Why nuclear is not the answer to the climate crisis

Our new briefing – number 15 – looks at nuclear power.

New nuclear power stations are central to the UK government’s new energy strategy. Some influential environmentalists like George Monbiot support nuclear as part of tackling the climate crisis and the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IPCC) argue that globally by 2050 energy production should 70% renewables and 30% nuclear.  So why do we say that there should be no role for nuclear?  In this briefing we explore the arguments around nuclear and demolish some of the myths about nuclear power.

A military technology

The raw material for nuclear weapons is produced in nuclear reactors.  In the US, the UK, Russia civil nuclear power was developed after the second world war to support nuclear weapons programmes.  Researchers at the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit have shown that to this day the main role of nuclear power in the UK main has  been to subsidise nuclear weapons.  Electricity consumers have paid the price through higher costs, providing a hidden subsidy for the nuclear weapons programme.

Chernobyl CC0 pixabay.com

High cost

Nuclear power costs two to three times as much per unit of electrical energy than offshore wind. Onshore wind and solar is even cheaper.  These comparisons don’t include the cost of decommissioning old nuclear power stations (which takes many decades) or the cost of safely storing the radioactive waste that they generate (which is necessary for thousands of years).  These additional costs are born by consumers and taxpayers.  

Long construction times

Since 2011 construction has started on 57 nuclear power plants around the world.  Ten years later only 15 are operational, with many incurring long delays and massive overruns on predicted costs.  Even advocates of nuclear power argue that it would take around 25 years for new nuclear to make a significant impact to global energy production.

Carbon free? Not at all!

To widespread consternation, the European Commission recently declared nuclear a green technology.  Clearly nuclear reactions don’t generate greenhouse gases.  However, it’s a myth that nuclear is a carbon free resource.  Uranium mining, plant construction, which requires large amounts of concrete, and decommissioning are all carbon intensive. A 2017 report by WISE International estimated nuclear lifecycle emissions at 88–146 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. More than ten times higher than wind with lifecycle emissions power of about 5–12 grams. Uranium fuel is scarce and carbon emissions from mining will rise as the most easily recoverable ores are mined out.

Safety

The consequences of nuclear accidents are severe.  Proponents of nuclear power downplay the impact of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and argue that the number of deaths was small. In a scrupulous investigation, Kate Brown author of ‘Manual for Survival – A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’ has researched the decades long efforts by the old Soviet Union, and then the US, to cover up the impact of Chernobyl.  She estimates that the true figure for deaths is in the range 35 – 150,000.  Many nuclear plants (like Fukushima) are built close to the sea to provide water for cooling. increasingly these reactors will be at risk as sea levels rise.

CCO pixabay.com

Environmental impact

About 70% of uranium mining is carried out on the land of indigenous people. Mining and leaks of radiation have had a devastating effect on the environment in these areas. Building more nuclear power will result in more leakage of radioactive materials into the environment and more workers exposed to unsafe conditions and preventable deaths.  

Small modular reactors

Rolls Royce is pushing for the development of small modular nuclear reactors as a response to the climate crisis.  It’s argued that they could be built more quickly although this is unproven.  In addition to sharing all the negative features of larger reactors, new research at Stanford University suggests that smaller reactors are less efficient and produce up to 35 times the amount of low-level radioactive waste and 30 times the amount of long lived waste compared with larger reactors.

Scotland

While Westminster is planning huge investments, the Scottish Government is currently opposed to new nuclear generation.  Nevertheless, Scotland has more licensed nuclear installations per head of population than anywhere else in the world.  Only one of these, Torness, is currently generating electricity, and it is scheduled to shut down in 2028.  There will be strong pressure on the Scottish government to buy in to a new generation of reactors.

Alternatives

Advocates of nuclear power argue that nuclear is essential to the energy transition we need because, unlike wind and solar, it is not dependent on the weather or the time of day and so can provide a reliable base load.  There are alternatives – more investment in tidal generation could also support based load supply – and the development of a smart grid involving multiple types of storage – pumped hydro, local heat pumps and battery could ensure an energy supply system that is resilient.  Developing these systems alongside wind and solar would enable the energy system to be transformed much more rapidly than is possible with nuclear.  A nuclear strategy is just too slow to meet the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.  And the big sums of money being channelled in to nuclear divert investment from renewables and prevent that rapid and necessary transition.

Download this briefing.

Briefing #14: Climate, fuel poverty & the cost of living

Briefing #14 on climate, fuel poverty and the cost of living is now available for download. As with all the our briefings you are welcome to use and adapt the briefing content – attribution to https://scote3.net is appreciated.

The content of the briefing is reproduced below.

Climate, fuel poverty & the cost of living

Fuel poverty kills

Prior to the latest crisis almost 25% of households in Scotland lived in fuel poverty and just over 12% were in extreme fuel poverty.  Households in extreme fuel poverty are disproportionately represented in rural Scotland.  Older people living in rural Scotland are particularly hard hit. Every year thousands die because of fuel poverty – in 2018/19 excess winter mortality (that’s in comparison with the average winter mortality for the previous five years) was 2060 – the death toll can be more than twice as high in cold winters. Around 85% of households in the UK rely on gas for heating and cooking.  The huge hike in gas prices is going to make an already unacceptable situation much, much worse.  

Rising fuel prices

Gas and electricity prices have been rising faster than inflation for a long time.  From 2006 – 2016, Gas prices rose by 71% and Electricity 62%. Between 2017 and 2020 electricity prices increased by a further 8% in real terms while gas prices fell by a similar amount.  But gas prices are extremely volatile.  Since 2019 the wholesale price has almost trebled. 

Gas consumption fell by just over 2% in 2020, a consequence of lockdowns around the world.  In 2021 there was a rebound with consumption increasing by 4.6% because of increased economic activity and several extreme weather events worldwide.  The cost of producing gas is about the same this year as it was last year and the year before. So why has the price rocketed up?  Prior to 1987 the EU designated natural gas a premium fuel that should be reserved for home heating.  Now 60% of gas is used to generate electricity.  Britain used to have significant storage capability. This was abandoned in favour of allowing the market to deliver gas as needed.  These changes have been a disaster.  Gas is traded on the spot market with hedge funds gambling on future prices.  As a result, the cost of an essential utility is determined by a casino where traders rake in massive profits while consumers pay the price.

Lack of ambition

In June 2019 the Scottish Parliament passed a new act setting statutory targets for reducing fuel poverty.  Rightly it highlights the impact of fuel poverty on the most vulnerable in society. Low-income, high-energy costs, and poorly insulated housing result in the appalling situation where families, young people, elderly, disabled and many working people, cannot afford adequate warmth.  The new act sets interim targets for reducing fuel poverty to 15% of households by 2030 and final targets for 2040.  Considering the cost of living and climate crises we face this is too slow and not enough.   The act failed to address the threat posed by a chaotic market.  From April 2022 annual bills will increase by an average of almost £700.  Further increases are expected later in the year.  The numbers in fuel poverty are set to rise well above the current level.  

Fossil fuels cost the earth

Both Holyrood and Westminster remain committed to the maximum economic extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea. The big energy companies are making billions in extra profits out of the crisis.  North Sea oil and gas operates under a regime of very low taxation.  With prices high companies will be doubling down on plans to open new gas fields.  If this happens there is no chance of meeting the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are essential.  We argue that there are two essential steps.  The first is to protect all those who are in fuel poverty and stop more people joining them.  A windfall tax on profiteers will help with this but should not be mistaken for a long-term solution – and the scale of the problem is so large that it requires significant redistribution with higher taxes on the rich and much more support for the poor.  These are necessary short-term steps to prevent large scale misery, deprivation and increased winter deaths.  But a secure future for us all rests on gas being taken out of the market, with North Sea and North Atlantic oil and gas taken into public ownership and control.  With public control it then becomes possible to plan for the phase out of fossil fuels from the North Sea.  In the process we cut greenhouse gas emissions and replace expensive gas heating by cheaper renewables.  The interests of working people and the need to protect the planet are aligned.

A mass insulation campaign

In its ‘One Million Climate Jobs Pamphlet’, the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) notes that 

Three quarters of emissions from houses and flats … are caused by heating air and water. To reduce this we need to insulate and draught- proof the buildings, and replace inefficient boilers. This can cut the amount of energy used to heat the home and water by about 40% and delivers the double-whammy of reducing energy costs and helping mitigate the scourge of fuel poverty. 

Based on these CACC estimates, which are for the whole of the UK, a campaign to properly insulate all homes in Scotland would employ around 20,000 construction workers for the next 20 years.  This doesn’t account for additional jobs in education, training and manufacture that would spin off from such an endeavour.  Through this carbon dioxide emissions from homes would be cut by 95%.   We could ensure that all new houses are effectively carbon neutral.  The technology exists – there are examples of ‘passive houses’ that use very little energy.  Insulation together with the steady replacement of gas boilers by affordable heat pumps is the solution to cutting the energy demands of domestic heating. Hydrogen is not a solution (see Briefing #13).

Image by Pete Cannell CC0 Public Domain

New Technologies 

The current costs for fossil fuel power range from 4p -12p per kilowatt-hour. Inter renewable energy agency (IREA) state that renewable energy will cost 2p – 7p with the best onshore wind and solar photovoltaic projects expected to deliver electricity for 2p or less.  Renewable energy is necessary for a sustainable future, and it is cheaper than fossil fuels.  Current Westminster Government policy – notably the subsidy ban for new onshore wind farms – is impeding the shift to renewables. 

No Fracking

For the moment fracking is off the agenda in Scotland.  The result of a magnificent campaign of resistance.  But INEOS continues to import fracked gas from the US.  This has to stop.

In conclusion

Fuel Poverty and the cost-of-living crisis are the direct result of the “wrecking ball” of market forces dominating our need for energy to give us warmth, light and sustenance. In the pursuit of profit, the use of fossil fuels adds to the catastrophe of climate change.

We have the technology and skills to stop this madness and misery through a radical shift in Energy policy that would combine sustainable and renewable resources dedicated to social need.  Tackling climate change would go hand in hand with creating additional jobs, eliminating fuel poverty, and improving health and well-being.  To make this happen we need the kind of focus and the level of investment that has only normally applied at times of war.  Ending the use of fossil fuels over a short period is practically possible provided there is the political will.

Some of the material in this briefing also appears in Briefing #7 – Fuel Poverty

About Scot E3

Scot.E3 is a group of rank and file trade unionists, activists and environmental campaigners. In 2107 we made a submission to the Scottish Government’s Consultation on a Scottish Energy Strategy. Since then we have been busy producing and sharing leaflets and bulletins.

We believe there is a compelling case for a radical shift in energy policy. Looming over us there is the prospect of catastrophic climate change, which will wreck the future for our children and grandchildren.

We have the knowledge and the skills to make a difference to people’s lives in the here and now. A sustainable future requires a coherent strategy for employment, energy and the environment. We need a sense of urgency.  We need a coordinated strategy and massive public investment.

A Botched Rehearsal

Mike Downham reflects on the impact of Covid, the aftermath of COP26 and what we might do differently in future. This article was first published in Scottish Socialist Voice.

It’s nearly two long years since we began to become aware of the potential scale and danger of the new virus. At that point some prescient people suggested that how we reacted to the pandemic would be a rehearsal for our performance in the forthcoming big show of climate breakdown.

This wasn’t the first time ‘rehearsal’ had been used for how we organise on the left. John Berger described every act of resistance as a rehearsal. Colin Barker called his 1987 book about the uprisings in France, Chile, Portugal, Iran and Poland between 1968 and 1980 Revolutionary Rehearsals. And he used this title again in his subsequent book Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, written jointly with Gareth Dale and Neil Davidson published this year – posthumously for both Colin and Neil – which describes the uprisings in Eastern Europe, South Africa, Indonesia, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt since 1989. 

It’s reasonable I think to say that we’ve made a right mess of the Covid rehearsal. Had we known two years ago what we know today, we would have learnt our lines and our cues more thoroughly. What we know today is that 9,634 people in Scotland have died; that the majority of these snuffed-out lives have been among the poor, the disabled and the marginalised; that 99,000 people in Scotland are living with Long Covid; that about 10% of children who catch the virus go on to have disabling poor health for weeks or months; and that the NHS has broken down.

That the NHS has actually broken down, no longer something we just fear might happen, was brought home to me this week by hearing about a middle-aged woman in the Paisley area with an 18-month history of severe neck pain who waited so long for surgery that she’s been forced to give up her job as a care-worker, then lost her home because she couldn’t keep up with her mortgage repayments. Not that this is the only tragic story about NHS failure we could tell between us.

Now the omicron variant (whether or not it turns out to be as bad as feared – we’ll have to wait a week or so before we know) is shouting at us from the wings, telling us that if we allow the virus to spread, whether in Scotland’s communities, schools and workplaces in an incompletely vaccinated population, or in largely unvaccinated countries sent to the back of the queue because they can’t pay, sooner or later we’re going to get a variant which will evade current vaccines.

And yet the cues were there in the script from the beginning. If we’d read it and learned it we’d have known we couldn’t trust the governments of wealthy counties, including Scotland, to not rely so heavily on vaccines, or to prioritise supply and reduce the cost of vaccines for poor countries, because these governments are locked into a system where profit trumps health. Yesterday’s top news was about Pfizer rubbing its hands as it suggested that annual vaccination was likely to be necessary – without mention of the financial and logistical implications of vaccinating eight billion people annually. Pfizer is relishing not only the prospect of a limitless market but also that it has outcompeted AstraZeneca both technically and in its propaganda.

Just as profit trumps health, so that the ruling classes allow the Covid virus to spread, it also trumps the devastating impacts of global heating which are unfolding for all humanity. COP26 has finally made it clear that neither wealthy governments nor the oil and gas corporations are going to take effective action in relation to global heating, despite being fully aware of and no longer denying the scale of the impacts which will result from their inactivity.

How can it be that one small fraction of human beings can inflict such suffering on the rest of their species? Andreas Malm and colleagues, in their new book White Skin, Black Fuel try to explain:

They are not perturbed by the smell from the blazing trees. They do not worry at the site of islands sinking; they do not run from the roar of approaching hurricanes; their fingers never need to touch the stalks from withered harvests; their mouths do not become sticky and dry after a day with nothing to drink … After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.

The lake at Sweetwater Creek State Park Lithia Springs GA is one of the sources that Georgia residents are dependent on for drinking water Image by Global Water Partnership CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As we get our last call to take the stage in the climate crisis, what have we learned from the Covid rehearsal? What are our lines and what are our most critical cues?

The best approach to these questions may be to ask first what mistakes we made in the rehearsal, to avoid making them again. We should perhaps beware of:

  • Knocking politely on town-hall and parliament doors asking the politicians to do things few of them can even contemplate doing 
  • One-off marches and protests which aren’t part of a charted programme of resistance
  • Loosely knit coalitions, which dilute militancy with compromise
  • Hoping to build a social democratic party which could win at the ballot-box
  • Organising strictly within our political silos, whether parliamentary parties, or revolutionary groups, or single-issue institutions 
  • Underestimating the extent to which the ruling classes have stifled trade union power so that collective withdrawal of labour is no longer the readily available weapon it used to be 

How then can we organise, if not in these ways? First, the Covid pandemic is far from over – in fact it can be said to be at a critical point, with the prospect that vaccines may not protect us, and that relying on vaccines alone is not sustainable. We’ll only be able to overcome this pandemic through traditional public health measures, delivered through a greatly expanded and well-resourced public health service. This is what we can start turning our attention to and fighting for. Covid is offering us the experience of another rehearsal, the key changes needed to address both Covid and climate becoming more clearly the same – rolling out and investing heavily in existing technologies instead of switching to uncertain ones. Vaccination on its own becomes the equivalent of Carbon Capture and Storage, both of them profitable for the ruling classes but disastrous for the rest of us.

Second, COP26 has shown us that targeted and sustained direct action works. The Indian farmers, after a year’s disruptive presence in Delhi, during which 700 of them died at the hands of the police, have won a historic victory. The first thing Modi did when he returned from Glasgow was to announce that he was going to withdraw the three laws against which the farmers had been protesting. Two weeks later Shell announced that they are giving up their ten-year plan to extract oil and gas from the Cambo field. This is a huge victory for the Stop Cambo! campaign – a direct result of its persistent visibility in Westminster over the last year, then its strong performance at the COP in Glasgow.

Art, Pen and People by Randeep Mandoke CC0

But in the midst of our celebrations of these two wins, we can see that the farmers are continuing to swamp Delhi. They want to see the three laws actually withdrawn, not just hear a promise. It’s probable that even then they will continue their protest for further, more systemic changes. Stop Cambo! knows too that it must not relax. There’s still Siccar Point Energy to unseat (the majority partner in the development of the Cambo field), and there’s the UK Government to force into a decision that no extraction license will be granted. A win is the cue to increasing the strength of a protest, not to ending it.

Third, we would do well at this point to start discussing what so far we’ve shunned: how are we to oppose the state oppression which is bound to escalate in relation to increased direct action? Is XR right to remain adamant about non-violence? Or did Mandela have a point when he said “The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands”?    

Flooding in British Columbia

The major disaster in British Columbia a week ago has been conspicuously under-reported in the UK, whether in the interests of those who want to minimise concerns about climate change, or as part of the British exceptionalism which increasingly dominates our mainline media.

A key feature of the disaster is that much of its devastation has impacted on already impoverished First Nations communities, many of whom are without power, short of food and shelter, and cut off by roads made impassable by huge landslides.

It’s also clear that increased run-off following the forest fire-storms in a uniquely hot summer has contributed to the flooding and landslides.

Large numbers of dairy cows have been swept away, to the extent that there’s a widespread shortage of milk in western Canada.

Here’s a link to some reporting and video footage from CTV News. 

Meritt BC Flooding, Image by Stepan CC BY 3.0

Hydrogen – green gas or greenwash

Thanks to the People and Nature blog for alerting us to this excellent short video which sums up many of the reasons why the hype that surrounds hydrogen is so misguided. You can find links to a couple of longer articles on this issue on our ‘further reading‘ page and to blog posts here and here.

Divest Strathclyde

On April 1st Glasgow City Council will be debating whether to end investing pension funds in fossil fuels. If successful, this will be a big step forward for divestment campaigns. The motion is proposed by the Green Party and we post their press statement below.

Image from Friends of the Earth Scotland on Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

Scottish Green Party
25/03/2021Glasgow City Council to vote for end to fossil fuel investments.  Today will see the publication of a motion by Scottish Green party councillors in Glasgow for the Council to commit to ending its pension fund investments in fossil fuels. At present the Strathclyde Pension Fund, which GCC is part of, has over £500 million worth of holdings in fossil fuel companies.  The motion, included below, is part of the budget agreement between the SNP administration the Scottish Green Party, so is expected to pass with overwhelming support when the vote takes place on April 1st.Green Party Councillor Kim Long, who will be moving the motion on April 1st, said: “It makes no sense, financially or ethically, to continue to invest in the fossil fuels that are destroying our planet. We know that in Glasgow, the climate crisis will impact the poorest communities the hardest – and all the money the city plans to spend on mitigating this damage is wasted if we keep pouring money into the very thing we know is making the problem worse. But this is also an opportunity – local government pension funds are the single biggest public store of wealth in Scotland. We need to stop fuelling the crisis, and instead invest in a Green recovery to create the fairer, greener Glasgow we need.  “Isla Scott from Divest Strathclyde, which supports the move, said: “We urge Councillors and the Strathclyde Pension Fund (SPF) committee to show climate leadership as we head towards COP26 and to commit to start divesting immediately. The continued investment of over £500 million in fossil fuels is abhorrent and cannot be justified in a climate crisis. Furthermore, it risks pensioners’ money being lost in stranded assets, money that could be better invested in funding climate solutions and a just transition to a green economy. We will continue to campaign for divestment for as long as the SPF continues to fund the breakdown of our climate.”  The motion is below. 

Council. 

Recalls its previous support for a transformative Green New Deal to respond to the climate and ecological emergencies; 

Believes that a Green New Deal for the city region will require massive investment, and that the Council’s own pension investments could play an important part in that;
Recognises that the Strathclyde Pension Fund supports low carbon initiatives through its direct investment portfolio, but is concerned that the Fund retains large holdings, worth in excess of £500 million last year, in fossil fuel industries that are driving the climate and ecological emergencies and perpetuating global inequalities;.

Notes the Council’s fiduciary duty as administering authority for the Strathclyde Pension Fund must be paramount in all decision making around the pension fund. Further notes the calls made over many years from campaigners on the issue of fossil fuel divestment and notes that many other major public and private institutions have already made and acted on commitments to fossil fuel divestment, demonstrating leadership on the climate emergency at the same time as protecting the long-term interests of their individual investors;.

Believes that in the year of the COP26 climate summit, when the eyes of the world will be on Glasgow, the city and its institutions must show climate leadership; and therefore.

Resolves to write to the Strathclyde Pension Fund committee, asking that it make a formal commitment to fossil fuel divestment prior to COP26, with the intention of divesting completely as quickly as possible, and no later than 2029; and that it further considers how it can reinvest the Pension Fund Members’ hard-earned money to drive a green recovery for the Glasgow region.

Andrew Smith
Communications Officer
Scottish Greens
0141 321 7940
07800 972393

Save Loch Lomond – open letter

In this post Scot.E3 activist Ann Morgan shares the letter she has written to Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair work and Culture. Add your voices to Ann’s.

Loch Lomond by Pete Cannell CC0

Dear Fiona Hyslop, 

I have lived in West Dunbartonshire mostly all my life (I am now retired and live in Govan) and retain links with family, friends and community organisations. I have followed and participated in the Save Loch Lomond campaign.  The campaign currently highlights the possibility of a planning application by Lomond Banks, subsidiary of Flamingo Land and the extension of the exclusivity agreement, effectively excluding alternative community led proposals for the site and for job creation. 

I wish to comment both on the ecological impact on the site and provide examples of sustainable climate jobs.

I do so as a participant in SCOT.E3 (Employment, Energy, Environment) and as a member of Unite the Union (retired members). I am active in a number of local community projects including food -growing and provision and I am keen to share the successes of initiatives with other communities, including the Leamy Foundation /Growing West Dunbartonshire Project. I am not commenting on behalf of these agencies but draw on my research and activism within them to outline objections and alternatives to the proposed developments at the lochside.

The Scottish Government declared a Climate Emergency in April 2019. Emissions reductions targets include reductions of 70% by 2030.  This declaration must be followed by action.

Allan McQuade of Scottish Enterprise, in reference to the proposal, talks of sustainability and syas that the fight against climate change as ‘central to everything we do.’

Action must be two-fold, Protective and proactive.

Protection around biodiversity is of paramount importance. The State of Nature Report (a collaboration between conservation and research organisations) reported in 2019.The report contains the best available data on Scotland’s biodiversity.  Key findings show 49% of species have decreases in abundance with 11% threatened with extinction.  The First Minister in response states that Scotland must lead the way in facing the challenges to biodiversity.

With the above in mind, I request that the cabinet minister considers the impact on biodiversity on the National Park environment. Specifically, on the impact on Drumkinnin Woods within the West Riverside site. This is erroneously referred to as a Brownfield Site.  It is part of the National Park.  The stated aim of the designated Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area.

The proposed development is at odds with the Scottish Government and National Park aims.  The ecological impact would 

  • Endanger wildlife-insects, birds, trees and water species.  Woodlands and rivers are especially vulnerable.
  • The impacts arise from noise, light, traffic emissions and increased pollution. 
  • The above are exacerbated when there is a high concentration of visitors in the one area.  Sustainable Tourism encourages movement, public transport use with rover tickets and electric people carrier hire.  Single car use and enabling by large car parking space must be disincentivised.

The FM also describes in the annual Programme for Government that it is a key aim of the Scottish Government to empower communities.  The retention of the exclusivity agreement contradicts this aim.  Under the Nature Conservation (Scotland)Act 2004 public bodies in Scotland have a duty to further conservation in biodiversity.

My involvement with Scot.E3 has given me insight into the potential for Climate Jobs (see 1 million Jobs pamphlet).  Specific to Scotland a just transition could include advancing regional specific renewables energy, district heating and a programme of retro fitting and new build housing and public building with apprenticeship skills in insulation, joinery, roofing, glazing and heating, linking with schools and further education. My perspective, shared with environmental groups, is that this type of job creation is both more sustainable and career focused than many jobs in the hospitality sector, often minimum waged or even zero hours contracts and seasonal. That said, there are ways to encourage sustainable and responsible tourism with quality training for those seeking careers in the tourism.  It is of concern that the original proposal carried none of these assurances.  Any development with employment opportunities must adhere to the principles outlined in the Fair Work Convention.

Finally, the experience of the pandemic has greatly impacted on local and global tourism. There are scientists, ecologists, biologists, economists and epidemiologists (David Attenborough included) who are warning of future pandemics, with potential of more virulent strains. The current variant is concerning with increased contagion /transmission.

Rob Wallace, evolutionary biologist, charts the link between habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and the increase in zoonotic transmission of infection.  Again, this points to the important of biodiversity protection.  Tourism is of course both impacted by and causal in transmission.  Therefore, a rethink on safety in travel and transit will be required for tourist dependent development.  Linked with emission reduction this presents as an opportunity to put environmental protection as Allan McQuade asserts, central in Scottish Enterprise approval.

The fragility of tourism as well as its importance to the Scottish Economy is recognised. Within this perspective, social justice with environmental integrity is required. 

Yours sincerely 

Annie Morgan 

Lighting a spark: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Ende Gelände activists targeting a coal mine in 2019. Photo: Tim Wagner/Flickr

Harry Holmes reviews Andreas Malm’s ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’. Harry argues that the book gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. This review was first published by Bright Green and has also been reposted on the rs21 website. Malm’s book is designed to provoke debate on strategy and tactics and we would welcome further contributions on these issues.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline starts with what will be a familiar image for many. It’s the yearly climate negotiations, activists have streamed towards the conference space, pleading with representatives to ratchet up their ambition to tackle the climate crisis. People block city traffic with banners, with activists dancing and playing music in the reclaimed streets. The next day brings a giant public theatre performance, with environmentalists pretending to be animals run over by cars whilst ‘negotiators’ walk around with signs saying ‘blah blah blah’.

Was this a collection of Extinction Rebellion activists performing and blocking traffic? Was it even earlier, in 2015 at the Paris negotiations? Maybe it’s 2009, during the economic crisis and the Copenhagen conference? No, this image comes all the way from COP1, the climate conference that started it all – in the lost world that was 1995.

Speaking straight from his experiences of this first COP, Andreas Malm’s recollection of these early climate protests indicates a wider malaise – a certain sluggishness of environmental strategy. Despite the growth in awareness around the climate crisis and the rapid increase in the number of people organising for environmental justice, there has been limited change in the actions climate groups are willing to take to defend life.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm has written a short and gripping manifesto which aims to wrench the climate movement out of its complacency. By convincingly arguing against movements’ dogmatic attachment to milquetoast non-violence, Malm makes clear that as the climate crisis escalates so too must the tactics of those seeking to defend life. Not content with simply dispelling the misguided understandings of pacifism environmentalists hold, How to Blow Up a Pipeline gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. Coming out of the pandemic, with movements regrouping and attempting to navigate the mess that is the 2020s, this book is the shock to the system the world needs.

Beginning with the pacifism many climate movements advocate, a significant portion of this book is dedicated to dispelling the often ahistorical, whitewashed, and faulty justifications given for non-violence. To do this, Malm separates these arguments for non-violence into two forms; a moral pacifism focused on the wrongness of violence from an ethical perspective and a strategic pacifism centred on the advantages to environmental movements from committing to non-violence.

Learning to defend ourselves

It becomes clear that Malm has little time for the first form of pacifism. He turns to the case of Mohammad Rafiq, a 65 year old who stopped a right-wing terrorist attack on an Oslo mosque in 2019. As the gunman entered the building, the pensioner ran at him, tackling the would-be shooter to the ground where, with the help from other nearby men, they disarmed and beat the attacker. Malm points out that such self-defensive actions and any similar attempts to defend from far-right violence are unacceptable from the perspective of moral pacifism. With the struggle against the climate crisis being understood as a similarly defensive movement, focused on protecting life, Malm argues moral pacifism should hold little sway as a dogma. It risks being too rigid in the face of the escalating need to act in life’s defence.

Environmentalists’ deluded reading of the history of social change is not confined to past lifetimes either. Malm points out how groups like XR continue to invoke recent events, like the Poll Tax Rebellion of the early 1990s, as inspiration for non-violent ‘civil disobedience’, despite the Poll Tax famously being scrapped as riots rolled through London. Such a reading of history is not only one sided, but an act of positive erasure – an erasure which works to the detriment of the environmental movement’s strategic horizon.

Finding the radical flank

Looking at each of these past movements, Malm doesn’t reject the importance of the non-violent element. In fact, he suggests the opposite, the existence of a radical flank willing to commit acts of violence combined with a growing mass of non-violent organisers made change possible. Non-violence allows movements to grow larger quickly, it can secure sympathetic coverage in the public eye, and it can prevent government escalation. Because of this, non-violence always has a role.

Of course, no history of environmental movements would be complete without an assessment of the violent direct action of groups like Earth First! and similar Liberation Fronts in the 1980s to 2000s, who were responsible for the destruction of many a logging site. Malm suggests that their ultimate collapse was, at least in part, due to the lack of a wider mass movement where they could position as the radical flank. Malm’s polemical insight is that mass non-violence is the necessary condition for the impactful escalation to violent tactics and today, with climate strikes and Extinction Rebellions aplenty, we are not short of mass non-violent movements.

In short, it is not either/or but both, together in an escalating cycle. Malm argues the current environmental movement’s failure to accept the potential co-existence of both violence and non-violence reflects the wider collapse in revolutionary politics since the 1980s. In response to this collapse:

We have to learn how to fight all over again, in what might be the most unpropitious moment so far in the history of human habitation on this planet.

To begin these wide-ranging strategic conversations about fighting the climate crisis, Malm suggests focusing on two general goals – there is a need to announce and enforce a growing prohibition on new emitting devices, as well as rapidly reducing the lifetime of the polluting infrastructure and devices which already operate. The question, when bringing these general ideas down to Earth, is how precisely the environmental movement may go about this?

Building on Henry Shue’s distinction between luxury and subsistence emissions, Malm points to the increasingly violent role of luxury emissions, and the urgent need to focus efforts on these devices, whether SUVs or planes. There are several clear arguments given for focusing action on luxury devices, these are worth listing in full, albeit paraphrased:

  • As the effects of climate change are here, the harm from these luxury devices should be understood as immediate.
  • Luxury emitting devices like planes and cars allow the super-rich to also be hypermobile and escape the effects of climate change.
  • The ideological role of these devices is the championing of destructive lifestyles.
  • There is an ethical cost of how the money could have been better spent mitigating and adapting society to climate change.
  • In any reduction of emissions, it is better to reduce luxury emissions first rather than those necessary to secure subsistence.
  • Finally, and perhaps most crucially for Malm’s argument, there is the supremely demoralising role that these devices play. After all, if we cannot even get rid of SUV’s how are we meant to move towards a sustainable society?

Recognising this, Malm points to the need for violence to not just include the strategies of sabotage preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built. It should also encompass the ways in which sabotage ‘can be done softly, even gingerly.’ Pointing to the mass movement in Sweden which deflated the wheels of SUVs during the night, Malm argues environmentalists should be comfortable engaging in extensive acts of vandalism targeting the luxury devices common in the Global North. Such violence would show how the ‘rich cannot have the right to combust others to death’, as well as preventing new emissions.

Unleashing new tactics

In opening up the horizon beyond non-violence, Malm invokes a further difficulty – precisely under what conditions does violence become necessary? What form might violence take? How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes clear that violence constitutes attacks on property, coming under the messy monikers like sabotage, vandalism, and demolition. This book is unequivocal that this does not extend to people or animals, nor property which is necessary for their subsistence. This still leaves much on the table, but Malm’s book should be read as a defence of destruction to property in a similar school as that of Osterweil’s In Defence of Looting.

Malm invokes scholars of direct action like William Smith, whose research points to important conditions which should be met for the successful escalation from non-violence. For Smith, escalation succeeds only if action would stop something which would likely cause harm, where mellower non-violent tactics have been exhausted, and where action is based on some wider ideal or charter, such as the Paris Agreement. Malm makes clear his view that these conditions are largely met for most fossil fuel infrastructure.

There are still several objections to escalation which could be posed. One is that governments have supremacy when it comes to repression and violence. As a result, escalation from the environmental movement could result in extreme crackdowns from states across the world. Malm accepts this asymmetry in power, in fact he suggests that it extends far beyond the ability of the state to commit violence. However, Malm points out that there is no law that this asymmetry ‘can never be overturned from below.’ Fighting climate change is a David vs Goliath fight in every sphere, whether economic, social, or militaristic. If we accept asymmetry as an argument against moving beyond non-violence, it would also mean abandoning nearly every climate struggle.

So Malm turns to the crucial argument many make for non-violence, that of popular support. The old story goes that abandoning non-violence leads to declining public opinion and a collapsing movement replete with infighting. Violent acts would be a ‘negative radical flank’, cutting into the wider non-violent movement. On the first issue of public opinion, Malm argues the role of social movements is not to take ‘an existing level of consciousness as a given, but rather to stretch it.’ Violence needs to stretch and drag society forward. This means that violent actions should be clearly explainable and acceptable in their wider context, with Malm suggesting perhaps the best strategy is to lie in wait for the next extreme weather event to strike at luxury emissions. With regards to the collapsing movement, Malm argues that the radical flank must simultaneously be prepared to be disowned by the wider movement, whilst also being receptive enough that in the case of either escalating repression or public backlash it can call off its actions.

The New Climate Laboratories

With regards to this last point, how are these contradictory characteristics to be satisfied? Being able to balance the tightrope of competing arguments for and against escalation is not something that Malm can answer in around 150 pages. In such a short work, one is left desiring the detail, the roadmap, where in practice the neat lines Malm draws can be observed. These will never appear, as only practice and thought together can bring this flourishing. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is effectively indicate strategic considerations and reflections which must be borne out in the practices of climate movements. There is no perfect tactic, no silver bullet, only a magazine of possible actions which environmentalists need to constantly assess as the crisis gets worse.

Malm puts his faith most of all in the climate camp movements like Ende Gelände and Reclaim the Power, where activists come together in mass numbers to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. These camps can be built easily, allowing the movement to spread horizontally whilst also being planned well in advance. As the number of attendees rises, so too does the capacity to outmanoeuvre police and disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure. Malm invokes these spaces as the ‘unrivalled laboratory for learning this fight.’ If environmentalists are to develop the strategic acumen to pull the breaks on emissions, then what is need is a proliferation of these camps and any other equivalent ‘laboratories’ – we need spaces where climate activists can come together to learn and act with a sense of militancy. In the 2020s, Malm’s book points to the need to let a thousand laboratories bloom.

The final pages of How to Blow Up a Pipeline reflect on the opposite tendency to such escalating militancy – a climate fatalism which presents breakdown as inevitable. Many writers are encouraging society to ‘learn how to die’ and bring a deep pessimism about our capacity to change course. Whether in the work of Franzen, Scranton, or others, Malm rejects their pessimistic understandings of society’s future as that of a particular class interest. It is comforting for the rich of the Global North, unable to accept their need to change production and consumption, to ‘project this weakness of the flesh onto society’ and doom it to climate collapse. What is harder is internalizing the continued need for resistance.

With every part per million counting, with every stopped pipeline saving lives, and with every minute counting, the truth is the opposite of what the climate fatalists suggest. Looking to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or who resisted within the extermination camps, Malm invokes the continued gesture of struggle against all odds. As Malm puts it:

Precisely the hopelessness of the situation constituted the nobility of this resistance. The rebels affirmed life so extraordinarily robustly because death was certain and still they fought on. It can never, ever be too late for that gesture. If it is too late for resistance to be waged within a calculus of immediate utility, the time has come for it to vindicate the fundamental values of life, even if it only means crying out to the heavens.

One hopes, like Malm, that it does not come to this, that we come to tackle the climate crisis with the ambition it needs before such hopeless struggle is necessary. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is act as a rallying cry for a climate movement far too comfortable in its ways, at a time where bold action is more than overdue.

How to blow up a pipeline is published by Verso at the beginning of January 2021 – we will have a small number of copies available for £10 (including UK postage). To enquire or order use the contact form.

BiFab goes into administration

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament Voted by 61 Votes to 60 to condemn the government’s failure to save BiFaband calling for specific actions to save the yards.  The motion is reproduced below.  Today the firm was put into administration.

A joint statement by trade unions GMB Scotland and Unite said BiFab’s administration exposed the “myth of Scotland’s renewables revolution as well as a decade of political hypocrisy and failure, in Scotland and the rest of the UK.”

GMB Scotland secretary Gary Smith and Unite Scotland secretary Pat Rafferty added that the workers and communities dependent on the yards had “fought so hard for a future”.

The Scottish Parliament vote calls on the government to take a number of actions – including that the government produces a report by January that sets out steps to ensure future renewable work comes to Scottish fabrication yards.  If BiFab is lost it’s a tragedy for the workforce and for workers in the sector more generally.  It’s also a major setback on the path to a sustainable economy.  Transition requires skilled workers and infrastructure.  BiFab should be part of that.  

Scot.E3 has argued consistently that the only effective way to develop a serious plan for transition is through public planning and public control.  Taking BiFab into public ownership could be a first step.  One thing is clear that to get the Scottish Government to take this seriously and to respond to the motion extra parliamentary pressure is required.  A new UN report shows how the big energy companies are doubling down on fossil fuel extraction.  It’s time to turn the tide – if not now when!

See recent articles on BiFab here and here.

Photo by Pete Cannell CC0

The motion

That the Parliament believes that Scotland has the potential to lead Europe’s green energy revolution over the coming decades; further believes that, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and job losses, green jobs will be central to creating new employment and training opportunities across Scotland; considers that, with the support of the workforce and their trades unions, the maximum effort has to be made to secure wind farm contracts for Scottish manufacturing companies; notes that, in open competition, BiFab won a £30 million contract to build turbine jackets for the NnG North Sea wind farm, work that could have started in January 2021, but has been prevented from going ahead with this; condemns the Scottish Government’s decision to withdraw the financial guarantee that was needed to enable this work to go ahead, thus risking Scotland’s reputation as a new green investment hub, and further condemns the Scottish Government’s failure to produce any legal opinion to justify its claim that support for BiFab was against the law; calls on it to act now to secure the future of the Burntisland Methil and Arnish yards, and the jobs that depend on them; further calls on it to talk to the workforce’s representatives and to ask for the help of the UK Government through the joint working party to urgently negotiate with EDF and Saipem to find a solution that ensures that the NnG contract for eight wind turbine platforms is carried out in the yards, and, with Glasgow being the venue of the COP26 summit in December 2021, calls for a concrete plan to be published in January by the Scottish Government that ensures that future work on renewables comes to Scottish yards, and further calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that these policy commitments on renewables are part of a coherent industrial strategy for the post-COVID-19 era.

Nuclear weapons, the climate and our environment

Don’t Bank on the Bomb Scotland has produced an excellent new report that looks at the links between nuclear weapons, tackling the climate crisis and degradation of the environment.  Written by Linda Pearson the report collects together a wealth of useful links for anti-war and climate campaigners alike.  The aim of the report is ‘to highlight the connections between climate change, nuclear weapons, militarism, environmental destruction, racism, gender inequalities and social injustice in order to build a broad-based movement that can challenge existing power structures and bring about systemic change’.

Scot.E3 from its formation has argued that defence divestment needs to be part of the transition to a sustainable zero carbon economy.  We agree with Don’t Bank on the Bomb that ‘… any Green New Deal plans should include a transition away from military production, as well as a transition away from fossil fuels’. 

The new report highlights the expenditure of huge sums of money on ‘modernising’ nuclear arsenals around the world.  The nuclear industry (military and civilian) is perhaps the most centralised and authoritarian manifestation of the military-industrial complex.  We would argue that it’s not simply that the money spent on nukes should be spent on developing a new sustainable economy; the nuclear industry and arms manufacture more generally distorts economic and social choices and constrains civil liberties.  The skills of engineers and scientists that could be devoted to productive, environmentally useful activity are instead harnessed to a system that produces waste, trashes the environment and risks all our lives.  The report highlights the interconnections between the drive for profit, the impact of climate change and increased military tensions.  One example of this is the race for commercial and military dominance of the Arctic.

Nuclear Weapons, the Climate and Our Environment – screen shot

Further Reading:

Scot.E3 Briefing Scotland Deindustrialisation and Diversification