A green conspiracy against fun?

As a member of a genuine grassroots campaigning group, I have been riveted by the recent articles and Newsnight report by George Monbiot trailing his new book, Heat (now high on my growing reading list). These have been exposing what he calls the denial industry, a wide-ranging “network of fake citizens’ groups and bogus scientific bodies” funded by the oil and motor industries to cast doubt on climate science and inspired by the example of the tobacco industry.

Their strategy of sowing confusion and misinformation is very familiar to me. The Alliance Against Urban 4×4s highlighted the involvement of the Ford Motor Company in funding the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) http://www.cei.org/ in our leaflet for visitors to the British International Motor Show in July, using evidence from the excellent Exxonsecrets website.

The AEI’s big wheeze this year was a set of adverts on US television that praised carbon dioxide build-up as no danger but a friend of nature, essential for life. Scientists whose work was cited by the AEI have since disowned the ads and they thankfully never aired in the UK, but the messages seem to be reaching us anyway. Whenever I take part in a discussion programme or phone-in on 4×4s, similar myths about climate change make an appearance.

The huge sums of money invested in this public relations scam are what astound me most about the evidence Monbiot has collected together. And what makes me most depressed. The carpet cleaning expenses of the AEI alone would have paid for all the activities of the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s in the past few years.

Starting out in a pub with six people and a fifty quid whip-round three years ago, we have kept the campaign going largely by selling t-shirts and applying for small grants from other environmental organisations and foundations. Our most famous ‘school run’ demonstration, where we dressed up as lollipop ladies and teachers and handed out mocked up school reports to 4×4 drivers, cost us £100 – an amount most PR professionals would laugh at – but because our cause was valid and newsworthy it got us six months of regular publicity.

However, despite our modest means, it seems that a certain section of the population now believes we are part of a well-funded, top-down global environmental conspiracy out to ruin everyone’s fun. Michael Crichton’s 2005 novel State of Fear took this fantasy to its ultimate conclusion, depicting the environmental movement as a cabal of jet-setting megalomaniacs prepared to commit mass-murder to achieve their sinister aims.

There’s an obvious logical flaw in this. What possible aims could we have beyond concern for the planet and a desire for a way of life that might last beyond peak oil? People like Crichton will tie themselves up in knots inventing bizarre plots before they will admit that the race to be richer and accumulate more houses and cars may not actually appeal to everyone.

There are two pertinent facts I have noticed since I joined the green movement, which commentators like Crighton simply haven’t grasped. Fact 1 is that no environmentalist I know is in this for personal gain. They would be mad if they were because Fact 2 is that there isn’t any real money in being an environmental campaigner.

I can count the people I know who make their living solely from green campaigning on my fingers and toes. And if there are any greens maintaining a flash luxury lifestyle on the proceeds of their work I haven’t met them.

Instead, as the ecological emergency becomes more urgent, it is notable that more and more of my colleagues are in fact downsizing their careers and lifestyles, living the simplest life they can and deliberately earning and working less in order to find more time and energy for their campaigns.

At the Green Party’s spring conference this year, Scarborough Councillor Jonathan Dixon gave us a lesson in creative downsizing as part of a debate on energy. His advice was to be hard working and very good at your day job. Then, when you are offered a pay rise for being so great, ask to reduce your working hours instead. After a while you will find yourself with an equally rewarding career and, in addition, plenty of time to work on non-paying things like saving the planet - or indeed anything that takes your fancy.

Brilliant and inspiring stuff, even if Jonathan turns out to be sponsored by an international conspiracy intent on making everyone more civilized and contented - at any cost.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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