Laurence Matthews: Thoughts on the Tyndall ‘Radical Emission Reductions’ conference

This 2-day conference in London left me with mixed feelings. I’ve listed some good points below, and then some points where I think it could have been a whole lot better.

On the plus side

There were some positive signs, among (at least some of) the academics and others present, of a realisation that we need to get real about the politics.

One speaker for example emphasised that if the organisers were keen to have an evidence-base, the one piece of evidence they should look at is that scientific evidence is being completely ignored and that therefore something else is needed.

Naomi Klein’s talk via video-link was on the button here, and there was much talk about political tipping points, some talk of grass-roots movements, and in particular an explicit recognition of the current neoliberal paradigm of free markets, economic growth trumping everything else, and focus on individuals (and then as consumers, rather than citizens). Also, a recognition that this paradigm is comparatively recent (a few decades) and that it triumphed partly by luck of timing and partly because of a patient political struggle. Overthrowing this paradigm will need a similarly patient and savvy political struggle. (But what do we do if there isn’t time for this?)

As well as politics, there was some psychology – but not much. Some discussion of hope and realism; the need for positive stories; the possibility of using emotions such as shame and disgust; the need to form welcoming ‘clans’ (for people in business, politics, etc who ‘get it’ but feel unable to push in the right direction for fear of being ostracised from their current ‘clan’).

A final good point about the conference is that it happened at all (more on this below). But now here are some things which I found unsatisfactory, where the organisers could do better.

On the minus side

Despite the good points above, far too much of the conference was spent talking about stuff which was absolutely NOT radical. If they are serious about exploring radical reductions and approaches, then allowing time for non-radical things leaves less time for the real topic, and also dilutes the message.

In fact, given that the word ‘radical’ was in the title of the conference, there was precious little discussion of it. In the final wrap-up session I got to ask a question: “On a scale of 0 to 5, say, how radical are you, how radical is this conference, and how radical do we need to be?” You would think this was reasonably neutrally phrased and addressed to the topic of the conference, but all the panelists reacted highly defensively, as if they didn’t like the label ‘radical’ at all. There was a strong framing of ‘radical = scary’.

A similar framing of ‘demand reduction’ was prevalent too. Any whiff of regulation, or capping demand (as opposed to efficiency measures, sweeping bounce-back effects under the carpet) was regarded with suspicion – if mentioned at all.

For example everyone went gooey over a speaker who told us of progress in reducing emissions at a fire station, as a case study. This was uplifting, certainly, and he was an inspiring guy, but these sort of efforts will be totally overwhelmed in the absence of a cap. Even rolling out widely what this guy has done will be pointless unless there’s a cap. Such a talk is not about achieving (overall) radical emissions. We need to tackle the fossil fuel interests globally, but this got scarcely a mention.

The format of the conference was pretty rushed. Lots of short presentations, which was good, but very little time for questions, which was bad. And little chance to contribute views which didn’t accord with the framing of the conference.

So what would I have liked? An emphasis on evidence is fine, but (as Brian and Nick have pointed out), anything radical is by definition new and hence unlikely to have an evidence-base trailing behind it. We need to be much more radical but also positive, and to be clear about what we need to be doing. I’d want everyone attending to have read The Burning Question and to take that as a starting point, not an end-point. I’d like a hands on, getting-down-to-brass-tacks attitude to working out the basics – getting everyone up to speed on the politics and hammering out a list of simple no-nonsense messages. It would perhaps end up with something like a communique or manifesto as a output – to present to politicians and the media, and also as a rallying point for the Stop Climate Chaos member organisations and other grass roots movements. As it is, I would be surprised if there is any output of this type from this conference which makes it into the media.

Summing up then

It’s easy to criticise, and as I said it’s good that the conference happened at all. A few years ago, the idea of academics, as part of the Establishment (meeting at the Royal Society no less) holding a conference on ‘radical’ emissions reductions would have seemed implausible. And at least being confronted with the politics is good. So progress, of a sort. But we have to be serious; time is too short to mess about. We must not settle for some form of greenwash which tries to appropriate the word ‘radical’ without meaning it.

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