Evangelising from 32 thousand feet: why Brendan May is wrong in calling for more environmentalists to fly

This post, by Kevin Anderson, Dan Calverley and Maria Sharmina, is in response to a Brendan May’s piece Why more environmentalists should fly posted on the Guardian’s Environment Blog; 5 Nov. 2013

It was with growing dismay that we read Brendan May’s most recent Guardian Blog, in which he defends his fifth flight to Jakarta this year and, worse still, exhorts more ‘environmentalists’ to fly (Guardian 6th November, “Why more environmentalists should fly”).  Even more disturbing is how a professed environmentalist could so misunderstand the quantitative and qualitative framing of climate change and the implications of rapidly rising emissions for precisely those issues about which he claims to be concerned.

Why messages from self-styled environmentalists, evangelising to their unwashed parishioners 32 thousand feet below, may ring hollow has been previously covered (see Hypocrites in the Air). Nevertheless, it is worth revisiting some of the issues in response to Brendan’s arguments that people doing “great things in the environmental field” are entitled and obliged to travel the world and that more greens should fly to improve their global perspective.

For Brendan’s position to hold, he must start from one of two assumptions. Either (1) he contends that the 2°C characterisation of ‘dangerous climate change’, with its highly constrained carbon budgets, is inappropriate (or that the science is wrong); or (2) that the emissions released by environmentalists who must fly are outweighed by emissions savings elsewhere. If the latter, then he presumably considers that such worthy people should be allocated a larger slice of the carbon budget; with others accepting a concomitant cut in their budgets to compensate for his and his colleagues’ additional emissions.

Unless we have misunderstood Brendan’s position, his ‘defence’ of relatively wealthy environmentalists flying around the world benevolently resolving the problems of poorer nations is bordering on colonial. This form of patriarchal egotism perpetuates the systemic nature of many issues. Whilst alleviating narrowly bounded but high profile concerns, from the extinction of particular species through to localised deforestation, it neglects more challenging and high-level drivers such as climate change. Certainly there may be niche benefits in Western experts applying ‘sticking-plasters’ to localised problems, but it is an inappropriate model for addressing the pervasiveness of climate change, let alone the more interconnected nature of sustainability.

Emboldening more greens to fly, Brendan goes on to argue that by remaining earthbound the wider “green community” risks wasting its energies on “provincial and irrelevant” issues and losing its “global perspective”. Again Brendan’s arguments come up short here too. He contends that without witnessing “first-hand the changes looming from these emerging economies” it is not possible to comprehend the “size and scale” of the challenges they represent. This is patently false. It is not necessary to have visited Greenland, witnessed the devastating consequences of (some) palm oil plantations or monitored in person the early impacts of acidification and warming waters on coral reefs to understand the seriousness of these issues. Arguing that ‘perspective’ relies on individuals flying to personally witness problems invites mistaking a partial snapshot for the whole truth. Eyewitnesses give notoriously poor accounts of events.

Still more troublingly for a self-proclaimed great environmentalist, Brendan fundamentally misrepresents the basic chronology of avoiding ‘dangerous climate change’ when he declares that “Britain’s environmental footprint is miniscule … and will become ever more so in relative terms as growth continues in emerging economies.” This tired echo of the ‘two per cent argument’ is frequently invoked by those seeking excuses for personal inaction or to avoid putting their own house in order. How often have we heard that the UK is only ‘a few per cent’ of global emissions and hence what we do is irrelevant? Similar arguments are made on behalf of specific industries and equally apply to Germany, California, Beijing or Shanghai – all of which are also just a few per cent of global emissions. Divide the world into a sufficient number of small parts and everything fits within Brendan’s classification of “miniscule”, i.e. so small as to be irrelevant.

But to call Britain’s environmental footprint “miniscule” is extremely disingenuous. The UK’s total consumption-based emissions place it within the top ten high-emitting countries globally, responsible for around 7% of total annual emissions. Even more pertinently, amongst the big emitting nations, the UK has the third highest per capita emissions – almost three times that of China’s citizens (see http://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Reducing-carbon-footprint-report.pdf). Given the cumulative nature of carbon dioxide, achieving deep reductions in the UK’s (and Europe’s) emissions, including those related to its imports, over the coming decade is crucial if we are to remain within the rapidly dwindling 2°C global carbon budget. Either Brendan does not understand this, or he chooses to ignore the maths.

In light of this, Brendan’s assertion that “In Britain we see ourselves as a hub of green innovation, the best thinking, the proud host of some of the world’s most sustainable companies” just seems bizarre. We must move in very different circles. Amongst academic colleagues, contacts in NGOs and businesses, as well as during engagement with broader civil society and politicians, we get no sense of Britain being viewed as a proud “hub of green innovation”. However, given that Brendan’s company claims to apply its unrivalled experience in the business and public sectors to designing and developing “ambitious corporate sustainability strategies”, it may be that his view is reflective of the self-worth of the companies he advises; but it is unreasonable to assert that this is the common view.

Turning to Brendan’s concern about the “vast rising middle classes of India, China” etc. – this too arises from a misunderstanding of both the timeframe of mitigation necessary to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ and of the rate at which the poor are becoming high-consuming middle class citizens. Brendan appears to be muddling mean values, skewed by very high emissions from the relative few, with mode averages that take account of issues of distribution. The urgency of reducing emissions within the coming decade relates principally to the few high emitters and much less to the poor consuming more.

Brendan May concludes his colonial rallying cry by noting how if the West’s great environmentalists don’t use their “power and skills to change the world [and] don’t travel round it with a sense of urgency, there’ll be little left to talk about”. But isn’t this exactly what self-appointed elites have been doing since the first Rio Earth summit over two decades ago – with precious little evidence of any systemic improvement in either emissions or broader sustainability?

So before anyone is taken in by Brendan’s superficially attractive arguments and jets halfway around the globe to bestow pearls of wisdom on the planet’s needy folk, we need to stop and think long and hard. Apply a little circumspection and humility; is another wealthy Western environmentalist really able to offer a skill set that does not exist more locally or could not be rapidly fostered? If after very careful reflection the answer is yes, go ahead and arrange the travel – though preferably not by plane (see the dynamic arguments in the Hypocrites in the air article), and preferably not for short, repeat visits (is it a failure of memory or of organisation?). But all this is a far cry from the gung-ho colonialism that underpins Brendan’s piece.