Tag Archives: Climate change

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 January 2017

What grade does President Obama deserve for his environmental policies? According to the BBC the Obama Administration should be awarded an “A-” for negotiating the 2016 Paris climate agreement, introducing new regulations governing pollution from US power plants and designating 548 million acres of US territory as protected areas.

The Guardian anticipated this positive assessment of Obama’s actions on the environment, with a 2014 leader column asserting that “President Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change has not been in doubt”.

This support for Obama was taken to extraordinary lengths by last year’s BBC documentary series Inside Obama’s White House. With the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen heralded as the final chance to save the planet from dangerous levels of climate change, the BBC’s one-sided account explains Obama worked to solve the climate crisis in the face of Chinese intransigence (the Chinese – and not the US, apparently – “were afraid of the impact on their economy”). With India, Brazil and South African joining China in a supposedly secret meeting “to stop the climate deal”, the film excitedly tells a story of Obama crashing the party to force an agreement on China in a sincere attempt to save the planet.

There is, of course, more to the story. As the US historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data.”

In contrast to the BBC’s hagiography, George Monbiot, arguably the most knowledgeable environmental commentator in the UK, noted at the time that “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.” Bill McKibben, a leading US environmentalist, concurred, arguing Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.” Missing from the BBC’s account, Canadian author Naomi Klein highlighted a key reason behind Monbiot’s and McKibben’s conclusions: “Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.”

How low? The European Union went into the talks promising to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama – whose commitment to fighting climate change, remember, “has not been in doubt” – offered a measly four percent cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama was “the conservative voice among world leaders” when it came to climate change, “supporting the least-aggressive steps”, noted Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in the Wall Street Journal.

The attempt to block significant action on the international stage broadly mirrors the Democratic president’s (in)action domestically during his first term. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg uncovered an important spring 2009 meeting at the White House between the Obama Administration and leaders of the US green movement in which, incredibly, the environmentalists were told not to talk about climate change. With the Obama team apparently concerned about attacks from industry and conservative groups, Goldenberg noted the meeting “marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word”, which in turn produced a near total absence of the issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Goldenberg reports that “environmental groups, taking their cue from the White House… downplayed climate change” after the meeting. McKibben, who attended the summit, was one of the few people to speak out against the strategy: “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem”.

While the liberal media was dazzled by Obama’s Christ-like campaign rhetoric about slowing “the rise of the oceans” and healing the planet, in office the first Black president pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. This, according to environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard, “made the United States the world’s leading producer of oil and gas by the end of his first term.” Writing in 2013, McKibben provided clarification: “We are… a global-warming machine. At the moment when physics tells us we should be jamming on the carbon breaks, America is revving the engine.”

What about the Environmental Protection Agency rules Obama introduced in 2014 to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent? These are certainly a step in the right direction but, as Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute noted, the proposals are “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.”

Internationally, the ongoing UN climate talks continued to be a fiasco in the years after Copenhagen, with the Guardian’s chief environmental correspondent John Vidal laying the blame in 2012 “squarely on the US in particular and the rich countries in general.” Vidal continued: “For three years now, they have bullied the poor into accepting a new agreement. They have delayed making commitments, withheld money and played a cynical game of power politics to avoid their legal obligations.”

Troublingly, the widely heralded Paris Agreement – for which the liberal media have repeatedly congratulated Obama for realising – is looking increasingly like a red herring. Though the text of the accord agrees to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, a recent survey of a number of leading climate scientists and analysts by author Andrew Simms found that not one thought the 2°C target would likely be met. Speaking last year to the Morning Star top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson said the pledges made by nations at Paris would likely lead to a catastrophic 3-4°C rise in global temperatures (“and probably the upper end of that”).

Asked by Hertsgaard in 2014 how history will judge the 44th president on climate change, senior Obama adviser John Podesta replied that while his boss “tried to address the challenge… fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.” Writing in The Nation earlier this month, Hertsgaard reconfirmed Podesta’s conclusion: “Obama did more in his second term, but nowhere near enough. The climate emergency is still advancing faster than the world’s response, not least because of the United States’ inadequate actions.”

Two lessons about climate change can be taken from the eight years of the Obama Administration. First, it is clear the liberal media such as the BBC and the Guardian cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of what Obama actually did in office – what George Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Second, many of the positive steps Obama took on climate change were arguably down to grassroots pressure. For example, the Obama Administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline which was going to transport oil from the deadly Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico was, as McKibben and Hertsgaard have argued, a victory for the indigenous-led grassroots resistance movement.

With the climate change-denying President Donald Trump and his powerful supporters threatening a bonfire of US environmental regulation and international climate agreements, it is essential the US and global green movements grow substantially and become more active and effective. Terrifying though it is to contemplate, it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of humanity rests on the outcome of this struggle.

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
20 December 2016

In May 2016 researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute published a deeply concerning study for the Middle East. According to the academics, climate change could make large parts of the region uninhabitable. By the year 2100, midday temperatures on warm days could reach 50°C, with heat waves potentially occurring ten times more than today. The expected temperature rises could put “the very existence of its inhabitants in jeopardy”, noted Jos Lelieveld, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

The future looks similarly bleak on the global level. In 2013 Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, explained that “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.”

What would a 4°C world look like, I asked Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, earlier this year? “Global chaos and collapse I think would be a fair assessment”, was his frightening reply. He went on to list a number of likely outcomes: Sea level rise of one metre by 2100; an increase in the frequency and severity of storms; a 40 percent reduction in staple crop yields; substantial changes in rainfall patterns and massive migration.

In the face of this crisis, Middle East governments have slowly started to turn their attention to the problem of climate change, largely presenting it as an uncontroversial topic that requires technical solutions – a perfect example of fatally flawed “techno-optimism” if ever there was one.

A number of large-scale, press-friendly projects are being built, including Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. “Designed to be zero-carbon and zero-waste, home to a population of 40,000 people, 50,000 commuters, in an area of six square kilometres” Masdar City is “playing a crucial role in the development of sustainable design and technology”, gushed Susan Lee from the University of Birmingham.

However, though it’s rarely said, these top-down mega projects are unlikely to help in addressing climate change. Take Masdar: in reality, as Grist noted earlier this year, it “is, essentially, the world’s most sustainable ghost town”, with only a small part of the planned city built and the completion date pushed back from 2016 to 2030.

According to Deutsche Welle, critics “see Masdar first and foremost as a clever project to improve Abu Dhabi’s image” when “it remains one of the world’s worst polluters”.

And it’s not just the United Arab Emirates. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 Living Planet report found Kuwait and Qatar have the world’s highest per capita ecological footprint. “If all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets”, the report noted.

“The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything”, Canadian author Naomi Klein argues in her seminal 2014 book on climate change. “It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand.” Klein maintains the scale of the problem means radical transformations are required in the political, economic and cultural spheres. In the Middle East this will mean revolutionary change. For example, the Paris climate agreement pledged to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”.

What does this mean for oil producing states? Using industry data, a recent report from US-based thinktank Oil Change International explained that “the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming”. Averting runaway climate change, according to the study, means no new fossil fuel extraction and some existing fields and mines closing before being fully exploited. Furthermore, Klein argues it is dangerous to consider environmental problems on their own. Rather they will only be solved together with other problems such as economic inequality, the corporate domination of the political and social world, consumerism and western imperialism. A classroom guide created to accompany Klein’s book even asks students to provide a “feminist ecological critique” of extractivism.

Many of the necessary changes will be difficult for rulers in the Middle East to contemplate. Analysing the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index, Professor Robert Looney from the Naval Postgraduate School in California explains that democratic governments are “more likely to comply with global agreements that set specific targets for carbon agreements” and “give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies”. Concerned about their own survival, authoritarian regimes will invariably prioritise energy security and equity, Looney argues, since rising fuel prices risk social unrest.

A media free of government censorship and corporate influence is a key component of Looney’s findings, as it creates an informed citizenry. And once large numbers of people understand the dire threat of climate change, they will likely push for government action. An independent and critical media also engenders discussion and disagreement. The alternative – sadly commonin the Middle East – is hugely counterproductive and threatening to young people and future generations as it muzzles criticism and serious debate. For example, one critic of Masdar (who described it as a “green Disneyland”) said they wished to remain anonymous “Otherwise, you could get in trouble in Abu Dhabi”.

Another key feature of more democratic societies, is an active and independent civil society. As freed slave Frederick Douglass once said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Progressive and lasting change almost always comes from below – something Klein implicitly understands when she calls for a “grassroots anti-extraction uprising”.

The blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline in the United States, the cancellation of Margaret Thatcher’s road expansion plans in Britain (“the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”), the introduction of the United Kingdom’s groundbreaking 2008 Climate Change Act – all of these environmental victories happened because of long campaigns by activist groups overcoming state-corporate power.

In short, far from being an uncontroversial, technical issue, climate change is actually a real threat to the status quo – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because if we are serious about addressing climate change, then we need to successfully challenge established power – that is the extractive-enriched, growth-obsessed, profit-driven, largely unelected elites whose actions have led us to this existential crisis point.

With some of the region’s governments repeatedly trying to impede international agreements to combat climate change, this is especially true for the Middle East. With time running out, the future of the Middle East and the wellbeing of humanity depends on how quickly we win the revolutionary changes that are so desperately needed.


Heathrow, The Guardian and the Propaganda Model

Heathrow, The Guardian and the Propaganda Model
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 October 2016

Setting out their Propaganda Model of the Mass Media in 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky explained the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity” – that is, large multinational corporations. They set out a number of caveats to their model, explaining the media are not a solid monolith. “Where the powerful are in disagreement, there will be a certain amount of tactical judgements on how to attain generally shared aims, reflected in the media debate.” In contrast, “views that challenge fundamental premises… will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.”

The recent reporting by The Guardian of the on-going debate about the expansion of Heathrow airport is a perfect illustration of the continuing relevance of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model.

Between Saturday 15 October and Thursday 20 October five news reports appeared in the newspaper about the story. The first report sets the tone – a survey of parliamentary opinion, noting the MPs who are “plotting to undermine the anticipated government approval of the third runway at Heathrow”. The report is anchored around the findings of the Airports Commission led by Sir Howard Davies, a former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, which backs Heathrow expansion, and whether the expansion of Gatwick airport is a viable alternative. It also explains that the Scottish Government (Scottish National Party), trade unions, business, airlines and many MPs support Heathrow expansion. In opposition are MPs representing constituencies close to Heathrow (though no reason is given for their opposition).

The subsequent reports highlight the cabinet split on the issue and the Labour Party’s support for Heathrow expansion despite the opposition of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. “Our livelihoods depend on the jobs and economic prosperity Heathrow expansion will bring”, explained a letter the Unite union delivered to Downing Street. Issues with noise pollution and local air quality are mentioned.

As the Propaganda Model predicts, driven by a huge intra-aviation industry public relations struggle, The Guardian’s reporting reflects the assumption that airport expansion is needed, and the heated debate about how best to do this – Heathrow or Gatwick? – is extensively covered. Powerful actors such as MPs, business, unions and the commission headed by the pro-business Davies, are given space to put forward their views. All this will come as no surprise to Labour MP Chris Mullin, who said of his time as aviation minister from 1999 to 2001: “I learned two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them.”

However, as Herman and Chomsky predict, “views that challenge fundamental premises… will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.” Thus, when it comes to airport expansion, voices concerned about climate change – a global crisis that, if taken seriously, is a direct challenge to the pro-growth, neoliberalism that dominates political thinking in the West – are marginalised.

Yes, climate change is mentioned in The Guardian reporting – in three of the five articles – but its placement and frequency is telling. As Herman and Chomsky argue, the fact awkward information appear in the media “tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to the reader or effectively distorted or suppressed”. Climate change is not mentioned in the headlines or the introduction paragraphs – the most paragraph of any news story – of any of the five reports. For example, alongside sections on “the political issues” and “the economic issues”, chief environmental correspondent Damian Carrington is given space to talk about “the environmental issues”, though he chooses to focus on local air and noise pollution. A quote from Greenpeace’s UK Executive Director in the 18 October article saying “a third runway at Heathrow would be an air pollution and carbon timebomb” is relegated to the last sentence of the half page report. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas is also quoted in the 20 October Guardian report – but in the penultimate paragraph.

So, how important is climate change to the debate on airport expansion?

With the first six months of 2016 breaking global temperate records, Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research warned “we are on a crash course” with the 2015 Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperatures to under 2oC “unless we change course very, very fast.” Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, broadly concurs, telling me a few months after Paris that it is “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that”. Important point: previously Anderson has said a 4oC temperature increase will be “incompatible with organised global community”. More worrying still: Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, sees climate change “an existential crisis for the human species”.

Aviation is set to make up a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to Friends of the Earth. Writing in The Guardian’s comment pages, George Monbiot – opposed to all airport expansion in the UK – notes that the Climate Change Act means the UK needs to reduce carbon emissions by a steep 80 percent by 2050. If flights increase at the level Davies’s Commission expects those cuts would have to rise to 85 percent. Alice Larkin, Professor of Climate Science & Energy Policy at the University of Manchester, is clear: “Policy measures aimed at increasing capacity and supporting further growth in air travel such as new runways, particularly within richer nations, are at odds with the Paris Agreement.”

What all this very obviously means is, contrary to The Guardian’s woeful news coverage of the issue, the earth’s climate should be at the centre of the debate on airport expansion in the UK.

As the Green Party’s Rupert Read tweeted recently: “In an age of rising manmade climate chaos, it is ludicrous that the debate is ‘Heathrow or Gatwick’, when what the future needs is: NEITHER.”

Here are links to the five Guardian news reports published on Heathrow between Saturday 15 October and Thursday 20 October (NB the online version of articles are often different to the article that is published in the newspaper):

Saturday 15 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/14/anti-heathrow-mps-plan-undermine-government-third-runway-approval
Monday 17 October 2016:  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/16/heathrow-airport-expansion-third-runway-labour-decision
Tuesday 18 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/oct/17/heathrow-third-runway-close-to-getting-government-green-light
Wednesday 19 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/18/airport-expansion-vote-put-on-hold-for-more-than-a-year-by-theresa-may
Thursday 20 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/19/cameron-aide-said-government-was-exposed-on-heathrow-over-air-quality

Will de-coupling solve climate change? Interview with Samuel Alexander

Will de-coupling solve climate change? Interview with Samuel Alexander
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
16 August 2016

‘Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed’ ran the headline on the International Energy Agency (IEA) website in March 2016. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change”, noted IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. The idea that the de-coupling of economic growth and carbon emission – that is ‘green growth’ or ‘sustainable growth’ – is a powerful tool in the fight against dangerous levels of climate change is a popular one, with a 2014 report co-authored by Lord Stern, and backed by the United Nations, the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and co-authored by Lord Stern pushing the idea.

Dr Samuel Alexander, Co-Director of the Simplicity Institute and a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, has written a number of articles critiquing the idea of de-coupling. I interviewed him to find out why, and what solutions he proposes to the threat of climate change.

Ian Sinclair: What is the thinking of those who herald ‘de-coupling’ as a promising tool in stopping dangerous levels of climate change? Why do you think it has proven such a popular idea?

Samuel Alexander: Decoupling (or dematerialization) refers to the idea of increasing our economic output without increasing or even decreasing energy and resource inputs. (We should at once distinguish between ‘relative’ decoupling and ‘absolute’ decoupling. The former refers to a reduction of inputs (resources) per unit of output (GDP). The latter refers to an absolute or overall reduction of inputs. If an economy expands faster than the efficiency gains it may achieve, it is possible for there to be relative decoupling without absolute decoupling). With respect to climate change, the idea or hope of decoupling is that we can continue growing our economies while reducing total carbon emissions to a safe level. 

Decoupling can be achieved by technological or design innovation that helps us produce our commodities more efficiently, or through market mechanisms that price fossil fuels in a way that disincentivises their consumption and incentivises the production of low-emission or no-emission alternatives. 

This strategy for combating climate change is so popular because it suggests that we don’t really have to rethink the dominant economic paradigm of growth or change our lifestyles much. That is, by way of decoupling, it is widely believed that we will be able to keep growing our economies without limit, and continue living high-consumption lifestyles, while absolutely decoupling that economic activity from fossil fuels.

It’s a nice idea, perhaps, but the theoretical possibility of absolute decoupling (which is required) doesn’t have much empirical support in reality. It’s a strategy that has been talked about for decades, all the while carbon emissions have continued to grow. But people continue to put so much faith in decoupling because it is non-confronting. It allows politicians to claim that they’re pursuing environmentally progressive policies, even though history suggests it is a strategy that doesn’t work.

It allows consumers to go on consuming, trusting that soon our consumption practices will be decoupled from carbon emissions. This is a dangerous myth.

Faith in decoupling deflects attention away from the problems that lie at the heart of global environmental (and social) problems – those being, capitalist economic systems that require limitless growth for stability, and the belief that the ‘good life’ requires material affluence. If we don’t rethink those fundamentals, we won’t solve the climate challenge. There are environmental limits to growth, and we are in the process of colliding with them.

IS: You have been very critical of the concept in terms of it helping to address climate change? What are the problems with it?

SA: There is nothing in itself wrong with decoupling – far from it. I am absolutely in favour of decoupling. There is no way we will solve our environmental challenges unless we learn how to produce our goods and services in less energy and resource intensive ways and reduce overall demands on the planet. My problem with the decoupling strategy is how it is used to deflect attention away from the need to rethink growth economics and consumerism.

Within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains (relative decoupling) tend to be reinvested in more growth not reduced impacts (absolute decoupling), and this means that emissions continue to go up, despite the efficiency gains. For example, suppose some clever designer figures out how to make a car with 10% less carbon emissions. That seems like good news, suggesting that the car manufacturing industry could reduce its emissions by 10%. But if the economy grows and people buy more cars than they did last year, then the overall emissions of the car manufacturing industry can go up, even though the industry is producing each individual car more efficiently. There may be relative decoupling, but not absolute decoupling.

This is a particular example of general phenomenon. Over recent decades global economic output in terms of GDP has in many ways become less carbon-intensive per unit of GDP, which seems like good news (and in a sense it is), but since the global economy has been growing over those same decades, total carbon emissions have not been reducing. That is not good news. We need absolute reductions, not just efficiency gains.

In fact, in July this year a report came out by the United Nations (based on work by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) which showed that over the last decade, the global economy has actually become less efficient per unit of GDP (i.e. not even relative decoupling!). The explanation is that more production has been outsourced from relatively efficient economies of Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea to less efficient economies like China and India.

This should deeply challenge the faith people have in decoupling as the solution to all environmental problems. But it probably will not. Even the UN report, which showed that the global economy has become less efficient in the last decade, still says that we need to continue growing our economies but decouple that growth from environmental impact. In order to do this, they basically recommend the same ideas that have been around for decades (technological innovation, market mechanisms, etc) – that is, the very same ideas that have failed to achieve reduced environmental impacts to date. It seems that the ideology of growth has a tight grip. It seems unquestionable within mainstream environmental thinking. And thus business as usual more or less prevails. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

IS: How does de-coupling/green growth fit with the finite emissions budget – the maximum amount of carbon emissions that can be released to have a 50 percent chance of keeping the global temperature rise to 2oC, according to the scientific consensus?

SA: In 2011, climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows published a paper that rigorously explored this question, asking what carbon budget would be available if we wanted a 50% chance of keeping the global temperatures from rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. They then made ambitious assumptions about the peaking of emissions in developing nations and their decarbonisation trajectories thereafter, which allowed Anderson and Bows to determine an approximate carbon budget left over for the developed nations of the OECD. They concluded that in order for those wealthy nations to meet their carbon budgets, they would need to decarbonise their economies by about 8-10% per year, which they aren’t getting close to achieving. Not even close. (For a summary, see here).

Of course, this is a modelling exercise based on assumptions, and assumptions have to be assessed for plausibility. They can always be challenged. Nevertheless, the scenario Anderson and Bows explored is actually extremely conservative. For example, a 50% chance of avoiding dangerous climate change seems recklessly low. We wouldn’t cross the road if we have a 50% chance of arriving safely, so we shouldn’t be so reckless with climate systems – the stability of which we rely on to flourish. Furthermore, the Paris agreement states that we should be taking measures to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees, which implies a tighter carbon budget than a 2 degree goal.

So, if we explored a carbon budget scenario which, say, aimed to keep temperatures no higher than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and expected, say, an 80% chance of success, then the decarbonisation requirements would become even more demanding. What this means is that even if people challenge aspects of Anderson and Bows analysis (for example, assume more faith in carbon capture and storage or geoengineering), their general conclusion remains robust. A safe climate requires extremely steep decarbonisation trajectories.

In fact, their conclusions call radically into question the compatibility of those decarbonisation trajectories and economic growth. If we only had to decarbonise by 1% p.a., we may be able to achieve that while still growing the economy. If we took radical action and really tried to scale up renewables and enforce a range of efficiency measures, then perhaps we could decarbonise by 3-4% p.a. But not even mainstream economics (like Nicholas Stern) believe that we could decarbonise by 8-10% or more while still growing the economy. In order to achieve such deep decarbonisation we will also need to use significantly less energy, but given the close connection between energy and economic output, less energy means less consumption and production.

In short, a very strong case can be made that avoiding dangerous climate change requires giving up growth economics, at least in the wealthiest parts of the world. Again, people don’t want to hear this, especially politicians, so they start making implausible assumptions about, for example, the ability of geoengineering to save us from climate instability. If people come to see that transitioning ‘beyond growth’ might actually be in our own interests, however, then there will be less pressure to pursue reckless geoengineering strategies.

IS: In 2014 you wrote a critique of ‘Techno-Optimism’. What is this and how does it relate to ideas around de-coupling/green growth and climate change?

SA: This is closely linked to what I’ve been saying. Techno-optimism is a term I use to describe the unjustified faith many people place in technological solutions to social and environmental problems. It is a faith that unfortunately shapes mainstream environmental thinking and policy. The basic idea is that we don’t need to rethink growth economics or consumer lifestyles, because technology will save the day. It suggests that we can globalise affluence in a way that is sustainable. But I argue that that would depend on a degree of decoupling that is implausible to achieve.

I should not be misunderstood here. This is not an anti-technology argument. Clearly, we will need to exploit all appropriate technologies in order to transition toward a sustainable economy. I just don’t think we can make that transition without also fundamentally reorganising our economies and embracing deep post-consumerist lifestyle changes. That’s the point most people aren’t prepared to face up to.

We need to remember that technologies are tools – they are means to ends. This implies that technology is neither good nor bad, in itself. It all depends on how and why we use technology. For example, currently we are exploiting new technologies to help us ‘frack’ for oil and gas in order to make profits. This is but one example of using technology in ways that will only exacerbate our problems, not solve them. To my mind, our problem isn’t a lack of technology. Our problem is a lack of understanding about how best to use the technologies we already have.

IS: If de-coupling and green growth is not the answer to combating climate change, what solution do you propose?

SA: I’m not going to be able to provide a satisfying answer in the space available, but I’ll present the broadest possible outline. In order to understand an appropriate response, one has to understand the nature and extent of the problems. We live in an age of gross ecological overshoot; moreover, billions around the world are, by any humane standard, under-consuming; and the human population is growing. This radically calls into question the legitimacy of both high-consumption, high-carbon ways of living and the growth economies of the wealthy nations. There is absolutely no way seven billion people, let alone nine or ten billion, could live high-consumption lives. So we need to fundamentally rethink our global development agenda.

It seems to me that the only way humanity can transition toward a just and sustainable economy is for the richest nations to initiate a ‘degrowth’ process of planned economic contraction, in order to leave sufficient ecological room for other nations as well as biodiversity. Eventually, all nations on the planet will need to achieve a steady-state economy, which would cumulatively operate within the carrying capacity of the planet. This is required not just for climate change, but also as a response to all environmental problems. It’s also required for social justice, because there is no way we can sustainably eliminate poverty by continuously growing the economic pie. In an age of ecological overshoot, the only sustainable path poverty alleviation is through the redistribution of wealth and power. Again, this is not a popular strategy in our neoliberal age. It is unlikely to be embraced, but I am of the view it represents the only path to a just and sustainable world.

IS: Are there examples from history or from the world today of your proposed solution, or a similar level of societal change, being successfully implemented?

SA: We live in unique times and face unique challenges. Of course, every moment in history has its challenges, but today our challenges are global and our crises are overlapping. Never before has a global civilisation been challenged to swiftly transition to a new energy regime to avoid climate instability; never before have we had seven and half billion people on the planet, each of whom are wanting to live a dignified life; never before have we been in such gross ecological overshoot, while every nation is pursuing growth. So, in a word, no, there is no historical example of a wealthy nation voluntarily pursuing a degrowth process of planned economic contraction. But there is simply no other way for humanity to flourish within safe planetary limits. If we are serious about sustainability and serious about global justice, we need to take degrowth seriously. And more and more people are. Fragments of the degrowth economy are sprouting up everywhere, even if these post-capitalist experiments presently remain marginalised.

There is a silver lining to this challenge however – a source of grounded hope. The consumer lifestyles which have been held up as the peak of civilisation in recent decades haven’t really provided the fulfilment people hoped for. Consumerism doesn’t really satisfy the human desire of meaning. This opens up space for those people living high-consumption lifestyles to actually reimagine the good life in ways that significantly reduces their impacts while increasing quality of life. But this isn’t just about lifestyle change. It also means restructuring and relocalising our macro-economies in ways that promote values of sufficiency, moderation, and distributive justice. This is what degrowth means. It means working toward an economy that provides enough, for everyone, forever.

Climate change: the elephant in the Arabian Gulf

Climate change: the elephant in the Arabian Gulf
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
21 March 2016

Speaking to me after the December 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement on climate change, Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, noted the world is still on course for 3-4°C warming on pre-industrial levels (“and probably the upper end of that”).

In 2012 the World Bank summarised what this will look like in its suitably titled report Turn Down The Heat: Why A 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided. “The 4°C scenarios are devastating”, the foreword explained. “The inundation of coastal cities, increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates, many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter, unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics, substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions, increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones, and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.” Professor Anderson believes a 4°C world will likely be “incompatible with an organized global community”, while Naomi Klein, the author of the seminal book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, states that “climate change is an existential crisis for the human species”.

All this is frightening enough but here is the real kicker: according to the scientific consensus 75 percent of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground if we are to have any chance of stopping dangerous levels of climate change.

Which brings us to the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who control around 30 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves and over 20 percent of the world’s gas reserves, and in particular Saudi Arabia, which holds around 16 percent of the planet’s oil reserves.

According to numerous NGOs and newspaper reports, Saudi Arabia, along with the Arab Group of countries it unofficially leads, worked to sabotage a robust deal in Paris, attempting to water down temperature limits and remove mention of human rights from parts of the agreement.

Naming Saudi Arabia “Fossil of the Day”, the Climate Action Network noted “ “the Saudi’s are trying to torpedo three years of hard science, commissioned by governments, that clearly shows 2 degrees warming is too much for vulnerable communities around the world.” Sven Harmeling, CARE International’s climate change advocacy coordinator, was equally critical: “Saudi Arabia is blocking these very substantive discussions going forward and [from] allowing ministers to understand what’s going forward.” The Guardian reported that Washington lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia and Kuwait worked to slow down and muddy the negotiation process, attempting to link climate aid for small island nations that could disappear completely under rising seas to compensation packages for oil producers facing declining revenues.

A similar dynamic was in evidence at the UN climate talks in Bonn in September 2015. “There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia’s position is harmful”, noted Jens Mattias from Greenpeace. “We need strong long-term goals and an agreement to phase out fossil fuels – Saudi Arabia is fighting against this tooth-and-nail. And they have a lot of influence, especially on other oil-producing countries.”

From a narrow short-term perspective there are, of course, many self-interested reasons why Saudi Arabia and other GCC nations would want to block meaningful action on climate change. The vast majority of their revenues comes from oil and gas, and while ‘economic diversification’ is endlessly debated throughout the GCC, there is little prospect of weaning their economies off the black gold anytime soon.

“Oil revenues allow the rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia to pay out generously on welfare and subsidies, which underscores their mandate to rule, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring”, notes German newspaper Deutsche Welle. Dr Jim Krane, a researcher on energy and the GCC at Rice University’s Baker Institute, makes plain just how high the stakes are for GCC rulers: “Telling Saudi Arabia it has to leave its oil in ground is tantamount to saying we support a revolution in your country”.

So, to summarize, the GCC’s rulers need to keep extracting fossil fuels to ensure their own survival, just as the planet and humanity requires the GCC and other governments to stop extracting fossil fuels for their own survival. It is this irreconcilable clash of interests that led journalist Pari Trivedi to report from the Paris climate talks that Saudi Arabia “has been negotiating in a manner that refutes any consideration for the wellbeing of humankind”.

The Gulf itself will be hit particularly hard by a rise in global temperatures, leading to significantly hotter and dryer conditions in the region, with increasing freshwater shortages contributing to security threats and enlarged refugee flows. Yemen’s water problems are well understood. Less well known is the link between climate change-related drought and the conflict in Syria. Reviewing a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, The Guardian explains the GCC “will suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked”. Kicking in after 2070, the research shows 45°C would become the normal summer maximum in Gulf cities, with 60°C seen in places like Kuwait during some years.

As the author Robert Tressell wrote in his classic book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, “Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery and is therefore the enemy of his own children. There is no such thing as being neutral: we must either help or hinder.”

We in the West should not duck our own culpability. Ever since the late 1980s when the world began to understand the dangers of climate change, the West has been intimately involved in this dangerous ecological poker game. First, it is the affluent, industrialised societies that require significant amounts of the world’s fossil fuels to maintain our unsustainable consumer-based lifestyles. And second, the West – through military intervention, arms deals, diplomatic support and trade – plays a crucial role in protecting and maintaining the Gulf monarchies in power.

Deutsche Welle notes that many believe oil’s “greatest value” to Saudi Arabia “is as a strategic weapon”, allowing it to play an oversized role in the international arena. And this is where the politics of climate change should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the West’s support for the most fundamentalist government on earth. For example, a significant shift to renewables in the UK would dramatically reduce the nation’s reliance on oil coming from the Middle East and the Gulf, which would, in turn, dramatically reduce the power of Saudi Arabia to influence the UK’s foreign and domestic politics. Just imagine: no more flags flying at half-mast; no more Serious Fraud Office investigations prematurely closed down; no more dodgy arms sales; no more enabling of the on-going humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Climate change, the strength of the environmental movement in the West, the arms trade, the UK’s energy make-up, political change in Saudi Arabia, Western foreign policy – everything is connected. And it is no exaggeration to say the very future of humanity depends on how quickly the populations and leaders in the West and the GCC come to understand these links and the threat to their own and the planet’s well-being – and how quickly they act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading for 4oC: interview with Professor Kevin Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Anderson blogs at www.kevinanderson.info