Environmental Lawyer Tom Bennion

Environmental Lawyer Tom Bennion came to speak on the 14th of Feb. These are notes from his visit.

Book: Beyond Flying

Paper: The Visioning Project: Part of the Transition Engineering Process (Krumdieck)

NOTE: We failed to get an audio version of this talk to share, so Tom shared the notes he’d prepared for himself. The talk was originally delivered in the Botanic Gardens, December 2nd 2019.

How I got here

My work as an environment lawyer includes finding and briefing scientists, understanding and organising a presentation of their evidence as expert witnesses and checking how robust or open to attack their conclusions are. Environment cases for waterway pollution, sewage schemes, marine farms, and the like generally proceed on the basis of managing risks at 1 in 1000 or occasionally 1 in 100 levels. You never even begin to design operations with 5 or 10 or 20% risks of failure. You would be laughed out of court.

I have been involved in several climate change cases – including a case in 2002, well before the ETS, where the EC considered a new thermal power plant in Taranaki and whether trees should be planted to offset the emissions and/or CO2 should be pumped back underground. Because a carbon tax was almost upon us, and tree planting and reinjection were too uncertain or expensive, the EC refused.
Sometime in the late 2000s, I spent an afternoon walking the streets of Wellington dressed as an elephant.

In 2009 I called the Dom Post and said, come interview me, I’m a lawyer and I’m giving up flying because we might lose coral reefs. This is the opening to my chapter in the Beyond Flying book being raffled tonight. Recently some fellow non-flyers have formed a climate-safe-travel institute and taken Auckland International Airport to Court – with modest success. You may want to ask me about that later.

* Five big truths
In his excellent recent book – #NoFly – Shaun Hendy says

The future, I think, will be a very different place.

In my remaining minutes I want to talk about the future of travel but as part of a larger comment about the future of our lives under climate change.

There are some very basic, but v important truths we need to consider and understand the implications of them.

First – we know now in quite a lot of detail exactly what that future different place looks like – both in terms of extreme weather, etc, but also low to zero carbon travel. We have never been here before politically, in world history.

Politically – this means choices are narrow – what will our economic and social future look like – well we already know – it’s not a little more market a little less market – its a full-stop end of growth economy – with all that that entails.
Neighbour – it’s not all going to happen, is it? Yes, all of it. Think about that. Profound. Coral reefs eg

‘(Nature) has served as a canvas against which humans have searched for, and found, meaning in their lives…(T)aking control of this background context of our lives would be psychologically challenging due to the immense burden it would impose on us. There would be no place on earth – or under the sky – where anxiety-producing questions such as ‘Are we succeeding?’ could be avoided.’

Once we embark on this management of the climate as one of civil society’s tasks, “preserving nature may increasingly become indistinguishable from preserving human civilisation.” We are already in that space.
Global Environmental Change. Volume 23, Issue 5, October 2013, Pages 938-947. Messing with nature? Exploring public perceptions of geoengineering in the UK. AdamCorner, KarenParkhill, NickPidgeon, Naomi E.Vaughan

Second – All of it will arrive much sooner than we think – the low carbon part and the extreme weather

We are in the middle of a very fast-moving revolution

  • Micro mobility
  • No flying movement – not for polite conversation
  • Replacing animal protein
  • Extreme weather

Third – but we are not going to get there smoothly – because no matter what we do, it cannot be fast enough – so there will be a LOT of social and economic of unrest – and the root of much of it will be grief at losing a currently imagined future – which is imagined to be not much different than it is now – just a bit greener.

Fourth – so, we need to get everyone mentally ready right now to arrive – if we are to arrive in any decent shape. That essentially means living that future right now. And this includes thinking about new politics.

What does this look like in practice?
Using travel as an example

  • It is NOT our current levels of traffic replaced by electric cars
  • It is our highways with a small percentage of the traffic they have now
  • It is most travel on electric public transport (including overnight train services being called ‘nightjet’) and you will consider yourself privileged to have and be able to operate an electric bike, let alone car
  • It is NOT some reduced flying. It is the end of most international air travel – a few dozen mostly local flights a day from Wellington airport with a shorter runway. This means building mass transport there now is an interesting proposition.

It literally means no more long haul plane travel. Greta Thunberg isn’t doing a demonstration of low carbon travel. She is saying, ‘this is how it has to be, right now’.

The main issue for us will be inconvenience and slowing down. Overnight bus trips and the like. But to think that that is an issue means we have not taken on board the level of our criminality. We are engaged in ecocide. Have no doubt, future generations will not be impressed by ‘but you have understand, overnight bus seats were really, really uncomfortable’

Fifth – if we put into practice ‘arriving now’ at the low and zero carbon economy, climate anxiety is much reduced. So this means the most important thing right now?