A write-up of most of the questions and answers, with audio.
Mark Lynas, author of “High Tide” and “Six Degrees”, and columnist with the New Statesman.
Councillor Roderick Bluh, the new leader of Swindon Borough Council (Conservative).
Anne Snelgrove, MP for Swindon South (Labour).
Michael Wills, MP for Swindon North (Labour).
Professor Julia Slingo, Director of the National Centres for Atmospheric Science Centre for Global Atmospheric Modelling.
Each member of the panel took a few minutes to explain why they were there.
Julia Slingo said that over the last five years, the evidence had really begun to stack up, indicating that global warming really was happening, and that observations over this period had helped to validate the models they used to predict climate change. Some people had said that global warming might be a good thing, allowing us to grow olives and such like in the UK, but she pointed out the other side of the coin; more extreme weather, wetter winters, more flooding, more heat waves, and in other parts of the world, far more serious effects. “For some people, it will be a matter of life and death” she concluded.
Mark Lynas clarified the opinion which had been circulating recently that we have only ten years left to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. He said that this did not mean that in ten years the world would suddenly end, but that we have a window of opportunity of only ten years to make the changes to prevent climate change from becoming irreversible. He noted that in just two seasons, 14% of the perennial sea ice, being the ice which is never supposed to melt, has melted in just two seasons. Extrapolating that into the future, all the sea ice will be melted in ten to twenty years. Thus, he pointed out, the signals we are getting from the real world tell us that climate change is happening more rapidly than predicted by the models used by the climate scientists, and that our reaction is woefully inadequate.
Anne Snelgrove reported that constituents on the doorsteps were mentioning the environment much more than they did even last year or the year before, and that people wanted to do more about climate change, and wanted the government to do more, but didn’t necessarily have the language or the depth of understanding to express this properly. She confessed that she wasn’t sure she had this either, but that what she had been reading in the newspapers concerned her greatly. She mentioned that most people talked about the environment in terms of recycling, that that was how they saw themselves as doing their bit.
Roderick Bluh said that the time for action is now. He said that there were things for the government to do, things for the local authority to do, and things for individual citizens to do, and that what is needed is to bring that all together into some sort of co-ordinated understanding of what is required.
Michael Wills expressed his agreement with what Mark Lynas and Cllr Bluh had just said. He said that there was a very dedicated, vocal minority driving the agenda on climate change forward, but that they were not a majority yet, and that the political response so far had been inadequate. He said that in the long term, he didn’t think that tackling climate change would mean a break from the kind of lifestyles we live, but in the short term there are very immediate costs. For example, to make use of biofuels or CHP (combined heat and power) in Swindon, would require immediate investment, engagement with developers, planning permission and the like. He said that there was a great responsibility on national politicians to create a culture change to tackle climate change.
The first question from the floor was read out – will the public actually change their behaviour, will they be willing to make the necessary sacrifices? Mr Wills replied that in his experience, people almost always felt some sort of moral obligation to their neighbours, no matter how you define neighbours – the person next door, or people in Bangladesh who are already feeling the impact of climate change. The chair reported that some people will recycle but that other people just won’t bother, and from that he drew the conclusion that some people are very slow to take on the message. Mr Wills replied that he and Anne Snelgrove had been working with the council to put targets and initiatives in place, and as that happens it will put in place an environment where people do start to do the necessary things.
The chair asked Cll Bluh whether people should be motivated to play their part by persuasion or with a big stick. Cllr Bluh replied that he’d prefer the former, and that there was a lot of education to do. He reported that recycling figures were on the up, but that we had to reach the target of 50% of waste being recycled by 2010. There’s a lot already achieved but a lot more still to do, and he suspected that the last bit would be more difficult to do. Recycling, he said, is something which is essential to do, but also he was keen to reduce the amount of packaging that is produced in the first place.
Mark Lynas jumped in at this point and said that it’s pretty pointless talking about recycling in a debate about climate change, to applause from the floor. Climate change, he said, is more than just an environmental issue, it’s about the survival of humanity, and the survival of the planet as a habitable space vessel. He said that we should focus on reducing our energy use and emissions. His view on whether it is necessary to force people to do this is that, yes, it probably is necessary. He thought that there was no way that most people would come round to doing what they need to do entirely voluntarily in the space of ten years. He advocated the use of carbon rationing or carbon allowances, enforced by the government to the first degree, because once each of us has our carbon ration we can spend it how we like, leaving the small decisions up to the individual.
The chair challenged Mark that he was sending the message to people who do recycle that their efforts were pointless, that it’s just the tip of the iceberg and that it’s all down to global industry and governments to lead us into change. Mark responded that he was saying the opposite to that, and that it was the actions of individual people that ultimately count. It is true, he said, that if he gives up his car and his neighbour gets a bigger car, then that negates the benefit of his sacrifice (as an aside, he mentioned that he didn’t consider giving up his car to be a sacrifice). That, he said, is why change needs to be collective, and that’s why there needs to be a political framework to make it happen.
The chair then asked Anne Snelgrove whether she thought it was necessary to force people rather than to rely on their voluntary participation. She replied that there are people she meets on a daily basis who wouldn’t begin to understand where Mark is coming from. The difficulty is, she said, that if people are at the recycling stage and you tell them that the efforts they’re making are worthless, they will stop what they are doing, and they will resist any obligation you try to put on them. She drew hope from the fact that five years ago she would never have thought that a smoking ban could be achieved, and now we have a smoking ban due to be introduced next year. “Mark, you’ve there, and most people are over there”, she said, indicating two different directions, “and we’ve got to get people further towards where you are. I agree with everything you’ve said, and I agree with the urgency with which you’ve said it.”
“It has to be a mixture of compulsion and persuasion,” said Michael Wills, “we cannot do it with one or the other. The government is prepared to compel people, it is compelling people with a climate change levy, tighter building regulations, and so on. These are compulsion. What you’re saying is that we need to be much more compelling. But there is a point when you just cannot take people with you.” Pointing out that we live in a democracy, he said that people would just throw out politicians who get the balance between compulsion and persuasion wrong.
Such as those who compel us to be entered into a National Identity Register against our will, hmm, Mr Wills and Ms Snelgrove?
He noted that there were very powerful vested interests out there; the oil industry, the mining industry as well, with billions of pounds at stake, and they don’t want to go out of business. That if we did not use the power of democracy to take people with us, those vested interests would start fighting back.
Mark Lynas interrupted to say that the government was hiding behind what they perceive as the public interest. He remembered a few years ago one and a half million people marching on the streets of London (a reference to 15th February 2003, probably the largest demonstration in the UK in living memory, against the invasion of Iraq), and that at the time Tony Blair decided to be a leader and completely ignore them. “I can’t see one and a half million people marching on London to say don’t impose measures to solve climate change. I just don’t think that’s likely to happen.” Cue applause.
Julia Slingo picked up a point which Mark had made earlier about scientists being too cautious. As a scientist, she said she takes her responsibilities very seriously, and that the sort of messages they give out are very scary, and they have to be absolutely sure they are not understating or overstating the case. She said it was all very well to say, for example, don’t buy food grown in East Africa, because of the excessive food miles and carbon emissions attached to it. But what about the farmer who makes his livelihood growing that food? She said that as a climate scientist, she has to take all of this into account. Mentioning the vanishing sea ice, she said that she knew their models are not as sophisticated as they would like, and in order to model the sea ice properly they would need computers much bigger than the ones they currently have. She said climate scientists were very aware of what they called “tipping points” in systems, where catastrophic changes happen, and of these the one which most concerns her is the melting of permafrost.
The chair brought together a number of similar questions submitted by the audience, asking “How can people be persuaded to change their fossil-fuelled lifestyles, what changes have the panel made so that their lifestyles have fewer carbon emissions, what can people do to counter the causes of climate change?” He also asked the audience to raise their hands if they recycled, to which the response seemed unanimous. He wondered aloud why we all recycled if we considered it a small part of a better climate for the future.
Surely the obvious answer to this, I thought, is that recycling on its own is not going to save the world, it is just one small part of living in a way which is respectful to our planet and environment. Sending recyclable waste to landfill just isn’t an option in the eyes of the environmentally conscious.
Mark Lynas pointed out that the government had recently spent more money on widening a 150m stretch of the M1 than it did on the entire renewable energy programme for the UK in the last year and a half. The money the government is spending on solving the problem, he said, is peanuts compared to the money they are spending on making the problem worse, building roads and increasing aviation capacity. “We’re getting mixed messages here”. There should be no cars whatsoever within cities, he said. It’s absurd to take a car to a city; pedestrians, cyclists and public transport are the only sensible way to travel around a city. This would also improve people’s health and communities, he said. But apparently that’s such a politically impossible step to take that it’s not even on the agenda.
Roderick Bluh said that he agreed with the idea of forcing people not to take their cars into city centres, even if they didn’t like it. It’s about showing leadership, he said, if you believe in what you’re doing, go for it. On a personal level, he said that we can all make sure we don’t leave the standby on, that we don’t leave the computer on all the time, and that we recycle, saving both energy as well as resources. When it comes to giving up the car or running it on a different type of fuel, people can only do that if there are alternatives, which is where government and local governments come into it.
Anne Snelgrove said that it is government’s role to ensure that there is public transport that works, and that she was glad they’d put extra funding into the busses in Swindon. She said that in London it was far easier to use the busses and trains and tubes, because they are integrated, and that you see people from all walks of life using public transport. Once you get people from all walks of life, from rich to poor, using public transport, it removes the stigma from public transport which it tends to have elsewhere in the country. She said there had been some recent investment into the busses in Swindon, but that there was still a long way to go. She said her personal pledges included changing her light bulbs, taking a holiday in Devon and Cornwall rather than flying abroad. She then related a tale of a constituent who had e-mailed her saying he’d been to India and seen first-hand the effect climate change was having on people there, and had asked what he could to about it, to which her answer was to stop flying.
Julia Slingo described the concept of “wedges” as a way of bringing our emissions down, whereby a small change such as switching to low-energy light bulbs may seem a small thing, but over the course of thirty years has quite a large impact. Our approach to climate change, she said, must consist of a whole portfolio of these wedges, from the small ones like changing light bulbs, to the much larger ones which may be the responsibility of governments or international negotiations. She also pointed out that even were we to start reducing our emissions now, we would still be committed to a temperature rise over the next thirty years due to the emissions already released.
Michael Wills told the audience that he was amongst forty MPs who had signed a pledge to reduce their own carbon emissions by 25%. Not a very good result out of over six hundred MPs, he admitted. “Everybody on this planet wants to save the planet”, he said. “If it’s so easy, why aren’t we doing it?” The reason, he surmised, was the cost. Any initiative would require investment, which would mean taking more money from people in tax, and whilst most of the people in the room that night would probably be quite happy with that idea, there were many other people who would still need a lot of persuasion.
The chair then asked for a show of hands from the floor of people who would be willing to pay more tax to achieve some of the measures which had been spoken about so far. As almost everyone in the room raised their hands, one member of the audience called out “Can I pay less for the Iraq war?”, which prompted a round of applause.
Mark Lynas spoke of some of the cost savings associated with changing our unsustainable lifestyles, not only the billions being spent on Middle-Eastern military adventures, but also export credit guarantees to companies drilling for oil and digging for coal across the world, effectively subsidies to make the problem worse. He mentioned personal carbon allowances again, saying that if you want to fly to Barbados then that’s fine, as long as you live in the cold for the next ten years, and taxation doesn’t come into it.
Roderick Bluh said that to make the changes we’d been talking about requires massive investment in change, but the starting point was for honesty from politicians, not ducking and diving, but telling people the truth.
The chair brought together another collection of questions about renewable energy: Are there any plans to install solar panels on the Great Western Hospital? Is the government likely to leave things to the market or should it be driving energy policy? Is nuclear power the answer? Why is there a tax on biodiesel?
Michael Wills professed to being very worried about nuclear power, and said he’d much rather see a far more vigorous commitment to renewables than we’ve seen so far. He derided the fact that thousands of houses were being build, of which few were affordable and few were of a high eco-standard, and he said the marginal cost of making these houses zero-emission was very small. He said he would like to see Swindon transformed into a laboratory for green, carbon-free transport.
The chair asked Julia Slingo how climate scientists built into their models what energy sources we would be using in the future. She replied that they relied on economists to provide them with a range of socio-economic scenarios, however there was a lot of uncertainty in those scenarios, and that they had to build that uncertainty into their projections. She mentioned biofuels, which in some areas of the world are being used very successfully, however she warned of the dangers they posed due to the acreage involved, and the risk to biodiversity. She said that when talking about climate change, we’re not just talking about emissions, but about changing the way in which we use the land.
Anne Snelgrove said she believed that the government had cut the tax on biodiesel, and when the chair challenged her as to why the government hadn’t scrapped the tax completely, she said that the tax revenue would then need to be found somewhere else. She warned of the risk of using more energy manufacturing solar panels than is saved by using them, a point which was challenged fiercely by Mark Lynas. She said that rather than thinking in terms of converting buildings to be more eco-friendly after they are built, we should be thinking in terms of designing efficiency into the buildings from the start, citing the National Trust’s headquarters in Swindon as a shining example of this. This building has no air conditioning, but she reported that it was still a very pleasant place to be, even in the height of summer. She pointed out that many buildings which were put up in the sixties and seventies only had a thirty year lifespan, something she thought was incredibly wasteful. She said that she hoped we did not have to turn to nuclear power, but that if we are going to cut our emissions as much and as quickly as we should, it may be inevitable that we go down the nuclear route.
The chair asked for another show of hands, this time asking who would advocate going down the new nuclear power route. Very few hands were raised.
Roderick Bluh spoke of the council’s commitment to buildings of a high eco-standard, taking as an example the new library which formed one of their recent pledges, to replace the “temporary” buildings which have housed the central library for many decades. The new library, he promised, will be built to an excellent standard, will be energy efficient, and will be naturally ventilated. He suggested that anyone who has not yet had a tour of the National Trust building should try to get one.
The chair asked another question – if nuclear power is not the answer, then what is?
Mark Lynas said that nuclear power is the answer to the wrong question, the question of how our energy should be generated rather than how much energy we actually need. Instead, he put forward a vision of a low-carbon world, one without supermarkets, where people talk to each other, where rates of obesity and heart disease are going down because people are cycling and walking more, a world where we don’t pour half the heat use to heat the house up the chimney. All these things, he said, are positive changes, not sacrifices. “We don’t need nuclear power stations. We don’t need all that extra energy.” He said that unlike many environmentalists, he wasn’t particularly worried about the dangers of nuclear power, and that he would accept it if he thought it would be an answer to climate change, but he didn’t believe that it was. He also pointed out that nuclear power is very expensive.
The chair asked whether Mark was suggesting that we go back one hundred years to living in small self-sustaining groups, to which he retorted that he was suggesting that we go forward fifty years to living in small self-sustaining groups. When the chair pointed out that the debate we were having would not be happening if we lived the way he suggested, because everyone would be living in their small communities and not travelling, Mark questioned where people get their desires from, and pointed out the hundreds of thousands of hours of advertising that people are subjected to, telling them that they want a car because it’s going to give them status and make their life more worthwhile and more meaningful.
The chair asked the audience who liked Mark’s vision of smaller communities, to which a majority raised their hands.
When asked whether his idea would be a bad thing economically, leading to loss of jobs and a collapse of industry, he pointed out that in terms of Gross Domestic Product, the economy would be much happier if he shopped at Tesco rather than growing all his food on an allotment, however GDP and quality of life are not the same thing.
Michael Wills said that small communities could get very claustrophobic, and that many people would prefer to live in larger, more anonymous cities. He went on to say that it was not up to him or Mark to tell people how to arrange their lives, and that change must take place democratically and by consensus as much as possible.
The next question was “What will Swindon’s climate be like in 2050, and what challenges will that pose?”
Mark Lynas said that he wouldn’t be able to answer that question until his book comes out next year, because that is the very issue he is seeking to address in it. He spoke of the research he had done, finding all sorts of obscure articles in the science library at Oxford University which had never been brought together before, and of the impact on the world of temperature rise, degree by degree. A one degree rise, he said, would result in losing most of the world’s coral, but a six degree rise would result in mass extinction of most life on earth, humanity included. So what the climate would be like in 2050 will depend very much on our emissions over the next five or ten years. He reiterated Julia Slingo’s earlier point that we were already committed to unavoidable climate change over the next thirty years due to the thermal inertia of the earth’s systems. He concluded that he couldn’t answer the question, only to say that it would be a good deal hotter.
Roderick Bluh said that he wasn’t able to answer that question either, and that he’d be pushing his luck to live that long, although he’d been led to believe that forty percent of the UK would be under water by then.
Anne Snelgrove said that our gardens would be very different, more tropical, and that there would be much more need to conserve water, so we would be growing plants with less need of water. “If in fifty years time, we can’t enjoy parsnips because there’s no frost to make them taste good, that would be an enormous failure of today’s politicians, and of today’s environmentalists.”
Julia Slingo seemed reluctant to answer the question, being a climate scientist and therefore naturally cautious, but she sad that it would be warmer than it is today, with more frequent heatwaves, and also warmer and wetter winters. She also expressed concern about changes to the systems in the Atlantic Ocean which drive the Gulf Stream which keeps us nice and warm. She recommended not buying a house in Spain, because the signals are very clear that southern Europe will get very much dryer.
Michael Wills had very little to add to the above, other than to say that whatever the climate will be like, we will be entering a very fragile, dangerous and unpredictable situation
What role should the church be playing in education and the way we contribute to climate change in the future?
Mark Lynas quipped that he was thinking how warm it was and whether we could open one of the stained glass windows (the Pilgrim Centre is a modern church building), before describing a schism in Christianity, between the fundamentalists who say bring on Armageddon because it’ll get them to heaven quicker, and the wider Christian movement who are concerned to protect the integrity of God’s creation. He pointed out that churches in the UK tended towards the latter, with the Archbishop of Canterbury taking a lead, and signing up to the principle of Contraction and Convergence, an essential strategy for bringing the developing world on board.
Roderick Bluh confessed to having faith but not being much of a church person, however he said that it is about communities, and people supporting people, and that anyone showing leadership in bringing people together to solve common problems should be encouraged to do so.
Anne Snelgrove acknowledged the work that churches in Swindon already do on environmental issues. She also mentioned the international aspect, with churches linking with sister churches abroad.
Julia Slingo said that the Church of England has taken a very strong stance, and said that the former head of the Met office had written some very good books on the relationship between the church and science, and between the church and climate change. She said that she was very active in her local church, and that they were very keen to be energy efficient and aimed to be a zero carbon church.
Michael Wills recalled the point of water shortages, and said that in any competition for water resources, the richest and most powerful people would always win. Against this is our moral obligation to our fellow human, and although it’s not just a job for the church, he said, the church has a very important role to play there.
At this point, the chair opened the meeting to questions from the floor for the last few minutes.
Will the MPs be supporting the call from groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Oxfam for a climate change bill?
Anne Snelgrove said that she had supported a previous climate change bill, and she would continue to support that movement, however she hadn’t read this latest bill, so she asked that the questioner send her a copy of the bill and then she’d let us know.
Likewise, Michael Wills said that he supported the previous climate change bill and had written to ministers supporting the principle, but that he would have to read the latest bill before deciding.
What is the priority of climate change in the political agenda? Is it number one? If not, what is above it?
“Where it is in reality, or where it should be?” asked Mark Lynas. Where it is in reality, clarified the questioner. Mark replied that it’s difficult to answer because it’s changing all the time. A few years ago, the answer would have been about number twenty-three, below just about everything else. Now, he would guess, it’s probably in the top five or ten. He mentioned that different polls give different results depending on what question is being asked. If you ask people whether global warming is a serious problem, most of them would say yes, but if you ask people if they want to give up their cars then most of them would say no thank you very much. As for what was higher up the agenda, he said that the war on terror had been put in people’s heads as very important, even though it was much less important, with far more people being killed by global warming than by terrorism. This shows, he said, how politicians can manipulate people’s opinions by their use of the mass media, with the Bush administration being particularly adept at this.
What pressure can the Labour government put on all councils to improve public transport?
Roderick Bluh said that if we are going to have a shift away from car use, then we need a shift towards public transport, and a debate was needed about what form an integrated public transport network would take. It would require significant investment, as well as a cultural shift away from the car. If we were to take people’s cars away, he said, then we need to provide an alternative, one which enables people to get around as easily at 11pm as they can at 11am.
Mark Lynas said that solving climate change wasn’t conditional on whether you could get about after 6 o’clock on a weekday evening, and that we needed to take a much broader look at the issues, and things such as public transport will fall into place as people make the decisions they need to make to deal with climate change.
Michael Wills mentioned the difference between public transport in urban and rural areas, saying that reform should start in the urban areas, but that rural areas would be much more challenging. A major change is needed in government thinking, he said.
Julia Slingo said that it is very important to crack the transport nut, and blamed deregulation of bus services for the declining standard and disintegration of public transport. What is needed is change to make it easy to go green.
What three things can be done in the next twelve months by central government do inspire and provoke local authorities across the country to accelerate the rate of improvement locally, but also to develop a renewable energy culture, in a co-operative way rather than a confrontational way?
Michael Wills listed much tighter building regulations, tougher recycling targets, and for OFGEN to put a robust green energy tariff comparison on the web.
Is climate change number one in Swindon, yes or no?
Is it, or should it be, queried Michael Wills. Is it, clarified the questioner. No, Michael replied.
Anne Snelgrove said that it isn’t the main priority for most of her constituents. She said that other issues were related to climate change, such as education and health, and that they couldn’t be separated out into a hierarchy.
After the formal part of the event, tea and coffee was served, and some of the local politicians took the opportunity to talk to the climate campaigners. Roderick Bluh surprised us by offering Swindon Climate Action Network the use, free of charge, of the Swindon Borough Council debating chamber, should we want it to hold a similar event in future.
Councillor Andy James described an exciting idea he has to convert all the council vehicles and all the Swindon busses to run on biofuels, produced from what is currently a waste product from the oil seed rape crops grown on the farms around Swindon. This idea is still in its formative stages, and needs to be more formally discussed by the council, but we hope Cllr James will keep us informed of any progress.