Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.
The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.
“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”
“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
“We are rapidly running out of time,” said Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth.”
The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London, uses data on 16,704 populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 4,000 species, to track the decline of wildlife. Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, said Barrett, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.
Wildlife and the ecosystems are vital to human life, said Prof Bob Watson, one of the world’s most eminent environmental scientists and currently chair of an intergovernmental panel on biodiversity that said in March that the destruction of nature is as dangerous as climate change.
“Nature contributes to human wellbeing culturally and spiritually, as well as through the critical production of food, clean water, and energy, and through regulating the Earth’s climate, pollution, pollination and floods,” he said. “The Living Planet report clearly demonstrates that human activities are destroying nature at an unacceptable rate, threatening the wellbeing of current and future generations.”
Verge Weekly – Technologies & Trends Accelerating the Clean Economy
By Shana Rappaport, Director of Strategic Programs
November 6, 2018
Changing a society’s governing paradigm is no easy undertaking.
Take Copernicus and Galileo, who dedicated their lives to the unenviable task of debunking the notion that the sun revolved around the earth just because the medieval church proclaimed it. Today, we no longer question that theory, or whether democracy is a better form of government than plutocracy.
Now, in the early years of a new millenium, we find ourselves in the midst of another renaissance — a pivotal inflection point in the history of civilization. This time, however, the belief system we need to overcome is the idea that perpetual economic growth is the key to prosperity — or even possible.
There’s a new paradigm emerging. A fundamental shift away from the extractive brand of capitalism that has put the nine planetary boundaries on which humanity and life on earth as we know it depend in grave jeopardy. Emerging in its place is a more regenerative economy — one that restores those systems, while demonstrating that economic prosperity, security and sustainability go hand in hand.
That’s why I found myself especially fired up by the interview we just published with Hunter Lovins about her new book, A Finer Future, and the in-depth paper it references, by John Fullerton, on Regenerative Capitalism. Specifically, the compelling case they make that regenerative businesses are more successful businesses, and that we’re ultimately headed in the right direction, albeit not as quickly as we need.
The idea of business as a force that regenerates rather than degenerates ecological and human systems is by no means a new one. Visionaries like Ray Anderson, Carol Sanford, Bill Reed and many, many others have been championing, and implementing, it for decades — including Hunter Lovins (a la Natural Capitalism, circa 1999).
Lovins recounts in the interview her experience sitting with Anderson back in 2001, at which time his bold vision — to redesign Interface’s core business to eliminate any negative impact on the environment by 2020 — was unprecedented, even outlandish. Even then, however, it was as much about building a better company as it was about social and environmental responsibility. “Everything I’m doing to make Interface a more sustainable company is enhancing shareholder value,” Anderson told Lovins, at the time.
Today, unlike during Anderson’s era, this is no longer a radical idea. We’re seeing evidence that businesses that align their core strategy with sustainability — and increasingly towards regenerative outcomes — can be more profitable.
Case in point: Companies that lead in measuring and managing their carbon footprint have an 18 percent higher return on investment than the laggards, and a 67 percent higher return than companies that performed as if climate were not a material issue, according to a 2014 study conducted by CDP. The rapid adoption of Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) Criteria now has evidence to back it up, too — publications ranging from Bloomberg to GreenBiz are all telling the data-driven story of why ESG is good for business, in addition to people and the planet. There’s even a new ETHO Climate Leadership Index, which has proven the climate-smart companies in which it invests consistently outperform others in the S&P 500.
As Lovin’s put it, “there are now well over 50 studies showing that companies leading in ESG criteria have, take your pick: the highest stock value; the fastest-growing stock value; well outperform the market; outperform their peers; and have more engaged workforces (a better engaged workforce will give you 16 percent higher profitability, and 18 percent higher productivity).”
While the data are clearly on our side, time is not. Now is our moment to reimagine and redesign a regenerative economy that works for all — and, like any proper paradigm shift, it takes work.
As Fullerton poignantly put it, “We are the new Copernicans.” So, let’s get back to work.
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Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015
The nine planetary boundaries
Stratospheric ozone depletion
The stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filters out ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of UV radiation will reach ground level. This can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans as well as damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems. The appearance of the Antarctic ozone hole was proof that increased concentrations of anthropogenic ozone-depleting chemical substances, interacting with polar stratospheric clouds, had passed a threshold and moved the Antarctic stratosphere into a new regime. Fortunately, because of the actions taken as a result of the Montreal Protocol, we appear to be on the path that will allow us to stay within this boundary.
Loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions)
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 concluded that changes to ecosystems due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services. These drivers are either steady, showing no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. The current high rates of ecosystem damage and extinction can be slowed by efforts to protect the integrity of living systems (the biosphere), enhancing habitat, and improving connectivity between ecosystems while maintaining the high agricultural productivity that humanity needs. Further research is underway to improve the availability of reliable data for use as the ‘control variables’ for this boundary.
Chemical pollution and the release of novel entities
Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment (by affecting atmospheric processes and climate). Even when the uptake and bioaccumulation of chemical pollution is at sub-lethal levels for organisms, the effects of reduced fertility and the potential of permanent genetic damage can have severe effects on ecosystems far removed from the source of the pollution. For example, persistent organic compounds have caused dramatic reductions in bird populations and impaired reproduction and development in marine mammals. There are many examples of additive and synergic effects from these compounds, but these are still poorly understood scientifically. At present, we are unable to quantify a single chemical pollution boundary, although the risk of crossing Earth system thresholds is considered sufficiently well-defined for it to be included in the list as a priority for precautionary action and for further research.
Recent evidence suggests that the Earth, now passing 390 ppmv CO2 in the atmosphere, has already transgressed the planetary boundary and is approaching several Earth system thresholds. We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea-ice is almost certainly irreversible. This is one example of a well-defined threshold above which rapid physical feedback mechanisms can drive the Earth system into a much warmer state with sea levels metres higher than present. The weakening or reversal of terrestrial carbon sinks, for example through the on-going destruction of the world’s rainforests, is another potential tipping point, where climate-carbon cycle feedbacks accelerate Earth’s warming and intensify the climate impacts. A major question is how long we can remain over this boundary before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable.
Around a quarter of the CO2 that humanity emits into the atmosphere is ultimately dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential ‘building block’ used by many marine species for shell and skeleton formation. Beyond a threshold concentration, this rising acidity makes it hard for organisms such as corals and some shellfish and plankton species to grow and survive. Losses of these species would change the structure and dynamics of ocean ecosystems and could potentially lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks. Compared to pre-industrial times, surface ocean acidity has already increased by 30 percent. Unlike most other human impacts on the marine environment, which are often local in scale, the ocean acidification boundary has ramifications for the whole planet. It is also an example of how tightly interconnected the boundaries are, since atmospheric CO2 concentration is the underlying controlling variable for both the climate and the ocean acidification boundaries, although they are defined in terms of different Earth system thresholds.
Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
The freshwater cycle is strongly affected by climate change and its boundary is closely linked to the climate boundary, yet human pressure is now the dominant driving force determining the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems. The consequences of human modification of water bodies include both global-scale river flow changes and shifts in vapour flows arising from land use change. These shifts in the hydrological system can be abrupt and irreversible. Water is becoming increasingly scarce – by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to be subject to water-stress, increasing the pressure to intervene in water systems. A water boundary related to consumptive freshwater use and environmental flow requirements has been proposed to maintain the overall resilience of the Earth system and to avoid the risk of ‘cascading’ local and regional thresholds.
Land system change
Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other vegetation types have primarily been converted to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind the serious reductions in biodiversity, and it has impacts on water flows and on the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus and other important elements. While each incident of land cover change occurs on a local scale, the aggregated impacts can have consequences for Earth system processes on a global scale. A boundary for human changes to land systems needs to reflect not just the absolute quantity of land, but also its function, quality and spatial distribution. Forests play a particularly important role in controlling the linked dynamics of land use and climate, and is the focus of the boundary for land system change.
Nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans
The biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus have been radically changed by humans as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes. Nitrogen and phosphorus are both essential elements for plant growth, so fertilizer production and application is the main concern. Human activities now convert more atmospheric nitrogen into reactive forms than all of the Earth’s terrestrial processes combined. Much of this new reactive nitrogen is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms rather than taken up by crops. When it is rained out, it pollutes waterways and coastal zones or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. Similarly, a relatively small proportion of phosphorus fertilizers applied to food production systems is taken up by plants; much of the phosphorus mobilized by humans also ends up in aquatic systems. These can become oxygen-starved as bacteria consume the blooms of algae that grow in response to the high nutrient supply. A significant fraction of the applied nitrogen and phosphorus makes its way to the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across ecological thresholds of their own. One regional-scale example of this effect is the decline in the shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico’s ‘dead zone’ caused by fertilizer transported in rivers from the US Midwest.
Atmospheric aerosol loading
An atmospheric aerosol planetary boundary was proposed primarily because of the influence of aerosols on Earth’s climate system. Through their interaction with water vapour, aerosols play a critically important role in the hydrological cycle affecting cloud formation and global-scale and regional patterns of atmospheric circulation, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions. They also have a direct effect on climate, by changing how much solar radiation is reflected or absorbed in the atmosphere. Humans change the aerosol loading by emitting atmospheric pollution (many pollutant gases condense into droplets and particles), and also through land-use change that increases the release of dust and smoke into the air. Shifts in climate regimes and monsoon systems have already been seen in highly polluted environments, giving a quantifiable regional measure for an aerosol boundary. A further reason for an aerosol boundary is that aerosols have adverse effects on many living organisms. Inhaling highly polluted air causes roughly 800,000 people to die prematurely each year. The toxicological and ecological effects of aerosols may thus relate to other Earth system thresholds. However, the behaviour of aerosols in the atmosphere is extremely complex, depending on their chemical composition and their geographical location and height in the atmosphere. While many relationships between aerosols, climate and ecosystems are well established, many causal links are yet to be determined.
The newly formed group Extinction Rebellion seeks to push the UK government to declare a state of emergency, work towards a carbon free economy by 2025 and convene an assembly of ordinary citizens to plan out the country’s carbon-free future. The group’s message has caught on in the wake of increasingly dire reports about the pace of climate change. Organizers had expected a few hundred to show up to the opening salvo near the seat of UK government. Instead, more than a thousand came and decided to block one of London’s busiest intersections for more than two hours.
“The disruption we are causing today is nothing to the destruction that our governments are unleashing by not taking serious steps to stop the ecological crisis,” 28-year-old demonstrator Felix told The Guardian. “I have never been to prison before but I feel I have to try and do something.”
In total, 15 people were arrested Wednesday, then released without charge, but the group says hundreds of members are prepared to go to prison in a series of escalating demonstrations in London next month that will build towards a sit-in in Parliament Square November 17 and occupations of various London bridges.
“People are no longer prepared to sit back and watch our politicians and corporations drive us off the cliff of ecological destruction,” organizer Gail Bradbrook told The Guardian. “This is an emergency situation and it needs an emergency response.”
The group read out their Declaration of Rebellion against the government’s lack of adequate action on climate change.
The movement has the support of prominent UK activists, academics, politicians and thinkers including Green Party Member of European Parliament Molly Scott Cato, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot, who spoke at Wednesday’s protest.
For B.C. glacier researcher Matt Beedle, returning to the Castle Creek glacier every year inspires a mixture of excitement and dread.
“I’m psyched on coming back to see it change,” he told CBC News on a recent visit to the landmark, high in the Cariboo Mountains east of Prince George.
“At first, it’s just exciting to see this brand-new landscape that wasn’t here before it was exposed,” says Beedle. “But then it’s shocking … when we started coming here, it was so much larger than it is today.”
You’ve heard about glaciers melting for years, but what happened last summer across Western Canada is different, because it’s much faster — giving what one researcher calls a “sad window” into our future, where the glaciers are gone.
Losing centimetres a day
In the past decade, the bluish-white ice of the tongue, or terminus, of the glacier has receded over 200 metres, at a rate of roughly 15 metres a year.
This summer though, the melt rate accelerated dramatically to about two and half times that pace, says Brian Menounos, a geography professor and glacier researcher at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George.
“This particular year has been quite a bad one,” he says. “It’s really a one-two punch.”
“We had a warmer than average summer, and a much warmer spring for the southern part of the province, but we also had a record low snowpack.”
Menounos’s team has been charting the glaciers’ retreat for the past decade by measuring ice thickness, using seven-metre poles sunk into the ice. The teams return the following year to measure how much ice has been lost.
Video: A future without glaciers
“On a hot sunny day … you can see the surface going down some 10 centimetres,” says Beedle. “It’s not building back up in the winter. That’s the problem.”
Uniquely in Western Canada, the Castle Creek glacier also leaves behind elevated ridges or moraines as it retreats each year, giving the researchers striking visible evidence of how quickly the melting is occurring.
“We’ve had average [distances between them] of about 14 or 15 metres per year. And the last two years have been 25 to 30 metres each,” says Beedle.
What’s happening here at Castle Creek, he says, is the norm for glaciers across Western Canada, especially in southern areas.
“It’s demonstrating what pretty much all glaciers are doing in Western Canada. They are receding dramatically.”
Blame ‘The Blob’?
A giant pocket of warmer than usual water in the Pacific Ocean may be at least partially responsible for the more rapid glacial melt this past summer.
Nicknamed “The Blob,” the water is about three degrees warmer than the rest of the Pacific.
University of Victoria climate researcher Faron Anslow believes it’s having a dramatic effect on glaciers.
“You have all this energy out in the Pacific that’s available to the atmosphere and it blows over those ocean waters and brings those temperatures on land, resulting in a lot of melt,” Anslow says.
Projections for what B.C.’s climate will look like by 2050 mirror this past summer, he says, thanks to the effects of the warmer Pacific water of The Blob.
‘The Blob,’ a giant pocket of warm water in the North Pacific, may be accelerating the glacier melt, says climate researcher Faron Anslow.(Google Earth)
Menounos, the glacier researcher, says it’s discouraging that much of Western Canada’s 25,000 square kilometres of ice fields won’t last the century.
“If you want a window into the future if you will — sort of a sad window — then this particular summer, at least in the southern portion of B.C., is a good example.”
“Most recent work has shown that by and large the glaciers of Western Canada are going to be gone by the end of the century,” says Matt Beedle.
“The biggest unknown in that study is what we do — what humans do. How we behave in regards to the atmosphere.”
Slide the bar to see the change in the Bear Glacier, in northwestern B.C., from 1978 to 2013.
Activists gathered under the banner Extinction Rebellion in London on Wednesday to issue their Declaration of Rebellion against the U.K. government’s climate inaction. (Photo: Extinction Rebellion)
To underscore the planetary emergency and denounce the U.K. government’s inaction on the climate crisis, a new group calling itself Extinction Rebellion rallied over 1,000 people to block Parliament Square in London on Wednesday. The direct action marks the launch of a mass civil disobedience campaign, with the group issuing a “Declaration of Rebellion” against the government because the activists “refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.”
Police arrested 15 people taking part in the action, but organizers say the wrong people were taken into custody. “If we lived in a democracy,” Extinction Rebellion declared in a tweet, “the police would be here to arrest the criminal politicians who are wrecking the planet.”
Noted speakers at the action included Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, journalist George Monbiot, and 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl “on strike” from school over her own government’s climate inaction. “We’re facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children. We need to wake up and change everything,” she stated.
Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato took part as well. In an op-ed at the Guardian, she explained that she felt there was no alternative to being a lawmaker turned law-breaker. “We are prepared to halt lorries entering fracking sites; to stand in the way of bulldozers building roads and block traffic along heavily congested and polluted streets. Direct actions like these have a long and proud history; it’s time to carry them through in a systematic way to protect the climate, and to be willing to be arrested for doing so.”
Pointing to the latest IPCC report and the World Wildlife Fund’s latest assessment of the Earth’s declining biodiversity, she added, “It is no exaggeration to say that our survival as a species is at risk. Enough. Enough of words; of hypocrisy and broken promises. It’s time to act.”
The declaration declares, in part: “The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied, nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief. ”
As such, we “declare ourselves in rebellion against our government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future,” it continues.
They charge they government of having “wilful complicity” that “has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favor of short-term gain and private profits.”
“This is our darkest hour… The science is clear—we are in the sixth mass extinciton event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly.”
—Declaration of Rebellion“This is our darkest hour… The science is clear—we are in the sixth mass extinciton event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly.”—Declaration of RebellionThe declaration, said noted U.S. climate activist and author Bill McKibben, “should ring true not just for Brits, but for Americans (who have a declaration in their past) and for people anywhere.”
Wednesday’s action was far from the end of the road for Extinction Rebellion; they’ve got a week of action lined up for mid-November in London if their three demands— that the government openly communicate the severity of the crisis and urgency for change; enact legally binding policies to slash emissions; and allow for a Citizens’ Assembly to monitor and hold government to account for enacting to “the bold, swift, and long-term changes necessary”—aren’t met.
“This is just a warm up. Rebellion Day is on November the 17th. Same time, same place,” the environmental group, which is backed by nearly 100 leading academics, tweeted.
The escalating actions, they say, are because we “are raging against this madness and our hearts are breaking.”
“We have a right and duty to rebel in the face of this tyranny of idiocy—in the face of this planned collective suicide.”
“We are going to act,” the group says, “and in acting together we will overcome.”
We are in an ecological crisis caused by climate change, pollution and habitat destruction; a mass species extinction on a scale much larger than the one which killed the dinosaurs is underway. Our course is set to societal collapse, the killing of millions, likely billions of people – human extinction is possible. The future is bleak and our children are not safe.
Change to avert the worst of the disaster is still technically and economically possible. The changes won’t be simple but there is nothing more important or worthwhile. It involves creating a world which is less frenetic and more beautiful; making the necessary changes will also create jobs. This is an emergency situation – action is urgent.
Our Government isn’t acting in accordance with what science and history tells us. Therefore our Government is criminally negligent. We have a moral duty to rebel, whatever our politics. Social science shows us that peaceful civil disobedience is an effective way to bring about change. Our lives have meaning and purpose when we follow our conscience and are willing to make sacrifices to protect what we love. We ask others who feel the same way to join our peaceful Rebellion.
That the Government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do.
Good intentions and guidelines won’t save the ice caps. The Government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in Canada to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet’s worth of resources per year.
By necessity these demands require initiatives and mobilization of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. We do not however, trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.
WE HAVE A SHARED VISION OF CHANGE Creating a world that is fit for the next 7 generations to live in.
WE SET OUR MISSION ON WHAT IS NECESSARY Mobilizing 3.5% of the population to achieve system change – such as “Momentum-driven organizing” to achieve this.
WE NEED A REGENERATIVE CULTURE Creating a culture which is healthy, resilient and adaptable.
WE OPENLY CHALLENGE OURSELVES AND THIS TOXIC SYSTEM Leaving our comfort zones to take action for change.
WE VALUE REFLECTING AND LEARNING Following a cycle of action, reflection, learning, and planning for more action. Learning from other movements and contexts as well as our own experiences.
WE WELCOME EVERYONE AND EVERY PART OF EVERYONE Working actively to create safer and more accessible spaces.
WE ACTIVELY MITIGATE FOR POWER Breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation
WE AVOID BLAMING AND SHAMING We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.
WE ARE A NON-VIOLENT NETWORK Using nonviolent strategy and tactics as the most effective way to bring about change.
WE ARE BASED ON AUTONOMY AND DECENTRALISATION We collectively create the structures we need to challenge power. Anyone who follows these core principles and values can take action in the name of RisingUp!
Pledge of Rebellion–we demand concrete action on the ecological crisis
We the undersigned find ourselves in an intolerable position. Ignoring the ecological crisis is no longer an option for us. The science is clear, on our current course, our children and grandchildren are being handed an unprecedented disaster, we are in the 6th mass species extinction. A catastrophe is certain, human extinction is a possibility.Our Government is complicit in allowing greenhouse gas emissions to rise and ignoring the constraints of a finite planet in favour of an economic system demanding rampant consumerism. When a Government fails to protect its citizens from harm and fails to secure the future for generations to come it has failed on the most basic of its duties. Across the political spectrum, from John Locke to Thomas Hobbes, it is understood that the social contract with Government is broken in the face of such abject failure. We understand that it is not only our right, it is our duty to rebel on behalf of life itself.
Therefore we the undersigned declare our support for the Extinction Rebellion, launching this October 31st. We stand behind the demands for the Government to tell the hard truth to its citizens and to come up with a credible plan for a rapid decarbonisation of our economy. To enable a Citizens Assembly to oversee this.
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She said: “I like lots of local meat. I don’t think we should be in the business of prescribing to people how they should run their diets.”
When asked whether the Cabinet should set an example by eating less beef (which has most climate impact), she said: “I think you’re describing the worst sort of Nanny State ever.
“Who would I be to sit there advising people in the country coming home after a hard day of work to not have steak and chips?… Please…”
Ms Perry refused even to say whether she agreed with scientists’ conclusions that meat consumption needed to fall.
A dereliction of duty?
Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth responded: “The evidence is now very clear that eating less meat could be one of the quickest ways to reduce climate pollution.
“Reducing meat consumption will also be good for people’s health and will free up agricultural land to make space for nature.
“It’s a complete no-brainer, and it’s a dereliction of duty for government to leave the job of persuading people to eat less meat to the green groups.”
He said the government could launch information campaigns, change diets in schools and hospitals, or offer financial incentives.
Ms Perry said: “What I do think we need to do is look at the whole issue of agricultural emissions and do a lot more tree planting.
“But if you and I eat less meat, with all the flatulent sheep in Switzerland and flatulent cows in the Netherlands – that will just be wiped out in a moment. Let’s work on the technology to solve these problems at scale.”
She said instead of cutting down on meat, we could use (hugely expensive) equipment that sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Supper with the Perry family
Ms Perry said later that her own typical family meal is not steak and chips, but a stir-fry, which brings the taste and texture of meat into a dish dominated by vegetables. But she did not want to say this on camera.
She agreed it was appropriate for the government to advise people on healthy diets because the obesity epidemic is costing taxpayers more in health bills, but implied that this principle did not apply when considering the health of the planet.
Her fear of being condemned in the media as a bossy politician highlights the difficulty of the next phase of climate change reductions.
Until now, 75% of CO2 reductions in the UK have come from cleaning up the electricity sector. Many people have barely noticed the change.
Will the climate battle get personal?
Experts generally agree that for healthy lives and a healthy planet, the battle over climate change will have to get personal.
That could mean people driving smaller cars, walking and cycling more, flying less, buying less fast fashion, wearing a sweater in winter… and eating less meat.
People will still live good lives, they say, but they’ll have to make a cultural shift.
If governments do not feel able to back those messages, they say, the near impossible task of holding global temperature rise to 1.5C will become even more difficult.
Ms Perry’s comments came as she launched Green GB week, which aims to show how the UK can increase the economy while also cutting emissions.
She will formally ask advisers how Britain can cut emissions to zero.
After the panicky IPCC report on climate change, it’s easy for pessimism to set in – but that would be conceding defeat.
In response to Monday’s release of the IPCC report on the climate crisis – which warned that “unprecedented” changes were needed if global warming increases 1.5C beyond the pre-industrial period – a standup comic I know posted this plaintive request on her Facebook: “Damn this latest report about climate change is just terrifying. People that know a lot about this stuff, is there anything to be potentially optimistic about? I think this week I feel even worse than Nov 2016 and I’m really trying to find some hope here.”
A bunch of her friends posted variations on “we’re doomed” and “it’s hopeless”, which perhaps made them feel that they were in charge of one thing in this overwhelming situation, the facts. They weren’t, of course. They were letting understandable grief at the news morph into an assumption that they know just how the future is going to turn out. They don’t.
The future hasn’t already been decided. That is, climate change is an inescapable present and future reality, but the point of the IPCC report is that there is still a chance to seize the best-case scenario rather than surrender to the worst. Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in a gulag for his work with Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, recalls his mentor saying: “They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.” Right now living as decent people means every one of us with resources taking serious climate action, or stepping up what we’re already doing.
Climate action is human rights, because climate change affects the most vulnerable first and hardest – it already has, with droughts, fires, floods, crop failures. It affects the myriad species and habitats that make this earth such an intricately beautiful place, from the coral reefs to the caribou herds. What we’re deciding now is what life will be like for the kids born this year who will be 82 in 2100, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. They will curse the era that devastated the planet, and perhaps they’ll bless the memory of those who tried to limit this destruction. The report says we need to drop fossil fuel consumption by 45% by 2030, when these kids will be 12. That’s a difficult but not impossible proposition.
Taking action is the best way to live in conditions of crisis and violation, for your spirit and your conscience as well as for society. It’s entirely compatible with grief and horror; you can work to elect climate heroes while being sad. There are no guarantees – but just as Sakharov and Sharansky probably didn’t imagine that the Soviet Union would dissolve itself in the early 1990s, so we can anticipate that we don’t exactly know what will happen and how our actions will help shape the future.
The histories of change that have made me hopeful are often about small groups that seem at the outset unrealistic in their ambition. Whether they were taking on slavery in antebellum USA or human rights in the Soviet bloc, these movements grew exponentially and changed consciousness and then toppled institutions or regimes. We also don’t know what technological breakthroughs, large-scale social changes, or catastrophic ecological feedback loops will shape the next 20 years. Knowing that we don’t know isn’t grounds for confidence, but it is fuel against despair, which is a form of certainty. This future is as uncertain as it’s ever been.
There have been countless encouraging developments in the global climate movement. The movement was small, fragmented, mild a dozen years ago, and the climate recommendations then were mostly polite, with too much change-your-lightbulbs focus on personal virtue. But personal virtue only matters if it scales up (and even individual acts depend on collective decisions – I have, for example, 100% renewable electricity at home because other citizens pushed our amoral power company to evolve, and it’s more feasible for me to ride a bike because there are now bike lanes all over my city).
The movement that has taken on pipelines and fuel trains, refineries and shipping terminals, fracking and mountaintop removal, divestment and finance, policy and law, and sometimes won is evidence of what can happen in 12 years. Some of what were regarded as climate activists’ wild ideas and unreasonable demands are now policy and conventional common sense. There are so many transformative projects under way from local work to transition off fossil fuels, to the effort to stop pipelines (with some major victories, including the one to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline, which won in court in late August), to the lawsuit against the US government on behalf of 21 young people, charging it with violating their rights and the public trust. The trial begins on 29 October in Eugene, Oregon.
The other thing I find most encouraging and even a little awe-inspiring is how profoundly the global energy landscape has already changed in this century. At the beginning of the 21st century, renewables were expensive, inefficient, infant technologies incapable of meeting our energy needs. In a revolution at least as profound as the industrial revolution, wind and solar engineering and manufacturing have changed everything; we now have the technological capacity to largely leave fossil fuel behind. It was not possible then; it is now. That is stunning. And encouraging.
Astoundingly, 98% of the energy Costa Rica generates is from non-fossil fuel sources. Scotland closed its last coal-fired power plant two years ago and overall emissions there are half what they were in 1990. Texas is getting more of its energy from wind than from coal – about a quarter on good days and half on a great day recently. Iowa already gets more than a third of its energy from wind because wind is already more cost-effective than fossil fuel, and more turbines are being set up. Cities and states in the USA and elsewhere are setting ambitious goals to reduce fossil fuel consumption or go entirely renewable. Last month California committed to make its electricity 100% carbon-free by 2045. There are stories like this from all over the world that tell us a transition is already under way. They need to scale up and speed up, but we are not starting from scratch today.
The IPCC report recommends urgent work on many fronts – from how we produce food and to what use we put land (more forests) to how we generate and use energy (and the unsexy business of energy efficiency also matters). It describes four paths forward, three of which depend on carbon-capturing technologies not yet realized, the fourth includes the most radical reductions in fossil-fuel use and planting a lot of trees.
The major obstacles to this withdrawal are political, the fossil fuel and energy corporations and the governments obscenely intertwined with them. I called up Steve Kretzmann, the longtime director of the climate policy-and-action group Oil Change International (on whose board I sit), and he reflected on the two approaches to climate action – changing consumption and changing production.
Going after production often gets neglected, and places like Alberta, Canada, like to boast about their virtuous energy consumption projects while their energy production – in Alberta’s case, the tar sands – threatens the future of the planet. Addressing production means going after some of the most powerful and ruthless corporations on earth and the regimes that protect them and are rewarded by them – or, as with Russia and Saudi Arabia and to some extent the US are indistinguishable from them.
Five countries – Belize, Ireland, New Zealand, France and Costa Rica – are already working on bans on new exploration and extraction. Steve told me: “We have to be real about this: this is the oil industry and wars are fought over it. There’s a lot of political power here and there’s a lot of people defending that power.” But he also noted: “The moment it’s clear it’s inexorably on the wane, it will pop.” You can hasten the popping by cutting the enormous subsidies, and by divesting from fossil fuel corporations – to date the once-mocked divestment movement has gotten $6tn withdrawn. As Damien Carrington reported for the Guardian last month, “Major oil companies such as Shell have this year cited divestment as a material risk to its business.”
We also need to shut down production directly, with a just transition for workers in those sectors. Five countries – Belize, Ireland, New Zealand, France and Costa Rica – are already working on bans on new exploration and extraction, and the World Bank sent shockwaves around the world last December when it announced that after 2019 it would no longer finance oil and gas extraction.
Given that the clean energy comes with lots of jobs – and jobs that don’t give people black lung and don’t poison surrounding communities – there’s a lot of ancillary benefit. Fossil fuel is, even aside from the carbon it pumps into the atmosphere, literally poison, from the mercury that contaminates the air when coal is burned and the mountains of coal ash residue to the toxic emissions and water contamination of fracking and the sinister chemicals emitted by refineries to the smog from cars. “Giving up” is often how fossil fuel is talked about, as though it’s pure loss, but renouncing poison doesn’t have to be framed as sacrifice.
Part of the work we need to do is to imagine not only the devastation of climate change, and the immense difference between 2 or 3 degrees of warming and 1.5 degrees, but the benefits of making a transition from fossil fuel. The fading away of the malevolent power of the oil companies would be a profound transformation, politically as well as ecologically.
I don’t know exactly if or how we’ll get to where we need to go, but I know that we must set out better options with all the passion, power and intelligence we have. A revolution is what we need, and we can begin by imagining and demanding it and doing what we can to try to realize it. Rather than waiting to see what happens, we can be what happens. And by the way, the comedian I mentioned: she’s already organizing fundraisers for climate groups.