Last week leading Australian scientists and technology experts studiously avoided talking about the government’s ongoing hostility to renewables while studiously “Digging deeper into the Technology Investment Roadmap”
The event, organised by the Energy Change Institute of Australian National University was useful and informative as far as it went, with Alan Finkel repeating the lines we have come to expect (technologies with large abatement potential, “Australian comparative advantage,” “zero emissions metals,” “carbon capture and storage”)
Outrageously, Finkel tried to reframe the argument about investor uncertainty (caused by endless reviews and bewildering and painful policy whiplash since the abolition of the carbon price in 2014). Using a picture of the Bank of England as a visual aid, Finkel advised investors that if they wanted certainty, they invest in a bank. What they were being given was “clarity”. To their credit, other panellists gently but firmly dismissed this distinction without a difference in their presentations.
Despite claiming that the Roadmap was focussed on atmospheric emissions as the outcome” Finkel was silent on renewables not being in its portfolio of five elements.
As you would expect Dr Patrick Hartley (Leader, CSIRO Hydrogen Industry Mission) argued that domestic markets for hydrogen also an important stepping stone to transition, not merely as a precursor to the export of hydrogen, with it also having role in grid balancing.
Dr Liz Ratnam (Future Engineering Research Leader Fellow, ANU) spoke on the importance of co-locating generation and storage as much as possible and demand-side technologies (Smart meters, smart appliances) and control and automation technology for firming storage as crucial for the grid’s future.
Assoc. Prof. Llewelyn Hughes (ANU Crawford School of Public Policy) highlighted Australia’s role in global energy markets as core to the Roadmap’s vision, giving the example of a recent joint German and Australia policy study
Finally, and perhaps of most interest to readers of Reneweconomy, Anna Skarbek, CEO, ClimateWorks Australia and an original board member of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, spoke on the need for demand-side focus in investment, alongside procurement commitments and policy support, with approving words for reverse auctions
Alone of all the panellists she raised the crucial point that Australia is not yet tracking towards net zero by mid century, and that this will need deployment of technologies in roadmap but also those seen as “mature” and “emerging” (this was code for the unmentionable wind and solar). She pointed to a need for not just commitment on demand side issues but also on scale of deployment.
She noted that Australia is lagging on percentage of clean tech as part of its covid stimulus (European countries are generally tracking at 20 to 40 percent) and there being an ambition gap. She concluded with the observation that Australia has the potential to play a leadership role.
What neither she nor any of the other panellists could or would say is that Australia is at high risk of again/still squandering this opportunity, much as it did under a previous Liberal administration, that of John Howard (1996-2007). The talk of Roadmaps and partnerships, which mysteriously prioritise fossil fuels (then coal, now gas), talk up fantasy technologies like CCS while doing everything possible to starve renewables will be causing chronic déjà vu in anyone old enough to remember. But you’ve got to “dance with the one that brung you”, and those old enough to remember Howard’s government will also remember the punishments dished out anyone who dared to contradict the dominant narratives. So, we are stuck in a situation where intelligent people speak intelligently within a narrow and clearly wrong-headed policy framework, because the alternative is what is euphemistically called a “career-limiting move.” This would be fine, except the current roadmap is a civilisation-limiting move.
They argued that for all the warm words about a just or rapid transition, a great deal of state intervention would be required. Meanwhile, in Australia “green” means “Green Party,” with the major parties both scapegoating it. Additionally, there are few conservative champions of rapid action (with the partial exception of former Liberal leader John Hewson). Simultaneously, there are few corporate champions of action. There are a small concentrated number of potential losers, and diverse beneficiaries. The former are organised, determined and adept at “push back.” The latter have none of these characteristics.
For Eckersley Tuesday’s Australian budget was a monumental disappointment and missed opportunity. Tax cuts for high earners, supporting gas, repurposing renewable institutions such as ARENA and CEFC to support enormously expensive and unproven Carbon Capture and Storage meant it was a squandered opportunity for real transformation.
Christoff noted that there are deeply entrenched interests which would need to be overcome to have a real GND. In Australia, there is still not a discussion of what would be required, reaching beyond deeply party-political divides. Would need broad whole-of-society discussion, which seems unlikely given the strife over even such a mild policy measure as carbon pricing.
Moderator Boris Frankel contrasted the concurrent vice-presidential debate, with at least reference to a GND, with Australia’s ongoing silence, before inviting each of the academics to speak briefly.
Peter Christoff began by mentioning that talk of a “Green New Deal”, drawing on Roosevelt-ian language, goes back to 2007, (pre-Copenhagen/GFC) and has two goals a) social, around entrenched and growing inequality b) environmental goals too (including dealing with the consequences of industrialisation). While there are different priorities and principles for US, UK and European versions, the same questions remain – is a GND a sheep in wolf’s clothing, wolf in wolf’s clothing, or a sheep in sheep’s clothing: that is, is it reformist or revolutionary/transformative?
He pointed to five problems around implementation –
2 How will they be funded? How will they be regulated? What might sustainable levels of debt be?
3. Implementation. What role for the state, what for markets? Lots of flux… Problem of overloaded capacity following the hollowing out by neoliberalism.
4. Political legitimacy – who has it?
5. The problem of global development. Nativist, anti-globalist agenda, focussed on rich regions. What about China, Africa?
Christoff spoke about the EU, finding the language used “transforming the economic model” interesting. The EU work is a notably top-down plan, with “well-developed and accepted integrative mechanisms used,” such as EUETS, energy efficiency/renewable directives, as well as EU Climate Law, and perhaps a border tax.
Christoff pointed out that funding and finance would be difficult at the best of times, and are more so thanks to Covid… With regard to the political legitimacy of the EU plans there are of course significant tensions between member states and variable support among the 27 countries.
For Christoff what is outstanding about European Green New Deal is how mainstream it has become. It is a central part of discussions about reconfiguring the economy. This is because of the deep embeddedness of institutions – 20/30 years of work.
Whether the EU can achieve its climate target of 60% below 1990 by 2030 is still to be seen…
Robyn Eckersley spoke about the situation in the US, which has “always got the worst and best of everything.” She noted that the US GND sits at radical end of proposals, based as it is on an analysis that we can’t tackle climate unless we tackle inequality. She pointed to the Sunrise Movement, emerging in 2015 with charitable status achieved in 2017. It has begun backing politicians who favour renewables, opposing those with fossil fuel backing. Sunrise sees a Green New Deal as the “last best hope” for a habitable planet.
Eckersley noted Sunrise’s “backcasting” video of woman looking back “we can be what we have the courage to see” and a book (Winning the Green New Deal) launched in August with commentary from economist Joseph Stiglitz, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben as well as many of the youth who occupied Democrat speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018.
She pointed to a GND resolution passed by 111 US legislators in November 2019- declares duty to pass a GND. Backing this is a 14-page document, which starts by quoting 1.5 degrees report of IPCC. It contains an extraordinary range of proposals, with a strong environmental justice focus.
Eckersley noted that the key question is how you can do this without causing massive inflation. She argued that modern monetary theory says nothing wrong with a deficit (i.e. the analogy of a household budget doesn’t fit a national economy) but nonetheless the high tax bill means it would only work if US willing to have mid-20th century levels of taxation (40% higher than today).
She noted that in the Trump/Biden debate, Biden tried to distance self from GND, and instead support the “Biden Plan“, but that the fingerprints of Sunrise could be seen on this.
In the Q and A someone raised the prospect of a Biden win, and China’s 2060 zero carbon target: could these developments mean Australia will be dragged screaming into some form of GND in next couple of years?
In response to a question about long term targets, Christoff made the important point that anything aiming at 2050 carbon neutral misses the point – the next 10 years has to be the period of heavy lifting (especially around transport and energy production). Long-term targets are not very helpful – we need radical and intense decarbonisation now.
In response to a question about Rebecca Huntley’s studies on Australian lack of awareness of GND proposals is a new name required? Christoff references talk of a “Green Accord” but argued that the way it will be articulated/promoted is the bigger problem. Substantial champions are needed across the board, in multiple sectors. Given the bruising fight over carbon pricing (and this is bigger) the auguries are not good.
There were two more questions of note. One was about conservative Anatole Lieven’s new book “Climate Change and the Nation State” which argues the US military should support a GND (as should other countries’ miltiaries) to stave off chaos. Robyn Eckersley noted that the Pentagon has been arguing this for a long time, recognising threats to their bases and ability to supply troops. So much so that Republicans in Congress have baulked at Pentagon’s requests for funding. For Eckersley though, this is a dead end – if you don’t deal with structural inequality, democracy suffers…
Finally, on degrowth: de-growthers are arguing that even if GND successful in next few years, not only carbon but more general material footprints not being dealt with. Christoff said he understood the comment, and that it was an important criticism. He pointed to GND elements (circular economy, farm-to-fork) that are trying to radically decouple, while also critiquing consumption (he noted much of the EU “reduction” of greenhouse gases was down to off-shoring/outsourcing of production).
Eckersley was more robust, saying that while the post-growth argument was “sound”, “we have to rebuild the ship while at sea.”
She argued it is “politically impossible to bring all good things together at once… we have to take the early steps of restructuring”. For Eckersley “pursuing a de-growth strategy would be a lead balloon.” “Can’t be done overnight, certainly can’t be done in 10-year window.”
Ultimately, this was an informative discussion of what is happening in other countries, but did not (and was not designed to/billed as) a solution to the question of who is going to bell the cat in Australia, of how the cross-society coalitions that can challenge the fossil-fuel incumbency can grow and defend themselves to change not just the policy settings, but also the underlying assumptions of a “good life.” This would, of course, take more than an hour to discuss…
The webinar, organised by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute of the University of Melbourne, was recorded and will be posted online soon.
I’ve had several pieces published on the excellent reneweconomy.com.au recently (see here, here and here).
One I wrote which I think didn’t make the cut (#themomenthaspassed) was about the performance and reception of Kwasi Kwarteng, UK minister for business, energy and clean growth at the recent Smart Energy Summit.
It would be a tragedy if these stellar observations were not published, so in the interests of tragedy-avoidance, here they are.
At the Smart Energy Council’s Smart Energy Summit, Kwasi Kwarteng , UK Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth had the audience – desperate to believe that there are countries taking real action on climate change – eating out of his hand.
It was a masterful performance, definitely a case of “mission accomplished.”
He began with the usual pleasantries about in the time of Covid there is nonetheless “never a more important time to drive investment” and sprinkled in the usual buzzwords (resilient got a run).
He mentioned the “leader level event celebrating the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement”.
In words that won’t endear him to Scott Morrison and Angus Taylor, he said “we need all countries to submit more ambitious nationally determined contributions” (indcs- the pledges that countries made in Paris and were supposed to review in Glasgow this year).
He also called on all countries to set net zero emissions targets, to provide certainty for business (this is something that Mike Cannon-Brookes, who is speaking in the last session of the summit, tried to explain on Q&A on Monday night, without visible success.)
Kwarteng pointed to China’s 2060 zero carbon announcement as a “hugely significant moment,” but seems not to have been watching the earlier presentation of Laura Williamson of REN21, who had out what a lack of investment is happening, and just how ungreen the covid recovery plans are.
Inevitably, Kwarteng repeated the highly misleading claim that the “UK’s recent history has shown low growth is possible”, with economic growth up by 70% while emissions are down by 40 since 1990.
This is an artefact of how emissions are counted (on production rather than consumption based metrics). Basically, the UK shut down its manufacturing base (shipped it to China) has barely decarbonised at all. To quote from something Dr Joe Blakey and I wrote last year.
“The UK economy is primarily driven by its service sector, and the value of its imports is roughly triple that of its exports. The production and transport of these imported goods are a direct consequence of the UK’s consumption habits, but these emissions aren’t counted by the committee because they occur beyond its shores. Including these emissions and excluding emissions from exports to other countries, the UK’s carbon footprint is 70% higher than the figure used by the committee.”
Kwarteng then inevitably pointed to the enormous growth of offshore wind (the UK has the most installed offshore wind per capita) without mentioning that this is partly in response to the Conservative Party’s de facto ban on onshore wind).
Pointing to Covid response and the UK’s role as host of the next COP, he said there were five key elements – energy, transport, nature based solutions, adaptation/resilience, and finance
He mentioned the new Green Homes grant as “right at the centre of our ambition” without mentioning the failed Green Deal his party brought in and then abandoned
In a statement that is certain to get him off Scott Morrison’s Christmas card list, Kwarteng said.
“the sooner we set targets, the sooner we can plan, the sooner business can act… reap the rewards of transition,” with new jobs and opportunities for our people
He lamented the missed opportunity to bring in green transformative action in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis In 2008, hoping that it won’t be missed again. He mentioned a “Green Jobs Taskforce” with the Department for Education before answering a question about where the UK bipartisan support comes from by saying that is part of the competition between parties over an electorate that has a large section motivated people, with climate change coming up on the doorstep during last year’s General Election. He quite sensibly dodged the question by claiming ignorance of Australian situation. Nonetheless, his advice that parties should “listen to the young, be serious about their future, the future, the green agenda is something people will take seriously” had the mostly Australian online audience swooning.
Engaging with climate and energy policy in Australia can be bad for your neck. Either your head is in your hands as the latest political idiocy unfolds, or you suffer whiplash as you encounter smart concerned people who are dealing with real world issues. It’s a long way from Angus Taylor’s grotesque display at the National Press Club on Tuesday to Thursday’s public forum “Australia: the global renewable energy pathfinder“, organised by the Energy Change Institute of Australian National University.
The contrast between the fantasy technologies and gassiness of the former and the big-picture -but- also -intensely-practical nature could not be any more stark.
Moderated by Dr Liz Ratnam, ANU and introduced by Prof Ken Baldwin, ECI Director , the seminar heard from five experts, followed by a Q and A. The recording will be available in due course on ANU TV, and will be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in what is being done, and can be done to secure energy and electricity supplies for Australia’s future in ways which accept the reality of climate change and the need to do something (or rather, everything) about it.
He pointed to the huge increase in renewable generation over the last few years (from 1.2GW in 2016 to over 6GW last year. Rooftop solar has been key to this, with a spike in utility scale solar 2018 and 2019, with 2020 as the year of new wind, but 2021 expected to be a year of utility-scale solar.
Williamson was at pains to point out that consumers acting totally rationally in purchasing rooftop solar.
Prof Andrew Blakers (ANU) spoke on Australia as the global renewable energy pathfinder in areas including deployment rates, greenhouse emissions trends, and South Australia’s goals. Blakers has been working on renewables, both on the technology and the policy advocacy for thirty years, and has admirable and inexhaustible optimism.
He said that solar and wind have won the race ,and that it was hard to see other renewables catching up in next few decades. He said that Australia is “right at the top” on the amount of total installed pv per capita and the speed with which it is deploying new solar pv per person per year (of course, thanks to thirty years of successful resistance to the energy transition, Australia is also at the top in terms of per capita carbon footprint something neither Blakers nor any other panellist addressed.
Blakers argued that “something remarkable is happening in Australia.” By end of year wind and solar and hydro 26% of National Electricity Market, with 60% solar and wind in South Australia – making it the “most remarkable jurisdiction in the world”
He foresees solar and wind passing the combination of gas plus brown coal imminently, passing black coal in 2023 when Liddell closes and by 2025 will pass 50% of generation for the NEM. He was scathing about the gas that Angus Taylor shilled two days ago –
“Gas this wonderful transition fuel is pretty tired…. Gas is not a transition fuel, it’s just nonsense.
“Gas is on the way out, it is not on the way up”
As you’d expect, he argued for strong interstate transmission, demand management and storage – pumped hydro and battery. He urged everyone to “think big” pointing to the need to electrify everything, including heating and transport in order to decarbonise. This will need a tripling in electricity generation (450GW), and the solving of transmission into cities… Returning to this point in the Q&A he said ““Whatever we are dealing with here is just peanuts of where we will be.”
For Blakers, the policy imperative is simple “we need governments to quickly approve big fat cables to Renewable Energy Zones and to make it attractive for companies to build them”
He thanked the 200 people across the industry who had helped produce the ISP– “it would not have been possible without their thoughtful and considered input.”
The ISP puts forward five different scenarios, with the step change one being consistent with the Paris Agreement aspirations (or obligations, depending on how you look at international law and intergenerational ethics). This goes beyond mere least-cost replacement of soon-to-exit sources such as coal, for the reasons Blakers had mentioned. Wonhas warned that
“the rate of change required is phenomenal” while also making the important but often-neglected point that consumers will save money if Australia moves to an intelligent and robust system, as opposed to a sub-optimised one.”
The challenge is enormous – 27 Gigawatts will be exiting over the coming 10 to 15 years, with – 22GW of this being coal. Replacing this (let alone expanding generation) will require lots of new renewables and firming, in the form of all types of storage.
Although the challenge is enormous, Wonhas was cautiously optimistic, arguing that we are already on the trajectory to do that It needs 2.6 Gig per annum and “despite the challenges is something we can achieve today”.
Wonhas foresees that “in 20 years 94% of Australia’s electricity will come from renewables, which would be a remarkable outcome.” He also argued that according to the careful modelling AEMO had done, “You don’t need a lot of baseload power”.
[Need 30 percent of 2 hour storage, 30 per cent 3 to 20 hrs, 20 percent above 12 hours, 20 behind the meter] while also warning that “From a technical point of view to get that system to work is not trivial.”
The four things required are
· Supply and demand balance
· Uncertainty and variability
· System strength and voltage
Wonhas was upbeat however, saying “We are fortunate that batteries are phenomenally good at managing frequency. It’s a question of getting incentives right to get battery operators to come into the market.”
He finished arguing that there is a need to focus on developing and deploying new technologies, and that we “can manage through this transition…”
Dr Jenny Riesz (Principal, Operational Analysis and Engineering, Australian Energy Market Operator, AEMO) spoke compellingly and clearly on “Technical integration of Distributed Energy resources – An operational perspective,” drawing heavily on South Australia’s recent history and probably future. In one to three years operational demand in South Australia could become negative (the problem of “too much energy”)
[Update – on 28 September the South Australian Government came out with new regulations that newly installed rooftop solar would have to have a killswitch for those afternoons where supply outstripped demand.]
She focused on what AEMO has been doing around three particular challenges
Firstly, on distributed PV disconnection they have been working with a company (I think called Solar Analytics) for 2 years analysing real world behaviour, and done bench-testing too. From the results of this they have calibrated their power system models, since a severe fault can cause significant disconnection, and loss of large unit alongside the loss a great deal of PV (over 100MW)
Currently AEMO doesn’t have capacity if there were an islanding event in South Australia, with issues soon expected to emerge in Victoria too. Riesz was explicit on the need to improve standards for distributed PV, and for standards for inverters: 30 to 40% of inverters not complying – installation process as the main issue.
Secondly, it’s obvious that there is a minimum load required to operate necessary units (system strength, inertia, frequency control, voltage management), especially if there are islanding events.
Minimum loads in South Australia have been as low as 379 (Didn’t catch the metric – MWh??) a few Sundays ago
AEMO is aware that it will need capacity to turn down distributed PV if there is an islanding event but definitely do not think that this would be regular occurence.
Finally, she spoke about Under Frequency load shedding.
A safety net for arresting severe events such as losing an interconnector, losing lots of generation
Controlled disconnection to stop frequency decline. As per Alex Wohnas, Reisz pointed to big batteries as being extremely good at frequency control. She pointed out that this had not been anticipated under the market rules, so it has been hard to incentivise, and needs figuring out.
The final speaker, Associate Professor Matt Stocks (ANU) spoke about The long term: 50-100% renewable electricity & energy (transmission and storage; increasing electricity demand from EVs and heating; FNQ connection).
Inevitably, his presentation also drew on the South Australian experience. He spoke about four particular issues-
This leads to a need for mass storage, which is expensive, inefficient, but as lots of variable renewables come into the grid, becomes more important part of the system. He argued that batteries ((behind the meter and grid) and pumped hydro are complementary rather than antithetical.
Wide geographical dispersion – smoothing-out local weather
He pointed to high voltage DC for moving energy long distances, giving the example of the 3000k long, 12 Gigawatts (a third of Australian demand) by China’s Changji Guquan HVDC with only 10% losses…
Another HVDC, a North Sea Link is due to open in2021.
Done well, Vehicle-to-Grid will provide lots of flexibility, as will behind the meter batteries. More interconnection and smart demand management reduces the need for storage… and for the amount of overbuild required…
After showing work about the costs involved in supplying energy needs for three different kinds of grid (based on amount and type of interconnectedness) Stocks’ main point was that invest in transmission leads to less storage needs.
There was an extensive Q&A which I can’t do justice to. Just a couple of key points must suffice-
Alex Wonhas argued for the need to establish standards and effective infrastructure and regulation for EVs sooner, rather than later, before EVs become really big. The right charging infrastructure is needed, but he doesn’t see urgency at the moment
For Jenny Reisz while Australia really is a pioneer, there is a need to do it all very quickly . It’s imperative to sort out power system security, all the frameworks and incentives
For Matt Stocks, the transmission challenge is not a technology issue but also a policy one. Today’s system is very different from what it was built for, so AEMO’s ISP is crucial for identifying bottlenecks, unlock them…
Yes, there was a conspicuous absence of any discussion about what the other mob in Canberra – the politicos and the fossil fuel lobbyists – were doing and planning to do. Yes there was the typical engineers’ perspective on what was technically possible rather than politically feasible (especially given the enormous power of the fossil lobby over both main political parties).
Nonetheless, this was an informative and invigorating (even inspiring) webinar that is well worth a close and even-repeated watch. There may be hope after all…
With the planet on fire, it seems odd to be having to write about the decline of the climate “movement” – but given what is going on in the UK and Australia, the countries I know best – it seems reasonable to do so.
The point has been made to me well, that the existing academic work on a balance is told in retrospect and talks about the dangers of bonding capital of small groups having high cohesiveness and high similarity and being therefore able to survive a marked downturn in what they do. (1) Now, of course, the rhetoric/ideology/things-we-like- to-tell-ourselves about environmental social movements is that we are somehow more open, more diverse, more welcoming. That tends not to be true. But it can perhaps get in the way of us thinking seriously about the tools that we will need for dealing with abeyance.
The other factor to consider of course, is that we’re on a burning platform here. And while patriarchy has been with us for thousands of years, and gets better or worse, (usually has stayed the same shitty thing until relatively recently). environmental problems have been escalating steadily. First, locally, and only affecting people who don’t care about who don’t speak English and aren’t middle class. But over the last 50 years, it’s become increasingly apparent that those problems are real for everyone. And in the last decade or so the chickens have been coming home to roost. Unfortunately, the fox is in charge of the henhouse here: what are you going to do?
So, the challenge in thinking about and writing about abeyance is that the existing academic/intellectual tools may not actually be the ones that work. And it may be that we need to either modify those tools, or invent some of our own. I’m sorry, you’re not allowed to say invent anymore, are you it’s all got to be about “co-creation”. Okay, “co-create” tools of our own, and to have these discussions with people who, quite understandably, may have decided just to give up and dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do. The point of abeyance was surely that your time would come again, that although one moment had passed, if you were patient, intelligent, then you could be ready to make a real impact.
At the next moment, the next time, there would be a window of opportunity… Given the trajectories given the fires in Australia and in California, all the other awful things that have happened the heat waves in India, the droughts, the horror show of it all, I think that mythos comforting idea that there’s time enough, is quite hard to sustain.
And I think, with no way of proving this, that it may be the case that unlike the peace movement, or the feminist movement, it may be that the people who are lost as a wave crashes down simply don’t come back because they imbibed that “last chance to save” ideology, and then someplace deep in themselves, they took it to heart.
But I’m beginning to ramble….
(1) My friend and boss Brian Doherty wrote – “You are raising a different question to the one usually raised in academic studies by saying – can we plan for abeyance? And indeed that we need to. But knowing that the streets will empty – doesn’t mean knowing what will come next. So – is the logic that we should know that even if there is a defeat that the aim should be to hunker down for the long haul. Will that terrify the novices? is that one reason why movements offer a culture/social network – even if with variable levels of success and self-awareness. The problem, though, as you know and have said, is that activist culture becomes exclusive and is ill-prepared then for new people and generational turnover. I think we need to create a formula that explains this and then one that solves it.”
The wonderful news and analysis source Reneweconomy pubilshed this piece below on Wednesday 23rd September.
The Czech writer Milan Kundera once observed that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
The same goes for the struggle for adequate climate and energy policy in Australia.
The first instinct is always to show how the announcement from the Government is inadequate, disingenuous or downright false. On the latest “technology roadmap” we already have two excellent demolitions by Adam Morton and, Michael Marzengarb. Doubtless Ketan Joshi and Simon Holmes a Court are working on theirs. Hopefully Lenore Taylor (who has been reporting on climate policy since about 1990) is also going to offer some insights.
But this first instinct, to dive into the details, to show that you are on top of them, that you can spot chicanery around baselines and targets, that you know your CEFC from your ARENA, your BECCS from a hole in the ground, comes at a cost. If we all do this, we then don’t have the time or the attention of our readers to say this –
“Look, we are stuck in an endless cycle here. The Liberal Party policy was exactly the same in 2004-2006. Rising pressure for international action> Check. Huge support for fossil fuels? Check. Active naked hostility to renewables? Check. Culture war, lies about targets and baselines, and intimidation of opponents? Check.”
Let me explain a little bit of the back story (and I could – perhaps should – go back further, to the late 1980s, when the Liberals went to the 1990 Federal election with a more ambitious climate than the ALP – but that must be for another time).
John Howard became Prime Minister in March 1996. By this time the momentum towards an international agreement for rich nations to cut their emissions was unstoppable (the so-called Berlin Mandate of 1995). Australia would either have to sign up, or pull-out of the UNFCCC. While Howard was openly hostile to the UNFCCC (as many of Keating’s ministers had been), there were considerable diplomatic and domestic costs to a pullout, and these were to be avoided if at all possible.
Therefore two strategies were used. The first was securing the best possible deal for Australia at the December 1997 Kyoto conference. The other was to make it seem to domestic audiences that Australia was doing its bit. Thus, In late 1997, just before his delegation set off to the Kyoto Conference John Howard made a speech with the grand title “Safeguarding the Future: Australia’s Response to Climate Change.” In it, Howard promised to set up an Australian Greenhouse Office and also promised that by 2010 two percent of Australia’s electricity needs would be met by renewables (the so-called Mandatory Renewable Energy Target).
Howard and his allies then ignored the AGO, and set about weakening the MRET as much as they could. However, it came into existence in April 2002. Despite being a shadow of what it could have been, it still meant there was official support for some renewables, and inventors and investors started creating markets.
Then – and this bit is crucial – Howard called a meeting of his friends in big business (and we should remember that Howard’s chief scientific advisor was Robin Batterham, who worked simultaneously for Rio Tinto). And Howard told this meeting of the “Low Emissions Technology Advisory Group” – (Exxon, BHP etc) that had to help him scupper renewables. We only know about this because someone, disgusted at the spectacle, leaked the minutes.
In the same year, 2004, Howard’s government released an Energy White Paper that was all about support for fossil fuel extraction, fantasy technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage, and active hostility to renewables (sound familiar?)
There was also the same loose talk we are seeing now about hitting targets (Australia had managed to get a 108% “reduction” target at Kyoto, and also a loophole clause around land clearing).
The play book is simply this
Promote fossil fuels (the love has shifted to gas from coal, but the song remains the same)
Claim that you are hitting your targets anyway
Claim that renewables are small, unreliable etc
Shovel as much public money as you can towards extraction and make sure that there is no appetite among investors for renewables.
What is different?
History repeats, someone observed, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Not only have we poured vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the past fifteen years, but we have built the infrastructure to make continued pouring inevitable, “sensible” and cheap. Beyond that, ask yourself – who now would believe a Rudd-esque figure who used the language of “great moral challenge of our generation” and promised to do something about it? When Rudd failed to call a double-dissolution election after his CPRS was defeated by Abbott, he killed not only his own popularity, but he created a cynicism and defeatism in Australia that made the Gillard package (different but not significantly better than Rudd’s) easy pickings. The future is not written, but I would bet heavily against any sort of “salvation narrative” coming from the ALP, which is mostly – and understandably – trying to present a small target on climate, in the hope of picking up those elusive Queensland seats it needs to form a government.
Related to this, one of the things that made it possible for Rudd to do what he did, and tor Howard to be forced to act, was a groundswell of activity in the State governments (partly because Bob Carr had pushed relentlessly for so long for states-based Emissions Trading schemes).
Ultimately, pressure would have to come from elsewhere, but it is hard (read impossible) to imagine where that might be from.
What is to be done?
Three things I think matter here. Firstly, we have to remember this history, pass it on to people coming into the debates about climate change so that the same tactics don’t keep. That’s a very large job of work, and needs academics and journalists to collaborate with story-tellers, animators etc, to move beyond the kind of article I’ve just written and tell it in compelling and memorable ways.
Secondly, we have to always contextualise whatever the day-to-day battle is, without succumbing to defeatism, exhaustion, fatalism (this is really hard, and if anyone has any top tips, I’m all ears).
Finally – and more controversially – I think it is time to move beyond the silliness of “accelerating transitions.” This is the currently-fashionable buzzword among policy wonks and academics in the policy subsystems which concern themselves with the idea of a “good Anthropocene.” I think instead the time is at hand to talk about failed transitions. The contestation by incumbents has been so effective for so long that the window of opportunity has closed. We have ‘baked in’ some pretty drastic changes, and are going to need unprecedented courage, honesty, compassion and collaboration to deal with them. Renewable energy technologies, distributed, robust, easily maintained and repaired, will be a crucial part of this.
I guess I have a millionth of an inkling of what it must be like to be a person of colour anywhere, but especially in the US, UK or Australia. Given that I am as whitebread as it comes, that needs an explanation.
One thing that comes through in reading people of colour, listening to them, is just how goddam exhausting it is to see your existence, your rights, your needs endlessly ignored, minimised. To see the work you did to improve the lot of your people hurled down memory holes while rich white people pretend to give a shit, and start each new response to a new scandal as if it was one of a kind, not part of an endlessly (?) repeated pattern of slow violence against other human beings and other species.
Put like that, it does kind of suck. And it is just so exhausting…
Where does this come from? Well, last night I turned on the news and my body froze. It was the same old talk that we have had from the Liberals about technological “responses” to climate change. Other people (hello Adam Morton, Ketan Joshi, Michael Marzengarb) will go to town on it.
And there are a couple of people (especially Lenore Taylor, Laura Tingle, Clive Hamilton) who could say what needs saying –
“Look, we are stuck in an endless cycle here. The Liberal Party policy was exactly the same in 2004-2006. Rising pressure for international action> Check. Huge support for fossil fuels? Check. Active naked hostility to renewables? Check. Culture war, lies about targets and baselines, and intimidation of opponents? Check.”
So, the braying sheep on my TV screen Make this boy shout, make this boy scream!
And I suppose it ties into a book – “Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World” by Glenn Albrecht- that I am reading (and then reviewing). I will admit to being merely whelmed by this one (though other people may find it more useful?) It’s full of neologisms, some of which may survive, others which are as doomed to die as our civilization. The one that makes sense here is this –
“Terrafurie is the extreme anger unleashed within those who can clearly see the self-destructive tendencies in the current forms of industrial-technological society but feel unable to change the direction of such tierracide and ecocide. The anger is also directed at challenging the status quo in both intellectual and socio-political terms. Terrafurie is anger targeted at those who command the forces of Earth destruction.”
(Albrecht, 2019: 86)
I think it is time to move beyond the silliness of “accelerating transitions” and talk about failed transitions, where the contestation by incumbents was so effective for so long that the window of opportunity has closed, and it is all over bar the shouting. And the dying. Thus #failedtransitions
But while I will say that, I will of course, persist in trying to salvage something from the wreckage. What else ya gonna do?
Things are looking very very bleak, and a lot of pain and confusion is sloshing around in the collective brain of the “climate movement.”
Time for a song, therefore, or a whole bunch of them. Hopefully not adding to the pain, but shedding light rather than heat (the last thing we need is heat), and getting us all to think about “now what?”
The usual disclaimers (1) apply.
Theses 1 to 4 – We’ve known for a long time, and we’ve known what happens
Thesis one: We have known that we’ve had a problem for a very long time
The climate issue did not begin in 2018. There was a tendency to discount not just anything that happened in 2008 (“yeah, grandad, that’s irrelevant, you lost, step aside and let the cool kids show you how it’s done”). Or 1998, or 1988.
But we’ve known, in the immortal words of Tiny Tim , (1967)
“The ice caps are melting.”
On a slightly smoother groove, a few years later, during the Malthusian moment, Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Going On?” with his song “Mercy Mercy Me, the Ecology Song.”
Just because other people lost, didn’t mean they had no useful intel for the battles ahead.
Thesis two: Despite what we want to believe, we aren’t always the best judges of what is going on
In “Changes” David Bowie sings
“And these children that you spit on
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware what they’re going through.”
Yes and no, Davey, yes and no. Yes to the heard immunity. No to the “quite aware.”
A little cognitive humility was in order, and still is
Thesis three: (We have known that) things can come unstuck (or “songs for abeyance”)
We’ve had these waves of concern break against the rocks of real life.
In 19xx Gil-Scott Heron asked
“Whatever happened to the people who gave a damn? Was it just about not dying in the jungles of Vietnam?”
There are laws of gravity that you ignore at your peril. What goes up will probably come down…
Thesis 4: We know that we can double down instead of innovating
We know that there is a danger in repeating past battles, in trying to live your Glory Days over and over.
As Mr Frank Turner has it
“Well it was bad enough the feeling, on the first time it hit, When you realised that your parents had let the world all go to shit, And that the values and ideals for which many had fought and died Had been killed off in the committees and left to die by the wayside. But it was worse when we turned to the kids on the left, And got let down again by some poor excuse for protest – By idiot fucking hippies in fifty different factions Who are locked inside some kind of Sixties battle re-enactment. So I hung up my banner in disgust and I head for the door.”
Theses 5 to 7 – What to expect
Thesis 5: We know what is coming
We know what is coming. There is, as by Creedence Clearwater Revival, had it, a Bad Moon Rising.
Thesis 6: Messengers get shot and smeared
We know that we will be written down in history, with bitter twisted lies, as Ben Harper sings, putting Maya Angelou’s poem to music.
We know that while you should never harm the messenger, sometimes folks do. Expect to be blamed for having been right and unable to get real change.
Thesis 7: Species be deathwishing
We know that four degrees is, er, probably “baked in”. And we want to see those lemurs burn.
It seems like the species really does have a deathwish.
(NB the Marxists will go “typical bourgeois deviationist, implying that everything isn’t the fault of the capitalists. Mystic mambo jumbo half-baked anthropology and psychotherapy spreads around the blame when it all actually pertains to Standard Oil, Carnegie and Andrew Undershaft.” To which I say, “yeah, eat me.”)
Theses – 8 to 11 So what is to be done?
Thesis 9 : Realise where you are (spoiler – you are After the Gold rush)
There was a gold rush, a sudden flurry leaving behind a sinister slurry. Amid the toxic tailings and the toxic tales of the reasons for our failings will come little insight. The cops and the COPs will cop the blame, as will the media, everyone we can do little/nothing about.
“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s”
Thesis 10: It matters though to stay keen, to try to stay in the game
Everybody’s changing, sure.
We should work on the assumption that Glasgow will come too late (in every sense), but particularly around the soi-disant non-hierarchical climate movement – if there is a set of protests and events, those will be run by the usual suspect NGOs, with the usual suspect repertoires.
We (you) should try to make a move just to stay in the game,
So little time Try to understand that I’m Trying to make a move just to stay in the game I try to stay awake and remember my name But everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same
hope that you can keep infrastructures of dissent intact so they have further usefulness if/when shit starts to a) hit fan b) get real.
While it doesn’t mean you have to listen people who force you to enunciate mea culpas as humilation and abnegation, it also means they are not obliged to take you seriously until you make a decent stab at saying the reasons behind the failure, till they hear the words “I was wrong and you were right” and think you might actually mean them.
In practice, some of the key skills that were lacking, still are as best I can tell are
Abeyance sucks, but it can also be a time to reflect and emerge stronger. The saving the world thing – well, the pressure is off, tbh – it was already irredeemably fucked before you tried to redeem it.
Last song not to make gender quota (though, um, sausagefestmuch?) but because it speaks so well to machismo and batshit-harmful notions of behaviours that use up and spit out other people, not caring for their needs (and to be clear, I have been in this ballpark, within spitting (at) distance of this kind of asshole. I claim no high moral ground)
There is so much to do, so little time. It is an emergency. We have to keep our heads. We have to share the loads. We have to stay in the game. We have to be as ready as we can be for whatever the future has in store, to make the moves, to play the cards that get dealt in this desperate not-a-game game.
I am writing in a personal capacity, not as a representative of any particular organisation that I might be a core group member of.
I have tried to bite down on the schadenfreude and the language of “up like a rocket, down like a stick” (look, I made it white!) . Probably failed. So it goes. If you’re a snowflake who can’t take the underlying tone of exasperation, you’re probably not really one of life’s rebels, now are you?
It’s interesting about lunching out, isn’t it? Because if the reason that you’re lunching out, is that you’re having a mental health crisis – anxiety, depression, etc – all of which are entirely rational response to the shitstorm that we’re in, then you’re probably not able to stomach having to admit to someone else that you’re not going to be able to deliver on something.
Because the syllogism goes
We are in the shit.
I have made a commitment to a group of people that is trying to get us all out of the shit.
However, it now turns out that that commitment – if I try to achieve it – will put me personally in the shit even more.
If I don’t do it, it leaves the group in the shit. And it reveals that I am somehow a weak or bad person (no it doesn’t actually).
And so whatever you do, there’s no path out. All the options are shitty… And in that situation, people tend to perseverate.
Because it’s not about what other people will think of you when you say that you’re not going to do something. Ultimately, a large chunk of it is what what you think about yourself, what you have to say to yourself about yourself.
So not lunching stuff out – if it’s being lunched out, because you’re freaking out rather than you just rather watch more Game of Thrones or you’re lazy – is actually a hell of a challenge
So, as per my recent Conversation article, the climate scientists have been attacked for (more than) thirty years. The UNFCCC is a hopeless case (see slightly-less recent Conversation article). It is easy to talk about how everything is fubarred, and what am I against. This below expands on the theme of attacks on climate scientists, talks a bit about what am I for, then critiques it, then critique that critique. It concludes with “so what does this MEAN, here, TODAY?”
This expansion below is in no way a criticism or rebuke of the editor or the editing process. I’ve added in bits to the Conversation article and put them in red. At the end of the article, I’ve added a whole bunch of new stuff, marking clearly where that starts.
Thirty years ago, in a small Swedish city called Sundsvall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first major report.
Even then, the major dilemmas facing those who sought rapid action were clear. An account by Jeremy Leggett, who had thrown in a well-paid job as a geologist for Shell to become Greenpeace’s climate campaigner, reported the events of that first summit, including an encounter with coal industry lobbyist Don Pearlman.
They had their heads down, copies of the draft negotiating text for the IPCC final report open in front of them. Pearlman was pointing at the text, and talking in a forceful growl… As I walked past, I saw him pointing to a particular paragraph and I heard him say, quite distinctly, ‘if we can cut a deal here…’
Although it seems so naïve now, I was shocked.
Days later, a delegate from the Pacific island of Kiribati pleaded with the conference for a breakthrough in the negotiations.
Concerted international action is needed to drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels. The time to start is now. In the low-lying nations, the threat… of global warming and sea level rise is frightening.“
He paused before concluding.
I hope this meeting will not fail us. Thank you.
Shortly afterwards the US delegation “tabled a catalogue of attempted emasculations” of the text. Along with the Saudi and Soviet delegations, representatives of the richest and most powerful country in the world “chipped away at the draft, watering down the sense of alarm in the wording, beefing up the aura of uncertainty”.
It would be a painful three decades for people anxious to see action on climate change. For the scientists investigating the problem, it would often be a personal battle against powerful interests.
The path to the summit
The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, had been worrying scientists since the 1970s. The discovery of the “ozone hole” above Antarctica had given atmospheric scientists enormous credibility and clout among the public, and an international treaty banning chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals causing the problem, was swiftly signed.
“the US had a huge stake in the climate problem. It was the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Also, any measures at abatement of future emissions could significantly threaten its economic interests. Powerful fossil fuel lobbies with active support from a Republican White House were strongly opposed to any kind of action on climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 609)
“Due to lack of agreement, and for reasons that suited their own ideologies and agendas (see Section 3.3), a compromise was reached amongst participating agencies with the US recommending that an ‘intergovernmental mechanism’ be set-up to conduct scientific assessment of climate change” (Agrawala, 1998: 611)
The Reagan White House worried that a treaty on CO₂ might happen as quickly, and set about ensuring the official scientific advice guiding leaders at the negotiations was under at least partial control.
“The US position was communicated to the WMO Secretariat and it helped shape resolution 9 of the Tenth WMO Congress which met in May 1987. This resolution recognized the need for an inter-disciplinary and multi-agency approach and asked the Executive Council of WMO ‘to arrange for appropriate mechanisms to undertake further development of scientific and other aspects of greenhouse gases’. The US also strongly influenced the WMO Executive Council resolution a week later, which in response to the call from the Congress, requested the Secretary General of WMO, ‘in coordination with the Executive Director of UNEP to establish an intergovernmental mechanism to carry out internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, impact and potential timing of climate change’. Shortly thereafter, UNEP’s Governing Body welcomed the WMO initiative and asked its Executive Director to work with WMO on establishing such an intergovernmental assessment body. This constitutes the famous ‘I’ of what was to later become the IPCC and is the single most critical element in its design. It is the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC that gives its assessments a special niche, distinct from the myriad other assessments and vendors. According to Jean Ripert, founder chairman of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) who chaired the negotiations for a climate convention, the intergovernmental nature of the IPCC was in large part responsible for educating many government bureaucrats about the problem which made them more willing to come to the negotiating table. This, according to Ripert, was key to the signing of FCCC in 1992 (Ripert, 1997). However, having an intergovernmental status has imposed significant costs also: IPCC assessment summaries are widely regarded as being politically negotiated, which has, at times, undermined their credibility” (Agrawala, 1998: .611)
Meanwhile, another participant, Michael Oppenheimer, suggests
US support was probably critical to IPCC’s establishment. And why did the US government support it? Assistant Undersecretary of State Bill Nitze wrote to me a few years later saying that our group’s activities played a significant role. Among other motivations, the US government saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the policy agenda.
I suspect that the Reagan Administration believed that, in contrast to our group, most scientists were not activists, and would take years to reach any conclusion on the magnitude of the threat. Even if they did, they probably would fail to express it in plain English. The US government must have been quite surprised when IPCC issued its first assessment at the end of 1990, stating clearly that human activity was likely to produce an unprecedented warming.
So emerged the intergovernmental – rather than international – panel on climate change, in 1988.
Already before Sundsvall, in 1989, figures in the automotive and fossil fuel industries of the US had set up the Global Climate Coalition to argue against rapid action and to cast doubt on the evidence. Alongside thinktanks, such as the George Marshall Institute, and trade bodies, such as the Western Fuels Association, it kept up a steady stream of publishing in the media – including a movie – to discredit the science.
In a February 1991 letter to the vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, physicist Robert Jastrow crowed , “It is generally considered in the scientific community that the Marshall report was responsible for the Administration’s opposition to carbon taxes and restrictions on fossil fuel consumption. Quoting New Scientist magazine, he reported that the Marshall Institute “is still the controlling influence in the White House.” (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:190)
But their efforts to discourage political commitment were only partially successful. The scientists held firm, and a climate treaty was agreed in 1992. And so attention turned to the scientists themselves.
The Serengeti strategy
In 1996, there were sustained attacks on climate scientist Ben Santer, who had been responsible for synthesising text in the IPCC’s second assessment report. He was accused of having “tampered with” wording and somehow “twisting” the intent of IPCC authors by Fred Seitz of the Global Climate Coalition.
In the late 1990s, Michael Mann, whose famous “hockey stick” diagram of global temperatures was a key part of the third assessment report, came under fire from right-wing thinktanks and even the Attorney General of Virginia. Mann called this attempt to pick on scientists perceived to be vulnerable to pressure “the Serengeti strategy”.
By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of “anti-science” to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defence difficult. It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd.
As the evidence became ever more compelling, the attacks on scientists escalated.
In 2001,Exxon was reported to be pressuring the new Bush administration to get rid of Bob Watson, the British climate scientists who was then chair of the IPCC. Exxon appears to have been successful because Watson didn’t get a second term. (see here)
The Bush Administration tried to silence Hansen in 2006 – there is an entire book – Censoring Science – about this.
In late 2009, just before the Copenhagen climate summit, emails among climate scientists were hacked and released. They were carefully selected to make it seem as if scientists were guilty of scaremongering. The so-called “climategate” scandal was not to blame for Copenhagen’s failure, but it kept climate deniers energised and helped muddy the waters enough to make it seem as if legitimate doubt persisted over the scientific consensus.
And at “just before 2 a.m. on February 19, 2011 the war on climate science showed its grip on the U.S. House of Representatives as it voted to eliminate U.S. funding for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Republican majority, on a mostly party-line vote of 244-179, went on record as essentially saying that it no longer wishes to have the IPCC prepare its comprehensive international climate science assessments. ” [sourcesourcesource] (It was a throwing-red-meat-to-the-base thing. It never got through the Senate).
Thanks to COVID-19, the next IPCC assessment report probably won’t be delivered before the delayed conference in Glasgow at the end of 2021. There probably won’t be anything in it that tells us more than what we already know – CO₂ levels are rising, the consequences are piling up, and campaigns for delaying meaningful action have been spectacularly successful for the last 30 years.
Some scientists, including Columbia University professor James Hansen, argue that the agonising efforts of scientists to avoid provoking accusations of alarmism have led to an innate optimism bias. The official science reported by the IPCC may in some cases be a cautious underestimate. It’s likely worse – much worse – than we think.
If the last three decades have taught the international community anything, it’s that “the science” is not a single, settled entity which, presented properly, will spur everyone to action. There are no shortcuts to the technological, economic, political and cultural changes needed to tackle climate change. That was true 30 years ago in Sundsvall. The only thing that has changed is the time in which we have left to do anything.
END OF THE CONVERSATION ARTICLE. Everything that follows has not had the benefit of their editing. They cannot be held responsible for owt!
And I will admit that the answer I’m about to give you does not satisfy me.,because there are consequences for not having achieved the emissions reductions that were required. We’re no longer talking about avoiding dangerous climate change – that is baked in. What we have to talk about then is how the pain is shared equitably, which may not mean equally.
Now, right there, three kinds of people will be up in arms. The first group I don’t care about – the ones who deny that climate change is a thing. The second group – and there is overlap or a sliding scale – are the techno-utopians, the Bjorn Lomborg school of people who think that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with more technology. Maybe they ought to read a little bit about anti-reflexivity, and see themselves in the mirror. And the third group are those who say, “Oh, you must never talk about pain or danger, because this will somehow scare people off.” Well, that’s to keep therefore telling fairy stories about how everything might be okay. That’s indistinguishable in my opinion, from the techno optimist bollocks. And I would rather treat people like adults and hope that they’re capable of understanding that the world isn’t how they would like it to be, and it won’t be like how they would like it to be.
So having said that, let me give you my unconvincing answers.
What climate change calls us to do, what we are required to do, as citizens, especially those of us with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, and the training to punch through lies, and the time to do it, and to communicate it… is to punch through the lies and to communicate and to movement build rather than mobilise.
And my one key distinction that I would like everyone to make is between the mobilizations such as the 2014 Climate March in New York, and the actual movement-building. There can be overlap, but these are distinct, and occasionally the mobilising gets in the way of movement-building, because it allows people to tick the box. “I’ve been on that March. I’ve sent my activists credibility tokens. And therefore, it’s now up to our lords and masters to take action.”
And this is tacitly said, even by people who know that their lords and masters have no interest in and no capacity to fix the problems that they themselves have been causing. This is what Camus would probably have called bad faith.
So responding to climate change is going to require the wisdom as opposed to the ignorance of crowds. It’s going to require daily local, regional national, international action as opposed to words. It is gonna require that we break out of the boxes, the mind forged manacles, that we resist the blandishments of not just the big corporations and the big NGOs, but also the voluntaristic millenarian “Everything must and can change now,” rhetorics of some of these newest social movement organisations and yes I am looking at you, Extinction Rebellion.
This is both an emergency and a long drawn-out process and we need to learn this preparedness for the very difficult changes to come will require sustained – and therefore sustainable – radical (that does not mean violent, that does not mean stupid) action, at every level.
So what kind of superheroes can do this? There are no superheroes. We are the ones we have been waiting for for a very long time.
Specifically, better organisations that are able to welcome new people, make use of the skills and talents they have, and help those individuals learn new ones. New understandings of how incumbents have resisted change not just through outright denial but also scams, like carbon trading and carbon offsetting, and, quote, green capitalism, unquote.
Also a recognition that the methods of the 19th and 20th century brought us the horrors of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Great Leap Forward, etc. We’re going to need new tools, we can’t go back and try the old ones again and again, which is what we’ve been doing.
Critique of the above
So the critique of this is fairly obvious, or the critiques plural. One is so already too late. Even if this reinvigorated or invigorated, intelligent civil society sprang into action, there are certain laws of physics and the consequences of 30 years of inaction are that it is already, quote too late, unquote, that we’re going to hit four degrees, that agriculture becomes impossible that there’s mass starvation, one or two nuclear wars and the collapse of human civilization, which we’ve seen in Hollywood films and we’ve seen in books. This is a, you know, a favourite science fiction trope. I strongly suspect the reality will be slower, grimmer and messier. The real tragedy has someone once said – I forget who – is that the world ends with a series of whimpers not a bang.
Another critique would be that if we are going to reduce emissions, it’s only going to happen with lots of the big bad technology that people like me are generally deeply suspicious of: Hello, nuclear power Hello. By energy, carbon capture and storage, Hello Space mirrors. Hello sulphur cannons and unprecedented international collaboration around some schemes like contraction and convergence.
Critiquing those critiques
So to these people, I would say firstly “you might be right. But even if those things happen, even if all those magical technologies and magic into existence, well number one takes ages for them to replace what we already have. So you need a plan to get rid of the incumbency. Good luck with that.”
And number two is it would address the broader problems related to climate change and the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially methane, around the collapse of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, population growth and our spiritual crises.
The only way that we have a snowball’s chance in hell, and again, I don’t think we do, of dealing with all those is very diverse, persistent civil society action.
The next critique would be, “that’s fine for you and your little gang. Out of the six of you, all of you have been to an elite University, two of you have PhDs. One of you has a Master’s another is doing her master’s. And you have only one breeder among you. “
And I would say, “That’s absolutely true. But I never said that Climate Emergency Manchester was a model for how other groups should behave in terms of composition. And what we are trying to do with the Active Citizenship Toolkit is make it easier for other individuals and groups to assess the skills that they need, and the relationships that they need, what they have right now, what the gaps are, and how to close those gaps.
“We are not a vanguard, we do not pretend to be a vanguard. We are a small part of a local ecosystem. We can, we hope, be, at best an inspiration. We’re an example. And also one that speaks truth about power, not to power. The powerful know exactly pretty much what they’re doing: we’re speaking truth about power.”
So what does all this mean? Here and now? What do you do?
So, what if you are convinced that I’m right about the way the science has been attacked, I’m right about the way the international process is hopelessly bogged down and that I’m right about the inadequacies of the state responses, the corporate responses and the civil society responses.
What if I’m right about all of that? Well, that doesn’t give me or you permission to give up, to quit, to retreat into various forms of escapism, which is, of course, what our lords and masters would much prefer.
It doesn’t give us that permission. We have responsibility for the climate crisis in proportion, to not only to our individual carbon footprints – many aspects of which are beyond our direct control -but in proportion the level of privilege we have around education, habitus and cultural capital, social capital, time, access to resources and the de jure, if not always de facto. ability to use those rights.
That’s awkward because it means that people like me have a great deal more responsibility than some other people. That doesn’t mean I get to play “White Saviour.” It doesn’t mean I get to centre myself in debates and struggles. It does mean that I have to work persistently, consistently, iteratively intelligently or else my responsibility and my culpability, which is already huge, continues to rise.
So right here, right now, today what do you do in a crisis? Well, anyone who’s received, you know, astronaut training will say, “if you’ve got 10 seconds, you spend six of them making a plan.” So right here, right now today, it’s a question of drawing up a list of
what things you think you and a group of determined, like-minded people could achieve locally in the near future.
And it won’t be much because we live in tangled in systems with enormous embedded inertia. The institutions, as distinct from the organizations are obviously very powerful – they would not still be institutions, by definition, if they were not.
But nonetheless – what can you achieve? Do an audit? What skills knowledge relationships would you need to achieve that goal? What do you have? What are you lacking, where can find it?
Now these goals don’t spring from just the ether, or from inside your head. The important thing is to make a goal, even if it’s a rough and ready one and for it to be developed, refined, changed in conversation without the people, who obviously will only be involved, if to go resonates with them.
All this sounds like a hell of a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? It’s easier to sign a petition or to go on a demonstration, or even get arrested to show that you care.
But those things we’ve tried, and we’ve tried for 30 years. Those might help mobilise in the short-term, but what we need are movements: dense as in extremely well connected networks of individuals and groups who understand what is at stake and understand that they are in conflict with other networks, other organisations, institutions, habits, vested interests in society.
And this is quite literally the fight of not just our lives, but that of future generations of human beings, and all the other species that we “share” this planet with.