From the IPCC to Just Stop Oil: my week of climate politics

It seems necessary to knock out a quick post about climate change – not something I’d planned to do right now, though perhaps I should have if I’d kept a closer eye on the news cycle. But with the IPCC’s 6th assessment report on mitigation of climate change just published, it seems somehow apropos. Plus, unexpectedly, I found myself helping out with the Just Stop Oil protests earlier this week, which has brought climate issues and climate activism right back to the forefront of my thoughts.

Other people are better placed than me to give their hot takes (literally, alas) on the content of the IPCC report. As a part-time observer of climate science social media, a full-time proponent of low-input agrarian localism and an almost accidental climate activist, I’m going to restrict myself to a few remarks on some of the report’s wider ripples in those arenas as I see them.

My sense of the professional climate science and climate change world is that people within it have, honourably, been making stark and loud warnings for a long time of the need for rapid and radical change to our modern GHG-emitting ways. But at the same time, some of those voices have been rather dismissive of two forms of rapid and radical change that I believe to be entailed in their analysis – a shift to low-energy agrarian localism, and non-cooperation or disobedience towards fossil-fuel extractive capitalist nation-states.

I find much to agree with in Professor Julia Steinberger’s writings, for example – including a good deal of her analysis in this Twitter thread arising from the IPCC report. And I salute her endorsement of current climate change protesting.

Where I part company with Prof Steinberger is in her view that scientists haven’t been raising the alarm with sufficient urgency until very recently, and that we’re “on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels completely”. Nothing I’ve yet seen has convinced me that we’re remotely on the cusp of being able to replace fossil fuels globally at current levels of energy use, let alone at levels that give people in low income/low energy countries fair access to resources. This is one of several reasons why I think the future for many people is likely to be lower energy, lower carbon, more localized and more job rich – a small farm future. But elsewhere Prof Steinberger has disavowed the case for low energy agrarian localism. As with much eco-socialism in the Global North, her position errs towards another version of techno-fix business as usual, the ‘electrify the hell out of everything’ mantra.

I’m not opposed to electrifying the hell out of everything, provided that we attend to the upstream and downstream consequences – the fossil fuelled pulse it would involve, the human and resource consequences of mining the lithium and rare earths, the nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste issues – so that this new electrified dawn doesn’t indeed just turn into hell. But, in addition to the fact that it will still involve using less energy, the real problem isn’t the hardware but the software, our cultures of materialism and capitalism. These, ultimately, are what need re-engineering more than our energy technologies. So I feel a bit torn when Professor Steinberger fulminates against those who imply “we should just give up” or who say it’s too late to do anything. I agree we shouldn’t give up and it’s not too late to do anything. But, with hindsight, it seems easy to see that ultimately it was always going to be too late to do anything within a cultural regimen inherently dedicated to endless commodification and the increase of capital. So unless that regimen is brought swiftly to its end, then yes – it probably is too late.

There’s one ‘too late’ that does seem to emerge clearly from the IPCC report. If GHG emissions don’t peak within three years at the latest, it says, then it will be too late to limit global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels by 2100. Of course, if they don’t peak by then, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to take action against climate change. It’ll just be too late to avert the 1.5C warming beyond which human and ecological catastrophes amplify. But I think climate experts sometimes protest too much against the simplifications of popular ‘only x years to save the Earth’ narratives. Time is not on humanity’s side in retaining a congenial climate, and there’s no historic evidence yet that we can rein in GHG emissions (absolute or per capita) in the absence of exogenous shocks to the ordinary functioning of the global capitalist political economy.

This sad truth demands a variety of responses from a variety of people, including small-scale farmers and renewable energy folks. But also people protesting against governments’ ongoing commitment to fossil fuel extractivism, existing and new. In the absence of such protests, governments will think we haven’t noticed the gap between their words and deeds, and be emboldened to barrel onwards towards a catastrophic 3 degrees of warming. For this reason and others, after a slow start I’ve become a supporter of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, and I spent a good part of last week helping with the Just Stop Oil protests in southeast England.

I worked mostly as a driver (I’m confident the smart readers of this blog don’t need me to explain why this is not especially contradictory or hypocritical), dropping off activists at protest sites and collecting them from police stations after they were released from custody. Never in my younger days did I imagine I’d be driving London’s roads in the small hours, checking the mirrors to make sure I wasn’t being tailed by the police, and making smart exits from drop off sites to try to avoid getting arrested myself. Still, these are the times we’re living in – a time when the British government, and for that matter its Labour opposition, has completely lost its moral compass, and when real adults are needed in the room.

Or, more specifically, real young adults. Many of the actions were spearheaded by Youth Climate Action, and I’ve got to say I was greatly impressed by the dedication, integrity and insight of the young people I met on my nocturnal journeys around London, and by young activists like Miranda Whelehan and Xanty who submitted themselves to the usual media bullying from their elders and supposedly betters, and came out on top. The idiotic baiting of Miranda Whelehan by Richard Madeley and Lowri Turner on Good Morning Britain is quite something to behold.

While the home secretary barks for more powers to silence civic protest, in truth the bite of existing powers has not been used to its full extent against climate protestors. My guess is that the cost and propaganda own goal involved in jailing a cavalcade of elderly priests, young graduates and harmless community workers is too high. So at present, the personal cost of arrestable nonviolent direct climate action is not large. Even so, the numbers involved remain disappointingly low and Peter Kalmus’s question ‘What will it take to get people off the sidelines?’ in the face of climate breakdown is to the point.

Of course, there are plenty of people with enough on their plates already, and there’s no dishonour in feeling unable to get involved. But, honestly, the ignorance and complacency of Lowri Turner in that interview with Miranda Whelehan – with her talk about doing the recycling and the need for people to get on with their lives – was truly shameful. If she were half as informed as Ms Whelehan about what ‘getting on with your life’ would look like in a world of 3C warming, she wouldn’t embarrass the airwaves with such blather.

Let me close with a little story prompted by Ms Turner’s comment that “We’ve had a winter without any protests, but as soon as the sun comes out, ooh it’s eco-festival time. And it is a festival, it’s a big jamboree”.

Indeed, it’s been quite sunny lately – during the day. But at night there’ve been people in their eighties blockading oil terminals as the snow has fallen. For my part, I stood alone outside a police station for seven cold night hours until after the dawn in case the young activists inside were released, rather ill-prepared and under-dressed for it because it hadn’t originally been my job. By the end of my vigil, I was shivering almost uncontrollably. It’s not a great deal of suffering to write home about in the larger scheme of what many at Just Stop Oil have gone through, still less for those engulfed by the climate agony that’s upon us. But it was not a jamboree.

The larger point, though, is that I was there, looking out for people I’d never met. Nothing too heroic in that, but the world is full of such small acts of care and kindness between strangers as well as between friends and family, acts that draw from a concern about others beyond the compass of statist politics. If there’s any saving of humanity in the years ahead it will be built from such small acts, and not from the concocted outrage and divisiveness of our contemporary political and media cultures. Perhaps also it will be built out of new forms of civic politics that local networks arising out of climate activism are helping to forge. My time with Just Stop Oil gave me just a glimmer of hope for these possibilities. I fear it will be too little and too late in the face of larger forces, but this is part of my answer to those I was debating yesterday who criticize Miranda Whelehan and Just Stop Oil for having no vision for a post-oil world. The part of the vision that they’re helping to supply is a new non-state politics of care. And that’s important.

29 thoughts on “From the IPCC to Just Stop Oil: my week of climate politics

  1. Well over this side of the pond oil use is receding , the local rail company is now using only one locomotive as they are only moving 4 to 6 cars 100 tones each ( normally they move 15 ,to 50 cars at a time ) the other locomotives are parked in a siding , milk trucks are also being parked as the loss of protein feed in general for cows means milk production is dropping like a stone , increased prices have yet to work thru the system .

  2. Bravo ! Thank you for for being there. Wat back in the 80’s the question was ‘What will it take to get people out from in front of their TVs and into the street with a brick in their hands ?’ Bread and Circus is hard to beat.

    And, great interview with Seán Ó Conláin and Caroline Whyte. It is going to be mandatory listening for the crew.

  3. On the focus of a small farm future as remedy, and following the abysmal interview(er)s you linked to above (thanks for those), I felt I had to link today’s delightful 10-minute interview with a couple of new entrant ‘no-farm future’ livestock farmers, if only for a much-needed dash of positivity. Three cheers to Cloud Cuckoo Land, in Suffolk.

  4. “The part of the vision that they’re helping to supply is a new non-state politics of care. And that’s important.”

    Possibly the most important thing there is. If we start from a posture of solidarity and mutual care, we basically have to sort out the fossil fuel nonsense. I have to admit, the idea of pedalling a cargo bike around to ferry activists from one place to another is rather appealing, if perhaps impractical in the circumstances.

    The thing about electrification is that it doesn’t have to mean more batteries. Talking to a friend the other day whose boiler is broken beyond repair, we realised that in his well-insulated one-bedroom flat he could install one of those “instant hot water” taps in the kitchen, and continue using the electric shower. The cooker is already electric (though replacing the hob with magnetic induction would be a big efficiency gain). Radiators could be replaced with infrared heating panels but there’s probably no need, the flat isn’t really cold with the broken boiler. And yes, that electricity still has to come from somewhere; but compared to replacing the gas boiler this is lower cost and should also use less energy. We may not have time now to wait until boilers need replacing for this kind of change, and that does present its own problems. Insulation is probably a better strategy.

    Or for a micro example, consider my bike lights. One bike has a hub dynamo in the front wheel. I check the wiring every year or two and replace it (for about £2) every five or six years. Lights last five or ten years depending on whether I cronch them by putting something too heavy and misshapen on the rear rack (…yeah), and I expect the hub dynamo to outlast other parts of the wheel. My other bike has magnets mounted to the frame such that induction from the aluminium wheel rims generates a current. It’s contactless which is much better than the old roller dynamos. I expect to need to replace these in ten years; as with the hub dynamo the lights are available separately, though the wiring system is considerably more robust (I wish the hub dynamo used headphone jacks!). All of which sounds like small beans, and truly it is — but I would need lights anyway (and I will until car traffic is abolished; which might decrease road maintenance costs enough for cycling to be viable much longer…. A girl can dream, OK?).

    People don’t always want to hear it, but I think personal electric cars are a dead end. I don’t think replacing all petrol and diesel traffic with electric vehicles will help much. They use vastly more energy for shifting humans around than other modes of transport and they are even harder on the roads (due to weight) than combustion engines. We’re going to have to travel less, and move fewer things more slowly. So I agree that “electrify all the things” is unrealistic and unhelpful, but I think there is a case for strategic electrification, especially where distributed microgeneration is plausible.

    The Unseen Enemy (mister fat squirrel) got at the Soup Garden broad beans *again* so I am sowing more. But I finally started digging the pond yesterday, the hope is that we’ll eventually attract a froggy or two to help with the slug and snail population.

    • “I don’t think replacing all petrol and diesel traffic with electric vehicles will help much. ”

      Your phrasing is far too shy and conciliatory! This definitelywon’t help much!

      It is alarming how many people imagine that the elements of the present system can just be slotted in with nary a hiccup.

  5. Hello from Salford in the north west. I’ve just come back up from London as part of the Doctors for Extinction Rebellion contingent, and it’s great to hear that you are ferrying around the Just Stop Oil activists. Like you I am indeed not sure that any of this will prevail against larger forces, but I am minded that Alastair Macintosh of the Isle of Eigg Trust gave themselves a 5% chance at success but they won, and Scottish land reform followed on their heels. I’m taking a regenerative break putting down the first? second? seed potatoes down on the CSA I part run; the seasons have changed such that St Patrick’s Day is now too early; the seed potatoes just rot. The world has a surreal feel to it right now, but I am in agreement with you that it’s in the friendships and the small kindness between people that will form the basis of a low energy and resilient future. Let’s hope so

  6. Thank you Chris for your service, and for telling the tale.

    I believe you have understood the problem exactly:

    “…our cultures of materialism and capitalism…”

    I can’t tell if you are more optimistic than I am about the effectiveness of protest, or if you are simply taking comfort in action, no matter whether it has a larger effect. Personally, I don’t think it matters which – the act of protest is important, whatever form you may choose.

    Also, our society’s elites have amply demonstrated their narcissism, greed and imperviousness to protest or any other intrusion of reality.

    And they do it with such style! So that all the rest of us want to be just like them.
    Well, maybe not ALL the rest of us, but an overwhelming number – more than the natural world can support.

    So it is clear to me that the people who are currently on top of this economy will ride it over the cliff and onto the rocks, the rest of the world be damned.
    And the world will be.

    Fortunately, or not, I am old enough that I don’t expect to see the full catastrophe, but our children and grandchildren certainly will.
    So good for them, looking ahead. Their lives will be much harder than ours have been, and they will need “…small acts of care and kindness between strangers…”

    I’m please that a few are practicing those now, and congratulations to you for helping.

    I’ll also second Kathryn’s endorsement of bicycle hub dynamos.


  7. RE: The link to the interview with Miranda- thanks for reminding me how shitty the mainstream media is at informing and actually providing news. It’s all become eyeball chasing infotainment, tailored to the sound bite short attention span culture, and is further confirmation that we are unable as a species to deal with long term threats.

    Denial in all its glory. OK, enough emoting.

    As I continue to say, rational steps forward will be initiated on the local level, where it happens at all, as the nation state level is deadlocked and coopted by vested interests in the status quo. This all aligns with a small farm future that is a grass roots supercedure process.

    Some of us focus on personal changes, some on trying to nudge the overall trajectory. You are trying to do both. Props.

  8. The beneficiaries of the status quo, including the mainstream media, need the population to unquestioningly follow their programming and ‘get on with their lives’ accordingly.

    Miranda was presumably allowed some air time because she was outnumbered 3 to 1 and they thought she would be thrashed. At the very least, she and her movement are demonstrating a welcome example of ‘concern about others beyond the compass of statist politics’.

  9. Just to push back on Eric’s comment above that “the form” of protest doesn’t matter, I actually think it is critical. These one-off acts of limited civil disobedience have changed nothing, even at the scale of XR. What could be changed that might be more effective? We should look to the US civil rights movement that employed militant NVCD, using a tactic called “filling the jails”. Check out Birmingham campaign, where 3000 were arrested over three days (2000 school age children) and kept in jail. The police ran out of room for housing, the nation was outraged by the images and the city settled. And for those who say arrest is out of their “comfort zone” , imagine an 11 year old Black girl facing down racist Alabama cops in 1963. “Comfort”?

    • What could be changed that might be more effective?
      People insisting on living in the way they think is sustainable, even if this means breaking the law. For example: Can’t get planning permission for the small farm? Use the land as a small farm anyway. Invite others to come and work on your small farm. Invite landowners to donate land to be used for more small farms on which more protesters can work. Invite anyone with money to donate money to buy more land for more small farms, to pay fines dished out for breaking the law, etc.
      This might help get across the point that society/the state should at least stop preventing people from living in a sustainable way, even if it can’t manage to actively promote sustainable living.

  10. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences from the past week. I had a similar support role last year, for an XR action in which one of my sons participated. (and I had a cold wait outside a police station to pick him up later, but much shorter than your endurance trial…) Street protests are not only festivals. Quite some anxiety upfront and chill/hunger for the arrested afterwards…

    I suspect that the most effective tool of the prevailing powers is a lack of imagination. They have convinced a lot of people that “there is no alternative” to the capitalist system. And as long as the oligarchs own most of the media, there will be no change.
    I guess the situation is similar to the 1870s, when most papers were owned by the rich, and the labour movement had to set up their own news papers to get their part of the story out into the public.
    In a certain sense, this eminent blog is one rivulet of the growing (?) flood of counter-culture media. In time before the deluge?

    Thanks for sharing a different and better story than the dominant narrative.


  11. Thanks for the comments. Only time for a quick response to some particular points that leap out for me – not least because after all this time I’ve finally succumbed to Covid (perhaps as a result of my visit to the Great Wen?), so I’m planning to take it easy. Anyway:-

    To David Jones’s points, I’d say that the ‘form’ of XR/JSO is pretty similar to the US Civil Rights movement, and in fact the latter’s ‘filling the jails’ strategy has been a direct influence on the former – the ‘Rebellion’ documentary on Netflix is worth a look for this point & several others: The real difference is simply that the Civil Rights movement did a better job of actually filling the jails, at least so far. I can think of various reasons for this that are unrelated to judgments about the relative bravery of the activists involved, which is not a route I particularly want to go down, even though I willingly acknowledge the enormous courage of the civil rights activists. I want to write more about this in the future, so I’ll pretty much leave it there for now. I’ll simply say that for a lot of us arrest WAS out of our comfort zone, and no longer is, and the tide may be turning. But the fight for a livable climate has some different characteristics to the fight for civil rights.

    Regarding Miranda’s turn on GMB no doubt it’s true they gave her airtime because they thought they’d prevail. But also because of the law-breaking – if, as they suggested, she’d just written to her MP instead and not bothered anyone, you can be sure she wouldn’t have featured at all.

    To Kathryn’s points on electrification, I love the way the comments go on this blog – from blocking oil terminals to the specifics of the hub dynamo. Anyway, I agree that EVs are not the answer, whereas ‘strategic electrification’ is a part of the answer, but not the main part.

    On other points, I agree that bread and circuses is hard to beat. But you do need the bread as well as the circus, and the fact that the former is beginning to falter while the latter amps up is surely part of the reason for the surreal feel of things at the moment.

    Finally, to have this site described as an ‘eminent blog’ that’s ‘one rivulet of the growing flood of counter-culture media’ is the nicest feedback I’ve had all week. Thanks Goran! And thanks for all the other comments.

    • The US Civil Rights Movement benefitted from the national media acting as “sympathetic referees”. The GMB coverage of Just Stop Oil (with Miranda) looked like it was designed to nudge (or shove) the viewers toward antipathy for the movement.

      “’The civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings if it hadn’t been for the news media,’ said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who led the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma in 1965 and was hospitalized with a fractured skull.

      “He said that civil rights workers looked upon the media as ‘sympathetic referees’ in their struggle to topple the South’s system of racial segregation.”

      • Yup southern segregation enforced by Democrat state governments , a point rarely stated by anyone .
        Very little coverage of BLM and it’s failure of reporting to the charity commission on where the money was spent ( $6 million from a house in California ) in fact the investigation is being called racist in some quarters .

    • Sorry that you’ve got covid, I hope you make a good recovery and the rest of your household manages to escape it. Take care and rest as much as you need to, please.

  12. Hello Chris,

    Regarding “form” of protest, I recommend the booklet “How to blow up a pipeline” by prof. Andreas Malm. (The title is a bit of a clickbait, the book is about WHY it is a good idea to blow up pipelines.)
    He shares the stories of the civil rights movement and the Suffragettes fighting for women’s voting rights, and how there was a small but very visible part of the movement that was doing property damage to the prevailing powers. No violence, but destroying symbolic property.

    Another tip is the Post Carbon Institute podcast interview with Tim DeChristopher, who did something similar a few years back, and his recommendations.


    • No need to protest as two UK refineries are closed down thru lack of crude oil , and the German nationalised Gazprom has only 1% of gas in its storage ” tanks ” industry insiders say that rationing will commence in two weeks .

  13. I’ve heard mixed things about Malm’s book. Perhaps I’ll take a look. I liked ‘Fossil Capital’. He seemed to go a bit ‘last chance saloon ecomodernist’ after that but perhaps he’s past that stage now!

    Agree with Gavin above about other arenas for civil disobedience, most importantly access to land. Something I’ve been trying to get off the ground (or, in fact, on the ground) for a while now with limited success is exactly as he says – establishing new farms for local needs regardless of planning control.

    Thanks Steve for the point about the media. I hope they’ll catch up with the judicial system at some point in relation to climate change…

    And, just to add, apparently I was wrong about a 3 year window for emissions to peak. The real timeframe is immediately, or already past:

    • Looks like the government has started action into the problem Jim stones piece which I can concern that one of the local fertilizer spreading companies has laid off workers and has shut down , no product to spread and no idea when they will get some , rail is no longer carrying fertilizer .

  14. Italy has one month of animal feed left , then the will have to start culling animals , looks like the corporate bug meat makers have got their way .

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