Kyoto and a climate of moralism

The debate about global warming has become a moral crusade against our allegedly 'excessive' lifestyles.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘Climate change means that business as usual is dead. It means that economic growth as usual is dead. But the politics of economic growth and business as usual live on…. Our economic model is not so different in the cold light of day to that of the Third Reich – which knew it could only expand by grabbing what it needed from its neighbours. Genocide followed. (1)’

Comparing Britain’s failure to hit its carbon emission targets with the Nazi attempt to conquer Europe seems melodramatic, bordering on distasteful. But this crankish quote isn’t from some member of the lunatic green fringe; it was uttered by backbench Labour MP Colin Challen, who is also chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group.

Of course, there have always been people on the back benches who could best be described as ‘crankish’. But Challen is not alone in his emotive outburst at Britain’s failure to provide leadership on global warming. Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, stuck his worshipful oar in this week, too.

‘Nobody likes talking about governmental coercion in this respect, whether it’s speed limits or anything else. Nobody for that matter likes talking about enforceable international protocols… [U]nless there’s a real change in attitude we have to contemplate those very unwelcome possibilities if we want the global economy not to collapse and millions, billions of people to die.’

In other words, slowing down when you drive, turning the lights off and not leaving your telly on stand-by is the will of the Lord. And if the government launches a crackdown to make sure we do it, it’s only doing God’s good work.

Still, this is better than some of the views generated by the Independent‘s eight-page pullout of readers’ letters on climate change, published on Wednesday. This was largely a collection of emotional spasms about how we are doomed and how the only answer is to restrict our lifestyles. ‘It is so obvious that the planet cannot support the human population without disastrous consequences for all other creatures and resources’, said one writer. Another was more forthright: ‘Destroying America is the only chance the world has of buying time to save the world; if I had the means I would do it, albeit with a great sense of moral ambiguity.’ Well, at least he’d be conflicted about it.

Such outpourings might make you think that Britain had suddenly become a carbon-emitting monster, throwing our futures on to some kind of ecological funeral pyre. In fact, the angst is a result of the report of a government policy review, which revealed that rather than achieving a 20 per cent cut in emissions by 2010, Britain would probably only cut emissions by 15 to 18 per cent. Despite this, Britain will probably still meet its targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

This is all a major embarrassment for Tony Blair. Having spent much of his premiership berating the world for failing to follow Britain’s lead on climate change, he is receiving an unpleasant dose of moralising whup-ass himself. Given that Blair has been only too happy to highlight worst-case scenarios (such as the slim possibility that the world will warm by six degrees celsius over the next century) while professing that climate change is ‘probably the greatest long-term challenge facing the human race’, it is not hard to see why people now think he’s a bit of a hypocrite.

None the less, we should be grateful for Britain’s failure on this one. Environment secretary Margaret Beckett, presenting the report’s findings, blamed economic growth for missing the target. If even government ministers are now guiltily confessing that the UK’s anaemic growth rates are too high, we should all be concerned. It is the increased productivity of our society which holds open the potential for solving many of the problems we will face in the future, including environmental ones. Restricting growth will do little to affect the climate but a lot to reduce our capacity to respond to change, whatever form it takes.

The truth about climate change is that the world is likely to get a bit warmer in the future but whether things will get a lot warmer is really not known – and there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be made of the way the science has been distorted to present a particular political message.

But even if we took the more alarming figures for climate change at face value, there is nothing to suggest the world is about to end. Human beings have managed to adapt to an incredible variety of regional climates to develop successful societies, as science writer Robert Matthews notes: ‘Yet despite this long history of successful adaptation, the climate change debate remains doggedly focused on mitigation strategies, such as the Kyoto Protocol, that seek to compel the whole atmosphere to do our bidding.’ (4)

When scare stories are presented about the effects of climate change, human beings are treated as passive victims rather than active subjects who will not only adapt to change, as Matthews suggests, but will actually innovate through adversity. Some of history’s darkest hours have generated many of humanity’s most creative impulses.

Still, such a discussion of human adaptability is at odds with the spirit of the age. The environment debate has become increasingly moralistic: restraint is good, production and consumption are bad. At a time when the decision to live a ‘green’ lifestyle is recast as ‘ethical living’, the ability to debate alternatives is closed down. As long as the debate about climate change is cast in such terms, we can expect more attacks on the notion of economic growth – and we will all be, literally, poorer for it.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

(1) Colin Challen: We must think the unthinkable, and take voters with us, Independent, 30 March 2006

(2) Archbishop urges emissions cuts, BBC News, 28 March 2006

(3) Your world: your say, Independent, 30 March 2006

(4) We are being sold a turkey on global warming, Financial Times, 2 March 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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