Climate: Action Required

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has said that capital markets are financing projects likely to fuel a catastrophic rise in global heating. This of course is exactly why Extinction Rebellion activists have been rebelling in the city of London this week. Carney also pointed out that companies with assets concentrated in the fossil fuel sector are likely to go bankrupt, just as others in the cleantech sector flourish.

The scale and speed of the energy transition required to avert catastrophe is way beyond what any politicians are advocating. Let’s take the energy debate in Australia where they currently generate about 20% of their electricity from renewables, and which the governing party energy minister thinks is too much, and is advocating for huge investments in coal. The opposition parties are advocating increasing renewables by 2030, the Labor party to 50% and the Green Party to 100%. Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, is calling for a goal of 700%, which to me seems a sensible way forward. Cheap wind and solar could easily meet all Australia’s electricity needs, and facilitate the energy transition in the transport and built environment sectors, and open up a huge new market in the form of clean energy exports. Already plans are afoot to lay an undersea cable to Singapore to directly export renewable electricity and for a huge growth in green hydrogen for export to Japan, Korea and China, helping them rapidly decarbonise. These are the sort of economic changes to which Mark Carney was referring. The question is where are the politicians needed to implement such profound and rapid changes?

Meanwhile Prince William is in Pakistan and has called for climate action after seeing for himself glacial retreat and consequent flooding and drought problems. He has called for greater cooperation between the UK and Pakistan on the issue. Pakistan, like Australia, has enormous solar potential. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has published a detailed paper on ‘Pakistan’s Power Future’, where they point out that solar and wind are already the cheapest forms of new energy and are projected to only get cheaper. Currently solar provides only 0.5% and wind 1.5% of Pakistan’s electricity. Pakistan currently generates 61% of its electricity from largely imported and expensive oil and gas. It would be good for Pakistan’s balance of payments, for local communities currently struggling without electricity, and for the global climate if their politicians worked with the many people who could help them rapidly develop their renewable energy potential.

Here in UK Boris Johnson has just announced that he will chair a new government committee on climate change. It is right that the Prime Minister chairs such a committee, but hard to imagine anyone less qualified to do the job. If I was to chair the committee I’d want to invite Professor Peter Strachan from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and Jeremy Leggett from Solarcentury as my key advisors. Sadly Boris is unlikely to listen to such voices and unlikely to take any sensible action to avert climatic, ecological and financial collapse, which is why Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Greenpeace and others will keep up their protests for urgent and radical change.

Change Is Coming

A solitary climate striker in Russia. Last week she was one of 7 million globally on climate strike

Change is coming. As planetary systems are collapsing a new global consciousness is beginning to emerge. The climate and ecological crisis that has long been building, and which the global political and economic system has singularly failed to address, is now being bravely flagged-up by a new generation. This generation clearly is demanding profound, global, system change. This is not about anything as superficial as a change of government here or there, or even a global switch from capitalism to socialism; it is something much, much more profound.

At last people are beginning to think about the welfare of our species as a whole. We all require a stable climate, clean air and water, shelter and security, food, family and friendship. We need a new political and economic system that unites us in our common humanity. Longer term many exciting possibilities emerge for excellent free global health and education, for global ecological restoration, for new forms of global and participatory democracy. But today I want to focus on the short term.

The global strikes for climate from 20th to 27th September saw over 7 million people take to the streets. It was a truly global phenomenon, led and organised by teenagers, inspired by Greta Thunberg. On Monday 7th October Extinction Rebellion’s international rebellion will kick off again. I’m intending to be there on the streets of central London. The rise in ecological and climate activism on the streets can and does influence public opinion and political outcomes. Examples abound.

Austria had an election on Sunday, and the Greens tripled their vote to nearly 14%, resulting in them going from no seats to twenty-six. The Sydney Morning Herald put this surprise leap in the Green vote down to the ‘Greta Thunberg effect’, as following massive school strikes for climate action the issue has risen up in the public’s perception and concerns. This result in Austria is part of a wider European and global trend. Last May Green parties did exceptionally well in the European parliamentary elections and in the local elections in England and Wales.

Here in Herefordshire since May we’ve had a new council, and what a breath of fresh air they are. Last week I went with a number of people from Extinction Rebellion to a council debate on the climate emergency. It was thrilling to hear the heartfelt contributions from the public and to hear the sensible and constructive response of our councillors. Our new administration is a coalition of Greens, Independents and a local group called ‘It’s Our County’, and talking to individual councillors about how well they are working together is wonderful. They all understand the need for change and want council policy to rise to the challenge of the climate and ecological emergency.

The coming weeks will not only see the ongoing school strikes and the next wave of Extinction Rebellion action, but also demonstrations for freedom and democracy continuing in Hong Kong, Moscow and many other places. These things are all related. The yearning for system change, especially among the young, is overwhelming. This old man says ‘Bring it on!’

Purpose & Policy: Transport

Hereford Station. Usage here and across the network is increasing. Investment is needed: who should pay and own   it?
Hereford Station. Usage here and across the network is increasing. Investment is needed: who should pay and own it?

In my last blog I talked about how Anu Partanen found a purpose underlying the policies that shape Nordic societies, and single terms like capitalism and socialism are not helpful, creating as they do false dichotomies, that can obscure the bigger picture. This way of thinking I find useful in looking at all manner of issues.

Let’s take UK transport policy, and debates around the railways as an example. For most of the last 70 years the UK rail system has largely been underfunded. It is important to note that our rail system has been in decline from the days of private companies before 1948, through the years of a nationalized service and through the last couple of decades since privatisation.

The predominant view was that roads were a more modern alternative. Oil companies and car manufacturers reinforced the politicians in this. Political debate focused on whether the system should be nationalized or privatized. This to me seems a very secondary consideration. Clarifying the long term purpose of what a transport policy should look like, and what part rail should play within that framework, seems to me to be what is required. Then, and only then, does what part of it ought to be in public ownership and what part in private ownership and what other models might be appropriate for various bits of infrastructure become an important issue.

Any sensible transport policy fit for the twenty-first century ought to focus on how we can cut carbon emissions and pollution, ease congestion, increase safety and make mobility affordable and accessible for all. For many decades it has been clear that cars are not suitable for big cities, and that even smaller towns are plagued by too many of them. Rail has many advantages over road transport. Steel wheels on steel rails generate much less friction than rubber tyres on tarmac, and are therefore more energy efficient, and their longer thinner shape further adds to this advantage. Railways are the fastest way to move large numbers of people. Walking, cycling, buses and trams then need to be integrated into the rail system.

UK tragically lost many of its railway lines with the Beeching cuts. Now the government is pushing the HS2 high speed line, which seems a very poor investment. By contrast Switzerland has what is considered Europe’s best railways. They did not experience any equivalent of the Beeching cuts and have not focused on high speed rail. Their priority has been intensity of use, reliability, quality of service and safety. The UK should follow this model and invest heavily in regional railways, suburban rail and tram systems, and in the walking, cycling and buses that are all needed to make any modern city more enjoyable and pleasant to live in. We could also follow Estonia and Luxembourg and make some or all public transport free.

Cars of course will have a role to play, but with excellent walking, cycling and public transport, that role ought to decline, and it would be good to see individual ownership largely replaced by car sharing clubs for those journeys when a car really is the best option. So on to who should own what. The Swiss rail system is a Special Corporation whose shares are owned by the federal government and the cantons. If regional and county councils had a stake in UK rail we might have better provision across the whole country. The cars in our car sharing club are owned collectively by a group of forty or so households within our local community. In Germany the municipal Stadwerke own lots of well functioning infrastructure. There are many possible systems of ownership, and the unregulated free market and the centralized state monopoly may be the two least helpful starting points for thinking about the best future of our infrastructure.

Nordic Inspiration

Anu Partanen

I’ve recently read ‘The Nordic Theory of Everything’ by Anu Partanen. Anu Partanen is a Finnish woman married to an American man and living in New York. She contrasts the extraordinary differences between the USA and the Nordic region; how they organise all aspects of society, from education and social policy to taxation and business creation, and how these differences shape individual lives and relationships. It’s a great book and I cited it in my recent talk in Hereford.

She blends extensive academic research with personal anecdote to paint a vivid picture of the two systems. Of course there are differences between the five Nordic countries, as there are between the fifty states of USA, but there is a huge gulf between USA and the Nordic region. Interestingly she chooses not to paint a simple dichotomy between more socialist and capitalist ideologies, and barely uses either of these terms, preferring to talk about the purpose and function of a system. She sees a clear purpose underlying the general direction of policy in the Nordic region, the overall objective being to build strong, happy, healthy, independent, self-reliant individuals, capable of forming strong relationships, families and communities. The implications of this are enormous. The concern is for the welfare of all the people, and therefore equality is central. Providing excellent health, childcare, education and other opportunities for all people flows from this. Children start school later, have shorter school hours and minimal testing, and yet massively outperform USA and UK, in large part because children are less stressed and all schools equally well resourced.

She shows how much greater stress Americans live under. Everything seems designed not for the happiness of the people but rather for the vested interests of corporations whose sole interest is in maximizing profits. But this does not lead to America being better for business. It seems rather to result in a lot of confusion, conflict and stress.

It is not surprising that the Nordic countries have systems of proportional representation, where political representation accurately reflects how people vote. Recent elections in Finland have produced a very interesting coalition government, made up of five parties, including the Greens, and that very quickly they announced some of the most ambitious carbon reduction goals of any country. This is such a contrast to the chaos and division that are ruining life in USA and UK. We have so much to learn from the Nordic region. Tragically UK under Boris Johnson seems set to emulate Trump’s America.

In ‘the Nordic Theory of Everything’ Anu Partanen frequently refers to ‘the Nordic Theory of Love’ as the underpinning principle of the Nordic system. She draws on previous work by Tragardh and Berggren who wrote about ‘the Swedish Theory of Love’. In my talk I extrapolated further, and used the term ‘the Global Theory of Love’ to mean taking these principles of nurture and care for the wellbeing of all individuals to the global scale, and speculated as to the possibilities of providing Nordic quality public services to all humanity, while redirecting the global economy towards ecological renaissance. A phase I used a number of times in the talk was that ‘Everything needs to change, and fast!’ This is true to combat the climate emergency, but the same changes could also be used to bring about a wellbeing revolution. It’s a big and complex concept, and in my talk in Hereford last week I tried my best to make it comprehensible. I hope, at least to some extent, I succeeded.

Talks, Blogs & Action

Temperature Changes around the World 1901 - 2018

Temperature Changes around the World 1901 – 2018 (thanks to Ed Hawkins & Reading University)

Since my childhood in the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s I’ve been very concerned about a lot of environmental and social issues. I was, and remain, convinced that humanity could and should do a whole lot of things differently, and that by doing so we could all live more happily. I gave my first talk to my school sixth form assembly in 1972, and it was about climate change and other planetary scale problems, and possible solutions. Over the following decades I read a lot, volunteered with various environmental groups, visited experimental projects, joined the Green Party and attended numerous demonstrations. Over the years we won lots of small victories, but we failed to turn the global economy around. Carbon emissions, species extinctions, soil depletion, economic inequality and other key indicators continued to get worse.

Now a new generation of activists have emerged who give me hope. Greta Thunberg and the School Strikes movement I find absolutely inspiring. So too Extinction Rebellion. Maybe, just maybe, we can turn this whole thing around. We don’t have long.

I’ve been wondering about my own personal contribution. Over the last couple of years other aspects of life have demanded my attention. I’ve not given a single talk in over two years and didn’t get to nearly as many actions I wanted to. Now I am keen to return to the fray: to develop this blog, to do more talks, join actions and participate in projects that can really make a difference.

At 7.30 pm on Wednesday 24th July I’ll be giving a talk at De Koffie Pot in Hereford. The evening will have two aspects. Firstly I want to present some ideas about how humanity could get to net zero carbon emissions as fast as possible. That implies some very large changes to the nature of the global economy. Essentially everything needs to change, so let’s explore how it could be changed in ways that maximize ecological restoration and human wellbeing. I’ll talk a bit about how trillions of pounds/Euros/dollars might be raised and invested.

Secondly, I’d like to use the evening to explore how best to develop my own work and how I can best support the work of others. I’d like feedback and guidance from people involved in diverse aspects of change from young school strikers, old time activists from Friends of the Earth to the new Extinction Rebellion members, from engaged faith groups such as the Quakers, from people active in political parties and local governance to entrepreneurs and engineers active in the Cleantech revolution. Please all come along and bring your friends. If you can make it to Hereford on Wednesday 24th July I’ll see you then, and if you’d like me to do a talk elsewhere then do please e-mail me.

Please Vote Green!

Ellie Chowns lead candidate for the Green Party in the West Midlands

Ellie Chowns lead candidate for the Green Party in the West Midlands

The European elections are upon us. Voting in UK is on Thursday. In other EU countries it is variously on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Results should start emerging from about 10.00pm on Sunday. These elections are crucially important.

Humanity faces an existential crisis: Climate breakdown, ecological collapse, myriad forms of pollution, insane levels of inequality are all indicative of the need for our species to radically change direction. The far right essentially want to double down on the current path of greater inequality and pollution. The old centre politicians tend to pay lip service to these problems while trying to carry on with business as usual. Only Green Parties offer a solid programme of action to address all these problems in a concerted way. Greens stress the benefits of working to build greater social solidarity, within our local communities, across our continent and around the World.

The UK sends 72 MEP’s to sit in the European Parliament, three of whom are from the Green Party. The latest polls show the Greens gaining four or five more seats, to make seven or eight in total. Brexit may, or may not, go ahead: we simply don’t know. The MEP’s we elect on Thursday may sit for the full five year term, or only a few months, if Brexit does indeed go ahead. Either way, it is important for more Greens to get elected.

The Greens have substantially less money to pay for leaflets and advertising than the other parties, and get less TV and radio coverage. However the recent local election results were very positive and show how their grassroots support is building in local communities right across the UK. There are some great videos that are helping get the message out. Do please watch the truly remarkable Majid Majid, ex Lord Mayor of Sheffield and lead candidate for the Greens in Yorkshire and Humber Region. Also, please watch this latest video from Ellie Chowns, our excellent lead Green candidate in the West Midlands Region, and you can see her leaflet here. Both these two people stand a good chance of being elected. Please, wherever you live in UK or across Europe, do vote this week, and do please vote Green.

Greens Electoral Breakthrough!

Greens win in Hfds

Greens celebrate victory. Here in Hereford gaining 3 seats, and 194 across the country, spread across 122 councils.

Green Councillors

These local elections saw the total number of Green Councillors leap from 173 to 362

The full results of the local elections from England and Northern Ireland are now in, and they are, across the board, wonderful. The Green Party has had the best results in its 47 year history, with a net gain of 194 councillors. The Liberal Democrats have also done exceptionally well, quite possibly their best night ever, with a net gain of 703 councillors. Locally focused independent councillors have made net gains of 662. Meanwhile the Tories had net losses of 1334, Labour of 82 and UKIP of 145.

Bizarrely many Labour and Tory politicians, and many of the media commentators, are interpreting this as the people ‘just wanting to get on with Brexit’. This seems to me to be utter nonsense. LibDems and Greens are the most strongly pro EU membership parties, and they both made historic gains, while all the parties advocating Brexit, from UKIP, to the Tories, Labour and the DUP all lost seats.

Of course in these local elections local factors played a key role, but so too did the national political chaos, and what I’d argue is perhaps equally important, the ecological and climate crisis. Greens, and to some extent, LibDems, are more internationalist, and also more locally focused: they are less consumed by the gossip inside the Westminster bubble, and more concerned with addressing the real issues facing humanity.

These election results provide dozens of really heartening examples of positive change, and none of them are being determined by those inside the Westminster bubble. Here in Herefordshire our local Green Party had a local alliance with a local party called ‘It’s Our County’ and with a number of Independents, and we all gained seats, as did the Lib Dems, all at the Tories expense. Thus the council has shifted from being Tory controlled to having no overall control, which I’d argue is good for democracy, and opens up the possibility of huge change. Our Green group slowly went from one councillor to four over the last 5 or 6 years. On 2nd May we added three more.

In my last blog I wrote about the nature of political change. Of course elections matter, but so too does non-violent protest and the two are ever so closely related. On the doorstep I had as many conversations about Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes for Climate as about Brexit. Many people are as inspired by the clear moral and factual leadership of Greta Thunberg as they are repulsed by lies and narcissism of the likes of Boris Johnson. The window of what is possible to talk about is shifting. Discussing radical action on the ecological and climate crisis is now permissible in a way in which it was not a year or two ago.

I’m looking forward to the Euro elections on 23rd May with glee! I’d expect the Greens and LibDems to have another excellent set of results. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are both terrified of these elections, and may do a deal on Brexit just to avert having to fight them. To make such a huge and long term decision based on very short term and narrow party political considerations would be both insane, and typical of politics within the Westminster bubble.

Over the coming months there is so much I’d like to do. I hope to work with my seven Green Party councillors to see how we can continue to grow, and to work with our local Extinction Rebellion and School Strikes groups to plan our next steps after their extraordinary achievements of the last few weeks, and I plan to restart giving my talks and leading discussion evenings about envisioning a radically different and better future. Our local car sharing club will be getting a loan of a hydrogen fuel cell car, and hopefully also buying an electric car to replace one of our diesel cars. All these aspects of change, be they party political, non-violent protest, changing the technology we use, or leading discussion evenings, they are all so closely interrelated and part of the same necessary process of change. A better future is possible, but only if we make huge changes on multiple fronts simultaneously, rapidly and globally. Our political system seems incapable of rising to the climate and ecological crisis: therefore we need to change the political system, from within and from the streets, globally and rapidly.

Political Change

crowds in Khartoum

Huge crowds in Khartoum demand Bashir step down.

School strikes for Climate Action take place all over the World. Today, here in Hereford, outside Jesse Norman MP’s office.

We need political change. The global ecological and climate crisis demands it. The insane levels of inequality demand it. Positive political change happens in many ways, at different levels of government, over differing timescales in different regions of the World. Today I want to celebrate a few small victories, and flag up the possibility of others.

Yesterday in Sudan President Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a coup after months of popular protests. In my youth I spent time in Sudan and have followed its politics ever since. The protestors are clear they want an inclusive, democratic government not military rule, and so the street demonstrations will continue. I wish them well and share with them the hope for a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy.

Achieving good governance is a long and slow process. The five Nordic countries are generally perceived to be the best governed countries on Earth, and the fact that they have low levels of inequality, ever more ecologically inclined policies and high rates of wellbeing are of course all related. Costa Rica is one of the best governed countries on Earth, and last year I posted a blog about what it is achieving. I’ve blogged before about good governance in Uruguay and inspiring new leadership in Ethiopia and Spain. Political progress is always hard won, often slow, but it can be cumulative and build toward something really worth striving for.

In Europe the forces of right wing popularism are being challenged by positive, socially inclusive and ecologically orientated parties, notably the Green Parties, as I wrote about in blogs reporting recent Green gains in Bavaria, Luxembourg, Belgium, and then in Hesse. Last week I came across the wonderful Swiss activist group Operation Libero.

As Brexit crumbles into ever greater farce we face elections in UK: local elections on 2nd May and European elections on 23rd May, and quite possibly a General Election sometime soon. Due to our antiquated First Past the Post system the Westminster elections will inevitably produce a government that fails to reflect people’s real feelings or ideas. I’m much more excited about the possibility of change that comes at the local level, and here in Herefordshire the Green Party could well take a few more seats. I’ll be out tomorrow in Leominster as part of one of the Green Party’s Big Days Out. The European elections are really important, and are fought under a proportional system, so it makes sense to vote for what you really believe in. The Green Party of England and Wales currently has three MEPs and I hope they’ll add substantially to that number on 23rd May. Here in the West Midlands we have a good chance of getting Ellie Chowns elected!

Although voting is important, non-violent direct action has a massive role to play. Extinction Rebellion and the Schools Strike for Climate movements are both doing vitally important work, and today I joined them in lobbying my MP, Jesse Norman. So much to do, but none of it without hope!

Muddle… or Decisive Action?

Students lobbying Councilors to declare a Climate Emergency

Students lobbying Councilors to declare a Climate Emergency

Last Friday Herefordshire Council unanimously declared a Climate Emergency. It was an inspiring day. About a hundred of us old environmental activists were outside the Shirehall when along came about one hundred and seventy young students who had marched chanting from the collages, down Aylestone Hill and through High Town. Our councillors had seldom, if ever, seen so much support for a motion to be passed. Yesterday the same council approved their own Transport Package, which essentially commits them to spending vast sums of money on road building and peanuts for walking, cycling and public transport. This, of course, is exactly the kind of policy that shows they are not serious about the Climate Emergency that they themselves had declared just a few days earlier. It reflects the muddled thinking of governments around the World, who continue to give billions in subsidies to keep the old fossil fuel industries going, while at the same time professing to be concerned about climate change, ecological breakdown and appalling air quality. It is why more and more people are taking to the streets globally, with groups like Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate Action, demanding immediate and decisive action.

This coming Friday, 15th March, there will be a global school strike for climate action. As of this morning 1209 actions in 92 countries have been announced, and many more are being added each day. I follow many of the organisers on Twitter, and these young people, some only ten years old, are so powerful and eloquent speakers. They put most of our elected politicians to shame.

We need to make policy and investment decisions fit to the physical realities of the ecological crisis. Take road building. While our local council’s top priority seems to be to build ever more roads George Monbiot suggests a target of reducing car use by 90% over the next decade. Halting the manufacture, sale and use of fossil fuel cars, lorries and buses is a political decision. As I have repeatedly argued on this blog battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell alternatives already exist, and having most of the cars in car sharing clubs rather than private ownership we can further decrease the damage they do and the space they take up. If we are serious about action on climate change, or children’s health, or the liveability of our cities, then we have to make planning policy decisions in the understanding that the era of the privately owned motor car is over.

System Change not Climate Change

The World is getting warmer. This graph depicts the global temperature changes from 1880 to 2018. The data on which it is based is from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the graph is courtesy of Levke Caesar.

This week in the UK we’ve been enjoying unseasonably warm weather. Lots of us have been outdoors actively making the best of it. However there is also the worrying knowledge that this lovely weather is not how February in UK should be. Weather records are being broken all over the world. Some of these events are pleasantly enjoyed by millions, such as this warm spell in the UK. The other side of the coin is that many people are experiencing life threatening weather events: floods, droughts, hurricanes.

What is of course most worrying is that the warmer global temperatures are increasingly triggering a number of feedback loops. Ice is melting from the Arctic to the Antarctic causing sea levels to rise. As the oceans warm the water expands, further adding to sea level rise. Less ice means more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the ocean, further contributing to warming, and to sea level rise. As the sea warms methane is released from the ocean floor. Permafrost is melting releasing more methane and carbon dioxide, further intensifying climate breakdown. As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, turning some of this into carbonic acid and thus making the oceans more acidic, with potentially catastrophic results for humanity.

The science is clear. We need to get to a zero carbon economy as quickly as possible. As I’ve repeatedly said on this blog, we have technological and political choices. Our politicians consistently hold on to outdated concepts, like economic growth and national self interest. The young people involved with school strike for climate, and so many of us in ecological activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, understand we need system change, not climate change. If our species is to have a future we all must start acting in the interests of our own species, as a unified collective entity. We all need a stable climate and a fully functioning biosphere. That will entail reallocating resources on an epic scale. It will involve the closing down of many industries, and the expansion of others. Our decisions will need to be guided by the ecological imperative, and that will need to trump all concepts of profit and power. A big ask, but absolutely necessary.