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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.

A just transition for steel needs so much more than opposing coal mines


Photo via Good Free Photos

A recent decision by Cumbria County Council to grant planning approval to a new coking coal mine in northern England attracted a fair amount of criticism in the UK, with some arguing the mine should have been rejected on climate grounds.

Rapidly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is an urgent task for the world, and many, myself included, are feeling alarmed and exasperated that we are failing to do so. I understand why some people translate this into a view that no new fossil fuel investment could ever be justified.

The idea of restricting fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure to tackle climate change has gained ground. The UK government has helped lead an international coalition to phase out coal-fired power, while battles between activists and industry over new fossil fuel investments are ongoing in North America and the UK. And economists engaged in climate policy have started to pay more attention to what they would term “supply-side” policies, such as moratoria or taxing fossil fuel extraction.

However, I’d like to make a plea for nuance in this debate: for a distinction to be made between coking coal, used in steel production, and thermal coal burned in power stations.

The primary role of economists in climate policy is to consider how we can reduce emissions in a carbon-constrained world with least impact on human welfare. That’s what economists’ go-to climate policy of universal carbon pricing is supposed to achieve – to find out where in the economy CO2 emissions can be squeezed out at least social cost.

Of course, economists have a duty to live in the real world, not in a text book, so if it turns out that society hasn’t favoured our proposed solution, it’s necessary to consider what other tools are in the toolkit. So these recent efforts to explore supply side approaches are a useful discussion. But because it’s an emerging topic so far lacking in fine distinctions, I doubt anyone has a handle on the implications for human welfare of restricting coking coal supply.

The use of coking coal in the steel industry is substantially different from the use of coal in electricity generation. There are currently mature, reasonable-cost alternatives to coal-fired power. Electricity is relatively easy to decarbonise, but steel is a classic hard-to-abate sector. This means we can’t bring radically low carbon alternatives on-stream by raising prices as easily as we can for power generation.

The main existing form of cleaner steel production (electric arc furnace) is widely used, but its output is ultimately constrained by the availability of scrap feedstocks. Currently accounting for around 30% of global production, even if deployed to maximum potential, rapidly growing demand means there will still be steel made from virgin materials. Other clean steel options, such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) are proposed but will take time to develop. We’re going to need coking coal for a while, and will particularly continue to need it if CCS is seen as the answer to abating steel emissions.

If economists’ dreams came true and we actually had a policy which perfectly allocated our carbon budget to those activities doing most for human welfare, we might find that quite a lot of it was allocated to steel. Not only is steel one of the world’s most vital economic commodities, but it will take an awful lot of it to face massive global challenges such as rapid urbanisation and climate change.

The energy transition means not just wind turbines, but public transport infrastructure, millions of electric vehicles, clean shipping and thousands upon thousands of kilometres of pylons to integrate clean energy into grids. India alone is talking about transmission investments to route 175 GW of renewable electricity over the next few years. Climate adaptation and resilience too will need steel, for example, for water infrastructure and rebuilding after disasters. Even sea defences require reinforced concrete and earth moving equipment.

Markets work through people making purchase and production decisions based on the information available to them. I don’t know how much coking coal or steel needs to be produced to affordably build a hospital in Paraguay or replace a storm-damaged bridge in the Philippines. Neither do you, and neither does a local authority making a local planning decision. Even a dedicated government department with ranks of permanent analysts would have a job. And that’s what we need to be mindful of.

Furthermore, there’s only so much one country can achieve in affecting a global market. The emergent economic literature on supply-side policies suggests unilateral actions by small producers are unlikely to be effective. Planning decisions by isolated local authorities – unless we’re talking about a really big project – are neither here nor there.

I would argue that an international moratorium on coking coal would be both unpopular and highly premature. While pioneering work is taking place on deep decarbonisation technology for steel it is still relatively early days. And that’s why an international coalition to phase out coal-fired power is currently politically viable, but one on phasing out coking coal wouldn’t be.

A more positive proposal would be a grand coalition for effecting deep decarbonisation of the steel sector. It’s mission would be to accelerate solutions like CCS, HIsarna and alternative reductants like hydrogen (with the hydrogen supply questions that that entails) by committing to serious levels of RD&D. It could also explore market creation for low carbon steel, circular economy measures, maximising recycling and demand reduction in steel-using sectors. It could set itself emissions reduction goals. Clearly-signposted supply-side policies might not be out of the question as part of a package which looks at the problem in the round, in a non-punitive and problem-solving spirit with broad-based support.

We need to deploy the deep expertise within industry and the creativity of engineers to crack this problem, and we need them to do it in a serious, concerted collaboration with governments and an increasing pool of climate-focussed investors. Separately developed national technology roadmaps are all very well but better when they cross-fertilise. And we very much need the world’s big steel producers like China, India and Japan on board.

I understand reducing emissions is an urgent problem and people want clear political direction-setting, not endless analysis from economists. Many will accordingly view every case of fossil fuel investment as a morally simple choice, but they’re not always, and decarbonisation advocates don’t win friends by ignoring that. A just transition means that climate policy is mindful not only of the impact on livelihoods of reducing fossil fuel use, but on human welfare as a whole.

Shoppers should be able to delete unsustainable palm oil

red forest trees animal
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Whether to avoid palm oil in our shopping baskets is a hot topic at the moment, thanks to Iceland’s emotive Rang-Tan ad campaign. But a quick glance at the website of almost any NGO working on tropical forest conservation in South East Asia will tell you that they don’t advocate a palm oil boycott. The likes of WWF, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) and even Greenpeace seem to agree that the problem is palm oil linked to deforestation, not palm oil per se. Indeed, SOS states their view on whether a palm oil boycott would help orangutans is “an unequivocal no”[1].

The reason is that the yield on palm oil is much higher than that of any other vegetable oil crop. So if demand for palm oil dries up, growers could be tempted to cultivate a less productive crop, driving deforestation more rapidly. Many conservation NGOs are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which runs the world’s leading sustainable palm oil certification scheme. This is a labelling scheme, like Fairtrade or the Marine Stewardship Council blue label, to ensure the credibility of claims regarding environmental performance throughout the palm oil supply chain. The scheme has its detractors, but only ten days ago upgraded its standard to encompass a “zero deforestation” principle taking forests’ role as carbon stocks more clearly into account[2].

I suspect many people would vastly prefer to know orangutans have a secure future than eat a particular brand of biscuit. An economist would frame the problem this way: people have preferences for natural protection, they just often lack a mechanism to express their preferences as powerfully as the market provides the biscuit. So we need to compensate for this, whether via regulation, public provision, or by tweaking markets.

Palm oil certification is such a tweak. Giving consumers and manufacturers information and assurance creates demand for deforestation-free palm oil and slows the rate of destruction – at least it should. But the current situation clearly lacks transparency and consumers are left in the dark.

Leading UK supermarkets have committed to source only RSPO-certified palm oil for their own brand products, but that still leaves a lot of branded products on the shelves. Consumers need to be quite determined and do their own research to know whether to choose or avoid them. Brands using certified palm oil could emblazon their packets with logos, but seem reluctant to, possibly believing packaging is already too crowded, or waiting chicken-and-egg-like for consumers to take the lead. In 2014, the EU intervened in the matter. Its Food Information to Consumers regulation means that palm oil must be listed as such (rather than as a generic ‘vegetable oil’) in product ingredients. But this does not cover non-food items like shampoo, and tells consumers nothing about the deforestation impact of the palm oil used.  People have busy lives and shouldn’t be expected to navigate through this information desert unaided.

So here’s a suggestion for a single, simple action that could make a world of difference. Online supermarkets could give consumers the option to filter out all products containing non-certified palm oil through a tick box in their account setting like this one:

Please don’t show me any products containing non-sustainable palm oil

This would be far more efficient than the status quo. It would allow millions of online shoppers to automatically avoid palm oil contributing to deforestation. It would hugely amplify their voice and send the clearest possible signal to less responsible companies that they had better shape up and address their deforestation impact. It would help make sustainable palm oil absolutely mainstream. And customers would no longer feel they are insignificant atomised voices in the wilderness.

The reaction to the Iceland ad as well as the backlash against plastic show that when people reckon their purchases are causing severe ecological destruction, they are horrified and ashamed. We often don’t know how best to direct this raw emotion to improve matters. Many are thirsting for environmental solutions and will reward retailers who provide them. The alternative to meaningful transparency is consumers boycotting products in a crude, indiscriminate way which does not reward responsible companies – as already happens with palm oil.

Environmental problems can be complex and full of nuance, more than the average person has time to investigate. Achieving a sustainable economy will mean that individuals, business and society need to make smart choices based on high quality information. We will need to harness information technology and data science to do that. This would be a baby step in that direction.

Letting people pool their very strong preferences not to displace and kill orangutans, at the same time as preserving local livelihoods in South East Asia and retaining carbon in forests and soils, is a win-win-win. Sure, supermarkets’ more laggardly suppliers wouldn’t like it. But there is objectively no reason why manufacturers who have failed to respond to this major, long-running environmental problem should be spared the full force of consumer power. So why not just let shoppers delete unsustainable palm oil?

 

If you agree with this article please sign the petition or visit its Facebook campaign page and share on social media. Thank you!

 

Refs

[1] See https://www.orangutans-sos.org/palm-oil/

[2] See https://nerc.ukri.org/press/releases/2018/50-palm-oil/ for a handy explainer

Open letter to Americans: Why I will be protesting at Donald Trump’s Visit to the UK, July 2018

One of the men who drove the campaigns to abolish slavery in the British Empire was the brother of an ancestor of mine. His name was Thomas Clarkson.

He spent huge amounts of time gathering evidence on the brutality of the slave trade and presenting it to British politicians and the public. You’ve probably seen the drawing he commissioned of the layout of a slave ship. But no matter how much evidence he gathered, there were always people who didn’t want to see. They didn’t want to see for economic reasons, ideological reasons, and because it affected distant people they didn’t relate to. So it took the British abolitionists decades to achieve their ultimate goal of ending slavery in the Empire.

To our eyes, the moral short-sightedness is incredible, but the truth is that human history is full of such moments where what should be morally self-evident has to be doggedly fought for by determined people against an apparent brick wall of self-interest and wilful blindness. I’m sorry to say we are living through such a time now.

It is a fact that certain gases trap heat in the atmosphere. If a large quantity of them are added to the atmosphere then the world gets warmer on average and the climate changes. This is happening now. It will destroy many lives, livelihoods, homes, businesses and communities throughout the world. This will cause widespread human suffering, displace people and make our world more unstable and less safe.

It is not going to get better on its own and it is not going to go away. All we can do is make sure our governments take practical steps to prevent it getting much, much worse than it has to be, and help us to adapt. No matter how overwhelming the task seems, human ingenuity has already showed itself to be incredible in responding to this challenge. We can tackle it, and we have to try.

Unfortunately, the most powerful country in the world is currently lead by people who don’t want to see. They don’t want to see for economic reasons and for ideological reasons. Possibly they don’t want to see because they think it will only affect distant people they don’t relate to – people in other countries, or far in the future.

That is mistaken. There are already plans being drawn up to relocate a handful of American communities because of the climate change-related problems they are facing. The US military warn that climate change is already affecting the ability of your biggest naval base in Virginia to protect America. California experienced five of its top 20 most destructive wildfires on record in 2017. And the three main newspapers of South Florida have teamed up to demand politicians pay attention to the sea level rise people in their area are already experiencing.

But will they? Currently, your country is entering a new and uncertain chapter of human history with no federal leadership regarding what your society, or the world, needs to do to prepare for its challenges. Your country is lead by people who prefer to patronise their citizens by acting like it’s nothing to worry about, or even worse, with stupid nonsense that it will make them better off.

It is a profound moral abdication by people whose job it is to safeguard their fellow citizens’ interests. And naturally, if they’re not looking out for the problems it will cause you, they’re not looking out for the problems it will cause the rest of us either.

Last year a delegation of US military men came to talk to British politicians about the direct threat climate change poses to our mutual national security interests. It’s not difficult to see why. Less secure water supplies will inflame tensions in countries which are already hot, dry and unstable. Churchill’s grandson, the Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, wrote: “when US top brass links climate change to political instability, the world needs to listen”. Well, we are listening to your top brass – why isn’t everyone involved in governing your country also listening?

In the outside world, all we can see from America is wilful blindness where leadership should be. There are people in the Pacific who don’t even know whether they’ll have a country in 40 years’ time. Where are they going to go? India is facing the worst water crisis in its history, partly because of population growth and mismanagement, but partly because of changing weather patterns. Millions will be affected. These are the kinds of enormous problems the world needs to confront. We would like to confront them with a pro-active, humane America on our side. What we have is a US President who says foreigners are asking America to be part of the solution because they have a hidden agenda to do it down. That is a disgrace.

Trump has told you that the Paris Agreement is a bad deal for America, but the reality is he doesn’t have a grasp of how it works or a better way forward of any kind. Let’s be very clear what the position of the Trump administration is on climate change – it is wilful blindness, total indifference, no grasp of the issues, and no plan.

If the world followed the Trump administration lead on climate change, this is what the future would look like. The world’s biggest contributors to the problem make only the most token attempts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Temperatures continue to rise unabated with all the problems, such as drought and extreme weather, associated with them. Ideological objections mean actions which could help people adapt and prepare aren’t taken. The vulnerable suffer what they must from drought, displacement and extreme weather with little support. Callous, wilfully blind self-interest rules when outsiders with shattered lives ask the strong for help.

When those who have done most to contribute to an enormous, permanent, global problem turn their backs on those who have done least, and leave them to suffer the consequences, a more profound, indeed biblical injustice, is hard to imagine. It is very basic: those who have contributed most to climate change have a moral obligation to help others. In Britain, we recognise that.

Some Trump supporters will tell you climate change was invented by leftists, liberals, greens, the Chinese, the global elite or experts as a conspiracy against ordinary people to control them. This is garbage. It is ordinary people – in America and elsewhere – who will face the problems caused by climate change in their lives. It’s ordinary people who will lose their homes and see their animals suffer in wildfires, ordinary people who will be flooded, ordinary people who will need to learn to manage their land differently, ordinary people whose businesses and family lives will be disrupted, ordinary people whose communities have to relocate because they can no longer keep back the sea.

Many ordinary people in the USA already have a sense of this because they’ve noticed the weather and tides changing where they live. It is important that we assess whether this is due to climate change scientifically and impartially.

But it’s also important ordinary people communicate their experiences and concerns to get politicians to react. Don’t leave it up to the experts. As Bob Dylan nearly said, sometimes you don’t need a meteorologist to know which way the wind blows. Many politicians are much, much more likely to listen to a voter saying “My family have lived here for generations and we’ve never seen floods like this. What are you going to do to protect our property?” than they are to experts. If this is you, please speak up. When those in power don’t want to see, it is up to us to make them look.

The British abolitionists faced huge vested interests. Britain was the biggest slave-trading nation in the world and slavery was considered essential to the Empire’s economy. It must have seemed overwhelming. But, eventually, they won. They won because they found and connected the people from different walks of life, denominations and political parties who agreed with them. And the people who said Britain would be a lesser nation if it abolished slavery were wrong. Their courage and determination was incredible. They changed the course of history.

The British abolitionists were not motivated by ideology, but by faith and common humanity. They were lead by men of differing political opinions. Similarly, climate change is not the agenda of one political side. Don’t let anyone tell you it is. Personally, I tend to vote Conservative.

I am writing this, and protesting, not because I am “left-wing” (as some will say of all this week’s protestors)  but because it is a very real outrage that the most powerful man in the world is dealing in tribalism, ignorance, paranoia and conspiracy theories – not practicalities – on one of the most serious threats humanity has ever faced. Because when powerful nations sow such utter disregard for human welfare into the world, we all reap it. Because I am tired of picking up my daughter from school every day worried about what kind of mess of a world she is going to live in.

Justice, compassion, common humanity, truth – these things wither and die when a society veers towards the far right. When a leader gives every impression of not understanding or respecting these values they must be stood up to.

You will have gathered, I don’t like Trump. I think he’s a danger to your country and the world and certainly I hope you will vote him out or impeach him. But as a foreigner I know far, far better than to ask you to vote for a particular party in general, or adopt a particular course of action when it comes to climate change.

I ask simply this: for your own sake, your children’s sake, and on behalf of those of us who cannot vote in the world’s most powerful country, please tell your leaders that when confronted by a great challenge you expect to see from them the response of a great nation – not pitiful indifference and ignorance. And please demand of your leaders – whether Republican, Democrat or other – that they show themselves fit to lead by treating this momentous global problem with the utmost moral seriousness it deserves. Future generations will judge them if they don’t. For the love of God, enough not wanting to see. Time for some Amazing Grace.

Thank you for your attention.