climate change transport

Three kinds of denial over Luton’s airport expansion

The next round of consultations has begun over Luton airport’s expansion. I’ve written a bit about this already, partly because it’s a major climate wrecking project on my doorstep. I also think it’s symptomatic of where we are as a society, and it serves as a useful case study for investigating the cognitive dissonance of the present moment.

There are a couple of dozen consultation events where local people can come along and view the plans. These are consultations on how to grow the airport, not whether or not it should expand – that’s already decided. I attended last week to see how this was being justified, and I want to tell you about three different conversations I had. I’m not going to name anyone, as it’s not my intention to shame people. I just want to highlight the many ways that airport expansion is a climate denial project.

First, I had a discussion with one of the consultants about the benefits to the local community. (They were all consultants. No decision makers in the room when I arrived.) I suggested that despite the benefits, the whole project was misguided if it meant rising CO2 emissions. “Why is that a problem?” she asked. I replied that rising greenhouses gases were the cause of climate change, to which she said “that’s one view”.

That’s what the science tells us, and it’s virtually undisputed, I insisted. “No, it’s one view, and I hear other views regularly” the woman replied. So here’s the first form of denial I encountered – outright and old fashioned denial of the science. This was within five minutes of entering the room.

I worked my way round to the climate change board. Here the display outlined how the airport would lower its emissions – more efficient taxi-ing routes, electric ground vehicles, more passengers arriving by public transport. All good things that I would fully support, and dealing with everything except the most important factor: the planes themselves.

At the bottom of the display I noticed that the modelling had all been based on the government’s climate target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. That has of course been superceded by the net zero by 2050 target, as the display acknowledged. I asked the environmental consultant about this.

Yes, he explained. All the work on the expansion had happened under the old carbon target. They had done everything they could think of to meet that, and then the goalposts had shifted. The current proposal is incompatible with net zero plans, and they don’t know what more they could do to make it meet net zero by 2050.

I suggested that was a good reason to pause the rush to grow. No, he replied. Ultimately the problem was a contradiction in government policy. The government wanted mutually exclusive things – net zero and airport expansion. If central government reconciles those goals, Luton will fall in line. Otherwise it intends to press on despite the contradiction. So here’s another form of denial – infrastructure plans are being laid down in the full knowledge that they don’t meet carbon targets, and in denial of the mathematics of the carbon budget.

Shortly afterwards, I finally saw a Luton councillor coming in from the rain. I’ve talked to him about the climate crisis before, and I hoped he might share some of my concerns. I asked him what he thought about airport expansion in a time of climate breakdown. He replied with some of his concerns about local parks and green spaces. I pressed him again, and he replied with some concerns about air pollution.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I asked about climate change. It seems nobody in the room is willing to talk about it.”

“Those folks in the entrance are” the councillor said, referring to my Extinction Rebellion Luton colleagues standing outside, one dressed as an air stewardess, one dressed as the grim reaper.

“They’re not in the room” I pointed out. “Nobody here is taking responsibility for the emissions.”

The councillor just shrugged. He had literally nothing to say, and here is the third form of denial in evidence: denial of responsibility for our local contribution to a global problem.

People get upset about the word denial, but it is a well-known human behaviour. When we encounter something that makes us uncomfortable, we are dangerously capable of acting as if it isn’t real. The plans to expand Luton airport have climate denial stamped all over them. And that, in a nutshell, is why the civil disobedience and disruption of Extinction Rebellion is so necessary. How else do we break the silence?

I came to the first consultation to listen. Next time I will be there to protest.

  • PS – entirely unprompted by me, all three of these conversations included a mention of electric planes.

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