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Tony Juniper: Peak oil, climate change and the role of local communities

Tony Juniper is the executive director of Friends of the Earth UK, and a seasoned environmental campaigner. Recently down in Totnes teaching part of the three week Climate Change course at Schumacher College, he also spoke in town as part of the TTT programme. I managed to grab 15 minutes of his time to ask him a few questions.

It was very interesting to hear his take on peak oil and climate change, the dangers he identifies of linking the two refers more to what I call ‘old paradigm peak oilers’ such as Robert Hirsch with their plans for the tar sands and coal to liquids, than to those of us seeing peak oil and climate change as the Two Great Oversights of Our Times which signify a complete rethink of many aspects of our lives. It was also interesting to hear his vision for a world beyond oil…

How do you see the link between local ground-up initiatives and top down initiatives? What is the role of ground up inititatives like TTT?

j3Is it top-down leadership or is it grassroots action, or is it coalition work, or is it international agreement or is it EU policy we have to focus on? I think the answer is all of it, and we have to do it simultaneously, and we have to be combining activism from the public with political change alongside even the corporates joining in, moving their businesses into a different place. It’s an incredibly complicated and messy situation that this then creates, but its the one we’re in and its the one we have to embrace. I don’t think that there’s much utility in trying to disentangle the local from the leadership or the business action compared to the personal action.

We have to do all of it, and we have to be clever, and do this in a way where we are going to get the maximum change as quickly as possible. That is beginnning to happen. I think we should be very encouraged by what has been happening in the last 18 months, it is a completely different situation to the one we were in just a year and a half ago. It is a combination of some modest leadership from people like Blair and Gore, an awful lot of activism, people passing information by word of mouth, talking to their local politicians and engaging with the media, whatever it is, websites or the local paper, it is creating a very rapid period of change. That is a huge opportunity, it has never been like that before, on the climate issue in particular, we’ve never been here before.

What do you see as the priorities for Transition Town groups?

jp1In some respects we are coming to the end of the Awareness Raising period. Certainly in towns like Totnes where you have quite a high proportion of people who are naturally interested in these things, so places like that, maybe, Cambridge where I live, Oxford, maybe one or two other places where the population is already understanding quite a lot of the issues.

I think it is time to begin the process of engaging people with solutions and the looking at the kind of practical changes that are necessary to avoid the worst of this. It is going at different speeds elsewhere, in some other countries the debate hasn’t even yet begun, I think it is quite important for activists to judge where the public mood has got to, and to be taking the debate on from there.

In some places people are still making the case that there is a problem at all! In some parts of Europe people aren’t even aware that these changes are taking place. In the United States things are starting to move, but in the UK we have a real opportunity to show leadership here, if we can nurture those places where there is already an appetite to move on, it can have a huge multiplier effect not only in the UK but beyond…

How do you see the relationship between the peak oil issue and climate change?

We have to be a little bit careful about this, because the politicians obviously see a common issue here which is about energy security, and they tend to mix up the policy responses in ways which sometimes can be helpful and sometimes not helpful. One of the responses to the peak oil crisis which isn’t necessarily climate friendly but which is dealing with the energy security piece is the whole issue of biofuels, where people are pushing very aggressively the whole thing of bioethanol and biodiesel, in ways which might have a very limited climate benefit andmight make the climate situation actually worse and yet are being conflated in this place where climate change meets peak oil.

To that extent I think we have to keep our eye on the potential political responses to one and how it might undermine action on the other, even though in the political rhetoric they are coming together. People welcoming for example, last month, George Bush talking about the US addiction to foreign oil. This was seen by some as a climate change response, but to a lot of us it looked like this man is getting worried about dependence on foreign oil so he is going to drill in Alaska, and he is going to take large parts of the American farmed landscape and turn it into fuel production, which would have massive ramifications not only for the environment but also for food security. This is something that needs to be kept in mind in terms of how we present the issues, because the political responses might be undesirable.

juniperHowever, for those of us campaigning on the climate change issue, we do need to have the peak oil question in mind, because irrespective of what we do about climate change, there is going to be an additional shock that’s going to be economically significant, if not quite dangerous, coming from the oil price shooting up at some point in the not too distant future, very likely.
So the two are related but I think we have to keep them separate in terms of how we present them and deal with them because otherwise we create inadvertently damaging responses.

Do you see one as more pressing than the other?

I think the climate change issue is more pressing. The thing about peak oil, which is an additional concern, is the way in which the corporates and the politicians might seek to replace oil with oil alternatives, going to the unconventional sources like the tar sands in Canada, or indeed use coal as a source of liquid fuel, both of which would be environmentally disastrous. We have to keep the emphasis very much on efficiency and moving away from fossil fuels full stop; whether there’s a peak or not, we’ve got to get out of it.

Maybe talking up the peak oil side of it is an important part of the discussion but I think keeping it separate and saying carbon dioxide is the main issue is maybe the more sensible way to do it. The peak oil thing can turn to “OK what other oils can we get?”, alright the biofuels is one side of it, the oil sands is another and the coal is another, when in fact we need to be getting out of that stuff completely anyway, irrespective.

Part Two follows on Monday…

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