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22 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: #ClimateOptimist, Cause for Optimism and Theresa May

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites. I covered the Climate Optimist campaign (again), the Nature Geosciences paper on progress towards Paris Agreement commitments and Theresa May's speech to the UN. Comments in the comments please!

 

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19 September 2017

Why #ClimateOptimist makes me want to cry


Yesterday afternoon, my Twitter feed suddenly filled with garish 80's-home-computer style graphics urging me to "Opt-in to be a #ClimateOptimist!".

"'Ello?" I asked myself and did some clicking. More hi-viz colours, more flashing slogans, some nice T-shirts, not much else. My heart sank.

Not because I'm a pessimist, no, quite the opposite. I'm a committed, if quietly pragmatic, optimist.

My problem is the answer to the fundamental question "Who is this for?", which appears to be "People like me (but maybe a bit more tolerant of childish text fonts)." But I already get it. I don't matter.

What does it say to the consumer on the high street on a Saturday afternoon? What does it say to the product designer choosing materials for the product those consumers are buying? What does it say to the policy maker deciding on transport investment, building standards or energy subsidies?

Not a lot. Nothing, in fact.

This is vitally important, because it is these people we need to speak to – the people who we must persuade to make different decisions to the ones they normally make. And to do that we need to translate Sustainability into a form that means something to them. Rattling slogans around the Sustainability echo-chamber is just a waste of time and effort.

Rant over.

 

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4 September 2017

Sustainability Bites Ep1: Harvey & Climate Change

Here's the pilot episode of a new series of short, sharp, lo-fi Sustainability snippets I've decided to launch. I've called it Sustainability Bites as a. the episodes are bite-sized, and b. it's all about how Sustainability is starting to bite – we've gone way beyond chin-stroking and are now making different decisions to make things happen.

This edition is about whether natural disasters are the right time to raise climate change.

At present, these will appear as and when I feel like it rather than on a regular basis, although it may find it's own niche naturally. The best way to keep up is head over to my Facebook page and send me a friend request!

 

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19 July 2017

Game of Thrones and the Sustainability Vision Thing

Great excitement chez Kane on Monday as, as soon as the junior members of the household were safely asleep, we could head back to Westeros and caught up with Arya, Jon Snow, Cersei and the rest of the huge, disparate but now converging cast of characters that populate the Game of Thrones universe. I'm not going to give anything away – one innocent click on Monday spoilt the opening for me, thank you very much Independent – but it did make me think about some of the Sustainability debates I've been having recently.

There's a strong fan theory that the overall story – tribes of people fighting to the death over the smallest of short term political gains while ignoring the existential threat of the White Walkers – is an analogy for our own short termism in the face of the threat of climate change. And of course, as the lengthy winter starts in Westeros, we can see the implications: food shortages, mass migration of threatened peoples etc, etc. And yet most of the characters are caught up in their own web of lust, hatred, envy, power and vengeance and pay little regard to the big threat.

So far, so good.

But I am still amazed at those who believe that the solution to climate change is to regress to some kind of pre-industrial state. Going 'plastic-free' seems to be the new 'gluten-free', seen as somehow inherently good despite a complete lack of evidence to back the idea up (the number of people who think they are gluten intolerant is many times the number who actually are). The Guardian ran a plastic-free piece on Tuesday, memorably including a 'pig hair toothbrush'. Nice. Read the rest of this entry »

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24 April 2017

Oh to be back in the Bad Ol' Days

pollution

Nostalgia is natural. I love the nostalgia section in our local newspaper, even though I'm not a native of the city. And it is always tempting to hark back to the past – very rarely do you hear anybody say "well, it's much better these days." Personally, I think it comes from evolution – in a natural eco-system the creatures that fear unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells will live longer than those who don't.

C-FL6WuWsAAsK3SBut sometimes nostalgia can reach a level of self parody. While most of us marked last Friday's coal-free day in the UK as a remarkable achievement, the Telegraph published a bizarre lament for the days of smog, smut and "the tang of sulphur" (right).

In my view, coal is fast becoming the litmus test for progressive/conservative split in politics with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Tony Abbott backing coal. Prominent 'lukewarmer' Matt Ridley's inherited family fortune came from coal (and still does). Often 'clean coal' is invoked to deflect criticism, but coal is always a theme.

The far left dabble in this pool of fossilised nostalgia too, with the UK's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn plugging clean coal to bring back mining jobs. One of my favourite bonkers conspiracy theories is that Margaret Thatcher 'invented' climate change to kill off the UK's coal industry. Yeah, right.

It is easy to sneer (as I just have), but we have to remember the power of nostalgia and the lure of 'it could be like our childhood again'. The renewables revolution may seem like a miracle to the readers of this blog, but change always threatens someone. And it is those people we need to engage with – on their terms – rather than preaching to the green choir.

 

 

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18 November 2016

Climate Doom or Low Carbon Revolution? You choose...

Half empty or half full - pessimism or optimism


The news about climate change and sustainability is very polarised at the minute. On one hand we have some stupendously good news, such as:

  • Global carbon emissions flat-lining for the last three years;
  • The Paris Climate Change Agreement coming into force;
  • Investment in and installation of renewable energy continuing to soar while prices tumble;
  • China and India turning their backs on coal.

On the other hand, things still look very bleak:

  • 2016 breaking the warmest year on record yet again and carbon concentrations in the atmosphere continuing to rise;
  • Arctic sea ice taking an extremely worrying direction;
  • There are signs we are heading to the first mass extinction since the end of the dinosaurs;
  • A climate change denier being elected to the White House (based on expressed views, although these always seem to be subject to change).

Regular readers will know I generally favour the former over the latter, but both can be either constructive or destructive, depending on how we decide to respond:

  • Positive news should inspire us to go further faster rather than complacency;
  • Negative news should also spur action and not maroon us in despondency.

Whichever, the choice is ours. Choose wisely.

 

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9 November 2016

Snap Verdict: Trump Victory and the Climate Battle

Oh dear, who saw that coming? Actually I kind of did, not through any great political or empathetic insight I have to say, just that, as 2016 has been such a unpredictable year already, you couldn't rule anything out.

So what does Donald Trump's victory mean for the battle against climate change?

On the impact of Brexit on the low carbon economy, I was sanguine. The UK still has plenty of climate laws, particularly the little-discussed but powerful 'carbon price floor' to make progress, and, as we have have seen since, new PM Theresa May has committed the country to the Paris Agreement.

With Trump, I'm not so optimistic. While the US Government system, the Republican Party and the cold light of reality will no doubt curb some of his more clownish election pledges, on climate change he is at one with much of the Republican world – denial. Coal mines, fracking, shale oil – these are all easy ways of delivering on his promise of jobs and energy security that he made to blue-collar America. His isolationist stance suggests that international agreements will get short shrift.

Being of an optimistic bent, I think our best hope is that business talks business to the tycoon Trump. If the Walmarts of this world demand low carbon, then that's a big direct and indirect lever. If the Teslas can show how clean tech can create jobs, wealth and exports, that may hold some sway.

But at the end of the day, I can see nothing but a tough four years for our movement. Doesn't mean we should give up, though, let's keep fighting for a better future.

 

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8 November 2016

Review: Leonardo DiCaprio's Before the Flood


This brand new climate change documentary  by Leonardo DiCaprio has been released just before the US goes to the polls to pick a new president (you can watch the whole thing above). While Donald Trump only makes a fleeting appearance, spouting inanities as always, I can't help but think the timing is far from coincidental.

The name 'Before The Flood' is taken from the central panel of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, a print of which hung over DiCaprio's 'crib' as a child (not sure I'd pick Bosch to decorate my kids' rooms but, hey...). In that central panel, the seven deadly sins start to corrupt humankind before the inevitable final panel of doom.

The movie follows DiCaprio as he travels the world talking to local activists, climate scientists and major figures such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the Pope. Here are the key moments that stuck with me: Read the rest of this entry »

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2 November 2016

Stand up for science!

newton-apple-tree

At the weekend the family headed down to Bedford to catch up with my brother-in-law and celebrate the middle one's seventh birthday. As is usual on our (rare) long car journeys, we stopped at a National Trust place on each leg to break up the monotony and avoid the horrors of the motorway service station. On the way south, we had a planned break the wonderful Fountains Abbey/Studley Gardens, but on the way back we picked one at random from the road atlas, called Woolsthorpe Manor.

We pulled into the modest carpark, which couldn't have taken more than 40 cars and no coaches. It was only as we walked up to the ticket hut that we saw a sign telling us that this was the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton. Not only that, but it was here, on an enforced break from plague-ridden Cambridge, that Newton sat under an apple tree in the orchard and had his eureka moment on gravity (and the tree still stands – well, slumps – to this day, behind the family in the pic).

And the most incredible thing about this incredible place is that no-one really knows about it. I mean, not only did Newton's Laws dominate science for the next 300 years, he also invented the reflecting telescope, proved beyond doubt that the planets circled the sun, co-invented calculus and a whole bunch of other important mathematical stuff (we'll draw a veil over the alchemy obsession – nobody's perfect). It's hard to imagine any one person having a bigger influence over our modern lives and yet there's no fuss.

We go on pilgrimages to religious sites, literary sites (Stratford upon Avon), historical sites and architectural sites, but the science which underpins our wealth, health and entertainment hardly gets a look in. When I was at Cambridge, the building where Walton and Cockcroft split the atom was being used as a bike shed when it should arguably be a museum.

Is this lack of respect for science the reason why thousands of armchair philosophers reckon they can disprove the central tenets of climate science which have been painstakingly developed, tested, revised and re-tested for almost 200 years? Is it why the Global Warming Policy Forum can produce a report claiming almost all science is dubious without meeting roars of laughter? Is it why otherwise intelligent politicians can casually dismiss hard evidence that doesn't fit with their worldview?

In this supposedly 'post-truth' world, I think it's about time we stood up for science, evidence and rationality.

 

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5 October 2016

Slim Sustainability Pickings from UK Political Leaders

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)Every year I sift through the leaders' speeches at the UK political party conferences so you don't have to. My theory is that, no matter what is discussed in the rest of the conference, the content of the leader's speech shows just how much of a priority is put upon green policies. Last year, I concluded the content was disappointing, this year makes that look like a low carbon bonanza. All the conferences were dominated by one word – Brexit – and most of the party leaderships where in something of a state of flux, but still, this was poor stuff. Here goes: Read the rest of this entry »

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12 September 2016

Pick your climate gurus with care

epicfailMy regular paper is The Guardian, somewhat under sufferance ever since my previous favourite The Independent started to shrink in size and quality about a decade ago. One of the things that bugs me about The Grauniad is its insistence on turning to novelists for wisdom on the big issues of the day whether terrorism, migration or climate change. Why listen to experienced diplomats, politicians, soldiers, scientists or engineers when you can ask Hilary Mantel what she thinks?

And lo, we get an article about Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh complaining that the arts, along with everybody else, haven't addressed climate change enough. The article concludes:

Worryingly, Ghosh has few solutions to offer. “I am not sure there are solutions. The problem is of such a scale that we are dwarfed by it,” he said.

Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't worry me much at all that a novelist doesn't know how to solve climate change. We have plenty of people who know how to do that. They're beavering away at making it happen quickly enough while Mr Ghosh tours India in a self-appointed role as a prophet of doom.

As the second most populated country in the world, and developing fast, India is currently pivotal to the whole battle for climate change. The recent G20 communiqué on the Paris Agreement was diluted by the Indian Government worried about economic impacts. If the arts really can deliver change, it will have persuade the country's leadership that tackling climate change will also deliver economic and social benefits, if they do it right. That's going to take a positive vision from Ghosh and his colleagues.

 

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1 July 2016

Optimism, Pessimism and Sustainability

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

world brainI was at a meeting of the Green Thinkers book club last night. We were discussing Prof Tim Flannery's "Atmosphere of Hope" book published on the run up to the Paris talks last December. I was actually going to review the book here, but to be honest it's not a great piece of work, seemingly rushed out to give an alternative view to the Australian Government's official line during the talks (Flannery was head of the Australian Climate Commission which was abolished by the incoming Abbott Government in 2013). But the curious thing is that, contrary to the title, it's quite a depressing read.

Appropriately, the discussion around tackling climate change split amongst the pessimists and the optimists. For the former, we're royally screwed by a toxic cocktail of greed, capitalism and corruption. For the latter, of which regular readers will guess I'm a life member, we have to utilise technology, capitalism and design to deliver a massive transformation.

We sustainability optimists are not naive about the scale of the problem, rather we use that as a spur to go further, faster. We are trying to build a vision of a glorious sustainable future, not trying to scare people into action. We use all the tools at our disposal – including the power of global capitalism to bring economies of scale to green technologies.

And, if we fail, it won't be for lack of trying.

“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” – H.Keller

 

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28 March 2016

Can we save the planet?

Jimmy and lego neneOver the Easter weekend we made one of our regular pilgrimages to Washington Wildfowl & Wetland Trust. Added to the exciting wild birds (we saw lesser redpoll, avocet and jack snipe), and the 'captive' bird collection, there was a Lego special with nine enormous models of birds including the iconic Nene or Hawaiian Goose (see pic).

The Nene is a wonderful conservation success story – and a powerful reason why we shouldn't be squeamish about zoos. The population was down to 30 in the 1960s, but is now at 2500 in the wild, with another 1000 or so at locations like Washington.

Bouncing back from such a critically low level is an inspiration to all of us working in the sustainability. OK, it's just one bird species, but it shows that we can make a difference if we really try. Issues like climate change may require considerably more effort to tackle, but a 'can do' attitude is the only way we're going to get close.

Let's do it.

 

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7 March 2016

Turning 'OR' into 'AND' for sustainability

what can I do

Years ago I was at a regional sustainability workshop and the facilitators made the mistake of giving each table a blank flipchart to list our priorities.* One lady in our group from a conservation group promptly slammed a fat file of newspaper clippings and internet print-outs on the table and commenced a lengthy rant against wind turbines, oblivious and impervious to all attempts to change the subject.

More recently we've had the big debate about climate change vs local air quality – I'm one of those who went diesel in the drive to cut carbon emissions, but at the expense of other pollutants. Of course the anti-climate change brigade have jumped on this as an example of 'green idiocy'.

And I'm sure we've all come across minds which are fixed in the concrete of "sustainability = reduced profits" despite all evidence to the contrary.

In all three cases, progress gets stuck on the spike of a false 'OR'. We can have renewable energy AND protect the countryside, we can tackle climate change AND local air quality, we can be sustainable AND turn a healthy profit. But those ORs must swap to ANDs or we'll be stuck on the start line.

 

* if you want to learn how to avoid workshops going wrong like this, check out our Workshop Masterclass.

 

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16 December 2015

Engineering the (low carbon) future

cibse cropped

Last night I was the speaker at the Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers (CIBSE) North East branch. Doing a last minute piece of homework on CIBSE yesterday afternoon, I found the above on the CIBSE website – not hidden in some obscure page that I had to dig out, but the third point on the 'About Us' page.

It makes me smile, as when my own Engineering Institute, the MIET, launched an 'Engineering for a Sustainable Future' network about 15 years ago, a section of the old guard got out their quills and wrote spluttering letters that environmental issues were for politicians, not engineers.

I'm glad to see how far our profession has come. Engineers are fundamentally problem solvers and the current sustainability problem is arguably the biggest problem humanity has ever faced (save the occasional plague). CIBSE have clearly taken this fully on board (although I think their 50% figure above is a little high, I quoted a figure of 37% from Government stats).

I ran a highly interactive session – the flip chart pages filled outnumbered the Powerpoint slides I used. We teased out a number of key challenges for building service engineers, including:

  • Immature/expensive technologies;
  • Distorted incentives – the developer isn't responsible for paying the bills in use;
  • Behavioural change of users/influencing behaviour through design;
  • Retrofitting existing building stock;
  • Integrating heating/cooling systems with the building design to optimise performance.

These are not trivial problems to overcome and we did some chewing over possible solutions.

I finished the session by returning to the CIBSE graphic above and telling the delegates, semi-tongue in cheek, that the future of humanity was in their hands. I'm sure I heard a collective gulp.

 

 

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14 December 2015

So is the Paris climate deal any COP?

people hands

It's the Monday after the week before. They did it in Paris, signing an international treaty to tackle climate change, the world is rejoicing and the climate change deniers are left bleating ineffectually into their beer.

What did we get? Just this:

  • A commitment by 195 countries to keep temperature rises to 2°C, with an aspirational target of 1.5°C;
  • A mechanism to keep updating and reporting individual countries' commitment (known as INDCs);
  • Various mechanisms to transfer technology and cash from richer countries to poorer.

There was an interesting transition while the ink was drying on the agreement. The knee-jerk reaction of many NGOs was to condemn the proposals as 'weak' and a 'betrayal' – mainly because the INDCs were not 'legally binding'. By this morning's papers, those same NGOs seemed to have reeled in their reaction to 'good, but not perfect'.

Indeed 'good, but not perfect' seems to be the verdict of the commentariat, but I disagree. I think the flexibility of the part-binding/part voluntary agreement will turn out to be its strength, much in the way a tree will flex in the wind but not break.

For a start, I don't think there's any such thing as 'legally binding' when it comes to such agreements. As one wag put it, "who's going to invade Canada if they fall short?" Rigidity will encourage default, not enforce it and a rigid agreement would never have been signed. Peer pressure got the agreement signed, lets use it to drive it forward.

Secondly, Governments, technology and society changes, often abruptly. Different countries have differently cultures, demographics and geographic – the UK won't be doing concentrated solar any time soon, Chad unlikely to invest in offshore wind. The flexibility will encourage innovation, investment and bring market forces to bear.

Thirdly, the part-voluntary nature undermines the argument from the loony end of the climate denier scale that climate change was invented by communists angry at the fall of the Soviet Union who wanted a world socialist Government. Left-leaning Governments can use more interventionist efforts, right-leaning Governments can use market mechanisms. Horses for courses.

And lastly, let's congratulate the French. Just weeks after those horrific, nihilistic attacks in Paris, the French President François Hollande and his colleagues steered through an agreement to make the world a better place. It helps restore my faith in humanity. Bravo!

 

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11 December 2015

We're not going to save the planet...

treehugger

...because, in geological timescales, the earth is quite capable of looking after itself. The question is whether the human race is part of the equation at that time.

No, the reason why we have the big climate change jamboree in Paris is to protect the human race. Drought, extreme weather, sea level rise, ocean acidification, mass migration etc will all have massive impacts on us and our way of life.

And, with my green jujitsu cap on, I think we should emphasise potential human impacts over, say, the plight of the polar bear. Let's drop talk of "destroying our planet" and talk about coastal cities likely to get deluged.

And before I get screamed at by the green lobby, yes it is selfish, but frankly we're not talking to you. We're talking to the people for whom 'the environment' isn't on their radar. We need to appeal to the congregation, not the choir.

If we are going to ask people to radically change behaviour, we need to persuade them of two things:

1. The risk of 'do nothing' is massive;

2. The low carbon alternative is not (much of) a sacrifice, but a desirable outcome.

While everybody is altruistic, when push comes to shove, they're going to ask "what's in it for me?" Let's focus on answering that question.

 

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30 November 2015

Hopes for Paris

chuckles climate marchYesterday, I threw off my cynicism about such things and went on the Climate March in Newcastle, taking the little one with me (right). All the climate marches around the world were portrayed as 'protests' in the media, but I wasn't protesting – I was simply standing up to be counted, making it clear to those negotiating in Paris this week that we expect them to deliver.

I'm quite optimistic about Paris. The approach of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to reducing emissions is broadly what I thought they should have been doing back in Copenhagen (in my dreams someone read this blog and said "That's where we went wrong!"). In addition, while the INDCs don't yet add up to maintaining temperature rises by 2°C, they don't include commitments by private companies, many of whom are a. huge and b. much more ambitious in their aims than nations. The media isn't rep

India seems to be the emerging villain this time around, with Narendra Modi seemingly wedded to development through coal. Hopefully he can be persuaded that India doesn't need to follow the high-carbon, smoggy path Europe and China pioneered, but can leapfrog it using cleaner technology. Can't be too difficult a shift to make for a country with a manned space programme and nuclear weapons...

Anyway, I'm optimistic a deal can be done, and, if not, there's no good reason those INDCs and business pledges can't be implemented anyway. Let's do it!

 

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23 November 2015

The last thing the planet needs is conspiracy theories

Crazy WomanI've had it up to here (holds hand above head) with climate conspiracy theories. First it was claims that the group behind the Paris attacks was funded by big oil to scupper the COP21 climate change talks that start in the city next week, then it was Naomi Klein, who has somehow grabbed the climate justice throne despite no discernible track record, claiming Francois Hollande has exploited the attacks to silence the oppressed, by banning climate marches during the talks.

Yes, that's right, it's all a conspiracy by the elite to maintain their feather nests, and nothing to due with the fact there are several murderous jihadis still on the loose and possibly looking for a nice soft target like a huge crowd of civilians. This level of idiocy is almost up there with the libertarians who think that climate change science is a mass conspiracy to sneak socialism in by the back door, or, my personal favourite, the socialists who believe that climate change science was fabricated by Margaret Thatcher to destroy the coal miners' unions in the UK.

The science is the science and it is as clear as it can be. We have to act. Multiple studies have shown that, with smart policies, we can bring carbon emissions under control. The Paris talks are an important step in that process and there are plenty of indications that momentum is finally moving in the right direction.

Success would not just be a threat to vested interests in the fossil fuel industry, but also radical greens who would rather sink under rising seas proclaiming "told you so!" Let's hope that neither group gets a chance to scupper it.

 

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13 November 2015

The climate doesn't care if you're left or right

world brainIn the Telegraph this week, some sad sack 'controversialist' did a hatchet job on the talented comedian David Mitchell for being a "uniform Lefty bore". Amongst the evidence for this conclusion was Mitchell's 'belief' in man-made climate change. This was probably the most egregious piece of many I've seen recently which perceives climate change purely through the lens of the left-right political spectrum.

You know the kind of thing. Left wingers see climate change as evidence that capitalism is evil, and right wingers think the science has been fabricated purely to allow lefties to argue that.

But climate change is not about politics. It's about the laws of physics – simple thermodynamics applied to a complex system of feedbacks.

On top of that, I think the whole left/right/climate argument is flawed. Socialism/communism has proved just as effective at destroying the planet as neoliberalism. I was inspired to dedicate my life to sustainability by seeing the destructive legacy of the Soviet Union, China is hardly an eco-paradise and the Venezuelan economy is based on oil, to name but three. There is no evidence that a swing to the left will, in itself, lead to sustainability, whatever Naomi Klein tells us. In my opinion, the only thing hard left greens achieve is to give the right an excuse not to act.

My whole green jujitsu approach to engagement is to translate sustainability into the language of your target audience. For this reason, I find a good right-of-centre argument for tackling climate change much more exciting than than a left wing one as it is the right who we have to bring on board. There is little point in preaching to the choir.

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond gave a quite brilliant right-of-centre speech on climate change this week. He evoked the leadership given by Margaret Thatcher on climate change in the late 1980s, and Ronald Reagan's action on the hole in the ozone layer before her. By co-opting the memory of the twin gods of neoliberalism to the climate cause, he pressed the buttons of every right winger. He then proceeded to make the economic case for tackling climate change, driving home the message.

The proof of course will be in the pudding. The one person that Hammond needs to bring on board is the UK Chancellor George Osborne who is busy switching subsidies for clean fuels to fossil fuels (despite the latter already enjoying a 4:1 advantage of Government largesse) and blowing public money on an over-priced nuclear reactor. If he can bring Osborne on board, Hammond will make himself a real climate hero.

 

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