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Greens and blues

Whatever the outcome at Copenhagen, the real work will be done in Europe, where the Tories look incr

If the UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen ends with an agreement on legally binding targets (which it almost certainly won't), the hard work of implementation would still need to be done. Targets have value - they focus political, business and media attention - but they don't automatically lead to delivery.

Look at Kyoto. The fairest overall assessment of it is that the developed countries which ratified the protocol have allowed their emissions to increase by 9.1 per cent, while the US allowed its emissions to increase by 14.4 per cent. Kyoto can plausibly be said to have reduced non-US, developed-country emissions by about 5 per cent from what they would have been without the deal, which is better than nothing. But it's not nearly enough.

The EU's target of a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, though still not enough, is at least enforceable. And the EU has significant policy levers - regulatory powers and money to invest in clean energy. So, even though Copenhagen is important, the EU Council of Ministers is the crucial forum for UK pol­iticians wanting to control climate change.

The EU has led international negotiations on climate. Its commitment to reduce emissions is not dependent on what anyone else does. Its target to get 20 per cent of all energy from renewables by 2020 is achievable and it has the money to help construct the more extensive and efficient infrastructure needed, including grids across the North Sea and the Mediterranean. It has also said that it will have up to 12 large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants operational by 2015. Although this is just a target and the words "up to" are classic fudge, the Commission has already allocated more than €1bn (£910m) to CCS projects under the European Economic Recovery Plan and has selected the projects to receive the money, which national governments seem to find hard to do.

There is no significant disagreement between the UK's main political parties about climate change, but there certainly is disagreement over the EU. New Labour has generally been pro-EU; the Liberal Democrats are very pro, but the Conservatives remain divided (though David Cameron's sensible decision not to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty failed to produce the ructions that some expected, or hoped for). Cameron and the shadow energy secretary, Greg Clark, are serious about controlling climate change. But the damage done to relations with other centre-right parties by the Tories leaving the European People's Party (EPP) may be a significant obstacle.

Trouble on the right

The Conservatives have good policies on the low-carbon transition. Yet I know from my own experience that it is considerably less difficult to adopt good policies in opposition than it is to achieve good outcomes in government.

From 1992-94, I was adviser to the then shadow environment secretary, Chris Smith, and secretary of the Labour policy commission on the environment. This produced In Trust for Tomorrow, which proposed targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010 and to generate 10 per cent of electricity from renewables in 2010. Smith negotiated the considerable internal discussion about this with skill and determination.

Then, from 1997-99, I was adviser to the environment minister, Michael Meacher. He and John Prescott played an important role in the Kyoto negotiations and tried hard to make our economy less climate-damaging. The changes in performance since 1997, however, have been very disappointing. The UK will meet its Kyoto target, due largely to the "dash for gas" that Labour inherited from the Tories. In office, ministers have had to deal not only with Labour Party politics, but also with interdepartmental Whitehall politics. Too often, these have proved insuperable barriers. The 2010 targets for carbon dioxide and renewables will both be missed. The UK gets a lower proportion of its energy from renewables than any EU country except Luxembourg and Malta.

I am no longer a member of a political party, and so do not have inside knowledge of politics today. But it is worrying that Tory ministers trying to implement their climate plans would have to deal not only with internal party and Whitehall politics, but also with difficult relations with other centre-right parties. Cameron, William Hague and George Osborne have all said that the EU should focus on global issues such as climate change. Yet, by leaving the EPP, the Tories have made it more difficult for the party to achieve this. For instance, a central part of developing clean energy sources is to get the EU emissions trading scheme working better. The scheme has had little impact so far because the price of carbon is unpredictable and too low; the best way to improve it would be to set a floor price. This could be done formally through the EU, but that would take many years. It could be created instead through a bilateral deal between the UK and German governments, which have enough allowances in effect to guarantee a floor price. But the Tories have reduced their influence with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

The Conservatives accept that climate protection cannot be left to the market. They have called for an Emissions Performance Standard (EPS) to set a maximum pollution level from any power plant. This was an excellent proposal, as Ed Miliband, the Climate Change Secretary, recognised when he said that an EPS could act as a "safety net" in case CCS is not as effective as hoped. The UK could introduce an EPS on its own, but it would be much more effective if introduced across the EU.

Let us not lose faith

The EU's target to improve energy efficiency by 20 per cent by 2020 is merely an aspiration at present. The Commission is now saying that the target should be made binding, with predictable hostility from national governments. Allowing decisions to be made by the right tier of government is important, but not as important as taking the right decisions.

However, one way to get one tier to do certain things is to get another tier firmly committed. If Copenhagen and the follow-up negotiations in 2010 can secure legally binding commitments, it will concentrate minds. Several EU governments have been more willing to accept EU directives because they have a legally binding Kyoto target. The EU itself has said that if there were a strong international agreement, its reduction target would be 30 per cent, not 20.

So let us not lose faith entirely in Copenhagen. It is good that Gordon Brown and other world leaders are going to the summit (although, for Brown to be credible, he must put serious money into the low-carbon transition in the pre-Budget report). The real challenge, however, will come after Copenhagen. For it to be met, whoever forms the next UK government must engage extensively, seriously and constructively with Europe.

Stephen Tindale is a climate and energy consultant and co-founder of Climate Answers


Take a walk on the dark side

In June, David Cameron pulled his party out of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). He has argued that leaving the EPP will be good for European democracy, but the Tories' departure has distanced them from old conservative allies in Europe. In 2006, Cameron signed a joint declaration to form a new partnership, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), chaired by Michal Kaminski.

The Conservative leader has pointed to the ECR's anti-federalist stance in attempting to justify his party's new alliance in the European Parliament, but among the politicians in the group are some who hold sexist, homophobic and racist views. Kaminski has come under scrutiny in recent months for his previous membership of the National Revival of Poland party, which has been accused of neo-Nazism.

The Tories may now lose influence in Europe in important settings such as the environment, public health and food safety committee (vice-chaired by Boguslaw Sonik, a member of the EPP), the committee on industry, research and energy, chaired by an EPP member, and the economic and monetary affairs committee, which has two EPP vice-chairmen.

The Conservatives are the largest party in the new parliamentary grouping, making up 25 of the ECR's 54 members. Its two other main partners are Poland's Law and Justice party and the Czech Republic's Civic Democratic Party.

James Burgess


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This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood