Cut motor traffic. Live better lives. Tackle climate change

September 16, 2022

By Simon Pirani

The borough of Greenwich, south east London, plans to cut car traffic by 45% by 2030 – but even that will produce less than half the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that climate scientists say are needed.

The proposal to cut back traffic is a good start to a conversation about transforming urban transport, I argued this week in a response to the council’s draft Transport Strategy. But only a start. (Download the full response here.)

Copenhagen. But coming to south east London soon. Photo by heb@Wikimedia Commons

Better still would be to set carbon budgets – limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted during specific time periods – and use them as a framework for transport and other policies.

Such budgets can concentrate minds on policies to improve people’s lives, while contributing to tackling climate change at the same time. Better, cheaper public transport and support for non-car ways of travelling, e.g. bikes and walking, all help.

Transport is the second-biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Greenwich; heat, electricity and cooking fuel for homes and other buildings is the first. 

In 2019, Greenwich was one of many local authorities that declared a “climate emergency” in response to school pupils’ strikes demanding action on climate, and Extinction Rebellion’s direct action campaign. Even the UK parliament claimed to recognise this emergency.

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Climate adaptation: more sea walls will not be enough

August 26, 2022

The climate crisis is leading to massive social rifts. Politics-as-usual will tend to accentuate the problem rather than solve it – and effective adaptation calls for radical transformations that push beyond the existing system. By Ulrich Brand, Barbara Fried, Rhonda Koch, Hannah Schurian, and Markus Wissen

Imagine a summer heatwave in Berlin in 2050. For weeks on end, the temperature fails to dip below 20 degrees, even at night. The heat builds up in poorly renovated, heavily populated residential areas—while neighbourhoods with green areas and private gardens are up to ten degrees cooler.

This is a just a single glimpse of the kinds of inequality produced in a world shaped by climate change—and it is far from the most distressing one. By mid-century, far more serious environmental crises will interfere with living conditions in many regions of the world, or even render them unbearable.

A man walks along the giant sea wall being built along the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia, much of which is sinking below sea level. Photo by Irene Barlian / Climate Visuals Countdown : Creative Commons

Yet, even in Germany, heatwaves will claim lives. Preparing for the coming increases in extreme weather and environmental crises demands massive action—however, this need continues to be ignored. Even a rich country like Germany is failing to take the measures that are necessary to adapt.

The price is being paid primarily by those who have access to the fewest resources and bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis.

Climate adaptation is a social question, conceivably the social question of the coming age. But even on the left it is often pushed aside.

To speak of adaptation suggests a posture of defence and resignation, and fails to inspire assent. And anyway, wouldn’t we be better off directing all of our efforts toward mitigating climate change than already starting to reconcile ourselves to the consequences?

The opposite is true. If we take climate prognoses seriously and consider what, concretely, a two-degree rise in average global temperatures will mean, we will see all the more clearly that a radical fight against climate change is urgently necessary in order to prevent an even worse fate.

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Europe’s imperial plunder of African gas, masquerading as climate action

August 24, 2022

By Simon Pirani. Reposted, with thanks, from Truthout

Food and fuel prices are soaring globally, and the Russian oil and gas supply has been squeezed since the invasion of Ukraine. In response, European governments are paving the way to massive investments in fossil fuels from non-Russian sources that imperil efforts to tackle climate change.

Policies are being made to suit fossil fuel companies, who see Russia’s war in Ukraine as an opportunity to expand production elsewhere.

Protest against the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) by Hilda Flavia Nakabuye of Fridays for Future Uganda

Governments are missing opportunities to cut oil and gas use by managing demand — by insulating homes and shifting from car-based urban transport systems, for example — and speeding the shift to electricity generation from solar and wind power.

Governmental failures in the face of the climate crisis, exemplified by scorching summer temperatures and drought, are matched by inadequate responses to economic crises. Inflation and recession are combining to threaten hundreds of millions of people’s livelihoods. Resistance to these attacks is growing. Here in the UK, a wave of strikes seems likely to become the biggest in decades.

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The Silvertown tunnel reinforces deadly climate doublethink

August 16, 2022

London mayor Sadiq Khan has lashed out at opponents of the Silvertown tunnel project, who are calling on him to pause and review the major infrastructure project at the eleventh hour.

Khan has filed a complaint against Newham mayor Rokshana Fiaz, after she shared on social media a claim by the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition that City Hall had used “lies and half-truths” to justify the scheme.

The complaint has gone to Clyde Loakes, Labour chief whip for London Councils, which brings together the leaders of 21 Labour-led councils in the capital.

The “banshees” street theatre group protesting against the tunnel project, July 2020. Photo by Ben Darlington / SSTC web site

The tunnel project has no discernible local support. Greenwich, Lewisham and Hackney councils are opposed, along with Newham, as are climate scientists, transport researchers, trade unions, community groups and thousands of local residents who have turned out on protests.

Yet preparatory work is already underway, and contractors working for Transport for London (TfL) are lowering pieces of the biggest tunnel boring machine ever used in the UK into its chamber. So political pressure to rethink is peaking.

If the £2.2 billion scheme goes ahead, it will exacerbate dreadful air pollution problems locally, boost road transport, and undermine efforts to tackle dangerous climate breakdown.

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War and climate justice: a discussion

July 22, 2022

OpenDemocracy yesterday hosted a useful, and sobering, discussion about the war in Ukraine and the fight for climate justice, with Oleh Savitsky (Stand with Ukraine and Ukraine Climate Network), Angelina Davydova (a prominent commentator on Russian climate policy) and me.  

To open, I made three points about the policy response by the governments of rich western countries that consume most of those fossil fuels.

1. Political leaders are focusing on replacing Russian oil and gas with supplies from elsewhere. This undermines all the promises made at the international climate talks.

So the UK government, just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, gave the go-ahead for a new oil field, Jackdaw, operated by Shell – when we know that tackling climate change means there can be no new oil fields in rich countries.

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Ending Europe’s gas addiction: an Earthcare fieldcast

May 25, 2022

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN. On one hand climate scientists point out that the use of methane gas must be phased out; on the other, millions of people are suffering from rising gas prices. How does Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Germany’s suspension of the NordStream 2 pipeline from Russia, change this terrain? And is it possible to transition away from gas without an explosion in energy poverty – or a planned decrease in energy use? Simon Pirani (who writes this blog) and Oliver Bugge Hunt, who is researching the politics of pipelines at the University of Copenhagen, talked about this on an Earthcare fieldcast. 25 May 2022. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN.

■ See also on Open Democracy: Goodbye Russian gas, hello rapid decarbonisation, by Simon Pirani

A gas processing plant in Russia

White or Black Power? The choice before Extinction Rebellion

April 30, 2022

This article by ROB CALLENDER of Jubilee Climate has been discussed widely among Extinction Rebellion (XR) members. It starts with a message responding to a facebook post by Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR. It is published here with Rob’s permission. Answers to the question at the end – “what do you think?” – are welcome.

Download this article as a PDF 

Dear Roger, Just stop using white power narratives and white power tactics with a white power vision of how to tackle a crisis that was made by white power. It will fail. Again. We can’t afford to keep failing. It is likely to make things worse for many many people, if not for you, and that is horrifying to have on your hands. Yes, your hands. We need to do the hard work. You’re distracting and dividing people. Hang up your ego and get involved. Love, Rob

WHITE POWER FORGETS

Many within environmental movements like Extinction Rebellion are unconscious of how white power has characterised these movements’ tactics and strategies. It is why we are failing, and why we will continue to fail unless we learn and evolve.

If oil is stopped, then what? The climate crisis will not have gone away. We are struggling against a monstrous hydra with many many vicious heads, all destroying ecosystems and the liveable climate. We need to strike at the root, the heart of the monster, not at one single element. Greenpeace has had many campaigns, some daring and with success. But Greenpeace is now 50 years old. We don’t have 50 more years. After oil, then what?

Demonstrators in London demanding reparations to the global south for ecocide and genocide (maangamizi) by rich countries. Photo by Andrea Domeniconi/Alamy Live News

After every action, movement and rebellion, some fill the pause with strategising. Every time a single conversation that dominates others has gone something like this: “we haven’t got the narrative right, it’s not appealing to ‘the people’, because we’re using leftist jargon and talking about ‘justice’. We need to have a vision of what the future will look like for ordinary people – a nation they can buy into and want to build – it needs a sense of let’s all come together now to fix the climate for our children and grandchildren”. Sound good?

This is white power. People shaped by white power live in a loop in which they believe that their vision, this time, must succeed, if only everyone got behind it. Their conviction comes from the privileged lived experience of whiteness which brings them closer to the establishment and a reformist mindset (despite what they say and the vehemence of the tactics they employ) and farther from communities outside of the establishment. The powerful conviction coming from the individual person creates obliviousness, forgetfulness – amnesia.

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Climate change: disruptive mass civil disobedience is our only hope

March 2, 2022

Sarah, a member of Extinction Rebellion Greenwich, was found guilty in court last week of offences under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. This came as a result of her arrest during XR’s rebellion in August last year. XR blocked a road junction in London with a big pink table, with an open invitation for all to “come to the table” for crisis talks on action to prevent climate breakdown. This is the mitigating statement Sarah read out in court.

In the statement of my arresting officer there is a hysterical-sounding quote from me about not wanting the world to burn. At the time of my arrest, there were huge wildfires burning out of control in Algeria, France, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Canada.

In the US there were over 100 fires burning simultaneously, including the Dixie fire – the second largest ever recorded in the notoriously fire-prone state of California. Firefighters and park rangers were battling to save giant redwoods that had stood for over 2000 years. The most extensive fires on record were sweeping across Siberia.

XR in London, 23 August 2021. Photo by Gareth Morris

The images of these fires were all I could think about, as the police walked alongst the protestors telling us we’d “made our point” and were being “too disruptive”.

People all over the world were losing their livelihoods, homes and lives. Wildlife was being decimated. Ecosystems were being destroyed. In central London, a few hundred protestors were blocking a junction to call on our government to take action to tackle climate breakdown – and this is the disruption we can’t accept.

I didn’t want to be arrested. I don’t want a criminal record. I’m worried about the my job, which is extremely important to me. I’ve worked in safeguarding for the last 16 years, trying to protect children at risk of harm in order to ensure take they have a future to look forward to.

But that will all be for nothing, because none of our children will have a future if we as a species don’t do something to change the trajectory we’re on. There has never been a bigger safeguarding risk than climate breakdown.

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Fossil fuel systems and how to change them

January 20, 2022

An on-line talk (35 minutes) by Simon Pirani, hosted by Endgames / RS21, on 17 January 2022.

“Most politicians pretend that by (i) substituting renewable electricity generation for coal- and gas-fired generation, (ii) introducing technofixes such as electric cars, and (iii) ‘reducing consumption’ by final users (a little), they are doing something about climate change. These are delusions. To combat delusions, and work out which technologies are compatible with tackling climate change and social injustice, society as a whole needs to develop its understanding of these technological systems and of alternatives.” (The slides for the talk are here.)


Oil and the United Kingdom: towards extinction … or hope

August 23, 2021

Download this review as a PDF here

TERRY BROTHERSTONE reviews Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by James Marriott and Terry Macalister (London, Pluto Press, 2021)

Even Alok Sharma – Boris Johnson loyalist, former Tory cabinet minister, now president of the COP 26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November – says he recognises it: the planet is in the last-chance saloon. Indeed, the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn, the clock – to borrow George Orwell’s opening to 1984 – has already struck thirteen. “Human activity,” reported The Guardian,“is changing the Earth’s climate in ways unprecedented in … hundreds of thousands of years”: some potentially disastrous consequences are “inevitable and ‘irreversible’”.

Only the worst effects can now be alleviated, and that only by decisive action drastically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without a serious move to end reliance on fossil fuels, human society as we know it faces extinction. And, argues this book, Britain is a nation the modern existence of which has been shaped by oil. What hope is there for the future?

The publication of Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation is timely indeed. That James Marriott and Terry Macalister had fun researching it resonates in their writing, but it must have been hard work too. It took them about three years longer than planned, when the instability that afflicted Britain in the years following the 2007-09 financial crash prompted their project. The effects of austerity; the near-miss 2014 Scottish independence referendum that raised the now immanent possibility that the 314-year-old union with England could end, and with it the fragile constitutional underpinnings of the United Kingdom; “Brexit”; growing fears of climate catastrophe … it all made the nation look unprecedentedly insecure.

A protest against new oil field development in Scotland. Photo by Craig Maclean

Experts in their different ways in the central socio-economic role of oil in the modern world, Marriott and Macalister decided to investigate the part it had played in holding the Britain of recent decades together – and is now playing in tearing it apart. They would travel the country, researching its post-World-War-II relationship with the industry. Then, as they were reaching their journey’s end, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt the final blow to what to them – children, as they introduce themselves, of the years in which oil replaced coal in the engine-room of British prosperity and sustained the underlying certainties of the country’s political economy and social life – had seemed an “era of optimism”. They “had spent [their] lives writing on the oil and gas industry and its impacts around the world”, and now wanted to understand “what was its role … in Britain’s turbulence?”

Marriott and Macalister make an ideal pair to ask the question, and they have devised an entertaining, instructive and original way of starting serious debate about answering it. The delay in their publication plans, moreover, means that their book has arrived at an opportune moment. The protest movement is gathering momentum, notably in London against the Science Museum’s acceptance of Shell’s “greenwashing” sponsorship for its “Future of the Planet” exhibition and, in Scotland, against further North Sea oil exploitation, in the first place of the Cambo field, west of Shetland. And planning is well underway for major demonstrations at the COP 26 summit that the smooth and well-travelled (although never-quarantined) Sharma is scheduled to chair in Glasgow in November – described by Kevin McKenna in The Herald (Glasgow) recently as an exercise in entrusting “our climate recovery … to the sector chiefly responsible for creating it … the planet’s chief pollutant: global capitalism.”

Macalister, now Senior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge and a freelance journalist, was for some years Energy Editor at The Guardian – a position in which he clearly formed working relationships with key figures in the oil industry, access to whom adds important insights to Crude Britannia. Interviewees include senior politicians such as Michael Heseltine and “Green Deal” Corbynite, Rebecca Long-Bailey; and chief executives such as Royal Dutch Shell’s Bernardus (or “Ben”) van Beurden, and John, Baron Browne of Madingley. Browne was British Petroleum’s chief executive from 1995 until 2007, and his shape-shiftingly image-conscious, but never less than ruthless, career punctuates the story at key moments. His 41 years with BP ended following the revelation that he had lied about his personal life in a sworn court deposition. Now a cross-bench peer, he emerges as one of the key business figures in the “new Labour” years. His ultimately unsuccessful attempts to rebrand BP as “Beyond Petroleum” with a sun-god logo, dovetailed well with premier Tony Blair’s short-lived “third way”, capitalism-with-a-human-face ideology.

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