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18 June 2018

Football, Tribes & Sustainability

So In-ger-land kick off their World Cup campaign tonight. As a Northern Irishman who has lived in England for almost 30 years, I'm not terribly excited. I'm not churlish, I'd like them to do well, but, hey, they're just not my tribe.

Tribalism was the topic of discussion at our terribly middle-class dinner party on Saturday night. I read Amy Chua's Political Tribes on our recent holiday and it hit its target – Liberals like me and my guests who can't get their head around why Brexit happened, or how Trump got elected, or how ISIS manages to recruit people to do terrible things – and the answer, according to Chua, is tribal identity.

Sport is the ultimate in tribalism – while I can watch Portugal vs Spain as a fascinated objective neutral, if Northern Ireland are playing, I go off at the deep end – shouting, cheering, crying. Likewise when Ulster or Ireland play rugby. In fact I could fill pages here on the bizarre contortions of Irish tribalism and rugby – how even the most trenchant Northern Irish Unionist will support the (united) Ireland team over any of the mainland UK teams. There is no logic to supporting a particular team, just tribal identity.

Tribalism explains quite a lot in the Sustainability debate. UK climate change deniers tend to belong to a right-wing nationalist tribe defined by Euroscepticism, traditional values and "that's political correctness-gone mad!" tendencies. There is a much smaller (very) left-wing tribe of deniers – the kind of people who think Margaret Thatcher dreamt up climate change to destroy the coal industry. The green activist tribe is far too often exclusionary, raising barriers to entry (often through competitive self-sacrifice), rather than making Sustainability open to all (which it must be by definition to succeed).

My Sustainability tribe is the Mangoes – green on the outside and (liberal) orange in the middle. But I'm always very interested in how other tribes interpret Sustainability whether it's the watermelons (red on the inside) using Sustainability to argue against capitalism, or when right-wingers make the economic case for Sustainability. To me, the latter is actually the most important, just as some US Republican mayors are enacting climate friendly policies under the radar to avoid the opprobrium of their tribe, removing barriers to progress is critical to Sustainability.

So let's not support Sustainability like we would a football team. We need tribes to work towards that common goal, even if they all insist on taking different paths.


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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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17 May 2017

Are you curious?


Yesterday I was interviewed by a geography student for his dissertation. He was asking about the reasons for my participation in a climate march in 2015. I had to tell him I am not a natural activist and, frankly, I'm not convinced that my marching amongst the tie-dyed ranks made any practical difference whatsoever to those we were marching past.

Why did I go? Well, I had my political hat on and felt that myself and colleagues had to turn up represent our party, particularly given the impressive Sustainability legacy of our seven years running the City. We needed to 'get the optics right' in political parlance, but, whichever hat I have on, my priority remains doing stuff rather than shouting slogans or waving placards.

I coined the phrase 'pragmatic environmentalist' to distinguish sustainability practitioners who live in the real world from those who see the environment as a kind of moral litmus test. In practice, pragmatic environmentalists try to lower the price of admission to the world of sustainability; dogmatic environmentalists keeping pushing the price up until a chosen few make the grade.

I gave the student the example of the blue recycling wheelie bins we could see from our coffee shop window. When we introduced these, the green movement denounced us as sell outs as most of the dry recyclates get mixed together in the bin, rather than separated out by the householder. But we were proven right as the recycling rate went up by 50% overnight because we made it easier for everybody to recycle, not just the green-minded few.

Another way to think of the difference is the comprehension gap between those who don't 'get it' and those who think that 'getting it' makes them better human beings. The pragmatic environmentalist builds sustainability in that gap, rather than clinging to the green comfort zone.

And one of the characteristics that sets the effective pragmatic environmentalists apart from their dogmatic cousins is curiosity. Curiosity about what makes people tick, how to find the right buttons to press to engage with them, why things are the way they are, how things could be made better. This is where the sweetspot of engagement and innovation lie, so we need to keep questioning ourselves, others and the status quo.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, stay hungry, stay foolish, stay curious!


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15 May 2017

Digitisation, smart grids and cyberwarfare

digital clock

One of the basic principles of pragmatic environmentalism is to embrace digitisation as a way of managing resources much more efficiently and dealing with the intermittency of some renewable energy sources via the smart grid. Another trope of the green movement is the inherent safety of renewables – flying a plane into a wind farm isn't going to have the impact of flying a plane into a nuclear power station.

However, last week's cyber-attack on the UK's National Health Service is a harsh reminder that warfare, terrorism and crime have also embraced digitisation for nefarious purposes. While this attack was designed for financial gain, what would happen if a foreign power or terrorist group aimed an attack at an intelligent energy grid? After all, Iran's nuclear programme was targeted via the Stuxnet virus in 2010, destroying 20% of the country's centrifuges.

We cannot shy away from this threat, but on the other hand, we cannot afford to keep our energy, industrial and commercial systems in the 20th century while we are fighting climate change. In the same way the internet was originally designed to be inherently robust to a physical attack, all our digital systems need to have sufficient protection, firewalls and redundancy that if one link in the chain fails, the rest continues on regardless, working around the damage.

That's some challenge, and, of course, a massive business opportunity for somebody.


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14 November 2016

Don't be depressed, invest!

piggybanksNo matter what your politics, it's hard to see a Donald Trump presidency being a boon for the fight against climate change in particular, and for Sustainability in general (although this less pessimistic view by Michael Liebreich is worth a read). As a big L Liberal myself, I find the whole global political shift to inward-looking petty nationalism and short-termism utterly, utterly depressing.

I ended last week under my duvet in the grip of not only despondency, but a bad dose of the dreaded manflu. Checking my e-mail on my mobile for anything urgent I needed to deal with before the weekend, an e-mail appeared from one of the crowd-investing platforms I subscribe to. They'd opened a new investment opportunity in a major solar project.

I jumped out of bed, went down to my office, checked out the offer document, and immediately made a modest investment. And, it made me feel really good. Really, really good.

Nothing beats being proactive when you feel you're up against the wall. And my investment in the future is not just a financial one, it's an emotional one too. I am buying into a low carbon future. Much better than marching with a placard.

Try it!*


* usual caveats: investments are risky, you could lose money, I'm not endorsing any particular investment etc.

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2 November 2016

Stand up for science!


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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2 September 2016

Why I'm an Eco-optimist

grass feet small

There's an old joke:

An optimist says the glass is half full,

A pessimist says the glass if half empty,

An engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

I'm an engineer so, naturally, I'm an entirely rational person who acts purely on objective evidence. Except of course I'm not, I just like to think I am. Like everybody else us engineers are irrational, fearful, illogical and we distort our perception of the world to match our inner feelings. But I do  make a real effort to read both sides of an argument, if only to understand which side I am rejecting – the most depressing thing in the world is people who are so (un)sure of their worldview that they boycott newspapers who write something that challenges it.

Speaking of the press, I heard a quote attributed to Nassim Taleb yesterday along the lines of "Judging the world from newspapers is like judging a city by spending a night in its hospital emergency room" (I'm taking that on trust, Google wouldn't cough up the original words). This reflects the fundamental rule that good news rarely if ever dominates the flow of negativity from the media. So we get the tales of gloom and doom from both sides of the green debate – the "we're all doomed!" brigade and the "eco-loons want to impoverish us" squad. Any good news, like the fact that 25% of the UK's electricity is now from renewables without any adverse effect on our lifestyle, passes by both groups without notice.

But it's more than who's right and who's wrong – both negative points of view switch people off. Only hope can galvanise us. Martin Luther said "I have a dream" not "I have a nightmare" (as pointed out by Shellenberger and Nordhaus more than a decade ago). The people who will deliver Sustainability are not the doomsters, but those who grasp the opportunity to change, like the late Ray Anderson of Interface, Tesla's Elon Musk or Unilever's Paul Polman.

My influence is less than these guys, but I do my best to counterbalance the doom. As well as orienting my consultancy, training and coaching towards pragmatic solutions, I have developed the habit of seeking out and sharing good news, ideally on a daily basis. This is not because I think the sustainability challenge is trivial, but because, without hope, the challenge is impossible.


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22 August 2016

Do you want Sustainability or not? Lessons from the Olympics

Jess Ennis

The story has been told many times, but it's a good one if you're a Brit. Thoroughly embarrassed by GB's pathetic single-gold-medal showing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1994, Prime Minister John Major diverted National Lottery funding into British Sport. As the curtain drops on the (main) Rio Olympics 20 years later, we've just pushed China into third place on the medal table for the first time since the latter started competing.

Elements of the press are starting to react uncomfortably to this success, even likening it to the chest-thumpingly patriotic Eastern Bloc displays of the Cold War era. They fret particularly about GB's decidedly Darwinian funding formula – win medals and you get a shedload more dosh to win more (which buys the best facilities, coaches and kit), lose out and you get nada. Sorry, basketball, but we spent your cash on new cycling skin suits.

My immediate reaction to this soul searching is: do you want to win or not?

If not, that's OK, taking part is fine. But don't complain if we can't deliver top level sporting results with non-competitive thinking, because it's one or the other. Personally, I'm quite enjoying the winning.

I see a strong parallel with Corporate Sustainability. All too often people who claim their organisation takes Sustainability seriously tell me that they would never ditch a supplier on Sustainability grounds, never consider axing an unsustainable product, never invest in developing new sustainable technologies. They are uncomfortable at targeting key decision makers for engagement ("we believe it's everybody's responsibility"), putting sustainability targets into those individual's personal objectives (ditto) or moving them along if they're incompatible with the strategy (ditto).

In the wider environmental movement, we often see green activists campaigning against green solutions - witness George Monbiot's writings against the very solar feed in tariffs which are delivering a renewables revolution. I agree with Monbiot that FiTs aren't perfectly fair (they divert cash from all bill payers into the pockets of those who can afford to invest in solar), but doing nothing is much, much worse. Anti-capitalists such as Naomi Klein claim, conveniently, that we will only tackle climate change by replacing capitalism with an vague and untried alternative which may not actually exist.

So, we can get our hands dirty delivering on Sustainability now, messy compromises and all, or we can wait indefinitely for a perfect solution, because it's one or the other. I know which one I'm doing.


Photo: © 2012, David Jones, Creative Commons License

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20 July 2016

'Green Deal' damned – but what can we learn?

Tjurruset Competition

The UK Government's erstwhile domestic energy efficiency programme 'The Green Deal' has been damned by the Public Accounts Committee for having "abysmal" take-up. "It was too complex, with excessive paperwork, while people were also put off by interest rates of up to 10% on the loans - far more expensive than other lending" was the verdict.

The Green Deal was clearly one of those clever political ideas which makes sense logically but fails to survive first contact with the real world. As I said three years ago, expecting busy people to get their heads around the supposed benefits of the so-called 'Golden Rule' was unrealistic. I said then:

"Again and again we keep getting the same lesson - that if you offer a green option it must not only be better than the alternative, or the 'do nothing' default option, but be simpler and more intuitive as well. A walk in the park, not a slog through the mud, in other words."

The bigger point is pragmatism beats idealism hands down every time. Do what works, kill off what doesn't, and never, ever be distracted by purists. They never create anything, because the real world is not perfect.



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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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11 March 2016

Cynics to the left of me, cynics to the right...

keep left right...and here I am stuck in the middle with, er, me!

I have been musing this week that I often come up against two quite different, but in some ways similar entrenched mindsets: the right-wing view that sustainability/climate change is all lefty guff, the left-wing view that any attempt by big business to address sustainability is simply top-cover for greed.

To the right, I say the scientific evidence is clear (if only they'd give scientists more credence than stuff they've read on the internet), to the left, I say, there's nothing virtuous about standing on moral high ground declaring your own virtue. Both are recipes for inaction when action is clearly what we need.

But, having said that, cynicism has a very important role to play – it keeps us straight. Despite my worldview being firmly in the middle ground, and what I call pragmatic environmentalism, I deliberately seek out views from left and right (on sustainability or otherwise) to challenge my own beliefs.

It's worth trying – provided you can find the voices of reason from left and right (or deep green/anti-environmentalism if you prefer) rather than the confirmation bias of the respective echo chambers. It may challenge your own views and it gives you a perspective on the worldview of people you may be struggling to bring on board.


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3 February 2016

The silent green revolution


I saw the above graph on Carbon Tracker, and it tells a great story. Despite all the fossil fuel subsidies, erratic Government policies and powerful anti-renewables lobbies, solar energy is exceeding expectations by a country mile – taking an exponential growth rate rather than the predicted incremental linear approaches (from reports of the respected International Energy Agency between 2000 and 2007).

We are winning folks. Let's keep striving forward, driving the sustainability revolution forward and ignoring the cries of "it'll never happen" from the libertarian right and the deep green left. Let's build the future we want our children to enjoy.


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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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21 October 2015

The People's Front of Sustainability? Splitters!

[Warning: this clip is much swearier than I remembered it - take care at work or in front of sensitive ears!]

This week, veteran Green Jonathan Porritt launched an extraordinary attack on pro-nuclear Greens, in particular Mark Lynas, Chris Goodall and George Monbiot, on the basis of UK Chancellor George Osborne's flawed deal with China to build a new nuclear plant.

Porritt's argument, which he comes close to admitting is ridiculous, is that, by breaking ranks with the green anti-nuclear dogma, these three individuals have freed Osborne from (clearly imaginary) shackles and destroyed any hope of a low carbon future in the UK. He blames them for everything from the Government's slashing of renewables subsidies to its crazy Hinkley Point deal (described as 'PFI on stilts' by one conservative commentator) and tells them to be ashamed of themselves.

I'm not particularly pro-nuclear, in fact I often call it out on its flaws, but I've come to believe that if we are to put our faith in scientific evidence on, say, climate change, then we must apply the same objectivity to other controversial topics such as shale gas or nuclear. Like Lynas, Goodall and Monbiot, this has opened me to accusations of hypocrisy when actually I'm trying my best not to be hypocritical.

I have found many times over the years that strict Green dogma is often a block to sustainability as naive idealism flounders in the real world. I have often told the story of my role in introducing a simple recycling system here in Newcastle, which was condemned as a sell out by the Greens, but increased recycling rates by 50% overnight because ordinary people liked it. When Porritt's Forum for the Future ranked Newcastle the most sustainable city in the UK, the local Green Party, instead of welcoming this success, wrote a lengthy piece on how Forum for the Future's methodology was flawed. Nothing is ever good enough. Success is failure. Let's sink below the waves polishing our halos.

So, hurrah for Lynas, Goodall and Monbiot, if only for their challenging of received green wisdom, and shame on Porritt for his self-righteous, one-eyed pomposity.


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25 September 2015

A surfeit of -isms? Eco-modernism, new environmentalism, pragmatic environmentalism

world brainThis week saw the launch of 'Eco-modernism' the brainchild of Mark Lynas and a host of other green thinkers. It pretty much fills the same space as BusinessGreen editor James Murray's New Environmentalism concept and my own, completely ignored, idea of Pragmatic Environmentalism – viz we need to reclaim the environmental movement from leftwing politics and place it square in the centre so people of left, right and middle can relate to it and not fear it is creeping communism in disguise (the old 'watermelon' trope).

Under eco-modernism/new/pragmatic environmentalism, the anti-science of parts of the green movement (GM, fracking, nuclear are all EVIL*) are challenged as hard as the anti-science of right-wing neoliberalism (climate change denial). We do what works, what science indicates, what technology and society permits, not what dogma dictates.

The seeds of my pragmatic environmentalism were sown when I was part of a political team bringing in a new recycling system here in Newcastle. We proposed moving from a source separated system to a semi-mixed collection of recyclates to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to participate. The local green movement went apeshit, to put it mildly, accusing us of betraying our principles and screaming that the whole thing was doomed to failure. We decided to ignore them, and rightly so, as the already good recycling rate jumped by 50% overnight.

You could argue that most of the big wins in sustainability have come from pragmatic environmentalism. Last quarter the UK produced a record 25.3% of power from renewables, up from 16.9% last year and beating down coal for the first time. Add in nuclear and low carbon sources produced just short of 50%. That's been achieved by harnessing rather than smashing capitalism, using market levers to create a virtuous cycle of volume and economies of scale (sorry, Naomi, but that's how it is). Despite the UK Government sending out all the wrong signals, this rise is likely to continue for a few years at least.

My only worry about eco-modernism was the strange bedfellows at its launch. Ex-environmental minister Owen Patterson and shamed banker Matt Ridley used the event to explain that everything was alright really. That's not the point. The threats are real and they are coming thick and fast. We have no time for either neoliberal complacency or anticapitalist utopianism – we've just got to knuckle down and get the job done.


* Note: I have reservations about all 3 technologies, but I try to base those on science rather than gut instinct. This annoys the antis more than it annoys the pros.


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18 March 2015

How not to communicate climate change by the Guardian

Alan_Rusbridger_by_Alessio_Jacona_-_International_Journalism_Festival_2014The Guardian is undoubtedly the UK's best newspaper for covering environmental issues, so it was no surprise when outgoing Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger made climate change his swan song. Unfortunately I can't help thinking the results of this well-meaning effort represent everything that's wrong with our attempts to communicate climate change.

My first gripe is format: lengthy essays stretching over several pages of dense print. I have only skimmed these myself – and I'm very interested in this stuff! How is anybody with a passing interest meant to dip in? How does it speak to those disengaged? Where are the graphics for goodness sake?

My second problem is the attitude. The series started with a couple of lengthy extracts from Naomi Klein's new book on climate change. Klein admits herself that she has only come to climate lately, having made her name as an anti-capitalist. And of course, her prescription is that it is capitalism to blame for climate change, and that those of us trying to fix the problem without smashing the system are deluded. In other words, it's all the 1%'s fault and the 99% are helpless. Might as well give up, then.

Problem is, Klein is wrong – state socialism has proved just as able as capitalism when it comes to destroying the planet – check out Russia or China's record. And, with carbon emissions stalling last year, it is clear that we can make a real difference without some (impossible) wholesale restructuring of society. I am one of many, including radicals like Jonathan Porritt, who believe we can actually make capitalism work for the planet – bringing competition, innovation and economies of scale to cutting carbon.

The paper did redeem itself with some punchy, provocative pieces by Mark Lynas and Jonathan Freedland arguing we need to de-politicise climate change and get on with tackling it, and not sit navel gazing, but these were in the main paper and not part of the climate specials.

The Beeb showed how climate change communication can be done with Climate Change by Numbers on BBC4. The programme hit the most complex and controversial topics – uncertainty, modelling, predictions, dealing with data gaps – head-on using some very clear, snazzy graphics and great analogies. For example, they demonstrated how attribution models work by analysing the success factors in Premiership football teams, building a model and showing how, if you take any Club's wage bill out of the model, then the correlation between model and reality fail. Likewise, if you take anthropogenic carbon emissions out of climate models, then the models and reality diverge sharply. OK, it was taking on a different debate to the Guardian, but it was arguably a more difficult one, yet they made it engaging and fascinating.

The time for preaching to the choir is over. Climate change is not just an issue for the left-leaning middle-class intelligentsia. We must reach out across the political spectrum, to all tribes in society, and inspire people to engage and to help make change happen. And that's going to require a rethink on how we try to communicate the message.


Photo by Alessio Jacona and used under the Creative Commons License.


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9 March 2015

The Comfort Zone of Doom

the end is nigh

I'm reading 'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg - the Facebook COO's bright and breezy book on dealing with the disadvantages that women find in the workplace. The main criticism of Sandberg has come from the feminist side - basically accusing her of trivialising the issue and not addressing the deeper sociopolitical issues, as they see them. In other words, she is being slated for cheerfully suggesting simple, practical solutions that work (for her at least), rather than playing the angry victim.

The same debate rumbles on in the sustainability movement. Most commentators are much better at articulating the problem, rather than the solution, and there is a tendency to present any issue as intractable rather than solvable. Most recently we've seen Naomi Klein wade into the climate debate, despite the fact she admits she has no solutions, but she's perfectly happy lecturing the rest of us that we don't understand how big the problem is.

The best solutions in the world are simple, yet any simple solution to major problems is seen not as a way forward, but, again, a form of trivialising the problem.

This is ridiculous.

Doomsaying is as much a comfort zone as denial of the problem. Both encourage inaction when we need action.

As Ross Perot put it:

"The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river."

Let's ignore the doomsayers and, like Sandberg, get off our backsides and do something!


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28 January 2015

I'll get myself expelled from the league of pragmatic environmentalists...

snake oil... as I seem to be undergoing alternative medicine by mistake (kind of).

I've had a problem with my back. Nothing serious, no pain as such, just bloody annoying as it was waking me up at exactly 02:10 EVERY NIGHT, which was starting to drive me up the walls. So I thought I go to one of 'those back people' and googled 'chiropractor'. Maybe it was the repeated sleep deprivation, but I didn't really check out what a chiropractor was.

I got a real shock when I turned up to the centre on Monday and found 'homeopathy' listed amongst the treatments. Now, regular readers will know that I'm allergic to the mystical end of life, and I almost turned on my heel and left. But I am really fed up with seizing up in the early hours and gave it a go. 20 minutes of a nice French lady putting me into odd positions and wrenching me into even odder ones, and I felt much, much better.

I still have the nagging feeling that I should have consulted the mainstream medical system before going off-piste. And I am still completely intolerant of those who preach that modern life is killing us - life expectancy and physical well-being are better than never before - worrying about being gluten intolerant when you are not will do you more harm than good. And I detest those snake oil salesmen who try to hitch dubious health and environmental 'solutions' to the environmental agenda (I'm looking at you homeopaths and magnets-for-efficiency hawkers)...

...but I'm going back to the chiropractor on Monday. Maybe I'm mellowing a little.



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3 November 2014

Science Has Spoken (Again) - Now What?

IPCCSo the cycle goes around again. The International Panel on Climate Change produces its five yearly synthesis report on the state of climate change science and, instead of triggering an outburst of action, we get another rather dreary media debate between NGOs, climate change 'sceptics' and politicians of all stripes.

Given that the report says acting now will prove much easier than playing catch up in a decade, what do we need to do to get going? Here's my happen'th:

1. Political Leadership: Obama is trying to make climate change a core plank of his second term, but seems to be hobbled by his own mediocre popularity rankings and the rampant, take no prisoners climate change denial of his Republican opponents. Our own David Cameron blows hot and cold. Other industrial powerhouses such as China and Germany are doing their bit, but hardly showing international leadership - that is to left to relatively poor countries such as the Philippines and the Maldives to tug at our heartstrings. Who is going to stand up and lead?

2. Business Leadership: as I've said many times, leadership is the difference between the best at sustainability and the rest. Sustainability leadership cannot be delegated to middle management - it must come from the top. And actions speak louder than words - let's see some real ambition.

3. A Flexible International Framework: different countries will have different risks, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, we need a framework which allows countries to thrive while cutting carbon. Action needs to be rewarded as much as inaction is punished.

4. Open Minds: the report concludes that no single mitigation or adaptation measure will solve climate change. We need every weapon in our arsenal - even some we may personally not like. This applies to economics as well as technology - we need economies of scale in clean technology which an anti-business mindset will hinder, not help. NGOs will have to learn when they are helping and when they are hindering and adjust aim their guns appropriately.

5. Smarter Communication: Different people respond to different words, phrases and visions and we need top not only accept that, but positively embrace it. A few weeks ago I praised David Cameron for his framing of carbon reduction from a centre-right point of view - green growth, not green tape. Centre left thinkers may respond better to a message around collaboration, regulation and community action. Which is right? Both.

6. Positivity: we must not let the scale of the task frighten us, failures stop us in our tracks, or those throwing abuse from the sidelines put us off. We have a goal, let's go and do it - and have some fun while we're at it!


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13 October 2014

On Sustainability: Go Big or Go Home

Athlete compete in paul vault

The first four of my rules of pragmatic environmentalism were mainly aimed at the old-school green activism mindset which in my opinion holds us back from the rapid progress we need to make. But this last, fifth rule is aimed at us all.

For too long we have been told that we face existential threats, but are given '10 Top Tips' such as reusing plastic bags and not leaving the TV on standby. While there's nothing wrong with doing these, they won't deliver sustainability on their own and the cognitive dissonance between the threat and the action can switch people off as its like firing a pea shooter at an aircraft carrier.

We need to go big, or go home.

Two weeks ago today I submitted the manuscript for my next DoShort book, provisionally titled Accelerating Sustainability using the 80:20 Rule. The 80:20 rule says that, in many cases, 20% of actions/effort/input give us 80% of results and 80% of actions give us just 20%. This is a phenomenally powerful tool as it allows us to cut away all the extraneous activity - all those networks of green champions, endless supplier questionnaires and jute bags of green goodies - and focus on those things which will make a real difference - such as ditching a low sustainability supplier in favour of one with good sustainability credentials, or substituting secondary materials for virgin materials, or purchasing an electric vehicle fleet.

Along with the 80:20 Rule, a restless mindset of "good, we've done that, but it's not enough, how can we do it better?" will keep you out of your comfort zone and continually reaching for the next level.

And one of the most powerful moves is the stretch target - if you set your sights on cutting your carbon emissions by, say, 50% in 10 years, you will come up with much better projects than you will if your target is 5% by next year.

So set the bar high, clear it, then push it higher. You may just surprise yourself!


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