Climate change: Scotland must embrace people power to avoid perfect storm of failure – Joyce McMillan

The countries making the most practical progress in reducing carbon emissions are those with the most robust systems of local democracy

Last summer, the UK’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage made what he has called a “life-changing” visit to the Arctic. He witnessed once-mighty glaciers shrinking and disappearing, saw hungry and bedraggled polar bears, experienced balmy summer days in what was once the frozen north, and wrote a mighty poem called Cryosphere, inspired by a voyage to the crumbling mouth of a giant glacier, in which he described “an ancient Empire of snow being tipped over the edge, its pages thrown from the cliffs, the forces of heat shunting temples, pavilions and winter palaces into the flood” while “the spitting and hissing of melting ice was a forest fire to the ears”.

None of the quiet, methodical scientists Armitage interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 series based on his visit were in any doubt about the scale of the cataclysmic change they were witnessing, or about its gathering pace; even tooth-and-claw capitalism knows, now, that the Arctic is not what it was, and is fit – in what may prove a final irony – for yet more exploitation, including gas and oil exploration.

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Yet back home in the sub-polar world, the idea that “business as usual” is the only sensible option not only persists, but seems to be gaining strength; and green politics often seems to have hit a new wall, not of complete denial, but of absolute resistance to all and any specific climate policies, which are often dismissed as counter-productive, oppressive, or even unpatriotic.

Shouting matches

So it was something of a relief, last weekend, to set off for the Scottish Greens conference at Napier University in Edinburgh; if only because the Greens’ strong internal consensus that these are real problems makes it refreshingly possible for them to hold serious discussions about what should be done, rather than online shouting matches about whether we should do anything at all. Nor are the Greens, as a party, anything like the current hostile image of a bunch of urban elitists plotting the destruction of rural Scotland from some Edinburgh wine bar; many of them live in rural areas, and have detailed and knowledgeable points to make about the environmental issues those communities face.

Those truths are not much help, though, when it comes to facing down the perfect storm of failure and opposition aroused by most of the Scottish Government’s current green policies, whether put forward by the two Scottish Green ministers currently in government – Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater – or by SNP ministers. Of course, most of those rows have been sedulously stoked up by those who want to discredit the Scottish Government at any cost, or who are intent on undermining all attempts to transition to a low-carbon economy; it is true that most of the Scottish Government’s supposedly controversial actions enjoyed strong cross-party support at the point of legislation, while many mirror planned or existing legislation at UK level.

Rising temperatures in the Arctic are a serious problem for polar bears (Picture: Ekaterina Anisimova/AFP via Getty Images)Rising temperatures in the Arctic are a serious problem for polar bears (Picture: Ekaterina Anisimova/AFP via Getty Images)
Rising temperatures in the Arctic are a serious problem for polar bears (Picture: Ekaterina Anisimova/AFP via Getty Images)
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Strong local support

Yet none of that fully excuses the Scottish Government’s failure to build the kind of profound grassroots consensus in favour of green policy that is the only real political answer to the manipulation of public opinion by powerful vested interests. On the Scottish Greens conference panel I chaired, every speaker – including Lorna Slater herself – agreed that any serious action to achieve targets on climate change and the natural environment is absolutely dependent on the strong support and ownership of local communities everywhere; communities empowered to agree their own priorities, and to work together with government to protect the landscapes they love, and the natural resources on which they depend.

And it is the absolute political failure to enable that kind of involvement and consent – and to create the kinds of highly devolved structures of local government that would support it – that has now left the SNP-Green government so vulnerable, both to the opposition it now faces from its sworn enemies, and to the growing disaffection of those who were once supporters. The Scottish Government has tough questions to ask itself, for example, about exactly how a highly protected marine areas measure agreed in principle by all the governments of Europe, and designed to protect and revive the waters on which Scotland’s coastal communities depend for their very life, ended up being perceived as so oppressive to those communities that a group of island musicians won UK-wide and even international acclaim for their song about how the Scottish Government was causing a new wave of Highland clearances.

Rapid top-down action

In its current embattled state, the Scottish Government doubtless finds it much easier simply to blame their enemies for these ills, than to examine how they may have let down or excluded so many potential friends; they may also feel that the urgency of the climate crisis demands rapid top-down action, come what may.

Yet a glance across Europe shows that the countries making most practical progress in reducing carbon emissions – developing public transport and active travel, leading the way in new technologies from green hydrogen to high-powered battery storage – are those with the most robust systems of local empowerment and democracy, which enable communities to take ownership of the process of change. That Scotland critically lacks such structures has been obvious for decades; the failure of successive governments to address that absence has been one of the biggest failures of devolution.

And now, this lack of serious, deep-rooted support for government policies is exacting a painfully high price. A price, alas, that will be paid both by Scotland’s beloved and vital natural environment, which desperately needs a robust consensus among people and politicians on its protection and repair, and, it seems, by our continuing capacity to shape a better future, as those who care little for Scotland or for democracy use these failures to cast doubt on the very idea of Scotland as a country fit to govern itself, or to map out its own path to survival, through a world in mounting crisis.



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