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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

“There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing”

– James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

With parliament set for a symbolically important opposition day debate on proposals for a third runway today, a question that I have been asking myself is ‘how will the Government’s decision to expand Heathrow airport impact on the public’s response to climate change?’ A colleague was asked a simple question by a cab driver that cuts to the heart of the issue that’s been troubling me: ‘How can Gordon Brown expect me to recycle when they’ve decided to build another bloody runway?’ I can imagine he is not the only person asking that question. If that’s the case, the Government’s decision on Heathrow spells disaster for the climate in whole range of ways.

heathrow5Over the past four or five years, climate change has passed a critical threshold in public awareness and political discourse. But the growing profile of the issue has not translated into an adequate, proactive response. Research by AccountAbility and Consumers International found that while at least 90 per cent of the public believes that climate change is caused by humans, statistics from a survey of UK consumers showed that only 7 per cent felt they could do something about it. Of that 7 per cent, only 3 per cent tried to live sustainably. The evidence is that the increase in awareness of the seriousness of climate change and increased sophistication in the scientific understanding of future physical, social cultural and economic impacts has not been reflected in policy or public action. While there are many reasons for this, the key factors are diminishing trust in government and the fact that consumers are locked-in to unsustainable consumption patterns.

Defra has spent millions on research trying to understand what really motivates pro-environmental behaviour. And it turns out it is not as simple as just telling people about climate change. There are many factors that determine whether someone will change their behaviour or not. An extensive review carried out by Professor Tim Jackson in 2005, identified two key themes that determine behaviour change:

The first relates to the symbolic role of consumer goods, which goes beyond their functional use. The symbolic role facilitates a range of complex, deeply engrained ‘social conversations’ about status, identity, social cohesion, group norms and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning. The second theme relates to the locking-in of consumers into unsustainable consumption patterns, which makes it difficult for consumers to make real choices about their consumption. Consumer ‘lock-in’ occurs in part through economic constraints (how much people have to spend), institutional barriers, inequalities in access, and restricted choice. But it also flows from habits, routines, social norms and expectations and dominant cultural values.

The research then goes on to suggest four key policy responses to combat these problems. One of which is leadership. For example, people assess the perceived priorities of government policy not only by what government says, but critically by what it does. The consistency or inconsistency of government actions can have a significant impact on the success of government initiatives designed to encourage people to take action that will reduce their environmental impact.

I am still doubtful that Heathrow’s third runway will ever be built. There are still a number of planning hoops that have to be jumped through and I doubt oil prices will stay as low as they are now for very long. It is worthing remembering that 24 airlines went bust when oil prices rose above $100 a barrel. But it is clear from Defra’s own research that the decision to press ahead with Heathrow has the potential to undo or at the very least stymie the public’s response to climate change. Whatever the outcome of the Commons vote today, it is clear that until the Government shows the vision and leadership to match the climate challenge they themselves admit we face, we are all less likely to change. And it shouldn’t take millions to work that out.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

newdealThere’s a lot of Green New Deal news this week, so I’ll take it in stages. Today, the fall-out from the confirmation that Heathrow Airport will get a third runway. Tomorrow, I’ll say something about this afternoon’s inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Just before the announcement on Heathrow, the newspaper comment pages were overflowing with the pros and cons of expansion. The prospect of  new jobs at the airport was enough for TUC leader Brendan Barber to support the new runway. Simon Jenkins was less convinced, pointing out that there are plenty of ways to create jobs – such as by improving healthcare infrastructure – which don’t involve flattening villages. Indeed, as Greenpeace’s Joss Garman points out, we need to get our jobs from a Green New Deal, not from more airports. He asks:

Should Britain be building a sustainable economy with a green fiscal package centred on creating millions of green-collar jobs? Or do we plough on with the industries of the past irrespective of their impact on disadvantaged people all around the world?

GND author and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas had a letter in the Times on the day after the decision came, arguing that, despite the double-talk of Brown and Hoon, there is simply ‘no such thing as a “green” airport‘. Like Garman, she attacked those who used economic arguments to justify the expansion:

It’s simply laughable to say that “the jobs outweigh the climate danger”. First, climate change will wreak havoc on the world’s economy. Second, the greening of our economy will require us to create huge numbers of jobs across many sectors, not least transport. Hence the need for a Green New Deal. It really is time to ditch the false ideology of environment versus economics.

The trouble is that what passes for ‘economics’ under this government is a mixture of vain hope and voodoo. As nef‘s Policy Director Andrew Simms explained to the Guardian,

You are talking about a highly carbon-intensive piece of infrastructure that might be finished at exactly the moment when global oil production is collapsing and its price is rocketing. The government’s case is based on fantasy economics.

We need to wake up to the fact that the expansion isn’t about jobs for ordinary people. It’s about big business getting it’s way, regardless of how the rest of us are affected. And, yes, I realise that any argument about corporate influence over politicians sounds trite to the point of being a cliché, but the reason it’s repeated so often is because it’s largely true. The news that there is a ‘revolving door’ between Downing Street, Whitehall and airport operator BAA, is shocking, infuriating, but hardly surprising.

What is surprising is the silver lining to this sordid collusion between BAA and New Labour: the Conservatives are green again! With impeccable timing, the Tories announced their plans for a green revolution just as our Heathrow rage had reached its zenith. Their plans? A £1 billion “super-grid” of high voltage direct current power cables, which will save enormous amounts of energy compared with today’s alternating current cables. They’re also promising grants of £6,500 per household to help people invest in insulation and energy efficiency measures.  Good old George Monbiot, who first suggested many of these ideas in his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, can hardly believe that they are finally being taken seriously, let alone by the Conservatives. And as Brown and Darling continue to mess around with more taxpayer-funded bank bail-outs, it is Cameron who seems more clued up about how a Green New Deal might actually work:

The stuff in [our proposal paper] will help employ people and bring jobs. We have got to do things that are both good for us now and good for the future.

If Cameron can convince us that he will make good on these promises, then he might catch a rising wave of enthusiasm for green economic recovery. Witness the following articles, all of which mention nef or the Green New Deal:

Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

Is the sun setting on the case for expanding Heathrow?

With a government decision expected any day now, the debate about the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport is going right to the wire. As activists set up their picnic rugs in the Departures Lounge to protest the damage that the expansion would do to the local community, to quality of life in London and – most dramatically – to the world’s climate systems, the backlash from pro-expansionists has begun.

There are plenty of arguments voiced loudly across the press, so let’s just pick two of them. The first is the economic argument. Business leaders are currently  urging ministers to approve the plans to expand Heathrow on the grounds that a new runway is vital if Britain wants to remain competitive, especially when the country is facing a recession if not depression. Businesses in London, they say, will suffer if the airport is improved and enlarged. The second argument is more of a class thing. It hasn’t escaped notice that the some of the anti-aviation protestors have university degrees from places like the University of Cambridge. This has prompted a glut of name-calling: activists from Plane Stupid and Greenpeace have been branded “middle-class militants“, “agitated bourgeois insiders“, the “bolshie Barbour brigade” and “upper crusties.” Because they’re posh – the argument goes – they don’t realise the impact that their demands will have on ordinary people who just want to take a holiday in the sun. According to Times columnist and spiked editor Mick Hume, the activists who blockaded Stansted Airport are “green meanies who pray that the recession makes us too poor to travel“.

Two recent nef reports address these arguments directly. In Plane Truths, a report nef produced with the World Development Movement in September last year, we examined the economic case for airport expansion. WDM has calculated that £10.4 billion was lost to the Exchequer in 2007 as the result of tax exemptions for the airline industry on things like fuel and VAT. To put this in perspective, this is double the amount of money needed to insulate the whole of Britain’s housing stock.  It’s 120 times more than the amount of money which the government currently spends on the research and development of renewable energy technology. What’s more, the rise of cheap flights has benefitted the rich, not the poor. Plane Truths undermined the claim that budget airlines have democratised travel, making it easier for people with less money to fly more. Research at a London airport showed that in 2005, people from the highest soci0-economic groups took 40% of all low-cost flights, even though they make up only 24% of the population. People with the lowest incomes fly the least – only 7.7% of all low-cost flights are taken by people from these groups, even though they account for 32% of the population. Flying remains a perogative of economic elites, not an opportunity for the poor as is so often claimed.

And, as our latest report Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty shows, it is the poorest people in the UK who will be worst affected by climate change. Because people on low-incomes tend to have poorer health and worse housing conditions, they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and flooding which will lead to an increase in diseases and will damage houses. So taking action to stop climate change won’t punish the working class: if done correctly, it could act as a catalyst for new jobs and lead to improved housing and better public transport.

The class argument collapses even further when you consider just how much damage climate change will wreak on the livelihoods of people living in the developing world. If Mick Hume and others were genuinely concerned about the world’s working class, they’d understand that it’s the poorest people in the global south who will feel the brunt of climate change.  For example, a 2006 study of 4,000 extreme weather events between 1980 and 2002, found that the poor, and rural people in poor countries suffered death, homelessness and displacement from climate-related disasters to orders of magnitude ranging from 10 to 100 times that of wealthier countries. nef‘s own analysis of the impact of climate change on developing nations can be found in our Up in Smoke reports.

Other pro-expansionists will claim that aviation will bring economic growth to developing nations, our research in Plane Truths found that most of the money spent by tourists in popular destinations such as the Maldives, Kenya and the Dominican Republic ends up in the pockets of multinational hotel chains and tour operators rather than to the local economy. As much as 75p from every pound.

join_plot_logoWe need a Green New Deal to revive the economy, not more transportation dependent on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. So as the arguments in favour of airport expansion crumble, and the threat of runaway climate change looms ever closer, we need to take urgent action to stop the expansion of Heathrow, of Stansted, of any other airport. Today, Greenpeace, along with impressionist Alasdair McGowen, actor Emma Thompson and former editor of the Ecologist Zac Goldsmith, have bought a field right in the middle of the proposed third runway site at Heathrow. There can only be four signatures on the deeds, and hence only four legal owners of the land, but thousands more can sign up as beneficiary owners. Greenpeace is offering you a stake in plot for free. Yesterday, 5,000 people signed up, including George Monbiot and John McDonnell MP. Adding your name takes 30 seconds. Win the battle, and we all stand to benefit.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.