‘We have an extremely selfish population’

Ben Pile talks to a member of the UK Climate Change Committee — and to one of its staunchest critics.

Ben Pile

Topics Politics

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In November 2008, the UK’s Climate Change Act was passed, committing the country to an 80 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. Politicians, NGOs, journalists and activists welcomed the target, but to meet it many far-reaching changes in our working- and day-to-day lives will be necessary, the extent of which is rarely discussed.

To put it bluntly: is the carbon goal achievable? Earlier this month, the science policy researcher Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, gave a talk at Aston University in Birmingham, outlining his view that the goal is unreachable, and in fact has already failed.

In early 2007, the government’s Draft Climate Change Bill had proposed a 60 per cent emissions reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 (1), with ‘carbon budgets’ presented every five years by an independent panel. This proposal had its critics. The Conservative Party announced that, according to its research, the target ought to be an 80 per cent cut (2). Following on, the Liberal Democrats argued that by 2050 the UK should be zero-carbon and should have banned nuclear energy (3). The three main parties each claimed to have ‘the science’ on their side, yet produced substantially different targets.

In October 2007, the problem of this game of politics-by-numbers was resolved. An independent panel would decide what the UK’s commitment to emissions reduction should be (4). This panel – the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – was set up the following February. The CCC chair Lord Adair Turner was joined by two more economists, Professor Michael Grubb and Dr Samuel Fankhauser; the former president of the Royal Society, Lord Bob May; mathematical physicist, Professor Jim Skea; and the committee’s only climate scientist, Sir Brian Hoskins.

The CCC was asked to prepare advice for parliament by October 2008, ahead of the Climate Change Bill’s reading in the House of Commons. It took the unelected committee just seven months to decide the terms and targets of the next 42 years of UK energy policy. The committee’s report advising parliament to set targets of 80 per cent cuts by 2050, and between 34 per cent and 42 per cent by 2020, was published on 1 December, five days after the Climate Change Act was passed. MPs voting for the act could have had no idea what it was they were voting for.

The rate of decarbonisation required to meet these targets would, according to Roger Pielke, be ‘more aggressive than has ever been documented in any developed country at any time ever’. But isn’t this the ‘drastic action’ that environmentalists have been demanding, and politicians have been promising, for many years now? The problem is the difference between goals and action. ‘One of the implications is that the UK would have to be as carbon-efficient as France within the next decade’, Pielke tells me. France’s energy policy gives us a good benchmark for understanding the scale of the numerical goals in more practical terms. To become that efficient in that time frame is equivalent to building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015. ‘There’s a fine line between aspirational goals and fictional goals’, says Pielke, ‘but from a political and societal perspective, it’s just not going to happen. We should be rethinking the process that’s been put in place to achieve these goals.’

Pielke’s criticism is that the Climate Change Act has created targets without sufficient thought about how they will be realised. To demonstrate this, he returns to the numbers, and uses a mathematical formula known as the Kaya Identity to analyse the Climate Change Act’s targets. This model reveals the degrees of freedom at the government’s disposal with the expression:

CO2 Emissions = Population x Per Capita GDP x Energy Intensity x Carbon Intensity

Using this expression, we can examine each component to see what it tells us about possible policy options.

Population: Even among the greenest greens, there is recognition that the regulation of human fertility to control population growth is a non-starter. Members of the neo-Malthusian Optimum Population Trust, such as Crispin Tickell and Jonathon Porritt, stress instead the possibility of engineering social norms instead of laws. But that’s a difficult thing to incorporate into any emissions reduction strategy, and is unlikely to yield any result in terms of emissions over the next 100 years – it takes a while for the effect of people not having babies to get noticed.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): If population control is off the agenda, can emissions be controlled through economics? ‘I don’t see the restriction of economic activity as being on the cards’, says Pielke, ‘not in Britain. Not in the States. Not in China. Not anywhere.’

Is GDP the best way to measure economic progress? Greens have argued for some time that there are better ways to measure progress than GDP growth, for instance by redistributing wealth within an economy limited by environmental regulations and improving measures of ‘subjective wellbeing’, rather than expecting growth to deliver marginal material improvements at the bottom.

But while this kind of ‘happiness agenda’ advocated by Green MEP Caroline Lucas, and by the New Economics Foundation, achieves prominence within debates about climate change, such ideas have yet to have much of an impact in mainstream politics and the public’s imagination. Such radical proposals, in spite of the urgency of arguments in favour of action to prevent an ecological apocalypse, remain deeply unpopular. ‘There’s not going to be any success in long-term emissions reductions that have a basis in dramatically limiting economic growth’, says Pielke. ‘It doesn’t pass the reality test.’

Energy and carbon intensity: The two remaining factors – energy and carbon intensity – present similar obstacles to any emissions reduction goal. We could reduce energy intensity by limiting the opportunities available to people, equivalent to increasing dependence on manual labour. This has been proposed. Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Arts published details of its three-year feasibility study of ‘personal carbon budgets’ (5) – politically correct vernacular for ‘carbon rationing’.

But before the RSA’s study had concluded, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) headed off fears that the government was considering such a retrogressive and unpopular policy. Defra announced that because it was expensive, rather than because the policy was wrong, ‘we will not be pursuing this option further at this stage’ – even if the government reserves the right to revive the idea later on (6). ‘Policymakers recognise that technology alone isn’t going to do the job’, says Pielke. ‘They’re going to have to look at putting restrictions on economic activity.’

In setting targets, Pielke says, we have got things backwards, focusing on top-down policy, rather than bottom-up technology. There is no precedent for achieving the rate of decarbonisation to which the UK is now committed. And while the target of 80 per cent reduction on 1990 levels of emissions satisfies the need for a goal, questions about its legitimacy arise when we consider that population is variable. What’s right and proper for a population of 60million isn’t necessarily right or proper for a population of 70million. Like population, GDP is also variable. If emissions are related to GDP, then, necessarily, we might be forced to abandon potential growth for the sake of meeting targets if Britain, perhaps miraculously, were to experience a period of growing wealth. Conversely, why should policymakers take credit for reducing emissions during an economic recession?

Moreover, the Climate Change Act will, according to the CCC, ‘only’ cost between one per cent and two per cent of GDP. That is relatively unproblematic if the economy is growing at five or six per cent per year, but it could make the difference between growth and contraction, or between recession and full-blown depression.

Pielke says: ‘For us to best deal with challenges of policy, we’ve got to know what kind of problems we’re up against. We know how to start the process of decarbonising the economy. But we don’t know how fast we can go, and we don’t know what the end point is. The Climate Change Act is exactly the opposite way that we should think about decarbonisation. It starts with the targets and timetables, and then says “well, how do we do that?” Instead it should start with “what can we do and how fast can we go, and what does that imply for targets and timetables?”’

It is interesting to note that Pielke has already outlined a possibility for decarbonising the UK economy. We could, if the will existed, build the 30 nuclear power stations that he has pointed out would make us as carbon-efficient as France. But the will doesn’t exist, and neither does the political imagination. This throws into relief the disparity between the two approaches – bottom-up and top-down. A programme of building and extending the UK’s energy infrastructure doesn’t require a huge imaginative leap, whether it is argued for as a good thing in itself, or as a response to climate change. Instead, the climate change debate is dominated by negative slogans about needing to change our behaviour, and that we face a difficult, unpredictable and dangerous future.

Given this disparity, we might ask if the Climate Change Act speaks less about rising to the challenge of a changing climate, and more about the political establishment’s need to manage the public’s expectations in the face of its own lack of imagination. It is as if the only way a policy can be for something is if it is set against the backdrop of something more pressing and important than trivial matters of meeting human needs and ambitions. In this limited way of looking at things, these needs and ambitions become the problem that the political establishment is focused on addressing.

I ask Pielke if his analysis of the Climate Change Act might take for granted the imperatives that it is a response to, without considering these wider factors that might give rise to ill-considered policies: ‘My focus is to talk about [the Climate Change Act] from a fairly technical perspective; from a policy evaluation standpoint. Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects the goals, or the process which led to the generation of the goals, the question is “can the policy succeed as established in legislation?” That sets the basis for asking further order questions: Are they the right goals? Is the process that’s been used to set the goals or policy a legitimate process? But seeing that I find a first-order failure in the ability of the policy to succeed in legislation, it renders some of those questions fairly moot. If you accept the argument that it can’t succeed, then the question is “what happens next?”’

My concerns that Pielke’s analysis might miss the point are again raised after his talk at Aston University. Professor Julia King, who is both chancellor of the university and a member of the Climate Change Committee, raised an objection to Pielke’s analysis: ‘Before you make statements about timetables and targets which don’t ask “can this be done?”, I think you really do need to take due account of the fact that most people who are putting together targets and timetables are doing this on the basis of a lot of research into potential scenarios. It’s another issue turning that into policy, for governments, and it’s very easy for all of us who don’t have to be elected to say “this is how I would do it”, and I have a lot of sympathy for our politicians, because they are dealing with extremely selfish populations.’

King was further irked by Pielke’s answer that the target could be met by building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015, and that the CCC’s advice on how to realise the targets was no less aggressive in magnitude. The CCC’s ‘scenarios have been tested for do-ability’, she told Pielke, arguing that he simply doesn’t understand their advice. ‘The good news about the Climate Change Act’, replies Pielke, ‘is that we don’t have to wait very long for this debate to be resolved by events in the real world’.

‘I’m an engineer’, King tells me after the talk. ‘I’ve never seen an engineering or development programme work, unless you have timescales and targets.’ That may be so, but is the Climate Change Act really an engineering project? Where is the building, the development, the progress? ‘What gets measured gets done’, says King. ‘[Pielke’s] argument would suggest that we would engineer recession because it would give us the targets. But that assumes that it’s a pretty unintelligent group of people who are trying to develop the policy.’

So how does King, the not-unintelligent engineer and CCC member, imagine that the targets will get delivered? ‘The biggest challenge is actually behavioural change in my view. My particular area has been looking at how we can decarbonise road transport. It wouldn’t take much behaviour change to reduce by 30 or 40 per cent our CO2 emissions from cars.’

King appears to want to sustain her cake and eat it. On one hand, she argues that targets have been ‘tested for do-ability’, but on the other she emphasises that behaviour change is key to meeting them. These targets may well be ‘do-able’ in the sense that they are feasible – we could dispense with all electricity and transport problems simply by ‘changing behaviour’ such that nobody used transport or used electricity. But what kind of society would we have? ‘The social and political realities should be part of the “do-ability” test’, says Pielke. ‘Where is the test? No large economy has ever decarbonised at the rate that the UK is planning, so whether or not the targets are “doable” is simply a proposition at this point.’ Indeed, getting the ‘selfish population’ to change their behaviour is King’s and the government’s main problem.

Pielke’s analysis may not be able to explain what lies behind the political establishment’s desire to control behaviour, or the legitimacy of the process by which the Climate Change Bill became an Act. But his criticism stands out against the widespread failure of parliament, journalists and academics to subject this act to any scrutiny. Just six MPs voted against the Bill, and the few objections that were raised in parliament barely registered and were casually dismissed.

What Pielke’s approach ultimately reveals is not merely that targets – the preferred mode of the Major, Blair and Brown governments’ delivery and measure of progress – are fundamentally ill-conceived where there are no ideas about how to deliver them. It shows that the special politics demanded by environmental concerns are also unrealistic, because it fails to take into account the need for material progress. This need is waved away by the likes of King and environmentalists, as ‘selfishness’, but this assumes that we live in a country – never mind world – that doesn’t suffer from any kind of shortage.

‘There’s a good case to be made for a re-casting of the entire climate change problem in a way that leads to progress, not the impression of progress’, said Pielke, concluding his talk. He then displayed a slide showing satellite images of light emissions on the planet’s surface now, and what the same image would be, were everyone able to enjoy the same living standards as the USA.

‘Whether you think this is a nightmare scenario, or a dream scenario’, he said, ‘this is where the world is heading, and all efforts to develop, to bring electricity to people who don’t have electricity, to bring wealth to people who don’t have wealth, are going to lead to a world like this. The world is moving in the direction; let’s consciously plan for it in our climate policies.’

Governments that put environment before people and progress will worsen the already existing mutually cynical relationship between citizens and state. There is good evidence that the UK government’s ambition to be a world leader on climate change policy is concomitant with contempt for the public. But as Pielke’s arguments suggest, environmental problems do not demand special politics, or even special policies to control the desire for better and more. The main obstacles to meeting the challenge of a changing climate are the policymakers’ lack of imagination and commitment to the very idea of progress. The Climate Change Act says far more about the government than it says about the ‘selfish’ public.

Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog, and a philosophy and politics student at York University.

Previously on Spiked

Rob Lyons attended a discussion with Nigel Lawson. James Heartfield looked at the money to be made from carbon emissions. Ben Pile felt Caroline Lucas was a suitable leader of the doom-obsessed Green Party. Tony Gilland reviewed David King’s The Hot Topic. Rob Lyons looked at the IPCC’s fourth assessment report. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) ‘Binding’ carbon targets proposed, BBC News, 13 March 2007

(2) Tories raise climate stakes, Observer, 8 April 2007

(3) Liberal Democrats reveal plans for zero carbon Britain, LIberal Democrats (retrieved from

(4) Benn sets out strengthened Climate Change Bill, Defra

(5) Carbon Limited, RSA, 31 December 2008

(6) Personal carbon trading, Defra

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

Topics Politics


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