Tag Archives: Caroline Lucas

“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.

This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview

This year’s Nobel prize winners are changing the culture on nuclear weapons – interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2017

Changing the culture around nuclear weapons to seeing them as just another dangerous weapon of mass destruction, won ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) a pivotal UN treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Ian Sinclair interviews Rebecca Sharkey, ICAN’s UK Coordinator from 2012-2017 on the background, the future – and the UK’s role in it.

Ian Sinclair: As the Nobel Peace Prize highlights, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was an incredible achievement. How did it come about? What was the most difficult hurdle ICAN had to overcome to make it happen?

Rebecca Sharkey: Nuclear weapons were born in WWII, one of the darkest chapters in human history. The fear of nuclear weapons hung like a silent and terrifying cloud over the lives of millions of people during the decades following Hiroshima. And it was only by luck that one of the very many near misses didn’t mutate into a nuclear nightmare. Growing up in the eighties, I can remember that on the horizon in the distance in my nightmares was a mushroom cloud, silently unfurling in slow motion to destroy everything I knew and loved. But although my fear largely dissolved at the end of the Cold War, as it did for most people, the threat of nuclear weapons did not go away; if anything, our volatile world is more unsafe than ever. At the heart of ICAN’s campaign is a wake-up call to the world about this existential threat, and an urgent call to action to prevent catastrophic humanitarian harm.

One of the myths instilled in those of us brought up in nuclear armed countries is that nuclear weapons provide security. It is this unsubstantiated claim that underlines the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and is an article of faith for so many decision makers in countries like ours. Prime Minister Theresa May stated in July 2016 that it would be “an act of gross irresponsibility” for the UK to give up its nuclear weapons; it would constitute “a gamble with the safety and security of families in Britain that we must never be prepared to take”. At the same time, the UK’s [then] Defence Minister Michael Fallon MP repeats the mantra that “We share the vision of a world that is without nuclear weapons, achieved through multilateral disarmament”. This ‘doublethink’ is the reason why so many previous attempts at nuclear disarmament have stalled: why would you give up something that you believe is essential to your security? Overcoming deep acceptance of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and what currently represents a mainstream moderate position in nuclear armed states was ICAN’s central and most difficult hurdle to overcome.

ICAN strategy is to change the culture around nuclear weapons, stripping them of their perceived value and status, stigmatising them so that they can be seen for what they really are: weapons of mass destruction with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. As ICAN colleagues have argued, “We showed how the claim that nuclear deterrence has prevented war requires ignoring the poor record these weapons have at preventing conflict. We demonstrated the pervasive harm they have caused to many people living in areas affected by use and testing, undercutting claims that nuclear weapons provide security”. Instead of answering the question ‘how can my country be safe without nuclear weapons’ we turned the tables and asked ‘how can the world be safe while nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to everyone?’

In practical terms, this involved building a global coalition of organisations and individuals all committed to campaigning for the prohibition of nuclear weapons under international law, as the other weapons of mass destruction are. In 100 countries, ICAN campaigners lobbied decision makers, circulated petitions, organised creative stunts, wrote articles and pitched to journalists, held public meetings, protested in the street, made a splash on social media. We came together at civil society forums to share and debate ideas, to sharpen our messages and tactics, and to make friends. We shook up international government-level disarmament conferences by bringing groups of campaigners of all ages and from all continents to debate with diplomats and promote our talking points; we gave speaking platforms to the survivors of the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as to the victims of nuclear testing, such as members of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association; we showed hard-hitting films to diplomats to shake them out of their complacency; we brought in experts to explain in alarming detail the impact of nuclear weapons on the human body, on the environment, on the climate, on the global economy. We built strong partnerships between civil society and the states championing the treaty, without whose brave leadership the treaty – and ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize – would not have been possible. The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, hosted by Norway in 2013 and Mexico and Austria in 2014, shed new light on the perils of living in a world armed to the brink with nuclear weapons. They clarified the urgent need to prohibit these weapons under international law.

Campaigners for a nuclear-free world have traditionally been dismissed by the establishment as being idealistic peaceniks. ICAN turned this unfair characterisation on its head by focusing on facts, and by ‘owning’ realism; we showed up the theory of ‘nuclear deterrence’ for what it is: a theory. We highlighted Ward Wilson’s 2013 book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, which cast a critical eye over some of the myths that have become ingrained in our thinking about nuclear weapons, especially that they ended WW2 and have kept the peace since (they didn’t and they haven’t). At meetings with politicians and civil servants, I would arm myself with copies of ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’, a chilling 2014 Chatham House report which showed that “since the probability of inadvertent nuclear use is not zero and is higher than had been widely considered, and because the consequences of detonation are so serious, the risk associated with nuclear weapons is high”. I also took copies of ‘The climatic impacts and humanitarian problems from the use of the UK’s nuclear weapons’ by Scientists for Global Responsibility, which presents sobering evidence that the launch of the nuclear missiles of just one UK Trident submarine could kill 10 million people and cause devastating climatic cooling. Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book Command and Controldocuments the risks inherent in possessing, in his words, “the most dangerous technology ever invented”. Speaking at ICAN meetings, Schlosser encouraged campaigners to draw attention to the numerous instances during the Cold War when a nuclear detonation hung on a razor’s edge, as well as the close shaves such as when the US almost detonated its own nukes on its own soil. Inspired by this approach of highlighting the potential for self-inflicted disasters, we launched a campaign in the UK – ‘Nukes of Hazard’ – which threw a spotlight on the lorries which routinely transport fully assembled nuclear warheads along ordinary roads across the UK, often passing close to schools and homes (what could possibly go wrong…?).

When the risks and consequences around nuclear weapons are looked at face on, it becomes an idealistic position to suggest that the status quo can continue indefinitely. By focusing on humanitarian and climatic impact, on risks and consequences, the terms of debate are moved from the theoretical (and therefore unprovable) realm of ‘deterrence’ to a pragmatic discussion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), human rights and environmental protection. Within such a framework, it is impossible to argue for the continued existence of nuclear weapons. It is the disarmers who become the realists, the proponents of nuclear weapons the idealists.

IS: What was the involvement of the US and UK in the negotiations that led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

RS: In October 2016, the UK’s disarmament ambassador Dr Matthew Rowland was seen fist-bumping his US counterpart after speaking at the United Nations General Assembly against a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. As I wrote at the time, “It was staggering to hear the hypocrisy in Rowland’s speech. He lectured UN member states on the need to ‘do no harm’ whilst doing harm himself to proposals for genuine progress on nuclear disarmament. But the UK and other nuclear armed states continue to threaten catastrophic worldwide harm to people and the environment through their continued deployment of nuclear weapons which creates an existential risk of accidental, unintended or deliberate use. Far from being a leader on multilateral disarmament, the UK has been unilaterally rearming its nuclear arsenal and is now refusing to support new multilateral negotiations towards a global ban treaty”.

Ahead of the first Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Oslo in March 2013, colleagues at Article 36 put in a Freedom of Information request which revealed that Foreign Office officials were well aware of the potential for success of ICAN’s approach. In their emails to each other, they acknowledged that a humanitarian approach had led to the effective stigmatisation and prohibition of cluster munitions, and expressed concerns that something similar could happen with nuclear weapons. Far from engaging with the substance of the conference, which was a facts-based discussion of the consequences of nuclear detonation and the challenges of providing any kind of humanitarian response, Article 36 argued that the “UK’s internal and public explanations for its eventual decision not to attend are focused on concern that the UK would not be able to pass itself off as a leader in nuclear disarmament and anxieties about international political processes”.

The UK government decided to join the US and the other ‘P5’ nations (permanent members of the UN Security Council – UK, US, Russia, China and France) in a boycott of the Oslo Conference, as they went on to do again for the second Humanitarian Impacts Conference held in Mexico the following year. Bitterly divided amongst themselves, these five nations ironically united against the rest of the world to defend the weapons of mass destruction they point at each other. However, without these ‘heavyweights’ present, it was in some ways easier for the 127 nations which did participate at the Oslo Conference to make progress, alongside international organisations, UN agencies and a focused and well organised civil society contingent under the umbrella of ICAN. At the 2013 Committee of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) a couple of months later, South Africa delivered a statement on behalf of 80 member states on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which boldly stated: “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances”. The foundations for a new ban treaty were firmly laid, with these 80 countries being joined by many more at the next round of disarmament talks – all spurred on by ICAN campaigners lobbying politicians and decision makers at international conferences and at home in capitals across the world.

Fast forward to the treaty negotiations earlier this year, and the UK chose once again to boycott UN-mandated negotiations (122 countries had voted in favour of them), in spite of treaty obligations under the NPT to “negotiate in good faith”. Instead, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft joined the Trump administration in a highly unusual and irregular press ‘protest’ outside the UN conference room, refusing to take questions from journalists on a floor NGOs couldn’t get to, whilst other countries filed into the room behind them to do actual work. This was following previous attempts by the US to pressure its allies, particularly NATO states, to vote no to the ban treaty resolution, and “not to merely abstain”, and furthermore that “if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them”. Despite claiming that a ban treaty without the nuclear armed states would be meaningless, the United States revealed through this diplomatic move that it believes a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, even without the participation of nuclear-armed states, would indeed have a significant impact.

IS: In the New Statesmen you note ICAN’s strategy “was to push ahead whether or not the nuclear weapon states participated”. What was the thinking behind this strategy?

RS: To use an analogy from the smoking ban: for years, the government knew smoking was very bad for the health. Successive public campaigns urged smokers to cut down, not to smoke in front of their children, not to smoke in the car etc. All the attention was on the smokers. It was only when the evidence about the damaging effects of passive smoking emerged that the idea of banning smoking in public places become possible: now instead of this being about the smoker’s needs it became an issue of public health, of concern to everyone. As someone who can remember working in a windowless basement office with colleagues who chain-smoked, I can really appreciate the cultural shift that has thankfully made such a situation unthinkable nowadays. I can also remember wondering how on earth the smoking ban would be enforced – would the police go to all the pubs in the land and arrest thousands of people? But the smoking ban marked real societal change – the smokers, while still battling with their addiction, understood that their behaviour was damaging to others, and without too much fuss took their smoking to the pavement outside the pubs and offices. It’s far from a perfect analogy with the nuclear weapons ban, but the smoking ban illustrates a point about how change in society can happen by reframing an issue so that the damaging behaviour of a minority is not allowed to threaten the basic rights of the majority. It’s also about understanding where and who the change is going to come from – and that’s not smokers banning smoking or nuclear-weapons-possessors banning nuclear weapons.

Proponents of nuclear weapons, like smokers, are not bad people. But both have developed a dangerous habit, which they may need help to quit. The oft-repeated line of British politicians and officials is that the UK is committed to nuclear disarmament, but only when the conditions are right. The humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is going a long way towards creating those conditions. In the last few years, evidence about the catastrophic climate impacts of nuclear weapons was confirmed using the latest climate change modelling technology, revealing that the ‘nuclear winter’ scenarios described in the eighties were not exaggerated. Soot thrown up into the atmosphere from the gigantic explosions would block out the sun, triggering a mini Ice Age which would cause a global crop failure leading to widespread ‘nuclear famine’. This is the equivalent of the evidence about passive smoking: it makes nuclear disarmament an urgent global public health imperative, one that trumps the perceived needs of the nuclear possessors.

Nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented; but the notion that they are acceptable can be. 159 countries – 80% of UN member states – signed up to a joint statement at the United Nations led by Austria in 2015 expressing deep concern about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Like the passive smokers, this silent majority of non-nuclear-weapon countries has a right to be heard and protected – and this is why ICAN was determined to push ahead whether or not the nuclear armed states participated.

IS: Are you hopeful that the UK will engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the future?

RS: Uniquely among all nuclear armed states, the UK has within it a significant body of population and politicians opposing the status quo: Scotland. During the independence referendum, Scots engaged in real debate and discussion about what sort of society they wanted to live in – the sort of political engagement that is so lacking for most of us most of the time. If you were setting up a new nation, would you choose to spend billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction that are stored an hour’s drive from your major cities and transported by road past your population’s homes on a regular basis? Uh, no. Ronnie Cowan MP, whose Inverclyde constituency borders the Faslane nuclear weapons base, explained how having nuclear weapons on your doorstep sharpens the mind: “Sometimes I think that people’s approach to Trident is an abstract one, but in my constituency it is real; it is a real weapon with the very real capacity to murder millions of men, women and children”. In Scotland, elected representatives and parliament overwhelmingly oppose nuclear weapons. Campaigners like Janet Fenton and politicians like Bill Kidd MSPhave worked hard to ensure that Scottish resistance is aligned with ICAN’s humanitarian approach and the global ban treaty movement, and a recent speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised this link: “We will never accept that a limit should be placed on the contribution Scotland can make to building a better world. Strong voices for peace and justice are needed now more than ever. Last week, ICAN, the global campaign against nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize. Our party stands proudly as part of the global movement for peace. So let us restate this today. No ifs, no buts from the SNP. We say NO to weapons of mass destruction. We say NO to nuclear weapons on the River Clyde, or anywhere else”. One of the main contenders for leading Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, has also called for the UK to sign the new global ban treaty. Incidentally, another reason that Scotland has been able to have such an honest public debate about nuclear weapons is the emergence of crowd-sourced independent media outlets such as CommonSpace and The Ferret.

Again unique among nuclear armed states, the UK has as Leader of the Opposition a politician who is a long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn has a long way to go to persuade his Party of his view, and Labour policy continues to be the same as the Conservatives’ in favour of renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons at eye-watering cost. But there is the real prospect of change, a glimmer of which was seen last year with the opening up of public debate when Corbyn stated he would not be prepared to ‘press the button’. A good friend of ICAN’s, Jeremy Corbyn sent his new Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, Fabian Hamilton, to attend the UN treaty negotiations earlier this year. Hamilton wrote afterwards that “Labour will work with ICAN to prevent the use of these horrific weapons that are not only a threat to innocent lives, but also a threat to international peace and stability”. At the end of October, Fabian Hamilton went further by telling a newspaper that a future Corbyn government would sign the treaty: “Parliament voted a year ago to renew Trident and it’s in the manifesto, but let’s move on. In July the United Nations voted for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. I supported it and Jeremy Corbyn supports the ban – that has gone unnoticed.” Hamilton said Corbyn should move “slowly and through Parliament” to sign the treaty if elected prime minister, and said similar UN treaties for chemical weapons and landmines had proven effective. (A nation that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, so long as it agrees to destroy them in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan). Also at the UN treaty talks in June was Green MP Caroline Lucas, an ICAN champion who wrote: “You might hope that Britain would be taking a leading role in the talks, but our government is conspicuous by its absence”. Sturgeon, Corbyn and Lucas all raised the humanitarian initiative and global ban treaty when addressing tens of thousands of people in London in February 2016 for what was dubbed the country’s biggest anti-nuclear weapons rally in a generation, organised by ICAN partner CND.

The ban treaty provides an opportunity for a new public discussion about nuclear weapons in this country, side-stepping the divisive polarisation that this topic usually generates. One of the few Conservative politicians to engage with ICAN, Derek Thomas MP wrote after our meeting: “I am completely in agreement that multilateral disarmament is something that we should pursue as an urgent priority and I will be pressing the Government to take all necessary steps in its power to secure multilateral disarmament. I have looked closely at the work of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) and am in support of their aims”. Unfortunately, this positive statement is to be found in the middle of a blog entitled ‘Why I am voting in support of the Prime Minister and our nuclear deterrent’, but it does show how the ban treaty can start the vital conversations and debates that need to happen in order to create change.

Nuclear weapons aren’t going to disappear overnight, but the stigma now enshrined in international law will help to change attitudes. Nick Ritchie, Lecturer in International Security at the University of York, wrote a couple of years ago that, “A new ban treaty would strip UK nuclear weapons of their veneer of legitimacy and substantially diminish the domestic political values assigned to these weapons. Such a shift in the international normative context of nuclear weapons would begin to wither the roots of cultural nuclearism in the United Kingdom”. We are already seeing how the treaty might affect UK law on nuclear weapons: anti-nukes activists from Trident Ploughshares cited the ban treaty as part of their defence in court last month and were released with just a warning, after they took part during the summer in a blockade of RNAD Coulport, where the UK’s nuclear warheads are stored and loaded onto Trident submarines.

It is my firm belief that the British establishment will soon wake up to the reputational damage that our possession of nuclear weapons will increasingly cause. We like to be seen to be doing the right thing; we care what other countries think of us. UNA-UK’s ‘global Britain scorecard’ highlights the good work the UK proudly does in contributing to UN peacekeeping and providing support for overseas aid, while criticising the UK for failure in ‘responsible arms trading’ and ‘multilateral nuclear disarmament’. UNA-UK’s methodology “follows the UK’s own analysis that Britain’s security and prosperity is underpinned by a strong, rules-based international system with the United Nations at its heart”. The ban treaty has stigmatised nuclear weapons, making them not just illegitimate but illegal: threatening to use WMDs is no longer an acceptable or legal way to go about international relations. It may take some time for this truth to sink in, but with the combination of pressure from the international community, from global and UK civil society, from Scotland and from within the political establishment at Westminster, change is coming.

Britain renounced the use of poison gas after WWI by signing the 1925 Geneva Protocol; now, nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, we should show moral and political leadership by stopping Trident renewal and joining the majority in the international community to renounce nuclear weapons. While the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons may be controversial today, a few years from now I believe it will be the new normal for the UK and the rest of the world. The door remains open for the UK and other nuclear armed nations to Do the Right Thing. In the words of the ICAN statement on winning the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: “We applaud those nations that have already signed and ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we urge all others to follow their lead. It offers a pathway forward at a time of alarming crisis. Disarmament is not a pipe dream, but an urgent humanitarian necessity”.

Interview with Green Party leader Natalie Bennett

Interview with Green Party leader Natalie Bennett
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2015

It’s been an extraordinary rise. From 25,000 members at the start of December, in three months the Green Party of England and Wales has more than doubled its membership to around 53,500 today.

Speaking to me in a smart north London pub, the Australian-born leader Natalie Bennett argues the surge in support is down to people looking at the three main parties and thinking “Well, there’s really no answers there, we need something different, we need real change.” She notes that ex-Labour and Liberal Democrat voters have been joining, along with many young people and some former Tories concerned about fracking.

YouGov polling is now regularly placing the Greens above the Liberal Democrats. One recent Ipsos Mori poll even put them ahead of UKIP, making them the third most popular political party with nine percent of the vote.

“The debate about the debates gave us a little bit of oxygen, a little bit of air, a little bit of publicity”, Bennett, 49, says about the discussions revolving around the televised general election leader debates. Currently, she is set to represent the Greens in two of the three debates, with the final event a head to head between Labour’s Ed Miliband and Prime Minister David Cameron. She expects to take part in mock debates to prepare. “At the moment I’ve got a large number of people lining up to play their favourite hate figure”, she quips. Does the Green Party employ a stylist? “There are various people advising me on my wardrobe, inevitably”, she says, chuckling. “Presentation, sadly, is an important part of politics, so we’ve got to live with that.”

So what Green Party policies will she be highlighting in the debates and during the election campaign?

“There is a very obvious focus on making the minimum wage a living wage. We should have a £10 an hour minimum wage by 2020.” She also refers to “jobs you can build a life on – that means not zero-hour contracts, full time if you want full time.” The Green Party also has a broad “anti-privatisation agenda”, including opposing and seeking to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, and bringing the railways back into public ownership. She talks about promoting walking and cycling, local bus services and giving people viable alternatives to the car. “We’ve announced we’d like to take a significant proportion of the funds this government would like to spend on road building and put it in to cutting train and bus fares by 10 percent, helping encourage people on to more sustainable forms of transport.” This, she explains assuredly, “would also tackle air pollution issues, which would also tackle health issues.”

Bennett has good reason to be confident. The Vote For Policies website, which polls people on the policies of political parties without those being polled knowing the party connected to the policy, puts the Green Party ahead of everyone else. She also notes a YouGov survey in November revealed that 26 percent of people would vote Green if they had a chance of winning in their constituency in the May General Election, placing them in third place behind the Tories and Labour.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. Their policy of a Citizen’s Income of £72 per week, paid to every adult regardless of income, has received quite a bit of criticism. Citing the Citizen’s Income Trust, a recent Guardian report noted that in its current form the policy would hit the poorest hardest. “It will be in the manifesto”, Bennett confirms. And it will be fully costed, though it is a long-term aspiration which would take longer than one parliament to implement. We don’t have time to explore the detail of the criticisms, though she argues “People really need a sense of security, and that’s one of the things Citizen’s Income can offer”.

The Greens have also come under fire from some feminist campaigners keen to outlaw the buying of sex – the Swedish model – for its position on prostitution. “The Green Party supports what is generally known at the New Zealand model – decriminalisation”, she replies. Though she acknowledges this is an issue that many well intentioned people have strong feelings about, she argues decriminalisation is “supported by sex workers and unions representing sex workers” and is the model which “can keep vulnerable women and men most safe.” Interestingly, Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP in parliament, supports the Swedish model. “The Green Party doesn’t whip”, Bennett explains. “We believe in grown up politics. We can cope with that.”

Aswell as holding Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion constituency, the Green Party has a number of other target seats in the upcoming General Election including Norwich South and Bristol West. Bennett herself is standing in Holborn and St Pancras in London. However, due to the UK’s creaking First Past The Post electoral system, there is a strong possibility the Green surge will not translate into any additional MPs. Unsurprisingly, this clearly frustrates Bennett. “One of the key things that I think is certain to come out of this election is the First Past The Post electoral system is going to be a certain loser”, she says. “I think there will be a strong push for electoral reform” because “quite a lot of people for who electoral reform has never crossed their lips are going to find their local MP has been elected with not much more than 25% of the vote.”

But while the Green Party may not gain anymore MPs, the Guardian recently crunched the polling data and predicted an increase in the Green vote could make a Tory win more likely. Bennett pushes for a wider analysis: “I think we have through generations in Britain been trained by the First Past The Post electoral system to vote for something that wasn’t what we really wanted, sometimes the thing we disliked the second most, to stop the thing we really hated getting in.

“That’s actually what has given us the kind of politics we have now. It means you have a Labour Party that is pretty hard to distinguish from the Tory Party – certainly in terms of policy if not necessarily always in rhetoric. If voters keen doing the same thing they are going to keep getting the same kind of politics.”

Her simple solution is to encourage voters to ditch tactical voting: “It’s possible to have a peaceful political revolution if voters decide to vote for what they believe in”.

I end by asking a few personal questions. What recent non-fiction books would she recommend to voters? James Meek’s critique of privatisation Private Island, Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For A Finite Planet and the ground-breaking Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, are her answers. And the most ungreen thing she does? “I probably like a long shower, which is probably less than ideal.” A seasoned interviewee, she uses my frivolous question to make a serious point about Green Party politics: “What we want to see is structural change that makes the environmentally friendly thing to do the easiest and cheapest and simplest thing to do. So it’s not a case of telling individuals they should change their behaviour.”

“We need to change the whole way society works.”

Defending the Green Party from Richard Seymour’s Darth Vader shtick

Defending the Green Party from Richard Seymour’s Darth Vader shtick
by Ian Sinclair
29 December 2014

Since January 2014 The Green Party of England and Wales has more than doubled its membership to over 30,000 and is now regularly polling above the Liberal Democrats. The party received over one million votes in the 2014 European elections gaining three MEPs and beating the Liberal Democrats, and came third in the 2012 London mayoral elections behind the Tories and Labour.

For a party campaigning in a political landscape where political party membership is plummeting, with relatively little financial backing and media exposure, these are impressive results, I think many would agree. The kind of results that would suggest the overall Green Party strategy is working. The British writer Richard Seymour, who runs the Lenin’s Tomb blog, strongly disagrees. “The problem with the Green party is that it is too nice”, Seymour explained in a recent Guardian Comment is Free blog. “They don’t hate, and if left-wing politics in this country needs anything it is a dose of rigorous hatred.” Perhaps excited by the recently released trailer for the new Star Wars film, Seymour ends his blog paraphrasing Darth Vader: “If they genuinely want to get ahead, they need to discover their dark side.”

Initially, I thought Seymour’s piece wasn’t entirely serious. However, a quick look at his tweets in defence of the blog show he was, indeed, being serious. For example, he bafflingly explained to one challenger that “any real compassion and concern must logically entail a rigorous hatred.”

Before I get into the detail of Seymour’s blog I think it’s important to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we want to encourage a politics based on “hate”? Call me naïve, but I presumed that all progressives, all Leftists, would think such a suggestion to be morally repugnant, practically dangerous and completely the opposite of what should be done.

To begin, it’s worth pointing out the inaccuracies in Seymour’s argument.

According to Seymour the Green Party is “not prepared to get their hands dirty, too committed to the niceties of parliamentary politics.” In reality Green representatives are often very active outside parliament. Caroline Lucas MP was arrested at a protest against fracking in August 2013. Jenny Jones, the Green Party peer in the House of Lords, was arrested at an Occupy protest in October 2014. This direct action follows a long tradition of Green politicians working both inside and outside of electoral politics to push for progressive change. For example, Derek Wall, a prominent member of the Green Party, is a strong supporter of direct action.

Seymour goes on to argue:

“It is excellent, but not enough, for the Greens to say they won’t scapegoat immigrants and other folk-devils. If immigrants aren’t to blame, then we need to know who is to blame. Left-populist movements in Europe that succeed tend to know who the enemy is, and name it. For Syriza it is the troika; for Podemos, it is la casta or the caste, their term for the parliamentary elites, businessmen, media elites and bankers who dominate Spanish society.”

Perhaps Seymour hasn’t been paying attention but recent media appearances suggest the Green Party is very clear about “who is to blame” for the crisis we find ourselves in:

  • ‘Stop attacks on welfare benefits and tackle bankers’ bonuses’ – Headline, Green Party website, February 2010
  • “This legacy was not a result of Government spending, it was the result of the banks very nearly crashing and going down and us having to rescue the banks. And that is why we have to look at dealing with the banks.” – Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party, BBC Question Time, April 2013
  • “We have a chronic housing shortage, we have an NHS under strain, we have a culture of low pay. But the fault of that lies with the government not with migrants.” – Caroline Lucas MP, BBC Question Time, May 2014
  • “Well I think there’s an awful lot of disillusioned voters out there, whether they’re Lib Dems who thought they were voting for a freeze on tuition fees, or indeed Lib Dems who thought they were voting against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, to Labour people who just are really fed up with a Labour Party that isn’t prepared to stand up to the bankers, to stand up to the multinational companies.” – Natalie Bennett, Left Foot Forward, May 2014
  • He’s [George Osborne] made the disabled, the ill, the disadvantaged and the young pay for the errors and fraud of the bankers for which they bear no responsibility at all.” – Natalie Bennett, Huffington Post, 3 December 2014

Seymour also argues the Greens have achieved a rise in popularity “while maintaining some unfashionable stances”, citing – without any evidence – “local bigotry against Travellers” in Brighton and national public opinion on immigration. In reality, as I’ve argued elsewhere, many of the Green Party’s major policy positions have majority support among the general public. This is confirmed by the website Vote For Policies, which shows the Green Party’s policies are the most popular out of all the parties when people choose blindly without knowing the political party they are connected to. These hopeful results are supported by the recent YouGov/Times poll which found that 26% of voters would vote Green if they “had a chance of winning” – making the Green Party the third most popular party under these conditions.

What these two polls suggest is that two of the key problems the Green Party has are the media landscape and the electoral system we have in the UK – both of which Seymour fails to mention, let alone grapple with.

On the electoral system, it’s widely understood – and made plain by the YouGov/Times poll – that the UK’s first past the post general voting system tends to disadvantage smaller parties. In contrast, Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza have become popular in nations where general elections are held under forms of proportional representation. Turning to the media, The Guardian’s Zoe Williams has noted, the Green Party tend to receive very little media coverage – especially compared to UKIP. This defacto media blackout was recently taken to a mind-boggling extreme when the BBC Daily Politics programme showed viewers a poll that excluded the Green Party even though they polled more than the Liberal Democrats, who were included in the poll.

Finally, there is a third problem for the Greens that is rarely discussed – again not mentioned by Seymour: the Left itself seems to have a blind spot for the party, as I discussed here. For example, I am not aware of any mention of the Green Party in Seymour’s impressive new book Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, even though they are the only party of the five largest nationwide parties who are opposed to austerity.

Of course, no one knows whether the Green surge will continue. And if it does no doubt a number of factors will have caused it. But what we can say is the evidence above suggests Greens would do well to take Seymour’s diagnosis, prognosis and prescription with a large dose of salt.

Why Does The Left Ignore The True Progressive Party – The Greens?

Why Does The Left Ignore The True Progressive Party – The Greens?
by Ian Sinclair
The Guardian
6 January 2014

The Green party of England and Wales has one MP, two MEPs, two London assembly members and 139 city and county councillors. Last year membership stood at 16,000. At the 2010 general election it fielded 310 candidates winning 265,243 votes. In the 2012 London mayoral election, the Green party’s Jenny Jones beat the Liberal Democrat candidate into third place. Despite this very real political presence the Green party seems to be invisible to many on the left in this country. Here are a few recent examples:

  • In the introduction to the book NHS SOS: How the NHS was Betrayed – and How We Can Save It Ken Loach notes the Labour party has been a key player in the privatisation of the NHS before asking rhetorically, “When people ask who they can vote for to defend the NHS, what do we tell them?”
  • Writing in the Guardian, Russell Brand urged people not to vote: “The only reason to vote is if the vote represents power or change. I don’t think it does.” However, he ended the article arguing “I believe in change… A system that serves the planet and the people. I’d vote for that.”
  • In October 2013 Adam Ramsay, who describes himself as “an active member of the Green party”, published an article titled, Public ownership is ridiculously popular. Why does no one campaign for it?” Ramsay mentioned the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru but not the Green party.

To answer these people: Ken, you can tell people to vote for the Green party because they oppose the privatisation of the NHS; in fact the Greens also want to abolish prescriptions and re-introduce free dental care and eye tests. Russell, you say you would vote for “a system that serves the planet and the people”. Well, earlier this year you described Caroline Lucas MP as someone “who actually cares about things that affect us” and “is endeavouring to enact the needs of the people”. Would you vote for her? And Adam, the Green party 2010 manifesto stated that they want public services “run for public benefit, not private profit. We will … return our energy, water and rail networks to public ownership”.

This invisibility cloak is frustrating because there is considerable evidence to suggest the Greens would receive much more support if they received more exposure. According to a November 2013 YouGov poll, 84% of people think the NHS should be run as a public service, 68% support nationalising the energy companies and 66% want to nationalise the railways – all Green party policy. The Greens opposed the wars on Iraq, Libya and Syria and have long called for the withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan. A 2009 Guardian/ICM poll found 54% of respondents agreed with the Green party’s policy of scrapping Trident.

All this is confirmed by the fascinating Vote for Policies website. Created for the 2010 general election the website polls people on the policies of the main political parties – without the person being polled knowing the party connected to the policy. So far 347,799 people have completed the survey, with the Green party the most popular party with 24% of the votes (Labour received 20%, the Lib Dems 17%, the Conservatives 15%, UKIP 12% and the BNP 10%).

Of course, the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system doesn’t help, with influential commentators like Owen Jones arguing that voting Green is effectively a wasted vote. This kind of defeatist thinking would have been disastrous for the nascent Labour party in the early 20th century. How would it have grown to become a force for progressive change if voters chose the least bad option in the 1906 general election (the Liberal party) or decided not to vote for Labour because they only had two MPs at the time? As per the invisible rule, Jones himself rarely, if ever, mentions the fact that his own politics often have more in common with Green party policy than they do Labour – such as the Green’s strong opposition to austerity and their proposed Green New Deal solution.

Despite all this, things seem to be looking up for the party. A November 2013 Ipsos Mori opinion poll found 7% of respondents said they would vote Green if a general election were held tomorrow – just 1% behind the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. This hopeful result came on the back of a You Gov poll that found 12% support for the Green party in European election voting intentions – in front of the Liberal Democrats on 10%. If followed through in the May 2014 election this result would likely treble the number of Green MEPs to six.

How long will the left continue to ignore the parliamentary party with the most progressive and radical policies?