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What is this Climate Emergency you speak of?

Image: Eadaoin o Sullivan

This morning I awoke to the news that we now have something called a Climate Emergency (note the capital letters).  This is clearly something different to the (lower case) climate emergency that scientists and campaigners have been warning about since I was a child; and it seems to be something that only governments and politicians can do.  This also leaves me wondering whether a Climate Emergency is akin to the UK government’s Terrorism Threat Level (which is apparently “Severe”) insofar as it is something that ordinary people have no agency over, and is therefore largely meaningless to anyone outside government.

The Welsh Government explains that:

“The declaration sends a clear signal that the Welsh Government will not allow the process of leaving the EU to detract from the challenge of climate change, which threatens our health, economy, infrastructure and our natural environment.”

Please bear in mind that governments only “send clear signals” when they intend taking zero practical action.  To give just one example of the kind of practical steps that could be taken, the Welsh Government is currently embroiled in a row about building a new motorway linking Cardiff to the Severn Bridge that will drive through several miles of rare habitat that has been designated an area of special scientific interest.  If the Welsh Government were serious about the environment, their Climate Emergency declaration would have been accompanied by the announcement that this road will no longer be going ahead. 

It appears that in practice, the Climate Emergency applies only to the public sector; and even then, weasel words have been used:

“The Welsh Government has committed to achieving a carbon neutral public sector by 2030 and to coordinating action to help other areas of the economy to make a decisive shift away from fossil fuels, involving academia, industry and the third sector…”

The term “carbon neutral” has a very different meaning to “zero carbon” or even “low carbon,” as it implies a shed load of offsetting (such as paying someone else to plant trees or generate electricity from wind) in order to allow the public sector to continue burning fossil fuels.  Moreover, although not stated, it is very likely that the term applies only to electricity rather than energy as a whole.  There will be no wholesale closure of the Welsh Government car parks or any refusal to reimburse the travel expenses of members or employees who drive internal combustion engine cars in the course of their work – even though this would do a great deal to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and “send a clear signal” that they are serious.

Perhaps sensibly, the UK government has refused to declare a Climate Emergency; at least until someone explains in detail what it implies. Indeed, the fact that the Extinction Rebellion employee who met with Environment Secretary Michael Gove referred to the refusal as a “moral failure,” suggests that these declarations are little more than PR spin – like the Paris Agreement itself, it is easy for everyone to sign up to despite their doing nothing to meet the agreed targets.  In practice, it is doubtful that the actions of the Welsh (and Scottish) government will be much different to those of the UK government; and both will baulk when faced with the full consequences of a rapid decarbonisation of the entire economy.

This failure is, however, as much to do with the thinking behind the Extinction Rebellion protests; which are intended to be highly visible (putting political pressure on governments) but lack any concrete plan of action against which governments and economies can be held to account.  As Gabriel Carlyle at Peace News points out:

“If Extinction Rebellion plans to gradually build capacity for its big demands by winning smaller-scale victories then why has it launched itself with (apparently) no indication as to what these smaller-scale wins are going to be?..

“I have to say – as someone who has been involved in organising and taking part in acts of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience for over 20 years – that I’m highly sceptical about this initiative…

“While Extinction Rebellion does have three demands, these strike me as either pretty vague (‘That the Government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is’) or almost impossibly utopian (the Government enacting ‘legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025’ and the creation of ‘a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee [these and other] changes’).”

Interestingly, Citizens’ Assemblies – which are also being touted as a vehicle that might resolve the Brexit impasse – are the one component of of the Extinction Rebellion demands that the UK government has agreed to pursue… and with good reason.  Far from guaranteeing that the UK decarbonises its economy by 2025, any Citizens’ Assembly given the full facts about the Human Impact crisis – of which climate change is but one symptom – is likely to recoil in horror at the potential consequences of forced decarbonisation in the absence of any scalable alternative.

Two misunderstandings appear to lie at the heart of the Extinction Rebellion strategy; and both are likely to come back to haunt the group.  The first is the belief that raising public awareness about climate change is the most urgent need… it isn’t – at least not outside the USA.  Across Europe, including the UK, the majority of the population are already well ahead of the government in accepting the science and in wanting a faster response.  For example, according to a ClientEarth and YouGov survey conducted a year ago:

  • 67 percent of Britons believe that climate change has caused hotter and longer heatwaves
  • 71 percent agree that fossil fuel companies should have to pay for the damage they’ve done
  • 62 percent believe the government is not doing enough
  • 66 percent think that people should be able to go to court to overturn government policies that would impact people who are vulnerable to the effects of climate change
  • 48 percent believe that UK citizens should be able to sue the government if it fails to meet its Paris agreements.

Trying to “raise awareness” of climate change among the remaining third or so of the population is akin to attempting to promote racial harmony among the Ku Klux Klan – it is unnecessary and wasteful of the energy and enthusiasm of the protestors who take part.  As Chris Saltmarsh at Novara Media explains:

“The anti-fracking movement has shown that police repression, arrest and sometimes criminal charges can often be severely damaging for activists’ mental health, often leading to burnout, and take up a significant amount of time, energy and money for the whole organising community.

“Arrestable direct actions can be necessary and incredibly effective as part of a wider strategy, but they should be deployed with greater care and resources. A movement dependent on mass arrests without robust welfare systems and a huge pool of dispensable human resources is setting itself up to dwindle away as participants burn out…

“The strategy of manufacturing state repression to mobilise popular support is doomed. State repression can get the public onside, but the repression must be genuine. People aren’t stupid. If arrests are for spray-painting or blocking roads, these both justify arrest within our current framework and are not especially productive (and at worst embarrassing) in the struggle for climate justice. Take anti-fracking actions blockading Cuadrilla’s site, for example – protestors put themselves in clearly arrestable positions, but as part of directly effective action to disrupt fracking. The public aren’t generally outraged at the arrests themselves, but by associated police violence and disproportionate sentencing.”

But if not awareness raising, what is the point?

This brings us to the second dangerous misunderstanding; the unspoken belief that there is a conspiracy between governments and the fossil fuel industry to prevent the roll-out of the technologies that; if deployed, would allow a new age of hi-tech green growth.  It is no accident – although it smacks of naiveté – that Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have the backing of a growing NGO-green-tech-industrial complex that is seeking to profit from the roll out of supposedly low carbon technologies in the near future. 

The launch of the XR Business website – which has mysteriously vanished following criticism – during the protests suggests a corporate agenda that has more to do with making money than with solving our civilisation’s growing existential crises. 

At least some of the content of the XR Business website was highlighted in the green tech media before the site was taken down.  For example, James Murray at Business Green reports that:

“The group also saw its support expand over the weekend with the official launch of XR Business, a new arm of the campaign described as ‘an evolving platform for people in business who understand that business as usual is not going to work anymore’.

“The group was launched with a letter in The Times signed by a host of leading lights in the green business community, including former CEO of Unilever Paul Polman, founder of Ecotricity Dale Vince, The Eden Project’s Sir Tim Smit, founder of Solarcentury Jeremy Leggett, Chris Davis, CSO at The Body Shop International, Safia Minney, founder and former CEO at People Tree Fair Trade group, and Diana Verde Nieto, CEO and co-founder, Positive Luxury Ltd, as well as senior executives at a host of sustainable investment firms, including WHEB, Zouk Capital, Next Energy Capital, and Triodos Bank UK.”

More critically, Winteroak’s post on The Acorn expresses the disappointment that:

“Yes, there were many criticisms of XR tactics and language from the likes of the new Green Anti-Capitalist Front and activist Emily Apple.

“But when this month’s big week of action in London got underway, with Waterloo Bridge and Oxford Circus blocked and Marble Arch occupied, it felt as if something important and radical was happening.

“And perhaps it was, because, presumably, the vast majority of those who turned out, including the nearly 1,000 who were arrested, genuinely believe that our civilization needs to change course if life on this earth is to survive.

“But the integrity of XR as an organisation was dealt a fatal blow on Easter Monday, when its Twitter account started plugging links to a new website called XR Business, which had been announced in a letter to The Times…”

This places Extinction Rebellion – at least for now – firmly in the “green capitalism” camp; ignoring the fact that it is capitalism’s structural requirement for infinite growth on a finite planet that brought us to this point in the first place.  Scaling up – via some kind of economic growth-driven Green New Deal mobilisation – non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies to anything close to what is required to halt the human impact on the environment – they currently account for just 4 percent of global primary energy – would require an acceleration of the growth of the global extractive industries to an extent that would guarantee the global catastrophe the organisers claim to want to avoid.  As Tad Patzek explains there are simply not enough resources left for the kind of mobilisation that is being proposed:

“To compare the WWII industrial effort with the global dislocation necessary to ameliorate some of the effects of climate change is surprisingly naïve… This comparison also neglects to account for the human population that has almost quadrupled between the 1940s and now, and the resource consumption that has increased almost 10-fold.  The world today cannot grow its industrial production the way we did during WWII.  There is simply not enough of the planet Earth left to be devoured.”

One might also question the fairness of developed states like the UK and the EU using their remaining wealth to swallow up the last of the planet’s mineral resources in order to decarbonise at least some of their economies, and thereby depriving the global south of any possibility of improving their minuscule energy supplies.

Nor is this the only issue with any attempt to scale up these technologies. The people employed throughout the supply chains to build the new zero-carbon infrastructure are not going to do it for nothing.  They will expect to be paid, and will want a wage that is better than they can get from flipping burgers or driving for Uber.  But nobody wants to get paid just so that they can look at the digits building up inside their online bank accounts.  Rather, they are going to go out and spend their newfound incomes on all of the same consumer goods and services whose copious consumption across the developed economies caused the crisis in the first place.

One thing that governments have been aware of for several decades – a key reason why western military forces are so tied up in the Middle East – is that there are whole swathes of the global economy that simply cannot operate without oil; and in particular, diesel fuel.  To give just one example, most of the grain (rice, wheat and maize) that is grown around the planet today is a product of the “Green Revolution,” in which plants were selectively bred to produce more and larger grains; which is the reason why we can feed a population of 7.5bn today, when the world was facing famine with half that population in the days before the Green Revolution.  The problem is that plants that produce more and bigger grains can only do so by sacrificing other traits. In particular, they have smaller and less penetrating roots; and they are more vulnerable to predation by insects, weeds and fungi.  What this means in practice is that feeding the global population necessarily means using fossil-fuel derived chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides that can only be deployed at scale using diesel-powered heavy agricultural machinery.  In time (but certainly not by 2025) the science of regenerative agriculture might be developed to the point where these fossil carbon chemicals are no longer necessary.  For now, however, decarbonising agriculture means inflicting starvation on a large part of the population while higher food prices drive an even larger group into absolute poverty.

This is but one aspect of a fossil carbon/diesel fuel crisis that has been gathering pace for some years.  Next year – when new International Maritime Organisation environmental rules on shipping fuel come into force – the increase in the price of diesel fuel is likely to decarbonise whole tracts of the global economy far faster than anything dreamed of by governments or climate protestors.  And there are, one way or another, just two directions of travel open to us once this happens.  First, there is the highly unlikely possibility that clever people somewhere else will figure out how to properly unlock the massive energy potential of the nuclei of the atom (by which I do not mean the current practice of generating large volumes of radioactive waste and boiling a few glorified pressure cookers to produce electricity as a by-product).  The energy density of elements like uranium, plutonium and thorium are simply orders of magnitude higher that the energy density of diesel oil; and if this energy could be properly harnessed it could very easily be used to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and produce as much synthetic liquid fuel as anyone could want.  But, as I say, there is almost no chance of this happening in the time that we have left.  And so the second trajectory is almost certain; one way or another, we will have no choice but to shrink our economies to a scale that can be operated using entirely renewable energy sources.  We could – but we will not – do this voluntarily.  Instead, we will push for economic growth on steroids by borrowing and/or printing the remaining stock of trusted currency available to us in pursuit of some variant of a Green New Deal that will consume the last planetary resources available to us… the very resources that we would have needed to at least mitigate the worst of the collapse that awaits us.

In this sense, my biggest issue with the organisers of the Extinction Rebellion is that they are very likely to achieve their end goal of decarbonising the economy in the very near future… just not in the way they imagined.  And because of this I anticipate that the first hint of an economic collapse, a spike in fuel and food prices and the inevitable collapse of industries and coherent local governance is likely to see them demanding governments reopen the fossil fuel spigots once more.  Except – here’s the kicker – there is not going to be a way back… and you can’t eat wind turbines and electric cars.

As you made it to the end…

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