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Climate change: Scotland’s disempowered councils seem too weak to take real action on global warming unlike their German counterparts – Joyce McMillan

Climate change: Scotland’s disempowered councils seem too weak to take real action on global warming unlike their German counterparts – Joyce McMillan

I visited Ahrweiler once to attend a peace conference at the local university. The town is just 20 miles from Bonn and seemed to epitomize the stable, almost peaceful atmosphere of peace and serious cultivation democratic institutions, which were painstakingly cultivated in that area. GermanyAfter the Second World War.

It was therefore a terrible, traumatic shock to see the valley swept apart by flood-water torrents that swept away hundreds more buildings and killed 130.

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Germany is a wealthy country, of course, and huge reconstruction funds were immediately put in place; but given the likely link between climate change and what scientists call “the growing frequency and intensity of torrential rainfall”, climate activists in the area also saw an opportunity to “build back better”, by changing the energy system of the valley for good.

Their aim is to make the Ahr valley what they call a “Sol-ahr” valley, a model community with its own renewables-based and locally run energy system; and in doing so, they are not only working through Germany’s existing strong layers of local democracy, but also becoming increasingly aware of the radical nature of renewable energy itself.

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Renewables, after all, are by definition available almost everywhere, in wind, waves, water and sunlight; and – if kept in community ownership – can help disperse and redistribute power in ways we may find hard to imagine, after centuries of increasingly centralised energy systems based on the ownership, transporting and burning of fossil fuels.

We could, in other words – if we can move fast enough – be living at the dawn of a whole new age of local governance and autonomy, based on a radically transformed and decentralised energy system.

After torrential rains in July, floods caused severe flooding in the Blessem district, Erftstadt, west Germany. (Picture by Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images).

Yet huge though these potentials are, they often seem a world away from a Scottish local election process battered by years of disempowerment of the nation’s local authorities, and led by national politicians whose focus is anything but local. Last time ScotlandIn May 2017, turnout increased from a lowly 39.6 percent in 2012 to a slightly healthier looking 47% at the polls.

The bad news is that this increase was not due to local issues, but to the general increase in engagement in politics following the 2014 independence campaign. The main driver for higher turnout appeared to be Union supporters determined to vote against SNP and concentrate their vote on Conservatives.

And the chances are that when this week’s results emerge, the polarised pattern will be the same; in the main, voters will either vote SNP, or – if they are unionists who have now had enough of Boris Johnson and his party – for those parties that might give the Union a more acceptable face, in future national elections.

All of this does not mean that Scottish local authorities have no power or that the citizens aren’t interested in the issues that they face. On the contrary, there’s barely a citizen of EdinburghFor example, who could give a one-hour lecture regarding the mishandling the current tram works or how Airbnb is currently destroying the community life in the city centre?

Driftwood and other debris piled up on a bridge over River Ahr in western Germany last July (Picture by Torsten Silz/AFP via Getty Images).

Many local authorities are also genuinely interested in the future of their communities and eager to play their part towards tackling climate change.

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Yet despite the powers councils still have, and the genuine dedication and ambition of many councillors and officials, something seems broken, in the connection between Scotland’s councils and the sheer transformative potential of this moment. Perhaps it’s the dominance of an increasingly polarised and media-driven national party politics in local councils which work best without such tribalism.

Perhaps it’s simply that our councils – still hopelessly disempowered and unreformed, in what is surely the SNP’s biggest real failure in government since 2007 – no longer have the power, or the money, to take the kinds of major initiatives that might be truly transformative.

As many have argued, today’s 32 Scottish authorities are poor, battered things compared to their predecessors, often too big to be truly local, too small to be strategic, and exhausted by their ‘austerity’ role in implementing central government policy without the resources to do it well.

Whatever the cause, though, here I sit in my Edinburgh flat, looking at election literature which – even in its more local moments – seems largely unaware of the crucial role local communities will have to play in the economic transformation that must come.

In a city of tenement flats both posh and humble, there is – for example – no mention of any large-scale scheme to encourage me and my neighbours to hoist an array of solar panels onto our shared roof; far less a radical plan for an Edinburgh powered by its own energy, and building a future as a true home of 21st century enlightenment.

Maybe we are waiting for the central government to live up to its rhetoric, provide the money and pass the legislation to implement the schemes that will help us today.

Yet as one Ahr valley activist put it, we really no longer have time to wait; and local and community government – as it is now, or as we remake it for the future – is where we have to start, in beginning to do it for ourselves.

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