Slavery and Climate Change

We must act or our past will catch up with us, argues BEFS Director Euan Leitch, reflecting on two recent events in Edinburgh.

Last week in Edinburgh two of BEFS associate members held events that may at first appear unconnected. The Cockburn Association’s annual lecture was on the Role of Urban Ecology in the Future of Edinburgh while Edinburgh World Heritage held a lecture on Edinburgh and the Slave Trade: the True Cost of the New Town.

Sir Geoff Palmer OBE elaborated on the Edinburgh wealth built out of the tobacco, linen and sugar trades, the delay in the abolition of slavery caused by Henry Dundas’ intervention and the wealth Edinburgh residents gained from the financial compensation received by the owners of slaves upon its eventual abolition. The prosperity arising from the abuse of humans made for grim listening, brought home by Sir Geoff talking about visiting places in Scotland that had benefited from the abuse of his Jamaican ancestors, places such as Dairsie in Fife, where the coarse osnaburg linen was woven that was worn by plantation slaves. Sir Geoff Palmer reflected on the dual connection he shares with the former Prime Minister William Gladstone as a resident of his Midlothian constituency and Gladstone’s father likely owning Sir Geoff’s ancestors: “Be very careful what you do in the past, it might catch up with you in the future!” Sir Geoff Palmer’s talk was not to encourage the toppling of statues or demolition of buildings but to make historical connections explicit. Amending the plaque at the base of the Melville Monument to insert the fact that Henry Dundas’ actions prolonged the slave, trade by arguing for its ‘gradual’ abolition, being one example.

Professor Sandy Halliday and René Sommer Lindsay delivered a joint lecture for the Cockburn Association. Sandy gave a whistle stop tour of projects around Europe and Scandinavia that are taking an enlightened approach to sustainable development, buildings that are ‘net-zero’ in energy consumption and generation or in the case of refitted-office block, PowerHouse Kjørbo in Norway, one that exports electricity. Her lecture included examples of policies in Berlin and Malmo that ensure 30% of development sites are given over to green or blue infrastructure, and highlighted the environmental investment priorities of Germany’s state owned KfW bank. René shared details of the Klimarvarter project in Østerbro, Copenhagen, which aims to create a climate resilient neighbourhood, through the creation of green infrastructure that can handle increased rainfall and be replicated across the city.

What links these two lectures? The past catching up with us: our environmental past and present.

Sandy Halliday highlighted the WWF calculation that the UK consumes three times as much of the planet’s resources than it should do, our 200 years of industrial production and consumption are having real consequences. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C was published in early October. The report made explicit that whilst meeting that target of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 °C is possible it would require a radical change in our approach to land and energy use.  We have twelve years in which to take radical action. The 1.5 °C temperature increase itself may have a devastating impact on environments in the Middle East and Africa, affecting 100 million people. Turtles swimming in plastic reefs and bleaching corals may tug heart-strings but large scale population displacement tends to elicit different responses.

So perhaps our past isn’t imminently catching up with us in Scotland (or is it?), instead our past is catching up with more vulnerable parts of the planet. The day-to-day realities of the slave trade also tended to happen elsewhere and maybe we excuse some of our ancestors for their ignorance but we cannot plead ignorance of the fact that our environmental choices yesterday and today are going to have serious impacts on humans in the near future. We might find ourselves appalled by the callus view our predecessors had of slavery but will our descendants be any less appalled by our societal choices in the face of mounting environmental evidence?

Upon reading the headline statements of the IPCC report I had half expected there to be a collective sharp intake of breath and recognition across a range of disciplines that this was an emergency, followed by a universal call to action. On reading some press releases in response, it’s more of a collective shrug, arguing for gradual decarbonisation to lessen the economic impact.

But what of action? The IPCC report is framed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, of which Scotland is a signatory. The Scottish Government is currently drafting planning legislation and policy – climate change can be at the heart of that. Derek McKay is drafting the Scottish Budget – climate change should be the driver in how we develop as a nation. Historic Environment Scotland are producing their Corporate Plan for 2019 onwards, climate change should be at the heart of that agenda.

Will our gradual approach to decarbonisation be viewed as equally reprehensible by our descendants?

The Edinburgh World Heritage Lecture is available on Facebook, here.

The Cockburn Association will be providing a summary of their annual lecture on their website.

The IPCC report is available on their website, here.