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Countdown Conversations: Jonathan Neale

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Before his Countdown Talk: “Global Climate Jobs”, we sat down with Jonathan Neale to talk more about climate jobs and the future of the climate economy.

Please note: This interview has been edited for increased clarity and readability. Mr Neale’s views are still fully represented.


There is no doubt that political success is tied with economic growth. Where do you think the backing and support for the climate jobs that you speak of in your book and your speech comes from?

It comes from two places really. One is that people now know about climate change. They know in California but also, small farmers know all over India. People now know in South Africa why they have a drought. People are almost paralysed by the idea of what's coming at us, but they know. The other place is that it's going to take an enormous amount of work to convert the fossil fuel economy we have now, to an economy run on renewables. It's an enormous amount of work, and that means jobs. And these jobs are needed now: my rough calculations are a million jobs every year in Britain, 8 million in the United States and 20 million in India. People need those jobs, although they aren't decent, well-paid, or permanent, they want them.

Those are the two places that such support would come from, but also more and more, I think from small farmers, as they are right on the edge of this. Climate change impacts are as bad in Texas and Australia as they are anywhere on earth, but in Texas and Australia, most people are not small farmers. The economy and state as a whole can cope. In Mozambique and Angola, and increasingly across North India, people are right up against it, and those people we hope will mobilise and increase support.

What sparked using the response to war as a comparison to responding to the climate emergency?

I guess I'm a social historian. I did a PhD in Labour History here at Warwick, where we covered the labour movement in Britain and America in the Second World War. So I knew about it and then I went and read about it. To me, the most astonishing thing was how the US closed all car factories a week after they went to war after Pearl Harbour, and three months later, the car factories opened, making nothing but aeroplanes, weapons, and ammunition. It's that quick: you can transform everything when you need to. I was also part of the anti-war movement here and around the world, about Afghanistan and Iraq, so war is always in my mind.

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, if you add up the stimulus under Trump in 2020 and the COVID stimulus under Biden in 2021, you have, in today's prices and real terms, more spending on COVID stimulus by the US government than the US military spent in the whole of the Second World War. It was a much bigger proportion of GNP then, because this figure was much smaller, but in real terms, yes.

Having mentioned Trump and Biden, elected politicians don't necessarily have the technical expertise to make recommendations about the types of climate jobs needed and the kind of training that people need. How do you think we can overcome this?

There's an enormous technical element to it. I read a book about the retooling of the US for the Second World War, and the striking thing about that was – American businesses wanted to win the war because they thought they would then dominate the world economy. At the same time, the unions wanted to win the war because they thought it would defeat fascism. Both groups were right, and so both the unions and the businesses sent a bunch of people to Washington to work for $1 a year in senior positions in the government, organising and undertaking various roles. However, everywhere they went, they found that the workers and engineers and so on on the shop floor were already doing this work, and were already talking to other people in the supply chain about what needed to be done. The amount of expertise we already have is astonishing. It’s there.

Politicians don't make those types of decisions when they want to do anything else technical. They appoint people they trust, or they have a civil service of people they trust. There are even a lot of people in Coventry and Warwick who know a great deal about how to do these things. And once they're allowed to think, okay, what if it was 100%, we can see them starting to do these things. There are people at Stanford and a university in Finland already doing this and thinking about what if it was 100%? But also, they will make mistakes and it will turn out that one technology that looked good, isn’t. Wave power looked good and it didn't work. Tidal power didn't look that good, but it did work. As they find out what works and what doesn't they'll shift the resources. That's the advantage to having one government service for climate jobs, like how the UK has the NHS. One united service so you can change things and people can switch their jobs over, but where there isn’t a built-in inertia of one powerful company which already has the contract to do things a certain way. A service where you can shift back and forth as you learn. And there will be an enormous amount of learning and invention, but it's very important to persuade people to point to the truth that we already have all the technology we need to do this. We can do it better with what we invent, but we have what we need already.

What would be the incentive for companies to invest in this more expensive technology? The people will push politicians, but businesses care about money.

For businesses it is the money but the trouble is, this needs to be done without worrying about profit and people need to be willing to spend the money. Even now, we're still working in a model where things have to be done so they're done cheaper than fossil fuels. And that means they’re not done at all, as the alternatives are not cheap or fast. Therefore, those advocating for alternatives are always going to have to compete. Moreover, again and again, we run into problems where people say there are not enough resources. Yet what they mean is, there are not enough resources to do it cheaply. As an example, we probably don't have enough lithium on land in the world to make lithium batteries. However, there are lots of other ways to make batteries, but they’re all more expensive than lithium, and so they make no sense in the market.

When it comes to diets, it could be seen as impossible to make big changes to the system without individuals altering their lifestyles to drive that shift. What are your thoughts?

It's a complicated one.

This is where I’d say to look at my book (Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs) because I edited it with two editors. One was from Devon who is vegan. The other was from South Africa and responsible to South African Unions, particularly the small farmers and herders who wished so badly they had more meat to eat. And so I had to write and rewrite the chapter for both of them.

The answer I come to is, it's not by individual choice that this is going to happen. I have difficulty seeing a movement that in the next 10 years will persuade everybody in Latin America and in China to be a vegetarian. I think it’s about changing how we produce meat and also the other agricultural things we do. About 7 billion tonnes of emissions each year come from agriculture. That's about 12% of the total. A billion tonnes of that is rice and 3 billion comes from using fertilisers and manure. We can stop using fertilisers but manure has just as many emissions. Another 3 billion tonnes comes from meat and raising livestock, almost all of which from beef, sheep and goats, and that's because of the nature of their stomachs. There are alternative meats which have almost no emissions. Pigs have almost no emissions. Chickens do, but other birds have almost no emissions. So partly, it's a change in diet of that nature. There are small things we can do with animal feed as well. But I won't be more detailed than that as it's fantastically detailed in the book, where I tried to lay out a way in which we could cut emissions by a very large amount and we could use pigs to absorb an enormous amount of food waste. We could also stop cruelty to animals in the process. We can do all of those things. But it's not the most important thing we have to do. The people who tell you it's the most important thing in terms of emissions, they're just wrong.

One argument may be that it's going to be impossible to convince half the world to go vegetarian, but it's easier to ask everyone to just reduce their consumption slightly.

The first thing is there are billions of people in the world who don't get enough to eat. We have to realise the matters of scale. If we don't cut emissions from fossil fuels but every person in the world becomes a vegetarian, we've made almost no difference. We are totally lost. However, if we cut fossil fuels and 15% of the people in the world become vegetarians, we're fine. But underlying this is a thing that I think runs through an enormous number of debates about climate change. In my job, I try to start from what to do about climate change, because when people come into the climate change movement, they usually start from wherever they personally are. So they start saying things like “I want to reduce climate change, but it has to be vegetarian. I want to reduce climate change, but there has to be a revolution. I want to reduce climate change, but there has to be participatory democracy”. People bring this in and every time that they say these things, they're pointing to a real problem and to something that must be taken very seriously, as we can’t say “unless I get what I already want, I don't want to do it”. A lot of times we get close to that. I understand why because I was not always a climate change fanatic. It took me quite a while to understand this.


Transcribed and edited by Lauren Walker.

The views and opinions presented in this interview belong to Jonathan Neale — not Lauren Walker, nor TEDxWarwick.

If you have any questions concerning the interview, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email

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