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Radical Emissions Reduction: to counter climate change we need radical social movements

Gabriel Levy reports from a conference that brought together activists and academics from the social sciences with climate scientists and engineers

December 15, 2013
7 min read

Policies to counter global warming effectively ‘will only advance if accompanied by radical social movements’, socialist writer and activist Naomi Klein told the Radical [greenhouse gas] Emission Reduction conference in London. ‘Transformative policies […] must be backed by transformative politics.’

Advocates of radical action have to face the fact that pro-market ideology is dominant in mainstream political fora and that ‘we are the marginal ones’, Klein said, on a web link from Toronto, Canada. ‘It’s not that our ideas [about cutting greenhouse gas emissions] are not popular. But they are not powerful, not dominant. They are not winning.’ The movement needs to ‘turn the popular into the powerful’ by creating a ‘radical, enabling environment in which these policies can flourish’, she said.

Klein used her keynote address to the conference to lambast mainstream environmentalists who had decided in the 1980s not to challenge the dominant political ideology of market fundamentalism. This had played into the hands of the powerful corporate interests driving the rapid rise of greenhouse gas emissions since then, and the politicians that do their bidding. (For Klein’s recent interview on this, and responses, see here and here.) ‘Bad timing’ by history had played a part too, she argued. No sooner had the leading climate scientist James Hansen raised the alarm about global warming in the US Congress in 1988 than the Berlin wall collapsed and the neo-liberal ideologues of deregulated trade went on the offensive.

Klein detailed the way that WTO trade rules were being used to obstruct action on emissions – for example, by oil companies challenging fracking bans in Canada and the US challenging Chinese state support for wind farms. While the COP talks on reducing emissions have run into the sand at Copenhagen, and this year at Warsaw, the WRO had ‘come back from the dead, zombie-style’ at the recent talks in Bali. This could only aid the most emissions-intensive type of cross border trade.


The Radical Emissions Reduction conference was organised at the Royal Society in London by the Tyndall Centre, the UK’s foremost research centre on climate change, from 10-11 December. Potentially important alliances looked like they were being formed: activists and academics from the social sciences participated together with climate scientists and engineers. The event came at a time when the UK government is reinforcing the centrality of fossil fuels to its energy policy – through a new generation of gas-fired power stations and tax breaks for fracking, for example – despite countless warnings by the Tyndall Centre and others that such policies are incompatible with UK commitments to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, said that he considered, hypothetically, that a 10 per cent per year reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by rich countries is ‘viable’. Such drastic action is required to meet the United Nations target of limiting CO2 emissions to achieve a 66 per cent chance of limiting the increase in surface temperature to 2 degrees. ‘Radical emissions reduction between now and 2030’ would have to be accompanied by ‘a Marshall plan-type effort’ to build low-carbon infrastructure, Anderson said. The radical emissions had to be made by a small minority: he estimates that 1-5 per cent of the population is responsible for 40-60 per cent of emissions.

Too many voices are questioning whether the emissions targets based on keeping warming to 2 degrees are viable. ‘Is 4 to 6 degrees a better option? No,’ Anderson insisted. Most researchers – and even most governments – agree that warming of 4 degrees or more would be catastrophic for human society. (See papers and presentations from an earlier Tyndall conference on what 4 degrees of warming might do.) Not only is the UK government missing its 2 degrees targets, but many developing countries argue that the target should be 1.5 degrees, Simon Bullock of Friends of the Earth later reminded the conference. Some climate scientists, including Hansen, say 1 degree.

Problems and solutions

This week’s conference ranged widely over the science of climate change; the technical, engineering and social problems posed by cutting emissions; and the role of political establishments and social movements in effecting change. Tyndall Centre researchers Dan Calverley and Alice Bows-Larkin described the drastic emissions cuts that could be achieved with a modicum of regulation in road and marine transport respectively. Fred Steward of the University of Westminster reported on substantial emissions cuts by European cities that had pressed on despite the lack of political action at national level.

Among many presentations on local-level carbon reduction projects, one by firefighter Neil McCabe from Kilbarrack fire station in Dublin, Ireland, stood out: a Green Plan has saved 127.5 tonnes of CO2 per year by ‘replacing the “we must do something” approach with actual actions and sustainable technologies’.

The conference heard widely differing views on the type of social change that a shift towards low-carbon living implies. Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation advocated a ‘green new deal’, inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s kick-start of American capitalism in the 1930s (£50 billion+ per year investment in low-carbon infrastructure, carbon taxes and trading combined with an overhaul of financial sector regulation). Other speakers argued that dominant assumptions about the necessity of ‘economic growth’ had to be challenged. Clive Spash of the Vienna University of Business and Finance said that ideas of ‘decoupling emissions from growth’ and that ‘markets and corporations are the best way forward’ were among current ‘myths’ about emissions reduction. Angela Druckman of the University of Surrey put an explicitly anti-growth case.

While Rebecca Willis of the Green Alliance spoke of political change in terms of lobbying politicians, Jane Hindley of the University of Essex refocused on social movements. Neo-liberal politics is incompatible with radical emissions reductions, she argued, because it had ‘reduced citizens to consumers’ and led to ‘a concomitant infantilisation of the electorate’. Larry Lohmann of the Corner House said climate scientists and campaigners for emissions reduction need to seek allies among those who it often overlooked. In response to those who had said it was difficult to win over trade unions to anti-global-warming causes, he said that South African metalworkers and international transport union representatives – all of whom work in carbon-intensive industries – had been among the most responsive and supportive groups he had engaged with on climate change issues. Lohmann objected to the ‘algorithmic approach to rationality’, according to which scientists and climate campaigners see themselves as possessors of a rational argument, and despair of politicians who failed to grasp it. The politicians understood only too well, and there were deeper causes of their climate-damaging actions, he argued. He advocated “science as solidarity”, in which scientists learned from conversations with people in communities whether in the global north or south.

If the conversation between scientists, engineers, other academics, activists and others can be broadened, the conference will have been a welcome start.

This report also appeared at People and Nature