Humanity has become used to burning fossil fuels to feed its appetite for goods and travel around the world. This era must come to an end and the reality of a global warming and climate change crisis must be faced. It is in this context that UCU members met to discuss the implications and education of a new generation faced with these challenges. UCU General Secretary, Jo Grady began her address by stressing that there was a gender issue and that the impact of global warming would be greatest on women. Looking around the room at this point it became apparent that the audience was almost exclusively middle-aged men and women. There was not a young person in sight. The earnest and well-meaning discussion from the audience is important but it was leaning more towards the grave than the cradle. Surely it is more of a generational issue than a gender issue. She then advocated a move away from capitalism toward a ‘green new deal’ devoid of short-sighted competition. Larger investors should disinvest from fossil fuel businesses and turn to the new green industries and jobs. If only it was that simple. There is surely a pressing need to seek the views of young people and some delegates did press for UCU to support the campaigners of ‘Extinction Rebellion’. It was then a pity they were not invited to speak. It might have enlivened the discussion. Instead, we had a very interesting presentation by a representative of ‘Grandparents’ for Climate Action’.
Where was the Trojan horse?
Whilst the conference proceeded, there was a sizeable demonstration taking place just a few hundred metres away from the TUC headquarters at the British Museum. A group of young climate campaigners had taken over the museum’s ‘Troy: Myth or Reality’ exhibition. They had constructed a makeshift Trojan Horse and blockaded the entrance. Their aim was to find the Achilles Heel of the BP company (sorry couldn’t resist) who had sponsored the event.
Called ‘BP or not BP’, they have already stopped sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company by BP. However, whilst succeeding to draw attention to the role of fossil fuels, disinvestment could be counterproductive in the longer term. Instead, the major engineering capabilities of such companies should be pressed into action by redirecting their investments towards green energy alternatives. For example, such companies are well placed to deal with the production and safe distribution of hydrogen as a non-greenhouse gas fuel. They would be well advised to redirect their efforts into this emerging market; perhaps even compelled to do so.
Tackling the technological transition.
Jim Skea, a scientist with a deep understanding of the technical challenge, provided the conference with an excellent overview of the role of government in taking the lead in enabling our complex economy to transition to the new era. This must be done fast and he outlined skilfully the who, what, why, where and, importantly, when questions. This was done in the context of his role in Scotland’s ‘Just Transition Commission’. A fine initiative the rest of the UK might want to emulate before it is too late.
A new approach is needed.
The highlight of the day was a presentation from a former colleague of mine, John Barry of Queen’s University Belfast. An environmental academic, activist and Green Party supporter (former head of the Green Party in Northern Ireland), I know him as someone who lives the life and doesn’t just talk the talk. Rather than fly to London, he opted to do his presentation over the internet using Powerpoint. This was clear and done skillfully. He had made his point and stayed on the line to answer questions. I told one delegate that he opted for this to make a point, otherwise he would have had to take a flight. The response was “do you have to fly from Belfast?” Ouch! Geography failure. There is an overnight bus via Glasgow I guess or travel to Dublin by train and ferry and then train. But it is a very arduous trip with possible connection glitches that are not for the faint-hearted.
The point made by John Barry is an important one. I stressed that the event might have been broadcast to a wider audience via the www and I am sure younger climate activists would have relished this and also could have made their presentations this way. With further improvements in the technology beyond Skype with 5G, we can expect remote communications and events to define the near future. Travel at environmentally damaging high fuel costs will recede and a new age will emerge.
The political dimension.
Discussion in the hall became alarming at times. Some delegates outside were discussing emergency measures by the government. In one case a military coup to trigger a revolution. This was, of course, an isolated view. However, some felt that emergency powers, similar to those put in place in 1939, might be needed in the end. Nancy Lindisfarne of ‘Grandparents’ for Climate Action’ said that if the USA could turn Detroit motor manufacturing over to war production in a matter of months in 1942, the ability to do similar on the climate emergency was not out of the question. However, outside of the context of a global war, this could spell the end of democracy and we should take care no to hand an extreme government such powers. The political and economic consensus seemed to agree that a free market would not be able to meet the technological and societal challenges. Also, the role of UCU in fostering the education needed, as people learned to deal with new technology and services, was central. The political dimension was provided by Alexandra Phillips of the Green Party and Olivia Blake, the new Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam and a biomedical scientist. Both stressed the need for a very different political system moving away from serving the short-term strategies of the free market. Alexandra Philips said that the free market “treats our planet like an open sewer”. These arguments are sound, but how can this happen in such a short time. In answer to my question to Olivia Blake about the scientific competence of our political leaders she confirmed that there were “climate deniers at every level of government and right to the top”. I pointed out that it seems the consequences of the so-called ‘two cultures’, as described by Charles (C P) Snow in 1959, are very serious (originally a Rede Lecture it grew into an influential eponymous book. See also TEFS 28th September 2018 ‘Labour Party Conference 2018: National Education Service and a tale of Two Cultures’). Education needs, it seems, to go right to the top; even if our leaders cannot understand the second law of thermodynamics as proposed by Snow. Physicist, Jim Skea finds himself in a very similar position over sixty years later.
The conference dispersed with an overwhelming sense that our society is simply not prepared at all levels. The core issues are still skirted around, and leadership seems to be lacking in understanding. The discussion about our divided society becoming even more divided as the climate change impact worsens seemed to herald dark times ahead.
But life will continue on the planet regardless of human activities or survival. It is up to us to put our house in order and make it suitable for humans and other living things that do not have a choice. However, we need to offer hope and a good plan for dealing with our future. Surely we are all in it together and we must ensure equality and opportunity for all. In making the quote of the day, John Barry advised that “Greens don’t want to be the teetotaller at the party”. Agreed, and everyone should be invited.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics