Climate Sock

I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on January 31st, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

It was the coconut cheese that did it. For most of January I’d believed that being vegan was no sacrifice – if anything it meant I was trying foods I wouldn’t normally think to eat. Some of them were very good. Jackfruit can be cooked into something like a sticky pulled pork that makes a superb burrito. But as I slathered pickle to mask the taste of the coconut-based fake wensleydale, it was inescapable that I would prefer to be eating the real thing.

Why had I bothered with Veganuary? It’s true I don’t want animals to suffer, want to prevent the toxic waste that comes from some farms, and hate the way so much land is used for raising animals, rather than for homes or wildlife. But none of that was enough for me to make the change. I did Veganuary for just one reason, and that was the climate change effect of meat and dairy production.

The world’s promise to avoid dangerous climate change is soon going to crash into its taste for meat and milk. By the time my seven-month-old is 40, the world should have become carbon neutral. Some parts of that switch seem hard but possible. The radical growth of solar and wind power and the arrival of electric cars that are better than petrol ones at least show how those sectors could eliminate emissions.

Food is different. Livestock farming is responsible for 14.5% of global emissions and it’s hard to see how those emissions go away unless a lot of people consume a lot less meat and milk. As more people move out of poverty, the world’s demand for animal products looks set to increase, when emissions should be going in the other direction.

That seemed a good reason for me to try being vegan for a month. It seemed obvious that, if I believe the world should cut emissions fast, I should deal with my own emissions. Climate change is an ethical problem, so it would be unethical for me to worsen it if I can reasonably avoid doing so, however small my individual contribution. I wouldn’t throw a plastic bottle into the vast ocean, so why should I be relaxed about releasing planet-warming gases?

But, midway through Veganuary, an evangelical free-marketeer – who is as worried about climate change as I am – told me I was completely wrong. He argued that my voluntary restraint would have no effect. Not even a tiny, insignificant effect. None at all.

His argument was that my voluntary restraint would reduce the price of the dairy I was avoiding, so others would consume it instead. If you bought a pint of milk last month because it was on special offer, perhaps you’ve got me to thank for it. Even if hundreds of millions become vegan, there are many more around the world who want to eat more dairy and would welcome to chance to buy it. Voluntary restraint is pointless (if the market’s working properly).

To quote Tim Minchin, “Hmm, that’s a good point, let me think for a bit. Oh wait, my mistake, that’s absolute bullshit”.

Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but here’s why the free-marketeer is wrong, and voluntary restraint is essential for the world to avoid dangerous climate change

There are two ways food emissions might fall:

  1. Billions of people decide to stop eating high-emitting foods.
  2. Governments apply taxes or laws or incentives that force farmers to come up with cleaner ways of producing the same foods or cleaner alternative foods.

Our free-marketeer believes only the second option can work, and I happen to agree with him. But he’s wrong to think this doesn’t involve voluntary restraint. (The only way I can see 1 succeeding is if breakthroughs in low-carbon foods are so astonishing that consumers prefer them to food from animals; given the ridiculous low cost of meat it’s hard to see artificial foods being able to win on price).

Imagine Michael Gove announced next week that he’s introducing a carbon tax and it’ll eventually be high enough that meat and dairy consumption will fall 90% unless the industry effectively eliminates its emissions. There would be outrage. There’s no way it would pass. (and now, for a laugh, imagine a left-wing party that didn’t have the support of most of the media doing the same)

The only way food emissions will fall is if there’s public support for the switch. That’s only going to happen if the problem and the solution are first normalised. Emissions from agriculture are far too high and have to fall, which means far more people will have to eat a low-carbon diet – and that low-carbon diet has to be much more appealing than it is now.

This is why it’s right – maybe essential – for people like me to eat less meat and dairy. We’re showing that cutting emissions is something that people do, which starts conversations about what dealing with climate change will actually look like, which will make it seem less bizarre when the time comes for a government to try to reduce emissions from food.

We’re also creating incentives for the food industry to come up with better alternatives to meat, which eases the way for others to follow. In short, someone has to try the coconut wensleydale, so that no-one else has to.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.


The return of vote blue, go green? Polling Matters

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics, Polling Matters on January 20th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

On this week’s podcast, I talked with Keiran about the Tories’ push on environmental policies, how it’s backed up by polling and what it might mean for the electoral landscape.

We also talked about why Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are indicating support for another referendum on Brexit and what recent polling tells us about public opinion on the issue.

And what’s going on with Labour following the NEC elections, is a Corbynite succession now inevitable and will Corbyn’s age be an issue at the next election?

You can listen here:

How 2017 killed climate denial

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 29th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Business Green have published my article about why 2017 was the death of climate denial and why we should worry instead about climate apathy. You can read it here.


My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.


Climate change, tropical fish and anxiety

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 21st, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I’ve got an article about how climate change affects me emotionally, in this month’s Resurgence magazine.

You can read it for free here.


My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

Four (other) climate change books to read

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 2nd, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Four (other) climate change books to read

I was asked to write a short piece on the climate change books on my shelf, for Big Issue North. It’s not online, but here it is, reproduced with permission:


Why public opinion about climate change is important

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on September 20th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Why public opinion about climate change is important

The Climate Majority is published tomorrow. You can buy it from the publisher, New Internationalist, or from Amazon etc.

This was originally published by Birkbeck.

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.


No-one wants to talk about it but stopping extreme climate change will mean eating less meat

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Meat on September 17th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on No-one wants to talk about it but stopping extreme climate change will mean eating less meat

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn made headlines in a new way – expressing interest in becoming vegan, after being a vegetarian for decades. Although he later denied he was considering the switch, the episode provided a glimpse of a conversation that few people want to have – but which we can’t keep putting off if we are to avoid extreme climate change.

Campaigners have been trying to persuade the public to eat less meat for years. It’s more than four decades since Peter Singer’s consciousness-awakening book Animal Liberation was published. The Vegetarian Society has been going four times as long. Over those years, there have been countless exposés of cruelties in factory farms and of the damage that farming can do to the local environment, and doctors increasingly warn of the risks of eating too much meat.

But if the aim of all this was to reduce meat consumption, those efforts have failed. Vegetarianism might now seem part of mainstream culture rather than an eccentricity, but there’s little sign that more people are quitting meat. Nor is there evidence that many people are reducing the amount they eat – data suggests individuals around the world are eating steadily more of it. Even in the US, where meat consumption per person fell during the Great Recession, consumption is now rising again. It looks like economics was the driving force, not ethics.

The world won’t prevent extreme climate change if it doesn’t deal with this. Meat and dairy production is responsible for around a seventh of all of human greenhouse gas emissions. If this continues, livestock emissions alone will exhaust the world’s ‘carbon budget’, the amount the world can release before committing to the dangerous warming threshold of two degrees celsius, within around 100 years – even if every other source of emissions is cleaned up. And, with farming emissions set to grow 30% by 2050, meat and dairy may burn through the budget even faster.

There are solutions to this. There’s been a shift in tastes, with chicken becoming more popular and beef becoming less so. This has cut emissions – beef warms the planet about four times as much as chicken. But the switch has been so slow that population growth means the total amount of beef eaten is still rising. And, though cleaner than beef, chicken is still several times more polluting than vegetarian alternatives.

Technology might help. Meat substitutes like the vegan Impossible Burger, which release a fraction of the emissions of beef, could make a switch more palatable. As a recent convert to being mostly vegetarian I’ve found that even the limited range of meat substitutes now available help me cut down on meat, as vaping does for smokers (though I’m still far from convinced by cheese substitutes: they’re fine in cooking but on a cracker are about as appealing as their plastic packaging).

But technology won’t fix the problem on its own. Even if vegan alternatives keep getting better, most people will need more motivation to switch. As long as the substitutes are neither tastier nor cheaper, many people will wonder why they should stop eating cheeseburgers.

This could be one of the hardest problems the world will have to face as it tries to avert extreme climate change. Other possible ways of cutting emissions – like switching from coal to clean power, or ditching inefficient fridges – bring obvious benefits and are supported by most people. But it will be much harder to persuade nearly everyone to cut down on something they enjoy for the sake of the climate, when arguments about health, animal welfare and the local environment have failed.

My bookThe Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, sets out some of the ways that more people could be persuaded to do so.

The surprised response to Corbyn’s comment demonstrates how far public debate still has to come. If this is one of the world’s hardest problems, it’s also one of the most ignored – few people outside the green movement are prepared to admit that consuming less meat and dairy is necessary. All Corbyn did was saying he’s considering changing his own diet. Imagine the outrage if he’d suggested that others should do the same or mooted taxes on high-carbon foods.

But we can’t put off confronting the consequence of our diets for much longer. Cutting emissions is only getting harder, as targets get tighter and easier measures are ticked off. Soon we will have to look at our plates and admit it won’t be possible to prevent extreme climate change as long as we keep filling them with cheese and meat.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 31st, 2017 by Leo – 3 Comments

This was originally published by Red Pepper

Radio 4’s Today programme has been criticised for once again interviewing ex-Chancellor Lord Lawson about climate change, which he denies is happening. The show interviewed Al Gore about his new documentary An Inconvenient Sequel and seems to have felt it should balance Gore’s call for action with the opposite view.

The peer was predictably contrarian. He wrongly said climate scientists believe the world’s weather is getting no more extreme and in a moment of straight-up climate denial, said temperatures have fallen over the last decade (in fact, each of the last three years were the hottest on record), while the interviewer, Justin Webb, made no attempt to challenge these errors. The transcript (and rebuttals) are here.

No doubt there will be complaints about the segment. These complaints might even be upheld – this is exactly the kind of ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’ that the BBC Trust criticised in its 2011 review of science coverage.

But even if a complaint is upheld, can we expect the broadcaster to change? After all, it’s been through exactly this before. In 2014 the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit agreed that Today was wrong in its handling of an interview with the same guest and the same presenter, when Lord Lawson’s denial was presented as of equal standing with climate science.

The BBC doesn’t seem to have learned from that mistake and it’s not obvious that it will learn from this one. But the problem isn’t particular to the BBC – it’s with climate change and how it’s described.

Suppose you’re a producer and you have a story about some warning of how bad climate change will be and how essential is that the world cuts emissions. It’s an important issue, so you agree to run an item on it.

But it hardly sounds new and risks being a bit dull. How can you generate tension to show your audience that there are disagreements and decisions to be made? You won’t get that tension if you invite on Friends of the Earth. So instead you call up someone – like Lord Lawson – who will baldly reject the core of the story and will guarantee a fight. It’s terrible for public debate but it’s a much better spectacle than two people agreeing about how awful climate change is.

An upheld complaint about this latest climate denial might make a producer think again for a while. But sooner or later they – or their successor – will need to spice up some dull but important climate change story and will look for an obliging Tory peer.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are plenty of disagreements about climate change that are far more interesting and important than fabricated rows about whether it’s happening.

One example is about who will be able to fly as the world cuts emissions. Even allowing for efficiency improvements, restricting emissions from planes means limiting flights – a major challenge as increasing affluence will mean more people want to fly. How should we do this? It could be done by putting up ticket prices, which would mean poorer people fly less. It could be done by restricting capacity – the Airports Commission’s recommendation of Heathrow expansion counts on not expanding other UK airports. Or, if the burden is to be distributed evenly, perhaps there should be an allowance system for flights tickets.

There are arguments about what to do as the effects of climate change grow more and more severe. When more land is flooded by rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious storms, which areas should be protected and which abandoned, and who pays the bill? And what help should be given to people living in poorly designed housing that will cook when heat waves become longer and more extreme?

And nuclear power divides those who are worried about the climate. Some argue it is an indispensable technology that doesn’t produce a large volume of greenhouse gases and can be counted on to produce electricity on a large-enough scale to replace coal and gas plants. But some environmentalists are appalled by nuclear power, seeing it as no improvement on coal. This is a contentious question of priorities – where costs, safety and hazardous waste are balanced against the need to cut emissions quickly.

What’s important about these arguments is they give the tension a producer needs, without depending on disagreements about whether climate change is real. They entirely take place between people who accept that cutting emissions is crucial for the world to avoid dangerous warming – but they aren’t boring. If these debates become the questions that journalists ask about climate change, deniers will have to either catch up or find that they are no longer invited to take part.

These disagreements are already happening between climate policy specialists but they’re rarely aired in public. If we’re to stop the BBC calling up a denier for the next story about climate change, those of us worried about the issue need to show that there are far better subjects for a fight.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.


Newsweek’s climate change hypocrisy

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 11th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Newsweek’s climate change hypocrisy

This was originally published by New Internationalist

On the magazine’s cover is a heart-shaped drop of lush forests fringed with yellow sand that meets a sea so turquoise you can imagine spotting turtles and technicolour fish from space – or relaxing with a cocktail before slipping into the warm sea.

But Newsweek wants you to know that all is not as idyllic as it seems. Its special issue, now in the shops, warns that climate change threatens this island paradise, along with 99 other equally magnificent places.

It may seem admirable that a mass-market global magazine has dedicated a photo book to showing what climate change will mean for some of the world’s most beautiful places. As it says: ‘if climate change continues unchecked, many of the world’s wonders are in danger.’ But there’s a catch.

At the same time as declaring its concern about climate change, Newsweek encourages its readers to cook the planet. The magazine doesn’t just document the threatened wonders so readers can learn about them from a distance – it also describes its special edition as a ‘travel guide’.

The issue has been published before and Newsweek was previously more restrained in its promotion of air travel. In 2010 readers were encouraged only to ‘remember’ the threatened places before they disappear. But by 2014 – and again now – it suggested readers should ‘explore’ them.

In the fight to stop extreme climate change, flying is like a steadily growing tumour. For now, international flights only produce around 2 per cent of carbon emissions, but that’s set to change. While nearly every other sector is making plans to slash emissions, airlines are preparing to release more and more greenhouse gases. By 2050, flying could have used up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget – and its share will only increase as the world tries to cut emissions further.

So it’s naivety at best, hypocrisy at worst, for Newsweek to draw on its readers’ love of long-haul holidays to sell a magazine that laments the impact of climate change. But it would be unfair to single out Newsweek – this is a problem with almost all mainstream conversations about the issue.

Most mainstream politicians and media organizations no longer deny the reality of climate change. Yet on the question of what the world needs to do to deal with the threat there is almost complete silence. This is particularly the case when it comes to anything that might require sacrifices, like flying and eating meat. Who, outside the green movement, is prepared to admit that tackling climate change will be difficult?

And so we find ourselves in the bizarre position where a magazine can show off its virtue by encouraging its readers to fly to a drowning island.


‘Issue for the left’: how climate change can shake this tab

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 8th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

This was originally published on Climate Home.

A new poll shows the view that climate change is mostly a left-wing concern is prevalent and problematic. It’s time to change the conversation.

“Climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left.” From some people that might have been a celebration of how progressives have united in the face of global warming. But US vice-president Mike Pence didn’t mean it as a compliment. For him, linking climate change and the left was a way of delaying action.

The idea that climate change is a left-wing plot should be easy to refute. Concern about rising emissions are visibly not restricted to anti-capitalists. This year alone, warnings about climate change have come from members of the not-left-wing community that include Walmart, US secretary of defence James Mattis, and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.

But Pence wasn’t shooting in the dark. A new opinion poll shows he was tapping into a widespread belief that people on the left are more worried about climate change. The poll, conducted by the research agency PSB for my book, The Climate Majority, and reported here for the first time, reflects a problem that could stop the world doing what’s needed to avoid dangerous warming.

The survey asked people in the US which type of person is most likely to be worried about various issues. Across the range, climate was the issue most identified with liberals, more than both inequality and housing. Respondents were more than twice as likely to say that liberals are most worried about climate change than that a person’s political views don’t make a difference. It was seen as the most partisan of all the issues tested: the perceived liberal skew of climate change was greater than the perceived conservative skew of immigration, national debt and defence.

This is a problem for efforts to avoid dangerous warming. As long as climate change is thought of as a partisan battleground, it will be hard to persuade enough people that it is a serious threat.

Mike Pence knows this. He was following the strategy that Republicans have used for more than 20 years, of casting doubt on the motives of people who warn about climate change. His immediate audience may be conservatives, but the people who really matter are those in the centre. His aim is to persuade them that climate change is a matter of debate between entrenched partisans, with the truth somewhere in the middle.

The delaying strategy has worked quite well so far. The difficulties of passing a climate deal through the US Congress delayed the arrival of an ambitious international climate deal for years. And while the US has cut its emissions recently – by around 9% in a decade – it started doing so later than many other rich countries and its emissions are still around their mid-1990s level.

But while polarisation has already slowed action, the greatest problems are still ahead. Past emission cuts have mostly come from relatively easy areas like improving efficiency and switching from coal to gas. Eventually these will be exhausted and further emissions cuts will have to come from areas closer to most people’s day-to-day lives like food and transport.

So long as climate change is seen to belong to the left many people will be tempted to think the threat is exaggerated and that such changes can’t really be necessary. In that case, how can the polarisation be ended?

First we should emphasise that worries about climate change aren’t in fact restricted to the left, whatever the perception might be. Respondents in the opinion poll were asked how they themselves see each issue, as well as how they think other people see them. And while liberals were indeed the most likely to be worried about climate change – 82% said they were – moderates were also widely concerned, with 73% saying they were worried about it.

So the challenge isn’t to persuade moderates to worry about climate change: they already do. Instead, the task is to stop them thinking that climate change worries people on the left more than it worries other people. That isn’t going to be achieved with more trench warfare between left and right – that only increases the appearance of partisanship.

Instead, we should change the subject. The question of how the world could deal with climate change is full of controversial possibilities, yet most of these controversies are ignored. Among these ignored debates are: whether the best way to reduce polluting activities like flying is to put up the price, meaning only richer people do them; whether communities should have the right to veto cheap renewable energy projects; whether land should be used to grow energy crops at the risk of increasing food prices; and whether the government has a duty to protect all communities from rising sea levels.

What these many controversies have in common is that they provide conflict about climate change without depending on disagreements about whether global warming is real or on only using voices from the left. The debates would show that people from across the political spectrum consider climate change a serious threat, while being contentious enough to interest non-specialists.

The beauty of this approach is it makes it impossible for Mike Pence and his colleagues to maintain their pretence that climate change is a left-wing issue. Instead of talking about whether the world should deal with the problem, the debate moves on to what it should do about it. People whose only argument is that climate change is a left-wing interest would have nothing to say on the debate. Either they engage with the new controversies or they become irrelevant.

Mike Pence and his allies are slowly losing the fight on climate change. Many of them have already had to abandon the claim that climate change is a hoax. But the issue is still seen as a left-right battleground, which persuades many in the centre that it matters much less than it does. A slow victory isn’t enough if the world is to cut emissions quickly enough to prevent disastrous warming. If we are to speed up action, we should try changing the subject.