on aviation. “Target London City Airport, rather than Heathrow”, he suggests, arguing the fight to stop LCY expansion is “more easily winnable” than stopping Heathrow expansion.

“Because London City is overwhelmingly used by business people and the rich, and offers little benefit to the local community” Read believes “it would be a perfect opportunity to land the message that, while we all have a responsibility to prevent ecocide together, it is big business, the super-rich and the City that bears the heaviest responsibility.”

“If we stopped London City Airport expansion, we could then move onto Heathrow afterwards”, he concludes.

Let’s hope, for the sake of the young woman with two children, local residents and, indeed, the entire planet, that Extinction Rebellion turns its attention to aviation, including the expansion of London City Airport, very soon.

Visit http://www.hacaneast.org.uk for more information about the campaign. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair

Book review. Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis edited by Martin Empson

Book review. Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis edited by Martin Empson
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
2 September 2019

Systems Change Not Climate Change is a collection of eleven essays from members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and other socialist authors.

Writing in the introduction Martin Empson argues the multiple environmental crises which pose an existential threat to humanity – including climate change and biodiversity loss – are caused by “the nature of capitalist society.” Therefore “those who argue that we should change our individual lifestyles – giving up cars or flying, changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet – are missing the point”, he maintains. “We need to challenge the very existence of those fossil fuel corporations and the system that needs them.”

Ian Rappel’s critique of the increasingly neoliberal idea of “natural capital” is thought-provoking, as is Camilla Royle’s discussion of the politics surrounding the concept of the Anthropocene. I was particularly struck by Amy Leather’s point that “nothing sums up the irrationality of capitalism more than” single use plastics – “materials that can last practically forever are used to make products designed to be thrown away.”

As much as the book is a sign the SWP is now making the climate crisis a priority in terms of campaigning it is very welcome.

However, I found myself deeply frustrated by many of the authors’ cult-like reverence for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Incredibly smart political philosophers they might have been, but how useful are their nineteenth century writings in terms of understanding climate change today? In addition, the book seems to have come out of a closed, small circle of peer review and citation – a huge red flag in serious academic research. For example, Royle’s chapter cites Canadian socialist Ian Angus and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, Judith Orr and Chris Harman from the SWP, and “benefitted from feedback” from Rappel and Empson and the SWP’s Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara.

Accordingly, the reader is repeatedly told “we must replace capitalism with a socialist system” to solve the climate and environmental crises. How this admirable goal sits with the March 2019 statement from the United Nations explaining the world has “just over a decade… to stop irreversible damage from climate change”, and experts warning deep emissions cuts need to happen in the next few years, is never explored. Indeed, this incredibly short timescale strongly suggests activists in the UK and beyond will almost certainly have to work out how to force radical action from within the existing capitalist system.

Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis is published by Bookmarks, priced £8.

UK airport expansion and the climate catastrophe: interview with Declan Finney and Giulio Mattioli

UK airport expansion and the climate catastrophe: interview with Declan Finney and Giulio Mattioli
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
30 July 2019

The debate about airport expansion in the UK and the climate crisis has been dominated by Heathrow Airport.

In a recent article for Carbon Brief, Dr Declan Finney, a post-doctoral researcher in the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science at the University of Leeds, and Dr Giulio Mattioli, a research associate at the Department of Transport Planning at TU-Dortmund in Germany and guest research fellow in the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, broadened the debate by discussing their research on airport expansion across the UK.

Ian Sinclair: What did your research discover about expansion plans for UK airports and whether these are compatible with the ‘net zero carbon emissions by 2050’ pathway set out by the Committee on Climate Change and accepted by the government?

Declan Finney and Giulio Mattioli: Some UK airports already have capacity to serve many more passengers than currently, and have indicated intentions to drive demand for this capacity. For example, Manchester served 28 million passengers in 2017, but there could be 55 million passengers flying from the airport within the next few decades. Meanwhile, environmental movements such as youthstrike4climate and Extinction Rebellion have carried out protests around the approval of several airport expansions, notably Heathrow with plans to increase passenger numbers by over 70 per cent. But also smaller airports such Leeds-Bradford which has been given approval for 70 per cent increase on current numbers. On top of all that, all other airports we looked at had ambitious plans for expansion. Many of these plans are shockingly large given the already substantial contribution aviation makes to climate change, but the aim for a nine-fold increase in passenger numbers at Doncaster-Sheffield airport from 1.3 million to 11.8 million by 2050 is particularly large.

We considered these changes in line with the limited growth of 25 per cent by 2050 (relative to today) allowed by the Committee on Climate Change. Based on our conservative estimates, full use of existing capacity and approved expansions would already push us beyond that level of growth. Heathrow alone would be a 19 per cent increase. However, when ambitions of all the airports are taken into consideration the UK aviation industry appears to be aiming for a 60 per cent growth in demand on 2017 passenger numbers. It will be extremely difficult to compensate the emissions resulting from such an increase in demand with other measures, and would rely on approaches that the Committee on Climate Change considers to “have very low levels of technology readiness, very high costs, and/or significant barriers to public acceptability.”

IS: In your Carbon Brief article you make an interesting comparison between road building in the 20th century and proposed airport expansions today.

DF and GM: There are strong parallels. In the 1950s and 1960s the conventional wisdom was that a rapid increase in car ownership and use was inevitable, and that it would result in crippling congestion unless the network was expanded and roads widened. What happened though is that those roads actually encouraged more car use (and ultimately congestion), in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy which transport experts call “induced demand”. It could be said that something similar is happening now with airports. We are told that it is imperative to expand them, or we won’t be able to cope with increased demand. But the truth is that airport expansion will result in more and cheaper flights, which in turn will encourage people to fly more often. By contrast, if we choose not to expand airports, chances are that demand for air travel will not increase as much. The key point is that none of this is inevitable: expanding airports is not a neutral technical measure, it’s a political choice with important consequences. And it flies in the face of the Climate Emergency declaration passed by the House of Commons.

IS: Last month The Guardian published a report titled ‘Electric planes on the horizon as industry heeds climate warnings’. What do you make of claims that “some forms of sustainable aviation… may be coming into view”, as the report asserts?

DF and GM: It’s important to keep in mind that such claims come mainly from the aviation industry, and are amplified by over-enthusiastic media. Who doesn’t love an article about some fancy new ‘green’ technology? The reason why the industry keeps pushing these claims is that it buys them time. If new tech could clean up aviation, there would be no need to curb air travel demand and airport expansion, and the aviation industry could continue with business-as-usual. The truth though is that there is no technological fix to the aviation emission problem. There is no technology that could be scaled up quickly enough to offset the projected increases in demand. Small electric planes might substitute some short-haul flights in the course of the next decade, but they can hardly be scaled up to flights over longer distances – and these make for the bulk of emissions. So that will be nowhere near enough to achieve the CO2 reductions that we need. Which is why we need to talk about reducing (or at least not increasing) the number of flights.

IS: What policies do you think the UK government could introduce that would curb demand, and therefore emissions, in the aviation sector?

DF and GM: Given what we’ve discussed, a first measure would obviously be some sort of moratorium on airport expansion and possibly the scaling down of some existing airports. Besides that, there are lots of measures that are currently being discussed among academics and environmental activists. These include, for example, introducing a kerosene tax – few people know it, but aviation fuel is virtually untaxed. This is socially unfair, as domestic energy and road fuel, which are consumed by most of the population, are taxed. That’s compared to only about a quarter of the British population that flies more than once in a typical year. This is why some have proposed a ‘frequent flyer levy’, which would exempt one flight per person per year, but would apply to all subsequent flights. Other measures might include caps on short-haul and domestic flights, institutional changes in the travel policies of organizations, and improving alternative modes travel.

The use of trains instead of planes for certain journeys is one example of where government could encourage a shift in demand to lower emission travel. For instance, measures could be put in place to ensure comparable advertising of journey times. Whilst trains tend to go city centre to city centre and you can normally jump straight on, there is often substantial travel needed to reach airports as well as go through check-in and security. Researchers have compared actual travel times, and for a journey such as London-Amsterdam there is very little difference in actual travel time, but flights would be advertised as around two and half hours faster. From personal experience, another barrier to using trains is the difficulty in buying tickets. While with flights it’s straight-forward to buy a single ticket that takes you to your final destination (even if there are changeovers), with trains you often have to buy several parts of a journey to Europe separately. The government could work to break down unnecessary barriers such as this to make the most carbon efficient types of travel easier to use for the public.

Read the full article, Planned Growth of UK Airports Not Consistent with Net-zero Climate Goal, at Carbon Brief http://www.carbonbrief.org.

 

Book review: This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond

Book review: This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond by Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 July 2019

Embodying the honesty, alarm and radicalism of Extinction Rebellion (XR), This Civilisation Is Finished is a persuasive and passionate primer about the Climate Emergency the world faces.

It’s a very short, discursive book – made up of readable email exchanges and Skype conversations between Dr Rupert Read, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and key figure in XR, and Dr Samuel Alexander, co-director of the Simplicity Institute in Melbourne.

“Civilisation is going down. It will not last”, is Read’s stark analysis of humanity’s future (Alexander tends to ask the questions). “We will most likely see 3-4 degrees of global over-heat at a minimum, and that is not compatible with civilisation as we know it.” This means our “industrial-growthist civilisation” will be transformed – it’s just a matter of how, Read argues. First, “civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally”. Second, civilisation will manage to seed a successor civilisation as it collapses. Or third, our civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself. With our civilisation showing almost no sign of taking the climate crisis seriously, Read believes the first and second scenarios are most likely.

The discussions range far and wide, with references stretching from the movies Avatar and The Road to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Milton Friedman. Alexander warns of the problem of soft climate denial – “denial of the scale and urgency of the problem” – and “techno-optimism”: the belief that technology will be able to solve the major social and environmental problems of our time without changing the fundamental structure of society.

Considering the dominant economic systems of both left and right-wing governments, Read argues encouraging economic growth “is prima facie now a dangerous thing to encourage”, an insane ideology on a planet which is already breaching its climate and ecological limits.

Though pessimistic about the future of the planet, Read is nevertheless surprisingly hopeful, urging readers to get active and involved in activist and political movements to combat climate change. However, he notes the task of XR and other climate activists is harder than the US civil rights movement XR takes inspiration from – XR, after all, “is challenging our whole way of life.”

At times frightening but always thought-provoking, This Civilisation Is Finished is likely to be a life-changing book for some people. “I would ask every reader who has made it this far to get serious about this”, Read concludes. “What are you going to do to manifest what is now called for?”

This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond is published by the Simplicity Institute.

 

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 June 2019

The past year has been the busiest and most exciting of his life, Rupert Read tells me when we meet in London before his appearance at a Guardian event on Extinction Rebellion.

Last summer Read, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and senior Green Party figure, refused an invitation from the BBC to debate a climate change denier. He went on to lead a short campaign which culminated in a BBC memo warning staff of “false balance” when reporting climate change. “To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday”, wrote Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs.

For the past few years Read, 53, has also been giving lectures, speaking with a refreshing – perhaps shocking – honesty about the climate crisis. “I think there is a very real possibility that the latter part of the lives of most people in this room is going to be grim or non-existent”, Read told first year students arriving at the UEA in 2016 to nervous laughter.

“When I started giving these talks… I was worried I would just demoralise people and turn people off”, Read tells me. “I was worried I would be attacked for being a defeatist. But actually that didn’t happen. From the beginning the overwhelming response has been positive. People found it liberating, people have found it exciting, people have really related to the honesty of it.”

After watching a similar lecture online given by Gail Bradbrook, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, Read quickly became involved in the grassroots organisation. What has become known as XR has three demands: the government must tell the truth by declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency; the government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025; and a citizen’s assembly must be established to lead the government’s response to climate breakdown.

On 31 October 2018 Read acted at the co-MC for the initial “Declaration of Rebellion” event in London, when a street was blocked in Parliament Square in London. “We didn’t really know if it was going to work, we didn’t know whether people were going to do it, we didn’t know how the police would react”, he says. “It was surprisingly easy, which is one of the things that is very interesting about large-scale nonviolent direct action. When you get a lot of people together it’s quite challenging for the police to deal with and stop”.

He also played a key role in the November 2018 “bridges action”, when thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters managed to block and hold five bridges in central London for one day. It was, Read explains, “proof of concept”, its success leading onto what he calls the “international rebellion” in April 2019. By now Read was part of Extinction Rebellion’s political strategy group and acting as one of the main spokespeople in the media.

During this action Extinction Rebellion occupied several key sites in central London – Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square – for an incredible eleven days. Over 1,100 people were eventually arrested.

“In the first few days the media were very, very hostile to us”, Read notes. “Then as we went on and we gradually grew and attracted more of people’s sympathy and support because of our persistence, because the message started to get through, that gradually changed. And then in the second week we were getting these massive transformational effects.” For example, writing in the Daily Telegraph former Tory leader William Hague argued “It is time to recognise that these young activists are indeed focused on the right issue. The solutions presented by protesters in London or by Green parties around the world may be ill thought-out, but the analysis is now hard to gainsay.”

More broadly, Read argues the April action achieved “a breakthrough in consciousness” on the climate crisis, with a YouGov survey earlier this month finding “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before”. This upsurge in anxiety was “undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion”, the pollster noted.

“The ground had been, in a sense, prepared”, Read says, highlighting the importance of the School Strikes for Climate and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary ‘Climate Change – The Facts’, which aired during the rebellion.

“We achieved emotional resonance”, he continues. “A lot of our successful media coverage is, I think, based on the fact that we have allowed us to show and express our grief and our horror, and our fear, and our love in ways that were very unusual hitherto in the so-called environmental movement.”

Indeed, whilst others, such as Peace News, have been critical of what they describe as the group’s “apocalyptic organising”, Read argues the success of the April rebellion “has proved that it is false to claim apocalyptic messages and despair and climate honesty are demotivating.”

“In fact it is becoming clear they are hugely motivating, and hugely empowering, when they are done right, and when they are done honestly and when they are done in the context of taking action around them.”

Perhaps most impressively, the April protests led to Read and others, including student climate strikers, meeting Environment Secretary Michael Gove and other senior political figures including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

“That was all prepared way in advance”, he explains. “There were plans for how this would happen, who would do it, what kind of things we would do when we did it, who would we try to target for such meetings.”

“We urged him to tell the truth, we urged the declaration of a Climate Emergency”, Read says about the meeting with Gove, which was filmed and is available online. Gove didn’t do this, but he did admit there was an emergency in parliament and the Tories didn’t oppose the Labour motion to declare an emergency, meaning the House of Commons became the first national parliament to officially declare a Climate Emergency on 1 May 2019.

A few days after the interview Theresa May’s government accepted the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation the UK achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Read believes the difference between the 2050 target and Extinction Rebellion’s 2025 target is “probably the difference between a chance of a decent future and a near certainty of civilisational collapse.”

“Unfortunately the climate change committee report is essentially dead on arrival”, he says. Why? “It’s a report that is tailored to a sense of what is politically feasible and societally acceptable that no longer exists and has been transcended.”

“Between the time of them drafting their report and it actually being published – it was published immediately after the end of the [April] rebellion – that whole landscape has been transformed.”

Looking to the future, Read notes the group is planning for the next stage of the rebellion, likely to take place around 20 September 2019 – the date student climate strikers have asked adults to strike alongside them. This mobilisation “will probably mark the first step in the build-up to the autumn phase of Extinction Rebellion, which we intend to be longer and deeper than the spring phase.”

With the Metropolitan Police Commissioner recently telling London Assembly members her force would learn from the April protests, how do Extinction Rebellion intend to deal with the police? “The aim of many Extinction Rebellion actions is to create what we call action dilemmas – action dilemmas for the police, for the authorities”, Read replies. This staple of nonviolent struggle is about forcing a ‘lose-lose’ situation upon public authorities, in which they either concede the space and initiative to the protesters, or risk looking repressive if they try to deal with them too harshly.

“They are going to risk creating more sympathy for us if they end up locking people up who are clearly decent non-violent people who are doing this knowingly and accountably for a cause that more and more people recognise as just”, Read says.

Hopeful the group can attract significantly more people than it did in April, Read thinks the size and impact of the autumn mobilisation could be unprecedented: “If we could get 20,000 or 30,000 people willing to take direct action on the streets in a concerted fashion for a long period of time, who knows what we could achieve next time?”

Co-authored with Samuel Alexander, Rupert Read’s new book This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the End of Empire – and What Lies Beyond is published by the Simplicity Institute.

The Awesome Power of Non-violent Action

The Awesome Power of Non-violent Action
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 June 2019

Speaking on the Arab Tyrant Manual podcast recently, Jamila Raqib discussed the widespread ignorance that surrounds non-violent struggle.

“It’s not very well known. We don’t really highlight the history. We think that progress and human rights are won through violence. We think that it [violence] is the most powerful thing you can do,” she explained.

Raqib is as well-placed as anyone to speak about non-violence. Since 2002 she has worked at the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), set up in 1983 “to advance the study and use of strategic non-violent action in conflicts throughout the world,” according to its mission statement.

Moreover, she worked closely with the legendary Dr Gene Sharp — often called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” — until he passed away last year.

“There is thousands of years of rich history that I don’t think people are very aware of,” Raqib, the AEI’s executive director, says about non-violence.

“We are not aware of our own societies that have used these means, and we are not aware of how they have been used globally.”

Part of the problem is that the mainstream media rarely frames examples of strategic non-violent struggle and activism for what it is. However, successful non-violent action is happening all the time: you just need to read the news with this in mind.

For example, before April 2018 the Guardian reported that “the ruling Republican party’s stranglehold” on Armenia’s political system “appeared intact.”

Presumably confident any public response could be contained, the president of the former Soviet republic, Serzh Sargsyan, moved to install himself as prime minister after term limits had forced him to step down from the presidency.

This move proved especially controversial because “the constitution was amended to give more power to the prime minister and transform the presidency into a ceremonial role,” the Guardian explained.

A non-violent movement quickly grew in response, with thousands of people protesting for days in the capital Yerevan, blocking streets and staging sit-ins.

The leader of the opposition, Nikol Pashinyan, was imprisoned, but the demonstrations continued. With groups of soldiers joining the opposition in the streets, Pashinyan was released.

Sargsyan resigned on April 23 2018. “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong,” Sargsyan announced. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demands.”

On May 8 2018 Pashinyan became prime minister. “We took down a powerful man with no help from outside, with no violence,” a pensioner in Armenia told the Guardian.

Earlier this year a similar set of events took place in Algeria. In February the autocratic president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced he would seek a fifth term in office after two decades in power.

Again a protest movement grew in response, with peaceful mass demonstrations occurring every Friday, centred on the capital, Algiers.

“In the face of fully armoured riot police, Algeria’s young and old have been seen distributing flowers to security forces during the marches, chanting passionately ‘Pacifism, Pacifism’,” noted Ahmed Mitiche, a graduate student in the Centre for Middle Eastern & North African studies programme at the University of Michigan in The New Arab last month.

As in Armenia, the impact of this civil resistance has been huge. On March 11 Bouteflika announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

The protests continued, and on April 2 Bouteflika was forced to step down, with Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper house of parliament, installed as interim president.

“By keeping protests peaceful, and forcing the army to support them — it was an intervention by the army chief of staff, Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, that finally persuaded Bouteflika to go — Algeria’s reformists have already achieved more than most of their predecessors in the 2011-12 Arab spring revolts,” the Guardian’s foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall noted.

In Sudan, people have been taking to the streets since December 2018. “The trigger of the revolt was the increase in bread prices after the state cut subsidies at the behest of the IMF,” Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at Soas, recently explained in an interview with Jacobin magazine.

These grievances soon evolved into demonstrations against the 30-year rule of authoritarian president Omar al-Bashir.

In an attempt to quell the protests, Bashir declared a state of emergency in February. This gave security services “expanded powers to search buildings, restrict movement of people and public transport, arrest suspects and seize assets or property during investigations,” Reuters reported in March.

Bashir also “announced a raft of other measures, including setting up emergency courts and prosecutors across the country. Activists say more than 800 people have been tried in the courts.”

Despite the crackdown, the non-violent protests continued, with Bouteflika’s resignation in Algeria in early April seeming to energise the Sudanese opposition.

Days-long sit-ins and protest camps attended by tens of thousands of people were held outside Bashir’s official residence and military headquarters in the capital Khartoum.

News reports noted that when forces loyal to the president fired live rounds at the protest camps, soldiers protected the protesters — giving them shelter, firing shots in the air and blocking the approaches to their protest camps.

On April 11 Bashir was placed under house arrest, replaced by the defence minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf as transitional leader. However, “the protesters rejected Ibn Auf’s leadership because he was the head of military intelligence during the brutal campaign to suppress the Darfur insurgency in the 2000s,” The Guardian reported. On April 13 Ibn Auf was forced to resign, as was Salah Gosh, head of the unpopular National Intelligence and Security Service.

Today, the pro-democracy movements in Sudan and Algeria are in an ongoing power struggle with the military. Though the future of both nations remains uncertain, the power of non-violent struggle is clear.

Protesting violently is “foolish,” Sharp told me, when I interviewed him in 2012. Why? “If your enemy has massive capacity for violence — and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence — why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons?”

Though they weren’t on the same mass scale as the demonstrations in Armenia, Algeria and Sudan, the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London have nevertheless had a huge impact on British politics.

Explicitly non-violent — Roger Hallam, a lead strategist, has repeatedly cited as influences the US civil rights movement and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen’s seminal book Why Civil Resistance Works — the group’s occupation of several locations in central London wrongfooted the authorities.

In particular the willingness of so many activists to seek arrest meant “the police are genuinely confused,” as Labour Party environmental adviser Alan Simpson explained in the Morning Star.

The Guardian confirmed this uncertainty, noting “anecdotal evidence from those on the ground suggests police are approaching the protests with a light touch.”

The report went on to highlight the College of Policing’s guidelines on public-order policing, which advises “commanders need to set the policing style and tone at the start of an operation and be aware of the potential impact on public perceptions.”

Along with David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change — The Facts and the ongoing school strikes, Extinction Rebellion has significantly shifted the debate about climate change in Britain.

Within days of the protests, Extinction Rebellion activists held meetings with Tory Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

“They are a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say: ‘We hear you’,” Corbyn said about the Extinction Rebellion protests as he introduced a motion asking Parliament to declare a “climate emergency.”

Labour’s motion won a historic victory — on May 2 2019 the British Parliament became the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s government has ditched its planned cuts to aviation tax and is reportedly considering withdrawing its support for a third runway at Heathrow.

The climate-change bug has even reached the Tory Party, with the Guardian reporting: “The 60-strong One Nation group of senior Tories” is “urging contenders for their party’s leadership to put the battle against the climate emergency at the forefront of the contest.”

“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon,” Attenborough warned recently.

With the climate emergency creating such high stakes for humanity, it is more important than ever that people understand the immense power of strategic non-violent struggle and activism.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 March 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So begins The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, David Wallace-Wells’s brilliant new book on the existential threat of climate change which, judging by its frightening contents, should be placed next to Stephen King in the horror section of every bookshop.

“I don’t come to it with a life of attachment to environmental causes”, Wallace-Wells, 36, tells me when I ask him about his initial interest in the subject when we met in a central London hotel last month. “Five years ago I would have said climate change was an important issue and we should be addressing it but I didn’t understand it was a totalising challenge that actually governed all of the other political goals that we might have in this world.”

He says he has been “completely transformed” by his research and writing on climate, which received national and international attention with his 2017 article in New York Magazine, where he is Deputy Editor. Quoting climate scientists, the article – which has the same title as the book – looked at some of the likely effects of the worst-case scenarios in terms of global temperature rise. It became the most read article in the history of the publication. “There was a vocal minority of scientists who took issue with it”, Wallace-Wells concedes. “So I wanted to really rigorously focus the book on a smaller range possible outcomes. In the article I was talking about warming up to 5, 6 and even 8°C. In the book I mention those levels a couple of times but it’s very much focused on 2°C to 4°C, which is inarguably the boundaries of reasonable contemplation.”

For the uninitiated, these figures refer to the increase in global temperature on pre-industrial levels. The world has already experienced a 1°C increase. At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris the 195 signatory nations pledged to keep global warming to “well below” 2°C and “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5°C. However, speaking to the Morning Star in 2016, the respected climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson explained the commitments made at the summit would likely lead to 3-4°C of global warming by 2100.

Despite the book’s narrower focus, its conclusions – based on hundreds of references to the latest scientific research – are still horrifying. “Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”, Wallace-Wells writes. And just to scare you further, it’s important to understand that the larger the temperature increase, the more likely feedback mechanisms and the sheer complexity of the world’s climate system will lead to runaway climate change that humanity will be unable to control.

“At 4°C of warming we will have made inevitable the total collapse of all the ice sheets on the planet, which will mean, over time, at least 50 and probably 80 metres of sea level rise”, he tells me. “That will take centuries to unfold but it will mean millions of square miles of coastline underwater, many of the world’s biggest cities completely drowned” and “will literally redraw the map of the world and make the planet unrecognisable in many, many ways.”

Turning to the dire effects of heat, he notes “it’s possible as soon as 2050, when we will be at about 2°C of warming or a little bit warmer than that, that many of the major cities in India and the Middle East will be lethally hot in summer. You won’t be able to reliably go outside, work outside during the summer months without incurring some lethal risk.”

He believes this will contribute to an unprecedented global refugee crisis, and notes in 2017 the UN estimated climate change might create as many as a billion climate refugees by 2050 – “which is as many people as today live in North and South America combined.” He is careful to qualify this, explaining the UN’s estimate is very much at the high-end of projections: “Even if we only get to 75 million 100 million that’s a refugee crisis many times bigger than anything with ever seen before”.

The evidence points to “dramatic” economic impacts too, he argues. “The best research suggests at about 4°C of warming we will be dealing with the global economy… that was 30 per cent smaller than it would be without climate change. That is an impact twice as big as the Great Depression. And it would be permanent.”

With the effects of climate change so serious and all-encompassing, the environmental movement has long debated how best to present the facts and dangers to the general public in a way that will engender engagement and action. The consensus, in the UK at least, has been for messaging fixed around notions of hope and positive visions of the future. For example, speaking at a World Development Movement public event in 2008 Green MP Caroline Lucas argued “the rhetoric of fear and disaster and tipping points is deeply scary, and it’s deeply unhelpful.”

“It doesn’t work to try to terrify people in to action”, she continued.

Wallace-Wells, as readers of his book will attest, takes a very different position: “As I look out at the world it just strikes me that although there are some people who are at risk of being pushed into despair and fatalism, the number of people who are living complacently in the modern world about climate is just so much bigger.”

Careful not to dismiss hopefulness and optimism – “anything that sticks” is good – he points to the history of environmental activism and political mobilisation to back up his argument. The influential role Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring had in banning DDT pesticide, drunk driving and anti-smoking campaigns – all of these successes were not accomplished “by messaging optimistically and talking about hope” but were based on fear and alarm, he argues.

He also points to the historic recommendation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year – that to stay below a 1.5°C temperature increase the world must immediately embark on a World War II-level mobilisation to shift away from fossil fuels. “There were threads of hope and optimism that was part of that [the mobilisation in World War Two] but there was also, obviously, a lot of fear and panic and alarm about what would happen if we didn’t mobilise”, he says.

While The Uninhabitable Earth is certainly alarming, Wallace-Wells himself is hopeful about the future in many ways, highlighting new activism such as Extinction Rebellion and 16-year old Swede Greta Thunberg and the global school strikes she has inspired.

He also points to significant shifts in US public opinion, with a recent Yale University/George Mason  University survey finding six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

Turning to US politics, he is excited that the Democratic Party is “effectively and totally” signed on to the Green New Deal, the proposed economic stimulus programme that reiterates the goals of the UN to hold global warming to 1.5°C. Mirroring what happened with Heathrow expansion and UK politics in the mid-2000s, he notes the Green New Deal has become “a kind of litmus test for any Democratic candidate” for president, with climate change likely to be a first order priority alongside healthcare and education in the Democratic primaries.

”I even think that will impact the Republican Party over time”, he predicts.

Looking at the big picture, in the book Wallace-Wells maintains the climate chaos which is now upon us “has been the work of a single generation.” The generation coming of age today faces a very different and essential task, he believes: “the work of preserving our collective future, forestalling… devastation and engineering an alternate path.”

“We are living in incredibly consequential times. What we do now politically, culturally, economically will determine the – not to put it too bluntly – that habitability of the planet going forward”, he tells me. “Humans have never been in that position before, never held that kind of power in our hands before.”

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.