Confined to barracks, consoled by Oscar Wilde

I’ve been laid low by a severe bout of blogger’s block, otherwise known as a surge in the demands of my real job. And there’s little prospect of remission.



This is an incurable malady of our times. If Oscar Wilde had been born a hundred years later, he would surely have set aside the demon drink and written instead that work is the curse of the blogging classes.

The worst of it is not so much the denial of my right to write, as the chronic narrowing of the arteries that govern my intake of happenings in the world at large. Most jobs compel us to be specialists in very small things.

The trouble with working in the NGO sector is that we are prone to small-mindedness; it’s generally possible to ply our trade without engaging with people who don’t think the way we think. The value of taking plenty of time out is to acquire a smattering of the cosmology of that parallel human universe.

Bill McKibben's Do The Math tour in Australia ©Canberra Times

Bill McKibben’s Do The Math tour in Australia ©Canberra Times

The gap seems to me to be getting wider, just at the moment when a common vision for the way we live may have become imperative. This is most easily understood in the context of fossil fuels. Those who hail the technology of blasting oil and gas out of rocks as our economic saviour appear quite unaware of those who plead to leave the stuff where it is.

These parallel universes exist in other dimensions, even if harder to locate. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of promises to end global poverty and hunger, led by the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Yet the same rich governments who boast of their commitment to this worthy cause allowed the last fortnight of negotiations in Bonn to pass without a single meaningful gesture towards the goals of the UN Convention on Climate Change. If we don’t protect crops from rising temperatures or shell-forming species from ocean acidification, the prospects for hunger in 2030 bear little resemblance to the promises of the Panel.

Last week Mayor Bloomberg was widely praised for his foresight in launching a $19.5 billion programme for “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.” A wide range of defences will protect New York City from the combined threat of rising sea level and more intense hurricanes.

Compare this investment for a single city with the US government contribution to the climate finance needs of all of the world’s poorest countries. On the most generous interpretation of the figures, the US contributed $7.5 billion over the three years 2010-2012. No further specific commitments are on the table, despite the treaty obligation on those countries most responsible for global warming.

I could go on – the divide between those who crave and those appalled at the idea of pricing biodiversity; between those behind agribusiness and those with faith in 500 million smallholders – but the sand falls too fast through my hourglass.

Oscar Wilde was right, once again: most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.


Scientists scour planet for attentive audience

I often wonder how future historians will marshal their evidence of our generation’s perplexing deafness to the warnings of environmental science. What symbolic folly will they sift from the shipwreck of contemporary culture?

I recently stumbled across an apt if somewhat frivolous example. It should first be said that last week was anything but frivolous on the prognosis for the planet. On three successive days, earth scientists bombarded us with reminders that their work is not being taken seriously.

©Cheng (Lily) Li

©Cheng (Lily) Li

The Governor of California was presented with a Consensus Statement signed by 500 global scientists warning that “human quality of life will suffer substantial degradation by the year 2050.” The Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security concluded that, in a similar timeframe, more than half of the world’s population “will be living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water.” The State of Nature report brings the distressing news that over 30% of UK wildlife species have “declined strongly” in a period shorter than my lifetime.

There’s nothing new about these set piece broadsides but the language is becoming more explicit, as though despairing in advance of the poor media coverage that invariably ensues. The science community is not a happy bunny in the Anthropocene.

Yet, as Professor Jeffrey Sachs told the UN General Assembly a couple of weeks ago, in an uncharacteristic mixed metaphor: “in 41 years since the Stockholm Conference (on the Human Environment) we have not changed the needle, even an iota.”

It was another speech at this General Assembly thematic debate on sustainable development and climate change that offered me a little wry amusement. Professor Johan Rockstrom, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and one of the world’s most persuasive voices on the threat to “planetary boundaries”, had been summoned to speak.

The static camera position in the UN chamber can sometimes capture the antics of unsuspecting platform members alongside the speaker. The first two minutes of Rockstrom’s speech juxtaposed his apocalyptic language on the fate of humanity with the inability of a hapless official from the General Assembly Secretariat to concentrate. Here in microcosm was the failure of global governance to listen to its own chosen experts.

Rockstrom: I speak not for the sake of the planet but for the sake of the future of the world as we know it
UN official: beckons to unseen aide

Rockstrom:  we are hitting the ceiling of ecological capacity of the planet to support the world
UN official: conducts genial chat with aide

Rockstrom: we are in the 6th great extinction of biodiversity on the planet
UN official: scrutinises and replies to cellphone messages

Sure, it’s unfair to pick on unguarded moments, but that future historian will have no scruples in selecting material.

I too was feeling a little unscrupulous as, in response to the New York summons, Rockstrom cancelled a lecture that I had hoped to attend. The STEPS research centre in Brighton has been probing the heart of the dilemma in the current post-2015 debate.

Many scientists say that a stable environment is a prerequisite for hopes of ending world poverty. The world’s poorest countries say that poverty reduction comes first.

Rockstrom is known to be fully engaged with this challenge which remains far from resolved in all the current discussion about a new set of Sustainable Development Goals.

I wonder whether he regrets his switch of venue. Everyone at STEPS would have listened to what he had to say.


Consensus Statement from Global Scientists

State of Nature

Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security

UN General Assembly thematic debate (Sachs starts at 25.00, Rockstrom at 1:57.45)

Sustainable Development Goals – Tread Softly briefings

Red line in Red List of Ecosystems

A week ago today a group of earth scientists published their paper on the Scientific Foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. This important step towards competent management of our planet attracted little notice in the media.

Last week also saw the 400 parts per million landmark for atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide disappear into the rear view mirror. Having no more than symbolic significance, this event nevertheless prompted yards of commentary by all and sundry.

Groundwater dependent ecosystems support livelihoods in Vietnam ©IUCN Vietnam

Groundwater dependent ecosystems support livelihoods in Vietnam ©IUCN Vietnam

My initial reaction was to blame the IUCN communications people for missing such an obvious hook to promote their pet project. We’ve been warned constantly about the potentially terminal effect of rising temperature on vital ecosystems – notably the Amazon rainforest and the coral reefs.

Surely the looming 400ppm threshold could have been exploited to stress the urgency (and the need for funding) of the Red List initiative? By 2025 it aspires to classify the world’s threatened ecosystems – terrestrial, marine, large and small – as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, labels familiar from the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

This blind spot seemed to be just another example of silo thinking within our environmental advocacy establishment. Then I took a closer look at the 25-page scientific paper, the 45-slide presentation by Ed Barrow, Head of IUCN’s Global Ecosystem Management Programme, together with the latest media material and new website.

To my surprise, the impact of climate change is barely mentioned – just a fleeting reference to the role of stable ecosystems in creating resilience.

The scientists may argue that they have chosen to focus on biodiversity loss as the primary risk factor in ecosystem collapse, drawing a red line against broader ecological changes that might be linked more readily with global warming.

However, last week also saw the publication of new research led by the University of East Anglia which casts some doubt on the wisdom of the IUCN approach.

This research focused on the how the habitats of plants and animals will be affected by climate change. Dr Rachel Warren from the University of East Anglia told the BBC that “climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world.”

I can’t for a moment challenge the science of the IUCN paper. But I continue to be worried that two major UN Conventions – on climate change and on biological diversity – are beating their separate paths. It’s understandable that scientists and campaigners whose careers are inextricably linked with one tend to lose sight of the other. Perhaps those of us working in communications and education need to strive harder to make the connections.


New study shows importance of IUCN’s Red List of Ecosystems from IUCN

‘Dramatic decline’ warning for plants and animals from BBC

Climate Change and Biodiversity – Tread Softly briefing


John Ashton pulls no punches in climate arena

The retirement of a British civil servant often has something in common with the schoolboy released into the playground, bursting to shout out all the words suppressed by teacher in the classroom.

John Ashton ©SOAS

John Ashton ©SOAS

Since July last year, John Ashton, CBE, has embarked on a flurry of speaking engagements and media contributions. As former Special Representative for Climate Change to three successive Foreign Secretaries, his thoughts are hot off the press, admirably forthright and worthy of attention.

The retired diplomat has told the Koreans to grow up and commit to an emissions target. In Tokyo he suggested that the Japanese should stop behaving like Hamlet. And, in so many words, Ashton informed an academic audience in Arizona that America is losing its soul.

At home, Ashton has advised some of the world’s leading climate scientists to get their act together on the politics of climate change. He encouraged young students in Bedford to draw inspiration from the Occupy movement.

John Ashton has an unusual résumé. Abandoning an exotic early career as a Cambridge astronomer, he forged his craft in the bowels of the Foreign Office. The scientific training made its unexpected comeback in the latter part of his career, culminating in the first recognition in the British honours system for “services to international climate change.”

For good measure, Ashton speaks Mandarin and claims 30,000 followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter – “a very small number there,” he observed in his revealing valedictory evidence to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.

We should be grateful that he has so far resisted the revolving door of corporate sinecures that are without doubt stuffed in his back pocket. Now describing himself as “an independent commentator and adviser on the politics of climate change,” Ashton has clearly invested time in crafting his speeches. I’ve tried to pull together the recurring observations from those that I’ve read:

  • The 2008 banking and economic collapse ended all credibility of free market ideology and casino finance but politicians and their electorates remain in denial
  • The stress on food, water and energy systems accelerated by climate change represents the new systemic risk to global security and prosperity
  • Power is controlled by default by political and business elites whose interests lie in the status quo
  • Pleas that economic recovery can only be secured through conventional fossil-fuelled growth are clinging to the wreckage of an obsolete model and will fail.
  • Developed countries must rapidly decarbonise their power generation and electrify all transport and heating. Transformation on this scale requires a revival of the post-1945 shared resolve to build a better world.
  • China, Germany and Korea lead the way in low carbon competitiveness;
  • Don’t blame the negotiators for the impasse in UN climate negotiations. They are hidebound by their political bosses back home.
  • National delegations have no leverage in negotiations unless their own countries walk the talk. The UK is losing ground in this regard.
  • The unlikely prospect of the US Senate ever ratifying any international agreement to limit US emissions casts a dark shadow over the promise of the Obama/Kerry partnership.

The gaping hole in these reflections is the special predicament of the poorest countries and the current failure of UN climate negotiations to interpret the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. How should the burden of emissions reductions be shared and how should the cost of climate action in the poorest countries be reimbursed? There can be no international agreement without answers to these questions.

It was telling that the only mention of these issues that I could find in John Ashton’s material – a brief reference to the decision to locate the Green Climate Fund in Korea – makes the error of stating the amount of promised climate finance to be $100 million per annum, instead of $100 billion.

Ashton must have been deeply involved in the climate justice dimension – why does he leave it out? Presentations scheduled later this month at RSA and SOAS offer the chance to rectify the omission.

I’ve embedded below the text of the Arizona speech, in preference to the YouTube recording (46.00-57.30) which portrays John Ashton as a poor speaker. This may have been on account of the rather un-British culture of that conference or it may simply reflect the Foreign Office tradition that its cadres should write beautifully but keep their mouths shut, in deference to their political masters.

Other speeches are posted in the news archive of E3G, the climate advisory group co-founded by Ashton. RTCC also posts this material, having engaged Ashton for a monthly q&a session with its readers.

Heikki Holmås enters inner sanctum of UN energy initiative

Appointments to the governing bodies of the UN’s Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) initiative announced by the Secretary-General on April 19th are unlikely to silence longstanding criticisms of the governance structure.

In a sprawling list of 47 names, only that of Heikki Holmås, the Norwegian Minister of International Development, caught my attention. The American establishment dominance of SE4ALL’s Executive Committee may be disconcerted by the new arrival, described as a former “waste collection worker” and now a driving force of one of the most left-wing parties represented in European government, with form as a critic of US society.

Heikki Holmås, Minister of International Development, Norway ©IISD Reporting Services

Heikki Holmås, Minister of International Development, Norway ©IISD Reporting Services

I recognised the name rather more as a minister who has quickly made his mark, having succeeded the long-serving Erik Solheim last year. The speech given by Holmås at last year’s London Summit on Family Planning was one of the best of its type that I’ve heard. And in hosting a high level meeting on Energy and the post-2015 Development Agenda in Oslo earlier this month, he made a serious attempt to transform the tired conference format into something interesting and telegenic (not entirely successfully).

SE4ALL is a bold initiative led by the UN Secretary-General which seeks to force the pace on the scourge of energy poverty. It sets a target to provide universal access to electricity and safe cooking facilities by 2030, alongside further goals relating to global energy efficiency and the use of renewable technologies. This vision is a strong candidate for inclusion in the new range of post-2015 sustainable development goals currently under debate.

Governance criticisms came to a head at last year’s Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development when SE4ALL featured as the lead case study in the Friends of the Earth investigation, Reclaim the UN from corporate capture. It described the UN’s High-level Group for SE4ALL as “an unaccountable, handpicked group, dominated by representatives of multinational corporations and fossil fuel interests, virtually without any involvement from or consultation with global civil society.” Only 4 of the 35 members of the Group were women.

Ban Ki-moon has responded with a more balanced selection but also by further distancing the high-level group, now called the Advisory Board, from the day-to-day work of the initiative. Co-chaired by Ban himself and Dr Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, this Board has 36 members. It’s difficult to conceive a coordinated role for these senior figures, other than as powerful advocates for the cause.

Attention therefore focuses more on a new inner Executive Committee which will supervise the activities of Kandeh Yumkella, now appointed as the full-time chief executive of the initiative.

This Committee’s profile is unconvincing. Only two of the eleven members are women. The interest of traditional energy corporations continues to be represented by Shell and Eskom. Apart from the Eskom CEO, Africa has no voice, nor does Southeast and East Asia, the world’s most dynamic economic region.

The two representatives of civil society, The Energy and Resources Institute and the World Resources Institute, are organisations renowned for research, rather than the grassroots experience of implementing programmes in poor communities.

The inclusion of Heikki Holmås to this inner group may have been compelled by force of credentials. The Norwegians have been right behind the Secretary-General’s energy initiative from the outset, hosting a pivotal conference in October 2011 at which the prime minister launched Norway’s own programme, the International Energy and Climate Initiative (Energy+).

Energy+ broadly replicates the approach of SE4ALL in pursuing the goal of universal access to energy. Norway’s 2013 aid budget includes a figure approaching $350 million for the Energy+ programme. This is serious and near-term money, unlike the vaguely articulated promises of public-private partnerships that proliferated at the Rio+20 event.

Norway’s Energy+ initiative is important not just for its budget but for its “guiding principles”. These preclude support for new fossil fuel developments, despite Norway’s own ambiguous position as a major oil producer. Referring to the 1.3 billion people without access to electricity in a speech earlier this month, Heikki Holmås said: “the reality of climate change means that this increase in energy production should be in the form of renewable energy.”

This position – which is shared with considerable passion by most environmental NGOs – conflicts with the Rio+20 outcome document and may be at odds with other members of the SE4ALL Executive Committee. The World Bank, represented by Rachel Kyte, in particular has been grappling with the dilemma of financing coal and gas projects for grid extension in poor countries.

Much may depend on the interpersonal dynamics within the new group. I couldn’t help noticing that eight of the eleven members of the Executive Committee either work in the US or possess a higher degree from a US university. Make that nine out of twelve if you include the chief executive, Kandeh Yumkella.

Heikki Holmås did venture into an American university a couple of weeks ago, his speech on inequality to students at New York University amounting to a bold manifesto on the challenge of global poverty.

He also informed the students that: “the American dream is dying in the US, but it is still alive and kicking in Norway.”

Heikki Holmås announces Norway’s commitment to family planning at the 2012 London Summit.


UN Secretary-General and World Bank President name Sustainable Energy For All advisory board members

Mini-bios of SE4ALL Executive Board members (scroll to page 13)

Energy+: Questions and Answers from Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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