CEM says – What’s going on, what’s going wrong (and why), and what is to be done?

This long blog post was written and agreed by Climate Emergency Manchester’s core group before

  1. the brilliant blog post about vision and pathways fell into our lap. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should

  2. we learned that the further City Council climate documents yet to be released (i.e. the 25th February ones) will be scrutinised at Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday 4th March. These may or may not include some of the bigger picture and finer detail which are both so desperately needed


Right now, with Australia on fire, the City Council failing to propose anything amounting to a plan,  the drumbeat of Glasgow’s COP26 already beginning (and beginning to go wrong),  the temptation to despair, to rage and to start riding the “emotacycle” can be overwhelming.

We have to resist. We have to hold our nerve, to keep our wits about us.  This blog post is an effort to do that for ourselves, and share our thinking and perspective with others.  The first draft was by Marc Hudson, but three other members of the core group have read it, added to it and agree it as an “official” CEM perspective. (It was also seen and commented on by two of our closest supporters).

Firstly it briefly lays out what has been going on – (inter)nationally but also locally over the last two years. Secondly, it asks the related question of ‘what’s been going wrong?’, especially on the local level.  Next – and this is the crucial bit, it speculates on why things are going wrong, and cautions against easy and emotionally satisfying answers which are in fact wrong. Finally, the question of ‘what is to be done?’ gets some tentative answers.

We would love to know what you think – especially if you disagree in useful and interesting ways. Climate denialists – please don’t waste your electrons and our time.

We would love even more to have you involved – at whatever level, frequency and intensity works for you – in what we as Climate Emergency Manchester are trying to do. contact@climateemergencymanchester.net is the best email to reach us on…

What’s going on?

The long history of policy failure around climate change – from initial concern about the “greenhouse effect” from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, a bigger wave between 2006-2010 and then the  “lost decade” – of shiny promises unkept – will be dealt with another time. For now, let’s just think about the “resurgence of concern.”

At a national and international level, there have been (at least) four factors contributing to this upsurge. Firstly, the very hot summer of 2018 in the UK (and wildfires in California). Secondly, the coming of Greta Thunberg and her easily reproduced action (school strike/Fridays for Future). Thirdly, Extinction Rebellion, bursting onto the scene with an occupation of bridges in London in November 2018. Amidst this was the release of a report in October 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on what would be needed to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and the increased dangers if warming of 2 degrees Celsius were to occur.  Since then, well, we’ve had David Attenborough pitching in, double page adverts in the Metro from Sainsbury’s et al, and the usual “something must be done” – akin to a piece which appeared in Peace News in 2017 – “2019 How we blew it again.

We should also remember though, that already by June-July 2018 the Manchester Climate Change “Agency” (a community interest company owned and controlled by Manchester City Council with two seconded staff) had commissioned work to see what it would take for Manchester to do “its part” to hit the Paris Agreement. That led, in November 2018, to the bringing forward of a ‘zero-carbon’ target date from 2050 to 2038.

Then, in July 2019, after some significant internal reluctance and resistance Manchester City Council became the latest organisation – and the last of the 11 Core Cities councils – to declare a “climate emergency.”

This SHOULD have led to stringent, urgent, immediate action (that’s what defines an emergency). But really, is anyone surprised that the last seven months have brought so little?  This brings us on to…

What’s going wrong?

At the same time as MCC’s unanimous climate emergency declaration came the more sobering and also unsurprising news – released at the Annual General Meeting of the Climate “Agency” – that the city had achieved a two and a half percent emissions reduction instead of the needed 13 percent.

This inconvenient fact was studiously avoided on the night (have some wine, mingle) and has been avoided ever since. For example, it receives only the most glancing of references in the documents to be scrutinised at the Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee this coming Wednesday.

As our two quarterly reports (‘Hung Drawn and Quarterly’) have shown, very little (if anything, once you discount the creation of the Zero Carbon Coordination Group, which was already underway before the emergency declaration) has been done to turn those words into deeds. Instead, the Council bangs on about its own “cut” in emissions of 48 per cent since 2009 (while almost never ever saying that this might have had the tiniest bit to do with cutting staff from 10 thousand to 6 thousand, cutting services and selling off loads of buildings. Or the partial decarbonisation of the national grid because of the end of coal).

And they go around saying things can’t “happen overnight.”  Well, it’s been about 4000 overnights since the 2009 Climate Action Plan started taking shape….

Over the last months it has become clear that if you as a resident of Manchester want to see your councillors being proactive, trying to put flesh on the bones of the “local action” sentiment, well, you better move to Deansgate, Moss Side, Chorlton or Chorlton Park (and possibly one or two others we have missed).  The high profile, open-public meetings advertised widely that were needed to galvanise action across the city, including beyond the Hulme-Chorlton-Didsbury triangle? They appear not to have happened.

And now, in February 2020, we have a “plan” a year in the (non)making.  It is simply a list of things that might happen, but with no costings, no metrics, no explanation of the stages involved, the partners needed, the barriers, the carbon savings in detail.  It is almost as weak a climate document as the City Council has ever produced (though there have been worse during the ‘lost decade;).


Why is this so?

Humans are shaved and self-regarding monkeys who struggle to think in terms of systems. This means we are prone to blaming individuals and their ‘character’ for outcomes, rather than seeing larger pressures at play. It is easy and in a strange way comforting to just assume that the people responsible are cynical, and secretly cackling and twirling their moustaches while counting their wages and plotting to flee to a bunker in New Zealand.

And yes, there is an element of what the academics who study this sort of thing like to call “cognitive lock-in”.  People at the top of the City Council are trapped in 20th century thinking. They remember – or remember being told about – the dark days of post-industrial decay, and how the only way to prosperity is through making the city as attractive as possible to (pretty much any) inward investment.

And climate change, with its talk of limits and reductions, doesn’t fit the booster-ist narrative (all the guff about climate change as an ‘opportunity’ is the sort of stuff you have to say, but nobody expects anyone to believe it, surely?).

Meanwhile, there are other actors who are quite content with their ‘consultations’ which only reach out to those who they want to hear, who can be relied on to say the right things. It would be a strange council – elected members and bureaucrats – that sincerely wanted to expand the number of actors involved in policymaking and implementation.The loss of control over the safe and soothing narrative would be too frightening.  (Of course, they are losing it anyway, but don’t yet understand that. So it goes).

Finally, at the level of the “plan”, the dilemma for its authors is that rather than “zero carbon”, they have zero certainty about what the resources will be even a year from now.  The City Council is having to make a 1 year budget, for 2020-2021) instead of the normal 3 year budget (there will, fingers crossed, be one for 2021-2024) because Treasury – amidst ‘taking back control’ with Brexit – did not release the necessary figures in time last year.  Meanwhile, there is seemingly no appetite from Executive Member for Finance (Carl Ollerhead) to look at using some of the City Council’s Strategic Reserves for the unanimously declared emergency. (On that, see here).

So, if you have no idea what your resources are or will be, it would be (career) suicidal to make firm commitments which you may very well not meet in a year’s time. An explicit but unkept promise would leave you and your political bosses with egg on face, only able to say “Boris didn’t give us the cash.” Thou shalt not embarrass, or cause the embarrassment of, an Executive Member. That is commandment two of the civil service.

So, all they can do is what they have done –

  • Talk about things that are already happening (and use out of date numbers about potential carbon savings if they help those things look better)
  • Talk in vague terms about what might happen.

The vagueness is not a symptom of stupidity or cowardice. It’s a symptom of massive uncertainty. Or so we have to hope.

What is to be done?

It’s all extremely bleak. There’s no looking for false and easily dashed hopes. There’s no point bright-siding ourselves. This is gonna hurt.  But, just as we must NOT despair, rage or hop on the emotacycle, there are things we must do, that CEM will try to do itself and with others, and to encourage/persuade/pressure the council to do.  So, in reverse order

The City Council could and should (n.b. This is not an exhaustive list!)

  • Get serious about finding serious money to do serious planning
  • Create a seventh Scrutiny Committee, of equal standing to the existing six, dedicated to Climate Change and biodiversity
  • Be far more open and transparent about what is going well and what isn’t (this would include, at a minimum –
  • Ensure that its leaders (both political and officer) give regular speeches about the climate emergency beyond the usual suspects
  • Create and maintain website pages and/or a dedicated website
  • Regular press releases reporting on failures as well as (spun) successes
  • Detailed, proactive reporting of the Climate Emergency Declaration and other climate commitments
  • Commit to “talk in tonnes” of CO2 rather than percentages of this and that.
  • End its use of the fiction of a “48 per cent reduction”
  • End its use the strawman argument ‘things can’t be done overnight’” It has been over a decade of overnights
  • Get serious about ward based action, with a Climate Champion for each of the City’s 32 wards, with regular, publicised meetings about what is being done, needs to be done, is and isn’t being done
  • Re-institute the quarterly carbon reduction reports about the City’s own emissions, to come to all scrutiny committees
  • Have climate policy development and implementation as a standing item at Full Council and Executive.
  • Force its Community Interest Company, the Manchester Climate Change “Agency,” to re-institute the annual day-long stakeholder conference (one was held, in 2010).
  • Create democratic and transparent structures that allow for fresh ideas and critique, rather than the safe/cosy arrangements which have clearly failed over the last ten years.
  • Use the powers it does have (over planning and highways, chiefly) to ensure that the budget it spends and decisions it takes in the next year (and beyond) are at least consistent with a zero carbon future.

CEM in collaboration with its supporters/ allies need to

  • Offer radical practical proposals around what the City Council and other important organisations can do about the climate emergency, in ways that they are likely to be accepted
  • Refuse to be co-opted, refuse the temptation to self-censor, to believe that access equals influence.
  • Expand the number of people involved, the number of issues we can influence
  • Make sure we co-ordinate and collaborate, sharing skills and knowledge, and generally raising groups’ capacity to act
  • Name, and refuse to indulge or enable emotacycle behaviours.

CEM “on its own” will 

  • Expand what we do- briefing papers, Hung Drawn and Quarterly reports, attending scrutiny committees and other Council meetings, lobbying councillors, thickening the network of concerned citizens, offering training and (whisper it) running petitions.
  • Expand our own skills, knowledge, relationships and resources.
  • Make lots of videos, how-to guides etc to help spread the skills and knowledge we gain from our involvement with other concerned citizens
  • Look after each other, since we intend to be in this for the long haul


It’s a cliche, but if we, in the coming months and (very few) years, don’t “get this right” – at the level of community, city nation and globally – then generations to come will curse us as the people who could still have acted but did not do so.  This sentence to come is for pretty much every single person reading this – (over)committed activist, concerned-but-overwhelmed citizen, business owner, council officer, elected councillor – if you want to work with us as we try to “get it right”, and help other more important organisations get it right, well, we are a bit like climate change itself in that we are here, and we are not going away anytime soon.


2 thoughts on “CEM says – What’s going on, what’s going wrong (and why), and what is to be done?”

  1. Brilliant! Especially like the comment about the historical politics and how MCC is making climate policy fit into their existing offices and hierarchy . MCC really need to think differently, the planet will not fit into their timetable.

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