Labour's myopic vision

Aggressive land-grabs, backed up by a looming military threat, will not bring energy security, write

The UK land grab in Antarctica aptly demonstrates how Labour is struggling to come to terms with the real politics of the environmental threat.

We rely on the atmosphere, the world’s forests, the seas and the soil, and even remote areas like Antarctica to keep our planet suitable for human civilisation to exist. The most fundamental of threats to the planetary life-support system is the challenge of climate change, where we are polluting our atmosphere through the use of coal, oil and gas.

The best evidence suggests we need to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees C. We’ve already seen a rise of around 0.7 degrees and another similar sized rise is inevitably in the pipeline because of existing levels of pollution, even if, from today, the world’s population decided to walk everywhere and to shiver in the cold.

Our room for manoeuvre is not that great. The challenge is that coal, oil and gas underpin our economy. The Government wants to grow our economy. But even a growing economy is, and will remain, a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. As the report Gordon Brown commissioned from Sir Nicolas Stern indicated, if our environment goes, the economy goes with it. We have to change, and change pretty fast.

So how is our Government coming to terms with these limitations on coal, oil and gas use? By making claims on a fragile wilderness, Antarctica, to dig up more oil and gas. It would be ludicrous if it weren’t so myopic.

Earlier this month came more serious news about the melting of the Arctic ice cap. No doubt melting of ice in the Antarctic will slightly lessen the challenge of offshore exploration. Yet other parts of Government already know we can’t go on like this; there is already more than enough oil and gas available to us to destabilise the climate.

More to the point, the Foreign Office is seemingly facing both ways. Six months ago, then British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett raised climate change in the UN Security Council as a security threat. The same department is making a land-grab to exploit mineral wealth, which will make the problem worse. It is a desperately incoherent position for this Labour administration.

We need to move away from an energy policy based on aggressively accessing bulk supplies of fuel. Fundamentally, this remains the Brown Government’s view – an approach to global energy supplies that would have been recognised and understood by Clement Attlee decades ago.

21st century technology and politics require a different tack. In Germany, fuel security is being improved by the use of renewable energy - they have 235,000 jobs in the sector, and have installed over 20GW of wind capacity.

The UK, by comparison, has generated only 20,000 jobs in the renewable sector and produces a measly 2.2GW of electricity –despite having the strongest suite of renewable resources in Europe.

Energy security – the holy grail of modern day energy policy – will be rooted in a thriving manufacturing base and skilled workers, and not from aggressive land-grabs backed up by a looming military threat. With the right approach, the twin threats of climate security and energy security can be met.

Instead of bringing our energy policy up to date, we defy the 1959 Antarctic treaty and threaten one of earth’s last untouched ecosystems. Hypocritical - and dangerously short sighted.

Dr Douglas Parr is the Chief Scientist and Director of Policy at Greenpeace UK, looking after the science and political lobbying functions. His current focus is on tackling climate change in the power, heat and transport sectors. He also acts as adviser on greener refrigeration. He joined Greenpeace 13 years ago, and has worked on a number of technical policy issues including GM crops and agriculture, chemicals legislation, biofuels and nuclear power. He obtained a D.Phil in Atmospheric Chemistry in 1991.
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The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State