Climate protests are being criminalised, but we will not stop

January 6, 2023

By MARY ADAMS, writer and Just Stop Oil climate activist

I boarded a prison van along with five others and took my place in the locked metal box allocated to each prisoner. It was 27 September 2022, and we were headed for trial at the Birmingham High court. Our crime – climate protest.

A Just Stop Oil demonstration in London, 10 December. Photo by Steve Eason

As we pulled out of the gates of the notorious HMP Foston Hall – ranked lowest of women’s prisons in a government Inspectorate Report, September 2022 – I thought of the women left behind on the remand wing, languishing in cramped, drab cells for twenty-three and a half hours a day. No wonder Foston Hall has the highest rate of violence and self-harm amongst its inmate population.

We were locked in narrow single cells converted to double occupancy by way of bunk beds, and our meals were eaten in our cells. Requests for basic amenities such as repairing a blocked sink were dealt with slowly, if not ignored altogether. Hot water was hard to come by.

With broken, cheap shelving and scuffed, peeling paint, a sense of hopelessness was baked into those featureless grey walls.

It was in Foston Hall that I tasted the overwhelming darkness that loss of agency in prison can evoke.

Like everyone on the remand wing, I quickly adjusted to the continuous “beep” of expended smoke alarm batteries. But for two evenings the smoke alarm, itself, emitted a high-pitched shriek every fifteen minutes. After several attempts to get help from a surly prison guard, she terminated any further discussion on the subject.

Slamming shut the narrow aperture on our door, her parting words underscored the desolation of such institutions. “This is prison life…Get used to it!”.

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Appeal to Labour Party members: help turn back this tide of greenwash

December 21, 2022

Here is a letter that I sent yesterday to Maggie Ferncombe, the chair of the London Regional Labour party, Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for climate change, and friends in the Labour party in London. It urges them to do something about the tsunami of greenwash thrown over the Silvertown tunnel project by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, Labour’s most powerful elected official.

Over the last four years the Mayor and the few supporters of the project have – in defiance of reality, transport research and climate science – claimed that the tunnel project is compatible with policy objectives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It obviously is not, as 70-odd researchers in relevant areas told the Mayor in April 2021, in a letter he did not acknowledge or respond to.

The Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition banner on a climate action march in London, 12 November. Photo by Steve Eason

More roads produce more traffic; more traffic produces more greenhouse gas emissions; decarbonising transport means sharply reducing the volume of traffic; and the resources spent on road-building projects work against that aim, and against the support for public transport, rail, cycling and other non-car modes of transport that can make decarbonisation possible.

Although the Silvertown tunnel project is a London policy issue, it has national implications. Labour’s stubborn denial of reality about the tunnel is on the same level as the Tory government’s fantasies that licencing coal mines, new oil and gas fields, or its own £27 billion road building programme, dovetails with combating global heating.

My letter – attached as a PDF – concerns a very specific set of issues, on which the greenwash spilled over into falsehoods, used by Heidi Alexander, then London’s deputy mayor for transport and now Labour candidate for Swindon South, to justify the unjustifiable tunnel project. If you are reading this and you are in the Labour party, please have a word. Simon Pirani, 21 December 2022.

Dear Maggie Ferncombe and Ed Miliband,

I write to ask you to take action within the Labour Party over the circulation of false information about the climate emergency by the Greater London Authority, and the Authority’s failure to deal with complaints about this false information, in breach of its own rules.

The false information was circulated in 2021 by Heidi Alexander, former deputy mayor of London, in response to people who protested to the Mayor of London about the Silvertown Tunnel project. In particular, Ms Alexander claimed:

(a) that the GLA has adopted plans to reach “zero carbon goals”;

(b) that the modelling of carbon emissions on which the GLA carbon reduction trajectory is based takes into account planned developments such as the Silvertown Tunnel; and

(c) that Arup has conducted an “independent assessment” of London’s 1.5 degree carbon reduction trajectory.

The note below explains the importance of the issues complained of for climate policy. 

Recipients of this false information contacted the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition, for which I had conducted research about the tunnel project. The coalition continued to press the Mayor to review the project and its compatibility with his climate policies, but he declined.

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Communities question hydrogen hype

December 16, 2022

The UK government’s climate-trashing plans to use hydrogen for home heating are starting to come up against resistance by communities.

Residents of Whitby on Merseyside – one of two sites the government is considering making an experimental “hydrogen village” – protested last week about the tide of greenwash from Cadent Gas in support of the plan.

Whitby residents’ protest last week. All photos from HyNOT twitter feed

The villagers demonstrated in the freezing cold at Cadent’s Hydrogen Experience Centre, against the proposal to turn their homes over to hydrogen heating without proper consultation.

Louise Gittins, leader of Cheshire West and Chester council, told the crowd: “I don’t want anyone forced into doing this. I’ll take what you’ve said on board.”

Cadent, which owns the local gas distribution network, plans to convert 2000 Whitby households to hydrogen for heating – despite opposition to such uses by engineers and energy researchers. They say that fitting electric heat pumps, and retrofitting insulation, is more energy-efficient, and contributes far more effectively and rapidly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The government supports hydrogen for home heating – in line with energy companies’ wishes, and against the advice of engineers and scientists in numerous reports. It will decide next year which residents to use as guinea pigs for its “hydrogen village” experiment; its two options are in Whitby and Redcar, north Yorkshire.

The government has also funded studies for Northern Gas Networks’ H21 project, which would convert more than 15 million homes from gas to hydrogen. And just this week it has launched a consultation about offering “hydrogen-ready” boilers to homes – which would damage more effective, electricity-based routes to decarbonisation.

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Greenwash and techno-babble take us towards catastrophe. We need to turn the great power of social movements against them

November 30, 2022

This interview with Simon Pirani, first published on the Transnational Social Strike platform, is part of the Climate Class Conflict initiative which the platform is promoting, to provide a space for transnational discussion on climate struggles.

Q. In the last years, the climate movement – brought about mainly by young people – has used the strike as its main political tool to claim for a just transition and for climate justice on a global level. Which impact do you think this movement is having, in particular on social movements? Which are the main challenges do you think the climate movement have to face now?

“We have not been defeated”: African climate protesters at COP 27. Photo from Cop27 coalition twitter feed

A. Thank you for these questions. First, it is worth thinking about the way that the meaning of “strike” has changed. As far as I know, for at least two centuries, “strike” had a fairly narrow meaning: a collective refusal to do paid work. It was the most basic weapon of working-class struggle against employers. But under the impact of feminist and other movements, “strike” has come to cover a wider range of actions. The school students’ “Fridays for Future” movement is one such action.

I wish I could answer your question about what impact this is having on social movements! I think, time will tell. There was a moment when the new movements that emerged in 2018 – in the UK, around “Fridays for Future” and Extinction Rebellion – seemed to have the potential to change social movements more broadly. Then came the pandemic and the whole process was disrupted. It really did make organising more difficult.

This year, with the worst of the pandemic over, I have noticed two trends. The first is the growth of protest around climate issues in Africa, and a recognition of that by groups in the global north. The Niger Delta has decades of history of organising against the oil companies whose extractivism trashed the local environment and impoverished the population: that is not new. But some new movements – especially against the renewed push to exploit gas reserves – appear to be broader. Coalitions such as Don’t Gas Africa and Stop EACOP (the East African Crude Oil Pipeline) are significant. And many groups in Europe have made solidarity with the global south a basic building-block of all that they do on climate issues.

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Oil companies, dictators and greenwashers captured COP27. Hope lies in movements outside the talks

November 21, 2022

This assessment of COP27 was published by Truthout on Friday, and the agreement struck yesterday doesn’t change the main points. Headlines yesterday welcomed the fund for loss and damage – but so far it is just an “empty bucket”, as Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa pointed out.

Demonstrators outside the talks in Egypt. Photo from Omar Elmawi’s twitter feed

In other ways the deal reached was ruinous. There was no clear commitment to phase out fossil fuels. “The fact that the outcome only talks about ‘phasedown of unabated coal power’ is a disaster for Africa and for the climate”, as Babawale Obayanju, of Friends of the Earth Africa, said. Oil and gas are not mentioned, and “one small word, ‘unabated’, creates a huge loophole, opening the door to new fossil-based hydrogen and carbon capture and storage projects, which will allow emissions to continue.” Simon Pirani, 21 November 2022.

The international climate talks in Egypt – the 27th Conference of  Parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP27 – have become a dystopian nightmare: oil companies, dictators and greenwashers captured the process more effectively than ever. 

But there is hope: alliances are taking shape – between civil society, scientists and labor – that aim to break the fossil fuel companies’ deathly grip on climate policy.

Corporate capture  

This year’s United Nations climate summit, which ends on Friday at the luxury Sharm el-Sheikh resort, is the first to which oil and gas companies were invited to participate in the official program of events. Rachel Rose Jackson of Corporate Accountability commented that “COP27 looks like a fossil fuel industry trade show.”  

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Ukraine’s energy system: principles for post-war reconstruction

October 28, 2022

Ukrainian socialists hosted an on line discussion on “Energy Crisis and Sustainability: lessons of the Russo-Ukrainian war” on 22 October. You can watch a recording on youtube here in English, or here in Ukrainian. The panel of speakers included Ukrainian climate policy researcher Maryna Larina; Leszek Karlik of the Energy Policy Group of Razem, the Polish left party; and Christian Zeller of the University of Salzburg; and me.

The event was part of an on-line conference on Reconstruction and Justice in Post-War Ukraine, hosted by the editors of the socialist journal Spilne (Commons). Recordings of all the sessions are now up on line, and well worth viewing.

Here’s the text of my talk. At the end I have added some comments on the discussion, and some links to further reading. I look forward to the continuation of our discussion. Simon Pirani.

□  

I have not been to Ukraine since the invasion in February, and I only understand the difficulties people face at second hand. Furthermore, it is difficult for all of us to talk about post-war reconstruction when the war is raging. Every day this means not only deaths and injuries, but also the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including power stations and boiler houses. 

Delegates from the Independent Miners Union of Chervonohrad delivering food, medicines and other aid to front-line communities last week. Photo from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine twitter feed

This winter, Ukrainians will not only be trying to protect themselves from bombs and bullets, but also trying to stay warm and healthy in the face of disruptions to gas, heat and electricity supplies. [This month, Russian bombing has focused on civilian infrastructure, putting one third of power stations out of action and forcing widespread power cuts as winter temperatures set in.]

But even under these circumstances, discussion has begun about post-war reconstruction, in the first place between the Ukrainian government and European governments at the Lugano conference in July. They are making plans for the long term.

The labour movement, and social movements, need an approach to these issues that takes the side of working people and of society, as opposed to economic or political elites. I am going to suggest four principles that can help develop such an approach.

1. Energy should be supplied mainly from renewable sources.

Society internationally needs an energy transition – that is, a transition to a system without fossil fuels, centred on electricity networks, with the electricity generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind and wave power. In Ukraine, there is also some potential for biofuels made from agricultural waste.

I am sure everyone present knows why this is: because global heating could seriously damage human society, and the chief cause of global heating is the burning of fossil fuels.

For the last 30 years, the world’s most powerful governments have gone to great lengths to delay the energy transition while simultaneously pretending to deal with the problem.

The labour movement and social movements need to advocate a transition that serves the interests of society, not capital.

Two points to make about Ukraine specifically.

a. Coal has historically been central, in the Donbas in particular. Coal use has been falling since 2016, mainly due to Russian military aggression. Now, political forces in the Donbas are discussing a future without coal. For example in the recent open letter by the Mayors of Myrnohrad, Chervonohrad and other towns (here in Ukrainian, here in English). I hope that the labour movement and social movements will engage in this discussion.

b. Gas has also played a key role. The government has sought to reduce dependence on Russian gas, and there have been no direct imports since 2015. However, in Ukraine, as elsewhere, gas companies make the false argument that gas is part of the solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, because it produces energy with fewer emissions than coal. Actually, it’s part of the problem. The energy transition means moving away from gas.

2. It is in society’s interests to cut the flow of energy through technological systems.

To understand this, we should, first, forget the idea of “energy demand”. People do not want “energy”. They want the things that it provides – heat, light, electricity to run computers, the ability to travel from place to place, and so on.

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The limits of western economic war with Russia and the failure of climate policy   

October 17, 2022

By Simon Pirani

Download this article as a PDF

Russia’s war on Ukraine marks a historical turning point. The illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, and the nuclear threats issued, are a dangerous intensification. It is a matter of principle, in my view, that the labour movement and civil society internationally should support Ukrainian resistance, and I have written about that elsewhere.[1] In this article, I make an initial attempt to understand the economic war being waged alongside the military conflict, the resulting disruption of energy markets, and their place in the broader social and ecological crises shaking capital.

Anti-war protest in Lisbon. Photo from Feminist Antiwar Resistance / @t_alexx_t

In the first section, I argue that the western powers’ economic war against Russia is reactive and limited; even now, sections of western capital hope to mend ruined business relationships with Russia. In the second section, I show that, until 2014, western policy was focused on integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms: even after the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, the western response remained reactive. The third section is about the consequences of this year’s invasion for energy markets – in particular the European gas market – and for the energy transition. Narratives of “energy crisis” are being used to double down on fossil fuel investment and undermine the western powers’ commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, magnifying the impact of the war and climate crisis for the whole of humanity.

1. Economic warfare and its limits

The aim of the western powers’ sanctions on Russia is to try to discipline the Putin government, not to destroy it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, marks the breakdown of the relationship established in 1990-92 between Russia and the European powers, especially Germany – a breakdown that those powers had desperately hoped to avoid. This breakdown will transform not only capital’s military arrangements in Europe, but also the energy system, in which cheap Russian gas has been a key element for four decades.  

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Stop fossil fuel projects, African civil society groups demand

August 24, 2022

“There must be a halt to all new coal, oil, or gas exploration and extraction activities in Africa in line with the imperatives of the energy transition”, delegates representing more than 30 civil society organisations from across Africa urged this month.

“We specifically demand the stoppage of oil exploration and expansion plans in the Virunga basin of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Keta region of Ghana, the Okavango Delta of Botswana, the Orange River Basin in Namibia, and a halt on all plans for the West African Gas Pipeline Project, the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline Project, and the East African Crude Oil Pipeline Project, among others.”

Delegates to Oilwatch Africa’s “Stop Gassing the Continent” conference this month

The delegates gathered in Accra, Ghana, for a conference entitled “Stop Gassing the Continent”, organised by Oilwatch Africa on 8-12 August.

The communique adopted by the gathering also called on African governments to “leverage the hosting of COP27 this year [in Egypt] to demand far-reaching measures on climate adaptation and finance, including emissions cut at the source.

“African governments should demand from polluting industrialised countries an annual climate debt of $2 trillion being the amount they currently spend on military hardware and warfare annually. This will pay for loss and damage and serve as partial reparations for historical harms.”

African states must “develop Africa-centred and just energy transition plans where such do not exist and, where they do, mainstream such plans into broader national development plans in ways that take cognizance of Africa’s huge renewable potential”.

The trend for multinational oil and gas companies, to sell stakes in onshore oil and gas assets and invest in offshore fields was highlighted. The companies were accused of abdicating responsibility for historical damage caused by their activities.

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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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Europe’s hydrogen greenwash is the last thing Ukraine needs

August 12, 2022

The European Commission, cheered on by fossil fuel companies, is promoting a plan to put exporting hydrogen to Europe at the centre of Ukraine’s post-war recovery. The plan reeks of greenwash and neocolonialism, and should be scrapped, Simon Pirani writes.

Tripilska heat and power plant near Kyiv. Photo by Matvey Andreyev / Creative Commons

Hydrogen is extracted from fossil gas and is used in oil refining and industrial processes. It has a huge carbon footprint, as left-over carbon is released into the air.

Hydrogen lobbyists say that in future the gas will be “blue” (with the left-over carbon captured and stored) or “green” (made by electrolysis – passing an electric current through water). But even “green” hydrogen, the only carbon-free kind, gulps down huge quantities of renewable electricity. Plans to export it from Ukraine – which will need that clean electricity itself for decades to come – are little more than cynical profiteering in wartime.

Hydrogen may be used in future in industrial sectors that are hard to decarbonise, such as steelmaking, fertiliser production and long-distance transport. But the picture painted by lobbyists, of its widespread use for residential heating and urban transport, is dangerously counter-productive.

It undermines effective climate policies in the interests of fossil fuel companies – who see hydrogen as a survival strategy, because it can be made from gas, and uses similar infrastructure and technologies.

Where the plan came from

The European Commission’s Fit for 55 decarbonisation policy, published in 2021, featured a plan to generate “green” hydrogen from thousands of electrolytic cells in Ukraine and north Africa, and export it to European countries. This idea was lifted wholesale from a plan proposed by Hydrogen Europe, an industry lobbying group, the year before.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, far from offering pause for thought about plunging resources into a speculative technology, accelerated the hydrogen import plan.

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