Weekend pondering at 420 ppm CO2 as COP15 starts and COP26 is on the immediate horizon. I’m not an expert on theory of change, but here are my best guesses at tackling the #Ecological Emergency and the #ClimateEmergency
1) If we do not centre equity, justice and decolonisation, our zero carbon lifestyle will be just as destructive as this one.
2) We will need to upscale current technologies and develop new ones; but it won’t be enough. Tech bro wannabe saviours need to check their egos.
3) Many of us must change our lifestyles; but we must ask that with empathy. It will be liberating for some and painful for others.
4) I trust communities more than politicians to lead the way. I trust cities more than nations. But we’ll need all of them.
5) I do not think capitalism can get it done. I don’t. But it’s the prevailing ideology now, so I expect those institutions to fucking try. Businesses. Investors. Political Enablers. Media Enablers. Educational Enablers. If you are not ready to throw out the system, then you have the primary obligation to ensure the system does not kill us, does not destroy the environment, does not perpetuate racism. We’re all locked into the system – for now – but we do not have to be complicit.
6) Even if you’re not protesting, thank those who do. The changes needed are too bold, too big to achieve without determined activism.
[I think there is much to unpack here with the word protest. But I would like to make one based on the theme of this entire list. There is no single solution. Similarly, there is no single form of appropriate protest. All protests have happened across a spectrum of disruption. Arguably, the most disruptive protests force the establishment to engage with the more polite ones. I do not know. But I think if our premise is there is a right and a wrong form of protest we do not understand how a movement collectively affects change. This is especially relevant given global efforts to criminalise and control protest, which is why we wrote this: https://theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/19/environment-protest-being-criminalised-around-world-say-experts]
7) This challenge is so pervasive that everyone can contribute by doing what they love – science, art, journalism, politics, music, finance.
8) Love will be the most important driver. But we’ll often need to embrace the power of our anger and sorrow.
9) We’ve all got something to offer. Conversely, no one person or one idea will be the saviour. Set aside ego and embrace community and inclusivity.
An even 10: We cannot stop environmental destruction without a love for humanity. We are as much of nature as ants, trees, lichen & bacteria. Our lifestyles cause harm, but we’ve also created beauty and discovered wonder. All of us and all yet to be born are worthy of saving.
In 2015, I joined the Bristol delegation to COP21 in Paris, where the world agreed to limit warming to less than 2C and aspired to limit warming to 1.5C.
Six years later, COP26 comes to the UK, and delayed by Covid, it comes in the aftermath of an IPCC report that starkly highlights how inadequate our efforts have been to meet those Paris 2015 aspirations.
The Step Change Yet to Happen
It would be a mistake to argue that nothing was achieved in Paris. The agreement – and the subsequent increase in ambition of the UK Climate Change Act to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – appears to have had an impact on governments and legal decisions. Although the declaration of Climate Emergencies, starting in Bristol and spreading widely, is largely symbolic, the political recognition of climate change and on-the-record commitment to decarbonisation exerts a pressure on policy. Most obviously, it has (for the time being) prevented the expansion of both Bristol and London Airports. These government commitments have also exerted pressure on energy infrastructure and contributed to the UK’s decreasing carbon emissions. Globally, even though CO2 emissions and concentrations continue to climb, they are ever so slowly bending away from the worst case scenario, which tellingly was once called the Business as Usual scenario.
Most importantly, however, the Paris Agreement has invited and legitimised a long overdue surge in activism. Friday Strikes, marches, and rallies on College Green as well as the more disruptive interventions of XR have forced climate action onto the media and political agenda. We also see this in the more activist intervention of climate scientists. Our activism is not just driven by government inaction on our warnings for over 50 years, but also because those same governments have now established their objectives in law and international agreements. Is taking to the streets really ‘activism’ if it is just asking governments to do what they are legally as well as morally compelled to do – by their very own admission?
But let’s not deceive ourselves. By necessity the Paris Agreement was non-binding. Globally, emissions still increase; bending away from 5C of warming to perhaps 3C of warming is not reassuring. Moreover, very little meaningful – transformative – change has happened. We have achieved a decrease in emissions and that is cause for some celebration. But that has largely been achieved by switching from coal to gas, but we still fundamentally rely on burning things to generate our heat, electricity and transport. We have made incremental gains by grabbing the low-hanging fruit. This is true of the UK and it is true of Bristol. And our delays mean that the window of time for driving emissions to zero has shrunk dramatically. Even the most optimistic scenarios of the most recent IPCC report lean heavily on carbon capture.
Community Collaboration and Action
As we approach COP26, therefore, where can Bristol lead? Are we powerless as a city if national governments fail to act?
In this it is worth reflecting why Bristol was awarded the Green Capital honour for 2015. It was largely because of the number and variety of organisations, from volunteer groups of 2 to 3 people to civil society organisations and CICs to charities to businesses and to local government, united in their pursuit of an environmentally sustainable future. Bristol cannot solve climate change but it can show the world that we are not powerless in the face of national government prevarication. Too often the climate debate is split between those arguing for individual action vs structural change at a national level. Not only is this a false dichotomy (clearly we need both), but more importantly it misses the most important agent of change: communities.
Communities amplify individual action.
Communities create pressure for wider political change.
Communities come up with novel solutions and the solutions that will be most effective for them. In doing so, they learn fast, learn hard, fail, learn again. And then they share.
Climate Action that Centres Environmental and Social Justice
Community leadership and collaboration is also vital in addressing the other major theme that has emerged in the climate movement since COP21: It is not just about the climate. Of course, we always knew this, but the past five years of Ecological Emergencies and Black Lives Matter have shown starkly that nothing exists in isolation. We must not devastate nature to achieve our climate solutions, i.e. by taking land from wildlife and devoting it to the capture of carbon. We must not ignore the injustices of climate change or the potential injustices of our environmental solutions; fossil fuel colonialism must not be replaced by green colonialism just so we can continue exactly as we always have, albeit in electric cars.
Bristol can do this.
Through the Green Capital Partnership but not only the partnership, we have the capacity to connect, cooperate and mobilise. The Black and Green Ambassadors, for example, have challenged organisations to recognise their lack of racial diversity and inclusion as well as its consequences; and they have supported those organisations to become stronger by addressing those issues. Crucially, although the Ambassadors Programme was successful, we never forgot that it was not about our ego but about community, it was not about promoting itself but rather celebrating the fact that Bristol’s Black community was already active and engaged in environmental issues. It elevated those groups and challenged other organisations, including my own, to recognise that the lack of engagement from the black community with our initiatives did not mean that they were not leading their own.
I can give so many other examples: Voscur, Ujima Radio, Black 2 Nature, Avon Wildlife Trust, Locality, Babbasa, the Black Southwest Network, the Bristol Zoo, 91 Ways, the Bristol Energy Network, Bristol Ideas, Feeding Bristol… I am so impressed by what they have accomplished, while being supported by Bristol City Council in concept but largely starved of funds by nearly a decade of austerity. They have championed projects in a profoundly intersectional manner, decreasing carbon footprints while alleviating fuel poverty, growing food while creating green spaces in marginalised neighbourhoods. What could they achieve with empowerment and a sustainable budget? What new transport schemes, community energy projects, car or tool sharing, allotments, youth training, community gardens and more could they bring to our city if they were supported with finances and freedom that matched their passion??
As COP26 approaches, I have expectations for our national government, our regional authority, Bristol City Council and the Mayor. But for Bristol as a city, my hope is that its citizens are afforded the opportunity to do what they have always done: argue but also collaborate; innovate and fail but also succeed and create; and then share.