Oil and the United Kingdom: towards extinction … or hope

August 23, 2021

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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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Let Africa’s queer voices speak in the movement for climate justice

July 6, 2021

As the climate crisis intensifies in Africa, LGBTQIA+ people will struggle the most, ORTHALIA KUNENE, a South African writer and grass roots activist, writes in this guest post

Climate change affects every one of us on the planet but the burden of its consequences are vastly unequal.

While climate impacts are devastating for everyone, inequalities such as those between the rich and poor, and between different genders and sexualities, widen in times of crisis. The impacts are experienced in varying depths and extremes within – and between – communities.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), people who are already the most vulnerable and marginalised will experience the greatest impacts of the climate crisis. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and ally (LGBTQIA+) community is one such group, which, because of its social vulnerability, is a hidden victim of climate changes.

In Africa, LGBTQIA+ people are already more likely to live in poverty, have less access to basic human rights – such as the ability to move freely – and to face systematic violence, that escalates during periods of instability. There are more and more instances of violence and state repression, and as climate change intensifies, LGBTQIA+ people on the continent will struggle the most.

The Pride festival in Soweto, South Africa, in 2014. Photo by Siyachamer Ntuli

In the past two years, climate disasters have rampaged through the African continent, washing away homes, bridges, schools, and entire neighbourhoods. In Mozambique, since Cyclone Idai in 2019, there have been three more cyclones.

When Cyclone Idai hit landfall in Beira, Mozambique, it killed more than 1000 people across Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, and left 2.6 million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Catastrophic damage, caused by strong winds and extensive flooding, wiped away harvests and destroyed seed stocks. Millions lost their homes and livelihoods. Two years on, more than 8.7 million people do not have enough food or water, and over 100,000 people in Mozambique are still living in temporary shelters.

While devastating for all the communities impacted, those affected who are LGBTIQIA+ are even more vulnerable – because of pre-existing challenges based on the continuous fight for equal rights and freedom from discrimination and violence. There was a reminder of these challenges earlier this year in Cameroon, where more than two dozen people were arrested between February and April on charges of homosexuality, according to Human Rights Watch, and several of those arrested were subjected to beatings and other forms of abuse.

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‘The Mayor won’t change his mind’

June 29, 2021

As opposition to the £2.2 billion climate-trashing, polluting Silvertown Tunnel project grows in east and south-east London, campaigners keep getting a message back from Labour politicians: “The Mayor won’t change his mind.”

That’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, one of Labour’s most powerful elected politicians.

Campaigners have asked him to pause and review the project, given the climate emergency that London has declared, the air pollution crisis, the pandemic, and Brexit, that have upended traffic projections.

But the Mayor says no.

As Len Duvall, leader of the Labour group in the London Assembly, put it in correspondence about the tunnel project: “He [the Mayor] is not going to review it!”

A march against the Silvertown Tunnel in Newham this month. Photo by Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition

To a warning that construction could be disrupted by civil disobedience, Duvall replied: “I suspect you’re right, there will be some form of direct action. And it [the tunnel] will still be built!”

Len, can I just remind you? This isn’t a mafia movie, or a third-rate Netflix drama about medieval burghers, in which you play the tough guy.

This is our life, and our children’s lives – they are the ones at the schools near the tunnel site, getting choked by particulate matter, remember? – in the largest city in Europe, in the face of a climate crisis.

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Strategies for the new climate war

April 6, 2021

Review of The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet, by Michael E. Mann (London: Scribe Publications, 2021). By Simon Pirani

Fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats and oil-funded governments “can no longer insist, with a straight face, that nothing is happening”, Michael Mann writes. Outright denial of the physical evidence of climate change is no longer credible.

So they have shifted to a softer form of denialism while keeping the oil flowing and fossil fuels burning, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction and delay. This is the new climate war, and the planet is losing (page 3).

The enemy’s weapons in this new war, Mann argues, include greenwash, illusory technofixes such as capturing carbon from the air, and deflecting attention on to individual behaviour instead of what companies do.

The Climate Action Tracker thermometer

Mann, a climatologist at the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State University in the US, was in the old climate war, too. He was lead author of a 1999 article featuring the now-famous “hockey stick” graph, showing that temperatures ramped sharply upwards in the late 20th century, out of the range of the previous 1000 years.

In 2001, after the graph appeared in the Third Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate science deniers orchestrated a public hate campaign against its authors, and others who worked with them.

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There’s still time to stop the climate-trashing Silvertown Tunnel

March 24, 2021

As the UK prepares to host international climate negotiations in November, London’s local authority is pressing ahead with a £2 billion-plus climate-trashing tunnel project that is incompatible with decarbonisation.

The Greater London Authority’s Silvertown Tunnel, together with the government’s £27 billion motorway upgrade scheme, makes a mockery of the UK’s claim to be “leading the way” on tackling climate change.

The tunnel project also shows that climate hypocrisy is bipartisan: it’s the biggest spending decision this decade by Labour’s most powerful elected official, London mayor Sadiq Khan. Labour,

Anti-tunnel demonstrators in Greenwich, September 2019

like the Tories, talks “green” – while piling up the most frightful problems for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The tunnel is deeply unpopular locally. The long list of opponents includes four local Labour MPs, four Labour-controlled local councils, eight Constituency Labour parties and 20 Labour branches, the Greens and Liberal Democrats in London, dozens of community, trade union and environmental organisations, groups of doctors and teachers, and a long list of researchers of climate science, air pollution and transport policy.

The tunnel, a terrible idea long before Covid-19, looks even worse now: long-term transport projections are being rewritten and Transport for London desperately needs financial and Read the rest of this entry »


Global heating, droughts and storms fuel violence against women

March 1, 2021

By ORTHALIA KUNENE, a South African writer and grass roots activist in her community

The fight against climate change is not only a struggle to keep our planet liveable. For many women, rising temperatures can be a direct cause of violence.

Understanding connections between heat and violence is increasingly important as we witness the warming of our planet, and anticipate more intense and longer-lasting heatwaves.

In most parts of South Africa, temperatures already often exceed 40°C.

While violence in South Africa has often been attributed to its unique historical, social and

Photo by Extinction Rebellion, Nelson Mandela Bay

economic characteristics, the potential contribution of physical environmental factors, such as heat, has largely been ignored.

But a study using data from all 1158 police wards in South Africa documented higher levels of violence, including homicides, during periods of high temperature.

In Tshwane, Gauteng Province, a study assessed five years of temperature and crime data – and found that the number of violent crime incidents was about 50% higher on high-temperature days, compared with low-temperature days and with random days selected from the dataset after the warmest and coldest days had been extracted.

Another study in the same area noted seasonal patterns in crime, with violence most frequent in the summer months.

Francina Nkosi, national coordinator for Women Affected by Mining United in Action (WAMUA), says: “Around the world, climate change-induced crises have been shown to worsen violence Read the rest of this entry »


Electric cars are no panacea. The government’s focus on them is a sham

February 23, 2021

By SIMON PIRANI

The UK government has put electric cars at the centre of its disastrous climate strategy, which doesn’t even aim for half the needed greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The focus on electric cars – which goes together with a gigantic £27 billion road-building programme – is opposed by researchers of climate science, transport policy, engineering and urban planning. Their advice has in practice been ignored.

The Labour leadership is happy with the electric cars narrative, leaving researchers and campaigners outside parliament to point out that electrification, without an immediate, giant

The numbers need to go down

shift towards public transport, cycling and walking – and away from individually-owned cars – will never come close to decarbonising transport at any meaningful pace.

In the run-up to the international climate talks in Glasgow in November, it is vital that the government’s cynical PR strategy is unmasked.

Support for electric cars was a highlight of the government’s ten-point plan for a “green industrial revolution”, announced in November. Sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030 – that is, after the most vital decade for action on climate has already passed.

The plan includes a promise of about £2.8 billion to subsidise manufacture of, and infrastructure for, electric cars – just over one-tenth of the cost of the £27 billion national road-building Read the rest of this entry »


China: Xi Jinping’s coal stokes the climate fire

January 15, 2021

China’s national and provincial post-Covid recovery packages will put three times as much cash into fossil fuel projects as into renewable energy.

China is “focusing its recovery on high-carbon energy and infrastructure, as it did after

One of China’s vanity projects: a puffer fish statue in Jiangsu province, which provoked social media outrage when it was unveiled

the 2008-09 global financial crisis”, says Carbon Brief, who analysed the spending plans. Dozens of new coal-fired power stations and climate-trashing coal-to-chemicals plants are among the key items.

The plans make a mockery of Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s claim to the United Nations in September to be aiming for “carbon neutrality before 2060”.

This chasm between words and actions makes Xi a “climate arsonist” still more dangerous than Donald Trump, Richard Smith, a US-based China researcher, writes in a recent article. Smith fears that Xi is “abandoning the transition to renewables”.

In a book published last year, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, Smith argues that China’s combination of bureaucratic dictatorship and capitalism has exacerbated Read the rest of this entry »


China and the “left”: what planet are these people on?

January 15, 2021

As China’s ruling elite connives with European and American politicians to promote false climate “solutions” via the international talks, its defenders on the “left” claim it is aiming for an “ecological civilisation”.

A common approach is to foreground geopolitics: to present the trade war between the USA and China as part of the battle between capitalism and “socialism” and to sideline the class struggle in China.

The Chinese elite’s role in driving forward unsustainable capitalist expansion, so obscured and downplayed by its defenders on the “left”, is analysed by Richard Smith in his book China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, which I discussed in a linked post, that you could read first.

In this post I contrast Smith’s approach to that of John Bellamy Foster, a writer on “ecological Marxism” and editor of Monthly Review, and comment on a review of Smith’s book by Andrew Burgin, a UK-based socialist activist. It’s in the form of five questions.

 

  1. Does the Chinese elite’s support for renewable electricity generation show that it is leading the way to an “ecological civilisation”?

The Chinese coal-fired boom of the last 20 years has made a substantial contribution to the climate and ecological emergency – and yet prominent “ecosocialists”, without Read the rest of this entry »


Carbon dioxide removal sucks. There are better ways to tackle global warming

November 13, 2020

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) systems, touted as techno-fixes for global warming, usually put more greenhouse gases into the air than they take out, a study published last month has confirmed.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), which grabs carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by coal- or gas-fired power stations, and then uses it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), emits between 1.4 and 4.7 tonnes of the gas for each tonne removed, the article shows.

Direct air capture (DAC), which sucks CO2 from the atmosphere, emits 1.4-3.5 tonnes for

Biological carbon removal: a forest in Turkey. Photo: Fagus/ wikimedia

each tonne it recovers, mostly from fossil fuels used to power the handful of existing projects.

If DAC was instead powered by renewable electricity – as its supporters claim it should be – it would wolf down other natural resources.

And things get worse at large scale.

To capture 1 gigatonne of CO2 (1 GtCO2, just one-fortieth of current global CO2 emissions) would need nearly twice the amount of wind and solar electricity now produced globally. The equipment would need a land area bigger than the island of Sri Lanka and a vast network of pipelines and underground storage facilities. (See endnote 1.)

Claims made that CCS could be “green” – by generating the energy from biofuels, and/or storing the carbon instead of using it for oil production – do not stand up to scrutiny either, the article shows.

The paper – “Assessing Carbon Capture: public policy, science and societal need”, by Read the rest of this entry »


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