Changing the Climate of Climate Change.
The recent published report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change should make for sobering reading. But climate change generally brings a big sceptical yawn from the population at large, exacerbated by government reluctance to do anything that might harm the interests of UK PLC. I argue in this blog that the framing of climate change is in urgent need of changing. George Monbiot argues that climate breakdown is a more accurate portrayal of what is happening rather than climate change and it was his polemic that provided the inspiration for what follows.
Climate change is a reality. But then 'change' itself does not signal a particular direction of travel; whether it is good or bad, leaving it up to individual interpretation and opportunism. For example, Owen Paterson stated that some impacts of climate change are going to be beneficial to the UK; for example less cold winters will result in less people dying. I am also sure new shipping routes across the artic will benefit from no sea ice. However, the climate system is far far more complex.
Short-term thinking and opportunism is dangerous and ignores the inconvenient fact that rather than a simple climate change process occurring what we have is a far more complex and unpredictable 'climate breakdown'.
Using the analogy of a human breakdown is helpful here in understanding the inherent vulnerability and unpredictability in behaviour that can result. So what would you do if you found out your actions were causing someone you loved or cared about to have a nervous breakdown? Would you carry on as usual?
That is precisely what we are doing to our planet. We are fuelling this climate breakdown by our own addiction to the perceived benefits of economic growth without recognising or paying for the long term costs that these impose. There is a certain human arrrogance that we can solve these problems technologically. Indeed, the argument is increasingly portrayed as one where the needs of economic growth are compromised by subjecting ourselves to climate change regulations or restrictions. George Osborne, today for example, wants to have his aluminium smelter factory in the North East rather than see it go to China. He also wants to fund fracking regardless of the increased emissions that this fossil fuel causes. The crude argument that growth = good and restriction = bad is an oversimplistic but media friendly model that we see every day.
Herein lies our very own UK tragedy of the 'house of commons'. The UK government does not want to act unilaterally lest it leaves us behind in the league tables of economic growth. Action will be politically unpopular so politicians need to champion that they are on our side. So we will undoubtedly see George Osborne label the environment yet again as the enemy of growth.
So what is the prescription for breaking out of this tragedy?
Let's return to the human breakdown analogy. Breakdowns are not disasters if the symptoms are recognised and a proper and integrated treatment plan is developed. There is no quick fix, however. Furthermore, there are pills for some of us to take but in combination with other positive treatments.
So tax interventions are required but based on a polluter-pays principle which is surely fair as imposing costs on future generations from environmental damage is a burden that runs counter to the core principles of sustainable development. But we can also identify some quick wins if only we think outside our sectoral silos and incorporate environmental policies as integral parts of a growth agenda. So the Carbon Code provides one incentive that allows people to invest in positive actions help tackle climate change and compensate for their unavoidable carbon emissions to the atmosphere. However, there is scope for more proactive interventions. Rather than build highly engineered flood prevention schemes that cost millions of pounds, water companies could pay landowners in upland water catchments to re-wet their land to hold the water up. We can also think about supporting other vital natural infrastructure through improving the state of our upland peat bogs which act as major carbon sinks, locking up carbon. They also have the advantage of providing water purification, flood alleviation and amazing biodiversity.
But as loyal disciples of economic growth we are intoxicated by the dangerous myth that the environment somehow prevents the realisation of the society we supposedly want. Yet it is this short term pursuit of growth that is causing the very climate breakdown that threatens our future quality of life. By understanding and using the forgotten value of the environment we can start to address the climate breakdown from within and reducing our impact; the status quo is no longer an option.
So climate breakdown is the reality we face. Let us also acknowledge that we are causing that breakdown. So my challenge to you all is what are you going to do about it? And equally what is the government going to do about it? For Mr Paterson he may well find out to his cost that due to the complexity of global warming it may change ocean current circulation, switching off the Gulf Stream thus resulting perversely in colder winters for the UK and more deaths.