George Hepburn: Isn't it time we tackled the life and death test of our civilisation?

Journal columnist George Hepburn says that if we are serious about tackling climate change we need to get on to a war foorting to show it

Ben Birchall/PA Wire Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

When it came to clearing up after the floods at the beginning of last year, David Cameron declared that “money is no object…whatever money is needed for it, will be spent”.

It was possible to conclude from the pictures of the Prime Minister in a hard hat and high vis jacket that he had rebuilt the Dawlish railway line single handed.

There is a much greater public clamour and a stronger political imperative to mop up the floodwater than to tackle the underlying problem of climate change.

To be fair, the Coalition has committed us to the toughest regime for cutting carbon emissions in the world and the three main parties signed a pact in February to work together for climate change – perhaps with an eye to taking the issue off the hustings.

Public support for measures to combat climate change has waned since the last election. This may explain why global warming is, with a few honourable exceptions, missing from the late in the day but now published party manifestos.

In her new book, Naomi Klein is bravely optimistic that there is still time to save the planet. We have the ability to move away from fossil fuels in the next 30 years if the funds are available, she argues.

But we need a popular uprising comparable to the civil rights movement to persuade governments to act. Case studies of opposition to oil drilling in Nigeria, tar fields in Alberta and even fracking in Boscombe gives Klein hope. I wish I shared her confidence.

We also need to change our world view. “We are stuck because the actions that could give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our media outlets.”

“It is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.” (Naomi Klein, ‘This Changes Everything’, p.18)

As the political elites and their fellow travellers beat the drums in their election campaigns, are they likely to sacrifice economic growth to save the planet?

Here, in order of unlikeliness, is their position:

UKIP would scrap the Department of Energy and Climate Change and repeal the Climate Change Act. It believes it is “time to get fracking” and would abolish subsidies for alternative energy. Nuff said.

The North East Party supports the development of energy that is as safe, clean and carbon minimising as possible and which provides quality jobs. The manifesto is admirably clear on devolution but skates over much else.

The Conservatives will push for a global climate deal, cut emissions as effectively as possible, halt the development of onshore wind farms and support the development of safe fracking but the manifesto is short on detail and specific commitments.

Labour believes that “tackling climate change is the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations”. It talks about “ambitious” targets and makes a commitment to remove carbon from our electricity supply by 2030.

The Liberal Democrats see climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our age” and will legislate to bring net emissions to zero by 2050, aim for 60% of UK electricity from renewables by 2030 and regulate to end the use of unabated coal by 2025.

The Greens say that “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time and only the Greens are determined to tackle it.” They would make a global 2C deal the major foreign policy objective; reduce emission to 10% of 1990 levels by 2030, provide an extra £1bn for flood protection, stop fracking, close coal fired power stations and oppose nuclear power.

(For a full comparison of environment policies go to carbonbrief.org)

Experts question whether the Greens’ targets can be achieved. Will they be able to increase solar energy and off shore wind power sufficiently quickly to compensate for carbon based fuels? “You would really have to put things on a war footing” according to Imperial College’s Rob Gross.

But what the heck? If you believe this is the life or death test of our civilisation, drastic measures are needed. It is too late in the day to tackle carbon reduction incrementally. You do not cure cancer by urging smokers to cut their consumption by a few cigarettes a year.

I found myself giving a big tick to most of the other pledges in the Greens manifesto. Yes to scrapping Trident, nationalising the railways and ending tuition fees to be financed by a wealth tax and a financial transaction tax but the programme involves a huge risk of increasing public borrowing from £115bn to £338 bn.

A group of Cambridge academics warned us last week that the ice is melting in the Arctic Ocean and sea levels are rising much faster than predicted only a couple of years ago. We have about 15 years, the course of the next three parliaments, to turn things around but suffer from what Mark Carney has described as “the tragedy of horizons” in which politicians only think about short term problems

The big two parties become ever more circumspect and jockey for position.

Will this be an election in which more and more of us cast a vote wildly for the causes we believe in, whether that is for devolution, for banning immigration or saving the planet, knowing that it may be a wasted vote. Or, as polling day approaches, will we come back into the fold of the political elites?

Bear in mind Naomi Klein’s prediction that “if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. …And we don’t have to do anything to bring this about. All we have to do is nothing.”

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