Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Review of the Year 2015

January

The year began with us still waiting for the vote by Lancashire County Council on the first application for the commercial extraction of shale gas in the UK. It had been scheduled for New Years Eve, but was delayed until 28 January.

I was there, as was Mr Frackhead, but, under threat of legal action from Cuadrilla, Lancashire were forced to delay the vote again.

On the same day I made my début as a Further Education lecture, when I had a guest spot on Manchester Metropolitan Sustainable Aviation course. Basically I turned up for the afternoon to say "Sorry guys, it ain't".

Meanwhile in Greece patience with austerity came to an end and a gaggle of lefties and academics going by the name of Syriza swept into power. Things were going to get interesting down there.

February

We have a little time out from climate change to campaign against Santander, who were lending money to APRIL, a company trashing the Indonesian rainforest. After one of Greenpeace's shortest campaigns ever Santander threw in the towel.

With that one won we could spend more time on another project, campaigning for sustainable tuna. This had us sneaking around supermarkets trying to get people to take notice of the wildlife destruction and human slavery that was the true cost of their little tin of John West. This one was going to keep us busy for the rest of the year. 

March

In March the countdown to Paris really began, with the Time to Act Climate Change March. I was a
Steward, up at the front, so I had very little idea how many thousands of people were behind me, but there were a lot.

Star speaker was twelve year old Laurel. There is only one arrest of the day - Ben - who was only there because I'd given him a free ticket on the bus. He'd been sitting on Westminster Bridge with the Plane Stupid polar bears when the police had waded in and nicked him. Well, I guess you look a lot less daft cuffing a lippy punk rather than a polar bear.

Also in March the Bleak and Desolate north got its own polar bear as Sami came to visit us. He had a busy eight months ahead of him.

April

By April we were seriously into General Election campaigning. Usually environmentalist have a holiday whilst the country talks about less important issues, but this time both climate change and fracking featured heavily. I attended several hustings and chaired on in Cheadle on energy policy, which allowed me to talk about both Climate Change and fracking. All the candidates seemed very bright - except the one who eventually won.

We also lobbied hard to get candidates to sign the Greenpeace Frack Free Promise, having 100% success with Green hopefuls and some success with Labour. Greenpeace also had me out at night doing some other activities, so all told I worked bloody hard during this campaign. It was just a pity it all counted for so little in the end.

The highlight was Krishnan Guru-Murphy popping by to interview me at Barton Moss for a Channel Four News piece on fracking. Supposedly he came by bike, but in reality it was a van - with the bike in the back - but then this was a fake election in which the politicians never actually met real people and rarely debated the real issues.

May

May started with Sami out and about in Manchester for the TUC May Day March. He ended up being tweeted by Greater Manchester Police.  

There was a bit of welcome relief from electoral gloom as Glossop North End qualify for the final of the FA Vase and I went down to London with my boys to watch them. One person in six from Glossop was there, but as the entire town could fit in the stadium three times over we still don't fill Wembley. Glossop were ten minutes away from the cup, but in the end North Shields proved the stronger team. We stayed over in London though and got to see the VE Day celebrations, including a parade of very old veterans who fought for the Human Rights Act the government has now pledged to abolish.

Also in May I made my debut as a Glossop Guild Tutor, although as the Glossop North End team were touring the town in an open topped bus that evening my thunder was well and truly stolen.

We showed the film Black Ice in Manchester and had a visitation from the one and only Phil-of-the-Arctic, who told us of his time as a guest of Mr Putin.

But of course the big news this months was that country went mad an voted for five more years of austerity, mostly it seems to annoy the Scots. With five more years of austerity in view I got an email from Greece which said "Welcome to our nightmare".

June

I was back in London again for the Mass Lobby of Parliament on climate change, another part of the build up to Paris. We waited outside and a succession of MPs were brought out in rickshaws, but mine wouldn't play that game so I had to go into Portcullis House. Unfortunately he had little to say on the subject.

However the big story this month was the Lancashire vote on granting Cuadrilla Resources permission to frack finally happend. There was a great turnout on the day. As well as the Lancashire anti-frackers there were Greenpeace activists from across the Bleak and Desolate North, Frack Free Greater Manchester people and veterans of Barton Moss. At the end of the day there are speeches, and I got to speak on the same platform as Vivienne Westwood and the awesome Asad Rehman.

Proceedings went into a second day and some seriously dodgy legal advice from Lancashire's house lawyer put the whole decision in doubt. Everything it was postponed until the following Monday, so I had to go up there again. Greenpeace sent Daisy and Richard up from the office and we wait for the news. I had to go back to work, stopping off for a quick interview with Key 103, so I was on the M62 when the new broke that we'd actually won. It was an amazing result, the payback for four years of village meetings and hard work by Frack Free Lancashire.

July

Whilst we were celebrating in Lancashire, things were coming to a head in Greece. After two weeks of having to queue daily for money (something the jovial Greeks made into a social occasion) the country voted on whether or not to accept austerity. I did my bit and spoke at the Manchester Greek Solidarity day in Piccadilly Gardens.

Despite some pretty amazing attempts by big employers to bribe their workers into voting Nai, and despite a significant block of pro-austerity pensioners, Greece unambiguously rejected austerity. It turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, but a victory in no doubt it was on that day. In the long run it didn't do much for Greece, but it inspired us.

Also in July it was back to Lancashire for Pagacon in Preston. Apart from the speakers we had the one and only Damh the Bard performing a set and leading us in an anti-fracking ritual, as well as the massively underrated George Nicholas and Cernunnos Rising, who performed their song The Folly of Fracking. There was a bit of a theme here I think.

August

In August I took a holiday, or two, in Cumbria and East Anglia. Wonderful places.

September

But in September it was back to campaigning, and straight away we scored out biggest success of the year. After five years of actions around the world, Greenpeace forced Shell to abandon its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. It was a massive victory, one of the biggest in Greenpeace's history.

Also that month it was the premier of the film How To Change The World, about the origins of Greenpeace. The Manchester Network dressed up for the occasion and we enjoyed it. I'd met Paul Watson, and campaigned against Patrick Moore over The Great Bear Rainforest (we won), but Bob Hunter's words were new to me. It introduced a few quotes I intend to use more often, including "our goal wasn't to make ourselves famous, it was to make nature famous".

October

Sami was out and about again - although this time Lori had the pleasure -  as the Tory Party are in town. 100,000 peaceful people walked through Manchester, the largest demonstration the city has ever seen, although according to the press we were a howling mob. Not for the first time I this year I seemed to be living in a parallel world to one depicted in the mainstream media.

I was inside Sami again for the end of the conference, as we reminded the 'greenest government ever' that they're a complete disaster for the planet.

November

Tuna work continued, with more clandestine visits to supermarkets across Manchester.

We also spend the month waiting for the government vote on fracking under National Parks, which got me some local press coverage.

But the big news this month was that the countdown to Paris finally came to an end as the entire world - except France - marching for climate justice.

I was in London with Emma Thompson and the Greenpeace team. Thom Yorke was DJ so Sami become a dancing bear. It was a remarkable day and a terrific turnout, far and away the biggest environmental rally I've ever been to. This really was a mass movement now.

December

And so it was December and my trip to Paris. A state of emergency, public gatherings of more than three people banned and activists under house arrest were what was waiting for me. I travelled down with Friends of the Earth and decided to play it by ear. It turned out I wasn't the only one and, as well as a very well attended international gathering the Climate Action Zone, there was a decent turnout for the 'illegal' Red Lines action.

I got to see the Arch de Triumph and Eiffel Tower, meet activists from around the world, including Greenpeace International boss Kumi Naidoo, see the French riot police and get hit by a giant inflatable cobblestone. Pity the deal itself was so toothless.

Back home in England though it was as if I'd never been away, as in the following week the government government slashed solar subsidies, allowed fracking under National Parks and licensed a considerable chunk of the north of England for fracking. Still, it gave me a chance to get my face on the TV, my name in the papers and my voice on the radio, where I had an interesting one-to-one with the director of Ineos.

So that was my year. I've been to Preston and Paris. I helped stop Cuadrilla fracking in Lancashire, but failed to stop the Tories being re-elected. I've spoken to rallies against fracking and in support of Greece. I've lectured to the Glossop Guild and the Manchester Sustainable Aviation students. I've marched for the climate, against the Tories and both for a hoped for deal in Paris and against the actual deal in Paris. I've been inside a polar bear. I've been to an illegal demo. I've helped beat Santander. I've helped beat Shell. I've met Vivienne Westwood. I've met Kumi Naidoo.

It's been good, it's been bad, but it's not over.

Thanks for everyone who's been there with me. In 2016 we do it again, but we do it better.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Twenty Years On: The Help Album

There have been a lot of anniversaries this year: two hundred years since Waterloo, seventy years since the end of World War Two, and thirty years since the Battle of the Beanfield, the end of the miners strike and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. (Busy year 1985).

But here's an anniversary nobody else has bothered with - twenty years since the release of my favourite charity album. On 4 September 1995 twenty groups went into Abbey Road studios to each record a track. The result is a day-in-the-life of a musical genre at its peak. 

1995 was also the year I returned to England after a two year sabbatical in Ireland. Politically the country was just as moribund as when I'd left, with an unpopular right wing government that by then nobody would actually admit they voted for, but culturally the place was finally coming alive.

I was after the underground protest movement that was springing up, especially the Road Protest Movement, which by then had parted company with the ground completely and was occupying Stanworth Valley, in my home county of Lancashire, to stop the extension of the M65 motorway.

However mainstream culture was also finding its vibe. Madchester had died a little while earlier, but
Britpop was very much alive and well. Guitars had been creeping back into the charts for a while thanks to Grunge, but US misery and fake poverty wasn't everyone's up tea. Instead but now guitar based pop was as much in vogue as it had been twenty or thirty years earlier.

And October 1995 was to be a huge month for British music. First Blur released The Great Escape, then Oasis retaliated with (What's the Story) Morning Glory before finally the relatively unknown Pulp blew them both out of the water with Different Class. All  three albums are pop rock at their very best.

In due course the whole Cool Britannia thing would become just a small Metropolitan elite and Britpop would be just another unreconstructed aspect of male lad culture, but in the mid-nineties it was about Working Class bands from across the country writing music that meant something to them. It was a reaction against both US imported Grunge and locally produced plastic pop. And it rocked.

The government  may have been hated, but the country as a whole was doing better. Since dropping out of the European Exchange Rate mechanism (the precursor to the Euro) the British economy had been recovering steadily. But there were clouds on the horizon. War in the east had led to failed military intervention and a refugee crisis. This time though it was Bosnia and not Syria.

The War Child charity intended to do something about this though and so it persuaded some of the
best and brightest stars of Britpop to enter the most famous studio in England to record an album that would be released five days later. So quick was the process that there wasn't even time to put a track listing together. The result is varied, but very interesting.

Ticking off the stand-out tracks could take a while.

The best track for me is Sinead O'Connor's version of Ode to Billy Joe is a brilliant version of a great song. Having started out as a pop star then turned into a media personality, Sinead O'Connor the performer had almost been forgotten along the way, but she really can sing.

Then we had the founder of Britpop, Suede, with their version of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding, the Manic Street Preachers with their cover of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, and a nod to the alternative scene with The Leveller's still very relevant song about fortress Europe Searchlights. Searchlights. Paul McCartney and friends, who included Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, recorded another version of Come Together whilst Gallagher and his brother and their friends, which included Kate Moss and her boyfriend Jonny Depp, re-recorded Fade Away.

There was also Radiohead, Orbital, the Boo Radley's (who I always thought a better live act than Oasis), Portishead, Massive Attack (I usually skip this one), and plenty more including the other half the Battle of Britpop, Blur.

Finally we had the return of the enigmatic KLF foundation, this time under the name of One World Orchestra. Their track The Magnificent was a drum and bass version of the Magnificent Seven theme,  with the haunting sampled vocals of Serbian DJ Fleka "Humans against killing: that sounds like a junkie against dope".

KLF, who had just burnt a million quid to show their contempt for money, realised the irony of their
contribution to a charity album. They said they regretted getting involved and that the track was "shit". However the next year protests erupted in Belgrade against the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević, the chief architect of the Bosnian disaster, the track became the anthem of the resistance, making the track the most relevant on the album.

Britpop carried on for two more wonderful years, before Oasis peaked, Blur reinvented themselves, Pulp became disillusioned, New Labour got elected and The Verve told us The Drugs Don't Work any more. The world moved on, but the Help album remains a slice of life an the heart of a musical movement at its best, and is still worth a listen.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

New UK Fracking Licenses Explained In Three Maps

Fracking in Greater Manchester came a bit closer today as new licenses were announced by the government. They take a little bit of explaining so here goes.

Here is a map of the known to have shale gas reserves in the UK. Note the vast swath of red across the Midlands and the Home Counties.


Now here is a political map of the UK after the last General Election. Note the vast swaths of blue across the Midlands and the Home Counties.


And finally here’s a map of the areas licensed from today. Now take a look at the Midlands and the Home Counties. Notice anything?


So now we know who’s being fracked and why.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Road From Paris

I remember the day the deal was signed.

For the first time the nations of the world had come together and signed one document which showed that they understood the danger of Climate Change, and that they were committed to doing something about it.

This day would change the world we though: 11th December 1997.

The Road To Paris


Well, it didn't.

I wasn't in Kyoto when the Protocol was signed, I was in Northampton doing my first job as a qualified Social Worker, but I felt I'd done my bit. I'd been part of a disparate team that had towed a bright yellow survival pod around the country for Greenpeace. Tales of our adventures have become taller over the many years of telling them (I'm sure the native inhabitants of Wisbech didn't really mistake the pod for a massive potato and chase us out of town with a giant masher) but what is true is that we collected over a quarter of a million signatures on a petition that was handed to the new Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair.

It was fun, but ultimately pretty pointless. In theory Kyoto was supposed to ensure that by 2012
greenhouse gas emissions would 5% below what they had been in 1990. In practise they were 40% higher.

The reasons for the failure are easy enough to find. Of 2012's two biggest polluters, China and the USA, the first was not covered by the treaty and the other refused to ratify it.

State of Emergency


Eighteen years later and the world's politicians are making a heroic effort to do it all again in Paris.

This time I really am there. Or rather, I really am in Paris, whilst the politicians are six miles away in Le Bourget, clustered round their own airport and surrounded by hundreds of armed police.

A year of actions, including two big marches in London, have built up to this moment so I always intended to go. However the terrorist attacks of 13 November changed the situation. We'd never been welcomed by the French authorities, but now a state of emergency had been declared and gatherings of more than three people were illegal.

I had originally volunteered with Greenpeace France, but after a series of "deny everything Baldrick" style emails I realised they weren't going to be organising anything for wandering British activists. So instead I tagged along with Friends of the Earth, who helpfully sorted me out with Eurostar tickets and a place in a Youth Hostel, and decided to play it by ear when I got there.

The Climate Action Zone in Le Centquarter provided a chance to meet activists from around the world, and indeed from just up the road, as I met up with the rest of the Manchester Campaign Against Climate Change there. A party on the Friday night put on by FOE provided a chance to meet some even more interesting people: Friends of the Earth boss Craig Bennett and - another Greenpeace gatecrasher - International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.

Actually it was a bit of a weekend for name dropping as I also met Caroline Lucas, Natalie Bennett was around and about and, if you count nodding to someone as they rush past you in the check in queue at Gare du Nord, I also 'met' Naomi Klein.

The mood amongst the activists in the Climate Action Zone was upbeat, but amongst those shuttling in and out of Le Bourget it was far grimmer. We already knew there would be no binding agreement, no 'loss and damages' clause allowing the victims of climate change to sue the polluters who caused it and International Human Rights Day in Paris was marked by all references to human rights being removed from the draft text. There was some aspirational words, but nothing to force anyone to act. Comparing the draft text of the climate deal to that of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, which will allow companies to sue countries that stop them making money, and you soon see which will one will win out.

However we always knew this would be the case. That's way the big action was planned for the 12th December, the day after the conference was due to finish. We were not going to let them Greenwash this.

Red Lines


Rainforest Action Network
As it happened they were still putting the finishing touches to the agreement when people started to gather by the Arch de Triumph.

Eight key organisers had been put under house arrest by the French authorities, but this made little difference as Paris was awash with people experienced in organising big demonstrations, including many from the UK.

The French police had sealed off the road and there were riot police front and centre with tear gas dispensers locked and loaded on the flanks.

There were rather more than three protesters, making this officially an illegal demonstration. There wasn't the million people we'd have hoped for if it hadn't been for the state of emergency, but there are ten thousand people here, at least. About half of them seem to be from outside France, the other half are mainly clowns. The front back and sides are marked by symbolic red lines, and down at the front bob a dozen or so giant inflatable cobblestones.

We have real cobbles under our feet, but although it's traditional round here, nobody seems minded to lob any at the authorities. Instead the blow up ones bounce up and down over the crowd. About the size of large hay bales, being underneath this barrage was like being in a bad episode of Doctor Who and getting attacked by rather unconvincing space aliens.

The mood of the police was difficult to discern. None were smiling, but none were making any threatening moves either. Between the two lines of police though a party is going on. The Manchester climate change activists have gravitated together, and we stand a discrete distance away from the Manchester Socialist Workers, whilst all the world dances around us.

 Grand Finale


We were to be here for an hour and then, we were informed the night before, there was to be a legally sanctioned gathering under the Eiffel Tower. How do ten thousand people get from an illegal demonstration to a legal one? By an illegal march of course. It may not have been planned, but it's what happened, and so with the wobbly cobbles bouncing along on top of us we marched across Paris until its most famous monument came into view. Somewhere down the end there were speakers, but half a mile of people separated us from them.

And then it was over. The sun begins to set on a grey, but unseasonably warm, Paris day and we all drifted away. Friends of the Earth show us Naomi Klein's new film, but with our job done we volunteers are just a hassle for the hard pressed organisers, so a group of us go to explore the sights of Belleville. I end up in a pub with two anti-fracking counsellors from West Lancashire Borough Council, a Friends of the Earth Energy Campaigner and a Frenchman called Claude who spent twenty five years in the London office of Air France and wants to tell us how much he missed Allo Allo and Are You Being Served.

It's a good night, and the next morning a I have what the French call a guelle de bois ('wooden head'). I really could have done with being on a later train, but after a little while 'examining' the waters of a canal with my name on it I am fit enough to travel home.

The Road Beyond Paris

I have breakfast of coffee and a croissant at 300kph as a mix of renewable, nuclear and fossil fuel generated electricity propels my train across the French countryside. The Paris agreement it seems is a similar mixture of the good, the not-so-good and the outright bad. Time will tell if the moral force of what has been described as the greatest bit of diplomacy ever achieved can save the world, but most of us on the train suspect it won't.

Back in Le Bourget the politicians, civil servants and corporate lobbyists have all left Paris, probably hoping not to have to ever see each other again, and not to have to talk about climate change again for a while.

However those of us who met on the streets and in the fringe groups are planning to get together again as soon as possible. These are the links that will forge a year of action in 2016. We be further away from a binding agreement to limit greenhouse gases today than we were in 1997, but what we have now which we didn't have then is a global campaign for climate action and climate justice.

We have a movement that can put that can put ten thousand people on the streets even in a state of emergency - hundreds of thousands of people in better circumstances - and which is also prepared to take direct action to obstruct fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere on the planet.

Next year there will be marches and demonstrations, blockades and pickets from from Paris to Peru, from London to Lancashire, until we finally get some action to match the words of the Paris agreement.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Volunteers

"Right, I'll take the the anti-fracking sign, Rachel and Stella are on the banner, so that means Lori is in the bear."

The Manchester Greenpeace Group is ready to roll, off to be part of the anti-fracking feeder march to the largest demonstration Manchester has ever seen. We're there, as are lots of people in pig masks, but funnily enough we're the only people with a bear.

That's one day as a Greenpeace volunteer.  Not a typical day perhaps, but then again there aren't many typical days.

A little over a year ago, for example, I was on the border of Poland and the old East Germany, swimming in cool waters with tall pines silhouetted against the evening sky. Never mind the air force of mosquitoes attacking any exposed flesh, this was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to. That was Deulowitzer See in Lusatia, and I really was there with 8000 other volunteers trying to stop this wonderful place disappearing into a giant, opencast lignite mine. 

In between these two events volunteering has seen me on the streets asking Santander to ditch deforestation, outside toy shops calling on Lego to ditch Shell, waving placards outside Lancashire County Council as they debate fracking, stalking the tinned fish aisles of local supermarkets to find dodgy tuna and climbing lampposts in the middle of the night to...well let's no go there. The Manchester Group has also been up to Todmorden to meet broadminded folk trying to help us build a better world, and down to Westminster to meet narrow minded ones trying to stop us.

Why do I do it? It's my rent for living on this beautiful but fragile planet. It's the alternative to throwing a brick at the television. It's a way to be in this world and not feel guilty about how we treat it.

I sort of drifted into Greenpeace some time in the early nineties. As an under-employed graduate with a growing collection of Levellers albums, it sort of came with the image. But once you're in, it's hard to get out. Helping out at a stall every now and again just about paid my planetary rent, but I soon wanted more. I didn't just want to take part in Greenpeace campaigns, I wanted to win them.

And winning is what Greenpeace do. Santander caved in, as did Lego, Shell pulled the plug on it's $7 billion Arctic adventure, Lancashire rejected fracking and we drank the bar dry in Germany. Result.

Of course, it's not all been fun.Twenty hours on a coach to Germany isn't great. Cuardrilla Resources giving two fingers to democracy and appealing the fracking decision is worse. But the highs more than make up for the lows. Being a Greenpeace volunteer has given me memories that are up there as the best that life can offer. It has made me great friends. It has introduced me to strangers to who I would trust my life.

So volunteer for Greenpeace. Meet interesting people, go to interesting places, drink the bar dry and climb inside a bear. What more do you want from life?

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

COP21: When Optimism Is Dangerous

So it begins, COP21 in Paris. And there is reason to be optimistic.

We might get a deal, it might ward off the worst of Climate Change. We might be able to build on it to keep global warming to acceptable levels. Well, it's possible, but it's not certain, and in no small part this is because the great and the good appear to have contracted the dangerous disease of optimism.

Is optimism a failing? Not usually. On the contrary it's a great trait to have in an employee. However when the people at the top leave uncertain reality behind for rose tinted certainties, you've got problems.

If you want an example of the perils of optimism look no further than the Iraq War. Why an oil funded ignoramus like George W Bush blundered into Iraq is not that much of a mystery. However why the US army, whose Top Brass boast almost as many M.A.s as medals, continued to believe it could rescue his failed venture when all the evidence was they couldn't can only be explained by the Army's institutional 'can do' optimism. The result is a failed state, the rise of Daesh and the atrocities in Paris and elsewhere.

The Iraq disaster though pails into insignificance compared to the dangers of getting Climate Change wrong.

Many of my fellow environmental campaigners though fail to understand the way business leaders think about the problem. The perception is that they are all fossil fools, believing climate change denial conspiracy theories and desperately trying to avoid the problem. There are certainly a few like that - far too many in fact - but for most business leaders if you ask them about Climate Change they will say it's a problem and here's how we're going to solve it: we do this, this and this. Easy

The problem is that their beliefs are usually wildly optimistic at best, and actually delusional at worst.

During my brief career as a gatecrasher to corporate shindigs I've heard C-Suite optimists from construction companies tell me in all seriousness how sustainable their companies will be even as they are covering the countryside with tarmac and I've had smiley faced board members from BP tell me how they will move into solar power and make a killing in Renewables. Instead they moved into tar sands and they did their killing in the Gulf of Mexico.

However the deluded optimist-in-chief of this army of faux climate warriors is bearded wonder Richard Branson. In 2006, after Al Gore converted him to the cause, he pledged $3 billion to the fight against Climate Change. In 2009 he launched the Carbon War Room to teach business how to make money by cutting emissions and in 2010 he announced the Virgin Earth Challenge.

All of which sounds wonderful until you realise that Virgin airlines now emits 40% more Greenhouse gases than it did when Al Gore gave Branson that personal PowerPoint, whilst the $25 million prize for inventing something to suck them out of the atmosphere again has still not been awarded. Only 10% of his promised money has appeared, although as Branson's personal wealth increase by over $2 billion, the Carbon War Room has achieved 50% success.

It's an inconvenient truth that straight after meeting Gore, Branson launched a new air route to Dubai and before Carbon War Room opened its doors Virgin America took to the air. He's also bought a Formula One team, tried to launch an exploding space plane and increased his own personal carbon footprint to the size of a small island by relocating to a tax haven in the Caribbean.

So like the War on Terror, Branson's pre-emptive strike on Climate Change only seems to have made the problem worse.

But back to Paris, and those business leaders hoping to lead the way to a low carbon future. As I blogged the other week, even the IPCCs own plans have been hijacked by the optimists, with the scenarios in its Synthesis Report being based on either time travel or imaginary technologies. However it isn't just the IPCC that has problems with reality.

Most industries have a plan of sorts on how to move to a low carbon economy and, as I said, most
CEOs you meet are wildly optimistic about theirs. Unfortunately, taken together, they are a disaster.

The shipping industry, for example, is going to run on biofuels. So is the car industry, and the aviation industry. The US Navy has already tried biomass. Do you see the problem here?

A back-of-a-postcard calculation suggests that for everyone to do this would require 50% of the world's agricultural land to be converted to biofuels. Even if half the world would agree to stop eating in order to allow the other half to carry on consuming, there is no way we could build the infrastructure required in realistic time frame.

It's a similar story with nuclear power, which Bill Gates is gambling on despite the eye watering costs, or Carbon Capture and Storage, which has never been tried on an industrial scale but which features in almost everyone's plans, and so on.

So am I advocating pessimism then? No, I'm certainly not. Climate Change is not an insoluble problem. We can beat it, but we need to change. Forget flying. A Virgin train produces 90% less emissions than a Virgin plane. Forget biofuels. One wind turbine incidentally creates as much power as 2000 hectares of biomass. Above all forget endless economic growth. Lets redistribute what we have and all live happier lives. There are people in Paris advocating just that, but they are mostly on the other side of the barricades to the optimists, if they are not under house arrest. Meanwhile inside the security cordon the lobbyists are telling the politicians that we can beat Climate Change and make money.

Maybe pessimism from world's business would be infinitely worse, but then people tend to ignore sourpusses. The deluded optimist though has the power, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, to lead us all to our doom.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Climate Change: 'Outside Context Problem'

Protests in Paris are now officially banned, so the world's corporate leaders are now free to meet the world's political leaders without any pesky protesters getting in the way.

There may well be the odd scientist wandering around looking lost, and a few representatives from the world's better behaved NGOs, but mostly this will be an occasion for those who run the world to meet those who own the world.

It will no doubt be a jolly occasion.  After all pretty much everyone present will agree on three things at least: that taxes on wealth should be low, that markets should be lightly regulated, and that economic growth must continue forever.

It will also, for the most part, be completely pointless. As George Monbiot put it earlier this year the entire twenty five year process that has brought us to COP21 has mostly involved "hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives".

The reason is not that global warming is an insoluble problem, but for those meeting in Paris Climate Change will be an outside context problem. Let em explain.

Outside Context Problem


The term Outside Context Problem was coined by the late, great Scottish science fiction writer Iain M Banks for his 1996 novel  Excession. This is how he defined one:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
For the high priests of Neoliberalism, whose response to problems is to cut taxes, sign free trade deals and, when the worst comes to the worst, invent some new money in the form of Quantative Easing,  Climate Change is a problem about as welcome as Cortez was for the Aztecs.

When faced with an Outside Context Problems cultures usually try two strategies in relatively quick succession; first pretend it doesn't exist and secondly try to placate the gods with a bit of magic.

We've been engaged in the first activity for a while now. Many of the key players have retired from the game, but a few with nothing better to do with their lives still soldier on. No doubt some will show up in Paris, but I suspect it will be their last, forlorn stand, because now we are well into the second phase.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, having spent a quarter of a century explaining very patiently to its backers that the scientists were in fact right about Global Warming in 1988, produced in December last year its Synthesis Report, which attempted to square the science with the economics.

The report contains 400 scenarios that show how to give a 50/50 chance of limiting Climate Change to 2 degrees by 2100 whilst still being "economically feasible". That means, no excessive taxation, no excessive regulation and economic growth continuing forever. This where the magic comes in.

In 344 of those scenarios emissions will drop at some point to less than zero. In 56 scenarios, emissions will peak in 2010. I shouldn't need to point out that at the present time it is impossible to emit less than zero CO2, and that by the time the report was published 2010 was nearly five years in the past, and emissions most definitely did not peak then.

So, without non-existent technologies or time travel, how many scenarios did the IPCC come up with that were "economically feasible"? Precisely none.

The ideas that increasingly individual wealth is not a reliable measure of personal wellbeing, that we'd all be better off corporations worked for our benefit and not the other way round or that the way the global economy has been run for the last thirty years is the only way it could ever be run, are apparently as alien to the people who run the world as the steam engine and the Maxim gun were the occupants of Mr Bank's metaphorical island.

All of which suggests we need to make an urgent choice as to whether we follow the rules of physics, or of economics. We need to get Climate Change in context because otherwise, as Iain M Banks said, an Outside Context Problems is one "most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encounters a full stop."

Sources

Duality in Climate Science by Professor Kevin Anderson 
IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report
Excession by Iain M Banks

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Bang Goes The Climate

What causes big holes in Siberia and could be a huge problem for the climate?

Alas, this is not a joke, but a scary new dimension to Climate Change.

The Hole Story

Earlier this year what appeared to be sink hole opened up in Yamal, in the Siberian tundra.  Shortly afterwards two more appeared. Sink holes are a well known phenomena when the rock beneath our feet gets dissolved and suddenly a giant hole appears which can swallow cars, houses or in Manchester's case a road.

The holes in Siberia were bigger than most sinkholes - the first one found was 260 feet across - but there were other differences too. When scientists had a good look they found, not material slipping into the earth, but coming out of it.

Something from deep within had been released, violently.

Waking the Giant

The immediate finger of suspicion pointed at the gas methane, trapped below the frozen tundra in the
form of methane hydrates. As Climate Change warmed the Arctic, the permafrost melted and the gas was released.

This was a problem. Methane doesn't remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but whilst it is there it is a far more potent Greenhouse gas. 32 molecules of carbon dioxide are generally considered to have the same effect as one of CH4, so more of the stuff in the air is a very bad idea.

The question was, how much more was down there? Until this year everything I read said that most methane more than 200m below the surface and it would take a thousand year of warming to release it.

But that was before the Siberian holes appeared.

The Climate Bomb

But there had been Siren voices warning us to beware of the methane.

Paleo-climatologists, who study the deep history of the earth's climate, had looked to methane hydrates as the cause of two of the world's great extinction events: the Permian-Triassic 252 million years ago and the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago. They speculated that a release of methane could cause runaway global warming in the timescale of a human lifetime.

The Permian-Triassic event cleared the world of giant insects and paved the way for the dinosaurs, whilst the PETM event led to the spread of mammals around the world and the rise of the Primates. Could a similar event mark the end of the planet's dominant Primate?

Into The Abyss

A couple of weeks ago a team of Russian scientists finally ventured into the first crater. With winter
approaching the ice walls had refrozen, making it safe to explore. Still, I expect nobody smoked.

They are not going to release their results until the work is completed, but at the bottom they found a frozen lake of gas and water, more than ten metres deep, just as they expected.

But the real question remains to be answered: how many more?

Worry, but...

So reason to be worried, but possibly not a reason to focus too much on Siberia. Methane Hydrates remain one of the 'known unknowns' of Climate Change, but there is enough we do know to press for action now, rather than waiting for more data.

As the Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University, and fellow Leicester University Physics Graduate, Dr Grant Allen told me earlier in the year:



My current personal take on the science here is that the phrase “ticking Arctic time bomb” is over-used and alarmist. There is a lot of science still to be done ... Empirical fluxes of CH4 from hydrate are simply not known with any useful uncertainty. But of much greater significance (in my opinion) are the changing source strengths in Arctic (and tropical) wetland methane emissions as a result of warming, as well as growing anthropogenic emissions.
In other words before worrying about the boost to Climate Change nature might provide, lets deal with our own Greenhouse gas emissions, which are running at rate that will fry the planet without any help from natural feedbacks.

However if you want a reason or three why we should not be smug about climate change, why we should act as quickly as we can and why we should not be confident that two degrees of warming is either a safe or stable level, then you just have to look at the big holes in the formerly frozen north.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Top Five Songs About Vikings

The BBC adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom is currently causing me a bit of a crisis of loyalty: should I cheer for the pagans or the English?

Well both, obviously.

Meanwhile, how about a list of Viking themed music. 

(Click on the title to listen to the song).

5. Horrible Histories Literally


Who better to start us off than the best thing to ever come from CBBC: Horrible Histories?

There is of course some real history here, but far more fun is counting the rock and pop references in the Queen-meets-Lordi video.

4. Hel Eldsjäl


Of course you couldn't do a list like this without including some real Vikings. Viking Rock is a major genre in Scandinavia. Some of it is so heavy you need special ears to listen to it, and some has so many folk elements you think you're listening to a Spinal Tap parody.

That still leaves plenty of decent stuff though. However as I'm a sucker for female-fronted-rock I'm going for Eldsjäl, which means 'fiery soul', by Swedish rockers Hel.

3. Iron Maiden Invaders 


Power Metal may be alive and well and living in Scandinavia, but it has it's roots in this country.

When punk started to falter in the late seventies, a deluge of bands collectively known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal arrived. Working Class and utterly introverted, Iron Maiden were one of the few bands who escaped this sub-culture and made it megabig.

They were fond of songs about history, and this one is from 1982's breakthrough The Number of the Beast album.

2. The Darkness Barbarian





If there is any band today that channels that spirit of eighties rock excess it is Norfolk's The Darkness.

Hailing from a part of England well and truly trashed by the Vikings, lead singer Justin Hawkins has now stopped getting trashed himself and the band have survived the curse of the Christmas single to become the sort of really together rock outfit they should have been ten years ago. 

1. Led Zeppelin Immigrant Song




But before all of the above got into the act Robert Plant was singing about Vikings on 1970's Led Zeppelin III.

The title is ironic, given the racial problems of 70s Britain, and even more ironically the word 'immigrant' is itself an immigrant, having popped across The Channel from France to steal the job of an Old English word. The real Anglo-Saxons would have referred to the Norsemen - when they were being polite - as ingangers

Anyway, Last Kingdom is on again on Thursday, so we can find out how Alfred deals with the ingangers, but it has a rubbish soundtrack compared to these songs. BBC please take note.