Sunday, November 18, 2007

flying in the face of their future

It was such an eye-opener seeing the media around the Camp for Climate Action. Particularly interesting was the way Heathrow's owners, BAA, wouldn't ever debate the issues. They'd talk about the fabricated idea that Campers were going to storm the airport and smash the Starbucks and McDonald's, but they backed out of every scheduled debate with anyone from the Camp.

This left several other organisations to do it instead, one of which was the pilots' union BALPA.

Thing is, in lying about aviation's real impact they're not doing themselves any favours. If and when carbon taxes kick in - and certainly once oil becomes scarce - mass aviation will disappear.. Seeing this coming, a union should defend its members interests rather then their employers, and be seeking a just transition away from this dead-end profession.

I've written about it in a new post over on UK Watch called Flying in the Face of Their Future

[No Comments on this post - the place to leave them is over on UK Watch]


UPDATE 2 APRIL 09: As UK Watch is offline, I'm republishing the posts from there on their pointer-posts here.



One of the curious aspects of the media response to the Camp For Climate Action was the involvement – or lack of it – from Heathrow’s operators BAA.

Several times they were scheduled for debates with people from the Camp, and every time they withdrew. Reports came in later that BAA’s owners, Spanish-based Grupo Ferrovial, had issued a gagging order. But if that were so, why did BAA repeatedly put themselves forward? On Saturday 18th August, a week into the Camp’s coverage, BAA said they’d take part in an extended interview and debate programme on Radio 5 Live, but pulled out when they heard a Camp person would also be on the show.

During the week, several others stepped into the breach left by BAA. The industry lobby group Flying Matters popped up a couple of times (though they also pulled out of one), the Airport Operators Association, some Living Marxism/Spiked front groups, and a handful of rentagob newspaper columnists.
The most curious, though, was the airline pilots’ union BALPA. In June they issued a report claiming that aviation wasn’t as bad for the climate as commonly portrayed. It ‘proved’ this with a number of exaggerated assumptions and scientific omissions that are so wildly inaccurate that it can only be considered to be deliberate. Even a basic understanding of climate science undermined their conclusions.

On Saturday 18th August BALPA’s General Secretary Jim McAuslan took part in that extended debate on Radio 5 Live [streamed in segments on YouTube starting here, downloadable as a single MP3 here].

Firstly they tried to pull a fast one by saying the Camp’s day of mass action should be cancelled in favour of talks with BALPA. As if BALPA don’t already know the science or couldn’t talk another day.

The debate’s presenter put this as a challenge to Camp representative Alan Gill, asking why the Camp wouldn’t debate. ‘Happy to do it,’ said Gill eagerly. Channel 4 News were keen to follow this up and wanted to host it on the Monday. Alan Gill was up for it. BALPA didn’t do it.

During the 5 Live debate Jim McAuslan made a variety of false claims. He said the report had been ‘drawn together based on a number of other scientists including the IPCC’, yet it clearly contravenes basic understanding and certainly the IPCC’s assertions. It presumes all passenger ships have the emissions of the QE2, and doesn’t even take into account the radiative forcing of aircraft (the amount by which emitting at altitude is worse than emitting at ground level).

He said ‘we haven’t had a comeback from the campaigning groups at Heathrow or indeed from groups like FoE and Greenpeace’. Greenpeace issued a press release on the day of the report’s release, dismissing it as ‘pure propaganda. Frankly the aviation industry should be embarrassed by this nonsense,’ going on to describe the flaws in the methodology. The story was picked up by mainstream media including the BBC, as BALPA surely know.

Tom Robbins from the Guardian was another person who found the BALPA report’s conclusions a bit too unlikely
Launching the 82-page report, [BALPA Chairman Captain Mervyn] Granshaw pulled out one key point: ‘Passengers going by high speed train to the south of France would be responsible for emitting more carbon dioxide than if they had flown there.’

I rang the union to check the figures and was directed to a section of the report quoting Roger Kemp, professor of engineering at Lancaster University. I then rang him. ‘No, actually that’s completely untrue,’ he said.

Richard George highlighted further twists in BALPA’s methods and then comes up with more accurate numbers, showing it’s no small error

In a more recent paper Prof Kemp reveals that on a London-Edinburgh route an Airbus A321 would actually emit 210gms CO2e/passenger km – more that five times as much as the 40gms emitted by a conventional GNER train on the same route

So, that BALPA are obscuring the truth is clear. But what really puzzles me is the principle of them doing so. Not because I expect any wide-ranging integrity from them, but because I expect them to be true to their primary responsibility as trade unionists.

There is a lot of talk of global solidarity in trade unions, but time and again it’s shown to be just that. Whether it’s the militantly lefty Liverpool dockers importing scab coal to help break the miners strike or the trade unionists running Workers Beer Company flogging Bacardi and Coor’s products, we see the self-interest of protecting their own jobs.

So the fact that BALPA are happy to keep killing Bangladeshis for a living saddens and sickens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. Noble as it would be, I don’t realistically expect them to defend those under threat from climate change by doing themselves out of a job.

But nor do I expect them to be the stand-in for BAA. They are not there to defend the aviation industry, they are there to defend their members’ interests. The two are not the same thing.

The Met Office hosted a conference called Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Experts in many areas described the threats and what would happen with varying levels of response. Time and again, it was clear that a carbon tax of $100 a tonne would be insufficient. Yet such a tax would slap around $1m a week on a jumbo jet doing the London-Miami route. Imagine what that would do to mass aviation.

Even without carbon taxes, a crunch is coming. Totally reliant on colossal quantities of cheap oil with no alternative fuel, no industry will be hit as swiftly and completely as mass aviation.

Today’s mass aviation pilots are the last generation of their profession. The employers they so stoutly defend will drop them like the proverbial hot bricks.

Rather than denying the threat aviation poses they should be accepting the fact. Not just out of conscience, solidarity, compassion or commitment to truth, but out of their very reason for existing, to protect the welfare of their members. Producing a report full of distortions and lying to the media about aviation’s climate impact is a betrayal of the people who pay their subscriptions.

Sustainability is about more than ecological interests, it’s about social sustainability. If they don’t want their members to suffer like Yorkshire’s mining communities have since the 1980s then BALPA, along with other aviation lobbyist unions like Amicus and the GMB, should be looking at a just transition. They should be calling for a scaling back of aviation and the retraining of their members into new jobs that have a long-term future and that are meaningful, worthwhile and hopefully socially beneficial.