Tag Archives: Kevin Anderson

“Desperate times call for desperate measures”: Peter Kalmus interview

“Desperate times call for desperate measures”: Peter Kalmus interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 June 2022

In April Dr Peter Kalmus, an American climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, was arrested after he chained himself to the door of the JP Morgan Chase building in Los Angeles in protest at the bank’s investments in new fossil fuel projects.

Speaking in a personal capacity to Ian Sinclair, Kalmus, who is currently the most followed climate scientist on Twitter, discussed his arrest, barriers to scientists speaking out and the importance of mass civil disobedience in the climate crisis.

Morning Star: Can you explain what led you to chaining yourself to the front door of the JP Morgan Chase building in Los Angeles?

Peter Kalmus: I’m feeling desperate, because the climate emergency is intensifying each year and yet government leaders aren’t doing anything about it. In fact, they’re doing the opposite of what needs to be done: they’re still expanding the fossil fuel industry. They should be leading an emergency-scale transformation away from fossil fuels instead. Everyone needs to know that the damage fossil fuels are doing to Earth’s life support systems are effectively irreversible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change WG3 report was released just two days before our action at JP Morgan Chase. The report made it very clear that there can be no new fossil fuel infrastructure built from this point, and that human emissions globally need to peak now – not five years from now – in order to still have a 50/50 chance of staying under 1.5°C of mean global heating, a level that I think will be far more catastrophic than almost anyone realizes. Scientist Rebellion called for civil disobedience on April 6 to protest inaction in the context of this report, and I thought “it’s definitely time,” so I joined hundreds of other scientists around the world, risking our careers and our freedom, for the sake of the planet, our kids, and everyone. I chose the JP Morgan Chase as the location because they do more to fund fossil fuel infrastructure than any other institution on the planet. JP Morgan Chase is unabashedly funding the irreversible destruction of life on Earth. It’s crazy to have to say that – it’s a crazy time we live in – but it’s absolutely true.

MS: While 1,200 scientists in 26 countries were reported to have taken part in the Scientist Rebellion that your direct action was part of, you will know most scientists, indeed most climate scientists, don’t speak out publicly, or participate in activism. What are some of the barriers that stop scientists becoming publicly active? 

PK: It takes courage to break social norms, and it takes courage to risk your career. I think it’s worth it. Life on Earth is at stake. Our kids’ lives are at stake. That’s worth infinitely more than my career. It’s even worth risking my freedom for. At this point, we need to start thinking in terms of “deep time.” The action we take today, or the inaction, will reverberate for thousands of generations.

MS: UK climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson stopped flying in around 2005, and has criticised other scientists who continue to use air travel. In his 2021 book The New Climate War Professor Michael Mann describes Anderson’s position as “buy[ing] heavily into the ‘personal action’ framing of climate solutions”, which deflects from the necessary systematic action needed. What’s your view on climate scientists making a public stand on flying?

PK: I don’t want to pick on any one person, and there are still a lot of climate advocates who are frequent flyers, but personally I do think it’s irresponsible to continue flying frequently when you know that this behaviour is irreversibly heating up the planet. Much of the CO2 we emit, whether from flying or any other activity, will stay in the atmosphere contributing to global heating for thousands of years. I haven’t flown since 2012 because I can’t handle the intense feeling of benefitting personally from flying at dire cost to my own kids, young people everywhere, future generations, and nonhuman life such as forests and coral reefs. It felt simultaneously horrific and selfish – horrifically selfish.

But the damage goes far beyond the CO2 emissions, precisely because frequent flying climate influencers are correct: it’s not about their “individual action.” The main problem with their flying isn’t the CO2 they’re emitting, it’s the message they’re communicating, and how this message delays systems change. We live in a political system whose decision makers have been financially captured by the fossil fuel industry. In order to get change in this captured system, we need grassroots pressure that’s stronger than the fossil fuel industry. To get this grassroots power, the public needs to understand that we’re genuinely in an emergency. But when our most influential climate messengers act like there’s no emergency, by engaging in status quo fossil fuel behaviour of the privileged global rich, and then vocally defending that behaviour in order to justify it, the public takes the top-line message that there’s no emergency. The sooner the public understands we’re in an emergency, the sooner humanity will start responding like we’re in an emergency, and the more we’ll save. We’ve already lost so much. Ecosystems are dying. People are dying. Losses are guaranteed to intensify from here, and to continue intensifying, until we end the fossil fuel industry. Frequent flying from top climate advocates is a significant block to systemic action. If they were to say, instead, “this is such a huge emergency that I can no longer fly, I know my decision to stop flying is not a solution, but, knowing what I know, it just feels too horrific and disgusting to keep doing it,” the public would get a very different message.

These are tough conversations to have. Obviously, we all live in a fossil-fuelled system of systems, and it’s impossible to fully reduce our fossil fuel use until those systems change. And of course we do need systems change; we won’t stop Earth breakdown through “individual action.” But we can at least avoid excessively using fossil-fuelled systems for perceived personal gain, or worse, defending them. In other words, fly if you still feel that you “need” to, but don’t fly frequently; and instead of defending the commercial aviation system, call for its end. Eventually, most people will recognize that the climate emergency is simply too deadly and irreversible to justify flying on fossil fuels.

MS: US President joe Biden has been in office for just over a year. What do you think about the Biden Administration’s record so far on the climate crisis?

PK: It has been terrible. With all the new drilling and calls for fossil fuel expansion, stopping climate breakdown is clearly not a priority for this administration. It would be great if this changes over the next few years – the first president who makes climate their top priority will go down in history as one of the best presidents of all time – but evidence so far indicates that it will not.

MS: You recently tweeted that “climate petitions, letters, and even marches are a waste of time”. In terms of strategy and tactics, where do you think the climate movement should put its energy in the next few years? 

PK: Civil disobedience. It’s time for the climate movement to shift into mass civil disobedience. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in terms of Earth breakdown we’re now in desperate times. It’s not too late to act, because it will never be too late to act, but the sooner we really start to fight the more we’ll save. At this point, everyone should fight as hard as they can.

Peter Kalmus is the author of the 2017 book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, published by New Society Publishers. Follow Peter on Twitter @ClimateHuman.

We Need To Talk About The Politics Of Climate Experts

We Need To Talk About The Politics Of Climate Experts
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 May 2022

It is widely understood the very powerful forces of climate change denial have delayed action to address the climate crisis, and thus are responsible for a huge amount of suffering and deaths attributable to climate breakdown.

Less appreciated is the unintended impact these dark corporate interests have had on the popular perception of climate experts. For example, having only recently started to move beyond framing the debate as being between denialists and those who accept the scientific consensus, the media largely present climate experts as one big monolithic block. Rarely do they explore the different politics that exist amongst the climate community.

This is deeply unhelpful because the politics of individual climate specialists and research institutions have huge ramifications in terms of discussing the climate crisis, about who or what is to blame, and therefore what action needs to be taken, and when.

To explore this, it is worth comparing opposing voices on key climate issues: Professor Kevin Anderson, Chair of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, and two key figures at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (GRI) at the London School of Economics – Co-Director Lord Nicholas Stern and Policy and Communications Director Bob Ward, both of whom regularly appear in the media.

First, how do they engage with Naomi Klein’s argument in her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate that stopping the worst effects of climate change will involve “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”, and that systematic and radical change is required as soon as possible?

Stern, second permanent secretary at the Treasury under Prime Minister Gordon Brown and author of an influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, does not generally frame the climate crisis like Klein. Instead, in 2015 he noted that “economic growth and climate responsibility can come together and, indeed” are “complementarity”. Indeed, in 2019 Julia Steinberger, Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change at the University of Lausanne, tweeted about “Lord Stern’s admonition to researchers in sustainable prosperity at the British Academy to maintain growth-at-all-costs back in 2014”. Six years later Stern was backing “green growth” as “essential for our future on this planet” (one of the five founding research programmes of the GRI, widely seen to be dominated by economists, was “green growth”).

In contrast, Anderson argued in 2013 “the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.” In addition, he noted “continuing with economic growth over the coming two decades is incompatible with meeting our international obligations on climate change”, and therefore wealthy nations needed “temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy.” Anderson is dismissive of the concept of “green growth”, tweeting in 2019 a link to an interview with Johan Rockström, in which the internationally recognized scientist says “Green growth is wishful thinking”.

To be clear, in recent years Stern seems to have become increasingly aware of the scale of the change required, noting in October 2021 that achieving Net Zero emissions “will require the biggest economic transformation ever seen in peacetime” (though he still seems wedded to the ideology of economic growth).

When it comes to fracking, in 2014 Anderson told the New Scientist “The advent of shale gas is definitely incompatible with the UK’s stated pledge to help restrict global warming to 2 °C”. However, the article noted “Others say it could help reduce emissions overall, provided the shale gas replaces coal currently used to generate energy”, quoting Ward as saying “In principle, if it helps with displacement of coal it could be helpful”.

In May 2019 Theresa May’s Tory government announced the UK would aim for Net Zero emissions by 2050. Stern stated at the time “This is a historic move by the UK Government and an act of true international leadership for which the Prime Minister deserves great credit.” Since then Stern has led on the LSE itself also adopting a Net Zero target of 2050.

Anderson was less enamoured by the 2050 target, noting on his blog that “to meet its Paris [Agreement] obligations the UK must achieve zero-carbon energy by around 2035; that’s ‘real-zero’ not ‘net-zero’. This requires an immediate programme of deep cuts in energy emissions rising rapidly to over 10% p.a. [per annum]”

In October 2021 the UK government published its strategy for reaching Net Zero emissions by 2050. Anderson’s response recorded by the Science Media Centre? “The UK’s Net Zero strategy falls far short of both its Paris [Agreement] and G7 temperature and equity commitments. Scour the associated spread sheets and the numbers reveal a story of subterfuge, delusion, offsetting and piecemeal policies.” In contrast both Stern and Ward were broadly supportive, with the former telling the Science Media Centre “I welcome the publication of the strategy, which identifies the major steps we have to take to reach net zero.”

Finally, there is a consensus amongst many prominent activists and experts that strong grassroots social movements will be required to force the radical changes needed to address the climate crisis. Anderson seems to understand this. I’m aware he lent his expertise to anti-airport expansion group Plane Stupid in the 2000s and, more recently, he has explained he advised youth strike figurehead Greta Thunberg. In 2020 he gave a talk to an Extinction Rebellion group in Waltham Forest.

In contrast, Stern and Ward’s leading role in setting a 2050 Net Zero emissions target at LSE was undertaken in the face of grassroots opposition from LSE students and staff, with a petition signed by hundreds of people calling for LSE to adopt an earlier Net Zero target of 2030. As far as I am aware Stern and Ward refused to seriously engage with this grassroots activism (in 2019 a small group of staff met with Ward and argued there need to be more radical action on reducing emissions at LSE, including the declaration of a Climate Emergency, receiving a very frosty reception, to put it mildly). It seems telling that Channel 4 News decided to put Ward up against Extinction Rebellion’s Farhana Yamin during a 2019 studio discussion about the UK’s 2050 Net Zero target, while The Mail quoted Ward in a 2021 article to criticise a statement Thunberg made about the UK government’s response to the climate crisis.

From this very brief summary, it seems clear Stern and Ward are, broadly, conservative actors amongst climate experts when it comes to the climate crisis.

“The voice of experts on climate science is an important one, because citizens trust it. And some climate scientists have been using their voice powerfully and well, especially in recent years”, academic and environmental campaigner Professor Rupert Read tells me. “But it’s important to remember the limits of the expertise of most climate scientists: to their own discipline or even sub-discipline. Few are experts in systems theory, in risk analysis, in philosophy, or in political economy. For expertise in those areas, funnily enough, you are best off going to experts… in those areas.”

Read notes “economists – whose opinions are often over-valued in an economistic society such as ours – who weigh into debates originating in climate tend to lean towards technocracy, and tend to be biased in favour of growthism, which is even now, incredibly, an endemic assumption in Economics.”

“Thus degrowth, post-growth, deep green ecological economics – let alone approaches based in civil disobedience or coming from (say) indigenous or eco-spiritual perspectives – tend to get short shrift from climate economists. That is a problem. A big problem.”

All this shouldn’t be surprising when you consider Stern’s and Ward’s successful professional careers are tied up with elite networks, establishment politics and billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham.

Of course, a variety of voices is welcome but, to echo Read, it’s surely a serious problem worthy of serious discussion when the climate crisis demands radical action, and Stern and Ward have so much power within the climate community and cachet with journalists, and therefore an oversized impact on the national debate and research agenda. Indeed, their commanding positions likely have a chilling effect on the kind of robust debate scientific and political progress thrives upon. If you were a young climate researcher, would you risk access to funding, contacts and therefore your future career by criticising two of the most powerful people in your field, or the leading institution they run?

For the wellbeing of everyone and everything that lives on the planet today and in the future, we need to start talking about the politics of climate experts and climate-focussed research institutions.

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.

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 May 2018

Looking back from today, we can now see the mid to late 2000s marked a high point in activism, media interest and government action regarding climate change in the UK.

Increasingly large and prominent Climate Camps, drawing attention to climate endangering infrastructure, were organised every year between 2006 and 2010; the direct group Plane Stupid occupied runways and the roof of parliament to highlight the danger of airport expansion; and Climate Rush, inspired by the Suffragette’s campaign for the women’s vote, carried out media-friendly actions including a picnic at Heathrow departures and dumping a pile of horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway.

With documentaries like 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth and 2009’s The Age of Stupid attracting huge audiences, David Cameron’s Tories sensed the shift in public opinion and rebranded themselves as an environmentally-friendly party. The slogan “vote blue, go green” was adopted and famously the old Etonian hugged a husky.

Ridiculous and shameless as this PR campaign was, the political arms race created by Cameron’s supposed green shift both proved the power of the green movement, and produced the political landscape it needed to win several important victories for the climate. Driven forward by a huge Friends of the Earth campaign, the 2008 Climate Change Act legally bound the UK to making 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. The Coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow after the 2010 general election, and, following actions and campaigning by a coalition of groups on coal, analysis by Imperial College London showed the dirtiest fossil fuel dropped from generating 40 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2012 to just 2 percent in the first half of 2017.

Zoom forward to today and the climate crisis that green activists devoted their lives to averting in the late noughties has only become more urgent.

For example, whilst senior climate scientists have repeatedly explained carbon admissions need to fall immediately and rapidly to avert climate catastrophe, the International Energy Agency reported that carbon emissions hit a record high last year, increasing by 1.4 percent. The New Yorker’s David Wallace-Wells provides some much need reality to the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement, which committed the 195 signatories to keeping the global temperature increase to below two degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees.  “Not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, Wallace-Wells notes, citing a November 2017 New York Times report based on data from Climate Action Tracker. “To keep the planet under two degrees of warming – a level that was, not all that long ago, defined as the threshold of climate catastrophe – all signatory nations have to match or better those commitments.”

Speaking to the Morning Star after the Paris Agreement, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said it was “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that” – by 2100, if not before. The corporate world has already come to terms with this likely future, with an internal Shell planning document predicting a 4oC increase in the short term. Similarly in 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers told businesses and governments that they “need to plan for a warming world – not just 2C, but 4C or even 6C.”

“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term”, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, recently noted in an Environmental Justice Foundation report. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.” Speaking in 2011 about the risks climate change poses to Australia, Professor John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was even more direct: “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.”

As these warnings highlight, the importance of the looming climate chaos is hard to overestimate. “Every single day, climate change is the most important thing happening on the planet—there’s nothing even remotely close”, argues US climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writing in the New Yorker magazine.

In contrast to this urgency, with a few important exceptions (e.g. the nationwide anti-fracking movement) the green movement in the UK seems to have been in a serious rut since 2009/10. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations climate summit was a massive blow to the green movement’s morale, while the Coalition Government’s austerity programme led many activists to move from climate-specific work to campaigns such as UK Uncut and housing battles. In addition, since 2015 it is clear many activists on the Left who are concerned about climate change have put their time and energy into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, many joining Momentum.

Indeed, Corbyn’s environmental policies have broadly been positive. Friends of the Earth graded Labour’s 2017 election manifesto 34 points out of 48, behind the Green Party on 46 but above the Liberal Democrats (32) and Conservatives (11). That Morning Star columnist Alan Simpson is advising Corbyn on environmental issues is welcome, as is Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent announcement that Clive Lewis MP had joined his team to “drive the climate change issue into the heart of Treasury policy making, and therefore into the centre of government policy making”. However, there are still huge problems within the Labour Party when it comes to creating and pursuing effective policies on climate change. Many Labour MPs are still wedded to the ideal of a corporate-dominated neoliberal economy. The GMB union supports fracking. And, most importantly, Labour under Corbyn is still a pro-economic growth party – the word “growth” is mentioned 15 times in the election manifesto – despite this economic dogma being exactly the thing that is driving the planet over the climate cliff.

Rather than this old, 20th century thinking we desperately need new, radical ideas and action. We need, as Sir David King notes above, a wholesale transformation of our economies, which will only be possible with a profound shift in our politics and societal values. “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?”, worries Canadian writer Naomi Klein in her essential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. She cites the historical examples of the Civil Rights Movement, the campaign against Apartheid, the abolition of slavery and the New Deal to give an idea of the scale and influence of the mass movement that is now needed to defend the climate. Others have suggested the societal mobilisation that occurred during World War Two is closer to the level of change that we need to aim for.

This, then, is why a reinvigorated green movement is needed now more than ever – to pressure the current Tory government and Corbyn’s Labour Party to take proactive and effective steps to deal directly with the threat of climate change.

And we need to act now. As McKibben notes in his New Yorker article: though “it feels as if we have time to deal with global warming… In fact, climate change is the one problem that the planet has ever faced that comes with an absolute time limit; past a certain point, it won’t be a problem anymore, because it won’t have a solution.”

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Climate change: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Green voters

Climate change: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Green voters
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 July 2017

There is a tendency in the UK to look contemptuously upon the US political system. And nowhere are the deficiencies of the ‘shining city on a hill’ more glaring than its side-lining of climate change – “the missing issue” of the 2016 US presidential campaign, reported the Guardian. According to the US writer Bryan Farrell, the topic was discussed for just 82 seconds during the 2016 televised presidential debates, which was actually an improvement on the 2012 debates, when it wasn’t mentioned at all.

Tragically, this omission was mirrored in the UK’s recent General Election. “The issue of #climatechange was completely marginalised during the #GE2017 media coverage”, Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture tweeted about their election analysis. This absence, the media watchdog Media Lens noted, is “the great insanity of our time”. Why? Because climate change is arguably the most serious threat the world faces today. In January 2017 writer Andrew Simms surveyed over a dozen leading climate scientists and analysts and found none of them thought global temperatures would stay below 2°C – the figure world leaders agree we cannot exceed if we wish to stop dangerous climate change. Last year, top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson told the Morning Star the pledges made by nations at the 2015 Paris climate summit would likely lead to a 3-4°C rise in global temperatures. Frighteningly he also told the author George Marshall that it’s hard to find any scientist who considers four degrees “as anything other than catastrophic for both human society and ecosystems.”

Surveying the environmental policies of the main parties just before 8 June, Friends of the Earth scored the Green Party top with 46 points, followed by Labour on 34, the Liberal Democrats on 32 and the Conservatives trailing last with a poor 11.

The environment and climate change did not play a significant role in the Labour Party’s hugely successful election campaign. And though Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself rarely mentioned the topic on the campaign trail, the manifesto was a pleasant surprise to many. “I’ve been really encouraged by Corbyn’s commitment to safeguarding our environment”, Nancy Strang, the Women’s Officer in Brent Central Labour, tells me. “The 2017 manifesto pledges to increase renewable energy production and investment, to tackle our air quality with a Clean Air Act, to protect Britain’s wildlife, and to ban fracking are all huge steps in the right direction… these pledges go beyond those in any previous Labour Party manifesto that I remember.”

The Green Party’s Dr Rupert Read agrees. “Corbyn’s Labour have some good environmental policies”, he tells me. “For example, their new-found opposition to fracking is much to be welcomed.”

However, he highlights a “fundamental problem” with Labour’s manifesto. “It is their unreconstructed insistence on ‘faster economic growth’”, Read, Chair of Green House thinktank, argues. “Faster economic growth means faster environmental destruction. It’s that simple. Net ‘green growth’ across the economy is a fantasy, nothing more; and in any case, that isn’t even what Labour’s manifesto promises. It speaks of an industrial strategy for growth across all sectors of the economy (i.e. ‘grey’/’brown’ as well as ‘green’).” He goes on to note “Labour is committed to a whole raft of de facto anti-environmental policies”, including a road-building programme, High Speed 2, the expansion of Heathrow, and Trident renewal.

“Whilst I may have been tempted to join the Green Party had Labour party members chosen a different leader, I genuinely believe that under Corbyn Labour will make meaningful steps towards tackling climate change in ways another leadership team may not have”, Strang notes. “Ultimately, I have to be pragmatic and make a decision based on which party is most likely to gain power and have a realistic chance of being able to implement their environmental policies.”

Strang’s reasoning has resonated widely, with many Green Party supporters switching their allegiance to Corbyn’s Labour Party – according to the polling organisation YouGov Labour managed to attract 59 percent of 2015 Green voters at the General Election.

Speaking to the Morning Star last month, the former Green council candidate turned Labour supporter Adam Van Coevorden concurred with Strang’s analysis. “Labour’s success is needed if we’re going to implement policies to protect the environment because at the moment big business has the whip hand, and as long as it does, nothing is going to change”, he noted. This echoes Canadian environmentalist Naomi Klein’s argument in her seminal 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate – that stopping the worst effects of global warming will involve massively degrading corporate power and “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”.

“Corporate power has undoubtedly been a big part of the erosion of our environment”, Read agrees. “Yet despite this we should not forget that some of the biggest ecological catastrophes that our planet has witnessed have come at the hands of big government initiatives – I am thinking particularly of the Soviet Union and China’s huge mining, deforestation and infrastructure projects, or even Venezuela’s state-run oil companies.” The crucial point for Read is “to challenge the logic of infinitely expanding production.”

Whether Corbyn’s Labour Party will begin to critically engage with the ideology of economic growth is an open question. Read is doubtful. “Environmental sustainability will never get a proper hearing from the Labour Party because it is at fundamental odds with Labour’s underlying philosophy”, he argues. “The Labour Party is built upon the principle of increasing production and sharing the proceeds (relatively) equitably among the wider society.”

However, one hopeful opportunity may be the Labour leadership’s attempts to increase democracy within the structures of the party – one way new and old environmentally aware-Labour supporters could decisively influence Labour Party policy. At the same time it is clear external political pressure from the Green Party – “they have led where others were not so bold”, says Van Coevorden – also has an essential role to play in pushing Corbyn’s Labour in the right direction on green issues. It should also be noted that Corbyn personally opposes some of the environmentally damaging policies the broader Labour Party currently supports, such as Heathrow expansion and Trident renewal. So, arguably, increased backing for the Labour leader and side-lining his neoliberal opponents within the party will likely improve Labour’s environmental policies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heathrow, The Guardian and the Propaganda Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Open Democracy
16 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change: the elephant in the Arabian Gulf

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

Open Democracy
21 March 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading for 4oC: interview with Professor Kevin Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Anderson blogs at www.kevinanderson.info