Should Scientists go on strike over climate change?

April 14, 2014 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.

In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely.

The curious idea of scientists striking came, almost in passing, from an article by Bill Mckibben(above), who is perhaps the best known climate activist in the USA (we don’t have an equivalent person in the UK), known for his advocacy of divesting in fossil fuels, and most famous for his celebrated Rolling Stone article which made it clear why the only serious solution to climate change is to keep most of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground (and why, alas, that is never likely to happen).

His full post on MSNBC is here but these extracts give the jist:

“They’ve said it with graphs, they’ve said it with tables. They’ve offered colour-coded guides to future decades. They’ve told us about basic science and, when that didn’t work, they’ve tried to explain it in terms anyone could understand…

They’ve done their job. (And they’ve done it for free – working on these endless IPCC reports is a volunteer job). They’ve warned us, amply. The scientific method, with researchers working hard to disprove each others’ hypotheses, has worked. It’s yielded a concise answer to a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. When you pour carbon into the air, the planet heats up and then all hell breaks loose. That’s basically what you need to know.

But if science has worked, political science has failed…So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more.”

Now there is an idea.

 

(From ‘Climate Camp‘. Image via www.otesha.org.uk)

People typically go ‘on strike’ with trade union support, using the considerable strength of ‘collective bargaining’ to improve workers’ negotiating power over pay and conditions. Public support for this kind of action depends on our sense of whether the cause is just, and the action proportionate.

So what would we feel about strike action that takes roughly the form: “You say you value our approach and expertise, but your inaction in response to our outputs offends our collective sense of professionalism as Scientists, and we won’t work any more until you show through your actions that you are taking us, and our profession seriously.”

It is not clear if McKibben just means IPCC members should go on strike, but the idea has broader applicability. I hesitate to make an estimate, but a brief Google search suggests there are approximately (depending on definitions) six million ‘Scientists’ in the world.

At present, these six million or so Scientists do not have what Marx and Engels referred to as ‘class consciousness’, but they have a great deal to unite around; a shared commitment to certain methodologies, principles, values and practices and a worldview that respects appropriate responses to data and evidence.

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

From this shared sense of identity and purpose they would generally respect the verdict of their climatologist colleagues (better not to say ‘comrades’…) that climate change is happening because of what governments are allowing people and businesses to do, and that we ought to ‘do something’ rapidly to change that. (The most recent report helpfully gave some detail on that typically generic injunction ie we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy).

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

Could Scientists stand together in solidarity in this way? Can we imagine an ENT surgeon, an inorganic chemistry PHD student, and a recently graduated engineer feeling ‘common cause’ in this way and taking professional action accordingly? It’s a bit of a stretch, because Scientists of all stripes and seniority would need to feel somehow ‘offended’ by the lack of respect given to the work of their colleagues to take collective action. At first blush it sounds and feels drastic, but is it really? Given what is at stake?

Assuming the rationale makes sense, could it ever happen practically? What would it look like in practice?

A long shot it may be, but it could have a huge effect. Scientists carry a great deal of societal esteem because what they do requires knowledge and diligence and a respect for something other than their own opinions.

However, while they have lots of  ’soft power’ – the power of attraction – the relatively ineffectual responses to their IPCC reports suggest they tend to lack ‘hard power’ – the power to change policy at scale, and they don’t always want it either! Striking would be both a form of communication and a form of direct action; and we need both on climate change.

As with every other aspect of the climate crisis, Scientists have a collective action problem. If there was some way for Scientists to better make their collective presence felt, for instance by their collective absence, this might be a powerful collective action solution that would communicate more effectively than any report every could.

Scientists of the world unite! You have everything to lose but your brains.

 

The 7 Dimensions of Climate Change: Science, Law, Money, Technology, Democracy, Culture, Behaviour

February 16, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Everybody is speaking about the link between flooding and climate change, and many are saying it is time to ‘act’ on this understanding. The trouble is, as I’ve written before, this injunction to act on climate change is often simplistic and painfully generic, which serves to dissipate political will.

With this in mind, the Guardian’s behavioural insight blog features my latest thoughts on how to improve the quality of our thinking on climate change, following up on our report at the end of last year: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels.

The point of this particular piece was to begin to flesh out what it might mean to think of climate change as being distinct from more general ‘environmental’ concerns, and to explain why that reframing matters. The following is an abbreviated version, so if you feel you have another click in you, please go here for the fuller version and leave comments or tweets there, but if you’re happy with ‘the gist’, read on:

“We need a form of simplicity that rejects the lazy conflation of climate change with environmentalism by presenting a more energising set of associations. … Second, the right kind of simple would offer a vision of human behaviour informed by political consciousness, so that calls for “behaviour change” connect with the deep roots of the problem in fossil fuel production, rather than a misplaced emphasis on energy efficiency…Third, the right kind of simple would promote systems thinking, such that the climate problem is not viewed as having discrete independent elements, but rather multiple inter-connected dimensions that co-exist in the same space…

1. Science matters because it is the closest thing we have to an objective reference point for debates that might otherwise lack grounding.

2. Law matters, because it acts as a powerful constraint at scale…

3. Money matters, because capitalism is the planet’s operating system, and given the time constraints, we will need to respond to the climate change problem from within the system that created it…

4. Technology matters because we need innovative forms of creating, storing and transporting energy urgently…

5. Democracy matters because it is a mechanism for making collective decisions, and climate change is the biggest collective action problem of all time

6. Culture matters because our response to climate change is informed by everything from its place in formal education to implicit consumerist values in advertising to how the media frames judgments on systemic risk as scientific “uncertainty”.

7. Behaviour matters because while our choices are shaped by the facts (science), the rules (law), the resources (money), the tools (technology), the institutions (democracy) and the ideas (culture) around us, it is ultimately what we individually and collectively choose to do (behaviour) that matters.”

I hope you can read the fuller version in the Guardian, but based on the gist here, what do you think?

Too simple? Not simple enough?

 

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Creative solutions to climate change.

January 21, 2014 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

When it comes to climate change, creativity is not optional. To retain a resilient and livable planet, we need to do things differently, better, and quickly. In light of our competing commitments to energy security and fuel prices, that means rethinking our ends, our means, and our conception of ourselves.

Despite my reservations about Adam’s attack on the political class and my concern about creativity being hollow, I have enjoyed thinking about what it might mean to link our new agenda on climate change with our emerging worldview.

A broader conceptual discussion about creativity is needed, but for now, with creativity understood as self-directed, pro-active and innovative activity, here are some thoughts on what ‘the power to create’ might mean for attempts to tackle climate change.

Writ large, our current approach to climate change is passive rather than creative. Most of us follow the routines of our lives, point the finger at politicians, do a few tokenistic things like recycle or use our own shopping bags, demand cheap and secure energy without realising that’s a climate position, hope for the best at big international climate summits and wait for another IPCC report or devastating storm before saying: isn’t it terrible that nothing is happening? We can do better, and here are six ideas on how an emphasis on creativity might help:

1) Frame the power to create as a solution to stealth denial

If passivity is a large part of the problem of ‘stealth denial’ creativity may be part of the solution.

(Our report unpacks the claim that about two thirds of the population are in stealth denial on climate change, i.e. they accept the significance of human-caused climate change, but don’t live as though they do.)

Creativity is about more than DIY, but I was struck by the importance of passivity as a contrast with creativity while reading George Monbiot’s piece in today’s Guardian:

“Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter-life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation…Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them… Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose. But we seem to have forgotten what it means.”

Perhaps that’s too rhetorical, but the idea seems sound: large chunks of the population have become so busy focusing on work, family, bill-paying, domestic chores, and entertainment, that we lack the requisite will, time and energy to think about – never mind act upon –  ’bigger-than-self problems’ like climate change.

Given that climate change is not exclusively ‘an environmental issue’ one role for creativity is to highlight the scope for people to act in ways that they might not have previously imagined to be relevant. This includes wasting less food, flying less, eating less beef, and a myriad of other micro behaviour changes. However, the point of our recent report is that we clearly need to connect such acts to a credible narrative about the big picture of continued fossil fuel production and steadily rising global emissions.

In that respect, you should find our who your MP is (most don’t know) and tell them that climate change matters to you, but you might have more impact by finding a few hours of gumption to change your energy supplier and then use social media and email your friends and colleagues to explain why.

As far as possible (not always very far if you are in poverty, a full-time carer, unskilled etc) we need to seek to solve the problems of our lives rather than waiting for them to be solved for us.

What might that mean more tangibly? Others might disagree, but to me it points squarely to Shorter working weeks which means a revaluation of the core economy. Without that shift, most people simple don’t have the time and support required to be more creative.

2) Get creative about our ends as well as our means.

If we are stuck with indefinite economic growth that is parasitic on undervalued and scarce natural capital as our chief measure of societal success, then the power to create is unworthy of the name. The ‘power’ in ‘power to create’ should be about contesting the rules of the game as well as playing it better.

The ‘power’ in ‘power to create’ should be about contesting the rules of the game as well as playing it better.

In this respect, is it not just sane to think we need a conception of economic maturity that connects to an idea of human rights and respects planetary boundaries? Can’t we have a political discourse where people speak about economic decisions as if they are also social and ecological decisions, which they are? Getting seriously creative about how we conceptualise ‘change’ means breaking down the distinctions that falsely keep these dimensions of our world apart.

3) Place our hope in cities as well as States

Some say governments are now too small for the big problems (e.g. climate change) and too big for the small problems (e.g. anti-social behaviour), and the time of cities has come.

An uncreative approach to climate change is to wait for international agreements between states. Given the divergent economic needs, different energy reserves, vulnerability to climactic changes and range of national political systems, we are never likely to get a global agreement (that satisfies, say, USA, China, India, small island states, Norway, Russia) that goes beyond a firmer resolve to reduce emissions in principle(which is not to say we shouldn’t try).

In the meantime we can act at levels where the impact is more tangible – cities. As Benjamin Barber put it in the RSA Journal:

“It turns out that about 80 percent of all energy is used in cities and 80 percent of global carbon emissions come from cities with more than 50,000 people. Therefore, if cities take strong measures – as well as Amsterdam, Los Angeles cleaned up its port and reduced carbon emissions by 30 percent to 40 percent – they will have a profound effect. Even if the US and China do nothing, cities can have a big role to play in fixing the problem. It’s not just a theoretical thing.”

The connection between cities and creativity is well established, and our hope for creative action on climate change may lie at this level of the Polis.

4) Trust creative artists to help communicate climate solutions

As this recent piece indicates (HT Jonathan Schifferes), climate communication has not so far been very successful, and there is a place for artists not just to change the message but also the medium: “People respond to authentic artistic expression, not scripted messaging. Artists need free rein. Businesses should take the plunge and give it to them.”

This might sound a little worthy, but as indicated in ‘Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard’, we are in danger of being over-literal and half-blind in our attention to the world, and we need artists of various kinds to help us retain a sense of balance and perspective: This cartoon helps put this point in perspective:

Embedded image permalink

Perhaps ‘power to create’ is precisely what we need for the third industrial revolution.

5) Trust in a radical decentralisation of energy provision. 

This point is covered in more detail as one of our eight suggestions for how to overcome climate stealth denial in the report (see pages 56-58):

Not only do we need a transition to renewables, but we need to design the energy
infrastructure in a much less centralised, vulnerable and remote way, as suggested by Rebecca Willis and Nick Eyre of Green Alliance:

‘Only 50 years ago, most households were directly aware of the amount of energy they used from the weight of coal carried into the house. Today it flows in unseen through pipes and wires, and embedded in the multitude of products purchased, most of which are manufactured out of sight from consumers. The pervasive attitude that new energy infrastructure should not be seen may well be one of the reasons behind opposition to
renewable energy installations. But a sustainable energy system will not be an invisible system. Reconnection of people with the energy system is a precondition for the low carbon transition.’

The power to create could be about that reconnection, with more homes being power plants, and more communities collectively managing their localised and renewable energy. Perhaps ‘the power to create’ is precisely what we need for the third industrial revolution.

6) Divest in centralised dirty energy and reinvest in decentralised renewable energy, thereby supporting the forms of innovation we need (see page 53-54). 

If the power to create means challenging vested interests, the best way to do that is to move your money accordingly. The test of the RSA’s resolve to challenge vested interest will be questions like this one.

These six ideas are a way of showing how ‘the power to create’ might help to flesh out what the call the action on climate change might mean. In essence the point is this: it’s not hope that leads to action, but action that leads to hope.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and author of the recent report: A New Agenda on Climate Change: Facing up to Stealth Denial and Winding Down on Fossil Fuels. He Tweets @Jonathan_Rowson

 

Time to ‘Act’ on Climate Change. Yes, but how?

September 30, 2013 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

“The People need to rise before the seas do”Alice Bell

I felt a little bemused by the reactions to the IPCC report on Friday for three main reasons.

First, for those thinking about climate change for the last few years there was little new in the report. The most generous way to interpret the international public shift in understanding from ‘very likely’(90%) to ‘extremely likely’(95%) is that before Friday we merely knew that climate change is a real and present danger and caused by humans, now we know that we know.

Second, so many sceptics focused on the so-called fifteen year ‘pause’ in planetary warming of surface temperatures despite an ongoing increase in carbon dioxide. On the one hand this is fair and fundamental: if you say more X leads to more of Y, and there has been more of X, but no more of Y, people are entitled to question the relationship. On the other hand, there are really robust answers that the sceptics tend not to mention. First climate scientists don’t think it matters in terms of overall trends because the time window is too short(more X leads to more Y in the long term with periodic exceptions). Second, we have had a similar pause before, mid century, followed by a subsequent rapid increase in temperatures which is likely to happen again, and third, and for me most compellingly, those 15 years began with an outlier: 1998 was an exceptionally hot year because of a particular climactic event, an El Nino. If you take 1998 out of the picture, there is no pause.

Third, almost everybody seemed to be saying ‘we need to act‘, ‘time for action‘ and so forth, but few commentators said exactly how we should act. Alice Bell is right in her evocative line above- if the people don’t mobilise, governments won’t ‘act’ with sufficient speed and scale, markets won’t respond in their investment decisions, and the patterns of energy supply will continue.

I’m currently writing up a report on climate change that is about that ‘how’. Writing almost always takes longer than planned and is subject to Hofstadter’s law but in this case the delay has a more substantive basis. Shortly after writing the post “what kind of behaviour change does climate change call for” I realised that the difference between behaviour change for reducing domestic energy demand (how do you get people to insulate their lofts, turn down their thermostats, wash at lower temperatures, buy less imported goods from China etc) and behaviour change that might actually address the global challenge are not just slightly different, but based on completely different readings of the climate problem. Climate change is partly about behaviour and partly about technology, but I have come to believe that it’s mostly about money and power.

Simply stated, changing the domestic demand for energy, or ensuring that energy is used more efficiently in homes, offices and transport may have intrinsic benefits in terms of saving money, and not wasting precious resources. However, such changes do not contribute to addressing climate change unless they have a knock-on impact on global energy supply, and that is often a huge lacuna in particular policies, including the green deal.

Globally rising emissions(reductions in the developed world are entirely cancelled out by increases in the developing world) are caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which are the lifeblood of the global economy. Short of a global reduction in energy demand, as long as fossil fuels are significantly cheaper relative to other forms of energy, a global energy market will continue to use them, and we won’t be any closer to preventing significant planetary warming. And of course, fossil fuels are currently significantly cheaper than they might be because they are not taxed in a way that is commensurate with their social harm, indeed they are effectively subsidised; while the investment in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage are not incentivised by government in the way they need to be.

There is a role for decreasing energy demand and consumption more generally, but once you see climate change as being first and foremost a supply-side problem(the main goal is to keep fossil fuels in the ground) what you do about energy demand has to be much more focused, such that the impact on supply is more immediate and tangible. In the forthcoming report this idea is fleshed out with a detailed examination of how we might address rebound effects and patterns of climate denial in the British population.

The challenge then shifts from localised goals of reducing consumption or improving energy efficiency to something more ambitious: How can we use behavioural insight to get people to change, in ways that get governments to change, in ways that get markets to change. The crux of what it means to ‘act’ therefore involves recognising that markets follow government signals to make energy investment decisions, and governments follow democratic signals to make political decisions. The people need to rise before the seas do.

But how? I am tempted to say watch this space, but two of the main policy answers I am beginning to believe in are a rapid divestment in pension funds that invest in fossil fuels and an alternative to the EU Cap and Trade scheme known as ‘fee and dividend’ that ‘taxes’ carbon at source, but gives the money as a flat fee to the population, rather than to Government, while still incentivising reductions in energy demand.

Identifying policies to get behind is important to make sense of what it means to ‘act’. To gain traction the incipient climate movement we need to swiftly galvanise will require a positive story to believe in, so that when we are called upon to act, the action is not just against something intangible, destructive and dominant, but for something tangible, progressive and credible.

Obama: The Politics and Economics of Climate Change

June 26, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

It was a great speech, with all the evocative imagery, rousing sentiment and rhetorical flair one has come to expect from Obama.

Speeches made by major political leaders are political events in themselves, not merely plans of action, or infotainment. In this sense the 6000 words delivered yesterday at George Washington University in the sweltering heat represented a huge step forward in terms of American leadership on the pressing global issue – an issue that Obama referred to in shorthand as “the destructive power of a warming planet” in his second inaugural address.

Of course, it didn’t go far enough, but everybody knows that, even the President himself. Yet it really went pretty far, with lots of tangible action points that don’t depend on congressional approval. In light of  political and economic constraints, perhaps we couldn’t really have asked for more at this point.

Obama removes jacket at the start of his speech.

Image via USAtoday.com

A few highlights:

  • Obama used the first images of the earth from space in 1968 to open and close the speech:

“While the sight of our planet from space might seem routine today, imagine what it looked like to those of us seeing our home, our planet, for the first time. Imagine what it looked like to children like me. Even the astronauts were amazed. “It makes you realize,” Lovell would say, “just what you have back there on Earth.”

  • He gave a lucid scientific description of the problem, and was unequivocal about rejecting climate change denial: 

“Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. (Applause.) We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. (Applause.) Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

  • His speech dealt with plans both for three forms of climate change mitigation (limiting the effects/potential damage by reducing emissions) and various kinds of adaptation(acknowledging that some degree of damaging climate change is now inevitable and/or already underway and preparing for its effects). He captured this distinction quite nicely with a simple car metaphor:

“Using less dirty energy, transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, wasting less energy through our economy is where we need to go. And this plan will get us there faster. But I want to be honest – this will not get us there overnight. The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now. And even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science. It’s like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then can shift into reverse. It’s going to take time for carbon emissions to stabilize.”

Yesterday was a political breakthrough, but the ecological breakthrough we need may only come from a breakthrough in economic thinking about the feasibility of a post-growth economy.

On balance the speech has been well received by Obama’s liberal base and most environmentalists. However, relative to the scale of the challenge it falls some way short and many have expressed reservations about the implicit and explicit commitments in his plan.

Nafeez Ahmed calls the plan ‘fracked up’ in the Guardian, in sense that it is premised on using shale gas and nuclear power as transitional energies alongside carbon capture and storage, without facing up to the scientific evidence on these technologies. For instance, Shale Gas might emit less carbon than other forms of gas or oil when measured in the short term, but over a 20 year measure, they are probably much worse for the climate.

My own concern with the speech is that it still hinges on the premise that we don’t have to choose between addressing climate change and economic growth. As Obama puts it:

“Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”

Almost everybody would want that to be true, but is it right? Where is the argument that there is no contradiction? As I try to argue in detail, here and here, I haven’t yet seen a credible macroeconomic model that indicates how you can keep emissions to acceptable levels and increase GDP, even when you give Obama massive benefits of the doubt on our capacity to innovate on energy production and consumption around the globe. More recently Ian Christie advances the case on why understanding this link between the perceived growth imperative and climate risk is so central and so difficult.

Yesterday was a political breakthrough, but the ecological breakthrough we need may only come from a breakthrough in economic thinking about the feasibility of a post-growth economy. It’s hard to imagine an American President giving such a speech, but then again, it was hard to imagine Obama.

 

 

 

 

Climate Week is brought to you by…

March 4, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

It’s Climate Week! It’s described as “a supercharged national occasion that offers an annual renewal of our ambition and confidence to combat climate change”.  Sounds like something you can’t argue with. It’s also particularly significant for us, as the Social Brain Centre is in the early stages of an exciting programme of work investigating behaviour change for climate change.

Nationally, there are over 3,000 events taking place throughout the week, ranging from launch events for hydrogen partnerships to vegetarian punjabi cooking courses. It’s more than likely that there’s something happening near you and it’s easy to find out what.

Exploring the Climate Week website, I was most interested to see what suggestions were included under the ‘Green your home‘ tab. One of the themes we intend to explore in our own project is that of ‘home’ so I was naturally curious to see how the Climate Week team had dealt with the topic.

The list of suggestions appears as follows:

The initial shock for me was that the first of these categories consisted entirely of an advertisement for a brand of ‘eco’ toilet paper. Fair enough, sponsorship is a fact of life these days, and securing it was no doubt essential for Climate Week to proceed with its good work. But the fact that its ‘Green your bathroom’ category consisted only of promotion for one brand of loo roll was disappointing to me.

There are plenty of more effective ways in which we could genuinely take steps to ‘green our bathrooms’. Ironically, one of the best things we could do is take a lead from the majority of the developing world and do away with toilet paper all together, but such a step lacks universal appeal not to mention sponsorship potential.

Moving on, the next category is ‘Green your cuisine’. I was expecting to find all sort of useful tips on how to reduce my carbon emissions by changing my cooking habits, as well as a strong message about reducing meat consumption. The meat industry creates more Co2 than the car industry. One of the single most important actions we could all take to make a difference is to reduce the amount of meat we eat.

Do the Green Thing have, in my opinion, done a good job of finding the right marketing message for this, with their slogan ‘Make Meat a Treat.’ If we can move from considering meat as something that is necessary for a ‘proper’ meal to seeing it as a treat to be enjoyed on special occasions, we could see dramatic drops in carbon consumption per capita. This poster gets this across beautifully, parodying the ‘enjoy responsibly’ campaign that has accompanied advertising for alcohol.

But, no, Climate Week’s thoughts on ‘Green your cuisine’ make no mention of meat, and instead consists of a single, rather vague point about making meals from leftovers. Disappointing indeed.

Next, another advertisement/ plug for a specific company, this time in the form of a ‘green’ energy supplier. Again, this is the only suggestion that is made under the ‘energy’ category, and no attempt is made to suggest ways in which we might actually reduce the amount of energy we consume at home.

I was especially curious to see what was included under the heading of ‘Sustainable DIY’ – I genuinely couldn’t imagine what sorts of suggestions might be made here. Using a hand drill instead of an electric one? How naive of me. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the category appears to have been included purely as a promotion opportunity, this time for a paint company that measures the carbon footprint of the products it manufactures. Measuring the carbon footprint is all well and good, but are they actually doing anything to reduce it, or encourage us to do our bit?

Of the eleven categories in the list above, there are only four that do not contain links to specific companies selling particular products.  The four that are not linked to adverts are pretty limp, not really saying anything new and appear at the end of the list, all of which makes me think that this entire section of the website was created entirely for the purpose of giving a platform to advertise the products of companies that have given support to climate week.

I’m disappointed and I think it is a shame – even if the organisers of Climate Week had to include a page to list their corporate supporters, they could have used it as a real platform to share best practice and suggestions that we could engage with rather than the tokenistic disappointment that it is.

However, I don’t want to be so critical as to detract from the important messages that Climate Week is trying to convey. I very much hope that the week of events will go a long way towards renewing national ambition and confidence to combat climate change, far more deeply than simply persuading us to change our brand of toilet roll.

 

Why we disagree about climate change: 30(!) wedge issues

August 23, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Climate change has moved from being predominantly a physical phenomenon to being simultaneously a social phenomenon. And these two phenomenon are very different…It is a story about the meeting of Nature and Culture. - Mike Hulme.

Ever had the feeling that we will never agree about what to do about climate change? Me too. But can we at least agree about what we disagree about? That would represent massive progress, but is easier said than done.

To make sense of this challenge, I have been enjoying Mike Hulme’s book: Why we Disagree about Climate Change:

“Our recognition of climate change as a threat to the ways of life to which we are accustomed and which we value depends on our views of Nature, our judgements about scientific analysis, our perceptions of risk, and our ideas about what is at stake- economic growth, national sovereignty, species extinction, or the lives of poor people in marginal environments of developing countries- and whether it is ethically, politically or economically justifiable to make trade-offs between these….”

The core point is that “Even when scientists, politicians and publics agree on the basic principles and most robust findings of climate science, there is still plenty of room for disagreement about what the implications of that science are for action.”

General disagreement is one thing, but what follows are the thoughts prompted by beginning to think like Hulme, and a first draft of a list of wedge issues on climate change; major issues that shape our perception of what the problem is and how we should act- issues that are therefore likely to divide us, even when we recognise the problem represents a shared threat.

I expect this list will grow and change, and I imagine there are other categories that should be included (e.g. sociology, anthropology, epistemology, perhaps more about different kinds of energy). It also feels like the right length of major wedge issues is probably about 50 and I’m already noticing questions I missed out.

I hope readers will help me make the next draft a much better one- so do let me know what you think. I have only briefly annotated here, and given a few links, but I  plan to explain each of the wedge issues, and why they matter, in the next instalment, either here or in a more formal report. Enjoy!

Climatology/Science

1. Do we really understand how the climate works?

(If it’s so much more complex than the financial system, and we got that badly wrong…)

2. Is climate change happening?

(Yes, demonstrably so, but some say ‘climate change’ is not – i.e. it’s nothing out of the ordinary if we had access to records that went far enough back. They are almost certainly wrong)

3. Is climate change anthropogenic (man-made)?

(Almost certainly, but there are enough sceptics to allow people to imagine there is a position to be taken here- we are often asked “Do you believe in climate change”)

4. Is ‘runaway global warming’ likely or not?

(How valid/important is the idea of ‘tipping points’)

5. How many degrees of planetary warming are ‘safe’?

(Is the 2 degree limit a political or scientific judgement?)

Science/Technology

6. Are there any likely scientific breakthroughs that will solve ‘the problem’?

7. Do current intellectual property laws help or hinder the development of carbon abatement technologies?

8. Will anticipated technological change happen quickly enough to prevent avoidable harm, or not?

9. Could an ‘energy internet’ meet our energy needs?

(Some, e.g. Jeremy Rifkind argue the key is to make households produce and share energy, not just share it)

Macroeconomics/Modelling

10. Is it viable to stop seeking economic growth in the developed world?

(Some say economic growth is economically imperative, but ecologically impossible)

11. Do we have to assume indefinite economic growth in climate models?

(Most climate models, e.g. The Stern Review, assume 1.2% growth in perpetuity- this matters because it implies future generations will be richer, and better able to deal with the worst effects of climate change)

12. What should the price of carbon be?

13. Is ‘absolute decoupling’ possible?

14. Does/could ‘cap and trade’ work?

15. Can we design a viable carbon market that is ‘functional and fair’?

(The magazine Ephemera recently devoted an issue to this question)

Ethics

16. Do natural systems and species have intrinsic value or not?

17. Can we place a quantitative or comparative value on a life?

18. Should/can we value the quality of life of future generations as much as our own?

(This question, the so-called ‘discount value’ appears to be a critical wedge issue because it can only be a value judgement, with no objective way of settling the question, but most economic models discount future generations considerably in their models).

Communication/social marketing

19. Is ‘climate change’ the best expression to work with?

20. Is climate change an environmental issue?

21. Is Climate change best framed as a public health issue?

Political

22. Are relatively short democractic electoral cycles part of the problem, or not?

23. Does the developed world have an obligation to allow the developing world to pollute relatively more to correct for historic exploitation, or not?

24. Do we need more regulation or less?

Religion/Spiritual/Worldview

25. Is nothing sacred?

(Are there things that don’t have a price, or that if they were given a price, would be valued even less?)

26. Are we likely to be reborn?

(A funny one, and I’ll probably delete this later, but it occurs to me that if a key question is the discount rate, and our attitude to future generations, our sense of whether ‘we’ will be there in future might be relevant)

Behavioural Science

27. Do attitudes drive behaviour, or is it the other way round?

(A biggie, but I was impressed by this resource as giving some ammunition for an answer)

28. Is the rebound effect serious or not?

29. Should we appeal to economic incentives, or not?

30. Should we work directly with values, or not?

 

What’s wrong with wonky carrots?

November 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but today 5,000 people, including me, have had exactly that. The event in Trafalgar Square was the brainchild of Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. The aim of the event is to draw attention to the astonishing amount of food that gets thrown away every year.

Partly, the idea is to encourage consumers not to overbuy and to use up food at home before it goes off and also, to draw attention to the shocking quantities of food that get wasted higher up the food chain. UK supermarkets have much more stringent cosmetic standards than our European counterparts, meaning that tonnes of perfectly good fruit and vegetables are sent to landfill simply because they are the wrong shape.

A delicious vegetable curry was prepared by Hare Krishna volunteers, made entirely from ingredients that would have otherwise ended up in landfill.  In addition to the main meal, punters could help themselves to freshly pressed apple juice made from misshapen apples deemed unfit for our supermarket shelves. Fruit, including uneven bananas and pineapples were being given away and you could help bag up wonky carrots which will later be distributed to food charities. As well as the vegan curry, there were also tongue sandwiches, and seared ox cheek on offer. The queue for these was considerably shorter than for the veggie option, and, to my amusement a volunteer was checking with people that they knew what they were queuing for.

The whole thing was impressively well organised, with fast moving queues and plenty of volunteers making sure everyone got the message as well as the free food. I spoke to a couple of staff from FareShare, who explained to me how they manage to feed over 35,000 people daily through redistributing food waste. The examples of food thrown away by the industry were very surprising – even rice and pasta with more than a year left before the use-by date get chucked simply because of misprints on the packaging. FoodCycle volunteers handed me recipe cards for great meals you can make with vegetables which are past their best, and a woman from Love Food Hate Waste told me that the average family throws away £50 worth of perfectly good food every month.

Everyone attending was asked to sign the Feed the 5,000 pledge, committing to buying only the food they need, and eating the food they buy. For me, the most striking statistic of the day was that if we all stopped throwing away food that could have been eaten it would have the same carbon impact as taking 20% of cars off the road. I don’t know why this was the figure that had most salience for me – maybe because the carbon impact of car use seems more obvious to me than that of wasted food.

Not wasting food seems like such a simple and obvious thing we can all do, and really shouldn’t be that difficult. I guess like many of these sorts of challenges, it’s about subtle shifts and changes of habit, maybe a bit more in the way of planning before we go shopping, and more flexibility to use up what we’ve got once we’ve bought it. So, before the end of the day, I’d better eat the apple that’s been sitting in my desk drawer all week…

The Politics of Climate Change: 5 Questions for Giddens

October 27, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Just back from RSA Thursday with Anthony Giddens speaking about a new edition of his book, The Politics of Climate Change. You’ll be able to listen to the podcast of the event very soon, and possibly watch the video, though I suspect they will edit out the bits of the speaker and the chair – Matthew Taylor – doing a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy cameo- they clearly go back a long way…

Alas, there was nothing very new in the talk, but I liked the link to the two worlds in the Matrix. Giddens suggested that international climate negotiations are a bit like that- a virtual pleasant world where we assume things are happening and a real world where promises are broken and discussions continue indefinitely as the planet steadily cooks itself beyond a habitable state.

Giddens is not the first to argue that the scale of the climate challenge challenge requires, inter-alia, a complete rethinking of how we structure our way of life, a shift in values, technological success stories, concerted policy action, behaviour change, a few miracles etc.

In this sense I felt a bit deflated. We are already knew that we are failing badly, and I wanted him to explain what we might do about it. So here is how I would have cross-examined him, given the chance.

1) Rethinking democracy: You say that we need a return to planning, and a ‘politics of the long term’, but two things militate against that: Firstly we know that human beings discount the value of the long-term compared to the present, and secondly most advanced economies (the worst carbon culprits) have democratic systems with electoral cycles that are built to reward short-term promises. Given that climate change is not just another policy issue, but as you say, ‘an existential threat’, how would you restructure the relationship between state and citizen to make long-term thinking and planning possible and rewarding?

2)Immunity to change: In response to Matthew’s question to the audience- asking us to choose between 1)International policy agreements, 2) lifestyle and value change, and 3)incentivising technological innovation you said we obviously need all three. This claim chimes with the pervasive wisdom on climate change that we just need to throw everything we can at the problem and hope that it will all add up to enough. But what about how these solutions interact? For instance, the Common Cause report suggests that appealing to financial incentives when advocating lower fuel consumption perpetuates the problem by activating the ‘me-first’, consumerist frame, rather than helping people see climate change as a ‘bigger than self’ problem. What about such unintended consequences? Is it at least possible that some of our solutions, when taken together, actually compound the problem?

When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction. 

3) Value Change: Your suggestion that we need value and lifestyle change is well taken, but feels facile unless it involves a strategy. Values are often incommensurate (e.g. how do you compare the relative value of freedom and security?) and the choice between them is agonistic, in the sense that we don’t always have a rational basis to choose. Moreover, experts in values surveys seem to argue that the idea of ‘changing values’ is in itself antithetical to many people’s values! What would a societal strategy to change values look like?

4) With respect… It is great that an eminent intellectual like yourself is devoting your energy to this problem, and your contribution in clarifying the nature of the challenge is helpful, important and appreciated. Yet you seem to approach the politics of climate change in a very conventional political way. What bothers me is this: given that you understand the problem so well, why does your contribution look so much like the kinds of contribution that don’t appear to really change anything? You write books, give speeches, and the content is a mixture of statistics, fear and informed imagination. David Attenborough does something similar, as do many leading thinkers. What if the medium is the message? Is it not incumbent on leaders like you to do something different? (I don’t know exactly what but I think I have a point here…)

5) Grief. As anybody who has grieved for a loved one will know, there is a huge difference between accepting something intellectually and accepting it emotionally- how do we get to that point? When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction. Personally I think this is the most profound insight into climate change I have heard and, with respect, gets much closer to the core of the problem than anything you said today. What do you think?

Cradle-to-cradle with a difference in Stoke

October 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is about a radical model of enterprise in Stoke where the “cradle-to-cradle” zero-waste business model has been taken one step further. On Saturday I heard at Stoke Stories how a former cattle and tropical agriculture specialist came to be involved in an organisation tackling pressing environmental and social problems through computers.

Hugh Irvine is one of a number of people who are functionally “directors” of The Ethical Computer Company (TECC), based near Stoke. He gave us an honest and insightful account of how it refurbishes and recycles computing equipment that has stopped being used or is damaged. For the last 12 years it has sold computers at low-cost whilst providing paid employment for long-term unemployed and training for young people and marginalised individuals to get them ready for employment. Unemployment is generally recognised as Stoke’s greatest problem, in particular, the unemployment of skilled artisans who once worked in the pottery industry.

This is borne out in the murmurs of approval 51 seconds into Hugh’s talk…

… or if you prefer more quantitative evidence, almost a third more people in Stoke‐on‐Trent are unemployed compared to the national average (1).

Desso aims for all the material resources in their products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials

I wanted to write about TECC in relation to the “cradle-to-cradle” approach discussed in last week’s RSA lecture, which included Dame Ellen MacArthur and Stef Kranendijk, CEO of the carpeting company Desso. Desso (like TECC) aims for all the material resources in its products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials (though renewable energy and human resources are undoubtedly needed to undertake this recycling and reusing).

TECC delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model… helping local people develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment

What TECC showed me – and this is why I called it a radical model – is another way of looking at the cradle-to-cradle business model. Firstly, TECC also recycles and reuses the products of other computer sellers (its competitors of sorts), as well as making its own products recyclable and reusable. Secondly, and what I will explore in a bit more detail, TECC also focuses on human or social sustainability. Desso might employ whoever in the labour market wants the job (to deliver a zero material-resource-waste business model). TECC, on the other hand, delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model. It employs local people who face difficulties in getting employment because of a culture of unemployment, physical disabilities or a criminal record. Desso wants to prevent its product materials from ending up on the environmental scrapheap. This compares with TECC which also works to prevent people from ending up on the ‘economic scrapheap’, instead helping people to develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment.

This model of operating a business will be familiar to a number of social entrepreneurs. Indeed eight of the 25 enterprises that won the prestigious social enterprise programme the Big Venture Challenge are applying a similar method; employing people who would otherwise face major difficulties in getting employment.

With this in mind, you could argue that this (expanded) interpretation of cradle-to-cradle then also has relevance for those few sectors that don’t dispose of their products quickly for recycling to be important. At the Desso lecture, Paul King, CEO of the UK Green Building Council, laid down the challenge of retrofitting Britain’s housing stock – 80% of which he said will still be here in 2050. Could retrofitting be delivered by training up the long-term unemployed? The Green New Deal described this as a ‘carbon army,’ Boris Johnson proposed something similar, but RE:FIT, set to retrofit 55,000 London homes before March 2012 (2), show no signs of training long-term unemployed people. Birmingham council has embarked on something along these lines. With the retrofitting industry worth £500bn over the next three decades (3), with the likelihood of public investment diminishing and with people so far unenthusaistic about letting big energy companies sell them energy efficiency services, is there not a space for a social enterprise? I’d love to know if one exists.

we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen

Lastly, I wanted to raise some of challenges TECC faces in increasing its impact that Hugh talked so passionately about, which I will soon put to the RSA Fellows’ Social Entrepreneurs’ Network.

  • In a majority public sector economy, there was some scepticism among previously state-funded voluntary groups who had been told by local authorities to become social enterprises. But the story of the Ethical Computer Company showed that it was possible to build a social enterprise in Stoke, with a lot of hard work and no little skill, without funding from the public authorities. That said, TECC has been frustrated about the lack of collaboration from the public authorities. It is based exactly opposite a partially-empty Council-owned building which could provide a springboard for growth, and Hugh knows of a closed-down school that has a great deal of IT equipment just sitting there unused
  • Established in 1999 before the Community Interest Company legal form was created, TECC is a charity and company hybrid. This makes some charitable foundations suspicious and less ready to fund the enterprise
  • Hugh describes TECC as follows “we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen.” Decisions are made in a weekly meeting, open to all team members, each of who provide leadership according to their own particular strengths. This is philosophically important to the team but is a challenging way to organise an enterprise and also thoroughly confuses some people. Suggestions of how to scale up governance arrangements that are neither a fully-fledged collective nor a traditional company are welcome.

Please get in touch via the comments below.

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