Don’t leave our survival to the greens

The west won’t be mobilised on climate change by utopian demands that we give up our standard of living, argues Will Hutton. A visionary plan that can be backed by the public is critical.

The green movement as it stands should receive the last rites. Its only hope is for a complete overhaul. Its mystic, utopian view of nature and its attachment to meaningless notions such as sustainable development or the precautionary principle should be done away with. It is time to move on.

Or so says professor Anthony Giddens in his new book, The Politics of Climate Change. It is not that Giddens disputes that mankind is dangerously warming up the planet. The scientific evidence is overwhelming; the risk of a global calamity all too real.

It is just that he has the chutzpah to acknowledge what is obvious. Despite the threat, and the mounting evidence, there is no hope of mobilising western governments and the public into action by appeals to green utopianism or impossible demands to give up our current standard of living. There needs to be a new language, a focus on climate change alone, because that is what counts and is a practical route forward that makes sense to the mass of people. Otherwise, we really are lost.

Giddens curiously and paradoxically overlaps with former British chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson’s recent polemics against environmentalists. Yet Giddens is not a global-warming sceptic like Lawson, who disputes even the evidence of science. But he does understand Lawson’s impatience with some of the daffy thinking that surrounds the environmental debate and tries to replace it with some tougher ideas.

How, he asks, are we ever to mobilise public opinion about distant threats that inevitably feel not very real? By the time it is proven that the scientists were right, it will be too late to do anything. The inhabitants of Easter Island who destroyed their own ecosystem are a warning. Human beings are myopic. Now the same myopia is evident globally. We have to do better, not least to see off the siren-like arguments of the Nigel Lawsons.

The first problem is that the green movement is shot through with contradictory impulses. Britain’s Prince Charles and the Group of 20 (G20) protesters cannot realistically muster under the same intellectual and political banner. Charles has the conservatives’ reverential attitude towards the enduring and natural forces of nature. His love of nature is genuine, but it segues seamlessly into his view that monarchy is as much part of the natural order as the seasons. Nobody is trying to keep global temperature growth to below 2° Celsius to save the Windsors.

On the other wing of the green movement, the G20 protesters interpret climate change as proof positive of the evils of capitalism and the capitalist state. They believe there needs to be a return to the local and a new radical left politics. The state should be broken down. Capitalism should be superseded by local co-operative enterprise and local political decision-making. Food should be organic. Trade should be constrained. Air travel and car use radically reduced. And so on.

The vast majority are unmoved. Worse, many mainstream environmental intellectuals drop rigour when it comes to the environment, climate change and risk. Under the precautionary principle, almost nothing should be done that endangers the climate, just in case the worst scientific warnings are right. The aim should be sustainable development — to grow economically in a way that passes the globe on to the next generation in the same condition in which we found it.

Giddens joins Lawson in dismissing this thinking as wretchedly woolly. Are we really going to risk nothing? This is a refutation of our very risk-taking humanity. In any case, there is little chance of building a consensus over which risks matter and to what degree. Instead, the percentage principle should rule — taking risks in proportion to the probable good and bad outcomes. Moreover, sustainable and development should not be used together so loosely. Development is a dynamic concept that necessarily depletes resources. Poor countries such as China or India can only develop unsustainably. They must burn coal. To ask the entire world to commit to sustainable development is to damn the less developed world to poverty. Those countries will never agree.

The dead end of the current debate is revealed in a sequence in the new film The Age of Stupid. Middle-class lobbyists are filmed successfully resisting planning permission for a wind farm, acknowledging as they do so that there does need to be action on global warming.

But similar middle-class lobbyists could have been filmed resisting planning permission for Heathrow Airport’s third runway, this time using the same green arguments. The common thread is that home-owners don’t want development near them and they deploy any useful argument to hand. Sometimes they are right, sometimes wrong.

For example, there are powerful arguments for a third runway; Heathrow’s capacity is pivotal to the vibrant “knowledge economy” in west London and the counties of Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. With the collapse of financial services, this is Britain’s economic future. Certainly, hundreds of thousands of residents in west London will suffer more flights, if from quieter aircraft, yet their interests must be offset by the interests of many more millions.

Climate change cannot be a political game, to be played as and when it suits particular protesters – either G20 protesters or “Nimbys” [middle-class people who say “not in my back yard”]. The country needs to develop a vision of where it wants to be in, say, 2025, in terms of carbon emissions, energy independence and wider economic structures. Then it needs to “back-cast” to today and make sure what it does is part of a wider plan that builds, step by step, towards that vision. So if the UK government wants to build a third Heathrow runway, it must show how it intends to compensate for higher air traffic with radically lower carbon emissions elsewhere. It is called planning. It needs to come back into fashion — fast.

The best arguments to kill the “so-what” factor over climate change are not scary tales from a far-distant future. It is to argue for investment in energy efficiency because it saves cash and makes strategic sense. Tidal and wind power along with nuclear energy emit less carbon, but they also free Britain and the west from dependence on Russia and radical Islamicist oil-producing states.

Cars powered by electricity or hydrogen are cheaper. The less-developed world will only follow suit if the west picks up the bill. But to persuade western publics to make sacrifices requires more than trying to terrify them. It requires laying out concrete actions that collectively make sense now.

Greens and environmentalists will challenge Giddens’s book. It is true that as a result of their campaigning the culture is changing; but far too slowly. The danger is far too serious to be co-opted by the left, nimbyists, G20 protesters, princes or utopian conservationists. There needs to be a visionary plan that spells out where we want to be, and in which a series of feasible and justifiable actions is delivered by the state, which can then be backed by mainstream opinion. Otherwise, our civilisation will go the same way as that of Easter Island.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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