While Rome (or California) burns

At a time riven by contradictions and confusion, it is important to celebrate what’s worth celebrating. Labour’s pre-manifesto pledges – to build only zero-carbon homes from 2022, and to make 27 million homes energy efficient by 2030 – could mark the beginning of a climate politics General Election. Not before time.

It isn’t just that Labour’s Warm Homes for All programme would create 450,000 jobs, or that low-income households will be eligible for grants (with no upfront costs); with the rest of us having interest-free loans for the work. What matters more is that this requires a new systems-based approach to delivering tomorrow’s climate security.

Sure, it will be brilliant if Labour can supply over 6m homes with heat pumps and 5.3m homes with solar thermal systems by 2030. The key, however, will be how these fit into new frameworks of more localised energy management. Smart technologies make it all possible. But ‘smart politics’ will be needed to make collective interdependency, rather than individual consumption, the centrepiece of tomorrow’s security. A recognition of such interdependence is dawning in unexpected places.

Panic across the Pond

In May 2019 General Mark Milley, Trump’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, launched a report analysing the vulnerability of the US defence forces to serious climate crises. This was well in advance of the runaway forest fires now ravaging California, but it specifically flagged up the fragile US Grid system that has been tied in to the subsequent fires.

The report, entitled Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army, was launched by the U.S. Army War College, in partnership with NASA, at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC. Given that it’s conclusions are diametrically opposed to Trump’s climate change denialism, it isn’t surprising that the report got little coverage. That doesn’t make the analysis any less alarming.

The two most prominent scenarios in the report focus on the risk of a collapse of the US power grid within the next 20 years, along with the danger of disease epidemics. Both could be triggered by near-term climate change.

The report also warns that the US military could be overwhelmed by the challenge of new foreign interventions in Syria-style conflicts, triggered due to climate-related impacts. Bangladesh in particular is highlighted as the most vulnerable country on the planet to climate collapse; with no obvious military answers to the threat of 80 million flood-refugees in a region full of longstanding grievances and a surfeit of nuclear weapons.

Back in the USA, the report paints a frightening picture of a country whose infrastructure is likely to fall apart over the next 20 years. None of it is braced for the climate change impacts on “natural systems such as oceans, lakes, rivers, ground water, reefs, and forests.” Current infrastructure in the US, the report says, is woefully underprepared: “Most of the critical infrastructures identified by the Department of Homeland Security are not built to withstand these altered conditions.”

The most vulnerable of all is the US national power grid, which could shut down due to volatile changes in climate and rainfall levels. Ageing power plants, electric transmission grids and distribution system components, are all high risk elements in a crumbling US energy infrastructure.

The report also warns that the US military could itself be collapsed by climate crises; losing the capacity to contain threats both within the US and wilting into “mission failure” abroad, particularly due to inadequate water supplies. This might sound far fetched until you reach the part reporting that 30-40% of the cost of current US military operations abroad goes on supplying their own troops with water. In a world racing towards water shortages you can see why alarm bells are ringing … everywhere, it seems, except the White House.

The ‘everywhere’ implications

Britain has no reason to feel smug about such an analysis. Much of it applies in equal measure to the ourselves; nuclear power stations in flood risk areas, flood and drought threats to domestic food production, and an economy that has hidden it’s real climate footprint behind collapsing the domestic UK economy and living off cheap imports. As the World Bank has just pointed out, Britain has a much higher hidden (percentage) carbon footprint than the USA, Japan, Germany or Brazil … once you include imported consumption.

To avoid climate breakdown, we are all going to have to develop an economics that both localises our consumption needs and reduces our carbon footprint. What better starting point than John McDonnell’s ‘Democratising Local Public Services: A Plan for Twenty-First Century Insourcing‘. Put McDonnell’s plan alongside the latest APSE report (the Association for Public Service Excellence) – where 78% of local authorities report that insourcing gives them more flexibility, and for two-thirds it has saved money – and you have a framework that both improves the quality of services and could deliver radical cuts in carbon emissions.

In a scrupulously non-political way, this is the advice also coming out of the UK’s ‘Energy Systems Catapult’ programme. Drawing on pilot work in Wales, Manchester and Newcastle, Catapult’s conclusions are challengingly clear:

  • the UK cannot meet its Paris climate targets without radical decentralisation,
  • such decentralisation also has to break from a fixation with individual technologies; focussing instead on systems that integrate heat, power, transport and energy saving, and then (crucially)
  • for social acceptability, the poor (especially the fuel poor) must be at the centre of such planning.

There is a real chance for Labour to grasp this as its own model of democratic renewal; making insourcing the political antidote to (failed) Tory obsessions with outsourcing/privatisation, and heralding in a new era of more open (and accountable) democracy. National leadership is essential but the real litmus test will be inclusive local ownership of the solutions.

In this journey, it doesn’t matter whether your starting point is Rome or Rotherham, California or Cornwall, Nairobi or Norwich. The message will be the same. Accountability to the many not the few is the key to successfully delivering the transformative changes now needed to avoid climate breakdown.

Alan Simpson

Nov 2019

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