Sunday, 25 January 2009

January 2009 - God's Green Earth

As the dishevelled figure of George W Bush was helicoptered off the White house lawn on January 20th, 2009, the world breathed a sigh of relief. With outgoing approval ratings of less than 22%, this was truly a failed President. Famously simplistic in his rhetoric and policy, George Bush had overseen a period of American history that began with an illegal war and ended in an economic crisis that enveloped the world. Nestling between these two bastardised bookends was regular torture of 'foreign combatants', the aggressive undermining of the UN, and a complete disregard for national or international climate policy. Bush had many undesirable traits, but his stubborn commitment to an authoritarian Christian sense of 'right and wrong' must rank among them. The oppressive, sexist and brutal principles of Iranian Ayatollahs, or the fundamentalist fervour of violent Islamic movements such as Al Qaeda are roundly and deservedly condemned. But here, in charge of the United States of America, was a man who believed he was carrying out God's will on earth (and frequently said as much in speeches). Combine this with a political ideology that favoured pre-emptive military action over multilateral negotiation, and it isn't difficult to understand why so many in the Arab world perceive George Bush as having led an Imperialist Crusade against Islam in the name of Christianity.

His religious zeal impacted on more than his approach to the Middle East, however. His distrust of 'science' was often cited as one of the reasons that he clung so doggedly to a belief that climate change was not America's problem to deal with. It is well documented that many on the Christian Right in America believe Darwin's Theory of Evolution should be taught 'alongside' Creationism in school science classes. Bush was one of them. Infamously refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, Bush can reasonably be said to have put the fight against climate change back by about a decade.

But if Bush's disregard for evolutionary science stemmed from his religious upbringing, it seems unfair to blame his unwillingness to engage with climate change on his Christianity. In the UK at least, NGOs like Christian Aid have been at the forefront of the environmental movement, holding high-profile demos and events ( and endorsing models for international climate change mitigation that blow the EU's farcical Emissions Trading System (essentially a cap-and-trade market with no cap) out of the water (

We are even seeing the emergence of organisations like 'Operation Noah', a faith-based organisation which campaigns exclusively on the climate change issue. In Cardiff, a boat owned by one of Cardiff's Christian groups is being transformed into a 'Noah's Ark'. Under the slogan: "Save Creation At Copenhagen", local children will process on to the 'Ark' wearing animal masks, costumes and bearing images of human communities who will be most at risk from climate change. Intriguingly, Operation Noah manages to seamlessly combine a rejection of evolutionary science with a forthright conviction for securing the Earth's future based on climate science:

"It is more than fitting that Cardiff's young children are at the
forefront of this event. The decisions taken this year at Copenhagen
will determine whether the Earth , their home, will be a safe place or
not in the decades ahead. We have an obligation to them, to worldwide
humanity and to God's marvellously complex and diverse creation to act
now. We need nothing less than an industrial revolution for
sustainability and we look to our leaders to act like Noah – to listen
and to lead." (Mark Dowd, Operation Noah Campaign Strategist)

While many climate change campaigners would probably rather jump on board the Atheist Bus than the Creationism Boat, environmentalism is also a movement that takes its supporters where it can find 'em. "Tackle climate change first - and argue about Creationism another day" captures the prevailing sentiment.

It isn't clear, however, whether Operation Noah's admirable commitment to preventing dangerous climate change is matched by the practicality of their proposed solutions:

"Good for Noah, the first Biblical environmentalist, who read the
signs of the times and inspired by God, found a way to save humanity
and all creatures. As the real significance of climate change is
appreciated, jump aboard Operation Noah's climate campaign as together
we seek to be an ark to the future!" (Minister David Pickering, Chair of Operation Noah)

Whether a big wooden boat ends up being the most appropriate means of tackling climate change of not, the underlying message is clear: In the eyes of evangelical Christians, Creationism and Environmentalism are not incompatible. George W's Christian dogma is implicated in many of his worst policies - but his disregard for climate science probably wasn't one of them.


Thursday, 15 January 2009

January 2009 - Smash the system! (or just vote Tory)

On 15th January, 2009, some five months into the one hundred month countdown, Geoff Hoon made the announcement no-one was surprised to hear: there will be a third runway built at Heathrow. The runway will require the demolition of seven hundred houses and a primary school, and will expand the capacity of what is already the busiest airport in Europe by a third. Despite years of campaigning and direct action from local residents and environmentalists, the expansion will go ahead - the stupidity of the decision matched only by the hypocrisy of Labour environmental policy, which claims to be aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't take a genius to realise that building a new runway at Heathrow cannot possibly be commensurate with this goal.

So, is this the end of the story? Clearly, the people whose houses are to be knocked down, the children whose school is to be razed to the ground, and campaigners across the world who want to see climate change taken seriously will not stop fighting. But reversing a decision of this magnitude becomes increasingly difficult once the legislative cogs start turning. One remaining option, voiced by the increasingly exasperated John Stewart, Chair of the anti-runway action group Hacan Clearskies, is to ensure that the cogs don't actually get the chance to clunk into action:

"The people of west London will be very angry indeed and their anger could spill over into direct action. Despite today's decision, we do not believe ultimately that this is a done deal. Unless Labour wins the next election these plans will never see the light of day"

Stewart's admission that even 'normal' people (like the Sispon residents) could be provoked to take part in direct action reflects a wider trend across the country in 2008. From Plane Stupid's well-to-do members reaching the roof of the Houses of Parliament, to the Greenpeace protesters who were not prosecuted for spray-painting 'Gordon' on the Kingsnorth power station smokestack, green direct action has been high profile and generally well received.

It also suggests that wherever the 'support' for building a third runway at Heathrow is coming from, it isn't primarily from the electorate. Other than BAA bods with an obvious investment in seeing the runway built, has there been any public support for the runway? Of course, ask people whether they like cheap flights and they will say yes. One of the key tactics used by proponents of the runway has been to position the third runway as the 'people's runway', where all the bargain flights will take off from. How dare we oppose the expansion of poor people's foreign fun?

As George Monbiot recently pointed out, however, the majority of cheap flights are taken not by people on low incomes, but by richer folk keen to get away for the weekend (airlines handily collect demographic information on their customers, for the purposes of 'market research'). The product of their market research is their advertising budget: no Ryanair adverts in The Sun, or The Mirror, plenty in The Telegraph .

Sadly, despite the increasing support for green direct action, the second half of John Stewart's suggestion is likely to be more prescient: the most reliable way of preventing the runway, would be to boot Labour out at the next election, and hope they haven't managed to get the ball rolling by then. Enticing as this sounds, the alternative is scarcely a reason to be cheerful - the return of a Conservative government.

David Cameron has vocally opposed the runway, in an attempt to curry favour with those who perceive Labour's environmental policy to be irrevocably rotten. And shadow transport secretary Theresa Villers, claimed that the Heathrow plans would be scrapped under a Conservative government:

"If a Conservative government is elected at the next general election there will not be a third runway at Heathrow. There is no chance of the planning process being completed before the date of the next election."

Perhaps the Conservatives truly believe that climate change is more important than short term economic gain for the South East - but is it just possible that the strength of Tory opposition might have been linked to the inevitability of the decision? No-one, not even the most committed anti-runway campaigner, seriously believed that Hoon would opt-out of a project this profitable. Might Cameron just be gambling on the possibility that as-and-when he gets his crack at the whip, the cogs will have started to clunk anyway? He would then find himself in the win-win position of presiding over the economic benefits of a project he opposed.

We all hope that there is still more to be done to derail the third runway. But pinning our hopes on a change of face at No 10 is unlikely to be the way to achieve it.