Saturday, 28 March 2009

London Protest

Thousands of people are expected to march for social and environmental justice today in London ahead of the G20 meeting next week. The protest will continue throughout the following week. London’s Metropolitan Police state that this protest demonstrates unprecedented planning and co-ordination between protest groups. Tonight, many more will join in the protest by turning off all the lights in their houses from 8:30pm local time in the highly visible global Earth Hour action.

At last, I am inspired with a little hope. I see some chance, however tiny, that the world leaders will recognise the popular support for change both here in the UK and across the globe and realise that they must act convincingly immediately. As climate change and social justice become widespread concerns, politicians will need to address those concerns or risk an even greater loss of faith in the political process than they already see.

We must make our voices heard. We must somehow tell our elected representatives how critical this is to us. For our own future and that of our children.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Voices Raised

In the wake of the Copenhagen conference the UK government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, predicts a 'perfect storm' of crises peaking in about 2030, just 21 years from now (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/mar/18/perfect-storm-john-beddington-energy-food-climate).

As food, water and energy shortages begin to bite it is the poor, and especially the urban poor, who will suffer most. Our current way of life is very resource-hungry, and if global population rises as predicted then conflict seems almost inevitable. Take into consideration diseases like the Stem Rust variant Ug99 which threatens our wheat supply and which has evolved resistance to controls, and the situation looks perilous. Development of new controls for such diseases takes time and resources which we may not have, and an already precarious situation regarding our food security may become critical.

Despite these warnings from the world’s senior climate scientists, Shell this week ended its funding of wind, solar and hydrogen projects, explaining in a press release that they are "not competitive in the current economic climate" (http://www.reuters.com/article/environmentNews/idUSTRE52G4SU20090317).

The same economic short-termism characterises our political scene: our politicians look towards the next election and often choose not to make essential decisions which may lead to voter discomfort or job losses. In reaction, NASA scientist James Hansen has called for more protest and non-violent direct action, saying that the political process is not working fast enough to reduce carbon emissions and has been corrupted by corporate lobbying (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/mar/18/nasa-climate-change-james-hansen).

A conflict, operating at personal, national and international levels, between the desire for profit and the need to act responsibly is at the core of the challenges facing us. Unless we address this, we will lurch from crisis to disaster.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Final Warning

Over 2,500 scientists met at an emergency conference in Copenhagen last week to discuss the changing climate. In their statement, they warned of “devastating” consequences if global warming is allowed to progress at current rates, and called upon governments to "stand up to vested interests that increase emissions." Currently, governments are trying to address the concerns of businesses anxious to increase profits year on year at the same time as responding to the warning signs of serious climate change, and business interests seem to be taking precedence (e.g. the recent decision to expand Heathrow).

Delegates to the conference agreed that the EU target of limiting the rise in global mean temperature to 2 degrees C is now impossible: things have gone too far. They said that if governments take strong action now to reduce emissions, it may yet be possible to hold the temperature rise to 3 degrees C, but this is looking very unlikely. A rise in global mean temperature of at least 4 degrees C is now the most likely outcome, and we will probably see it by 2099 (some climate scientists believe it may happen as early as 2050, just 40 years from now). 4 degrees C doesn’t sound like much, but it will have catastrophic effects for most life on earth.

Climate change models predict the following results if temperatures rise by 4 degrees C:
• the Amazonian rain forest burns and dies, leaving behind an uninhabitable desert
• the Mediterranean region, along with most of the US and southern and central America as well as all of Africa, India and Australia become uninhabitable deserts
• refugees from these regions pour into more northerly areas, such as the UK, Canada and Alaska and parts of Russia, and also into those few areas which are far enough south to be inhabitable, e.g. New Zealand and possibly parts of western Antarctica
• Salination of the soil through rising sea levels leads to loss of cropland.
• the UK is battered by terrible storms, with parts of Scotland suffering cyclone strength winter storms
• the south of England faces winter flooding, eroding soils which are parched from the extreme summer heat waves.
• sea level rise threatens London

As the social consequences of this scenario unfold in severe food and water shortages leading to social unrest or perhaps even collapse, who will we have to blame? Ignorance will be no excuse; the evidence is clear. Our greed is robbing our descendants of a future. We must act individually to reduce our emissions and to consume less, and we must force our politicians to act now or we and our children will face the consequences.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Conflict of interests?

Recently, I attended a local conference on climate change as a delegate of Bedfordshire Climate Change Forum, a not-for-profit organisation. It was well-attended, with delegates from local government, local businesses and a few other not-for-profit organisations.

We had a superb keynote speaker who gave a well rounded presentation on the issue, drawing on Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, outlining the problem and the causes. This was followed by presentations, discussions and short workshops on reducing carbon dioxide emissions in transport, business and at home. Feedback from these workshops will inform local authority thinking and policy.


Two issues raised at the conference really struck me.
1) How do you generate real grassroots engagement with climate change?
2) Is there an underlying conflict between the goal of business to sell us services/commodities and the necessity of reducing our consumption?

In addressing the first issue it is impossible to avoid politics. Some grassroots organisations are deemed acceptable by the mainstream while others (e.g. Earth First, Rising Tide, Plane Stupid) which take direct action to confront the root causes of climate change and to raise awareness of the issues, are labelled as "eco-terrorists" and often treated severely by the police. Individuals at demonstrations have been filmed and have had their details placed on the Crimint database (as reported in the Guardian on 07/03/09) or have been subjected to inappropriate use of anti-terror legislation. This - along with a widespread disenchantment regarding politicians and those in power - seems to me to contribute to a sense of apathy and powerlessness regarding our ability, as individuals, to affect climate change. Too many people say to me, "Whatever I do makes no difference." Using the internet to get positive information across and some sort of genuine empowerment of grassroots organisations may be a way to combat this.


On the second issue, I do think that there is an underlying conflict between the goal of business to sell stuff to us as consumers and the need for us as responsible global citizens to buy less and to buy right.


In the UK we emit about 1-2% of global carbon dioxide emissions directly and yet as consumers we have a greater impact. By buying food and other goods which are manufactured abroad and transported to the UK we are contributing to the emissions of those nations. China has claimed (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/feb/23/china-carbon-emissions) that about a third of its emissions are the result of producing goods for the developed world. Given that China emits more carbon dioxide than any other nation we must accept our share of the blame.

In the UK, government and other organisations set targets for businesses and help them to reduce their emissions; also, many environmental management systems stress the supply chain angle. However, as consumers, we are often unaware of the "intrinsic costs" - the environmental and social costs of producing an item - which are not shown on the label.


In order for us to truly reduce our impact on the planet rather than just "outsourcing our emissions," all items should be clearly labelled with the intrinsic costs incurred in its production. This will involve a rise in the prices of many goods, particularly those which are resource-intensive; however, local and less resource-intense items may be relatively cheaper and local jobs may be generated by an increase in sales of these goods.


If we are to act as responsible global citizens we must become well informed and highly selective consumers. We should demand that all the information to enable us to make an informed decision regarding our purchases is openly and easily available.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Community now!

Watching the BBC Natural World program A Farm for the Future got me thinking. With our agriculture and food industry based on the availability of cheap oil, who will be feeding us in, say, 20 years?

Most of our crops are grown using chemical fertilisers and pesticides which are made from oil. Farm vehicles are powered by diesel. In the UK we are a net food importer, so much of our food is transported in ships and aeroplanes powered by oil; it is often chilled or warmed in transport, requiring the use of still more energy. When it arrives in the UK it is trucked – using fuel - to distribution centres and thence to supermarkets for us to buy. As oil availability declines and oil prices rise how will this affect the current system? I suspect that supermarkets will be unable to remain open at all. So how will we be fed?

In the Second World War, the UK population was a little over 47 million. The “Dig for Victory” campaign resulted in local needs for fruit, vegetables and some meats (rabbit etc.) being largely met from back gardens and allotments, reducing the requirements for imported goods. According to the office of national statistics, in mid-2007, the UK population reached 60,975,000 (http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?ID=6). Even with a massive "Dig for Victory" style campaign, it seems almost impossible, using conventional agricultural methods, to grow enough food to feed our current population, especially in the absence of cheap fossil-fuel based fertilisers and pesticides.

This is without even considering the impacts of climate change in terms of loss of cropland and water and suitable climate, or the other impacts of peak oil, for example on domestic use, the pharmaceutical industry and the National Health Service.

We need to radically alter the way we eat, grow and think of food. How many of us even know what is seasonal any more? How will our predominantly urban and de-skilled population cope as the supermarket shelves empty?

We need to

  • start building land-focused intentional communities to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels
  • look at alternative methods of agriculture such as permaculture, urban gardening and urban forestry.

    We need to re-skill; we no longer have the luxury of time. If we continue as we have been the social and environmental costs will be catastrophic.