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Impressions of Coventry and Warwickshire's March 11 Climate Summit

Saturday, March 19, 2022

From my point of view the climate summit did not get off to a good start. It was billed as bringing together the public sector, business and community organisations, but for weeks before it took place I was receiving anxious and irritated messages from community organisations who had either received no information about the conference, or whose request to attend had been rejected. I was one of the fortunate few from community organisations to have been invited, though my name badge described me as representing Warwick University, where I have been helping run a an interdisciplinary module on climate change. As far as I could tell (there was no list of participants) the only community organisations represented at the conference were ARC, (Achieving Results in Communities), Clean Air Warwickshire and (possibly) Warwickshire Climate Alliance. Neither of the first two are explicitly focussed on climate change. So out of an estimated 300 people present, I was the only activist from a climate change community organisation.

After opening addresses from George Duggins and Izzi Seccombe, leaders of Coventry City Council and Warwickshire County Council, we had short pre-recorded video talks by Andy Street, Mayor of West Midlands Combined Authority and Margot James, Chair of Coventry Climate Change Board and of the Warwick Manufacturing Group. There were short talks by the two co-chairs of Warwickshire Youth Council. The second of these especially was excellent, and conveyed a real sense of urgency. The speaker, Alice Battersby, was realistic about the likelihood (very low) of preventing a temperature rise of no more than 1.5 degrees C. The rest of the morning session consisted entirely of speeches by members of Coventry and Warwickshire’s county, city and borough councils, describing what they were doing and planning to do. All seemed committed to relatively ambitious carbon reduction plans, even Coventry, Rugby, North Warwickshire and Nuneaton and Bedworth, all of which had scored 0% on a recent nation-wide assessment of councils’ climate emergency action plans. Before the coffee break at the end of the first round of talks there was a very brief Q&A session, with only three questions.

I am not able to comment in any detail on the ambition, sincerity or realisability of the various councils’ climate plans. By far the most engaging and detailed presentation came from Alan Rhead and Ian Shenton, from Warwick and Stratford District Councils, which are collaborating on the ambitious project of achieving net zero in South Warwickshire by 2030. They seemed sure of their ground and in command of a lot of detail. The speaker from Nuneaton and Bedworth emphasised the difficulty of doing very much about carbon emissions, given their severe financial constraints. This was engagingly honest, but didn’t appear to lead anywhere. Likewise, Jim O’Boyle, from Coventry City Council, said that they had set no date for net zero because currently they haven’t got the tools, resources and policies to achieve this. Even though in his opening address, his council leader George Duggins had said how grave and serious the threat from climate change is.

The afternoon’s breakout sessions at least allowed some discussion, but did not lead to any firm conclusions or policy commitments. I attended one, on Building and Planning, led by Dave Barber, the council officer in charge of implementing carbon neutrality for Stratford and Warwick District Councils, where some pretty good ideas were aired, and some real difficulties were owned up to. The other one I attended was on Biodiversity, but, though interesting, it seemed somewhat divorced from the theme of what to do to combat climate change.

It was encouraging that all of the councils were at least putting on an appearance of working to substantially reduce their carbon emissions. Probably the fact that they would be speaking to their peers required them to demonstrate a certain level of commitment, and maybe even firm up their plans, and that is good. But as elected councillors they should be answerable to the public, and the public were not there to query their plans or demand stronger action. There was no public discussion among the councillors. Hopefully some took place in private conversations during the breaks. There were no proposals for joint action, and no votes, or even shows of hands, on what approach we should follow. To a large extent the whole event seemed like a public relations display rather than an opportunity to share skills and understanding or to seek commons solutions.

What would I have liked to see? I begin from the surely unarguable premise that councils and governments at every level have not been doing enough, and still are not doing enough. This is what the increasingly desperate warnings from the world’s scientists tell us, and what we can see from the evidence from all around the world, of astonishing and unprecedented extremes of temperature and rainfall already occurring, before we have even reached the 1.5 degrees C increase that is supposed still to be safe.

Given this premise, I would like to see a conference which begins with a presentation of the scale of the problem and an account of the failure of efforts made so far to deal with it, and offers some explanation for this state of affairs. The councillors should then say their part, explaining not only what they intend to do but what are the difficulties in their path. A crucial part of dealing with the problem of climate change is to enlist the support of the public, and this means giving the public the facts. Otherwise we will continue to see measures like continued road building, further fossil fuel exploration, and expansion of our airports, which I fear will doom all our efforts to reach net zero to failure. Everybody needs to understand that this is an emergency and that life cannot continue as normal.

The exclusion of the civil society voluntary organisations seems to have been more than just an accident. This is a grave error, if we are to stand a chance of taking actions which match the scale of the problem. Governments and councils have to face all manner of problems in addition to climate change, including getting re-elected, and this makes it very hard for them to admit to the scale of the threat from climate change. Civil society groups can and do take the science seriously. Not even the supposedly extreme groups, like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, are saying anything more alarming than what climate scientists around the world are telling us.

Some kind of re-jigging of the relationship between government, science and the public is urgently needed. Civil society organisations can provide some of this, and must not be excluded for the sake of false comfort and false harmony.

David Mond, Chair, Warwickshire Climate Alliance

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