Democracy must step up to the climate challenge

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I am not a huge fan of Extinction Rebellion. I have spent much of my career researching what it will take for governments and companies to tackle climate change, and I am well aware of the urgency of doing so. I want to see engaged citizens pushing their governments to get on with it. I’m even fine with non-violent direct action.

But what I see is a movement of people who don’t seem all that informed about national climate policy, yet still explicitly aim to “force” the government into accepting an extreme timescale for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions – one which is not supported by the science – while expecting others to carry the can for any disruptive and unpopular consequences. No democrat should accept that.

While both UK and international climate efforts certainly need an ambition upgrade, you won’t find Extinction Rebellion talking about the successes of British democracy in tackling climate change. The UK has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 44% since 1990, compared to the EU-wide Paris Agreement target it signed up to of a 40% reduction by 2030. It has a world-leading policy framework to set long-term targets and provide a regular check on government progress (though we’re not on track to meet them all). Last week the Treasury helped form an international coalition of finance ministries aligning their policies with the Paris Agreement’s goals. Government can do much more, but the belief it is doing nothing – therefore people are justified in abandoning the democratic process – is all too widespread in the movement and deserves rebuttal.

But if Extinction Rebellion has its faults, the apathetic and wilfully obtuse camp on the right are so much worse. Those MPs who are vociferous about climate protests, but not about the fact we’re on track to all but wipe out coral reefs, or the fact there are people on this planet who don’t know whether they’ll have a country in a few decades – for that is the stark reality – should know large numbers of their fellow citizens are wondering where on Earth their priorities are. The only response of many on the right to these protests is to indulge in cheap potshots. It is totally inadequate.

The moderate, caring majority might well wonder what they can do to address climate change between these two camps. The protests we have seen manifest the psychological impact of one abnormally hot, dry summer. What will it be like after two? Several? After food price volatility? Water shortages? Increased migration pressures? We face not just the challenges of decarbonising and climate-proofing our nation and its economy, but of maintaining social cohesion and a broadly accepted political system while doing so.

Those of us who believe that democracy and (in my case) regulated capitalism can rise to this challenge must not just assert they can – we must demonstrate it. We need an honest response commensurate with the threat we face, involving as many across society as we can, using our hearts as well as brains. We can start by following the call of the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, to build a broad, national coalition to successfully tackle climate change between government, business, the voluntary sector and “critically” the public. That is, we need civil society to mobilise.

Reeling off statistics about emissions reductions and resting on laurels is not enough – people will better appreciate progress if they see it where they live. If impressive decarbonisation efforts are happening in the North Sea, that is good, but not visible to us in our day-to-day lives. We should accelerate electric vehicle uptake, facilitate community energy projects (heat as well as electricity) and spread local nature restoration. Let’s not over-professionalise absolutely everything. I encourage political parties to compete to offer visions for Community Climate Action which people can take part in and vote for.

Left-wing greens have a tendency to think that progress depends on persuading others to think like they do. But a climate-ready nation must embrace the skills, talents, experience and commitment of a politically diverse set of people.

Whisper it, but a very significant chunk of this national effort is unavoidably going to be delivered by the private sector – not just energy companies and heavy industry but construction, logistics, supermarkets and farmers. Let’s value the deep expertise of people in industry. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it will be not just from the benevolence of the battery maker, the green steel pioneer and the water-conscious farmer that we will achieve a climate-ready economy, but from regard to their own interest and, crucially, from their know-how. Of course, a low carbon economy has no chance of emerging spontaneously from an ideological free market, but from enterprise responding to a clear sense of direction from government. Heavyweight work is also taking place in the financial sector on how to direct capital towards the green economy. Let’s make London a global centre of excellence for green finance, and mainstream it.

Those of us in a technocratic bubble need to connect more with the general public about any progress we expect and what they can do to make it a reality. I often wish more people knew about the outstanding academic and industrial work on low carbon innovation which I see all the time, because it would give them more hope. There is a large pool of technical and business talent eager to work on finding solutions to climate change. How much more satisfying it is for skilled professionals to know they are contributing to meeting a major global challenge, not just the bottom line. Companies with a climate-oriented mission will find it increasingly easier than indifferent peers to attract talent.

Technology can take us a long way, but of course it is not the whole solution. We need a 21st century concept of the economy which recognises that solving our immense environmental problems is essential to human welfare, not a nice-to-have. We can do much to help restored ecosystems and agricultural soils absorb carbon dioxide (‘natural climate solutions’) and encourage pre-existing social trends towards diets which require less land.

We are a civilisation, not just an economy. Social norms and moral values matter tremendously and need to be amplified above the din of modernity. We need to convey that it is normal to love and want to protect nature and prevent human suffering. When I was a child, a kind older generation taught me not to waste, not to covet, to be compassionate, to love creation. We need not to waste energy, food or water. Far from being alien values, these are traditional values which have somehow been drowned out, mislaid, or politically tribalised. Let’s reclaim them.

I want everyone who asks “what can I do?” to receive a meaningful answer. Climate change is too big and important an issue to be the exclusive property of any political faction or self-contained philosophy. Let’s aim for a National Alliance for Getting the Job Done and start right away.

7 thoughts on “Democracy must step up to the climate challenge

  1. A very balanced article. I believe that we are doing ok overall. Hysteria apart! Sadly the interested World has to convince China, the US India and Indonesia. I am 81 and I don’t see it happening any time soon

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  2. I couldn’t agree more. Thought provoking and insightful.
    Indeed, we all need to try to make a difference – however small.

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  3. Dear Helen, excellent article. We need a broad ‘middle’ to realise this transition. In the netherlands, we are working on a national climate agreement, to mobilise all stakeholders in society to do their part against climate change. And we consider a national public campaign ‘iedereen doet wat’ (everyone does something)

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  4. I agree with the overall sentiment of this blog, and its conclusions – thanks for posting. There are a number of points in relation to Extinction Rebellion (XR) that I’d like to clarify, however. Many of these points can be found in the Extinction Rebellion “Heading for Extinction – and what to do about it” talk which can be found online, although I would encourage you to attend a talk in person in order to learn about XR (see https://rebellion.earth/act-now/events/).

    1. You frame XR as a left-wing organisation, which it isn’t. Its focus is on the avoidance of total extinction of human and all other species due to climate change and loss of biodiversity, issues which cross all political boundaries. The right-wing media (and politicians) frequently try to portray XR as a left-wing (and/or middle class) movement as it fits their narrative and makes it easier to be dismissed (middle-class hippes etc).

    2. You mention that XR activists don’t seem that well informed about UK climate policy, but then make the statement that the UK has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 44% since 1990. It is worth pointing out that international aviation and shipping are not included in this estimate (https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-why-the-uks-co2-emissions-have-fallen-38-since-1990), in clear breach of the Paris agreement, which I have heard many XR folk talk about. Furthermore, XR are very well informed in relation to UK current government policy to: support fracking, allow the opening of a new coal mine, stop solar subsidies and effectively ban new onshore wind development, while within Europe leading the way on subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

    3. You mention that the extreme timescale for reducing emissions is “not supported by the science”, and suggest that XR actions are driven by there being a very hot summer in the UK in 2018. In fact, XR policies are tied very closely to the science, and the people who are prepared to take to the streets (and possibly be detained for doing so) are those that have fully engaged with the science. The October IPCC report stated that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees (and avoid the catastrophic consequences of not doing so), CO2 would need to fall by around 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching “net zero” by around 2050. XR education around this is then based on a number of additional scientific publications that focus on the tendency for IPCC to underestimate climate risks and the implications for this (i.e. that the current targets are not nearly extreme enough if we want to avoid human extinction). Three key scientific publications informing this position are authored by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (senior climate advisor to the EU, the German Chancellor and Pope Francis and founding member of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research), David Spratt (Research Director for the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration) and Veerabhadran Ramanathan (Director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the University of California). David Spratt’s report “What Lies Beneath – The Understatement of Existential Climate Risks” (with a foreword by Professor Schellnhuber and input/comment from many of the world’s leading climate scientists) is one I would particularly recommend, and should help illustrate the basis for a more extreme emissions target.

    4. Finally, I agree with your point about maintaining social cohesion as we face the threat of the collapse of society due to the climate and ecological crises. We do not want to inconvenience our fellow countrymen and women, but feel that this inconvenience (and the loss of our own liberty) is a small price to pay to try and prevent this collapse. Because of XR actions, these issues are now being properly discussed and considered (with the Labour party stating that climate change will now be a central policy focus, William Hague calling for the Conservative party to get serious about climate change in the Telegraph this week, and both parties committing to sit down with Extinction Rebellion representatives). It seems as though serious governmental action against the climate and ecological crisis that has been sorely lacking for the past 30 years (suppressed under the weight of the fossil-fuel industry’s government lobbying and billion pound climate-change denial campaigns) may finally be about to start.

    I hope these points will help you accurately characterise Extinction Rebellion in future posts.

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    1. Firstly, thank you for putting across your point of view politely. I hope you’ll understand that I don’t have time for to and fro on this, but I have taken the time to respond to your points in detail.

      1. You may not personally be particularly left-wing. I’m sure many people in XR just want to belong to a protest movement with a clear message which gets across their outrage over climate change. FWIW I personally know people I like and respect who go to XR events. We agree to disagree.

      But I stand by my description of the overall character of the organisation as left-wing. Extinction Rebellion has tweeted “This movement is the best chance that we have of bringing down capitalism”. It has tweeted that it is at the heart of an international movement which is a “peaceful revolution to end the era of fossil fuels, nature extraction and capitalism.” If an organisation is overtly talking about ending capitalism, expect others to view it as left-wing – sounds pretty left-wing! The rest of us aren’t blind. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck …

      2. We need to be absolutely clear that the government is not doing anything sneaky, misleading or abnormal by excluding international aviation and shipping from its total national greenhouse gas emissions figures. This results from decisions which were taken fairly early on in the international process. See this UNFCCC note:
      “In accordance with the IPCC Guidelines for the preparation of greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories and the UNFCCC reporting guidelines on annual inventories, emissions from international aviation and maritime transport (also known as international bunker fuel emissions) should be calculated as part of the national GHG inventories of Parties, but should be excluded from national totals”.
      International shipping emissions are meant to be addressed through the International Maritime Organisation and aviation emissions through the International Civil Aviation Organization (people can draw their own conclusions about whether they’ve done a good job).

      When your XR friends say this is in clear breach of the Paris Agreement, maybe ask for specifics on which Article or part of the Agreement (text here) they mean. This UNFCCC note confirms that shipping/aviation aren’t directly included in the Agreement and sit with multilateral organisations.

      I expect what they mean is that letting international shipping and aviation emissions grow unchecked is not consistent with meeting the Paris Agreement’s overall aim of limiting the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C, which I agree with. However, can they please refrain from implying the government is being somehow underhand by following conventions made by the international process?

      Two suggestions for a more constructive approach:
      • argue that nations should take responsibility for international aviation rather than the ICAO (that would be a totally reasonable thing to argue)
      • acknowledge the government’s commitment to negotiate a long-term goal for aviation consistent with the Paris Agreement at the ICAO (see section 2.11 of the Aviation 2050 consultation document) and hold them to account over it

      3. The UK’s 5th carbon budget says we need to be around 57% below 1990 levels by 2030. Let’s convert that to a benchmark based on 2010 levels so we can compare it with what the IPCC says about a 1.5ºC trajectory.

      UK GHG emissions in 1990: 794 MtCO2e p.a.
      UK GHG emissions in 2010: 597 MtCO2e p.a.
      UK GHG emissions in 2030: 794 x (1 – 0.57) = 341 MtCO2e p.a.

      341/597 = 0.57, which is a 43% reduction in emissions in 2030 compared to 2010.

      So official UK government policy – at least expressed in terms of targets – is actually not far off what’s required according to the IPCC for 1.5ºC, which is pretty good. We’re not on track to meet this target currently, though, so that’s a useful place to apply pressure.

      In terms of net-zero by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change is releasing advice on this on Thursday. I think (I hope) it’s fairly likely they’ll advise we can do this.

      Constructive suggestion: push for government policies which put us on course for 1.5ºC – which, although challenging I think is politically feasible – instead of a totally unrealistic timeframe. Inform people about the political conversation on ambitions to meet 1.5ºC which is actually happening.

      4. I agree XR’s actions have pushed climate change up the agenda, and give them credit for that. If they were purely a morally-driven non-violent direction action group pushing for us to step up on climate change, not talking about aiming to force the rest of society into accepting their demands, totally committed to the democratic process, and being fair and objective about government policy (‘Tell the Truth’), I wouldn’t be criticising them.

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    2. Furthermore, XR are very well informed in relation to UK current government policy to: support fracking,
      So why has the govt fracking tsar just resigned claiming the govt is unsupportive?

      One could make reasonable rebuttals to the rest of your assertions. You are shouting at the govt and the country, but not interested in listening to what anyone else has to say because you think you are right and smarter than the rest of the population and that is why your movement is repellant to the majority.

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