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  • Charlotte Owen-Burge

Sir Jonathon Porritt: It all comes down to whether our politicians have got the long-term vision

Environmentalist, author and founder director of Forum for the Future on finding hope in technology, the power of civil disobedience and reducing meat consumption.



The book was just about to go off to the printers when everything exploded around coronavirus. I persuaded the publishers to let me do a separate introduction and made a few changes to the book itself. Basically, [Covid-19] has been quite difficult to accommodate because many things will look so different. But it was good to think about how this crisis will now influence how we address the climate emergency because there’s no doubt it will.


I think that some things will stick, and I’m absolutely certain, for instance, that we’ll never go back to the days of insane commuting for millions of people, and we’ll never go back to business travel on planes being what it was. Many companies now say we can do all this without putting people on very expensive planes and putting them up in expensive hotels.


There is a real risk, of course, that governments will try to reflate their economies just by injecting purchasing power at almost any cost; just getting jobs going again and shovel-ready infrastructure projects. And, of course, emissions dropped after the 2008 financial crash but quickly returned to what they were before.


So, we have to be aware of that, and that’s why I’m hugely heartened by the calls not just from NGOs and civil society organisations but from business, the World Bank, IMF and everybody under the sun that we’ve got to seize this moment to do a full-on climate emergency recovery. We cannot simply default to business as usual. I think there are many good signs out there. Whether we’ve got enough political leadership to fulfil all that is a different story.


It all comes down to whether our politicians have got the long-term vision to make all of that come alive today

I think there’s a big story about technology coming to our help here. The incredible reduction in prices for renewable energy and storage, and so on, is so utterly remarkable that now there’s no reason why we can’t move to 100% decarbonised energy supplies within the next decade. There’s no technology-based reason at all.


The other thing that is fascinating for me is how people are now much more aware of what are called nature-based solutions or natural climate solutions, where we can start thinking about ways we can rebuild our natural ecosystems. It’s a fantastic solutions portfolio we have, but it all comes down to whether our politicians have got the long-term vision to make all of that come alive today, not keep putting it off, which is what they’ve done for the last decade or more.


That’s why I’m calling for a very different kind of political activism. I don’t believe these politicians will move until people, particularly young people, make it impossible for them to do anything else. And that means much more constant pressure on them, a call for a lot more direct action in pursuing those political options, civil disobedience of one kind or another.


If people want a quick steer on easy things they can do, just reduce your average meat consumption every week by as much as possible

2019 was an astonishing year for me, particularly regarding the new energy from young people. By the end of 2019, there were 7 million young people on the streets of cities worldwide, saying this has to change; you are destroying our future – this is the most deeply immoral thing you could possibly be involved in. And that all gives me real heart, the solutions agenda plus the new politics.


I think everybody now knows the obvious stuff we should be doing. It’s essential that we think about energy efficiency; we think about how we move around; it’s essential to think about the food we’re buying.


If people want a quick steer on easy things they can do, just reduce your average meat consumption every week by as much as possible. Not everyone has to become vegan or vegetarian overnight, but meat is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, so many things can be done in that area.


One of the most wonderful things during the Covid crisis is the extent to which local solidarity has become a big part of so many people’s lives. We’ve just recognised the incredible value of working more closely together in our neighbourhoods, communities and so on.


That’s brought out this brilliant side to human nature that I think had been obscured by years and years of the wrong kind of politics driving people to think only about themselves, about competitiveness, the me-first approach to politics. As I heard someone say on the radio the other day, “we do not need another disaster to be our better selves”. And it seems that could be a critical part of what individuals can do in their communities.


The science of climate change doesn’t leave us with much wriggle room these days; it’s pretty gloomy and will get gloomier. There’s no turning away from what the science tells us. It’s all moving faster and more damagingly than anyone thought was possible. So, there’s a balance between being realistic about the science of “telling the truth”, in the words of Extinction Rebellion, and then being absolutely clearheaded and purposeful about the solutions.


These two things have to coexist in our minds. You can’t stay hopeful and cheerful by ignoring the science, and it doesn’t serve any purpose if people default to despair, as if it’s too late to do anything, about it because it isn’t. This is complex stuff, politically and psychologically, for each of us individually. But that will be the nature of our lives for the foreseeable future, so we’ve got to get good at it fast.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 27th May 2020

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