Tag Archives: Climate change

First we stop London City Airport, then Heathrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Star
30 July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 February 2019

Clearly intended to shock, last month the Guardian published a report titled Climate Risks ‘Similar To 2008 Financial Crash’.

The problem with this formulation, to partially quote the soon to be iconic first sentence of The Uninhabitable Earth, is that “it is worse, much worse” than this.

“What climate change has in store is not… a Great Recession or a Great Depression but, in economic terms, a Great Dying”, David Wallace-Wells, Deputy Editor of New York Magazine, argues.

The 2016 United Nations Paris Agreement, which aims to limit warming to an increase of 2°C on pre-industrial levels, gave hope to many. Wallace-Wells injects a dose of frightening realism into the debate, noting all the commitments made at the summit by the 195 signatories would still mean 3.2°C of warming by 2100. And most terrifyingly of all, as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, he explains.

What does all this mean? “Warming of 3 or 3.5°C degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”.

The twelve chapters which make up the core of the book flesh out this alarming reality, looking at how climate change is raising sea-levels, increasing wildfires and disease, reducing crop yields, killing the oceans and making conflicts more likely. An expansion of his 2017 magazine article that went viral, he is right when he says this section contains “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic”.

For example, he notes the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heatwaves since 1980.” Even if warming is limited to an increase of 2°C, big cities in the Global South like Karachi and Kolkata “will become close to uninhabitable”, contributing to a massive increase in refugees. A 4°C increase will mean the European heat wave of 2003, which killed 35,000 people, “will be a normal summer.”

Frustratingly, when the mainstream media reports on climate change it invariably uses 2100 as the end point for projections. In contrast, Wallace-Wells inconveniently highlights that the death and destruction will not end there. Infact, some observers call the 100 years after 2100 “the century of hell.”

A necessary and urgent wake-up call, The Inhabitable Earth is the most important book about climate change since Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. But while Klein focused on the ideology of economic growth as the central driver of climate change, the topic is largely – and strangely – absent from Wallace-Wells’ work. And though he emphasises how climate change is “the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced”, highlighting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s push for an immediate global mobilisation on the scale of World War Two, exactly how people should organise to stop climate change is also not something he dwells on.

“I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement”, was US academic Noam Chomsky’s recent take on the necessity of large-scale activism on climate change. Likewise, Klein recently tweeted three central questions for assessing the candidates in the upcoming 2020 US Presidential election: “1. Who best understands that anything short of transformative action on climate is tantamount to genocide? 2. Who, if elected, will be most porous to social movements/ least likely to seal themselves off with elite consultants? 3. Who has a solid chance of beating Trump if we all work like hell?”

Similar questions need to be asked at the next UK general election and across the globe if humanity is to stand any chance of arresting the ongoing and escalating existential threat of climate chaos.

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