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Why the magic bullet misses the mark

Updated Monday, 19th April 2010

'Magic bullets', like carbon capture or storage, are potentially dangerous distractions from more human-scale solutions to climate change, argues Viki Johnson

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Viki Johnson is a researcher in the climate change and energy team at the New Economics Foundation. Here she shares her thoughts on a range of topics relating to climate change, including her work with 'magic bullets'—solutions that get lots of funding and political attention, but are unlikely to bring about the required changes.


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My name’s Viki Johnson. I am a researcher for the climate change energy team at the New Economics Foundation. Coming to work at NEF has opened my eyes to how systemic the problems of climate change are, I mean we always talk about climate change being related to carbon dioxide emissions specifically, but really, really often fail to recognise that actually it’s part of a much more bigger problem whether it’s related the economy, it’s related to the way that we believe that we need to consume, it’s the way our whole social system’s set up to make us just consume more and when you look at it from that perspective you realise that actually the solutions to climate change aren’t these big sort of techno fixes, such as carbon capture and storage, which just deal with the fact that climate change is related to greenhouse gases. It fails to recognise that actually it’s this kind of exponential growth in consumption, which is the problem, it’s a problem that’s causing huge disparities between developing and developed countries and it’s really kind of the root cause of the problem is the kind of economic system, which is basically based on growing numbers consumption and all the way through.

So I mean that’s really sort of what my work is focussing on now is trying to explain and trying to understand how we can sort of campaign and sort of inform people about how climate change isn’t just about emissions.  It’s not about finding alternative energy solutions, it’s about recognising that there’s too much over consumption in some areas and then too little consumption in others.  So, you know, for example you have somewhere in Tanzania where they have very low levels of energy, access to energy, which is critical for development and then we have the UK who consume vast quantities of electricity and are always finding new ways of consuming energy whether it’s building indoor ski slopes in Milton Keynes or whether it’s flat screen TVs or numerous gadgets, this kind of ever-expanding universe of gadgets.

So that’s really sort of what I want sort of to do, so I’m looking really very much at climate change through the lens of social justice, but also trying to identify these magic bullets and, you know, trying to say that basically my sort of goal is to sort of explore why magic bullets don’t work and why actually it’s kind of the human solutions, the local solutions, it’s solutions that deal with social problems and social context of these problems that’s really the way that we’re going to deal with climate in the whole host of other related challenges, whether it’s socially economic inequalities or whether it’s the fact you have an economic system, which seems to be prone to boom and busts, whether it’s resource scarcity more generally, biodiversity loss and so on and in terms of how I feel or where we’ll be in the next sort of 20 years or so I don’t know.  I find it very difficult sometimes to see much hope really in the future, simply because everything’s happening so slowly, but, you know, if there are tipping points, there have been examples in history where there’s been a sort of very low level kind of or growing level of a social movement that you only ever really realise its there until it suddenly reaches tipping point and they have a huge influence and climate change has been an issue in the environmental movement for about 30, well 40 years now really and so it’s not as if we’re starting from scratch, there’s a lot of history behind it and there’s a lot of improvements in understanding of the issues.

So the question is I suppose is that we’re all kind of wanting to answer and also kind of hoping to make come true is whether there is a sort of a social movement that’s just about to erupt globally that will make it impossible for sort of global leaders to ignore on climate change and issues of development and so on and I think they may be there, I think they may be.  We definitely felt that there was something there in the sort of lead up to Copenhagen, things have quietened down a little bit now, so I don’t know what that means in terms of the next climate change talks in Mexico next year or this year, but yeah my main hope is that really that there is big enough social movement that decides that, you know, stuff the international agreements and the international processes and you basically kind of stand up and say we’ll do it for ourselves.  We don’t need to have a Kyoto, we don’t need to have these kind of big international agreements, which kind of get locked into very difficult discussions, which basically boil down to power relations.  You know, I think there is a kind of growing grassroots movement of people who are doing it for themselves, so in the developed and developing world you’ve got the transition times in the UK, you have many examples in developing countries where there are just fantastic social enterprises that are looking at ways of bringing together issues of resource scarcity, climate change and social justice.

So whether it’s, you know, appropriate technology or developing sort of locally earned, locally based solutions and in our working group on climate change and development, which is a coalition of environmental and development NGOs we have seen many, many examples of those case studies, of those projects, which are really, really excellent and really sort of show that actually there is action happening at the ground, it’s whether they can be replicated quickly enough and it’s whether people can be empowered enough to realise that actually they can create the change that’s necessary and I mean of course you need to have support from governments and we need to have support from leadership and you need to have leadership as well, but actually hopefully it’s sort of making people aware of these issues, empowers them and empower them to realise that actually they can make the change or they can contribute to the change that’s necessary, which is more than just turning off your light bulbs and turning off your lights or changing your light bulbs to something that’s energy efficient or changing your fridge.  It’s much more than that, it’s a complete lifestyle change and so it’s getting the messaging right and it’s also about empowerment and so that’s what I hope and I don’t know whether that’s going to happen or not, I mean it’s much more likely to happen than carbon capture and storage.  So I have my hopes on the former.





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