(Don’t) mind the gap – #climate emergency absent from Mayor’s “Green” “Summit”

Reader. Imagine you are a time traveler. Your TARDIS has landed on the Titanic in April 15th 1912. You’ve stepped out, and the unreliable blue box has then taken off automatically, stranding you on board. You know what is coming… Two hours after the ship has hit the iceberg, and as even the dullest-witted among you know that there is real deadly trouble ahead, the captain calls you all to a meeting. Rather than discuss the situation, he treats you to a description of… all the shopping you could do in New York, the shows you could see, the museums you could  visit.

Well imagine no more, because if your TARDIS had taken you to the Lowry, to yesterday, October 18th, 2021, you could have had exactly the same icy grip of terror, impending doom and disbelief at the gaslighting and brightsiding by the “elite” as 109 years previously.

The short version is this.  Andy Burnham admitted there is a gap between the target and the performance.  Another politician gave it a number – 8.3 million tonnes of CO2 this year and then cudgelled people with a lot of other numbers to make them forget. In a session that was one of four parallel ones, a scientist from Tyndall Centre admitted that the gap is enormous, and barring unforeseen miracles will get bigger and bigger (she didn’t come out and say “the budget, the whole “net-zero by 2038 thing is dead”, but that’ is simply not what academics DO.)

If you weren’t in that session, you could have come away from the whole sorry day with

a) a free lunch

b) a catch up with friends; and

c) a vague impression that things are kinda sorta more or less on track. 

Basically, “mission accomplished” for the summit’s organisers then… And so much for all this wretched nonsense then…

If you’re a masochist, and you want the gory details, read on. If you’re sane, get out and enjoy the remaining months/years before the shit that has hit the fan and is already hitting lots of people in other countries and some people in this country starts hitting you. Carpe the remaining diems…

What happened (a blow to the soul by blow to the soul account)

After the customary milling around stalls (more about that later – see “a whale of a time” below) we trooped into the big auditorium.  There we were greeted by Andy Burnham, who had a bunch of people on stage with him.

Burnham really is a good politician (and no, I don’t mean that as a compliment).  And one of the things a good politician does is agree – non-specifically – with actual or potential critics, to “bring them into the tent”, make them feel seen and heard.  It’s amazing how far a simple trick like that can take you.

To be clear, this is not a new insight, nor my insight. Back in 2019, at the second Mayor’s Green Summit, academic Hannah Knox spotted this devastatingly effective rhetorical ploy. And Burnham, wisely, has not changed a winning game.

So, we got phrases like “first city to declare a science-based target” and meaningless but carefully chosen statistoids like “progress has been “faster in the last four years than in the decade before,” without contextualising (grid decarbonisation, pandemic?)

Burnham wanted to talk about transport, energy and how important it was that central government give him some money. So he did.

Burnham didn’t want to talk about the airport, or the growing gap between the promises and the delivery. So he didn’t. On the latter though – and this is crucial, he admitted that it existed and is getting bigger. But no numbers, no context (no leadership).

And all this took up our time and energy.  

Burnham is a very good politician, so he did it well, engaging, self-deprecating (occasionally cloyingly so, but these things happen). On and on he went.  The shopping could be SO GOOD in New York.

He was followed by his “details” man the leader of Rochdale council, (see “whale of a time”, below) who at least had the decency to say that the gap “has been increasing year on year” and even say this year’s magic number – 8.3 million tonnes of CO2.  This was followed by a flurry of statistics and pronouncements that nobody could (or was) expected to understand, absorb, or remember.  This reminded me of the squid’s defense mechanism – throw out a load of black ink to bamboozle anyone trying to see what was (or was not, going on). Or, to revert to my favourite movie reference for this sort of thing, it’s like those amnesia wands in Men in Black, where a very bright light wipes brains of things they shouldn’t know. (1)

And he used one of the standard  tactics “this year has been primarily a year of development of the plan.” Um, you set the target in 2019… You knew that you had to make most of the big cuts in the first five years. But the second year was “a year of development of the plan.” Mmm, kay. (I got flashbacks to countless Manchester City Council scrutiny committee meetings, where, for ten years now, bureaucrats have been talking about how the past year has been a year of developing a plan which will – soon – become a framework, or at best a pilot study…)

Various other speakers followed. Some were good, though all basically talked in generalities, and none of them said what any responsible citizen would say, if on the stage with Burnham.

“Stop brightsiding us. Stop gaslighting us. Even in a pandemic, the already big gap grew even further. With each passing year, because the budget decreases sharply, the gap will grow.  You as a leader have to tell the truth about the depth of the shit we are in.”

You do that, you don’t get invited back. Simples. The Game is the Game is the Game. We all know how it is played. Five year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains..

The dinosaurs did it better.

After this session (and, despite all the rhetoric about “challenging leaders” there was no opportunity at this session to ask questions,) it was off into sessions. Yes, the sessions…

The three sessions I went to:

“Community Action”

Five quick talks, all less than five minutes (except for the one that was 6 minutes 49 seconds, of course), ably chaired by the mayor of Salford, Paul Dennett. Followed by a Q and A .

Sixty-ish people in the room, maybe two thirds women (normal for any event with the word community in the title, especially if there is at the same time an “energy” event for the men to go to).  Four out of the 60 were black and ethnic minority.  So, very representative of Greater Manchester then…

Zero effort by anyone to create loose ties between attendees, who were therefore not so much participants as ego-fodder.

Not much evidence of thinking about what is needed to massively accelerate action to at least gesture towards closing that “Gap” I may have mentioned.

As we came out, I asked the person who had been sitting next to me what she had thought and she said it was all frustratingly vague and not tackling “the gap.”  Yup.

Research and Innovation

Various worthies (including a friend, for full disclosure).  Key thing here was the:

  1. The first presentation, where the nature of the gap got its first proper airing (the Rochdale guy does not count, because he glossed over it.)
  2. The pushback against the happy-clappy vision of so-called “Green Hydrogen” that came from a questioner, forcing an admission that most hydrogen is very very un-green...

Basically, I got the first presenter to confirm the following

  1. We are way off budget (“the gap”) but more importantly
  2. Because the budget goes down quickly, with each passing year we are going to be more and more “off budget” (neither Burnham nor anyone else had said that)

I pointed out that 

  1. Pretty soon we are going to have to give up on the virtue-signalling of keeping to “our budget” because it will be mathematically impossible
  2. Andy Burnham never pointed out the basic numbers, the basic facts, and – to quote myself “A real leader tells you the depth of the shit you are in.”

The final straw… sorry, the final session for me was:

“The road to Cop26 and a look to the future”

This was excruciating. Burnham (probably unaware of what had just gone before) tried to get us all enthused. “Are things changing?” he asked, presumably expecting a semi-obedient/enthusiastic “yes”.

Someone (not me) shouted No.”

Crickets. Reader, I swear, there were crickets.

Someone else (also not me) shouted “Not fast enough.”

Burnham is a good politician, and knew a lifeline when it was thrown (inadvertently) his way. He grabbed it, agreeing vigorously.

Then Burnham sat on a sofa with Chris Boardman and the top dog at the Environment Agency and did his best suave “man of people” thing.  Which gets old quicker than you would – and he does – think.

Rather than admit that, as per the recent analysis of Professor Michael Jacobs that

Boardman and the Environment Agency person just waffled and talked about their own personal involvement in various lead-up events.

On and on it went.

The question I didn’t get to ask (I gave up my spot for someone else, having asked a question in the previous session) was this.

“Some people in this room will remember the COP in Copenhagen in 2009, and aftermath – climate basically disappeared as an issue. We know a hard winter is coming, definitely of energy price spikes and shortages, people going hungry. What does each of the panellists, concretely, personally and as a leader of organisations, plan to do in January and February to keep climate on the agenda?”

Because a real leader tells those he or she is leading about the likely trouble ahead, and gives some tips on how they might prepare. They don’t talk about the shopping in New York.

A whale of a time.

That whale. At last. On the original go around of stalls downstairs we (me and someone new to CEM) encountered several interesting folks. We also stopped off at the Rochdale Council stall. There was no information whatsoever about climate change or climate policy. Instead there were some glossy (expensive?) flyers and so forth for a festival… which has already happened. We agreed that this was perhaps symptomatic of the Summit and how various organisations are just phoning it in..  What we didn’t know was that 

  1. There was a giant paper mache whale being ‘walked’ around repeatedly (I was tempted to phone my Japanese friends and see if they wanted to do some “research”)
  2. Rochdale’s leader is the new top dog for Burnham on environment (taking over from the Salford guy)
  3. Upstairs the other local authorities had at least bothered to put relevant information on their stalls

What is Rochdale THINKING? Wouldn’t leading by example, if your leader is the lead politician on this stuff, be a good idea? Or is that a leading question?

What I got out of attending.

Because a bunch of Climate Emergency Manchester people were going, I was able to get them to actually meet and talk to each other (this is a large part of the point of CEM, imo: the pandemic has made this more difficult, and although people have been on zoom calls together, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face natter).

Other than that, um – more cynicism,  more icy grip of terror, impending doom and disbelief at the “elite’s” idiocy.

What is the purpose of these events?

Any half-decent anthropologist (and also me) will tell you that there is the official rationale) for an event (a scrutiny committee meeting, a “green” “summit” and then there is the social function – or more likely functions – it performs.

Motivations of the organisers and the attendees have to be thought through.

Superficially, the event was there to “showcase” “progress” made towards the plan, and for attendees to “learn” and “ask questions.”

Underneath, what is going on? I’d call it all  “soothing and schmoozing”

First, the soothing – those who come (and indeed those who put the event on)  desperately want to believe that we are kinda sorta on track.  It is in the interests of today’s leaders, and yesterdays’ bureaucrats who are still running the show to manage perceptions (and this is ABSOLUTELY about perception management) so that people can continue to believe such soothing myths.

Secondly, businesses and councils want to be able to connect more easily with each other. So, there were several senior officers and councillors from Manchester City Council there yesterday, and doubtless from some of the other combined authorities.  Weak ties were doubtless strengthened, business cards exchanged, “have your people call my people” conversations had.

They are NOT there, despite the incantations and exhortations, for any meaningful challenge of our lords and masters, the progress against the “plans” or, even, to help create the networks of citizens who could come to challenge our lords and masters before the next such summit (and there will surely be one) or at it. 

Recently I went to a pseudo-event (in the original Boorstin sense ) at the Central Library that was pathetic and largely harmless.  People walked down some stairs holding placards saying “this was what an activist looks like.” I was embarrassed for them, and more so for the organisers, busy emptying important terms of meaning. I didn’t blog it, because, well, choose your targets.

This, however, this is not merely pathetic but actually actively harmful. It allows people to think things are kinda sorta on track, and that they’ve done their bit by turning up. It allows those in office to believe that they are leaders, that they are doing their job. Even more than those who handed out the placards to the stair walkers, Burnham and colleagues are hard at work emptying terms of meaning.  They are co-opting the language of “challenge” and “not enough” – agreeing with critics and critiques with the obvious intention of taking the wind out of their sails.

You as a citizen, therefore, have a choice. Are you going to be lied-by-omission to? Are you going to be pacified?  Or are you going to do what citizens should do – use their freedoms of information, speech and assembly to say “not good enough. hat are we going to do to keep within our carbon budget?”  Are you going to be on the stage, in exchange for your silence, or are you going to try to be too (constructively) awkward to be captured?

Coda

As I was leaving at about 2.15 there were many many unclaimed lunch bags. That’s fine, it’s better to have too many than too few. What’s not fine is that the guy on the desk had no idea what was going to happen to that left-over food. I HOPE it went to FareShare or a homeless shelter or whatever. Anywhere but landfill. At an event that was all about presentation, they couldn’t even get this right. What does that tell you about our chances of closing “the gap”?

Footnotes

  1. Or, for those among you who are familiar both with The Illuminatus Trilogy and Finbarr Saunders from Viz Magazine – “Fnord fnord fnord”

4 thoughts on “(Don’t) mind the gap – #climate emergency absent from Mayor’s “Green” “Summit””

  1. Thanks, Marc. This is a good example of what is now called ‘the new denialism’. Such denialism seems to be becoming increaingly entrenched, not only in Manchester but across the UK and beyond. The question is: how best do we struggle against this?

    1. Cheers Peter,
      my answer would be what it has been for at least 14 years (possibly longer, but if I claimed that I’d be on shakier ground), namely, we have to build organisations capable of recruiting and *RETAINING* folks, (therefore) using their skills, knowledge and relationships, while adding to those, and while also respecting how little time/bandwidth folks have (‘legitimate peripheral participation’). These organisations would have to be simultaneously open to new folks while also able to resist co-optation, conspiricacism, capture by Trots etc, and be able to not measure their “success” on the basis of media attention. This makes groups prone to boom and bust, as we have seen with various outfits which were talking a very big game two years ago and are now, well, talking less.
      Meanwhile, such organisations, probably likely to be started by middle-class people, have to eschew class privilege (which so many of us are blind to) and make common cause, do decent allyship, with folks who don’t look like them (race, class, gender and all the other issues we are becoming more sensitive to). While insisting on unprecedently rapid and socially just transition. So, pretty easy and straightfoward… cough, cough

      1. Yes, it’s a tall order, isn’t it? Maybe worth mentioning trade unions and the power to strike, and working within political parties, e.g. Greens and Labour, and working across parties. We need action of all kinds, including direct action and working within NGOs. All forms of action have their limitations, and we need to be aware of those. Taking part in the march, etc, today, I and others I talked to were made aware of the fragmentation and complexity within the climate justice movement, with little coherence or even communication across the different organisations and factions involved. If we’re going to avoid catastrophic climate change, I think we’ve got to put much more emphasis on building a unity of purpose.

        1. Will be writing a what is to be done (differently) blog post, over on Manchester Climate Monthly.
          Today was another typical atrocity (personal opinion)
          Marc

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