Nick Bardsley’s reflections on the Tyndall Centre “Radical Emissions Reduction” conference

I was in two minds whether to attend this conference or not. In common with the other members of the FEASTA Climate group that had submitted paper proposals, mine was rejected. Though I was allocated a poster presentation this is usually not a great use of one’s time. In the end I decided that this was probably sour grapes on my part and that it would be good to attend to meet other like minded people, if nothing else.

If I had mixed feelings beforehand, they were more mixed afterwards. It was a good way of meeting people, and although the posters got little attention one could discuss in detail with the few people who did show interest. I also met people whose work I admire including the philosopher John O’Neill and ecological economist Clive Spash, and got to discuss the ‘challenges’ of attempting radical teaching or research in today’s university system with other academics.

But basically it did not really live up to the billing. By “radical” I mean getting to the root of something, not “far out” in a political sense, though the former often implies the latter. Instead, there was a preponderance of technology and individual behaviour oriented presentations alongside one or two that focussed on political economy. The talks on political economy were welcome, and included an online presentation from Naomi Klein. She argued forcefully that the climate change agenda cannot be divorced from broader social issues: progressive politics is necessary as the soil in which effective climate policy could take root.

But there was no integration at all between political economy and the emissions reduction theme. Far from it – the conference itself being organised at the “Royal Society” already implied a large fee so that most attendees would be well resourced. That limits participation from those involved in progressive politics. And the tension between bringing something radical to the heart of the establishment and being shaped by that establishment seemed to play out mostly as the latter. There was an over-representation of talks from elite institutions, for example. And there was a general lack of time to discuss anything in depth – as if to imply that the solutions on offer did not require discussion in depth.

“Radical emissions reduction” actually implies a different kind of society, and can only be achieved, if at all, by a fundamental departure from prevailing social and economic institutions. This is needed in order to prevent fossil fuel interests from exploiting all the profitable resource, and to avoid ‘grossly inequitable outcomes’ (such as poor people starving). Like it or not, the tendrils of those requirements are far reaching, extending for example across land rights and planning, the monetary system and corporate law.

Technological measures, in contrast, go entirely with the grain of free market capitalism. The current social and industrial ecology is primarily set up to roll out “innovations” on a profit making basis, with Universities now geared more than ever towards servicing this entrepreneurial activity. There was not a word about political economy from those advocating zero carbon shipping, biofuels, or LED lightbulbs, nor from those discussing behavioural change. Nor was there any of that from those (actually quite inspiring) figures getting on with the practical business of greening their homes and workplaces.

Thus there was no conference discussion at all about complementary measures needed to realise emissions reduction or limitations of techno-fixes or behavioural change. With 10 minute presentations perhaps that was to be expected, but why then were things organised like that? Presenters could have been asked explicitly to make some connections or presentations could have been solicited that examined specific political economy issues.

Nor did discussion of problems with the narrow mainstream agenda seem particularly welcome. A student’s question about the resource requirements of technological measures, which she wrongly identified as “rebound”, was simply dismissed, and we were told that rebound effects are welcome as a corrective to fuel poverty. That’s the kind of reaction one might expect at mainstream conferences, but not ones which self-identify as radical. Efficiency and behaviour change are part of meaningful action on climate change. But I increasingly feel that those working on those topics have a duty also to draw attention to the need for complementary action on other fronts. For the context is general avoidance of the difficult issues this raises.

What explains this curious disconnect between the level of discussion that is necessary and that which is achieved by those whose profession it is to be intellectuals? Perhaps political economy considerations are difficult for most academics to deal with, given their institutional trajectories, but perhaps also given what used to be called their “class position”. Their professional and social networks, often including family members, will generally extend into that social-industrial ecology geared towards rolling out competitive innovations quickly across markets. But one thing is for sure. Growth-oriented societies will quickly negate any carbon gain from technological innovation, or for that matter behavioural change or improvements at the workplace, as these free up energy-dense fossil fuel resources for other uses. The failure to address this was lamentable, despite this and similar conferences being good places to meet like-minded people.

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