Category Archives: our doomedness

Australia as renewable energy superpower? Report on ANU Energy seminar 24 September 2020

This below, minus the hyperlinks, appeared on reneweconomy.com.au

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.

Mark Williamson from the Clean Energy Regulator spoke on the latest solar and wind deployment trends.

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”

Alex Wonhas (Chief System Design and Engineering Officer, AEMO) gave a presentation entitled “Yes we can – Australia’s future energy pathways. The 2020 Integrated System Plan and Renewable Energy Zones.”

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

·        Frequency

·        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.

Meanwhile, however Project Energy Connect (SA-NW) will increase resilience

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-

Technological  Diversity

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.

Demand management

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…

Every day is Groundhog Day for Australian climate politics #Auspol

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.

On #climate bullshit – interview with Dr Hayley Stevenson

A couple of weeks ago the academic journal Globalizations published a new article. “Reforming global climate governance in an age of bullshit” by Dr Hayley Stevenson. I’m the social media editor of another academic journal, Environmental Politics, and I tweeted it from @Env_Pol. It got a lot of Twitter love… I asked Dr Stevenson, who I “met” while researching my PhD (she’s written about Australian climate politics and lived to tell the tale) if she’d be up for an interview. She very kindly said yes. Here it is!

on climate bullshit1. Who are you? (e.g. where born, where did undergrad/PhD/post docs/where are you now, what have been your intellectual/academic interests?)
I am an Australian academic. My PhD is in International Relations and I have always been interested in how rules, norms and concepts travel across spaces and diffuse from the international to the domestic sphere (which of course is not a one-way process). The discipline of IR has real limits for understanding these processes, especially in an environmental context. So my reading has always been extremely varied – across different subfields of political science, ecological economics, sociology, etc.
I started studying environmental issues in 2005. A last-minute decision to attend a Friends of the Earth talk on climate change refugees ultimately changed the course of my PhD research. I knew nothing about climate change, but the injustice of it really struck me, and I have been writing and teaching about the politics of climate change and unsustainability ever since.
Following my PhD at the University of Adelaide, I spent three years at the Australian National University working as a postdoc with John Dryzek. From there I moved to the UK where I was based at the University of Sheffield from 2012-2017. I loved the intellectual environment in the UK – there are massive structural problems and enormous pressures in British universities, but there are also a lot of opportunities for early career academics: workshops, conferences, research funding schemes. I went everywhere and applied for everything! Of course, I ultimately discovered that academic busy-ness and hyper-mobility are fairly counterproductive (and probably mostly ego-driven rather than purpose-driven), so I have spent the past few years trying to create a context for more thoughtful work. This involved the decision to leave the UK and move to Buenos Aires, where I could happily keep my feet on the ground. Why Buenos Aires? I dance tango and it has always felt like home. I speak Spanish so it was possible to move here without abandoning my academic career. I now teach International Relations and environmental politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. Sustainability is still a marginal topic here – recycling is generally about as radical as it gets (there are movements against pesticides, deforestation etc. but they are small). But interest is growing, and it is genuinely rewarding to be able to guide students through their discovery of the politics of sustainability.
There are huge debates about the pros and cons of academic travel, and that´s probably a topic for another day. But I cannot talk about my own trajectory without touching on this topic. Climate change requires us to confront many contradictions, and this is one of them – for me it was a huge one. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to rethink this anyway. But I must say that life is so much better without airports – there is more time to think and read, and more energy for teaching.

2. When did you first read about the Frankfurt School – by which I mean bullshit, not any of that Horkheimer and Adorno thing – and when did you first think about applying it to global climate governance?
Honestly, I cannot remember. I have always been intellectually promiscuous, straying well beyond my own discipline. I think you have to do this when you study unsustainability; the insights that any single discipline can lend are limited. My most fruitful periods of reading are when I have spent time just wandering, like you might wander a city without a map, it´s hard to retrace your steps and you often wonder how you ended up where you are, but that´s when you find the most interesting things!
I read those little Frankfurt books – On Bullshit and On Truth – about five or six years ago and immediately drafted a paper plan. I had too many things on the go at the time, and it sat untouched for years. David Cameron was the British Prime Minister at the time, and I thought his “greenest government ever” was a perfect case study!
From time to time I would see the Frankfurt books in my shelves and be reminded of that paper plan. The concept of bullshit immediately resonated with me. As climate change moved from the political and social margins, I could see optimism growing. There was always a new announcement to celebrate, a new pledge, a new agreement, a new reason to be hopeful! But if we´re all environmentalists, then what the hell does that even mean? It´s meaningless, and I wanted a way to make sense of that meaninglessness.
Last year, Matt Bishop and Tony Payne invited me to contribute to a special issue on reforming global governance, and my immediate response was “look, I really don´t have anything new to say on the topic. I can´t see any reforms that are going to make much difference in the current climate.” And then I remembered this old paper that I´d sketched out several years before and I said “if this piece interests you and is not too polemical, I will write it, because it is really the only thing that I want to say about climate governance at this point in time”. Happily, the special issue editors were keen.

3. Did you have any hesitations about using the term in an academic publication, or any pushback from editors or reviewers?
There was no pushback. To be honest, I suspect most publishers would see the click-bait potential. I was slightly wary that readers would dismiss the paper in this way; that was my only hesitation. But actually I think it has resonated with what a lot of people were thinking. In earlier plans, I used the term “humbug” but this sounds straight of a Charles Dickins novel. Ultimately, I think we urgently need to talk straight about the climate crisis. Bullshit resonates in a way that humbug doesn’t.

Relatedly, are you worried about now being known as “that bullshit academic”?
If people find the paper useful in some way, I will be happy to be known in any way at all! Besides, there are a few of us writing on BS now. Perhaps it´s time for a Journal of Bullshit Studies. There´s no shortage of empirical material.
4. In the article (which is properly brilliant by the way – congratulations) you focus on international aviation, military aviation, bioenergy carbon capture and storage. Were there other sectors or technologies you had to drop for reasons of space/time?
There are so many other sectors and technologies that we should analyse. I wanted to look more closely at the Climate Emergency declarations. Ireland for example, declared a Climate Emergency while simultaneously purchasing carbon credits. I had to drop a section on corporate bullshit, which included the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. The members of this initiative are the thirteen largest companies in the sector, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, and Saudi Aramco. So many corporate initiatives on climate change involve just sharing information or releasing data, so this was seen as more significant because it involves real money – a US$1 billion investment fund “to lower the carbon footprints of the energy and industrial sectors and their value chains”. That sounds like a lot until you calculate its actual significance, which I did. The combined annual net profit of members in 2018 (excluding Pemex, which recorded a net loss) was US$228.06 billion. Creating a $1 billion investment fund shaves less than 0.5% off their combined profits for just one year (the fund itself is not renewed annually). Profits for most of these companies soared in 2018 on the back of increased oil and gas production. These companies talk about how they are committed to the Paris Agreement, and it is pure nonsense.

5. What would it have taken for global climate governance NOT to have been bullshit?

(for discussion at a later date!)

6. Are there any countries or regions/cities you know of which aren’t bullshitting on climate change?
I don´t hear any political leaders talking about the contradictions and inconsistencies in their policies, or the uncertain assumptions on which they base their analysis. If you compare national pledges with the data on Climate Action Tracker you can see inconsistencies across the board. The Scandinavians are usually thought to be making the most genuine progress, but I don´t hear any Scandinavian political leaders acknowledging differences between production-based emissions and consumption-based emissions. Sadly I think the only ones that are not bullshitting are the villains who are honest about their indifference – Trump and Bolsonaro. Perhaps my impression is too sweeping. It would be great to see some analysis that convinces me that I am too cynical! I think that one of the greatest dangers of bullshit is that it breeds cynicism, which can become paralyzing.

7. What would you like to see the following groups do about the problem of bullshit, in the context of your call for ‘democratic reglobalization’ to “harness worldwide interconnectedness to bring the climate regime under greater public scrutiny and control, with the aim of producing better outcomes.” Specifically, what are the skills they need, and what are the barriers they would need to overcome?
– Academics
– Politicians
– Civil society organisations

8. You note that “Few citizens have the capacity to readily distinguish truth from bullshit in the pronouncements of political leaders and policy actors.” – so, how could sympathetic actors (especially academics) help citizens gain the capacity?

[combined answers to 7 and 8]

I think a real problem is getting citizens to even care about detecting bullshit. The amount of money invested in maintaining unsustainable preferences is so much greater than that invested in developing concerns about sustainability. A marketing statistic that has always stuck with me is that in the 1940s in the USA, total spending on marketing was about $30 per capita. Now it is over $500 per capita. This is a major obstacle. Some cities around the world have managed to ban public advertising, but it is hard to sustain in the face of corporate pressure. So much money is spent ensuring that we think as consumers and not as citizens. I suppose if we were all granted a citizen’s wage and had more hours for active citizenship, this would help!
Bullshit detection requires a lot of time to get a handle on the nuances of different issues. Think of all those ecolabels – they are based on the idea that we have complete information and can tell the difference between things produced sustainably and unsustainably. But most people don’t have the time to investigate, or if they have the time they would prefer to spend it on other activities.
But there are citizens who do care, so how do we help them? Civil society organizations have developed lots of tools for easily understanding personal environmental impact (like carbon footprint calculators). I think those are important, but we still don’t really have accessible tools for making sense of national and local climate policies, and identifying the bullshit. Greater collaboration between academics, civil society groups, and digital designers would be fruitful to give citizens access to reliable tools to identify bullshit.

Academic article on social tipping dynamics – or “Oh for cockpity’s sake…”

Ignore my snark later on – this is a good article, that you should take the time to read.  Crucially though, understand that the authors – like most academics – are addicted to trying to play what Haraway calls “the God Trick” and has also been called “cockpitism“.  To be expected, I guess, since the authors have hundreds of years between them of making detailed warnings to policymakers who… ignore them. Those authors know the depth of the shit we are in, and in order to cope with their fear, double down on being able to “see” and “advise.”

Also though – STIs?  Really? Was there not a better acronym, especially when you’re talking about things being contagious? (and yes, I will go again with that joke my wife mysteriously does not like: “What’s the difference between true love and herpes?”  Answer – herpes lasts forever.”)

The title: Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050

The authors: Ilona M. Ottoa,1,2, Jonathan F. Dongesa,b,1,2, Roger Cremadesc, Avit Bhowmikb,d, Richard J. Hewitte,f, Wolfgang Luchta,g,h, Johan Rockströma,b, Franziska Allerbergera,i, Mark McCaffreyj, Sylvanus S. P. Doek, Alex Lenfernal, Nerea Moránm,n, Detlef P. van Vuureno,p, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

The journal: PNAS

The DOI: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1900577117

The abstract:

Safely achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement requires a worldwide transformation to carbon-neutral societies within the next 30 y. Accelerated technological progress and policy implementations are required to deliver emissions reductions at rates sufficiently fast to avoid crossing dangerous tipping points in the Earth’s climate system. Here,we discuss and evaluate the potential of social tipping interventions (STIs) that can activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization within their functional domains that we refer to as social tipping elements (STEs). STEs are subdomains of the planetary socioeconomic system where the required disruptive change may take place and lead to a sufficiently fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The results are based on online expert  elicitation, a subsequent expert workshop, and a literature review. The STIs that could trigger the tipping of STE subsystems include 1) removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing decentralized energy generation (STE1, energy production and storage systems), 2) building carbon-neutral cities (STE2, human settlements), 3) divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels (STE3, financial markets), 4) revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels (STE4, norms and value systems), 5) strengthening climate education and engagement (STE5, education system), and 6) disclosing information on greenhouse gas emissions (STE6, information feedbacks). Our research reveals important areas of focus for larger-scale empirical and modeling efforts to better understand the potentials of harnessing social tipping dynamics for climate change mitigation.

In plain English/tl:dr: We asked  a bunch of our academic mates who work on this stuff what it would take to stop us from continuing on the same tragic trajectory to dystopian hellholeness.  They came up with a bunch of “tipping points” and feedbacks.

(But nobody really said who was gonna bell the bloody cat)

Key concepts:  Social tipping points/elements/dynamics/interventions.

“In this paper, we examine a number of potential “social tipping elements” (STEs) for decarbonization (27, 28) that represent specific subdomains of the planetary social-economic system. Tipping of these subsystems could be triggered by “social tipping interventions” (STIs) that could contribute to rapid transition of the world system into a state of net zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The results reported in this study are based on an online expert survey, an expert workshop, and an extensive literature review”

Fine. You asked a bunch of your cockpitty mates. And cat-bellers? How many of them did you ask?

The social tipping dynamics of interest for this study are typically manifested as spreading processes in complex social networks (35, 36) of behaviors, opinions, knowledge, technologies, and social norms (37, 38), including spreading processes of structural change and reorganization (34). These spreading processes resemble contagious dynamics observed in epidemiology that spread through social networks (39). Once triggered, such processes can be irreversible and difficult to stop. Similar contagious dynamics have been observed in human behavior (35, 36), for example in assaultive violence (39), participation in social movements (40), or health-related behaviors and traits (36), such as smoking or obesity (41, 42).

btw, (40) is  P. Hedström, Contagious collectivities: On the spatial diffusion of Swedish trade unions, 1890–1940. Am. J. Sociol. 99, 1157–1179 (1994).

BUT  some useful for my immediate purposes stuff on energy –

STIs in the energy production system. The technological development in the energy production system is a dominant element of the decarbonization discussions in international institutions (55, 56) and business partnerships (57). The results of our expert elicitation confirm that technology development is likely to play a key role, however, not in the sense of yet-to-be invented technological solutions, but rather in the adaptation of existing carbon-free technology primarily in the power sector and by facilitating a smarter utilization of energy. The main control parameter that drives the adaptation of fossil-fuel–free energy technology is associated with the financial returns of its adoption (58). Our expert group believed that the critical condition needed to trigger the tipping process is the moment when fossil-fuel–free energy production yields higher financial returns than the energy production based on fossil fuels. The empirical data show that this critical threshold is about to be reached; the prices of renewables have dropped sharply in the last few years, and they have already become the cheapest source of energy in many world regions. The average cost of onshore wind dropped by 18%, and offshore wind fell by 28% (59).

TYPICAL BLOODY ECONOMISTS.  BELIEVING THAT CONSUMERS, OR INVESTORS, ARE “RATIONAL” and that there is not an enormous issue around social acceptance of (energy) technologies.  Plug anxiety etc etc Sigh. But this is useful –

2050 tipping points

Finally, the urgency and complex character of climate change require transdisciplinarity and engagement with social movements, knowledge brokers, and change leaders (151). More research is needed on understanding the required social processes and the drivers and incentives for short-term engagement of diverse coalitions of action around concrete solutions and strategies at various governance levels (152).

Indeed.  But how? And to what effect?  In what languages (I don’t mean English or German).  As a dialogue? Who facilitates? For how long? With what ‘outcomes’? Who is not in the room? Whose intellectual labour will get looted (probably the women of colour, if history is any guide).

 

Marc’s two cents

They almost lost me in the second sentence – “It is also an indispensable prerequisite for achieving sustainable development.”  That, my friends, is a tautology – show me a dispensable prerequisite. And why two words with so many syllables right next to each other? What are you trying to prove, and to who?

But, yes, we need the big picture thinking.

2050 tipping points pretty picture

But we also need much better answers to the “how will civil society get up on its hind-legs and STAY ON ITS HINDLEGS when the tear gas disperses and the neo-liberal think tanks move back in…?”

 

Should you read this?

Hell yes

Probably, yup – but with your ‘academics are waffling’ sensors set to kill.

Depends

Probably not

Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

 

And on cat belling

Tribal barriers to cat belling

https://marchudson.net/2020/05/15/on-the-tribal-barriers-to-cat-belling/

Economists, the post-coronavirus world and that cat in need of belling

https://marchudson.net/2020/04/22/economists-the-post-coronavirus-world-and-that-cat-in-need-of-belling/

The 4Cs- coronavirus, capitalism, climate and cats (belling of)

https://marchudson.net/2020/04/01/the-four-cs-coronavirus-capitalism-climate-and-cats-belling-of/

“Social innovation” acceleration and the belling of cats

So, my intellectual energies have been mostly devoted to the Active Citizenship Toolkit, which is a project of the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester.  I’ve researched and written a couple of novice’s guides – to Manchester City Council’s budget process, and to the thorny question of allyship.  Other two page guides are ‘under review’ and will go up soon.

ALSO, and this is Good News – I have been shortlisted for an academic job.  It’s about social innovation.  So, over the coming few days expect a bunch of posts about that subject, and “acceleration” and so on.  This is to help me figure out what I think and what I should say (and of course NOT say on the day itself…)  Here’s a link to a list of ‘adjectival innovations’  and innovation terminology I made a while back.  Doubtless will have to expand it…

So, below, a few preliminary comments about my prejudices, and then I will follow up with another, more “ACT” related post about the thorny question of “capacity building”…

First banality:  The word “innovation” is sprinkled around like magic pixie dust. Like its cousins reform and progress it sidesteps/silences profound questions about morality and end-states.  Most of the time it is used there is a (knowing?) naivete around questions of incumbent power and resistance.

Second banality:   Most work on “innovation” and “efficiency” also largely ignore rebound effects – what will be done with the money/time/energy ‘saved’?  So, you insulate someone’s house so they aren’t being bled white on fuel bills. This is a good thing. But from a “carbon saved” perspective, what if they then use the money they saved to fly to Barcelona or Prague for the weekend.

Third banality: Most innovations fail, or take a hell of a lot longer to mature than folks think they will (people and hype-cycles, eh?) 

Look, we’re in the shit.  We have had over 30 years to take action on climate change, and in all that time we have just dug our holes deeper.  More people on the planet, yes, but crucially, far more fossil fuel infrastructure, far higher expectations of an always on world etc etc etc (and yes, this is not individual consumers’ “fault” blah blah systemic blah blah regimes).

And because we are in the shit, we are busy bright-siding ourselves. You saw it after the Paris Agreement, when people who really ought to have known better (and probably, in private, DID know better) spouted all sorts of guff about turning points [here’s a blog I wrote about that in December 2015]. And now here we all are in coronaworld, spouting guff about Green Recoveries, with no sense of the coalitions-work needed to make that happen.

So we latch onto the idea of social innovation “(versus” technological innovation? I don’t know, I haven’t read the literature. Hopefully nobody is that ill-informed?)

And we Need To Believe that it will get us to where we need to get to.  Social Tipping Innovations etc.  Yes, we all apparently need to contract an STI…

soc tipping dynamics

It reminds me of that clip from “The Newsroom” where they get a climate scientist on and he says “x/yz/ would all have been great 20 or even 10 years ago…” 

So, sophomoric ill-informed doomster rant over.  I am going to dive into various academic articles about social innovation, energy transitions, urban governance. . Going to blog about each (usually in a batch).

Criteria for articles on a kind of Likert scale on Should you read this ?

Hell yes
Yes 
Depends
Probably not
Defo not (unlikely to publish a review)

And also “What else by authors is any good?”

My coda.

Social innovations like technological innovations, are all well and good, and fun to study at the Research and Development stage.  But deployment and dissemination/diffusion whatever, that is usually a far trickier thing.

Individuals  who are part of innovation get tired, burnout, demoralised, or sell out (literally)

Meanwhile, organisations are fantastically bad at sustaining morale. On the whole they either flame out or become self-sustaining rigid bureaucracies, trading on past glories.

That doesn’t, it seem to me on a rough first glance, get captured in academic work about social innovation, because who goes back after five years, or ten years, or fifteen years and sees “where are they now?” It is just endless polaroids, some explicit, some not, all always fading.

This is a marathon, not a sprint, So, need to think of it as a relay race to – how does “the baton” get handed on? We (activists) need to think of sharing the load. Which is the subject of the next blog post – on “capacity building”.

 

Online meetings as skeuomorphs – the old pathologies imported, affordances not afforded (cyber)space

If you suck at designing and facilitating meatspace meetings, then – everything else being equal – you are probably going to suck big hairy dog’s balls at online meetings.

Is it just me? (1) Am I the only one who has been in several really painfully bad online meetings during this lockdown?  Where the organisers clearly have given NO THOUGHT to what could or should be different. They’ve just shifted their dismal “in real life” formats over to Zoom. And guess what, they’re still dismal! Hoodathunkit?  But as long as the invited guest speakers get to treat everyone as ego-fodder, as long as the punters can feel they were close to Wisdom, or that they’re not losing touch, then everyone seems happy.

It’s as if the opportunities of online spaces (I’ll come back to them) are being very very consciously ignored.  There’s something skeuomorphic – the online meetings consciously replicating/signalling their continuity with the old formats which, well have nostalgia and soothe value (if not use value).

Why?  Again, trying to think systematically rather than continuing the Fundamental Attribution Error of ascribing cowardice/laziness/stupidity.

  • Most organisers are not familiar with what online meetings might offer
  • Most organisers are not willing to take the risk of innovating at the best of times, and right now, it’s not the best of times. (insert rant about fear eating the soul, helmet fires yadda yadda).
  • Most organisers are under no selection pressure to DO BETTER.  Any old crap will do at the minute (insert rant about the smugosphere) because most punters have never had better, and would be reluctant to demand it in these times when everyone is (understandably and rightly) cutting other folks lots of slack.

Okay, now I have got my tokenistic and  entirely abstract compassion tokens sorted: this.

DO BETTER, YOU FUCKERS.

At the least

  • Ask yourself: why gather people together for an hour and spend the first third of that asking them to, in effect, watch a youtube together? Srsly.  Have your speakers pre-record and upload their initial statements. That way they are not speaking off the cuff, they can be kept to time. Tell everyone to watch the damn things before. Most will, some won’t.
  • Be concise and clear in your opening statements. There is no excuse for waffling, and the consequences for it are HIGHER online, imo.
  • Encourage people to use the ‘chat’ function.  That is what it is there for (affordances schmafordances). This is NOT like a meatspace meeting where the chattering will be disruptive.  It’s an online meeting. Only Connect, as that old English dude said.
  • If you are going to go into breakout groups, then have the instructions for this  – what it is you are expecting each group to do – on a slide.
  • For any reporting back, ask the groups to make a slide of their own, rather than verbal feedback. People can read faster than they can listen.
  • Think about having a googledoc to which people can properly add comments in real time, reading suggestions etc.  The “chat with everyone” function is okay, but it is inaccessible once the meeting is over.  You can edit/polish the googledoc, before the rest of the world sees it, to remove anything libellous/confusing etc.
  • DO A POSTMORTEM. Ask people who leave early to tell you why they did.  Have a mechanism for everyone to give anonymous feedback (the only kind worth collecting.)
  • ITERATE> INNOVATE> ALWAYS IN BETA>  THIS IS THE WORLD WIDE WEB, PEOPLE.
  • Oh, and if your organisation is named after someone super super SUPER cool, but unjustly obscure, then explain who they are. The world really does need to know.

 

Yes, I am going to “put up”.  The group I am involved in is going to start to do more regular online meetings.  We will get things wrong, obvs. But at least we will be trying to actually use the technology in less grotesquely inadequate ways than I’ve described above. FFS.

 

Footnotes

(1) That’s a semi-rhetorical question. I know very few people who share my vocal, vehement, vivid disdain for suboptimal (“shitty”) meetings.  There should be more, but most people seem to shrug their shoulders and say ‘this is the way it’s always been’.  While calling for fundamental immediate transformations of our polity and economy. Go figure.

On the tribal barriers to cat-belling

Think in systems, dammit.

When I am frustrated (i.e. always) with the “left” endlessly reheating and repeating the same things (“wasn’t  1970s social democracy great?”, “the main problem is we don’t have enough diverse voices” (1) ) through truly wretched online events that are every bit as stultifying and wrist-slashingly excruciating as their meatspace equivalents, I often – through laziness and stupidity – ascribe the failures of others to laziness or stupidity.

But think in systems, dammit.

If you WERE to say, for example

“part of the problem we need to think about is that our shopping list of the ways the world ‘should’ be won’t get us there, but that people can gain and maintain status simply by repeating this shopping list.  They get brownie points for doing so, because we are so keen to hear their soothing words, and they are our bosses, and we are, ultimately, wanting to be saved by bosses.  We are like the sheep in Animal Farm, hoping for a better kind of pig, while still incanting the all animals are equal thing.”

Well, three things would happen

a) you’d open yourself up to criticism for having done your own shopping-list incanting in the past (and people rarely really like to open themselves up, unless they are particularly neurotic), and the fatal question “well, why should we listen to YOU then?”

b) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking your chums, including probably the people who organised this event and invited you to be on the panel (so, this might be your last panel for a while or -checks notes – for fucking EVER.)

c) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking those in the audience for having taken false comfort in shopping lists in the past.  They won’t thank you for that condemnation. Fur monkey may have no milk, but she’s got fur, fur goodness sake.   Life under ecocidal capitalism is already quite uncomfortable enough without some wannabe whistle-blower adding to it.  So, the questions will be hostile, the invites to speak at other events will dry up, your books won’t get read, your tweets won’t get retweeted. Siberia beckons.

So far so banal.  If a culture doesn’t have homeo-dynamic mechanisms for keeping within certain parameters, it’s not really a culture is it? Throw in some (rightful) righteous indignation and cognitive limitations (Kahneman Thinking Fast blah blah) and you’ve sort of explained why the key question of ‘what do we need to do DIFFERENTLY so that we have a chance of getting a different result?’ rarely gets answered (though often – as at a recent terrible-content, good-format/facilitation Zoom – gets asked.)

Somehow though, this isn’t satisfying me.  We “ought” to be better at this. We are supposed to be the ones who can challenge power. But do we use up all our courage and cortex in spotting the obvious, and then hunker down?  Do we find new tin gods to worship, and then let them rule us?

Or is it just so damn hard to think of ways that the incredibly embedded/entrenched/tooled-up status quo (that is endlessly capable of adapting/defending itself – T1000, not T800) could be defeated, that we retreat into soothing lullabies and never face any real challenge from the audience to sing a different song?

I will try, for what it is worth, to

a) have more compassion for those with nothing to say who say it at great length and to relatively great acclaim

b) understand the dynamics/incentives that keep them in place, and keep them from actually trying to answer the ‘who will bell the cat?’ question

c) provide clear cat-belling ideas and then implement them as best I can at a local level

d) obey the Cocker Protocol, in these dark, nay, shitty days

 

Footnotes

(1) For the sake of clarity: I am not – of course –  disputing that we need more diverse voices. What I am disputing is that if they are saying the same banal and info-deficit things that the middle class white men are saying, we (collectively) are not actually any further ahead. And I would very much like us to be collectively further ahead.

Of activist self-care and the need to think in systems and #Freud #Darwin etc

I attended portions of a zoom seminar this morning on “activist self-care.” Portions not because I flounced (this, as those who know me will attest, does happen) but because of technological issues and my steam-powered laptop not letting me into the break-out groups.  So my “criticism” of the seminar (which was on the whole good!) is constrained by that – maybe they got to what I want to say, but it didn’t look that way.  Here’s my two cents on what was “wrong” and what “we” (who that?) would need to put it “right” (and that, is, of course, a process not an event).

The structure of the seminar – and therefore the intelligent and compassionate contributions from those attending – was very much coming from an individual ‘coping’ strategy – the world is in a terrible state, and those who want to help unterribilise it are going to experience frustration, excessive demands (from others) and themselves.

The contributions (therefore) centred very much on ‘taking time away’, ‘having a buddy’, ‘delegating’, ‘breaking tasks down’ .  These are ALL EXCELLENT AND ALL NECESSARY.

But also very inadequate. Because many people, for whatever reasons, can’t do those things. If they could, there’d be no need for these seminars.  And in any case, there is an elephant in the room – which I mentioned in the chat function, but nobody responded to it, at least in the time I was on the call. It’s this:

There are pathological cultures and assumptions within “activism”.  Until we recognise these, talk about them, and try to do something about them, then we are stuck with “coping strategies” akin to telling victims of domestic violence – “don’t do anything to set him off.”  We need to think in systems here.

So, let’s take the eminently suggestible suggestion of ‘delegate’ as a way in to what I mean.

You could look at this from a psychoanalytic point of view (and I would recommend that as a starting point). Why DON’T people delegate? Well, when you delegate you lose control.  And in this world, control – or the illusion of control – is something most of us struggle to have.  We want to believe that we are brave, dedicated people who can rise to the challenges of being citizens in the 21st century. We know that there are many many people in far worse situations than ourselves, and we want to believe in our own power to overcome our doubts, our fears (Samuel Johnson wrote brilliantly about this in an essay called “What Have Ye Done?“)

There’s also the status issue – if you are known in your group(s) as The Person Who Does That Thing (be it the website, the lobbying, the coach-booking, the facilitating), well, delegating will lessen your status, if the delegation succeeds. And if the delegation does NOT succeed (and it often does not), your status will take a hit, as will your morale. David Rovics kinda nails it in “I’m a better anarchist than you“.

So we can’t talk about delegation, really, until we talk about the culture within most activist groups that accountability for performance, and respect for expertise, is somehow Hierarchical, Capitalistic, Oppressive, Fascistic etc.  We all know people who are able to scoot along the edges (or even near the middle) of activist groups through charisma, optimism and other forms of social capital, but who either often don’t do what they said they would, or who do it badly (either through laziness/lack of focus or because they’re not actually quite as good at something as they, or others, think they are).  And this can persist  for… (checks notes) … indefinitely because the structures of accountability and performance assessment are essentially absent in activist groups.  Until you “fix” that, only somebody who doesn’t care about their own morale or status, or the achievement of group goals, is going to delegate. Such a person is probably not really an activist, no?

Related to this – the question of breaking down a task into its component parts was suggested. YES. Good idea. But again – who is going to be the person checking in that a sub-task was actually done, in the timescale that matters, to the level required? This is going to require project management, volunteer management, time management and diplomacy skills that most of us lack most of the time, and cannot often deploy when we are tired, frustrated, etc.

Ultimately, there are few if any selection pressures (this is where the Darwin from the blogpost’s comes in).  Individuals are aware that activist groups are so low on numbers, and lack accountability mechanisms that can be activated (I hesitate to type the word ‘enforced’) that a certain amount of free-riding is inevitable.

Now, the term ‘free-riding’ is of course offensive. It suggests that the “real” reason people don’t participate fully is that they have made a deliberate calculation that they will be able to get away with not doing what they are supposed to while still getting the benefits (of being in a group). In the vast majority of cases, I think, the reasons for under/non-performance are to be found in the group culture (lack of mentoring, lack of a specific job description, fear of outshining others etc) rather than in cold calculation.

 

So, unless groups are able to ask the following questions of themselves, and provide real answers, then the individual-coping-mechanisms stuff, while necessary, is ultimately totally insufficient.

  • Does our group have a clear sense of what its mission is in the next few months?
  • Is this mission realistic? (This can only be known when you know what resources – skills, knowledge, relationships, stability – your group has. Most groups don’t know this, so cannot answer this question!)
  • What are the mechanisms by which our group measures whether any given task is being done effectively and efficiently?
  • What are the support mechanisms in the group to help people who are struggling with the promise-delivery issue?
  • Can these mechanisms be accessed by everyone, or are they really only available to the popular people in the group?
  • What are the accountability mechanisms for dealing with persistent cases of under/non-performance (no, not an accusatory Star Chamber, an exercising in one-upmanship. But at some point, if someone is consistently not delivering and it is hurting the momentum, morale and credibility of the group, failure to take action is actually a decision to fail.)
  • What collective resilience,  collective morale maintenance mechanisms are in place for this group?  (this does NOT mean compulsory singalongs).

 

For what it is worth, the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester – is developing or has developed answers to many of these questions. We’re working on an “Active Citizenship Toolkit” to help ourselves and others with these questions, and others.

 

Economists, the post-coronavirus world and that cat in need of belling.

Let’s start with the joke. No, I don’t mean the last 10 years of non-dealing with climate change at a local authority level. That’s not funny.  Let’s start with this:

A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island, with a large can of soup.

The physicist says “We could drop it from the top of that tree over there. The kinetic energy involved will make it break open.”

The chemist says “We could build a fire and sit the can in the flames until it bursts open.”

Those two squabble a bit, until the economist says “No, no, no. Come on, guys, you’d lose most of the soup. Let’s just assume a can opener.”

Okaaay.   And?

And this. Without exception, all the articles I have seen about the post-coronavirus world and how it could be a wonderful place (nature is returning, after all) are as deluded and hand-wavy as the economist.

They assume the existence of what is needed to Make the Good Things Happen.

They assume that policymakers are going to put the long-term ahead of the short, the needs of their species (and let’s not even bother to speak of other species) over the people who are in their ears, in their faces, whose pockets they in turn are in, mentally and financially.  They assume that somehow the tragic trajectory of the last 50ish years – of states realising that the problems of the modern world are too tricky for the post-war planning assumptions to hold (academics call this reflexive modernisation. It’s one of the useful bits of conceptual toolkit you might wanna grok) – no longer matter, can be wished away.

Or they assume that there is a vibrant, connected, resilient set of civil society actors – unions, community groups, academics, students, think tanks, church groups etc etc – just champing at the bit, waiting to force through the policies and bolster the institutions (in both senses) that will Make the Good Things Happen.

Uh, no.  This is to make the economist seem wedded to the reality principle.

It Just. Is. Not. So.  There are reasons for this, to do with the hierarchies, secrecies of ‘normal’ states, and with the prolonged, determined and sophisticated attack on democratic structures that flies under the banner “neoliberalism”.  If we do not admit that this is the case, what is the actual point?

We might get some twitter shares for our latest glossy well-meaning and well-written report, that lays out a coherent set of things that SHOULD happen.  But if it is not answering the basic question –

How do we open the can (of whoopass on the status quo actors)?

then we are not any further forward, we are, in fact, further behind.

Who. Is. Going. To. Bell. The. Bloody. Cat?  If you don’t have an answer to that, if you are pretending that question can be assumed away, why don’t you do everyone a favour and shut your cakehole? You’re just taking up bandwidth.

Interview with Rosemary Randall, psychoanalyst and author of brilliant #climate novel “Transgression”

A superb novel about climate activism (and much more) was released earlier this year. It is by Rosemary Randall, a retired psychoanalyst who has written a great deal (of extremely useful) work on the psychodynamics of meetings, and on climate change. You can read a 2013 interview I conducted with her for Manchester Climate Monthly.
A review of Transgression (ordering details at the foot of this interview) will appear soon (I would gush too much about it, so I have asked Dr Sarah Irving to read and review it).

1. “Transgression” is your first novel – can you say a bit about how it came about, what you hope readers will take away?

The genesis of the novel was strange. The plot and characters appeared, pretty much fully formed, in my mind when I came round from a major operation three years ago. It was as if the anaesthetic or perhaps the morphine had released something from thetransgression cover unconscious. More generally however, the novel deals with political events and experiences that had a big impact on me personally. Although these events – the political agitation in the run-up to Copenhagen and the devastating failure of the negotiations – are only ten years ago I’ve been struck by how much of that period has been forgotten in the grim grind of austerity. Most of the people I meet in XR for example are completely unaware of their predecessors, of the size of the climate movement of that time and of its successes (the near-closure of the UK coal industry, the rejection of a third runway at Heathrow for example) as well as the failures. The (in my view misguided) idea of some in XR that everything that went before was useless probably has something to do with this. But many of those involved at that time were angry, clever, inventive and innovative and many of the techniques used by XR were honed and developed by those who were involved in the earlier period. It was also a time when the whole movement was much broader and more connected I think, with more overlap between people engaged in different aspects or approaches. My aim in writing the novel was primarily to tell a story however and I hope that what readers will take away is the satisfaction that comes when you read a novel that speaks to you in some way.

2.  It’s obvious where you got the knowledge for the psychoanalysis scenes, but the activist scenes read pretty well too – for instance you’re particularly strong on the emotions around big actions and meetings, both “positive” and negative” –   how did you do the research for them?

Over the years I’ve talked a lot with my son and his partner and some of their friends about their involvement in the kind of climate activism that features in the novel, so that was the primary source, along with my own involvement with more community based action where there was a lot of overlap between people taking part in direct action and people doing more conventional stuff. Something which provided additional background was a piece of research I did which explored the quite different emotional experiences of climate activists and climate scientists. The characters however are the products of my imagination. When you write fiction you become a thief – you steal stuff from everyone you know – an incident that your transform, a personality trait that finds its way into a character for instance – but most of this happens unconsciously. Once a character has formed in your mind, that character writes themselves. The actual incidents – climate camp, the ambush of the train, the occupation of the open-cast mine for example – are a mash-up of events that actually happened but transposed in place and time. If you were there you will probably identify what I’ve drawn on and be either pleased or irritated at what I’ve done with it.

3.  There are some characters (no spoilers) who are particularly caught up in their own views of the world, who don’t seem to be able see things from anyone else’s point of view, and thus do quite a lot of damage to those they purport to love and serve.   They are also the most prominent (but by no means only!) male characters – was that a conscious (!) decision?

Thomas (the transgressive psychotherapist) is perhaps an amalgam of all the bad men I’ve ever known, all the male arrogance, all the sense of entitlement, all the blindness to reality. I did want him to seem real however and I hope that the reader gets glimpses of another side to him. Similarly with Jake, I wanted the reader to see how powerful self-deception and self-duplicity can be as well as how destructive. I hoped that some of the other male characters – Felix for instance with his wounded sensitivity, or Stefan with his skilled good sense – would provide another side to the portrayal of masculinity.

4.  We’re ten years on now from the events in the book – either side of the Copenhagen conference and the revelation that the UK environment movement was riddled with police spies.  Any plans to revisit the same characters, or to write another novel in light of the deteriorating situation?

A number of people have asked me what happens to the characters in the novel and how I would write a sequel but at present I don’t have any plans to follow them up. I suspect that their later lives might be much less interesting than the events of ‘Transgression’. Felix and Clara in particular are at a turning point in life, they have all the hope of youth and face all the disappointment of a bitter political reality. I’m not sure I could write the sequel to that at present.

The current deteriorating climate situation is of course so inflected by the Covid-19 crisis that it feels much too early to be able to put anything intelligent into words of any kind, let alone fiction – but who knows. At the moment I’m working on another novel which is set during the cold war and maybe by the time I’ve discovered whether that one will work and whether I can finish it I will find it in myself to write more fiction about the climate crisis.

5. Anything else you’d like to say?

There’s been a lot of fiction written about the kind of future we might face as a result of climate change, most of it understandably dystopian and I’ve often wished that there was more fiction about what this issue feels like now, what it feels like to live it. Although ‘Transgression’ is set a little bit in the past my hope is that it gives imaginative space to what it feels like to be involved politically in this most desperate of issues. So much of what people talk to me about at present is the same as what people felt ten and fifteen years ago – the anger, the distress, the anxiety, the sense of your world being reshaped, the need to throw over your existing life and commit yourself, the fear that we will not succeed in stopping this. There was perhaps a little more hope then but the devastation that came with Copenhagen and the imposition of austerity was immense, greater than anything I’ve seen since. So perhaps my hope is that as well as creating a good story I’ve given space for some of the feelings and experiences of the climate movement to be validated imaginatively.

 

'Transgression' is now available, £2.50 Kindle, £6.99 paperback.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=Rosemary+Randall+Transgression&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss 
Also available direct via www.rorandall.org