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ONLY COLLECTIVE ACTION CAN OVERCOME THE CLIMATE CRISIS
NEITHER MARKETS NOR PERSONAL CHOICES CAN DEAL WITH THE BIGGEST THREAT
By Robin Cook
Friday, December 10, 2004
Future generations will be puzzled that we failed to grasp the
climate change and may be furious at the environmental calamity we
bequeathed to them. They may reasonably feel that we were given
warning signs of the stress which our lifestyle was putting on the
ecosystem, one of which is almost within sight of the Docklands home
of the British press. When it was first constructed the Thames
closed only once every two years, but rising sea levels have required
be deployed six times on average in the past five years.
Part of the reason why such alarm bells provoke no urgent response
those who hear them is the widespread belief that climate change is a
gradual, incremental process which still leaves us a long time to get
to dealing with it. This could turn out to be a tragic delusion. The
National Academy of Sciences has warned that climate change may turn
be gradual in the same way as the slowly increasing pressure of a
a switch, but when it flips the result is revolutionary, not
the case of Britain, the switch that may get flipped could be the Gulf
Stream, which delivers as much heat to our land in winter as the sun.
disappearance would leave us with the same climate as Hudson Bay,
we share the same latitude.
Those who find themselves living in the freezing environment we
them will be perplexed at the preoccupations of the current political
agenda. Earlier this year the government's chief scientific adviser,
David King, was ignominiously forced to retreat from his observation
climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism. But, good
he is, he had the facts on his side. Last year 20,000 more people
died in a
record heat wave than in all the acts of terrorism around the globe.
Increased flood and drought, which are the twin extremes of climate
are the most lethal weapons of mass destruction of our time. Even the
has warned that climate change will stimulate an increase in
diminishing water and food supplies and proposed seven steps in
which, oddly, did not include a single measure to halt climate change.
All of this makes more depressing the admission this week that
set to miss the government's target of a 20% cut in greenhouse gases
end of the decade. True, we are comfortably going to meet our
under the Kyoto protocol, but that is largely because of history and
drop in coal generation in the early 90s. The total level of carbon
emissions has stayed stubbornly stable over the past eight years.
In any case Kyoto is too modest a benchmark. The threshold was kept
ironically, to get on board the US, but the net result was a set of
that only delay the rate at which matters get worse. To stop climate
we must cut emissions by 60%, which is the government's target for
beauty of the government's interim target of a cut of 20% by 2010 was
it promised to get us a third of the way within a third of the time
base year of 1990.
We miss the point though if we simply berate the government for
"its" target. The reality is that it is our target and we are all --
any rate most of us -- responsible for the failure to meet it.
and industry have both delivered cuts of 20% in their carbon
contrast domestic households and private transport have produced large
increases in greenhouse gases. On average each of us now produces
tons of carbon emissions a year. Imagine the equivalent of two trucks
coal dumped on your doorstep; and then multiply it by each member of
Government could, of course, do a lot more. All departments need to
same strategic priority to halting climate change that Margaret
dinned into the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A
start would be for the Department of Transport to abandon its aviation
policy of expanding capacity to meet demand. Carbon emissions
cloud level have doubled the impact on climate change, but bizarrely
emissions from international air travel do not count in the Kyoto
for cuts in greenhouse gases.
There is, however, justice in ministers throwing back the problem to
public in a hundred pages of consultative document. There is no
Britain meeting its long-term targets unless the population is
sign up to the necessary changes in lifestyle and consumption, or to
a price for fuel and transport that reflects its environmental cost.
It is a paradox that Margaret Thatcher was one of the first political
leaders to accept the science of climate change but was also the
proponent of the politics of individualism, which both exacerbated the
problem and made it difficult to resolve. Hers was an ideology in
greed was the approved agent of economic progress. But climate change
brutally exposes the limits of such material individualism. It is
impossible for all of us to pursue a lifestyle that maximises carbon
emissions without in turn rendering our own and everyone else's
Climate change is the classic example of a common problem that
cannot solve by acting independently. No family can opt out of climate
change or buy their own little patch of retro weather. It is also a
spectacular case of market failure as the seismic changes in weather
patterns will only produce a shift in the price signal when it is too
to reverse them.
The solution to climate change will be collective and the result of
democratic intervention. It will require investment in public
will need common regulation and state subsidy to enforce good
energy efficiency and a higher proportion of renewables. It will
use of taxes to reflect the real cost to society and its environment
individual consumption. And it brings the bonus of an added argument
equality as extravagant consumption by a few imposes not just a
cost on themselves but an environmental burden on everyone else.
All this should be meat and drink to a party of social democracy which
believes in solidarity, partnership and working together. Labour is
placed to rise to the political challenge of halting climate change.
But it first needs to rediscover the ability to talk about collective
provision for the common good with at least as much skill and passion
as it has recently adopted the rhetoric of personal choice.
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