The country hasn’t had to use any fossil fuels so far in 2015, much thanks to heavy rain that has kept the country’s hydroelectric power plants working at full capacity without any interruptions. This accomplishment is no random luck, it’s the result of hard work to reach the country’s goal to become carbon-neutral by 2021, as Costa Rico announced back in 2009.
“We are declaring peace with nature,” Costa Rican ambassador Mario Fernández Silva said in 2010 when his country won the Future Policy award. “We feel a strong sense of responsibility about looking after our wealth of biodiversity. Our attitude is not progressive, it is conservative. Our view is that until we know what we have, it is our duty to protect it.”
Costa Rica has also generated additional electricity from various other renewable energy sources – such as wind, biomass, geothermal and solar energy. Last year, hydropower accounted for 80 percent of the total electricity used while geothermal reached upwards of 10 percent.
Approximately 94 percent of Costa Rica’s energy comes from renewable energy sources. But their energy system is sensitive to climate and weather disruptions due to their hydro power plants being based on so called run-of-the-river systems. They can therefore be hindered because of seasonal changes in water flow or drought – something which is becoming far too common due to climate change.
CleanTechnica reports that Costa Rica are planning to build three new geothermal projects, capable of generating 50-55 MW each, to help diversify their energy portfolio. These new geothermal plants will help Costa Rica to continue to produce clean, renewable energy when the country’s hydropower plants are unable to produce electricity.
It’s worth pointing out that Costa Rica is a small nation with a population of only around 4.8 million people. The country also does not have much heavy and energy-intensive industries, and mainly relies on tourism and agriculture. Despite this, Costa Rica’s accomplishment gives us hope and it should inspire other nations to increase their renewable energy efforts.
Groundwater supplies are quickly diminishing and the report estimates that 20 percent of the world’s aquifers are currently over-exploited. There is an urgent need to manage water more sustainably, the UN report concludes. If we fail to do this, the competition for water will increase and lead to “significant impacts” on both the economy and human well-being. It will also increase the risk of conflicts, the UN report warns.
Safe drinking water supplies will continue to dwindle as long as water pollution continues to be ignored and go unpunished by local authorities, and water use remains wasteful and unregulated, as it unfortunately does in many nations, the UN says in its report. In order to mitigate this water crisis, the UN is urging politicians, communities and industries to rethink its water policies and to make a greater effort to conserve water.
The 55 percent increase in water demand is mainly due to growing demands from manufacturing, thermal electricity generation and domestic use. But due to increasing population numbers and consumption levels, agriculture will also need to substantially increase its food productions to keep up with demand – and this will in turn increase water usage.
“By 2050, agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food globally, and 100 percent more in developing countries […] global water demand for the manufacturing industry is expected to increase by 400 percent from 2000 to 2050, leading all other sectors, with the bulk of this increase occurring in emerging economies and developing countries,” the UN report said. “Unless the balance between demand and finite supplies is restored, the world will face an increasingly severe global water deficit.”
Considering that current demands for water in the agriculture sector is already unsustainable, this will be a difficult task. The agriculture sector must increase its water use efficiency by reducing water losses in the production process, and to “increase crop productivity with respect to water” availability and demand, the report says.
The UN report also points to two worrying global trends that are converging: climate change and growing economic development in poor developing countries. This convergence will especially “intensify the water insecurity of poor and marginalized people in low income countries.”
“Water resources are a key element in policies to combat poverty, but are sometimes themselves threatened by development,” said UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova. “Water directly influences our future, so we need to change the way we assess, manage and use this resource in the face of ever-rising demand and the over exploitation of our groundwater reserves.”
But this pledge might no longer be a reality.
Energy Minister, Ms Segolene Royal, said last month that it was no longer a high priority to do so. She said that she was not in favour of quitting nuclear power and added that France needs to continue investing in it, particularly in fourth-generation reactors which will consume less nuclear fuel and recycle nuclear waste.
Last year, the lower house of the French parliament voted on a bill that would cap nuclear production at current levels.
But earlier this month the senate, in which the conservative opposition has a majority and which has the power to amend but not block laws, scrapped the cap and removed any reference to 2025.
Royal refused to confirm whether the government would stick with the 2025 deadline, one of President Francois Hollande's key election promises, and enter the new amendments to the text.
All eyes are on France as it prepares to host the crucial COP 21 summit at the end of this year, a summit which many believe to be the last chance to salvage a global deal on combating climate change.
Due to the large share of nuclear energy in France’s electricity mix, its CO2 emissions are among the lowest in Europe.
But France is also standing by its goals on renewable energy generation, which by 2030 should account for 40% of its energy mix. Ms Royal says it’s more important to focus on reaching this goal than to reduce nuclear capacity.
It is possible that France could expect higher electricity demand in 2030 than today. As a part of its green initiative, and as an attempt to combat the big problem of air pollution, France plans a lucrative electric car scheme. Such a scheme, if successful, could dramatically increase electricity usage.
Therefore it does not looks as if France is gearing up to quit nuclear, something Royal herself has been quite clear about.
France is also a key player in nuclear research into a new generation of sodium-cooled nuclear reactors.
These latest announcements put France on an entirely different nuclear path from neighbouring Germany, which wants to free its entire energy sector from nuclear by 2022.
The foundation can and should address the climate crisis, particularly given the threat it poses to food security, public health, human rights, and the development agenda.
The Gates Foundation has made a significant contribution to practical responses to poverty, and Bill Gates has been a long-standing advocate of “creative capitalism” to address global development issues.
To their credit, Bill and Melinda Gates have shown great personal engagement with larger questions about human development, and their foundation has been a significant actor in the fields of agriculture, global health, education, and population.
Bill Gates during a 2013 speech on climate change. Photo: Matthew Rimmer.
Yet it has also been reluctant to address the climate question directly, stating:
"The foundation believes that climate change is a major issue facing all of us, particularly poor people in developing countries, and we applaud the work that others are doing to help find solutions in this area,"
"While we do not fund efforts specifically aimed at reducing carbon emissions, many of our global health and development grants directly address problems that climate change creates or exacerbates."
Sign on climate change at the Gates Foundation. Photo: Matthew Rimmer.
For instance, the foundation highlights its agricultural development initiative, which it says will “help small farmers who live on less than $1 per day adapt to increased drought and flooding through the development of drought and flood resistant crops, improved irrigation efficiency, and other means”.
While this certainly involves indirectly responding to climate change, it doesn’t put the issue of preventing climate change at the heart of the issue.
In his annual letter, Bill Gates noted:
"It is fair to ask whether the progress we’re predicting will be stifled by climate change… The most dramatic problems caused by climate change are more than 15 years away, but the long-term threat is so serious that the world needs to move much more aggressively — right now — to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide."
This is a somewhat curious statement, given the real and present danger already posed to food security, biodiversity, public health, and human security.
The energy question
Bill Gates has another keen interest: energy security. He has discussed what he sees as the need for an “energy miracle” to remedy the climate:
"To have the kind of reliable energy we expect, and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon, we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough."
He seems to have been interested in nuclear power, carbon capture, and geo-engineering - rather than renewable energy.
For her part, Melinda Gates has been highly critical of climate deniers, emphasising the need for politicians to heed climate science.
The Naomi Klein factor
See video: This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein
In a 2013 article in the Nation, the writer Naomi Klein expressed concerns about the huge fossil fuel holdings of some charities, including the Gates Foundation, and argued that this was inconsistent with public health goals:
"A top priority of the Gates Foundation has been supporting malaria research, a disease intimately linked to climate… Does it really make sense to fight malaria while fueling one of the reasons it may be spreading more ferociously in some areas?"
In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything, she went on to criticise the efforts of green billionaires to save us from climate change. Of Bill Gates and his foundation, she wrote:
"Though he professes great concern about climate change, the Gates Foundation had at least $1.2 billion invested in just two oil giants, BP and ExxonMobil, as of December 2013, and those are only the beginning of his fossil fuel holdings."
Gates has been directly questioned on this issue, both in an interview with a Dutch journalist and during a 2013 appearance on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program.
See video: Bill Gates on ABC’s Q&A
Klein has also criticised Bill Gates' technocratic approach to the climate crisis, considering him to be overly dismissive of renewable energy:
"When Gates had his climate change epiphany, he too immediately raced to the prospect of a silver-bullet techno-fix in the future - without pausing to consider viable - if economically challenging - responses in the here and now."
Will The Guardian’s campaign succeed?
The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has pledged to put climate change at the “front and centre” of the newspaper’s coverage, lending support to the global divestment movement and urging philanthropic trusts like the Gates Foundation and Britain’s Wellcome Trust to follow the example of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
See video: Keep It In The Ground
The Guardian said it recognised that the Gates Foundation has made “a huge contribution to human progress and equality by supporting scientific research and development projects”, but warned that “investments in fossil fuels are putting this progress at great risk, by undermining your long term ambitions.”
The campaign urges the Gates Foundation “to commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years and to immediately freeze any new investments in those companies”. Rusbridger wrote that this would be “a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels”.
Hopefully, the campaign will be successful. Bill and Melinda Gates have certainly shown a willingness in the past to revise their approach, in light of new evidence, and both have been disturbed by the politics of climate denial.
The Gates Foundation can make a stronger contribution to the battle against climate change, especially given how the climate issue cuts across its food security, public health, and human rights aims. This is one way it can do so.
Obama signs executive order to cut government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, increase use of renewable energy
“Today’s action builds off of the strong progress the federal government has made over the past six years,” the White House writes in a statement. “Already, federal agencies have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent since the President took office, and increased the share of electricity consumed from renewable sources from 3 percent to 9 percent in 2013.”
Other measures included in the plan consist of a reduction in energy use in federal buildings by 2.5 percent a year, a reduction in water intensity by 2 percent over the next decade, and a 30 percent reduction of per-mil greenhouse gas emissions from the federal vehicle fleet by 2015 – while at the same time increasing the use of zero-emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
The reduction plan will be based on emission levels from 2008 and will only involve the US federal government. Although the federal government only contribute modestly to the US’s total greenhouse gas emissions, many see this as a move that’ll hopefully spur other sectors of the country into action, and especially the federal government’s supply chain.
The Department of Defense currently has the largest carbon emissions of the US federal government. So far the department has reduced its emissions by 10 percent and is now aiming to install another 3 gigawatts of renewable energy on military buildings by 2025 — enough to power 750,000 homes.
“Earthjustice applauds President Obama for issuing an Executive Order today that aims to make a significant cut in carbon pollution—the pollution responsible for climate change—from the government sector,” said Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice’s vice president of litigation for Climate & Energy. “The President recognizes that the federal government can lead the way in expanding our use of clean, renewable energy, a key step on the path to end our nation’s unnecessary dependence on fossil fuels that harm our health and the environment.”
The US government hopes that this new sustainability plan will strengthen the country’s “leadership on the international stage”, while “ensuring that we can tackle the global threat of climate change and leave behind a safer, more prosperous world.” But for that, we’ll need to see much tougher climate ambitions from the US – something which today unfortunately seems highly unlikely.
The new law, which was approved at the end of last week by the French parliament, was much more limited in its scope than what French environmental activists had campaigned for. They had called for a law which required all new rooftops in France to be fitted with green roofs. But the socialist government managed to convince the activists to accept this limited law which only requires new roofs in commercial zones to be partially covered in plants. The law also gives house owners the choice of either installing a green roof or solar panels for electricity generation instead.
But even if this is a trimmed-down version, the law will have positive effects for the French urban landscape. Green roofs are living roofs which are covered with grass, shrubs, flowers or other plants that gives birds a place to nest in the urban environment. These green roofs will also retain rainwater, helping reduce problems with stormwater runoff. Another benefit is that much less energy is required to heat or cool buildings which has a green roof installed.
The law might also help France catch up to other major European countries – such as Germany, Spain and Italy – which has a much larger share of solar energy. Photovoltaic capacity just amount to over five gigawatts, or about one percent of the total energy consumption, in France. And this while Germany has nearly 40 gigawatts installed.
“The companies include BP, responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Anadarko Petroleum, which was recently forced to pay a $5bn environmental clean-up charge and Brazilian mining company Vale, voted the corporation with most “contempt for the environment and human rights” in the world clocking over 25,000 votes in the Public Eye annual awards,” the Guardian writes.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the world’s largest charities with an endowment of $42.3 billion. Its primary aims are to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty. The foundation has been giving billions in grants to various health programmes around the world since its launch back in 2011. Last year, it was involved in a health programme that helped rid India of polio.
In its annual letter, titled Our Big Bet for the Future, Bill and Melinda Gates called on aggressive action against climate change: “The long-term threat [of climate change] is so serious that the world needs to move much more aggressively – right now – to develop energy sources that are cheaper, can deliver on demand, and emit zero carbon dioxide.”
But apparently, both Bill and Melinda have missed that their investments in oil, gas and coal helps fuel the climate change – a crisis which they themselves deem to be a serious threat.
“At this critical moment in time, if you own fossil fuels, you own climate change,” said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, another charitable foundation that – compared to the Bill and Melinda Gate’s Foundation – has divested from fossil fuels.
The actions by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is especially confusing considering that these fossil fuel investments puts the foundation’s hard work and progress at great risk.
“The Gates Foundation has worked so hard to grapple with global poverty,” said Bill McKibben, who leads the fast-growing Go Fossil Free campaign. “But at the same time they’re investing in the same companies that drive climate change, which endless studies now show is one of the key factors behind ... global poverty. The developing world deserves better than this kind of tunnel vision.”
So just why is the foundation acting in this morally and financially misguided way? Joe Romm, editor of Climate Progress, thinks it’s simply because Bill and Melinda Gates doesn’t understand the urgency of climate change. And this failure, Romm warns, will “most likely undo the foundation’s work” of ensuring long-term health and economic well-being in some of the poorest around the world.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has so far declined to comment on this story. A spokesman for Bill Gates's private office said: “We respect the passion of advocates for action on climate change, and recognise that there are many views on how best to address it. Bill is privately investing considerable time and resources in the effort [to develop clean energy].”
Then the Chinese government removed it from the web, stung by the criticism the film prompted, leaving those who had hailed it as a landmark moment in Chinese environmentalism wondering if the documentary’s influence would end up being curtailed.
Seemingly inspired by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Chai Jing presents some shocking facts to her audience in a TED Talk-style format. She documents the health implications of smog, such as its possible relationship with lung cancer, and attributes China’s smog pollution to factors including the consumption of low-grade coal and oil, the expansion of energy-intensive industries like steel, and the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations.
Former celebrity TV anchor Chai Jing, as seen in the photo, quit her job after her baby daughter was born with a lung tumor, and after a year of rigorous investigation, launched a 1 hour 40 minute documentary about China’s smog.
A wake-up call?
Under the Dome invites comparison with Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 exposé of the effects of pesticides, and some commentators have predicted that the documentary will galvanise China in much the same way that Carson’s book changed America.
There are indeed striking similarities between the two. Both focus on environmental issues of huge concern to their respective societies; both were made by women with national reputations for their previous work; and both spurred unprecedented national discussions.
Even China’s newly appointed environment minister Chen Jining said he was reminded of Silent Spring when watching Under the Dome – although that was before the government abruptly changed its mind about the documentary.
For all their similarities, there are still many hurdles facing the documentary that Carson’s book did not experience.
The social context
China is undergoing significant social change, with a growing middle class who are more concerned with quality of life than basic needs, and who are willing to raise their voice over issues that affect their health. This is a similar context to the postwar America in which Silent Spring was published.
Yet today’s world is also more globalised than in 1962, a fact that could have two opposite effects on China’s environmental movement.
On one hand, the potential solutions to global issues such as climate change, and local issues such as air pollution, may feed into each other. As my colleague and I have argued, concern over China’s energy security has become a key driver of its renewable energy industry.
But on the other hand, globalisation has made people more mobile, both within and between countries. Migration has become an option for some Chinese to escape the smog, which might reduce their motivation to engage in the local environmental movement.
Differing political climates
In many ways, the reception given to Under the Dome is broadly similar to that received by Silent Spring. Both were challenged by economic interests, such as the chemical industry in the case of pesticides, and fossil fuel firms in the case of smog. Both were also criticised for a perceived lack of “balance” or author expertise, and were even accused of being political conspiracies.
Both were also praised by the scientific community. Silent Spring’s legacy was honoured by the American Chemical Society in 2012, while a Chinese professor blogged about Under the Dome:
… [compared with Chai Jing] we experts in the field of environmental protection and scientists on the smog research should feel ashamed for our incompetence to communicate with the public and our lack of courage to expose the problem.
But perhaps the most important difference is in how the two respective governments reacted, especially given that both the book and the documentary broadly chimed with what authorities were trying to do at the time. Silent Spring was published when the then US president John F. Kennedy was implementing his New Frontier program, and Under the Dome has arrived while the Chinese leadership is commmitting to an “energy revolution”.
Several key ideas advocated in Under the Dome to fight smog are aligned with the government’s agenda, such as reducing the share of fossil fuels in the country’s energy supply, and increasing the share of renewable energy sources.
This may partly explain why the documentary was first released on the website of People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and why the resulting media and online criticisms of the government’s handling of the smog issue were initially tolerated despite such comments usually being closely monitored and censored by the state.
However, after a week of explosive discussion in the public sphere, the documentary was taken down from all Chinese websites. While the smog issue was a topic of frequent discussion during the annual session of the National People’s Congress, held in this same week, Chai Jing and her documentary were rarely mentioned by any representatives or government officials.
Contrast that with the policy response triggered by Silent Spring, including the appointment of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, hearings on the issue in the Senate, and the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The Chinese government seems to fear that grassroots movements may undermine its legitimacy in ruling the country. It has implemented a range of policies to transform China’s energy system, but the effectiveness of those policies are yet to be seen.
The legacy of Silent Spring is beyond question. Whether Under the Dome gets the chance to have a similarly lasting impact is far from clear.
To combat this, China is investing heavily in more sustainable and cleaner energy sources. And they have done so for several years now. The country invested a total of $56.3 billion on wind, solar and other renewable projects in 2013. That year, China invested more on renewables than all of Europe combined and became the world leader in renewable energy investments. Last year China became a powerhouse for solar and wind as the country’s investments in renewable energy increased by 32 percent, to $89.5 billion.
Unfortunately not everything is renewable energy as China has plans to triple its nuclear power capacity by 2020. And more than a third of the world’s nuclear reactors currently under construction can be found in China. But nuclear energy can’t seem to catch up with the deployment speed of renewable energy sources. Not even in China.
Last year, China’s nuclear capacity reached 20,000 megawatts. But at the same time China added 23,000 megawatts of new wind energy capacity – a world record. Chinese wind power now has an amazing cumulative capacity of 115,000 megawatts. While Beijing plans that nuclear energy will generate 50,000 megawatts by 2020, analysts expects that the country’s wind power capacity will then have already reached 200,000 megawatts.
To put things into perspective: wind power alone is now capable of powering more than 110 million homes in China. And if we only look at capacity, Chinese wind power now produce more energy than all of the nuclear power plants in the US.
Renewable energy sources are being deployed much faster and on a bigger scale. And for the foreseeable future, nuclear energy is unlikely to match wind power in China. Despite this, coal remains king in China. But the energy landscape is changing ever so rapidly. And according to official data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, coal dropped nearly 3 percent in 2014.
All of this is encouraging. Particularly as new IEA data shows that global CO2 emissions stalled in 2014 while the economy actually grew. This marked the first time in four decades that the world economy grows while carbon emissions don't. Experts say that this change is likely due to an increasing worldwide deployment of renewable energy – and especially, a changing energy landscape in China.
The two wind turbines, located about 120 meters up in the tower, are capable of delivering 10,000kWh of electricity annually, which is equivalent to the power used by the commercial areas on the Eiffel tower’s first floor.
"The Eiffel Tower is arguably the most renowned architectural icon in the world, and we are proud that our advanced technology was chosen as the Tower commits to a more sustainable future," said Nick Blitterswyk, CEO of Urban Green Energy (UGE), the US-based company which installed the wind turbines. "When visitors from around the world see the wind turbines, we get one step closer to a world powered by clean and reliable renewable energy."
The two UGE VisionAIR5 turbines are so-called vertical axis wind turbines, and these tend to have much lower production capabilities compared to the more traditional wind turbines. But UGE says the two wind turbines have been strategically placed on the Eiffel Tower so that their electricity generation can be maximized. UGE also add that these vertical axis wind turbines are designed to work in urban environments where both the wind’s speed and direction can be less predictable.
The wind turbines have been painted in a brown-grey hue to match the Eiffel Tower's frame and the company says the two turbines will be “virtually silent”. The turbines, which are only accessible through a restricted staircase, are located in the southwest corner of the Eiffel Tower, overlooking the Champs de Mars.
Album: The Eiffel Tower goes green 6 images 0 comments
The review found no direct link between health effects and wind turbines, including pathological anxiety, depression, changes in blood pressure, heart disease, and ringing in the ears.
However, due to the generally poor quality of the current evidence, the council recommended further high quality research, particularly within 1,500 m of wind turbines.
More than 4,000 pieces of evidence were considered, but only 13 were deemed suitable for the review.
The review found evidence supporting a link between wind farm noise and indirect health effects such as annoyance, and sleep disturbance. However it found no evidence for a link between possible health effects and low-frequency noise or infrasound.
While the review said it was unlikely wind turbines would cause health impacts beyond 500 m, noise from turbines could be considered “disturbing” at distances of up to 1,500 m.
Bruce Armstrong, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney and chair of the review’s expert committee, said none of the studies were of good quality, mostly because of poor participation rates, which could have biased the results.
Armstrong identified three areas for further research: improving measurement of wind turbine noise; well-constructed studies that do not rely solely on self-reported health effects; and consideration of social and environmental circumstances.
Will Grant, a researcher at the Australian National University, said there should be more research into wind turbine syndrome as a “communicated” disease.
“There’s a lot of suggestion from the academic community that it’s a psychological or psychogenic illness. The interesting thing is that there hasn’t been a full research study that has investigated if it’s a psychological cause, what are the things that cause that, what are the things that contribute to that, and could we actually mitigate that.”
Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, said the review was the most comprehensive yet. However he expressed concern that ongoing investigation could be a foundation for stopping wind farms.
“Wind farm opponents in the parliament will soon have a ready made excuse to argue for moratoriums on further wind farm development,” he said.
Grant said the review was important because it took claims of ill-health seriously. He highlighted a recent study commissioned by Pacific Hydro into the health effects of low-frequency wind turbine noise, which he criticised in an article on The Conversation.
“Where they were on the right track was in attempting to do research with those who have very different ideas. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to do research in which people on all sides of the debate have control over the methodology.”
“This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol. “It provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December: for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth.”
There have only been three times – the early 1980's; 1992 and 2009 – in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.
This remarkable change is most likely due to an increase in more sustainable and renewable energy sources. The IEA themselves attributes this to changing energy consumption patterns in mainly China and OECD countries.
In 2014, China increased their share of electricity generated from renewable sources – such as hydropower, solar and wind – and burned less coal. In the more developed OECD countries, the IEA points towards increased focus on sustainable growth, including greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy being deployed.
“An important factor could be that China’s coal consumption fell in 2014, driven by their efforts to fight pollution, use energy more efficiently and deploy renewables,” said Professor Corinne Le Quere, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia. “Efforts to reduce emissions elsewhere will have played a role, but there are also more random factors such as the weather and the relative price of oil, coal and gas.”
This is obviously good news. A decoupling of economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions would be highly welcomed. But while all of this is encouraging, it shouldn’t make us lose focus, we need to continue to increase our efforts to mitigate climate change. It’s still too early start talking about a new trend, because we cannot draw too many conclusions on data that only shows one year of emissions.
"The latest data on emissions are indeed encouraging, but this is no time for complacency – and certainly not the time to use this positive news as an excuse to stall further action," said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven.
The Syrian conflict has been ongoing since early 2011 when the regime violently attacked peaceful anti-government protesters. With no end in sight, the Syrian war has left more than 200,000 people dead and about 11 million people have been displaced from their homes. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says Syria is now "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era".
“Nobody really expected that we would reach this stage in which we will actually be having this national disaster in Syria,” Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian academic and analyst at Doha Institute, told Al Jazeera as the conflict entered its fifth year this past Sunday. “The heavy-handed approach that was used by the regime against the peaceful protesters was the main reason that this fairly peaceful revolution has turned into the sort of conflict that we are witnessing right now.”
The 3-year long drought caused widespread crop failure and a mass migration of people to urban Syrian centres. This alongside of other factors – such as corruption, inequality, poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies – “had a catalytic effect” and contributed to increased political unrest and, ultimately, civil war.
Although the region normally experiences periodic dry spells, the study, which is based on meteorological data, determined that the extreme nature of the Syrian drought couldn’t be due to natural changes alone. The study’s authors linked the drought to century-long trends towards hotter and drier conditions in the region – which mirrored computer models of human influences on the climate system, i.e. increases in greenhouse-gas emissions causing climate change. Colin Kelley, a climatologist at the University of California and the study's lead author, told The New York Times that "a drought this severe was two to three times more likely" because of the increased pressure climate change has on the region’s aridity.
Francesco Femia, founder and director of the Center for Climate and Security, said that the newly released study "builds on previous work" on the relation between conflicts and climate change.
“While there is a very complex array of social, economic and political factors that drive conflict, the study reinforces the fact that climate change and natural resource mismanagement are problems that can exacerbate instability in a country, and potentially make conflict more likely.”
“Given continued instability and a forecast of increased drying in the region, this issue should be better integrated into the international security agenda,” Femia said.
The war in Syria has caused an unimaginable humanitarian crisis, and this new study adds more weight to the debate surrounding climate change and armed conflicts. Global warming is clearly already sparking unrest around the world.
Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, argues the exact opposite. His recent book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now, opens with the provocative statement that “responsible intellectuals need to think apocalyptically.” He argues that unless we clearly understand and explain the threats confronting humanity in the 21st century, we will not be able to build a movement based on real hope, as opposed to fairy-tale dreams.
“Thinking apocalyptically can help us confront honestly the crises of our time and strategize constructively about possible responses. It’s simply about struggling to understand – to the best of our ability, without succumbing to magical thinking – the conditions within the human family and the state of the ecosphere, and not turning away from the difficult realities we face.”
Jensen’s radicalism is rooted in Christianity, but his argument deserves careful attention from all green-lefts and left-greens. He has kindly granted me permission to post the article below, which summarizes some of the key points made in his book. Thanks to Andrea Levy for drawing it to my attention.
Get Apocalyptic: Why radical is the new normal
Feeling anxious about life in a broken economy on a strained planet? Turn despair into action.
by Robert Jensen
Feeling anxious about life in a broken-down society on a stressed-out planet? That’s hardly surprising: Life as we know it is almost over. While the dominant culture encourages dysfunctional denial — pop a pill, go shopping, find your bliss — there’s a more sensible approach: Accept the anxiety, embrace the deeper anguish — and then get apocalyptic.
We are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality.
In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing — and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered — is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.
Perhaps that sounds odd, since we are routinely advised to overcome our fears and not give in to despair. Endorsing apocalypticism seems even stranger, given associations with “end-timer” religious reactionaries and “doomer” secular survivalists. People with critical sensibilities, those concerned about justice and sustainability, think of ourselves as realistic and less likely to fall for either theological or science-fiction fantasies.
Many associate “apocalypse” with the rapture-ranting that grows out of some interpretations of the Christian Book of Revelation (aka, the Apocalypse of John), but it’s helpful to remember that the word’s original meaning is not “end of the world.” “Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create.
But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending — not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end.
Let’s start with the illusions: Some stories we have told ourselves — claims by white people, men, or U.S. citizens that domination is natural and appropriate — are relatively easy to debunk (though many cling to them). Other delusional assertions — such as the claim that capitalism is compatible with basic moral principles, meaningful democracy, and ecological sustainability — require more effort to take apart (perhaps because there seems to be no alternative).
But toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.
We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.
Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity — and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?
Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction).
Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption?
Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”
That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem — for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.
We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world — the planet will carry on with or without us — but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life. “Apocalypse” need not involve heavenly rescue fantasies or tough-guy survival talk; to get apocalyptic means seeing clearly and recommitting to core values.
First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.
Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.”
There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.
Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction — there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.
Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism — the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology — is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms.
If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.
It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice.
Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities — those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult — not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.
Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination.
I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution — many revolutions — but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.
To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.
As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.
Across the 28 EU member states, the wind industry built a total of 11,791 MW to the European grid. In comparison, coal and gas added only 3,305 MW and 2,338 MW respectively of new capacity. The wind energy capacity increased by 3.8 percent in 2014 and cumulative installations is now standing at 128.8 GW in the EU.
Wind power now cover 10 percent of the EU’s electricity consumption, up from 8% the year before. All in all, renewable power plants (and not just wind energy) accounted for 79.1% of new installations during 2014; 21.3GW of a total 26.9GW.
Thomas Becker, chief executive officer of the European Wind Energy Association, said: "These numbers very much show Europe's continued commitment to renewable and wind energy. But this is no time for complacency. The uncertainty over the regulatory framework for the energy sector is a threat to the continued drive toward sustainable and homegrown energy that will guarantee Europe's energy security and competitiveness for the long-term."
A Davos report, released earlier in January, warned that badly located renewable power plants are hampering the production from these new installations – and costing Europe as much as $100 billion. A solution to these sub-optimal deployments of renewable energy resources could be a more unified European energy market.
“It's time for Europe's political leaders to create a truly European Energy Union and send a clear signal of their support for the shift to a secure and sustainable energy system,” Becker said. “Political will on their part is an essential piece of the puzzle.”
These new EWEA-statistics also shows something worrying. This renewable energy transformation is not happening equally across Europe. Almost 60 percent all-new installations were in just two countries: Germany and the United Kingdom. These two country’s installed 5,279MW and 1,736MW respectively of new wind energy in 2014.
"What we've seen in 2014 is a concentration of the industry in key countries," Becker said, adding "while markets in eastern and southern Europe continue to struggle in the face of erratic and harsh changes in the policy arena. We expect this concentration to continue into 2015."
New wind power installations also saw a dramatic decline in countries such as Spain, Italy and Denmark who all installed much less wind than in previous years. Denmark might be nearing “peak wind” as it saw a drop in installations by over 90 percent.
You can read the full EWEA report here.
The negotiations were given a boost last fall by A U.S.-China deal on limiting carbon pollution. This set the stage for more serious negotiations involving all parties, with many issues still outstanding.
For the first time, the treaty is expected to include targets for both developed and developing countries. Historically, the developed countries have emitted the most carbon pollution, and so have contributed the most to the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This cumulative build-up is the cause of the global warming the world is already experiencing. However, currently, several developing countries are emitting the most carbon pollution, led by China and India.
The Kyoto Accords included only the developed countries, and they expired in 2012. For several years before that expiration, and ever since, efforts to create a binding climate treaty have floundered.
The U.S.-China deal raised hopes of finding new ways to include all countries in the process, and marked a major step in China's negotiating posture, and also marked a major step in the US posture, calling for major steps by both countries to limit carbon pollution.
This UN process also takes place against rising demonstrations calling for climate action, most importantly the People's Climate March in NYC in September, 400,000 strong. Solidarity actions that weekend around the world added another 200,000 to the count. Many other kinds of ongoing organizing are taking place, building a multi-faceted movement.
Last weekend, 350.org and many other groups staged Global Divestment Days, calling on universities, pension funds, and public funds to be divested from fossil fuel companies. Norway became the first country to pledge divestment from its wealth fund, dumping billions in investments in fossil fuel companies, though it still has billions more to go.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have pushed through a bill trying to force Obama to okay the Keystone pipeline project, a bill he had promised to veto. Other battles are being waged over EPA rules for new and existing power plants.
In addition to the growing climate action movement, these negotiations take place against the backdrop of increasingly dire predictions about the results of climate change. 2014 was the hottest year on record. NASA scientists predict that large parts of the U.S. will experience multi-decades-long massive droughts later this century.
The UN negotiations are scheduled to wrap up at a major conference in Paris in November and December of 2015. While a major international treaty would be an important step forward in the fight against catastrophic climate change, the treaty will certainly not be enough by itself. Enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere to guarantee increasing impacts, on top of the ones already seen: increased forest fires, rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, extreme flooding and droughts, changes in weather patterns impacting agriculture, wildlife, and disease zones, glacial and ice sheet melting, and increased species extinction, to mention some.
"A CSX train, hauling 107 tank car loads of Bakken Shale crude oil from North Dakota to a transportation terminal in Yorktown, Virginia, derailed in Adena Village near Mount Carbon and Deepwater West Virginia about 1:30 p.m. Monday," according to the Charleston Gazette and Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.
At least one house was set ablaze and numerous tank cars either burned or exploded. West Virginia Rivers Executive Director Angela Rosser reported:
"Witnesses saw a gigantic fireball raise to the snow-filled heavens. This is the second terrible trauma in as many years to his the Kanawha River valley. Last January a chemical spill from coal industry connected Freedom Industries storage tanks endangered the water of 300,000 people for weeks. It's time to ask you town or county or state -- what is on the rail cars travelling through our community??"
Bakken crude has shown to be a volatile form of crude requiring highly flammable chemicals in its transport from North Dakota and other shale gas and oil fields. According to Lynn Cook in the Wall Street Journal, this risk is well known to oil and transport companies.
"Data released by a lobbying group for oil refiners confirmed that crude from the Bakken shale in North Dakota is very volatile and contains high levels of combustible gases..."
Now, who is surprised at this reaction from that group?
"The crude," which has been linked to no less than four fiery rail accidents in a year, "is no more dangerous to ship than oil from other shale regions and is being correctly loaded and transported under existing federal rules. New rules aren't warranted," the group, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said Wednesday.
Federal Railroad Administration workers were only able to get within 50 yards of the derailed cars late Tuesday morning, according to the agency. Some of the rail cars were still on fire, and local emergency responders were still in charge of the scene.
Flames also burned power lines in the area, knocking out electricity to about 900 customers in the midst of frigid sub-freezing temperatures. According Appalachian Power spokeswoman Jeri Matheney, reported in the Gazette, "electricity has not yet been restored because repair crews are having trouble accessing the extent of the damage. About 2,400 people were evacuated or displaced by the train derailment, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency."
Investigators the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are also already at the scene, and more staff are on the way.
Because of the unknown quantities of spill from the exploded or burnt cars, or tank cars in the river, Officials in Montgomery, downriver from the accident, were told to shut down their water intake as a precaution. Reduced water intakes from the Kanawha river have forces water conservation restrictions. One person was treated for smoke inhalation, officials said, but, miraculously, no other injuries have been reported.
Kelley Gillenwater, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that the fires were keeping DEP officials from being able to fully examine the site of the derailment to determine what sort of containment and cleanup is going to be needed.
Full details of water sampling being done by the state were not immediately available, but Gillenwater said that so far the results had come back "non-detect."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in Fayette and Kanawha counties after the derailment. Tomblin scheduled a news conference with federal and state officials at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Montgomery Fire Department.
In April 2014, a train carrying crude oil on the same North Dakota-Virginia route derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia. In July 2013, a 74-car train carrying Bakken Shale crude oil derailed in Quebec, Canada, setting off fires and explosions that killed 47 people.
On Saturday, at least seven rail cars carrying crude oil caught fire in Northern Ontario after a train traveling from Alberta to eastern Canada derailed, according to media reports.
What's riding through your town ready to send you to hell?
It will actually comprise of two offshore wind farms (Creyke Beck A and B.) with an installed capacity of up to 1.2GW each. But once built, it will act as a single wind farm and have up to 400 turbines generating a maximum of 2.4GWh per year – enough electricity to power almost two million homes. This means that this wind farm alone would fulfil 2.5 percent of the UK’s total electricity needs.
The offshore wind project is also expected to boost the local economy. The government estimates that the wind farm will directly create up to 900 green jobs in Yorkshire and Humberside.
“Making the most of Britain’s home grown energy is creating jobs and businesses in the UK, getting the best deal for consumers and reducing our reliance on foreign imports,” Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said. “Wind power is vital to this plan, with £14.5 billion invested since 2010 into an industry which supports 35,400 jobs.”
RenewableUK, the wind industry association, says the project could create up to 4750 direct and indirect jobs and generate more than £1.5 billion for the UK economy.
It’s estimated that the two offshore wind farms will cost somewhere between £6 billion to £8 billion.
But the project could face construction problems and delays as it would be the furthest offshore farm that have ever been attempted. RenewableUK’s Director of Offshore Renewables Nick Medic said: “It will surely be considered as one of the most significant infrastructure projects ever undertaken by the wind industry. A colossal wind energy power station right in the middle of the North Sea, comprising hundreds of offshore wind turbines over 80 miles off shore.”
“It is a project that pushes the offshore engineering envelope - demonstrating how far this technology has evolved in the ten short years since the first major offshore wind farm was installed in North Hoyle just 5 miles from shore.”
A date for when construction starts has not yet been set, but is likely to be years away. The Forewind consortium, which the project is being developed by, has yet to make a final investment decision. The consortium includes the Scottish and Southern Energy, Germany’s RWE, and Norway’s Statoil and Statkraft.
Sea Shepherd will build a new ‘dream’ ship after receiving €8.3 million from the Dutch Postcode Lottery
“We are now able to proceed with the purchase of our dream ship and lift our conservation efforts to protect the Southern Ocean from illegal exploitation to the next level. We are extremely grateful to the Dutch Postcode Lottery and the people of the Netherlands for this very generous support,” said Alex Cornelissen, CEO of Sea Shepherd Global.
Sea Shepherd has been confronting illegal whalers and illegal fishermen in the waters surrounding the Antarctic continent since 2002. Their actions has received a lot of media attention – in 2008 they got a documentary-style reality television series on the Animal Planet cable channel – but their current fleet is aging and their vessels are lacking speed. The organization therefore hopes that the new dream ship will enable them to be more effective in the fight against poaching on the high seas.
“Sea Shepherd will now be able to have a custom-designed ship built, capable of achieving speeds that far exceed any of the vessels in our current fleet. After researching possible ship builders for the last two years, negotiations with Dutch ship builder Damen has resulted in a blueprint of our ideal ship”, said Cornelissen.
Artists' impression, depicting the potential look of Sea Shepherd's 'dream' ship.
Sea Shepherd received 8.3 million Euros from the postcode lotteries in the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom for this project. The Dutch Postcode Lottery contributed 7.5 million Euros. Further to the Dream Project, Sea Shepherd once again received a check for 900,000 Euros from the Postcode Lottery, bringing the total donation that Sea Shepherd has received from the Lottery since 2007 to the incredible amount of 15.5 million Euros.
Only the explosives weren’t directed at police lines, but in the air. The crowd chanting at the politician wasn’t protesting. It was cheering. An international movement which has become very good at licking its wounds was pretty quick to learn to celebrate. In fact, with perhaps 10% of the people at the rally in front of the Athens academy coming from outside Greece, this was very much a party for the European left – in the beer, loud music, and dancing sense of the word.
But also, of course, in the political sense. So I should be clear. When I say that Syriza’s victory is in a sense the first Green government in Europe, it’s obviously not just Greens. Because Syriza is effectively a merger between most of the left wing parties in Greece, most left parties in Europe can reasonably see it as their sister. It has already been seen for a couple of years now as the archetypal party of the European left.
A Green Government?
Having said that, there is a remarkable extent to which Syriza is in practice a Green government. First, the Greek Green Party is a part of the Syriza coalition – they got one MP elected, who was promptly promoted to deputy environment minister. Secondly, as Kostas Lukeris, a member of the Greek Green Party’s ruling council put it to me over souvlaki on Syntagma square on the day of the vote “they adopted all of our platform”. Look through the policy commitments of Tsipras’ government and the manifestoes of the Green parties in the UK, and you’ll find little to separate them.
Some of these similarities are unsurprising, and could be found within the platform of most contemporary parties of the left – rejecting austerity, opposition to privatisation. Both have campaigned for a crack down on tax dodging. Both are generally against corporate domination of politics and the corruption that comes with it.
Some of the similarities are on issues which haven’t always united those on the left but which tend to today. Twenty years ago, there were active socialist traditions which saw feminism, anti-racism, LGBTIQ rights and environmentalism as “bourgeois deviationalism” – as distractions from class struggle. Many within these traditions were in practice homophobes, sexists and smokestack industrialists who saw environmentalism as standing in the way of their five year plans. Look to George Galloway’s comments on Julian Assange, and it’s clear that these sorts of people are still around. But they are not Syriza – whose colours are green and purple as well as red, indicating that they are proud feminists and environmentalists as well as socialists.
Photo: Alexis Tsipras, newly-elected Prime Minister of Greece and party leader of Syriza.
I could go even further: they support decriminalisation of drugs, cutting military expenditure and the introduction of direct democracy in some areas. They have already scrapped two of the tiers of school exams. These are not policies universally supported across the left. But they are to be found in Green manifestoes across Europe.
Then there are a few issues on which the original Syriza coalition needed to be pushed. When the Greek Greens discussed merging into the broader party, they first published a list of twenty one demands – policies Syriza would have to adopt in order to get this support – the things they didn’t already agree on. The list includes independence from fossil fuels within 20 years, addressing desertification by supporting forests, protection of fisheries; participatory processes in public services, equal treatment of the islands in what they see as an over-centralised state. Syriza accepted every one of the policies.
None of this was easy for Greens – who ended up shedding their more liberal wing to the Potami list (“the hipster party”, as my Green friend called it) and a couple of egos to another left alignment before they joined the Syriza list. But ultimately, it’s looking like the party can celebrate a significant victory in part as a product of its pains.
The Left Has Changed
None of this feels at all surprising, for two reasons. Firstly, the left across Europe, probably across the world, has changed significantly in the past twenty years. It’s no longer acceptable to ignore the interlocking struggles against different forms of oppression. Since 9/11 and the Iraq war, it’s been impossible to avoid accepting anti-imperialist arguments. Since the financial crash, you can’t really be progressive and ignore macro-economics and the struggle against neoliberalism. As the climate has changed, few reject the basics premises of environmentalism any more. In other words, where the reference points for the left were once where various groupings stood on particular bits of the history of the Soviet Union, a new generation has emerged where the relevant questions are very different. The cracks of the past have started to heal in the heat of history.
In these contexts, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a bit of a realignment, with much of the socialist left moving into a space once occupied more uniquely by (some in) the Greens, and some of Europe’s Greens (including those in the UK) getting better at articulating explicitly anti-neoliberal economic arguments. In a sense, Syriza is a product of those forces.
Secondly, it’s worth understanding Syriza’s own specific history. The party is a coalition, but its biggest section, the one from which Alexis Tsipras came, was called Synaspismós tīs Aristerás tōn Kinīmátōn kai tīs Oikologías. Or, in English “Coalition of Left, of Movements, and Ecology”. Its roots were in Eurocommunism – the Gramscian corner of communism which was critical of the Soviet Union. In England, its sister organisation “Democratic Left” went through various permiatations and ended up as the campaign group “Unlock Democracy”. Democratic Left Scotland still exists, and provides a useful non-partisan forum to discuss politics under the slogans “there’s more to politics than parties” and “radical, feminist, green”. Their colours are, like Syriza, still red, green and purple. Its membership includes the Scottish Green Party co-convener, Maggie Chapman and many other prominent people in the party (and, less significantly, me).
Eurocommunists were in many ways like the old New Left – accepting of broader struggles ‘beyond the class struggle’. Likewise, they tended to have a more discursive rather than dogmatic approach to social change, keen to bring together coalitions and to constantly step back and reappraise what they ought to be doing, rather than following any one handbook. On a night out with a senior figure in Syriza’s youth wing, they jokingly emphasised this point when being indecisive about which pub to go to.
An International Movement
If all of this sounds a little like Green Parties, that’s, essentially, because it is. Look at the lineage of Greens across Europe, and you’ll repeatedly find it criss-crossing with a mixture of the New Left and Euro-communists. The Dutch GreenLeft Party, for example, was formed from a merger between its Euro-communists and others, and prominent English Green member Bea Campbell was once one of Britain’s best known Euro-communist activist.
Let me put it another way: each country has its own history, context and traditions. But many of the people who have ended up in the Green Party in the UK come very much from the same political tradition as those who are now running Greece: a mixture of the anti-capitalist but anti-Soviet left of the 70s and 80s, the anti-globalisation then anti-Iraq War movement of the 90s and noughties and the anti-austerity movement of the twenty teens. This heritage isn’t unique to Greens by any means, it’s a history on which much of the European left can draw. But Greens have as much right to lay claim to it as does anyone else.
Driving to a polling station in Athens’ working class docks area with the national campaign co-ordinator of the Greek Green Party, he told me that he had been surprised how keen Syriza had been to include Greens in their coalition – they had never had an MP, and didn’t bring with them a huge swaith of votes. But then, he said, he realised the cause of their enthusiasm. They needed European partners. Adding the European Greens to their list of sister parties brings a big block of support across the continent.
And perhaps most importantly, there are lessons to be learnt. As they dance to the music of time, most of the left in Greece has found itself aligned – at least for now. While the instruments across Europe may be different, the drums are thumping the same beats. In the UK, by far the biggest of Syriza’s sister parties is the Greens. And, with Plaid Cymru backing a Green vote in England, perhaps some of the spirit of collaboration could, like all the best tunes, be infectious?