Lately we've seen the president of the World Bank and 'business leaders from the very carbon-intensive industries' pushing for carbon pricing (taxes or 'carbon trading' schemes). This is intended to demonstrate their deep change of heart and determination to start seriously addressing climate change, but to my eyes it is a deeply cynical, pernicious attempt to channel the passion of those deeply-committed to action on climate change into mechanisms that will only maintain the suicidal status quo. Which is why I poured all my experience of ten years' work on the topic into this peer-reviewed academic paper, which I believe demolishes the case for carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes as the way forward, and shows a clear, well-researched alternative (though it took almost as much effort as writing my book!). The paper, co-authored with Drs. Larch Maxey and Victoria Hurth, focuses on the TEQs scheme devised by the late David Fleming, the radical economist whose work was a core inspiration for the Transition Towns movement. Since meeting David in 2006 I have been rather inspired by his design for a policy framework for a society that really wanted to decarbonise. We may not live in that society yet, but it's nonetheless a rather important tool to have in the box. Over the years that inspiration has led me to write and speak widely on TEQs (to audiences ranging from community groups, Climate Camps and Occupations to the UK Committee on Climate Change, the London School of Economics, the UK and Scottish Parliaments and the European Commission), as well as advising the UK government on their feasibility study into the scheme. After David Fleming's sudden death in 2010, it fell to me to keep the fruits of his genius on the table, and so I created The Fleming Policy Centre to continue advocacy in light of the extensive media interest the scheme was attracting. This new piece in the Carbon Management journal has emerged from all of that as the definitive paper on TEQs, covering its design, history and importance, and directly contrasting its hard cap on emissions with the ‘carbon pricing’ approach that has undermined public engagement with, and support for, climate policy. I have written before about the shortcomings of global-scale action on global-scale problems, but local-scale action has its inherent problems too. Without a supportive economic/political framework in place, it is always swimming against the tide, and this can be exhausting and disheartening. As explained in the paper, TEQs provides the key framework to join up local and global scale efforts into an effective solution, making it clear to everyone - across all sectors - how to act on our intrinsic shared desires to sustain affordable access to energy and preserve a benign climate (see section on "Integration – cross-sector engagement, motivation and collaboration", pp. 8-10). Not to mention leading to support and investment for human-scale, community-level initiatives and enterprises and local economies, making for more integrated, happier, resilient communities and a stronger sense of common purpose across society. I really believe that TEQs could catalyse a turning point towards a happier world and, more importantly, the extensive research done to date backs that up. Also, as discussed in the paper, unlike many other beautiful ideas, it actually has a hope of being implemented! Rather than seeing our most committed people channelled into building inherently flawed 'carbon pricing' mechanisms, let's focus our energies on something genuinely radical that creates a fairer, more equitable world, and which enjoys greater public support. I look forward to hearing what you make of our work, in the comments below or elsewhere. ~ UPDATE - This was my first venture into scientific academic writing (and likely last, after such an arduous process!), but I strove to ensure that academic-speak was kept to a minimum, and that the message is clear. So it is gratifying to see that only a month after publication it is already in the Top 10 most-read pieces that have been published in the Carbon Management journal and, according to Altmetric, in the top 5% most discussed articles among the 4 million or so that they track! That said, it will have to have one hell of an impact to tempt me into academia ever again ;) ~ ~ SECOND UPDATE - 23rd Sept 2015 - Tom Burke has published an exceptional blog post giving far more insight into the devious motivations of Big Oil in promoting carbon pricing. And in the meantime, our paper has become the most read in the history of the Carbon Management journal, and in the top 3% most discussed on Altmetric. Despite Big Oil's best efforts, word's getting out... ~ In the meantime, I have been 'offsetting' the pain of academic writing by indulging in some deeply nourishing artivist agnosticism with Reverend Billy and his glorious Stop Shopping Choir (spot me flyering around the 1m30 mark). A little analysis and deep thinking is important - after all “action for action's sake is the last resort of mentally and morally exhausted men” - but too much makes Jack a dull boy... I must confess, I'm rather tempted to run away and join the church. My mother would be truly horrified! I'll have to content myself with heading to the Reclaim The Power direct action camp this weekend :) See you there?
Last night I went to the première screening of an excellent new film called Just Do It. It's a record of the direct action climate movement - Climate Camp, Plane Stupid et al. - made with the full cooperation of the activists, and it's worth checking out, especially if you've never been directly involved yourself. It is a story of people responding to the threat to their future with courage, determination, humour and camaraderie. It's also a film that I remember existing only as a flyer, asking whether we would like to see a truly independent film developed outside mainstream production models and distributed for free. Hundreds of us donated, and I was keen to see the result. After the screening, there was a Q&A session with the director, Emily James, but I found myself sitting there with a question in my head that was prompted by the film, but was refusing to form itself into anything concise and coherent. It was connected with that dreaded thought that everyone involved with any form of heartfelt climate action knows only too well - but what if it's all too late?
Let me explain. The footage in the film is from 2009 - the buildup to the Copenhagen climate conference in December of that year. It briefly reminds its audience of all the climate science that was marshalled back then to make clear that this was our last hope at curbing emissions to prevent the climate system hurtling off into unstoppable destabilisation. And then, of course, it reminds us of the abject failure this grand conference produced... One of the most affecting moments in the film was the close-up on one inspiring activist's face as she is asked "but does all this actually achieve anything?" She searches her mind, begins to speak, hesitates, starts again, and stops. Then her eyes seem to look into her heart and soul, and maybe even to shy away from some of the things they see there, before, as I remember, she settles upon "well, it's better than doing nothing". To me, it was a sad moment, and a question that seemed unresolved, even as the film ended by reminding us that the Heathrow runway expansion has been cancelled, that the Kingsnorth coal power plant plans have been scrapped, and that projects like the exciting Transition Heathrow are growing up where only tarmac and fumes would otherwise have been. As the deserved applause rang to the credits, I tried to figure out how to formulate this sadness into a question. Eventually, as the Q&A session moved towards its end, I gave up on producing any pithy question, but resolved nonetheless to share the journey I had personally been taken on by watching the film. And as I spoke, I realised that there is a better answer to that question – does all this actually achieve anything? – than the one spoken in the film. It is the one that is lived by the people portrayed in it. As my mess of a question/journey/statement tumbled out, and this realisation took form, I found myself ending with a quote from Paul Wellstone, “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognise that we don’t really stand for them.” This seemed to ring true, with Emily James responding that she was glad that this question had been asked, and that that quote reflected her experience - that even if we were to lose our struggle for a future, we would want to have lived our present honestly as who we are. In my imagination, it seemed as though she were saying that we sometimes have to put our bodies on the line to save our souls. The next question from the audience was a response to this, and a simple and interesting one - "so is activism therapy then?". The response from Emily was an enthusiastic "yes", and an explanation of how the process has helped many people to rediscover themselves and their joy in life, and of what an exceptionally supportive community there is among activists. But I felt that this perhaps wasn't the most interesting thrust behind the question. To me the question hit home more as "so is activism only therapy then"? In other words, are you activists only pretending to be doing this to change the world, when really you're just trying to make yourselves feel better about the understanding that you can't? And to this, as to all the best questions, the answer seems to be "er, yes and no. It's a bit more complicated than that"! Because of course we act in order to change the world. And change it we do. Indeed, as a friend says, we cannot not change the world, whatever any of us choose to do. And as we change it, it changes us. And as it changes us, we change it. We are all activists. And if the story we tell with these changes is one that we are proud to be telling, to the very core of our being, then activism is certainly therapeutic. But that kind of activism is not 'only therapeutic', it is spiritual. It is simply an expression of what we believe life to be for. So the thought-provoking activist in the film was right - acting in some way to reflect our beliefs in our actions is indeed better than quietly dying inside, no matter what the external consequences. Perhaps Wendell Berry said it best,
“Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success, namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”
But this is different from those times when activism is based on a lie - when acting is simply easier than admitting that you don't really believe that these actions can create the change you want to see. This kind of activism probably deserves to be challenged as 'only therapy', and a dangerous, deceitful kind of therapy at that. ...And of course there's only one reason why that audience question struck a painful chord for me, and prompted this rare blog post. It's because I've indulged in a bit of that in my time - ignoring the quiet inner voice that whispers the truth, telling me that the course I have chosen is futile, or counter-productive, or simply no longer a reflection of my highest truth. As Vanessa Spedding has it,
“It would be interesting if all campaigners did this: stopped, went home, and considered what we are really doing with our time and our ideas. Striving to be true to ourselves would seem to be a sensible first goal.”
Waitin' for Superman
That they should try to
Hold on, best they canHe hasn't dropped them,
It's just too heavy for Superman to lift" ~ The Flaming Lips
We've all seen Hollywood movies in which humanity is threatened by an unstoppable force, powerful beyond comprehension, which is eventually, in the final climax, held back and thwarted by our hero straining every sinew and pushing really hard... Over recent weeks I have been in two meetings with Ed Miliband, our Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change - one just before Copenhagen, and one just after. At the earlier meeting he told us to judge him on the results of Copenhagen, and (despite my previous comments, and the fact that the UK is one of the minority of countries who have not endorsed a 350ppm target) I do believe that he tried everything he knew to be that hero and bring back a passable agreement. Unfortunately, this Hollywood story isn't a useful one for our current predicament. Sometimes superhuman achievements really are beyond the grasp of mere humans. Trying to pull together a global agreement reconciling the fundamentally incompatible demands of unlimited economic growth and a limited physical environment is one such fool's errand. In interviews in Copenhagen Ed appeared somewhat bewildered by the lack of progress and, frankly, somewhat dejected. It was hard not to feel for him. For the technical details of what was eventually 'agreed' click here, for the text of the agreement itself click here, or for a more informal 'executive summary' see the clip below, but to cut a long story short, nothing was agreed that comes remotely close to addressing the scale of our climate challenge. Indeed, as I and many others have been pointing out for months, an agreement in line with climate science wasn't even close to the negotiating table, so there wasn't much point in hoping for it. When we heard from the beginning that “talks are progressing more slowly than expected”, part of the explanation was that some of the smaller countries were stubbornly refusing to sign their own death warrants this time, no matter what they were offered to do so. Bloody inconsiderate of them.
"We're dying here, we're drowning; and some of us know that they don't really care, because we have to beg them. Actions speak louder than words. If they really do care, please have a little listen to us." ~ Jerome Esebei Temengil from Palau's delegation
"An empty deal would be worse than no deal at all"
Yet we ended up with what the Financial Times described as "the emptiest deal one could imagine, short of a fist fight".
(The greatest success of the talks? A bit of childish humour adorning the back of lying climate change denier Christopher Monckton)
Still, by the time of our post-Copenhagen 'debrief' Ed Miliband appeared to have decided (or been told) to put a positive spin on the outcome. Despite looking as depressed as anyone in the room, he described the Accord as a "critical first step", and proceeded to argue that expectations of Copenhagen had simply been too high. Yet of course those lofty expectations were based squarely on the science, which remains stubbornly unchanged by the recent political manoeuvrings. I suppose Ed is virtually obliged to appear positive about the political process, because that is what he has invested his life in, and what he is giving all his efforts to. And when that many world leaders gather it is inevitable that the outcome will be spun as some kind of at least partial success. But Ed's comments in an article last Sunday are rather more telling:
"In the months ahead, (Copenhagen's) concrete achievements must be secured and extended".
"Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you, not that we really cared".
So now the political focus shifts to the odd game of claiming that the Copenhagen Accord represents success while simultaneously blaming others for its failure. Thanks to the nationalistic, competitive nature of international politics, Miliband, Obama and all the other would-be superheroes are desperately trying to find their supervillain. Others before me have pointed out that if an alien invasion were swooping in to attack, with projected human mortality and other effects similar to those of climate change, we would have united against the threat long ago. That is the kind of external enemy we could really get to grips with (Hollywood stories have trained us well for that one), but for as long as politics is treated as a competition between nations, cooperative efforts for mutual benefit will remain beyond us. Perhaps this time the 'supervillain' we face is far more cunning than those movie aliens. He realises that in order to destroy the world with his dastardly plot he needs only to hide from view. As long as humanity perceives no hand but our own in any of these events, he can just sit back and calmly watch us destroy ourselves. It seems we can accept being killed by our own foolishness much more easily than being outsmarted. Unfortunately, taking a long hard look in the mirror and battling our internal supervillains remains deeply unfashionable... So where does all this leave us? What are our chances now of avoiding unstoppable runaway climate change, with all that entails? 50%-50% ? 90%-10% ? (I don't need to say which way) Not even close. For years now, I have played host to a cordial internal conflict between the part of me that insists that there may still be a tiny chance left of maintaining a stable climate, and the part that accepts that unstoppable runaway climate change is now inevitable... I kept reading and researching, the information kept getting worse and worse, and then I recently stumbled across a quote that brought me up short. A 13th Century Islamic mystic by the name of Hajji Bektash Wali made the following pronouncement:
“For one who has perception,
A mere sign is enough.
For one who does not heed,
A thousand explanations
Are not enough.”
"The challenge for all of us is not to lose heart and momentum. The truth is that the global campaign, co-ordinated by green NGOs, backed by business and supported by a wider cross section of the public, has achieved a lot... no campaign ever wholly succeeds at the first time of asking. We should take heart from the achievements and step up our efforts."
And of course it is not just the politicians pushing this message. The likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth also spun the Copenhagen fortnight as "humanity's last chance" to avoid the horrific impacts of runaway climate destabilisation, which leaves their calls for (yet) "one more big push" sounding a little hollow. Even, I suspect, to them. Yet the repeated calls to redouble our efforts do retain a certain allure. Yes, in part because finding peace with our own impotence in the face of such large-scale suffering is a formidable task, but I think even more because it would be so terrible to look back and feel that we gave up while there actually was still a chance there.
Maybe there's still a chance that there's a chance...?
But what if we are on the Titanic and the iceberg has already been struck? Can we think of nothing wiser to do than to try to patch the hole as the ocean rushes in? There are times when Hollywood heroism is just what is needed, but there are also times when superhuman efforts really are beyond us. And perhaps the perception the mystic spoke of whispers that one such time has come. A time to ponder the reasons why the latest political "last chance" wasn't taken, to accept that a scientific technofix ain't gonna save us either, and to look unflinchingly at the unpalatable, overwhelming realities of the period we are moving into.
Let's at least allow ourselves to really ask: "What does life look like in a world of unstoppable climate destabilisation?". What does my life look like there?
There are still lives to be lived in that world, choices to be made, love to give and suffering to alleviate. And only by allowing ourselves to explore that unknown realm can we see it for what it is, rather than what we might fear it to be. On that note, I would like to introduce you to The Dark Mountain Project, started by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, which invites us to explore this very terrain. By way of introduction, this from their Manifesto:
"And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm. Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us? We believe it is time to look down."
Off the back of taking part in CheatNeutral's spoof chat show 'Going Neutral' at the Science Museum, this feels like the perfect time to take a look at the concept of carbon offsetting, the most recognised example of which is the planting of trees to 'soak up' our carbon emissions, thus supposedly making our net impact 'carbon neutral'... Now there is no denying that the right trees, growing in the right place, are a truly wondrous thing, with myriad benefits for local people and wildlife, and for the global climate. Indeed, I am a long-term supporter of organisations like Tree Aid and Trees for Cities, which have long been carefully planting trees where they are most appropriate. Yet neither these charities nor I claim that my donations give me any kind of right to emit more carbon (or to make fewer efforts to emit less). I donate for the traditional reason - simply because I believe it contributes to creating the kind of world we all want to live in. I might donate to Amnesty for the same reason, but would any of us claim that in doing so I earn the right to perform a small amount of torture? This comparison lays bare the true nature of 'carbon offsetting'. The claim is that we are doing some good to compensate for the unfortunate damage caused by our lifestyles, but the truth is that the damage caused by our emissions is (more than) offsetting the good we might hope to do with our donations to these offsetting companies. And why would we choose to send our money to them ($705m last year, worldwide), rather than to the charities mentioned above? Because we have a reason to believe that they will do more good with our money? Or because we believe that they have some kind of moral sanction to cleanse our consciences, with their websites full of soothing words? Not to mention the fundamental physical problem with planting trees to offset emissions. Carbon in nature moves through what is known as the active carbon cycle, cycling between the atmosphere, oceans and biosphere as air and water meet, and as life on Earth breathes, lives and dies. There is also inactive carbon (technically part of a much, much slower cycle), laid down in long-term deposits to which we grant names such as "fossil fuels" or "the white cliffs of Dover". These are, if you like, Earth's natural form of carbon sequestration. So when we extract fossil fuels and burn them, we are moving the inactive carbon they contain into the active carbon cycle. If we then lock it back up in forests or any other aspect of the biosphere, we are not removing it from the active carbon cycle - we are not offsetting the deed done. Carbon sealed in coal or oil would have remained there for many millennia, but trees are not nearly so long-lived, especially in a rapidly-changing climate, and when they die and decay the carbon is released into the atmosphere once more. The difference in timescale is striking - the lifetime of a tree is orders of magnitude shorter than the 'lifetime' of a coal or oil field... trying to stabilise our climate with tree planting is like trying to keep sea levels down by drinking more water. So by all means plant some trees - or, failing that, financially support others in doing so - but give not a moment's credence to the notion that these actions give you some moral right to ignore your own contribution to the world's most pressing challenge. Of course, despite the public perception, proponents of carbon offsetting argue that they have moved on from tree planting, and now concentrate on schemes to build renewable energy infrastructure, fund energy efficiency projects, reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions etc, thus preventing emissions and avoiding the inconvenient truth about carbon cycles. But the more insidious problem with all carbon offsetting is that it is the inevitable 'perfect consumerist solution' to climate change - "just pay us some money and you can forget about it all and get on with your life". Inconveniently enough, peak energy and climate change together represent probably the greatest challenge in the history of humanity, and paying $12 here and there just is not going to cut it. If we are serious about retaining a hospitable climate, we need a fundamental re-evaluation of our entire way of life, and the only way that will come about is through changes in the fundamental stories we tell ourselves about life and what it means. The notion of carbon offsetting is an offshoot of our deep cultural story that money equals value, and that the key way to contribute to something is to give money to it. Until this mindset changes, we will not find our way out of the mess into which we are hurtling head first. Douglas Adams put it well, "This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy..." And yet, for many it is becoming hard to even conceive of any way of measuring the value of life other than small, green pieces of paper, or computerised digits in a bank account. One good friend (and Philosophy graduate) memorably described money as the only way he knew to 'keep score' on his life. And in a world overwhelmingly dominated by money, it is all too easy to feel alone and lose resolve when trying to live by unpopular alternative beliefs. Yet it is interesting to note that, as in so many cases, our intuitions and instincts do not seem to match with the beliefs we are conditioned to. One example would be the musicians who outright refuse to sell their songs to advertisers, despite that this is by far the most lucrative market for their art. I have heard it argued that "if they are so holy, why don't they take the million dollars and give it to charity? After all, someone else will surely sell the advertisers a catchy song, and probably keep all the money for themselves". Nonetheless, we instinctively feel a respect and admiration for their decision to turn down the easy buck. But why? My theory is this. Even without studying the detail, we recognise that the whole financial system is designed in such a way that money flows inexorably to the top. That the bankers and financiers who to all intents and purposes run the system are essentially able to magic more money out of thin air than we could earn through a lifetime of hard graft. And that if this is so, then any decisions in the world that will be determined by money will be determined by them - despite all the lists of what could be done with the money, in reality a musician's million dollars would barely make a dent. All of which means that the only things which we do not cede to their control - the only things, if you will, that remain sacred - are those things on which we simply and absolutely refuse to put a price, whether that be a work of art, an entire natural environment, or the carbon cycle that maintains a benign climate. Oscar Wilde wrote over a century ago that, "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing". This still rings true, but if we can avoid actually giving a price to everything, perhaps we will leave open the path back to real value. -- Edit - 27 March 2012 - A noteworthy event today, Prof. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research - a man for whom I have great personal respect - has withdrawn from the Planet Under Pressure 2012 Conference due to being forced by the organisers to participate in carbon offsetting. He has explained his reasons, carefully justifying his belief that "offsetting is worse than doing nothing, it is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and leads to a net increase in emissions".