Thursday, 31 December 2009

December 2009 – Environmental Heroes and Villains in 2009

Role Models both positive and negative popped up in the press every day of 2009. This is a list of the ones that stick in the Memory... may the good ones have a prosperous 2010.

2009 Climate Heroes – A broad range from those that talk the talk to them that walk aswell.


Richard Briers argued that the “Good Life” isn’t building a new runway at Heathrow. He reprises his role as Tom Goode and plants fruit and veg on proposed runway site.


Michelle Obama started growing vegetables in the White House and selling them locally.


Captain Kirk spoke out about HP’s use of toxic materials. Boldly supporting Green Peace.

Gary Numan told people to leave their cars at home on behalf of the Scottish Government.


President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives repeatedly spoke out and in different creative ways communicated the impacts of Climate Change on the Maldives - like holding a cabinet meeting underwater.


Justin Timberlake bought some land in Japan to stop it being developed and then opened a “green” golf course.


The Rt Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool gave up carbon for Lent, started driving a hybrid and had solar panels fitted to his house.


Dame Ellen MacArthur gave up sailing to campaign on climate change.


Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet got serious about cycling.


Sister Julian and her fellow Nuns from the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation moved into the “world's first environmentally friendly nunnery”.

2009 Climate Villains – they can be the pantomime type or plain unfunny.


Uri Gellar is rumored to be using his powers to prospect for the oil companies.


James Martin the celebrity chef writes about running cyclists off the road in his Mail on Sunday column:

"Knowing they wouldn't hear me coming, I stepped on the gas, waited until the split second before I overtook them, and then gave them an almighty blast on the horn at the exact same time I passed them at speed.

The look of sheer terror as they tottered into the hedge was the best thing I've ever seen in my rear-view mirror. I think this could be the car for me."


Donald Trump succeeded in pushing through his plans for an “ungreen” golf course.


Noel Gallagher rejects Chris Martins environmental overtures.


UKIP's Yorkshire MEP Godfrey Bloom blogs about climate change and gives repeated glimpses into the mind of a skeptic:

“People don’t quite understand this yet, but once all of the planned policies are in place, people who have gone to bed the night before in what they understood to be a liberal democracy will wake up in something resembling Soviet Russia. There will be shortages of expensive, low quality of food. It will be cold. There will be power cuts. You will not be allowed to travel as you wish. Jobs –if they still exist – will be make-work employment that is dull, pointless, and increasingly labour-intensive. And that's if we're lucky. At least Soviet Russia attempted to be an industrial. We might end up with something far more medieval.

If you don’t like these policies, tough luck, because none of the parties is offering you the choice. You will be green, whether you like it or not.”


Sarah Palin further cemented her polar bear killing reputation when she said “The president should boycott Copenhagen”


Geoff Hoon pushed through plans for a third runway at Heathrow.


Michael Portillo, David Davies and Lord Lamont (A Trio of Carbon Tories) all three passed their career peaks, found press coverage in 2009 by making high-flown defenses of their respective skeptical positions on Climate Change.


Václav Klaus became arguably Europe's most high-profile climate denier.


Danish police


Monday, 21 December 2009

December 2009 - Copenhagen: A political or personal failure?

With crushing inevitability the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen limped to a close, and precious little substantive progress was made. Understandably, developing countries were in no hurry to sign a suicide pact, but the reality was even more stark – there was no (legally binding) suicide pact to sign. The Copenhagen negotiations did not simply fail: they failed dismally.

However, the failure of the negotiations cannot be attributed solely to a lack of political leadership. As Polly Toynbee observed in the Guardian on Saturday (, in many respects Western politicians are ‘out in front’ of their electorates, pushing for solutions to a problem that has next to zero political capital. The negotiations may have fallen victim to a political system comprised of nation states that are self-interested, reluctant to change their ways, and obsessed with the near-term consequences of their decisions. But these traits are not confined to nations – if anything, they are magnified at a personal level. The dark irony is that the ultimate ‘man-made’ existential threat seems custom built to flummox our mental machinery. At a personal as well as a political level, it feels like climate change has got us beat.

For a long time, psychologists have known that human cognition abides by some basic principles. People tend to discount risks that are far away in time and space, while simultaneously focussing on threats that have a more tangible character – it is not difficult to see why snowy driving conditions take precedence over concern for a warming world. But even among those who care deeply about climate change and the implications it will have for human suffering, learning to live a low-carbon life is hard. Our systems of production and consumption are unsustainable, yet the signals we need to make the cultural, political and behavioural shifts necessary are weak or non-existent. When an animal wanders into an electric fence, it quickly learns to avoid that behaviour. But the shocks that climate change has in store are ‘not here’ and ‘not now’. Pavlov’s dog would have never learnt to associate anything if the bell had been rung in Indonesia and his food served up in Devon – with a 30 year time gap between them.

But while these general observations about perception and learning go some way to explaining why climate change is such a perplexing psychological problem, it is our emotional architecture that finds the most powerful ways of rationalising and adapting to the threat of climate change. In a new paper published in the Journal of Social Issues and Public Policy (, the psychologists Cynthia Frantz and F. Stephan Mayer argue that when it comes to predicting how people will respond to climate change, there is a critical distinction between ‘problem focused’ and ‘emotion focused’ coping behaviour. Problem-focused coping involves taking steps to minimise the threat (i.e. reducing one’s carbon footprint). Emotion-focused coping involves ignoring or denying the threat – tackling the emotion but not the problem.
A major determinant of whether people take a problem-focused or emotion-focused approach is whether they feel in control of the threat they are facing. Previous research ( has found that when facing global issues like climate change, fostering a sense of community and collective action is an effective way of increasing perceived control.

Unfortunately, the notion of collective action is increasingly alien to the individualised consumers of the West. Our political leaders know this, and seem unwilling to challenge the sovereignty of the consumer – thus far, attempts at influencing public behaviour have tended to be limited to exhortations to ‘save money not just the planet’.

There is an unspoken consensus that taking action on climate change should have some immediate personal payoff, but if an individualistic outlook is inhibiting our capacity to face the scale of the problem, then we may be barking up the wrong tree. Whether one favours an ‘individualistic’ or ‘collective’ outlook is typically cast as a political judgment – the free market vs. the state. But if promoting individualism makes coping with climate change in a problem-focused way less likely, then perhaps we need to see past this distinction.

In the gloomy aftermath of Copenhagen, John Sauven of Greenpeace ( suggested that beating climate change will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display in Copenhagen. This seems unarguably true, but the political sphere is not the only place where a paradigm shift is required. Beating climate change will require radically different ways of thinking and interacting across the full spectrum of human behaviour. The ultimate shared resource is about to be carved up. Have we got what it takes to do it equitably?


Sunday, 29 November 2009

November 2009 - A Meaningful Numbers Game?

Iraq is again in the UK headlines because of another Inquiry into the contentious war, and the Chilcot inquiry’s analysis of the lead up to war is a reminder of the substantial debate generated during that period and the thousands of people who took to the streets in protest. Looking back at the world-shaping events from the first half of the decade inevitably (for a blog such as this anyhow) leads to comparison with the upcoming December Copenhagen UN climate summit - a potential world shaper at the death of the 00’s. And the question arises, what will be the impact of the public and NGO pressure on the decision makers in Copenhagen?
This is of course, on the face of it, an inescapably depressing comparison to make because in the case of Iraq a worldwide mobilisation of public and political opposition didn’t stop the invasion. Yet for those who are seriously optomistic and can see a glass half full at forty paces, there maybe lessons and (fractured) shards of hope from the Iraq experience. What there was a was widespread and energetic noise on Iraq that didn’t go away and calcified into consensus (all be it too late), in light of the evidence and outcome, that “i/we/they were right after all... it was a bad idea.”

Next month on the 5th of December The Wave takes place in London with thousands of people aiming to push world leaders in Copenhagen for a fair deal that straightforwardly aims to address the problem of climate change. A week later and thousands more will be protesting on the streets of Copenhagen itself. The people protesting have to hope that the numbers are high and the numbers will count.

A lot of the press coverage of Copenhagen in November has focused on people, that is, the world leaders playing down of the likelihood of a legally binding deal and speculating which of them is going to be there. The German Media group Deutsche Welle reported 65 Leaders were coming and since then Obama (a man with impressive numbers 1.8 million people came to his inauguration) has confirmed as has Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.,,4917171,00.html?maca=en-en_nr-1893-xml-atom
Numbers in the room will be important. Obama says he’s going to get an “operational deal” and gain momentum from the summit, the implication of course is as reported there won’t be a legally binding deal. Numbers on the streets outside may not secure a legally binding deal (which would be a inescapably disappointing) but could influence the force of the momentum Obama says he wants to generate.
At the Chilcot inquiry this week Sir Christopher Meyer said the "unforgiving timetable" for the invasion meant that the momentum gained by public and world political pressure didn’t have time to count on Iraq. In the week that has seen Norway opening a prototype plant capable of generating power through osmosis. Here’s hoping that people in the streets and the noise has a lingering effect that counts in time.


Friday, 20 November 2009

November 2009 - TINA rides again...


A recent report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IoME) boldly declared that the UK had already failed in its quest to prevent dangerous climate change:

“With only four decades to go, the UK is already losing the climate change mitigation battle. The greenhouse gas emission targets set by the Government require a rate of reduction that has never been achieved by even the most progressive nations in the world. If the UK is realistically going to reach an outcome equivalent to a reduction of 80% by 2050, we need to start mapping out an alternative solution using all engineering methods possible and not only relying on mitigation.”

Can you see where this is going yet? Yes, despite (or maybe because) of the imminent Copenhagen negotiations – still the world’s best chance at initiating a package of mitigation measures to prevent dangerous climate change – the engineers have written off the prospect of the UK achieving its targets. The only way, say the engineers, of remedying this situation is to consider ‘all engineering methods possible’. They might want to modify that to read ‘all engineering methods possible and not yet possible’, because what they mean is geoengineering, advocating what they call a Mitigation, Adaptation and Geoengineering (MAG) approach to climate change.

Geoengineering is the large scale, intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate. Several different approaches have been suggested, ranging from the blasting of trillions of tiny mirrors into space, to the depositing of nanoparticles of iron filings in the sea. The hope is that these arch-industrial strategies will reduce temperatures by deflecting sunlight (space mirrors) or absorbing CO2 (iron filings in the sea). All the technologies are as yet unproven, and there are significant and considerable concerns about the social and ethical implications of geoengineering. Who will decide what gets geoengineered and when? What about the potential for international conflict? Will it act as a giant distraction from mitigation? Is it a massively lucrative form of geopolitical dominance?

While it is no surprise to find the IoME offering a gung-ho endorsement of the prospect of a planet covered with climate change-fighting machines, what is worrying is the way in which they make their argument – we have already lost the fight against climate change, and so There Is No Alternative (TINA).

TINA was last seen adorning Margaret Thatcher’s pale blue suit like a lapel of honour. According to the free market ideology she endorsed, there was no alternative to neoliberal capitalism – and so we might as well open wide and glug it down like the well behaved non-society we were. TINA sometimes masqueraded as the Washington Consensus – the now discredited economic imperialism of the United States. In whatever guise TINA appeared, however, she had a similar effect – to draw artificial boundaries around the acceptable lines of debate. The IoME have made good use of its falsely dichotomous appeal – do you want dangerous climate change, or do you want geoengineering?

The TINA argument is all the more concerning given the outrageous back-peddling on climate policy currently being exhibited by the UK and the US. With both Miliband and Obama issuing dismissals of the possibility of legally binding agreement at Copenhagen, the TINA argument for approaches like geoengineering becomes stronger. Just like the neoliberal enthusiasts of the 1980s, advocates of geoengineering can point to the failure of the alternatives and conclude that draconian measures are needed. This is all the more reason for politicians such as Miliband and Obama not to frighten the horses by declaring the December negotiations (legally) dead in the water.

Of course, TINA was always a fallacy. But the simple act of repeating it helped to ensure that it became prophetic. Similarly, the gradual mainstreaming of the notion that ‘Copenhagen is already dead’ or the idea that ‘UK climate change targets have already failed’ will make them more likely to become true. What is ‘impossible’ is constantly and continually redefined by society. It is absurd, not two years into the UK climate change targets, to write them off as ‘impossible’. What could that possibly mean?

The engineers say that meeting the targets would require emissions reductions on a scale not yet achieved by any industrialised nation. But what did they think it was going to require? Of course preventing dangerous climate change will take us into new, uncharted, unprecedented waters: The challenge is to ensure that global and national agreements on climate change are equitable and fair. Arguing that the UK cannot possibly meet its mitigation targets without geoengineering is like refusing to stop gorging on a cake while demanding that a machine is invented that can perform colonic irrigation as we continue to eat.

We don’t have to keep eating the cake. There Is An Alternative.


Friday, 30 October 2009

October 2009 - Money money money

First published on the Climate Safety blog, on 27/09/09

A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) asked what it would take for action on climate change to be ‘mainstreamed’ . The IPPR conducted research with ‘Now’ people – perceived as leaders of public opinion and a supposed barometer for the acceptability of behavioural norms. A key conclusion was that for these trend-setters to change their behaviour, there would have to be something in it for them. That something, according to the IPPR, was the promise of financial gain for their adventures in sustainability.

On the Climate Safety blog, Tim Holmes has already questioned some of the methodological assumptions of the study, and the predictable media response to it . But there is a further problem with the logic of the report that raises a serious communication challenge for environmental campaigners: Using money as a motivator of sustainable behaviour simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

First things first – no-one is denying that financial considerations are not an enormous influence on behaviour. They clearly are – every time you decide to get up extra-early to get a cheaper train, you are making a decision based on how much it costs you. The findings of the IPPR report back this up. Their participants expressed a desire to save money, and felt that the prospect of saving money would make them more likely to engage in sustainable behaviour.

So – people do things because of financial reasons, and would be more likely to be green if it saved them money. Why not give the people what they want? Tell the world that saving energy will save them money!

There’s only one slight problem with this insight – sustainable behaviour doesn’t always come cheap. Certainly, there are times when saving energy also saves money (in general using less means spending less). But there are plenty of green behaviours that cannot easily be packaged as financially attractive. Taking the train to the Costa Del Sol is not cheaper than flying there – the low-carbon choice is not always the low-cost option. In the future we might hope that the ‘polluter pays’ principle is accurately reflected in the prices of the world’s commodities, but for now being green isn’t necessarily the cheapest game in town. It’s a tough sell during a recession, which is what the IPPR study found. But what’s the alternative – to lie?

Of course, you might imagine that once people have started ‘going green’ (tempted into some sustainable behaviours by the prospect of saving money), a momentum will be created that will propel them into other green actions – even if they’re not so cost effective. However, as Tom Crompton at the WWF has documented in detail, this assumption is something of a myth . Some key social-psychological theories and empirical evidence simply do not support the idea that people will spontaneously progress from ‘simple and painless’ behaviour changes to less simple (and perhaps more financially painful) steps in the future. If anything, the reinforcement of the link between saving money and sustainable behaviours is likely to act as a barrier to further changes in the future – when the money saving stops, so does the behaviour.

And as if it wasn’t bad enough that the link between saving money and saving the environment was tenuous, evidence from studies conducted by Ken Sheldon in the US suggests that people with materialistic values (that is, people who value money, possessions, and power) are the least likely to engage in environmental behaviour . In an experiment where people could divide up environmental resources in whichever way they chose, highly materialistic people exhibited more environmentally destructive behaviour. Unfortunately, emphasising the link between money and sustainable behaviour fails on every level.

So – what’s the alternative? The solution advocated by Tom Crompton, Joe Brewer and other contributors to the Identity Campaigning website is to promote so-called ‘intrinsic’ motivations for engaging in environmental behaviour (such as the interconnectedness of humans and nature) – because this will lead to longer lasting and more embedded behavioural changes . This approach is appealing, as it is difficult to dispute that if more people led lives that were based on respecting the environment and valuing nature, pro-environmental behaviour would be more prevalent.

However, while this vision of value-based sustainability is a desirable goal, attempting to translate it into reality is a challenge. Governments and NGOs are wary of being seen to dictate values to the electorate (never mind that the values of consumption-based growth are promoted every second of every day – they’re so embedded in the fabric of society they’re invisible). And on a practical level, its awkward and unfamiliar for most people (campaigners or otherwise) to link mundane behaviours like driving a car to abstract concepts like ‘valuing nature’ or ‘intrinsic motivations’.

There is a compromise which acknowledges that money matters in people’s decision-making, but doesn’t constantly crank-up the link between saving money and sustainable behaviour. The fact is that people will work out for themselves whether something is in their financial interest – they don’t need campaigners to do it for them. Far better is to use money more subtly – by removing financial barriers to behaviour change (such as governments offering subsidised loft or cavity wall insulation).

The message here is not that installing insulation will save you money (although it will), or that the reason for caring about climate change is that it will be good for your wallet. It is that green intentions will be reciprocated by the government. Here the lower cost encourages participation, but doesn’t reduce sustainable behaviour to a cost-benefit analysis that in the long run is doomed to fail. The idea of reciprocation also fits in well with the sort of values that are linked with pro-environmental behaviour – people who care about fairness also tend to care about the environment.

We cant ignore the fact that money motivates behaviour, but we can approach it in a more sophisticated way. We know that people are constrained by financial concerns, but that promoting the link between saving money and saving the environment is problematic in the long run. Could the idea of reciprocation permit both of these issues to be addressed?

Monday, 26 October 2009

October 2009 - Psychology & Climate Change

>>>>first published on the Guardian website, 26/09/09
From 10:10 to the government's Act On CO2 campaign, it is now widely accepted that tackling climate change will require tackling behaviour change too. But until now, a key piece has been missing from the puzzle – psychology. The study of human behaviour has been conspicuous by its absence from the climate change debate.

The assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have provided the scientific evidence of human impact on the climate, and a glimpse of what the future may hold if we don't act fast. But while the consensus may be growing on the need for changes in behaviour, we're no closer to understanding how we're going to do it. Attempting an unprecedented shift in human behaviour without the input of psychologists is like setting sail for a faraway land without the aid of nautical maps.

Psychological research shows that most people in the UK don't feel personally threatened by climate change because it is vague, abstract and difficult to visualise. This means that doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic language are unlikely to work – although fear can motivate behaviour change, it only works when people feel personally vulnerable. Clearly, exaggerating the threat of climate change is not an option. So how can climate change be made more relevant to people's lives?

In the dusty journals and leather-bound books of university libraries lie decades of psychological research on human behaviour. Why are habits so difficult to change? Do people make decisions based on rational criteria, or impulse and intuition? Why do people tend to unnecessarily fear some risks, yet inadvisably discount others? These are all questions that will become increasingly pertinent as the transition to a low-carbon future progresses.

Fortunately, climate change is starting to be acknowledged by social scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association published an extensive review of psychology's contribution to tackling climate change. And on 27 October, the British Psychological Society will hold its inaugural meeting on the psychology of climate change. From the language used to describe climate change, to the ways in which habits are made and broken, the signs are that psychology holds the key to driving the shift to sustainability.

An American study played people recordings of actors delivering speeches about climate change. The version that people responded to the best talked about "air pollution" rather than "climate change" – because pollution is something visible that they could relate to, with strong connotations of dirtiness and poor health. Climate change is about much more than just dirty air, but finding ways of making climate change more visible is critical. People simply don't worry about things they can't see (or even imagine).

One approach that has been used to increase the amount that people use public transport breaks down habits into simple "if… then" plans. To change a habitual behaviour, a person has to identify a goal (drive less, for example), a behaviour they want to perform in pursuit of that goal (get the bus to work on Fridays) and a situation that will trigger the behaviour (having enough time to catch the bus). In this example, if it's Thursday evening, then the alarm needs to be set for a different time, and if it's Friday morning, then have a quick shower instead of a long bath. Thinking about behaviour in these terms is unfamiliar – but even the most well-intentioned goals are doomed to fail without a strategy for achieving them.

Of course, some people are wary of committing themselves to changes in their personal behaviour. They argue that political agreements and technological advances will do more to reduce greenhouse gases than anything an individual could achieve. But while it is comforting to draw sharp distinctions between politics, technology and individuals, the reality is that human behaviour underpins it all. Political parties will not pass legislation that is patently unpopular among the electorate. Technology can provide low-carbon alternatives like electric buses. But a zero-emissions bus will have zero passengers unless people decide to use it.

Household insulation has been rightly prioritised by policymakers as a key area where individual-level changes can play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions. But as Alexa Spence and Nick Pidgeon from Cardiff University argue in a forthcoming paper in the journal Environment, changes in household insulation depend on some key behavioural assumptions. In particular, the overheating of residential buildings has to become socially unacceptable, and people will have to be motivated to make changes to their home heating routines. Spence and Pidgeon suggest that periods of transition, where routines are already in flux, provide useful opportunities to develop new, more sustainable habits. In the context of home insulation, some building work already scheduled for the house might provide not only the practical opportunity for some low-carbon upgrades, but also the perfect psychological context for making some long-intended changes to habits and routines.

If the thought of psychologically informed lifestyle change campaigns sounds a bit too Big Brother for your liking, then consider the alternative: millions of pounds spent on technology that is never taken up, and a market-based system of economic coercion that penalises the poor while the rich keep polluting. Without an understanding of what drives people's environmental behaviour, the dream of a low-carbon society will remain forever out of reach.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

September 2009 - 10% …but what kind? The Disconnection between Private and Public Action.

10% is the figure of the moment in UK Politics. First of all Fanny Armstrong’s 10:10 campaign, which calls on individuals and organisations to cut 10% of their carbon in 2010, has caught on with the political community - On september the 3rd the Guardian reported that the cabinet, the Conservative front bench and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had all signed up

Also while the Baby-kissers pledge to cut their personal carbon, that 10% figure is also the one circulating (from the mouths of MP's and the pages of leaked treasury memos) for the probable amount of public spending cuts needed in 2010 - when (as all the 3 main parties appear to see it) the current, recession-busting financial stimulus ends and the belt tightening begins.

It is fair to say both these 10 % agendas have gathered a snowball like momentum over the last few months. Back in June Tory Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, was first to admit (as he saw it) the necessity of 10% cuts in public spending and at the time it was reported as a big gaffe;jsessionid=D3B77BCC42206E3E72FFA19E4A9FCBBB.

Now at the end of september 10% cuts are promoted routinely by the Conservative front bench and if leaked treasury documents are to be believed Labour have also adopted the 10% agenda. This journey for deep (or “savage” as the Nick Clegg describes them) spending cuts from “nasty” to “necessary” Seumas Milne for one has described as a “a brilliant political manoeuvre” by the Conservative opposition. So despite Brown being elusive on his figures and public polls showing as unconvinced on the necessity of cuts the notion of 10% is still in forward motion through government westminster and local authorities.

10:10’s growth started with an idea from Fanny Armstrong the director of the Film Age of Stupid, which also has a run away momentum of its own kicking off with the UK premier back in March building to the Global Premier this month. Evidently 10:10 has penetrated the “politico-media sphere” supported as it is by the guardian and endorsed even by telegraph journalists.

However importantly what has not been evident are clear links between these two “runaway’ 10% agendas. There have not been clear political and media narratives saying saving public cash can also save public carbon. For example the spectrum of views on cuts in public spending in a Five Live radio talk show this month ran across conventional right to left lines with some advocating cuts and some arguing for continued public spending - with all arguments geared to the best way to re-stimulate growth. There was no carbon aware contribution to the discussion.

We know that carbon smart policies could have been linked more fundamentally to spending policy the global fiscal stimulus while it still lasts could and should already have prioritised investment to bring about the so called “Green New Deal” (discussed many times on this blog). A Green New Deal would prepare the ground for doing the belt tightening (that our party politicians tell us is is inevitable) while making the argument for carbon sustainable economic futures.

Green New Deal or not it still appears to be an anomaly that we now accept fairly readily the notion of saving money and cutting carbon at the same time in the private sphere but not so in the public sphere. The media narratives about cutting carbon so often appear to be about spending more cash (on renewables etc). Of course this spending is essential but it can be done by diverting public money away from carbon heavy public spending items and cost saving cuts (or efficiencies as Brown and co like to call them) such as reducing carbon heavy travel and food waste. Ultimately didn’t government economist Nicholas Stern tell us that in the long term cutting carbon is a saver - he said the cost of our inaction will be more than the cost of the action.

The 10:10 campaign asks for sign ups from individuals but also business’s and organisations, and one great big sign up for them is Royal Mail. On that theme also a positive move in September was the Lib Dems passing a conference motion for Lib Dem run local councils to sign up to 10:10. The same party conference also endorsed an end to taxpayer support for investments in high-polluting fuels like tar sands extraction

Many individuals experience the sense of disconnection between the action they take at home and the carbon usage of their places of work but people at the top, middle and bottom of organisations need to start to “own” the carbon spend in their daily shared enterprise whether its an airline or a school. It follows from all of this that politicians need to account for the carbon in there departments/offices/realms of influence to always be stepping beyond personal commitments, like signing up as an individual to 10:10, which have a useful symbolic significance but are at best misleading if those politicians are not taking the required 10% action in their public roles.


Monday, 31 August 2009

September 2009 - What are we going to do at Copenhagen (part II)

Some possible answers:

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

August 2009 - What are we going to do at Copenhagen?

Oh, to be a member of the anti-vivisection movement. OK, so standing in the rain on a Saturday afternoon handing out pictures of tortured animals is no-one's idea of fun. But at least their purposes are well defined: they want an end to animal testing. And how would they know when they had succeeded? When animal testing was banned across the world.

By comparison, to be a climate change campaigner is to gradually accept that there is no single 'goal' towards which you are aiming, and that even if there was, you would have no real way of knowing that it has been achieved. Of course, there are any number of climate change campaigns with specific targets, and at Copenhagen, campaigners will push for the United Nations Delegates to agree to keep global temperatures to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But in general, the green movement has a problem: its not obvious what we're campaigning for.

The upcoming Copenhagen negotiations make this all too clear. Thousands of campaigners will descend on the conference. I will probably be one of them. But when we are there, what will we do? At the rarefied level of international negotiations, we find not a global problem waiting to be solved but a jumbled projection of human problems rolled into one. Powerful commercial interests will lobby for exemptions from emissions reductions. Corrupt governments will seek to leverage more power from regulatory authority. Opportunistic investors will invent financial instruments to cash in on carbon markets. These are all problems that a global cap on greenhouse gas emissions will do nothing to alleviate. So what are we fighting for - an idealised level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations? Preventing a 2 degree rise in global temperatures means nothing without an equitable mechanism for making this happen.

Are we for or against carbon trading? Is the scheme to reduced emissions from deforestation and degredation (REDD) a way of preserving the Amazon or a land-grab? Should the world be investing in high-tech infrastructure to adapt to inevitable climate change or throwing everything we've got into stopping any more from happening? These are questions that climate change campaigners have opinions on - the problem is, our opinions often differ.

In an eye-opening piece in the Guardian earlier this week, Andy Beckett asked why the political Left had not seized the opportunity presented to them by the global recession and the exposure of laissez-faire capitalism for the cut-throat casino that it is. The conclusion he reached was depressingly familiar: there simply isn't a coherent set of ideas that can wrestle power away from growth-based capitalism. Despite being exposed as a delusional sham, it remains - for all intents and purposes - the only game in town:

Beckett pondered whether the increasing political focus on climate change and environmental sustainability would provide some structure for the Left's shapeless ideas. But if the Left are looking to the Green movement for an ideological framework, then they've come to the wrong place: as Mike Hulme powerfully demonstrates in his book Why We Disagree about Climate Change, this is a place for all of humanity's previous disputes and disagreements to be played out again and again.

The NGOs are starting to mobilise support for their Copenhagen campaigns - there will be no shortage of demands made, no lack of enthusiastic pressure for a 'strong' agreement to be reached. But its difficult to shake the feeling that the Copenhagen conference will be predominantly political theatre, played out on the world's biggest stage. While some crucial milestones are yet to be passed (the final position taken by the US, for example), COP15 may be significant not because key decisions are made there, but because they are formalised there. So what role for the activists on the outside? Will we simply be playing our role in the political theatre?

Whinging that climate change is a complex and multi-faceted problem is not going to make it go away. The activists that go to Copenhagen will do so with passion and conviction, and hope for a fair and sustainable future. But with only a few months to go until supposedly the world's most important meeting begins, there is a chorus of overlapping and sometimes contradictory voices where (ideally) a coherent position should be.

Do we know what we are campaigning for at Copenhagen?


Thursday, 16 July 2009

July 2009 - The sky's the limit?

The past seven days have seen a wave of activity from the Department for Energy and Climate Change. With the publication of the UK Low Carbon Transition plan outlining the first steps in Britain's attempted transition towards a post-carbon (well, a 20% carbon) society, Ed Miliband has provided the first glimpse of a counterpart to the Climate Change Bill. We celebrated the ambitious targets, but we always knew that what came next would be critical - the plan for how the targets would be achieved.

The Transition plan seems to revive something of the spirit of the Green New Deal, mercilessly dashed on the rocks of the recession at the g20 meeting in London. Much is made of the prospect for Green Jobs, not least in the insulation of inefficient housing stock (firmly echoing the Green New Deal call for a 'carbon army' of home insulators).

Announcements were also made about the approximate pricing of feed-in renewable energy tariffs, designed to encourage micro-generation. Combine this with the UK Climate Projections issued last month, the supposed global agreement on 2 degrees as constituting 'dangerous' climate change at the g8 in Italy and the imminent conference in Copenhagen, and its difficult not to feel vaguely optimistic that the UK government are at last getting their arse in gear on climate change.

Ed Miliband made one other announcement this week, however, that pierces this little bubble somewhat. Couching his argument as a noble struggle against the tyranny of upper class aviation, Miliband stated unequivocally that aviation would not be subject to the 80% cuts that other sectors of the economy would be making. In fact, he explicitly raised the propsect of deeper-than-80% cuts in 'other areas' in order to permit aviation to continue to be available for rich and poor alike.

In the Guardian, Leo Hickman raised asked a reasonable question: What were these frivolous non-aviation sectors of the economy that were likely to face deeper-than-80% cuts - education? Health? Council services? Despite making it sound as if reducing aviation would mean ushering in a new age of travel apartheid with only the top tier of earners able to leave Britain's drab and cloudly shores, Miliband also conceded that air travel would inevitably become more expensive as the price of oil rose. So despite pledging not to reduce aviation emissions by 80%, he also suggested that the price of flying would rise (presumably leading to a situation where only richer folk get on anyway).

Its good to see that Ed is so concerned about social justice and equality of access to the runway. So why not charge the rich more to allow the poor to fly? If only 20% of the flights that now take off will be permitted in 2080, why not ration them so that we all get an equal opportunity to use the 'freedom' of the sky? It isnt the wrath of the families heading to the Costa Del Sol Ed's fearing (after all, with plausible advances in rail travel, and accompanying reductions in cost, a trip to Spain could be done door-to-door from Manchester overnight). Its the Business class elite (Ryanair's average customer earns £47,000), whose lifestyle and networking would fall apart without the island hopping luxury they have become accustomed to.

Ed Miliband and DECC are starting to make some big strides in putting climate ambition into practice. But for now, it looks like the sky's the limit...


Friday, 26 June 2009

June 2009 - Climate sceptics: Certain about Uncertainty?

First published in the Environment section of the Guardian on 25/06/09:

It seems the one thing climate change sceptics are certain of is uncertainty, in particular how uncertainty in the predictions of climate models fatally undermines their legitimacy.

So the recent revelation of the UK government's projections of global warming through to 2080 was met, predictably, with some cynicism by the deniers. While some commentators used the detailed projections about possible future UK climate scenarios to underscore why we must take strong action on climate change, the response of climate sceptics was to say that the error bars in the projections made them worthless.

Never mind that the level of uncertainty about mean temperature increase, sea level rise and seasonal rainfall was dealt with in painstaking and meticulous detail in the report. For some, the mere presence of uncertainty was reason enough to doubt. But uncertainty is not an enemy of science that must be conquered – it is the stimulus that drives science forward. As in economic forecasts, medical diagnoses, and policy making, uncertainty runs through climate science like the lettering in sticks of rock.

The good news is that scientists are particularly adept at acknowledging, identifying and modelling it. The Met Office team responsible for the climate projections managed to systematically indicate what they did know, what they didn't know and how confident they were about these judgments. If there's one group of people who have thought long and hard about uncertainty, its climate scientists. But Irene Lorenzoni and her colleagues at the University of East Anglia have shown that people frequently view uncertainty as a reason for inaction on climate change.

Such is the level of scepticism in some quarters that climate scientists are constantly required to apologise for what they don't know, rather than encouraged to communicate what they do. But uncertainty is not the same as ignorance – which is why the labelling of GM food became mandatory in 2004. The Food Standards Agency did not demand certainty before taking action, although the uncertainty surrounding the risks of genetic modification is far greater than the considered consensus of climate science.

One reason that so much attention is given to the uncertainty associated with climate models is that they form the basis of important and costly policy decisions. But the "precautionary principle" is a well-established method of policy making when uncertainty prevails, on the basis that it is better to be safe than sorry. Could it be that climate sceptics' obsession with uncertainty is simply an unwillingness to accept the consequences of the climate changing – that their lifestyles will have to change as well?

The UK climate projections are not a weather forecast for 3 July 2078. They are a set of scientifically rigorous probabilistic assessments of what the UK climate might be like in, say, 50 years time. But the writers of the report seemed to feel compelled to get their counter-arguments in early. Of course, it is absolutely essential that all uncertainties in climate models are made clear. But it's odd reading a scientific report where the caveats come before the take-home message.

There is one crucial uncertainty, however, that cannot be captured in any climate model: the extent to which action is taken to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases. The irony of the debate surrounding what we can and can't infer from climate models is that they sketch out possible, not inevitable futures. By giving us some idea of what lies ahead, they furnish us with a critical opportunity to change course. Rather than procrastinating about uncertainty – an inescapable fact of life – we should be taking the opportunity to get serious about climate change, and prove the climate models wrong.


Tuesday, 9 June 2009

June 2009 - Reclaiming the language of localism from the BNP

In European elections voted in by just over a third of the eligible UK population, held during a global recession, and in the wake of an unprecedented disintegration of the Labour party's remaining working-class vote, the far right British National Party obtained not one but two seats in the European Parliament. Dark days for British and European politics.

With a 'whites only' membership policy and a leader who once associated with Klu Klux Klan members, the BNP are true right-wing extremists. They present maniacal, paranoid stories about the 'liberal elite' that seeks to destroy the lives of 'ordinary white British people'. They talk openly about 'preserving the bloodline' of the country - yet they garnered over 100,000 votes in some constituencies. Can it really be true, as almost all political commentators have asserted, that the people who vote for the BNP are oblivious to the racism of this fascist party? Or does the language of the BNP tap into something that people genuinely believe in - the language of localism that has been neglected so comprehensively by the left that it has been hi-jacked by the far right?

On the face of it, there wouldn't seem to be much common ground between the xenophobia of the BNP and placard waving socialists. But yet trade union parties such as No2EU - Yes to Democracy ( share a superficial rhetoric with Griffin's thugs: an impassioned rejection of European political structures. Even more bizarrely, the language of Transition Towns (the hippie-ish grassroots response to climate change and peak oil) seems eerily reminiscent of the BNP's. With all the talk of 'buying British', 'shopping locally' and even local currencies, could Totnes be the next Burnley?

Scratch beneath the surface, of course, and the similarities disappear completely. The BNP despise European politics because they despise Europeans. Trade Unionists despise European politics because they share a deep affinity with fellow victims of 'race to the bottom' capitalism - the workers of Europe who are treated as all-too-expendable labour, to be hired and fired as the dynamics of the common market demand. BNP supporters buy British because they distrust multi-culturalism and the produce of foreign lands. Transition Towns supporters buy British to minimise their food miles and are warmly welcoming of cultural diversity.

But the all-encompassing embrace of economic globalisation by the political
mainstream (and in particular, the centre-left) has left a void which the far-right have gleefully filled. The ruthless drive of international capitalism has plucked workers from their communities and distributed them more efficiently. Single occupancy houses are at their highest ever rate in the UK. The language of 'alienation' that the BNP use strikes a chord because people are genuinely isolated in their 'own country'. But the threat - far from being the dark-skinned immigrant or the eastern European worker - is the socially divisive menace of globalised capitalism.

That we are surprised that progressive political parties and left-leaning environmental groups talk about British Jobs and British Produce is a scathing indictment of how successfully the far-right have hi-jacked the language of localism.

That is why it is more important than ever for the left to regain a narrative that leads not inexorably to racism and xenophobia, but to equitable and sustainable solutions to social division and resource distribution. The goal of the Transition Towns movement is to create communities that are resilient in the face of climate change and resource depletion - by encouraging and recognising diversity, not denying it as the BNP would seek to do. The No2Eu Party, anguished and frustrated at being treated like a tradeable commodity, are not angry at the foreign workers taking their jobs - they are angry at the economic system that allows it to happen.

Without a voice to stand up against the perils of economic globalisation, the far-right will shout on people's behalf. With unemployment rising, and a globalised recession to blame, isn't it time the left reclaimed the language of localism from the BNP?


Friday, 22 May 2009

May 2009 - Geo-engineering: Denial on a Global Scale

>>>published on<<<

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein joined the dots between the commercial manufacture of military weaponry, the marketing of anti-flu pandemic drugs and the foreign construction firms drafted in to rebuild Iraq – three happy projects bound by the shared philosophy of ‘disaster capitalism’. It may be time to add another enterprising scheme to this rather opportunistic programme of panic-driven profit making: Geo-engineering – the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the earth and its ecosystems in response to human-caused climate change.

In an impressive leap from a desperate denial of the causes of climate change, to a triumphant denial of the consequences, frontier capitalism may have stumbled across its best idea yet. The loose band of technologies that offer the mouth-watering prospect of engineering our way out of the climate crisis are straight out of science fiction, yet are being taken seriously by scientists and investors alike.

Schemes vary from injecting the atmosphere with sulphate particles to induce cooling, to fertilising algal blooms with iron filings to cause increased CO2 sequestration, to chemically ‘scrubbing’ CO2 out of the air. And as the Royal Geographical Society event on geo-engineering last week showed, many are seduced by science that dangles the carrot of a technological fix to climate change in front of their noses.

The event provided a fascinating window into the way in which geo-engineering is currently perceived by the scientific community. Professor David Keith, a keen advocate (although far from an evangeliser) of geo-engineering called for a responsible, measured research programme into the possibilities of geo-engineering. The problem with this proposal, however, is that even toying with the idea of geo-engineering opens a Pandora’s Box of climatic and socio-political uncertainty. As the Greenpeace scientist Dr Paul Johnston noted at the same event, even the most elementary research into geo-engineering will involve real-world experiments with the global commons.

Jim Thomas, campaigner with the Canadian ETC Group has observed that if control over this global commons appears even remotely feasible, international conflict will inevitably ensue. Environmental scientists like David Keith are undoubtedly well-meaning in their pursuit of technological solutions to climate change, but their research does not take place in a vacuum – it is conducted in a world that is defined by a deeply unsustainable and inequitable socio-economic system.

What hope is there that geo-engineering will be benignly applied for the greater good? Will the consent of the developing world be sought when we conduct our climatic experiments with their natural resources? Will we share our new found knowledge with everyone, or only those who can afford to buy our patented designs?

As philosophers like John Gray have repeatedly observed, an unwavering faith in human progress often amounts to little more than a secular replacement of religious fervour. In response to accusations that that geo-engineering research would involve taking unprecedented risks with the planet’s fragile eco-system, Professor David Keith replied “This isn’t 1750” – the implication being that while pre-industrial revolution scientists did not foresee the consequences of their actions, today’s crop of experts are too wise to act so carelessly. But while few in the environmental science community would seek to take unquantifiable risks with the climate, there is a hardy band of disaster capitalists that would happily take the risk for them.

Worryingly, several experiments with algal blooming have been driven by commercial pressure from companies keen to sell credits into the emerging carbon-trading market. Never mind that artificial algal blooms are yet to deliver any proven CO2 reductions – large scale geo-engineering projects could be capitalism’s ultimate parlour trick: The design and manufacture of machines that we ultimately become dependent on to neutralise the waste produced by a society of consumption-driven economic growth. The lure of geo-engineering – colonic irrigation for the planet – is almost irresistible. What if it worked – what if we really could scrub the skies of carbon, and without having to reduce our carbon emissions?

Unfortunately, the question of technical proficiency is a red herring. We know we can design technologies that can alter the climate – that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. The more important issue is whether we can engineer our way out of trouble in a way that does not exacerbate existing inequalities. Tackling climate change is perhaps the most critical test of our commitment to social justice we will ever encounter – what could be more fundamental than the intentional management and division of the earth’s natural resources?

But unless significant changes in how scientific knowledge is shared and distributed are achieved, geo-engineering simply cannot address climate change in an equitable way. To believe that the unprecedented power of geo-engineering will not be wielded by the rich and the powerful at the expense of the weak and the vulnerable is more than simply wide-eyed techno-optimism: It amounts to a comprehensive denial of political reality.


Sunday, 17 May 2009

May 2009 - Outbreak of public anger and scrutiny helpful for Fair approach to Climate Change?

“Our politics is on the edge of a cliff”

So said Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and I think: does he really mean his career is on the edge of a cliff teetering with the weight of his second home allowance? Clegg is of course reacting to the surge of public scrutiny of MPs expenses which has dominated the media this month. People throughout the UK have been angry at a select group of individuals claiming for themselves money and goods that the system let them have, but they weren’t morally entitled to.

two angry members of the public: more angry member of the public:

It would appear that the idea of fairness and having more than your fair share is very much in the public consciousness at the moment. Comparisons between MP’s and people affected by the recession have been often heard this month and the notion that everyone should make sacrifices in the face of a common challenge is aprevalent narrative in the media. It has got to be said this sounds like just the kind of debate that we need to have in the UK in order to front up to climate change.

But hang on, politicians and journalists are saying that the MPs expenses scandal has been very damaging to politics and the democratic process. This is what Party Leaders have each said this week:

David Cameron: "I understand how deep the damage goes. Our politics are reviled. Our parliament is held in scorn. Our people have had enough"

Gordon Brown: “We must show that we have the highest standards for our profession.”

Nick Clegg: “It already feels like both a cliché and an understatement to say that this has been a bad week for politics”

So they sound gravely concerned about the political process but it is hard not to feel that they are primarily gravely concerned about their own careers. There is no doubt that this scandal is hugely damaging for this particular crowd of politicians but does it automatically follow that the democratic process is damaged and that people are ‘switching off’ politics because of it? Some probably are, but some (angry people for the most part) are ‘switching on’. Right through until the end of this week the political panel show Question Time was the second most popular programme after Eastenders on the BBC iPlayer (in the programme people get very angry!) To say this scandal is good for politics might seem a contrary argument to make, but I would say it is good for public scrutiny of politics and avoid the assumption, around and about, that this is automatically damaging to public political engagement. Two thirds of people in a BBC poll this week wanted a General Election - that isn’t an apathetic response.

If there are currently the conditions for discussion of ideas like transparency and fairness, the debate on climate change can surely benefit from this, if it doesn’t carry on getting overshadowed by it (you might say). There are many people and campaigns making the argument for a fair and transparent transition to lower carbon living, like the Fair Shares, Fair Choice scheme based in Bristol

This month - amongst the heat of the expenses row - the leading Climate Change Scientist James Hanson again voiced his fears that the Cap-and-Trade approach (held to be the solution for distributing carbon rights by many politicians coming together for Copenhagen) isn’t a fair system:

“Cap-and-trade is fraught with opportunities for special interests, political trading, obfuscation from public scrutiny, accounting errors, and outright fraud.”
Oops this looks like he is writing about MP’s expenses! Hanson offers an alternative; a flat transparent tax on carbon use:
“A carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.”
And this seems like a good system for what the MP’s will get in future, a flat accountable rate, for attending the House of Commons!

If people in the UK have remembered (when MPs didn’t) that Politics is, as the maxim goes, about “who gets what, when, where and how” then there is hope that the theme’s of fairness and transparency can be translated into the debate on climate change - and we will be the better for it. A good marker for this will be how The Green Party do in the European elections next month.


Saturday, 25 April 2009

April 2009 - The Green contradictions in the Red briefcase

The straight-to-camera monologue routine being broadcast across the nation on 22nd April 2009 could only mean one thing: Budget day. And, although the government’s renewed support for Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) was hailed by some as evidence of Britain’s commitment to climate change, Alistair Darling’s red briefcase contained many green contradictions.

Despite pledging financial support for CCS in the budget, the government’s subsequent announcement that new coal-fired power stations would only be approved once they could demonstrate substantial capture and storage of their carbon emissions confirmed only one thing – that there will be new coal-fired power stations. And, with emissions reductions targets contingent on a technology that is yet to be demonstrated on an industrial scale, the potential torrent of investment promised by a Green New Deal seems to have been reduced to a techno-fix trickle.

Alistair Darling’s take home message was that economic growth would return in 2010, but there is no bigger contradiction than the message that we can consume more, regain economic growth AND use fewer natural resources. The myth that economic growth and energy use can be decoupled is compelling, pervasive and utterly false. The government’s controversial plans to extend the capacity of Heathrow are based on an economic argument that the UK will ‘lose out’ if the mile-high custom goes elsewhere. But we will certainly lose out if we cannot reign in our burgeoning emissions. Even dyed-in-the-wool free marketeers like Nicholas Stern recognise that failing to tackle climate change now will cost us more in the long term.

But the myth of low-carbon growth runs through government policy like the lettering embedded in sticks of Brighton rock. We are exhorted to exercise personal restraint, to minimise our carbon footprint, yet every signal we receive tells us to carry on exactly as we are. Heathrow is just the most obvious example of a policy that flatly contradicts the UK’s emissions targets.

And, unsurprisingly, these contradictions are mirrored in people’s individual behaviours. We carefully select local fruit and vegetables and then drive them home in our car. We turn our televisions off standby but leave our laptops on overnight. You might imagine that whether someone ‘acts green’ in one situation would be a good indicator of whether they will act similarly across the board. But research by the social psychologist John Thogersen has shown that the ‘spillover’ of one environmental behaviour to another is notoriously unreliable.

One of the factors that influences whether one green behaviour will predict another is how similar the behaviours are. So, someone who recycles is also likely to compost their food waste, whereas someone who cycles to work may not pay any attention to the heating of their home. One of the most significant challenges of tackling environmental behaviours is that they are so dauntingly diverse. The cues and triggers that we use to judge our behaviour in one situation will be completely absent in another.

But Thogersen’s research also identified another factor that determines spillover – whether seemingly green actions are taken for the same underlying reason. Someone who insulates their home only to save money will be unlikely to pay more for a train ride instead of a plane – because although their home insulation produced significant carbon savings, their motives were financial. According to Thogersen, significant spillover in environmental behaviours will only be achieved if a clear and consistent environmental message is used to motivate change. The contradictory messages emanating from the government are ensuring that this spillover will not be achieved.

As long as the myth of decoupling growth and resource use continues, even the most well-intentioned message will fall on deaf ears. Our sacred economic growth has been predicated on an almost limitless supply of cheap energy – a supply that is rapidly dwindling. While increasing financial wealth is a necessity for the world’s poor, the rich countries chase further prosperity even while the fossil-fuelled engine of the growth economy starts to splutter out. Darling’s sums may have balanced the financial books for another year. But the ecological debt can’t be dealt with by consuming our way out of trouble.


Monday, 6 April 2009

April 2009 - Celebrities: Get them out of here?

Sulking about the fact that his earnings might be reduced in the 'witch hunt' against bankers and their bonuses, Matthew Prest, the managing director at Close Brothers investment bank whinged:

"I don't hear anybody calling for Hollywood star salary caps. This is a trendy, fashionable thing to do, it will have bad consequences."

Prest's astute analogy overlooks the minor difference between actors and investment bankers - specifically that actors do not possess the capacity to bring the global economy to its knees, are unlikely to play poker with our savings and mortgages, and have never (Tom Cruise aside) declared themselves 'masters of the universe'. But does the moody MD have a point? Should we be asking questions about big salaries outside the banking sector - especially if the fame and fortune of our prized celebrities seems at odds with their forays into political advocacy?

Marina Hyde, the nemesis of vaccuous celebrities who venture into politics, published a book this week railing against the increasing number of famous folk who seem to be suffering from baffling cases of mission creep. Sharon Stone famously declared that she would kiss 'almost anyone' for peace in the Middle East. Angelina Jolie patrolled Afghanistan in a green flak jacket and 'attended' the World Economic Forum in Davos with husband Brad Pitt. Bob Geldof took his rightful place alongside the leaders of the world's most powerful nations on the fringe of the g20 meeting in London last week. Its easy to sneer at these glitzy people outside of their comfort zone. But its also difficult not to feel angered by the incongruity between the high earning, high consuming lifestyles of these uber-capitalists, and the political causes they champion. So when is it OK for celebrities to endorse 'good causes'? And are climate celebrities a help or a hinderance?

Bono is a very rich and very famous celebrity who regularly appears at high profile political events and meetings - most notably during the Jubilee campaign to drag the developed nations towards meeting their Millenium Development Goals. However, despite imploring the British and Irish Governments do to more to meet the Development Goals, Bono does not pay tax in his home country of Ireland. Rather, he keeps his substantial sums of money in the (lower taxing) Netherlands. Considering that tax paying is the primary means of generating government income - to be spent on matters such as meeting the Millenium Development Goals - Bono's offshore accounting flatly contradicts his political campaigning. The choices that Bono makes regarding his personal finances undermine so thoroughly his moral stance on poverty reduction, that even the mention of his name raises the heckles of any charitable tax payer. Why should we listen to a man who wants more money spent on eradicating world poverty, when he will not even contribute from his own (immense) income?

Bono's case illustrates an important point - that 'practicing what you preach' is a principle with almost universal appeal. For some political causes, it isnt obvious what the 'practice' bit might be - we can march against Israel's occupation of Gaza, but aside from some boycotting of produce, how can we 'practice' what we preach?

When it comes to tackling climate change, however, consistency between our principles and our behaviour is paramount. No-one wants to be lectured about driving less by a woman in a Chelsea Tractor. The UK cannot murmour darkly about the proliferation of Chinese coal-fired power stations whilst simultaneously erecting them at home. And despite being one of the slimiest creatures to have emerged from New Labour's trigger happy, city-slicker regime, Geoff Hoon might just have had a point when he questioned whether Emma Thompson's opposition to a third runway at Heathrow was compromised by the number of international awards ceremonies she attends.

Almost by definition, celebrities are likely to have high-carbon existences. Wealth is one of the biggest determinants of an individual's carbon footprint, and most modern celebs have a globalised lifestyle to match their image. Even celebrities that 'mean it' are likely to use more carbon than the average person (just ask Thom Yorke). So are there any celebrities who can claim to be genuinely green?

Monday, 30 March 2009

March 2009 – “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

This month I watched the premier of the film The Age of Stupid simulcast into a cinema in Cardiff, it was a good-heartedly organised low carbon event with a green carpet to greet the film goers which included people like Vivian Westwood, Ken Livingstone and Ed Miliband. The film makes an overwhelming case for taking action now and planning to avoid runaway climate change, presenting a doomsday scenario in the future made more and more plausible, as the film goes on, by documentary and news stories from weather events and human activity from our real life present. After the film Ed Miliband spoke and what was most striking about what he said were his assertions about the absolute necessity of developing clean coal technology - something that doesn’t yet exist.

Dwight D. Eisenhower apparently said “Plans are nothing; planning is everything” and i don’t think Ed and the government are following Dwight’s maxim because they have a target (80% reduction in emissions by 2050) and they have a plan (maybe like baldrick once had a cunning plan – a plan for something that doesn’t exist) but their isn’t too much evidence of planning. The decision on the third runway at heathrow actually suggests that the governments short and medium term planning is working against their own target and the decision on Kingsnorth’s coal powerstation in the autumn will be a further test of government planning - as flagged up by Pete Postlethwaite at the premier saying he will give his OBE back if they give the go-ahead on Kingsnorth.

One person with the ear of this particular government in the past is Anthothy Giddens and he has a new book out this month called The Politics of Climate Change. And Giddens has been talking up a new politics-of-planning for a number of months saying that longer term planning and consensus building around a ‘green state’ is essential to correct the failings of our current culture of short term politics. The big problems he indentifies to be addressed by better planning include; the chicken game (who goes first on the hard choices) between citizens and government, achieving worldwide collective action and overcoming what he modestly called “Giddens’ Paradox.” These big issues are clear enough though it remains to be seen how racial his advocacy for “active planning” will prove to be.

Plan to make some green custard? The Hackney Post have got a recipe famous as of this month.
Currently there is an opportunity to influence government planning through a consultation on planning for low carbon business and industry the consultation was kicked off by a green custarded Peter Mandelson early in the month.

So back to The Age of Stupid which shows that planning is necessary at all levels of society – way beyond the political realm. The battle to get planning permission for a wind farm in the film, against local people who don’t want it on their doorstep, highlights the problem of ‘free riders’ in a system (the general term Gidden’s uses for people benefiting, without contribution, from others acting collectively) and the challenge for climate change of planning at the local level. The Planning Act November 2008 placed a duty on local authorities to consider climate change but it remains to be seen whether it is it having a big impact. The Act appears to move in two directions at once, with “National Policy Statements” to be developed by government departments in consultation with interested parties to move decision making more effectively to the local level and a body called the “Infrastructure Planning Commission” which should take some major decisions away from the local authorities. In any case a glance at the Act suggests that local planning is still contingent on good National and UK wide planning. Major social change often goes hand-in-hand with land reform and organisations like Lammas are campaigning for more radical approaches to planning to allow the social change they want for themselves to live a lower carbon lifestyle.

I have also been learning the hard way this month that more planning at the personal level is needed, for example, to get reasonable price train tickets (to not drive), stop buying bottled water and other things that are better but not necessarily quicker solutions. There are loads of tools for measuring personal emissions and setting personal targets but there doesn’t feel like as many tools around (though there are some good ones I know and some I don’t I‘m sure) for day to day personal planning. It would be a shame if as individuals we had the will to act and our targets but were scuppered by our planning.

So yes more planning (not just plans) from government to match targets, local government planning executing that duty to consider climate change (with well judged government support on the big decisions) and more planning at the personal level all would be helpful. Of course April brings an international focus to plans made on climate change with the G20 in London, before come December pressure for a master plan in Copenhagen.


Tuesday, 17 March 2009

March 2009 - Steady as She Goes

(published 17/03/09 in the Environment section of the Guardian)

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

February 2009 - The right behaviour, for the wrong reasons?

Sam Whimster, Professor of Sociology at the Global Policy Institute, commented on 20th February in the Guardian that if we are to stand any chance of navigating our way out of the financial crisis, we need to reassert human values as superior to those of the market. It is a mark of just how hegemonic the pursuit of financial wealth has become that this statement even has to be made at all - after all, an economic system is nothing if not an expression of human value. Yet, after several hundred years of industrial capitalism, we are somehow faced with a widening gap between the rich and poor, and an eco-system that is on the brink of collapse. Now, more than ever, a reassertion of human value is critical to an equitable, sustainable future.

Indeed, Professor Whimster's comments resonate far beyond models of economic development and financial regulation. While many people now accept that changes in our behaviour will be necessary to prevent dangerous climate change - at every level from political treaties to individual habits - it is less clear how these changes should be brought about. Investment! Revolution! Technological advances! A carbon market! In the UK, however, a surprising consensus between government, industry, and environmental NGOs has emerged - a consensus which is captured suspiciously well by the Tesco mantra 'every little helps'.

Most of us will have been implored to change our light bulbs to energy efficient ones, to unplug our phone chargers, to re-use our plastic bags. The 'every little helps' approach is intended to offer a way-in to environmental behaviour change, a 'foot-in-the-door' that sets the stage for greater changes in the future. The only problem, as Tom Crompton points out in the seminal WWF report 'Weathercocks & Signposts: The Envionmental Movement at a Crossroads', is that we are yet to progress beyond the little changes. Given the obvious urgency of the situation, this constitutes a serious challenge to the piecemeal approach to behaviour change.

Part of the problem, as activists like George Marshall from Climate Outreach and Information Network have pointed out, is that advice on 'saving the planet' tends not to differentiate between changes that have major impacts (e.g. not flying) and changes that have minimal effects (e.g. turning items off standby). Until there is a clear sense of what the priorities are, there is little hope of targeting the right behaviours.

The more profound problem lies, however, not with the actual changes themselves, but with the reasons for the changes. As Tom Crompton observes, the 'every little helps' approach typically avoids asking people to consider the reasons for their behaviours too deeply. In fact, energy saving advice is often couched in terms of saving money, while companies are more than happy to sell new versions of old products that offer a marginal improvement in energy efficiency. Fearful of being branded idealists, the values underlying pro-environmental behaviours (sustainability, justice, equality) are kept out of the equation - even by some environmental NGOs.

The upshot of this approach is that when environmental concerns dovetail with money saving measures, or the opportunity to invest in a new product, emissions are likely to be saved. But when these 'beautiful coincidences' do not occur - as when pro-environmental behaviour change involves personal inconvenience, or incurring a financial loss, the motivation for acting is removed. Not focussing on the values that underlie behaviour change can lead to a dead-end.

So, while the cumulative effect of lots of small changes is nothing to be sniffed at, they must be the beginning, rather than the end, of the story. The fundamental premise of 'foot-in-the-door' strategies is that bigger changes are likely to be accepted once smaller changes have been consented to - but if the bigger changes do not coincide quite so happily with personal convenience or financial incentives, will they ever be made?

In tackling climate change, just like navigating out of the financial crisis, a reassertion of human values is essential. We are not trying to 'save the planet' out of a puritan desire for austerity. In fact, we are not trying to save the 'planet' at all. The planet will be just fine long after we're gone. What we are fighting for is the equitable and sustainable distribution of the natural resources essential to our continued survival. What else, other than human values, could possibly be the reason for tackling climate change?


Monday, 23 February 2009

February 2009 - Are we a nation of liars?

In terms of ‘doing your bit’, it’s hardly a bold statement. But most of us have managed to get our heads around re-useable bags. They’re stronger! They’re slightly nicer to hold! Whether its 100 % cotton sophistication or basket-woven chic you’re after, no-one wants to be caught holding the plastic bag.

The only problem is that plastic bag use is barely down. The Waste and Resources Action Programme claim that businesses distributed 8% fewer bags in 2008 than 2007, but Defra estimates that about 88% of shoppers currently put all their shopping into free carrier bags, taking 3-4 bags at every shopping trip.

That our meagre environmental actions don’t always match up to our ambitious words is hardly breaking news – when 500 people were interviewed in the 1970s regarding their personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% acknowledged responsibility. After leaving the interview room, however, only 2% of the people picked up the litter that the researchers had planted near outside the door. Tackling environmental behaviour is more important now than it ever was. Why don’t people do the things they say they do?

Perhaps we are simply a nation of liars. Alternatively, we may be deluded – deluded, but honest. Psychologists have shown that married couples systematically overestimate their own contribution to household chores, while simultaneously underestimating the effort that their other half puts in (the ‘ego-centric’ bias). So, we may be naturally inclined to believe our own distorted memory of how much we recycle, how little we drive, or how often we turn the thermostat on the heating down.

In addition, we tend to think about ourselves and others’ failures in different ways. When something goes wrong – an increase in the quarterly heating bill for example – we do not conclude that our clever new strategy of thermostat monitoring hasn’t worked after all. When things go awry, there are always situational factors to help explain it away. The cold weather, a new-found leak in the bathroom window, or an absent-minded family member are all viable alternatives to accepting responsibility, yet when other people fail, the blame falls squarely on them. In short, we seem psychologically programmed to misperceive our own behaviour. And when it comes to changing our environmental habits, we’re all guilty of a bit of creative accounting.

Worse still, short term commercial interests and fossil fuelled policy-making frequently collude to exacerbate our plight. In the past twelve months, we have been prescribed airport expansion, cheap flights and a new generation of coal-fired power stations for our carbon habit. Like a group of recovering alcoholics we need help staying on the wagon. But dangling carbon-temptations in front of our noses makes it next to impossible for us to change – even if we wanted to.

So what can be done? First and foremost, the non-psychological barriers have to be removed so that it’s easy for people to change if they want to. Public transport is more expensive than private travel. Our bosses expect us to fly to Holland for training at Head Office. Our cities are designed for car owning suburbanites rather than city dwellers on public transport. There are very real limits on what individuals can do – so while transformative power lies in every single one of us, our hands are tied until the structural constraints on our behaviour are removed.

We must also move ‘beyond information’. Switching the TV off standby doesn’t justify an extra flight to the Canary Isles, but most lists of tips for saving the planet don’t distinguish between important and inconsequential ways of reducing emissions. Information is necessary, but not sufficient to bring about change. We are not passive learning machines, and our behaviours will not change until we decide that we want them to. It isn’t enough to take a few plastic bags out of circulation – we have to start asking tougher questions about what the causes and the consequences of our unsustainable patterns of behaviour are.

Happily, decades of social and psychological research has furnished us with a detailed understanding of many aspects of human behaviour. But while Defra have commissioned multiple reviews of sustainable behaviour change, they have primarily relied on advertising agencies, environmental consultancies and social marketing teams. Correspondingly, the government seem unwilling or unable to move beyond meekly reminding us to buy energy efficient light bulbs. The discrepancy between the magnitude of the problem and the timidity of the solution would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high.

We desperately need some evidence-based leadership on changing our environmental habits and behaviours. There is now a solid scientific basis for understanding climate change, but what we really need is a social-scientific basis for understanding the cause of climate change – namely, us.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

February 2009 - What are legitimate actions in the (public) face of climate change?

In December Ed Miliband said there needed to be a New Social Movement behind climate change:

"When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilisation," said Miliband. "There will be some people saying 'we can't go ahead with an agreement on climate change, it's not the biggest priority'. And, therefore, what you need is countervailing forces. Some of those countervailing forces come from popular mobilisation."

Ok then, Ed suggests that it is hard for elected politicians (even the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) to make tough decisions when there isn’t popular support to legitimate them.

In January Geoff Hoon also revealed this line of thinking in his public slanging match with Emma Thompson over the third runway at Heaththrow, he said: "I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don't see the logic of their position, not least because the reason we have got this problem in relation to Heathrow is that more and more people want to travel more and more.” Interesting that Geoff calls the heathrow issue in these comments “the problem” a departure in language from his usual line about it being a wealth consolidating/creating opportunity for Britain. Also Geoff is, in actual fact, wrong to suggest the public are tacitly legitimating the governments action because a Government Consultation reported back to him a vast majority are against it. (

Thompson for her part came up with the baffling line, right back at Hoon “Get a grip Geoff this is not about Flying”!

To add to this heady mix, as the heathrow issue was debated John McDonnell took an action deemed unjustified (by his fellow MPs) in the course of his arguments against the runway (on behalf of his constituents who are directly affected) and FOR a vote on the issue picked up the ceremonial mace in protest (Heseltine style) and was told he had “Conducted himself in a grossly disorderly manner” and was suspended from parliament for 5 days. (

Meanwhile in January while the Government implored and then ignored the public the majority of the scientific community was reportedly set to do the very same. The Independent ran a front page saying that scientists (including James Lovelock) were ready to prepare a “Plan B” a geo-engineering solution to use if the political and social effort to reduce emissions doesn’t show results soon. (

We know science can act unilaterally and take extraordinary risks on behalf of people that are not always aware or in agreement with scientific actions - the Atomic Bomb for instance! Also right now Richard Posner senior US judge believes this is the case in respect of the Large Hadron Collider experiment, in relation to the (disputed) claim that the experiment has a 1 in 50 million chance of creating a black hole that could swallow the universe! The ‘Plan B’ response to Climate Change may lead us more frequently down this risky road.

In January the Japanese launched a CLIMATE CHANGE ROCKET!(

There has been continued consideration of the legitimacy of direct action on climate change especially following the Plane Stupid action at Stanstead in December and of course the ground breaking (public!) jury decision on the Kingsnorth protestors. Shockingly in December the Attorney General Baroness Scotland was reported to be looking at barring public juries from climate change protest cases and appealing against the kingsnorth protestors. (

Lets take Ed at his word and UP the participation of the general public... to continue to have public Jury trials for principled climate change protestors - what better way to judge the legitimacy of the protests. And for those Plan B experiments let us use citizen referenda to decide on the legitimacy of those actions which may be of massive benefit but may also present massive risk. In any case if politicians and scientists show faith in the citizen then a New Social Movement may grow UP that starts to tackle Plan A.