28 November 2009

Slaying dinosaurs in Copenhagen

By Trevor Phillips

Samba dancers led a large, colourful demonstration in Norwich a week ago which demanded action to prevent dangerous climate change. There is increasing public willingness to challenge the path to disaster on which our fossil fuel consumption is taking us. But attractive as it was, we cannot just samba our way to security.

The campaigners knew this of course. And tragedy in Cumbria has recently highlighted how serious climate change is. But colourful events attract attention to serious messages. And offering solutions, as the demonstrators also did, is more positive than sandwich-board doomsdaying.

The procession was one of thousands around the world in advance of the forthcoming UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Millions of people are pressing politicians to cut global emission of carbon dioxide (C02) and other 'greenhouse' gases which are heating up our planet at a dangerous pace. This could become unstoppable within very few years, not centuries. Don't take my word for it, the top scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have an agreed view on this, despite the claims of a few climate change deniers - some backed by the US oil industry. Copernicus had the same problem with earlier flat-earthers.

Copenhagen will not resolve the crisis. The US may offer only a modest, provisional target for its own CO2 reduction. Other nations may therefore reject burden sharing. Why, they ask, should I accept rationing while you consume twice or twenty times more than me? It's a fair question which our own society will soon have to ask those of our citizens who are energy guzzlers.

The UK, like all rich - though unequal - countries, must rapidly reduce use of fossil fuels: coal powered electricity, petrol, holiday flight aviation fuel. Will it be acceptable for 'market forces' and the price do the rationing? Can Mr Big have his gas guzzler and thrice yearly foreign hols while pensioners cannot afford one warm room in their house? Or will we share our limited energy in a civilised, democratic and fair way?

Even if some agreement is reached at Copenhagen, the targets for emissions reduction will be far too low. Further, tougher targets must be internationally agreed – and very soon. But Copenhagen will nevertheless be a watershed. We will soon begin to speak of that summit as we do of the historical point when the dinosaurs disappeared. The dinosaurs, recall, had inadequate brains unsuited for the complex task of collective survival and were unable to adapt to a changing environment. Sound familiar?

After Copenhagen, there will still be some human dinosaurs: Pre-Copenhagen Man will claim that business can go on as usual with unrestrained fossil fuel consumption. National and global inequality is just nature, he will say. One can already hear the shrill pubescent screams of his spokespeople that demands for more grown up behaviour are "just so unfair".

And there will be Post-Copenhagen People - who will come to terms with the end of an age of mistaken irresponsibility, accept that the world has changed and rise to the challenges: innovating, adopting new lifestyles, adapting, sharing, coping and inspiring others. We may see a kind of WW2 'Dunkirk Spirit'. Faced with a common deadly enemy we certainly need an early, radical response from brave leadership. OK, we have to create that last bit: the appeasers and dinosaurs can't lead this. In reality, the people must lead.

Many people will be on coaches from East Anglia to the national Climate Emergency demonstration in London on 5 December, demanding action in the UK after Copenhagen: the declaration of a Climate Emergency, a million new green jobs to develop renewable energy, to improve public transport and insulate properties. This could tackle unemployment, increase tax revenues, providing hope and direction and much needed social unity. We should join them - and speed up the final demise of the dinosaurs.

21 November 2009

Barefoot into the light

By Marguerite Finn

The debate continues as to whether overseas development aid is working or not. I want to tell you a story about a group of women in rural India. It is the most optimistic tale I have heard in a long while - a testament to the indomitable resilience of the human spirit. This is the story of India's female barefoot solar engineers.

Tinginaput is an ordinary village in remote rural India - two rows of neat mud houses, a few water pumps, a mango tree where people gather to talk. But there is something very modern perched on the tiles of each roof: a solar panel the size of two A4 books. From these, wires lead into the houses, bringing light and power. Five tall street lamps have their own solar system – giving light throughout the night and the villagers no longer fear attacks from bears from the surrounding hills.

Three years ago, four women from the village made an extraordinary journey. They left their remote highland homes for the first time in their lives and travelled into modernity, way beyond the strict boundaries that govern a woman's life among the tribes of India's Eastern Ghats – the irregular range of mountains running along India’s eastern coast.

"Before 2005, I'd never even seen an outsider", says grandmother Pulka Wadeka. Like most women in the villages she cannot read or write. But she can wire up and run a solar-powered 12-volt electricity system.

With three friends, Pulka journeyed to the southern city of Hyderabad for five months training in solar power technology. It took courage to travel to a big city where no one could speak their language. The initiative came from the Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme (OTELP) funded by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

Pulka remembered: "The train to the city was very scary. We missed home. But as head of the village self-help group I had to go, for my community". Training was hard – learning the English alphabet and numbers to work out the circuit diagrams. But now Pulka wields pliers and multimeter like a practiced electrician.

It is hard for us to imagine how solar power transformed so many aspects of the villager's lives. They save on kerosene for their oil lamps – an expensive and dangerous item. The bright portable solar lights they now use enable craftwork - such as broom making - to be done at night as well as during the day. Children can do their schoolwork in the evenings and there is more time for working in the fields. As a result, incomes are increasing.

Success at Tinginaput means solar power can spread across the district. A training centre has been set up to teach other people from the hill tribes how to erect street lighting and house-power systems. A banner proudly announces the women’s new co-operative: The Orissa Tribal Women Barefoot Solar Engineers Association. The women have been given a contract to build 3,000 solar-powered lanterns for schools and institutions.

Although DFID's five-year funding for the OTELP project runs out in 2010, the Department's representative in Orissa is convinced the project will continue: "When DIFID steps away, it will keep going because it is now a flagship programme for the Orissa state government".

Development Aid works providing it remains focussed upon the needs of the community. Peter Reid, DFID's chief technical adviser to the project, sums it up succinctly: "What's very satisfying is the increased strength of communities, especially among women. That may be the most important thing, because social cohesion enables people to withstand shocks. It gives them better access to finance, to information and skills – enabling them to adapt to the challenges of climate change."

Tinginaput is one example of the effectiveness of oversees aid.

14 November 2009

Leaving the pleasuredome

By Charlotte Du Cann

Last November at an Energy Fair in a Suffolk village John Gummer MP declared how people like us were making a difference and how that lady in the front wearing the woolly hat had the right idea about keeping warm. He then went on to say how frightfully important it was he kept his five cars and in particular the 4x4 outside in the car park.

In another era I would have spent this column denouncing the politician. But the fact is my attention has shifted. The times have shifted. Because all across the region ordinary people are doing the extraordinary. Though they have been educated to believe the top of the world is the place to be, they are discussing how to proceed down the mountain. They have not yet turned their heating on. They are walking to work and darning their socks. They are swapping clothes and vegetable seeds, showing The Age of Stupid in their village halls. And I'm not writing as an observer. I'm one of those people.

Whatever happens in Copenhagen next month a wave of low-carbon communities and Transition initiatives across East Anglia are already cutting their carbon emissions. We're not doing it because the government have told us to, but because something like conscience has entered our field. And even though, like everyone else, we have been dazzled by the pleasuredome of the Western World, we know that no matter how many buttons we push or planes we take the walls that have allowed us not to see or feel the consequences of our daily actions have become thin. We can only live this way by exploiting the natural resources of the planet and millions of our fellow human beings. And it's not just the trees and animals and people who suffer. It is ourselves, in our rages and our depressions, our children who run crazy in the schoolroom instead of running free, our parents who lose their minds instead of becoming elders.

Today people from 27 Transition initiatives across the Eastern Region are converging in Diss to discuss how to co-ordinate this downshift into a low-carbon world. They are engaged in a movement that began in Totnes in 2005 in response to peak oil (the imminent decline of oil supplies) and climate change that enables communities to make active steps towards energy descent. Their hardest task is to communicate the fact that to reverse the downward spiralling of eco-systems and resource wars, we can’t hold on to our fossil-fuelled life-style. At some point you have to stop eating the disappearing fish in the ocean. You have to put on your woolly hat.

To see the reality of our situation beyond our fairy stories of heroes and saviours is to see that we live in a world run by a corporate machine that is munching its way across the green earth, like a vast voracious caterpillar. For things to change that caterpillar has to transform and become something utterly different. What grassroots movements realise is this is not just a top-down political decision that can be agreed in a climate change summit, it's a personal task for everyone. Because when you dissolve your old world, that's when you start to dream of the butterfly.

If you had told me I'd be writing a column about not turning on the central heating 17 years ago, I would have laughed. I was a consumer journalist, finding meaning and solace in little black dresses and designer chairs, jet-setting to Tokyo and Madrid without a qualm. Now I'm part of a response to the greatest challenge people have ever faced, creating a culture that can live in synch with the planet, one amongst millions of ordinary people doing the extraordinary thing. Walking down the mountain together. Dreaming of the butterfly.

The Transition East Regional Gathering is taking place in Diss on 14 November 2009. Charlotte Du Cann is a member of Transition Norwich and Sustainable Bungay.

7 November 2009

No we can't?

By Lee Marsden

This time last year the world celebrated the incredible victory of America's first African-American president. Barack Obama mobilised popular support and ran an impressive campaign which promised change. The not-Bush candidate with his soaring rhetoric and youthful good looks charmed American voters and interested onlookers around the world, promising a brighter future, one where internal and external divisions would be healed. One year on the Obama gloss is beginning to wear off as vested interests demonstrate that it is once again business as usual. A Washington Post opinion poll in January gave Obama a 79 percent approval rating, today this has fallen to just 57 percent. In making few guarantees, while encouraging voters to put their hopes in him, unrealistic expectations were generated that Obama is unable to deliver. Increasingly US voters and audiences around the world are beginning to realise what the Nobel Peace Prize selection panel did not, that it is one thing to promise the earth quite another to deliver it.

Obama started off with great gusto, reaching out the hand of friendship to the Muslim world, promising to withdraw from Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, and work to achieve an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement. The best of intentions have still to produce results and those ambitions are being thwarted by vested interests. The hand of friendship has resulted in a warmer attitude towards America in majority Muslim countries. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Report, Egyptians' favourable attitudes towards the US have risen in the last year from 22 to 27 percent. Turkish favourable attitudes have also grown from 12 percent to 14 percent, not very high for a NATO member. While Pakistani favourable attitudes have actually declined from 19 percent to 16 percent and in the Palestinian Territories 75 percent express no confidence in US policy. Admittedly, Obama himself enjoys greater approval ratings, but a change of president without a significant change in foreign policy does not suggest that the hope for the future emphasised by the Democrat candidate in 2008 will be realised by the Democratic incumbent in the White House.

Taking the battle to Al Qaeda has involved becoming embroiled in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Iraq was Bush's war, Afghanistan and the undeclared war on parts of Pakistan by unmanned drones, is Obama's war of choice. Faced with different opinions by his army advisors, the vice president, state department and the Pentagon, Obama has dithered for two months unable to decide on a clear strategy for Afghanistan, whether to follow his general’s advice and significantly increase troop levels by 40,000 or pursue a counter insurgency strategy aimed solely at Al Qaeda. As part of that strategy he is paying the Pakistan government $7.5 billion over the next five years to wage war on their own citizens in Swat and North Western Province. What is clear is that a strategy for withdrawal is very much off the agenda. The promise to withdraw from Iraq within sixteen months and close Guantanamo Bay by the end of the year will not be achieved, with US troops set to remain in a training capacity in Iraq well into any second term the president may enjoy.

The prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are receding by the day as Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli prime minister outmanoeuvres the US president at every turn, ignoring Obama's pleas to halt settlement construction, and removing East Jerusalem from any US constraint, with Obama apparently unable, or unwilling due to the Israel Lobby, to constrain his closest ally. Palestinians are losing confidence in Obama's ability to bring Israel to the table and bring about a two-state solution. For all the talk about hope and change in terms of US foreign policy it remains business as usual.