Tag Archives: Climate change

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

Steve Melia has taken a topic that could be dully technical and written a book that is both interesting and infused with a sense of urgency in terms of the climate crisis.

Underpinned with 50 original interviews with activists, policymakers and lobbyists, he surveys the key campaigns against government transport policy over the past 30 years, from the anti-roads protests of the 90s to the fight against airport expansion, and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) mass actions in 2019. His review includes the fuel protests of 2000, which nearly brought the country to a standstill.

As a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England, Melia’s writing leans toward the academic, though he has a journalist’s eye for detail and a good story. He relates how one of the first targets of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, with its new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’, was ‘a pantomime cow called Buttercup’ at the Newbury Bypass protests: ‘The front half pleaded guilty to aggravated trespass while the rear half argued that his vision was obscured when they pranced across a security cordon’.

His analysis of the impact of protest will be of particular interest to activists – all the movements in the book ‘did have at least some influence on policy and practice’, he argues. For example, the anti-roads movement triggered a significant shift in public opinion and government policy, with most of the Tories’ planned road schemes dropped by the mid-90s. ‘Swampy had a lasting impact,’ notes a government advisor in the mid-2000s. ‘To build a road now is a lot of aggro.’

However, Melia notes government transport policy tends to change for three interconnected reasons: the strength of argument and evidence, the economic context, and public opinion – often driven by direct action. On the last point, he maintains ‘the main message of this book for XR or any other protest groups is that your actions will only work if you bring public opinion with you.’ This reference to XR – Melia was arrested during the April 2019 Rebellion – is, in part, about the controversial action to occupy a tube train at Canning Town in October 2019.

‘The need for disruptive protest action has never been greater’, he concludes. With the government attempting to push ahead with the expansion of Heathrow airport and a huge road building programme (sound familiar?), Roads, Runways and Resistance couldn’t be more timely.

Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is published by Pluto Press, priced £16.99.


Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 May 2021

RUPERT Read’s latest book on the climate crisis is underpinned by the realisation pretty much all of us are “in some form or another of climate denial” – about honestly facing up to the level of threat, and the speed and depth of change required to successfully deal with it.

On the former, Carbon Action Tracker estimates the current policies in place around the world will lead to 2.9oC of warming by 2100. Read believes it is “very likely” climate and ecological chaos will lead to civilisation disintegrating “within the lifetimes of some readers”.

For the latter, he argues the desperate situation we now find ourselves in cannot “be adequately addressed from within our current paradigm of politics and economics.” As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warned in 2018, limiting warming to 1.5oC will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

A call to arms for everyone to step up to the challenge, Read’s thesis is, in many ways, very simple: if you care about your children (or other people’s children), then you should also care about their children, and their children’s children – “the whole human future.” And this means you should also care about the future of the planet all these future generations will live on.

He presents three core proposals for embedding this transformational thinking. First, the setting up of citizen’s assemblies that would be empowered to make the long-term proposals and decisions our fatally compromised and short-termist political system is unable to do. Second, the introduction of what he calls Guardians For Future Generations – a permanent “super-jury” that would sit above parliament and consider the interests of future generations in policymaking. And, finally, adherence to the Precautionary Principle – “when you lack full evidence and potential consequences [of a path of action or inaction] are grave, you need to err on the side of taking care.”

The book’s logical, essay-length polemic points to Read’s academic position as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Likewise, the clarity and urgency of his message also highlights the influence of his time as spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Compelling and deeply challenging, it is often an uncomfortable argument (Read tells readers: “you… need, at a minimum, to devote either your time or the bulk of your financial resources to this cause”). Which, of course, is why it is such an essential read. Time to get busy.

Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse is published by UEA Publishing Project, priced £10.99

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance by Helen Beynon with Chris Gillham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 February 2021

IN 1989 the Thatcher government announced the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”. One of the new schemes was the M3 extension past Winchester across Twyford Down.

With local groups having fought the planned road for decades with little success, in the early 1990s there was a shift to direct action. Concerned about the proposed road’s impact on the land, the so-called Dongas Tribe – named after the ancient trackways in the area – set up camp on the Down.

Skilfully using original interviews, letters, memoirs, photos and poems, the authors paint a vivid picture of outdoor living, with many people recalling a deep, spiritual connection to the land.

The Dongas were soon joined by members of radical environment network Earth First!, while local residents, such as ex-Tory Councillor David Croker, continued to lobby against the road through more conventional methods (some also participated in actions too).

There were tensions between the different groups, of course, but from summer 1992 onwards they were able to carry out regular nonviolent direct action, often forcing a stop to work on the site. In 1993 the Department of Transport claimed the protests were adding £20,000 a day to the costs of the road.

The crunch came on 9 December 1992 – known as “Yellow Wednesday” – when the camp was violently evicted by a small army of private security guards. The authors painfully highlight just how traumatic the clearance was for those who experienced it. Activist Becca records “Female protesters were sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off.”

With the camp forced off the Down, people continued organising, with large rallies and mass trespasses taking place at the work site in 1993 and 1994, including one in which Kinder Scout trespasser Benny Rothman spoke at.

The road was eventually built but not before the resistance at Twyford Down had lit the touch paper for the wider anti-roads movement. There were protests against the M11 Link Road in east London, Fairmile in Devon, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle and, most famously, the Newbury Bypass. Like Twyford, these hard fought battles ended in defeat for the protesters, though arguably they won the war.

“When we began campaigning there were 600 proposed schemes in the Government’s roads programme”, John Stewart, then chair of the anti-roads group ALARM UK, noted in 1998. “Now there are 150 and we expect that number to be cut further… we have done our job.”

More broadly, Twyford “begat a hundred campaigns”, activist Shane Collins notes, including Reclaim The Streets and the anti-GM movement of the late 90s. Key figures also assisted Plane Stupid with their campaign against airport expansion, and there is a clear link between the anti-roads movement and the climate camps of the 2000s and Extinction Rebellion.

Hugely inspiring, Twyford Rising is an engrossing account of one of the most important protests in recent British history. As the authors conclude: “Twyford richly deserves to be part of the legends of these Islands, for it is a lost land now, which once was filled with beauty and hope.”

To order Twyford Rising visit https://twyfordrising.org/.

How They Made Us Doubt Everything

How They Made Us Doubt Everything
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2021

“The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance”, Alex Carey noted in his seminal 1995 book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: “the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

The Australian writer’s analysis is well illustrated by the engrossing ten-part BBC Radio 4 series How They Made Us Doubt Everything.

Presented by Peter Pomerantsev, author of the 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, the series looks at how corporate public relations firms engineered doubt about the connection between smoking and cancer in the 1960s, and then used similar tactics to manufacture doubt about climate change.

The story begins in December 1953 soon after the publication of an article titled “Cancer by the carton” in the popular US magazine Reader’s Digest. The heads of the major tobacco industry companies hold a secret crisis meeting in New York, having hired John Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, the world’s first international PR firm, to assist them.

“Because of the grave nature of a number of recently highly publicised research reports on the effects of cigarette smoking widespread public interest had developed causing great concern within and without the industry”, noted a Hill & Knowlton memo written a few days later, titled ‘Preliminary Recommendations for Cigarette Manufacturers’. “These developments have confronted the industry with a serious problem of public relations”.

Hill had made his name helping steel companies undermine trade unions and protecting big business. And, true to form, Hill & Knowlton put together the PR playbook the tobacco industry used to protect their profits – most infamously the 1954 A Frank Statement advertisement.

Appearing in nearly 450 newspapers and reaching an estimated 43 million Americans, according to a 2002 article in Tobacco Control journal, the advert emphasised there was no agreement amongst scientists on what caused lung cancer, and pledged tobacco industry “aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health.”

Ingeniously, Hill didn’t reject the science, but selectively used it to confuse the public. “It is important that the public recognise the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer”, he argued. Pomerantsev calls this the “White coats” strategy, with the tobacco industry using scientists often funded by the industry to call into question the work of independent scientists. “You undermine science with more science”, he notes.

A 1969 secret tobacco industry memo perfectly distilled Hill’s approach: “Doubt is our product. Since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy.”

It is now well understood the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the public delayed regulation and behaviour change, leading to hundreds of thousands of avoidable early deaths. However, years later the playbook was dusted down and put it into action again – this time by an oil industry whose profits were under threat from the public’s increasing concern about global warming. And the stakes were even higher than with tobacco, both in the scale of the threat to humanity and for the companies involved: in 2000 the oil company Exxon Mobil logged $17.7 billion in income, giving it the most profitable year of any corporation in history, according to CNN.

Shockingly, How They Made Us Doubt Everything highlights how Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and their role in it, by the early 1980s. Speaking to Pomerantsev, Exxon scientist Martin Hoffert explains he successfully modelled the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change in 1981, passing the results onto management. However, ignoring their own research, in 1996 Exxon CEO Lee Raymond stated “the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”

This was likely part of Exxon’s broader strategy to confuse and manipulate the public about the reality of climate change. A 1989 presentation by Exxon’s Manager of Science and Strategy to the company’s Board of Directors noted the data pointed to “significant climate change, and sea level use with generally negative consequences”. Furthermore, the long hot summer of 1988 “has drawn much attention to the potential problems and we are starting to hear the inevitable call for action”, with the media “likely to increase public awareness and concern”. His recommendation? “More rational responses will require efforts to extend the science and increase emphasis on costs and political realities.” Discussing the presentation with Pomerantsev, Kert Davies from the Climate Investigations Center says it shows “they are worried that the public will take this on and enact radical changes in the way we use energy and affect their business.”

Indeed, by 1988 Exxon’s position was clear, according to a memo written by their Public Affairs Manager, Joseph M. Carlson: “emphasise the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect.”

Similarly, in 1991 the green-sounding Information Council on the Environment (ICE) – which in fact represented electrical companies in the US – set out their strategy: “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Surveys commissioned by ICE recommended targeting specific segments of the population, including “older, lesser educated males from larger households who are not typically information seekers” and “younger, low income women”, who they believed were more easily influenced by new information. Thankfully, following an embarrassing leak to the New York Times, the organisation quickly folded.

Just as the public’s concern about smoking and health led to industry competitors working together to save their businesses, following the signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol committing states to reduce the carbon emissions, Exxon joined forces with Southern Company and Chevron to design a “multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to fund denial and install uncertainty.” This Global Climate Science Communications Plan noted: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in the climate science”.

In many ways this corporate-funded climate denial propaganda campaign was hugely successful in its aims. Pomerantsev quotes the results of a 2016 Pew Research Center poll of Americans, which found just 48 per cent of respondents understood that the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, with just 15 per cent of conservative Republicans agreeing.

And like the tobacco industry strategy of doubt, the fossil-fuelled PR campaign has undoubtedly confused the public in the US and beyond and delayed action on the biggest threat facing humanity, meaning perhaps millions of unnecessary deaths. However, there are reasons to believe the fossil fuel corporations are now losing the war.

Speaking to the Morning Star in March 2019, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explained there have been significant shifts in US public opinion over recent years. For example, a 2019 Yale University/George Mason University survey found six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

A January 2021 poll by the United Nations Development Programme – the largest poll ever conducted on climate change, with 1.2 million people questioned in 50 countries – confirms these hopeful results: two-thirds of respondents said climate change is a “global emergency”, including 65 per cent of respondents in the US.

Indeed, it is important to remember Democrat Joe Biden was elected to the White House after campaigning on what Nature journal called “the most ambitious climate platform ever put forth by a leading candidate for US president.”

Two important conclusions can be made from listening to How They Made Us Doubt Everything. First, while Pomerantsev himself has written extensively about Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts directed at the West, his BBC Radio 4 series suggests the main threat to the wellbeing of Western publics actually comes from Western corporate propaganda rather than Russian troll farms and cyberwarfare groups like Fancy Bear. And second, there is an ongoing struggle between corporate power and democratic forces across the globe – what former US Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards called an “epic fight”. The outcome could not be more serious: future generations will only inherit a liveable planet if we are able to successfully confront corporate propaganda and tame corporate power.

How The Made Us Doubt Everything is available to stream or download from BBC Sounds.

How Advertising Fuels the Climate Crisis: Interview with Tim Kasser

How Advertising Fuels the Climate Crisis: Interview with Tim Kasser
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 January 2021

With the climate crisis likely to be high on the political agenda this year – the UK is hosting the next round of United Nations climate talks in November 2021 – a new publication from the New Weather Institute think tank and the climate action charity Possible is well timed.

The report, Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction: What Does the Scientific Research Have to Say?, is written by Tim Kasser, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Knox College in the United States, and author of books such as Hypercapitalism (2018) and The High Price of Materialism (2002).

Ian Sinclair asked Kasser about the connection between advertising and climate change, the role of television and what governments and citizens can do to address the issue.

Ian Sinclair: How does advertising contribute to the climate and ecological crises we are now experiencing? 

Tim Kasser: Some industries have direct effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, the auto, oil, airlines, and many other industries release CO2 and pollution, and industries like agribusiness destroy habitat. Other industries have indirect effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, some banks provide financing to the auto, oil, airlines, and agribusiness industries. So, while the banks themselves don’t have a big direct effect on the climate or ecology, their actions support those industries that do have big direct effects. Our recent report suggests that advertising has similar indirect effects on the environment. 

The report presents scientific evidence for four pathways through which advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological damage. These four pathways include two products, beef and tobacco, that research shows are both damaging to the environment and whose consumption is increased as a result of advertising. The two other pathways we examine are materialistic values and “the work & spend cycle.” I’ll say more about those in a moment, but the main point for now is that research shows that both materialism and the work & spend cycle are increased by advertising and that both are associated with negative environmental outcomes. 

We suspect that there are other pathways through which advertising has indirect negative effects on the environment, but these were the four pathways that had the most solid scientific evidence behind them, and so they were the ones that we wrote about.    

IS: The report highlights the important role played by television in this process. What does the evidence show? 

TK: In many nations the biggest television channels are owned by for-profit companies whose revenue depends upon selling advertisements. The vast majority of those advertisements are designed to encourage viewers to spend their money on certain products (like pizza), services (like automobile repair), or experiences (like trips on a cruise ship). These advertisements almost inevitably suggest that a viewer’s life would be happier, safer, or better in any number of ways if the viewer would buy what is advertised. 

When people are exposed to these messages thousands of times per day, day after day, year after year from early childhood onward, the research shows that they come to prioritize the acquisition of money and possessions, or what researchers call “materialism.” Many studies show that the more that people watch television, the more materialistic they are. Further, experimental studies show that people become more materialistic after being exposed to the kinds of advertising messages they see on television, compared to being exposed to more neutral messages. 

Research studies with people of many ages and from many nations also show that when people are more materialistic, they care less about environmental damage, are less likely to behave in ways that help the environment (e.g., by recycling), and are more likely to behave in ways that hurt the environment (e.g., by owning petrol-guzzling autos and living in large homes). 

In sum, this body of research suggests that advertising on television (and elsewhere) has an indirect effect on climate and ecological degradation through encouraging materialistic values and goals. 

IS: The report also argues there is a link between advertising, a long hours work culture and the environment. Can you explain this? 

TK: As I said earlier, the primary goal of most advertisements is to convince people to spend their money on the advertised product, service, or experience. In order to spend money, one either has to go into debt or to earn money, and the way that most people can earn money is by working. Some studies document that the more that people see advertisements, the more hours they work. Researchers think that when people see a lot of ads they decide that working in order to earn money to buy stuff is more important than other options for one’s time, like relaxing, spending time with friends and family, or volunteering. 

The problem is that the research also shows that working long work is associated with more climate and ecological damage. There are two explanations for this. One is that when a lot of people work a lot of hours and make a lot of money which they use to consume stuff, that all “scales up” and creates a lot of ecological damage. The second explanation is that when people work long hours, they have less time to pursue more sustainable ways of life – it takes more time to ride one’s bike or take public transport than to hop in one’s car and drive somewhere.  Both of these explanations are probably valid. 

IS: Though the report doesn’t look at it, how do you think governments and citizens might reduce the negative effects advertising has on the climate and our ecology? 

TK: There are many governmental actions that could reduce advertising’s negative effects. I’ll mention just four that some governments have already tried. 

First, cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil and Grenoble, France place limits on where advertisements are allowed. Other cities could develop similar policies that only allow ads in commercial locations and that remove ads from public locations like highways, buses and subways, schools, parks, etc. 

Second, the nations of Sweden, Norway, and Brazil have each banned advertising to children. Other nations could develop similar policies to help the next generation from being socialized into the consumerist mindset.

Third, the nation of Hungary and the US state of Maryland have attempted to remove the tax breaks that advertisers currently enjoy. These attempts have received substantial push-back. But if other governments developed similar policies, they would not only obtain needed revenue, but they would make advertising more expensive and therefore potentially less desirable for companies. 

Finally, governments all over the world have banned certain types of advertisements for cigarettes, in the recognition that this product is extremely unhealthy. Similar policies could be put in place to ban ads that encourage consumption of environmentally-damaging products, like SUVs, and services, like airline flights.

Citizens can become involved by voting for representatives who support such policies and by petitioning their local governments to enact such policies. In their personal lives, citizens can use ad block apps on the Internet and unsubscribe from media that are replete with advertisements. 

Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction is free to download from http://www.badverts.org/reports-and-publications.

Are governments doing enough on the climate crisis? Interview with Climate Action Tracker

Are governments doing enough on the climate crisis? Interview with Climate Action Tracker
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 December 2020

Set up in 2009 by Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute, Climate Action Tracker (CAT) conducts independent scientific analysis that tracks the response by governments across the world to the climate crisis.

In particular, CAT measures government action against the globally agreed 2016 United Nations (UN) Paris Agreement aim of “holding warming well below 2°C, and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.”

For context, in 2018 the Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey noted “even 1.5˚C of warming would cause sea level rises, coral reef die-off, extinction of species and droughts, floods, storms and heatwaves that would threaten the world’s stability.” Worryingly, she explained “Levels of warming greater than that would devastate parts of the globe, wiping out agricultural productivity, melting the Arctic ice cap and rendering many areas uninhabitable.”

With the UK hosting the next major UN climate change conference, COP 26, in November 2021, Ian Sinclair asked Sofia Gonzales-Zuñiga and  Ryan Wilson from CAT about where the world stands today in terms of government policies and temperature rise, how recent events in the US and China will likely impact global temperature, and the UK’s own policy response.

Ian Sinclair: You work highlights the importance of differentiating between the pledges made by governments, and the policies they actually implement. What is the likely global temperature increase by 2100 that will result from the currently implemented policies of all the world’s governments? And if governments stick to their pledges made under the 2016 Paris Agreement what would this mean for temperature rise? 

Sofia Gonzales-Zuñiga: We estimate the temperature increase from current policies in 2100 will be 2.9˚C (a range of 2.1-3.9˚C). If they stick to their pledges made under the Paris Agreement this would come down to 2.6˚C. Note: we don’t analyse all countries, rather all the biggest emitters and a selection of smaller emitters, totally around 80% of global emissions.

IS: How many countries are currently on track to meet the pledged emissions reductions they signed up to in the Paris Agreement? And how many countries does CAT assess are acting consistently with the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5˚C

SG-Z: Who is on track? That’s an interesting question, because many countries don’t have very strong pledges. India and China, for example, are both set to overachieve their pledges, a strong indication they could increase them. Russia has always had a pledge that it will well overachieve.  

In terms of being on a 1.5˚C pathway, there are few countries on that track. We assess India to be nearly there, plus The Gambia and Morocco, and, if it achieves its Paris Agreement pledge, the UK.  We rate their pledges and not the policies currently in place to meet them, thus more work is required by all to get onto a Paris Agreement pathway.

IS: Two recent global events have increased hopes the world can address the climate crisis – China’s September 2020 announcement it will “aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”, and Joe Biden from the Democratic Party being elected President of the United States. What effect are these two events likely to have on the climate crisis? 

SG-Z: These will make a huge difference. We estimate the China pledge would shave 0.2-0.3˚C off global warming, and the US around 0.1˚C. We have now modelled the warming estimate for the combined net zero pledges made by 127 countries, and this, if achieved, would bring warming in 2100 down to 2.1˚C.  

IS: The UK government presents itself as a “world leader” when it comes to addressing climate change. What is CAT’s assessment of the UK’s current policies? 

Ryan Wilson: The UK’s recent commitment to achieve at least a 68 per cent reduction in domestic GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions below 1990 levels by 2030 is a world leading target, and places the UK on a 1.5°C Paris Agreement compatible domestic emissions reduction pathway. To ensure it is contributing its fair share to global mitigation efforts though, the UK needs to ramp up its support for less wealthy nations to achieve emissions reductions through measures like climate finance or direct funding for sustainable development projects. A 1.5°C compatible fair share level of effort for the UK combining such measures with its domestic target would see the UK reaching net-zero emissions by around 2030.

Despite a number of significant recent policy announcements, the UK will require a considerable scaling up of climate action just to reach its new 2030 target. Recent announcements like a 2030 ban on the sale of fossil fuel vehicles and a drastic scaling up of offshore wind energy are positive steps in the right direction, but strong ongoing commitments will be needed to achieve deep emissions cuts across all sectors of the economy. Setting a strong emissions reduction target is just the first step, the UK government must now back it up with action.

IS: Due to the pandemic, COP26 in Glasgow, the next major UN climate change conference, has been postponed to November 2021. What should governments being doing to prepare for this? 

SG-Z: We expect governments to continue cutting emissions and, if they haven’t done so already, to submit a strengthened target to the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], as they agreed to do every five years under the Paris Agreement.

Read more about the work of Climate Action Tracker at http://www.climateactiontracker.org

Joe Biden: The Guardian gets fooled again

Joe Biden: The Guardian gets fooled again
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 November 2020

“Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”, sings Roger Daltrey at the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again, one of The Who’s greatest songs. In fact it’s one of the greatest anthems in the rock canon full stop, reaching the top ten in 1971. However, reading the Guardian’s coverage of Joe Biden you would think most of the staff at the liberal-left newspaper have never heard of the track, nor are familiar with the sceptical sentiment which courses through it.

In Guardianland the President-elect of the United States is “a decent, empathetic man”, as senior columnist Jonathan Freedland explained.

“Joe Biden has won… renewing hope for the US and the world”, the paper confirmed. “After four years of turmoil, misinformation, manipulation and division, the result of this historic presidential election offers fresh promise for democracy and progress.” To celebrate his victory the Guardian produced a “Free 16-page Joe Biden souvenir supplement” for readers, filled with propaganda photographs of the 78-year old looking popular and presidential.

“He will have to reassert America’s role as the global problem-solver”, a Guardian editorial asserted. “Under Mr Trump the ‘indispensable nation’ disappeared when it was needed the most.”

If all this bowing of the knee to authority sounds familiar that’s because it is.

“They did it. They really did it”, the Guardian’s leader column swooned when Barack Obama was elected to the White House in November 2008. “So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world… Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory. Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America’s hope and, in no small way, ours too.” Freedland himself breathlessly recorded Obama coming on stage in Berlin in July 2008: the then Democratic presidential candidate “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water”.

Of course, the problem is much wider than the Guardian.

“Congratulations @KamalaHarris and @JoeBiden we are all rooting for you in your new jobs!”, tweeted self-proclaimed “actual socialist” Stella Creasy MP. “He ran a campaign on the values that we in the United Kingdom share – decency, integrity, compassion and strength”, commented Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer. “In a dark year, this is a good day. It’s time for a return to decency, unity and humanity in our politics”, tweeted Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

There is no excuse for this kind of vacuous power-friendly bullshit. Unlike Obama in 2008, Biden has a very long political record so there is no reason to get fooled again.

As American political analyst Thomas Frank noted in the Guardian itself – sometimes useful things do appear in the paper – “Biden’s name is virtually synonymous with Washington consensus.”

“His years in the US Senate overlap almost precisely with his party’s famous turn to the ‘third way’ right, and Biden personally played a leading role in many of the signature initiatives of the era: Nafta-style trade agreements, lucrative favors for banks, tough-on-crime measures, proposed cuts to social security, even.”

And, Frank notes, “It was precisely this turn, this rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s” and the abandonment of the working class “that set the stage for Trumpism.”

As Vice-President in the Obama Administration from 2009-17, Biden oversaw the bombing of seven Muslim-majority countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen). According to a Council on Foreign Relations blog written by Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson, the US dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.

Going further back, in his new book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, Branko Marcetic says Biden “arguably more than any Democrat had created the crisis in Iraq.” In the run up to the aggressive and illegal invasion in 2003 he supported the Bush Administration’s push for war in the media and as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and travelled to Europe and the Middle East to make the case to other leaders.

Writer Louis Allday recently provided some clear-sighted analysis in Ebb magazine: Biden “has caused an incalculable amount of suffering over his many decades as a senior official of the US empire.” This is supported by a September 2020 Brown University study, which “using the best available international data… conservatively estimates that at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the US military has launched or participated in since 2001.”

On the environment, the (recently departed) Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore argues Biden “has room for manoeuvre… he can, in short, act as if the climate emergency is real.”

Indeed, Biden has pledged to immediately sign up to the Paris Agreement, This is good news, though it needs to be tempered with a pinch of reality. As the leading climate scientist James Hansen remarked about the agreement: “It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

And while you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of it in the fawning media coverage of Biden and the climate crisis, it’s worth noting the US’s piss-poor pledge at Paris, when Biden was Vice-President: the US promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level by 2025. Friends of the Earth described these goals as “weak” and not “commensurate with the demands of climate science and justice” as “it moves us closer to the brink of global catastrophe”.

To be sure Biden presidency will usher in many positive changes. The US will almost certainly re-join the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reverse Trump’s move to withdraw from the World Health Organization. Biden is also expected to rescind Trump’s rule on US foreign aid, “which rights campaigners say has prevented millions of women across the globe from getting access to proper reproductive and sexual healthcare over the past four years”, the Guardian reports.

But Biden himself confirmed “nothing would fundamentally change” when he met with wealthy donors in New York in 2019. According to Salon, the President-elect went on to say that the rich should not be blamed for income inequality, telling the donors, “I need you very badly.”

“I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you,” he added.

Biden is, in the words of US muckraker Matt Taibbi, the latest “imperial administrator”. Yes, he might be a highly experienced politician, more prone to multilateralism and someone who will oversee a more predictable US foreign policy, but he is still the head of the reigning imperial power in the world today.

And this is the key issue: Biden’s presidency will give US imperialism a more likeable face that will likely reduce opposition to its often deadly policies and actions, both at home and abroad. It is, in short, another opportunity for An Instant Overhaul For Tainted Brand America, as Advertising Age hailed the last incoming Democratic president in 2008.

Interestingly, it seems many people were able to see through the political marketing surrounding Obama, with a 2013 WIN/Gallup International poll of over 60,000 people across 65 nations finding 24 percent (the most popular answer) believed the United States was “the greatest threat to peace in the world”.

Not so the Guardian. Instead, its servile coverage of the election of Biden and Obama makes a mockery of editor Katharine Viner’s claim the paper is committed to “holding the powerful to account.”

As Tony Benn memorably wrote in his diaries: “The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking, like the status quo. They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO.”

“They are just the Establishment”, he added. “It is a society that suits them well.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Sinclair tweets @IanSinclair.

Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill: Andrew Boswell interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best books of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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