"Of course it is irritating. That's what gets people talking": The Climate Campaigners Roundtable
As the world’s eyes turn to Glasgow, many in the green movement are desperately hoping for radical action but worry whether leaders have the ability to deliver. With decades of experience in climate campaigns, albeit from different perspectives, former Green Party Leader Baroness Bennett, XR activist and director of Plan B, Tim Crosland, Energy UK’s CEO Emma Pinchbeck and the Green Alliance’s head of politics Chris Venables discuss what we need to see at COP26. Chaired by Georgina Bailey
Georgina Bailey: How have you seen the politics of the climate crisis change in the last few years?
Chris Venables (CV): It is hard to overstate the transformation that has taken place over the last three years. I remember watching a Question Time from 2012 where there was debate about renewable energy, and the panel were just slamming Caroline Lucas for saying, "this is the future, it's going to be cheaper than you think". She was literally ridiculed. It's so fascinating that in such a short space of time, you've now got mainstream political thought making those arguments, and we're seeing new frontiers of that. But it's not just the Westminster conversation. You're now seeing the environment at essentially top three in every poll. With the fact we're now seeing extreme weather, it's gone from a debate around – is this happening – to – how do we do this in a fair way, how do we do it fast enough?
Emma Pinchbeck (EP): The big thing that shifted politically is that renewables are now the cheapest form of energy generation available. When we were discussing coal phase out, the fact that we were pretty sure renewables would come through and displace coal meant the politicians could make brave choices. It also makes the sceptics look nuts. They were always wrong, but now you can point to a gigantic offshore wind fleet and it makes it much more visible for people that renewables do work.
Whole regions of the world are going to be uninhabitable. Where are all those people going to go?
There's also bunch of really angry millennials in important jobs now. We look at the future and we were already annoyed, and then on top of that, you get the climate crisis. Fundamental change doesn't feel as frightening for a generation that doesn't feel as invested. And that's not just a middle-class generation – it’s everyone, because a lot of people are feeling left behind.
The last reason is climate impacts. It's very, very visible. The Emperor has no clothes, we can see this is happening.
Tim Crosland (TC): As everyone has said, people know it’s an emergency now. But the thing that hasn't changed is that people are still not being honest about the situation. We’ve got governments talking as though we're going to sort out the 1.5 degree limit at COP26. That's not true. All the evidence says we're going beyond 1.5 degrees. That is a complete tragedy, the greatest political failure in our history. Whole regions of the world are going to be uninhabitable. Where are all those people going to go? Why are we not talking about reintroducing Nansen passports [introduced by the League of Nations after WWI allowing refugees to legitimately cross borders] – people being displaced by the climate crisis and whose states will collapse are going to need something like that. These are the conversations we have to have. We still have our government talking about clean growth, as if the answer is we're just going to turbocharge capitalism.
History tells us where urgent and radical social and political change is required, you have to mobilise people fast. That's the only thing that has worked. We need people out on the streets. That empowers governments in a way as well. We've had a conversation with government where they've said, “you help us with our battles with the Treasury. We need you to be out there on the street”.
GB: Is there a risk that mass mobilisation is irritating people so much that it is driving people away from the climate movement?
TC: Before 2018, you'd go into meetings and talk about the climate emergency and people would look at their shoes. Mass mobilisation has changed this so radically, so much has happened in the last few years, and it's not completely a coincidence that that period of consciousness raising around the emergency coincides with the mass movements, both youth strikes and also Extinction Rebellion. Of course it is irritating. That's what gets people talking.
GB: Baroness Bennett, did you want to add something there?
Baroness Natalie Bennett (NB): First, please call me Natalie. But yes – change is never given, it has to be won. In the age of COVID, not everyone is going to be able to get to Glasgow, but it's really important we see as much mobilisation as possible through COP particularly on that middle weekend.
It's very hard, even for bits of the media that like being rude about protestors, to be rude about your children protesting.
EP: I’ve done both mass mobilisations and worked in the market, and everyone has a role. The climate strikers have been really key to this, because watching your children protest is both uplifting and awful. That it was a global movement too really moved people. It's very hard, even for bits of the media that like being rude about protestors, to be rude about your children protesting. Protests in my experience works best when it's partnered with some really clever advocacy behind the scenes.
GB: Chris, that advocacy is where the Green Alliance come in, working with cross-party politicians. You’ve have been very complimentary about the Prime Minister’s targets on net-zero, but say that delivery and details are lacking – where are we on that?
CV: I was working in parliament at the time of those mass protests, and various people from the movement phoned me up from the street outside saying, “we’ve got a meeting with the minister, we don't know what to do and we don't know what to say” and I could help them there. As Emma says, you need people inside too.
But yes, delivery is the real challenge. We've got lots of targets and that’s great, targets send really powerful signals across the market and shape the economy, but obviously there are some particular sectors where you need the state and public investment to drive change. We saw a bit of that with the announcement on heat pumps; the government saying, "we need to drive down these costs and we need to do it really quickly, and here's a bit of public funding to help us get there". You can see the same story in renewables as well, where various bits of intervention from the state help with tech development.
The latest UN report says that even with all the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) we've got, we're still headed for three, if not four-degree increase in world temperatures. In the UK, we've got about a quarter of the way to closing the gap to our 2030 target. The net-zero strategy will help, but there's still a chunk to do.
GB: Natalie, I saw you pulling a face at heat pumps – why?
NB: Well, the level of the investment is still tiny, and we don’t have a programme to actually insulate the houses – heat pumps are only going to work in well insulated houses. Everyone's got their favourite metaphor so I’ll throw in one for my Australian origins: just putting a heat pump in without putting in the insulation is like trying to boil a billy with the lid off.
EP: I know for a fact, because I work with them, that five or six energy retailers have got heat pump propositions coming to market and are training installers and putting their own capital into it. I'm pretty confident that the grant level the government has come up with and that they’re giving it the next few years to see how it goes might produce what we have for offshore wind but for heat pumps.
We don't want to get to the point we got to back in Copenhagen in 2009 where everyone said "this COP has been a disaster" and the whole thing fell apart for a couple of years
GB: So what do we need to see at COP26?
NB: It's really crucial that Glasgow is seen as part of a process and not an endpoint. We need to get the strongest possible result that we can possibly get out of COP, while acknowledging it's never going to be good enough. We don't want to get to the point we got to back in Copenhagen in 2009 where everyone said "this COP has been a disaster" and the whole thing fell apart for a couple of years. Obviously, we need to see the maximum possible ambition, we need to see climate finance, we should be seeing loss and damage – there’s a whole list of things. But I think also we need to see a real shift in the debate. What we've seen is a lot of talk about business as usual, with added very shiny technology. We've got to talk a lot more about social innovation. We should be talking about changing the structure of society and making it better – we just cannot continue as we are now with the consumption levels.
The sad fact is that Britain is not the key actor here. The interaction between US and China is absolutely vital. The EU, sadly, is not the leader it was in 2015. But we are the president of COP and we have to do the best we possibly can.
TP: As Natalie said, it was it was bad after Copenhagen in 2009 and it really demoralised people for a long time. And that was difficult, because my hope for COP26 is that people are truthful about where we are, and they're truthful about missing 1.5 degrees and the implications of that. But it's hard because there's a terrifying thing to face up to. But unless we face up to the fact that this isn't working, we don't begin to look at other ways we're going to fix it.
The way we talk about 1.5 degrees and what it means to miss it, we'd be talking about it in a very different way if we belonged to some of those countries whose countries are just going to disappear.
EP: The point of this COP is the global stocktake when national plans are tightened in line with 1.5 degrees. Now, we’ve all said today we’re not actually expecting that to happen, but in the run up to Paris we also didn't think we'd get 1.5 degrees so let's leave ourselves the capacity to be pleasantly surprised.
The government has been quite smart to identify global cross-cutting issues. Things like moving the money from developed economies to developing economies, looking at carbon pricing at borders. It’s very important that they talk about sequestration, trees mainly but also technologies, and the rising middle classes and, and the implications that come from that. Before the pandemic, the biggest source of increased emissions globally was from the transport sector, mainly because people were driving SUVs. Again, it needs to be a cross cutting issue just like coal has been.
CV: It'd be great to see some really strong diplomatic signals around collaboration coming out of COP: recommitting to 1.5 degrees; the NDCs that we need from some of the big players. And crucially, that the developed countries make the pledge to $100bn for the global south which has been on the table for many, many years and is still not being met.
GB: Thank you everyone for a really interesting discussion.
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