Tuesday, 14 May 2013

400ppm and Finishing University

Last Thursday the world officially reached 400ppm of CO2 . The next day I finished University. 

I took my very last exam, finished, sat back and, looking up from the constant studying of the last few months, was confronted with the reality that we had just hit the historical 400ppm waypoint. When I started Uni in September 2010, the world stood at 390ppm of carbon, already way past the safe point of 350 and creeping up by a steady 2ppm per year. It’s now at 400ppm and rising at over 4ppm per year - twice as fast as when I started. That the bottom-line; the undisputable measure of the world’s progress toward tackling climate change over the last 3 years – we have taken no steps forward and several steps back. 

400ppm is high. Last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, temperatures were 3-4˚C higher than today, sea level was 40m higher and humanity did not exist. The climate that 400ppm will leave us with is alien. Rather than the current climate in which we have evolved and thrived, 400ppm will result in something totally beyond our experience. 

 And yet strangely, there is no public outcry, no shocked headlines or outraged new coverage, no mass protest. No reaction on any scale that accurately reflects the real danger of our current situation. Instead most people are simply unconcerned or unaware, ignorant of the true significance CO2 having hit 400ppm so soon and with no signs of slowing. It’s possible that in 20 years time, the 9th May will be a date more strongly etched into the public psyche than September 11th. Yet here and now, as it happens, there is barely a stir. In the midst of such indifference, it feels strangely isolating to still be reeling from the shock and fear of reaching 400ppm – or, more exactly, from the fear of reaching 400ppm and it still feeling like nobodys really noticed. 

So as I finished Uni and went out to celebrate, ecstatic and over the moon to be done at long last, I couldn’t stop this number and the grim future it entails from rattling around at the back of my head. I have finished University just as it becomes startlingly evident that either we have no more time to waste or that we have already wasted our chance. It’s not yet possible to tell which it is for certain. In this game of planetary Russian roulette, its more than possible we have already have fired the fatal shot. On the other hand, we might be right on the edge of too late but not yet actually over it. Given that the stakes involved included the future chances and choices of all of us, I will opt for the belief that, while time is shorter than ever, it has not yet quite run out. Optimistic though it maybe, na├»ve even, surely that is the only real option – I’m too young to give up on the future. Aside from everything else, it would make all the sweat and toil I put into finishing this degree a fairly pointless activity. If there is still even the smallest possibility that we have the time to get ourselves out of this mess, then how can we not give it everything we’ve got? 

At this point, to shift the planet towards a different, brighter course, will take the full commitment and effort of all those involved in this crisis. And given that all those who will be affected by climate change, or who bear some responsibility for it, must count as involved, that would be every single one of us. 

 On the whole, as a species, we have yet to make any real concerted effort to stop ourselves from self-destructing. We have to change that, and we have to change it now.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The UNFCCC & the Myth of Absolute Decoupling

Back in 2009 I put a huge amount of time and effort and energy into trying to push for a fair, ambitious and binding international deal on climate change at Copenhagen. However I’ve lost a lot of the confidence I once had in what the UNFCCC can deliver – not only in terms of managing to set meaningful targets that match the science, but also in terms of nations then managing to meet those targets.

The UNFCCC’s commitment to continued economic growth seems to me to make actually achieving reductions in global emissions next to impossible.

On the second to last day of Copenhagen I went to see Tim Jackson speak about his new book – Prosperity without Growth. In the context of Copenhagen the main focus of his talk that day was the 'myth of economic decoupling'.

Economic decoupling is what economists use to explain how we can simultaneously cut our emissions and grow our economy. It relies on the notion that we can decouple growth of throughput/resource use/carbon emission from growth of GDP by increasing efficiency (which appeals to conventional economics because increasing efficiency is what capitalism is supposed to do best).

So what evidence is there for this? Well, relative decoupling – where carbon emissions grow more slowly than the economy - has been achieved by a fair number of states, including the UK, to a limited extent.

Relative decoupling is definitely a good start, but for us to actually reduce emissions overall we need to achieve absolute decoupling – or in other words efficiency must increase fast enough to offset both rising population and rising incomes – and must continue to do so...forever.

Or as Tim Jackson summaries: “Nowhere is there any evidence that efficiency can outrun – and continue to outrun – scale [of throughput] in the way it must do if growth is to be compatible with sustainability”

Why is this so significant? Because it means that the supposedly magic ‘get out of jail free’ card of absolute decoupling that would allow us to tackle climate change without revising our current economic system will not work.

So even if, by some miracle, we get targets set in 2015 that match the science, they will not be met unless we re-wire our economy (or I supposed the other option is endless recession, but that doesn’t hold much appeal)

And yet economic growth is one of those untouchable, unquestionable, non-negotiable assumptions in international politics and policymaking, including international climate conferences where it doesn’t get any serious consideration.

Or at least it never used. Amazingly Connie Hedegaard – EU Commissioner for Climate Action and the woman hailed as the hero of the Durban talks – came out last week urging nations to use Rio20 to overhaul idea of growth. Warning that the world must use RIO20 “to change forever the current damaging model of economic growth, or face future crises as severe as the one currently enveloping the eurozone.”(Harvey, 2012)

So maybe I can allow myself a little more hope in international environmentally policy. I’d like to think so. But then again, maybe I shouldn’t get too ahead of myself.

The date of RIO20 had to be changed because of fears that 54 Commonwealth leaders would not attend due to it clashing with the queens diamond jubilee (Gersmann, 2012) - that doesn’t leave me with a whole lot of confidence that the majority of world leaders and policy makers have an accurate perspective on the urgency of our current situation, or will give any real consideration to the idea that we need to overhaul the prevailing economic wisdom in order to tackle climate change.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Don’t Believe Everything You Read in the News

Two weeks ago, just after we’d watched ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, I saw Graham Lewton – Deputy Editor of the New Scientist – speak on the relationship between science and the media.

The media is most people’s primary source of information on the wider world. Lewton’s key message was that it is generally forgotten that the primary directive of the media is not to educate or accurately inform the public, but to make money. It’s ability to return a profit is the only thing the corporate media is actually held accountable to. Its only duty is to shareholders and the only time it has a duty to accurately report issues is if that accuracy sells newspapers – which sadly is not very often.

That has profound implications. For instance, seen in this light, expecting and relying on the media to accurately portray world events and ensure society is reliably and well informed does not seem like a very well thought out strategy. Especially given that to respond appropriately to the current crises society faces we all need an accurate view of the science that underlies them.

A free press is vital to the health of any democracy and we currently rely on the corporate media to fill this role. While state controlled media is obviously entirely bias, it seems we may be very naive to view corporate media as hugely more free and fair. It has entirely its own agenda, vested interests and bias - towards whichever stories sell as appose to which stories are most important – and we must recognise that these two things very rarely overlap.

That all adds up to a not-so-pretty picture for science in the media and raises some serious concerns.

However, we take a closer look at media coverage of climate change science in particular then the picture gets a whole lot darker again. Why? Because of huge amounts of money for disinformation campaigns made available by those with a vested interest in keeping climate change a clouded and controversial issue.

Or as James Hoggan puts it -“reputable newspapers and magazines are today acting in a confused and confusing manner because a great number of people have worked very hard and spent a great deal of money in an effort to establish and spread confusion.”

A paper which analysed 928 peer reviewed journal articles on climate change found that not a single paper took exception to the consensus position that human action is causing climate change (Oreskes, 2004). In contrast, an analysis of 4 major US prestige daily that did the same thing for all climate related articles between 1988-2002 found 53% of stories presented climate change as a controversial issue and quoted a scientist on one side and a spokesperson on the other (Boykoff, 2005).

0% against 53% - no wonder people are confused.

To take just one story that broke in the last few days as an example of wider practice, here is the case of the Heartland Institute – a thinktank that works to discredit the established science on climate change.

Heartland mistakenly emailed board meeting material (including budget and strategy documents) to the wrong person last week who then leaked it to DeSmogBlog. While Heartland originally tried to claim at least one of the documents was faked they have now been authenticated (Littlemore, 2012).

The documents demonstrated the clear intent of deliberately misinforming the public and spreading doubt around climate change. For example, they show that Heartland paid a team of writers $388,000 in 2011 to write a series of reports "to undermine the official United Nation's IPCC reports".

The documents shed light on just how profitable being a climate denier is these days - funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message. At the moment, this funding goes primarily to Craig Idso ($11,600 per month), Fred Singer ($5,000 per month, plus expenses), Robert Carter ($1,667 per month), and a number of other individuals.”

A huge amount of funding from corporations and individuals with vested interests in the current fossil fuel dependent system drives this misinformation and does so on a massive scale. Heartlands annual budget is $6 million and is supplied by U.S. businesses including Microsoft, Altria (parent company of Philip Morris) RJR Tobacco and more (DeMelle, 2012). And this is just one organisation amongst many that channels funding of this kind.

Add to this the reality that corporate media are not working to protect the public from misinformation – they are working to protect their profit margins – and we have a recipe for disastrously undermining society’s ability to respond effectively to the threat of climate change.

And just how far reaching and successful is this misinformation? Does it directly affect us? Well, to stick with the Heartlands example, what do Nir Shaviv, Syun-Ichi Akasofu, S. Fred Singer, Robert Carter, Tim Ball, Richard Lindzen, Ian Clark, Roy Spencer and Paul Reiter have in common?

1. They are all members of the Heartlands Institute.

2. They were all interviewed in ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ as climate experts.

A Nature Editorial last year publicly denounced the Heartland Institute, stating that for the Heartland Institute "science is secondary to wild accusations and political propaganda."

But then, clearly, not many people read peer reviewed journals and they don’t have the power to sway public opinion. And how many check the credentials of the climate ‘expert’ brought in for balance on the front page of the paper? That’s the journalists job, isn’t it?

So it looks like in our current capitalist society, ‘uncertainty’ on the issue of your choice is for sale to the highest bidder and it makes an attractive investment – for a licence to continue business as usual plus toothless environmental policy it's a bargain price.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

“I’m only one person - What difference can I make?”

One of the biggest obstacles for many of us when it comes to taking action on climate change is the sense of our own actions being totally insignificant - dwarfed by the scale of the problem.

The “whether I stop flying for my holidays makes no difference in the grand scheme of things unless everyone else stops too” train of thought.

And it’s a hard case to argue against.

Can one person really make all that much difference to such a huge global problem? It’s hard to be wholly confident on that front. But you can be one hundred percent sure that if none of us act because none of us believe we can make any difference, or because we don’t see any point in changing until everyone else has changed too, then nothing will happen.

None of us can change everything. But all of us can change something. And many of the changes we need to make to tackle climate change and stop undermining our ecosystem services are changes worth making for their own sake anyway. A sustainable and stable economy, stronger community, local food, energy security, a more equal society – tell me these aren’t things worth having – climate change or no climate change.

Ok, so just you alone choosing to head down to the farmers market rather than the supermarket on a Saturday morning may not immediately halt the climate crisis or have any significant impact on UK climate emissions.

But it will be significant for the local farmers whose food you buy. The farmers market in my home town of Stroud is now one of the best in the country. It’s brought the town and the community back to life and it means it’s now really easy to get hold of all the food you need to get you through the week, all from the market. And most of the farmers there say they would have gone out of business long ago if it weren’t for the market.

It may be hard to see the difference each one of us can make to the global picture but changing the way we live can certainly make a difference at a local scale, and it may well make much more difference than you’d think.

If you struggle to have any faith in the idea that you buying local food will make a blind bit of difference to global climate change then do it because you want to help strengthen your local community, or because local food is better for your health (O’Kane, 2012), or because it tastes so much better. Or even because you want to meet some new people – recent research in the US found that on average people who shopped at farmers markets came away with food that had 10 times less food miles, and had 10 times as many conversations while buying, it as people that shopped at supermarkets. (McKibben, 2007). I go down to the Farmers Market at home to catch up with old family friends as much as to do my shopping.

Or rather than giving up flying to reduce your carbon footprint, decide not to fly because overland travel is more fun; you meet more people along the way, it’s guaranteed to be much more of an adventure and you end up with a whole load more stories to tell afterwards.

Changes you make to the way you live may not immediately save the world, but they will have some impact, and they might just make you happier.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Copenhagen: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Copenhagen had a huge amount of hope riding on it – including mine.

And the reason that expectations were so high was that Copenhagen was supposed to produce a new global deal. Two years before in Bali all parties to the convention agreed to a timeline for establishing a new legally binding deal and set Copenhagen as the deadline for agreeing it.

Going back over the blogs I wrote and videos we recorded at Copenhagen, we spent a lot of time talking about how urgent and crucial it was that we met that deadline and left Copenhagen with a binding ambitious global deal.

But, of course, that’s not what happened.

And its two years down the line and I’m watching the last minute rescue of talks at Durban. And the success, the big reason to be hopeful about what came out of Durban, is that they agreed a timeline for a new legally binding deal and set the deadline for achieving this as 2015.

Sound familiar?

I’m not trying to say that Durban didn’t make progress – important steps forward were made – especially on co-operation between developed and developing nations. But when I go back and read over the blogs I wrote from Copenhagen and then stand back and look at where we are today, it’s slightly terrifying that all we’ve achieved in the last 2 years – and where Durban’s big step forward has left us - is on most counts roughly where we were 5 years ago.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Defining Sustainability Matters

Different concepts and interpretations of sustainability abound. Some of which can be so different as to be fundamentally at odds with each other, as recent firsthand experience brought home to me:

Cornwall Council Planning Officer: “But y’see, it all comes down to the sustainability of the thing.”

Me: “Isn’t that a little ironic?” 

Cornwall Council Planning Officer: “Well, yes, I suppose it is...”

That was the conclusion of the first of a fair few slightly bizarre conversations with Cornwall Council Planning Department back in June 2011 when our first planning application was being considered.

We set up our yurt homes in Mabe because we wanted to find a more sustainable (low impact, ecologically friendly, low carbon) alternative to traditional student housing. However, the biggest obstacle to us doing this has been that, in terms of planning policy, what we’re doing has been deemed unsustainable (sporadic uncontrolled development in a rural area).

Seven months down the line from that first conversation, and a whole host of planning hoops jumped through and wishes complied with, and we’ve now just had the decision on our second application:

Refusal of the application will be recommended on the grounds of sustainability and adverse visual impact.”

How we define sustainability matters.

It matters because we, as a species, are comprehensively failing to live sustainably. In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that all of the ecosystem services that support life on earth are currently in a state of actual or potential collapse, and humanity has now pushed the biosphere to the point where it’s “potential to support future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

Weak sustainability will not be enough to change this and prevent the imminent collapse of our life support systems. Our current consumer society and growth addicted economic system is what has led us to this point. A sustainability concept that can sit comfortably with the current status quo will not deliver the changes required.

In the long term strong sustainability is the only viable option – and long term is what sustainability is all about.

A huge amount is riding on this for all of us - on whether we will have the courage and vision necessary to step outside the mainstream and call for the fundamental revisions to our society and economic system that are required to deliver long lasting strong sustainability.

To humanity as a whole, how we choose to define and implement sustainability really could make all the difference in the world. And for me, here and now, it could well determine whether I get to keep my home or not.

Friday, 20 January 2012

GDP and the Dilemma of Truly Affordable Housing

Economics has become the currency of policy and GDP our gold standard for success. We have taken GDP as our chosen measure of prosperity and well-being, and as a result raising the GDP has been the single most important policy goal of governments across the world for most of the last century. (Jackson, 2009)

However, there are some truly fundamental flaws with taking GDP as the benchmark by which we judge our progress.

For one, GDP makes no attempt to distinguish the productive from the destructive. It simply tallies up all movement of money to give a figure for ‘economy activity’. By such reckonings the most economically productive citizen is the cancer patient who totals his car on the way to meet with his divorce lawyer, and Katrina was a huge boost to the American economy. (Mckibben, 2007)

But that’s not the half of it. What GDP clocks as productive may be shocking, but what it fails to account for is downright dangerous.

GDP gives no hint or sign of the rate at which we are haemorrhaging Natural Capital – the environmental goods and services that flow from nature to humanity. In 2008 the TEEB Interim Report found that globally we were losing Natural Capital at a rate of between $2-4 trillion. The banking crisis in 2008 caused the loss of financial capital amounting to around $2.5 trillion. One sent world leaders into panic and saw unprecedented sums of money committed with barely a moment’s hesitation, the other passed completely below the radar, and continues to do so.

The survival of humanity depends on the continued provision of ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005) – and therefore, by default, so does our economy. This simple and, you’d hope, blindingly obvious reality is something that somehow seems to get overlooked, time and time again.

The blind pursuit of economic growth and ever increasing GDP is a dangerous road. It can also lead us to some slightly bizarre predicaments, some of which can hit pretty close to home.

Take, for example, my home. I have the fairly unique position of being a UK home owner aged 20. I can do this because my lovely, low-impact home cost me a grand total of around £3000. Provision of affordable housing is a major issue in the UK today, with most young people unable to get a foot on the property ladder and the government struggling to address this. And yet, here I am sat in my very cosy comfortable home.

How can this be? Part of the problem may be that, although there are solutions out there, within the framework of our current economic system we can’t actually afford to make housing too affordable, because truly affordable housing doesn’t do much for the GDP...