14 Dec 2009

The Copenhagen Reds

Continuing with my “What happens next?” theme, I am struck just how divided the responses are becoming. I must first make it clear that I am not in Copenhagen (haven’t been there since 1971 and have no plans to visit again, lovely though it is) and am not party to any of the negotiations going on. It’s just me, sitting at home in front of my Mac, with the usual mixture of writer’s block, a long Xmas to do list and an overactive mind.

On Friday, this popped into my Inbox. It’s Spiked again, and in particular, this 1200 word rant by Frank Furedi. His target is similar to George Monbiot’s — the Optimum Population Trust. But unlike Monbiot, Furedi is a climate skeptic (at least I think he is — he doesn’t quite make his position clear). What they share in common is that they come from the Left, but whereas Monbiot has stayed there, Furedi and the rest of the Spiked team have travelled off somewhere else, which no longer resides on the Left-Right Spectrum.

Like George, Furedi blasts away at the OPT with some choice invective. This is David Attenborough he is talking about, remember, not Nick Griffin.

“The odious Optimum Population Trust (OPT) is a zombie-like Malthusian organisation devoted to the cause of human depletion.”

Or try this one:

“In modern times, there have always been small coteries of Malthusians, eugenic fantasists and bitter misanthropists who were estranged from children and who regarded babies as an imposition on their existences.”

It’s great, isn’t it? What fun to write. You kinda get the idea that he doesn’t think an awful lot of this Malthus geezer, but then not many people out in the real world even know who this bogey man is or was.

But I am trying to get a handle on exactly where they stand, and my reading of it is somewhere rather holier than the Vatican, in that they seem to be arguing in favour of a ban, not just on contraception, but on family planning in any way whatsoever, because every child born is a little bundle of wonder to be “celebrated as a joyous affirmation of our humanity”. Hmmm. I wonder how many children he has? Marxists didn’t think much of Malthus either: they thought he was a reactionary and they use “neo-Malthusian” as a term of abuse.

But having torn into the OPT, it does rather beg the question “So where do you stand instead?” Furedi is a little light on this. In fact, very light. About the best he can come up with is this: "But the good news is that human beings do not simply emit carbon and pollute the world; people do not merely consume resources, they also produce them."

Do we?

No, we don’t. We can add value to resources by modifying them and we can channel them to make them more useful, but we don’t actually produce any resources. The only things that humans actually produce are a) waste and b) more humans. The idea that we might a) run out of resources and b) use them in ways which cause problems elsewhere doesn't seem so very far fetched to me. Just because resource misuse hasn't been a big problem to date doesn't mean it never will be.

So there you have it. The OPT is saying that the condom is the most energy efficient device we are ever likely to invent. The Reds are saying “Sex with condoms is no fun; let’s all have more babies and we’ll sort out the mess with a little ingenuity. It’s worked fine till now, so what are you all worried about (you miserable little gits).”

What worries me here is this. The great climate debate is (as Furedi points out) a subset of an even bigger, apocalyptic, debate about our place on the planet, and our anxiety about our future. Furedi is attacking the Green position for being over-anxious, and attacking the climate science for making us over-anxious. In many ways this is close to Bjorn Lomborg’s “Business As usual - Don’t Panic – Rationing will do more harm than good” position. They can, and do, attack Malthus for being just plain wrong, but Malthus was writing 200 years ago and there remains this horrible nagging feeling that events about to unfold may show that there was nothing wrong with Malthus’s message, simply his timing was out. Attacking climate science for making us anxious is as pointless as blaming the breathalyzer for telling us we are drunk. And yet that seems to be what Furedi is saying.

So where does this leave George Monbiot? He has written in favour of resource rationing (c.f. Heat), but is against the OPT’s attempts at people rationing. I am struggling to get my head around this. It’s a bit like saying we should only build zero-carbon homes, but millions of them, because we like them. Now who says that?

8 Dec 2009

The Copenhagen Blues

The great Copenhagen climate summit is now well underway and many people seem to be making encouraging noises. But at the same time, there seems to be a huge and growing amount of scepticism around. Such is our suspicion of politicians and opinion formers these days, that if they all seem to agree on one thing, then they simply MUST be wrong, or so the thinking goes.

For me, the worry isn’t about
• whether or not climate change is happening (it surely is),
• nor whether it is caused by our carbon emissions (it surely is – I’ve not been in any doubt since I first saw the ice core readings a few years back, I think that’s what clinched it for me. You can stick sunspots up your arse)
• nor how serious it may be (Bjorn Lomborg is beginning to sound more and more shrill, or maybe he’s just annoying because he is so smug)
• but just what the hell are we really going to do about it.

Yesterday, I heard Ed Miliband, our climate change minister, being interviewed on Radio 5 by Simon Mayo. He was game for a few questions and one enterprising listener in Japan asked the population question. Like “if we can’t cope now, how are we going to cope with 3 billion extra people on board?” And Milliband minor answered thus: “By 2050, our economies will be six or seven times larger than they are now, and so we must ensure that all that growth is low or zero carbon growth.”

I took a proverbial double take. Six or seven times bigger than 2010? That assumes something like a 10% annual growth rate every year for 40 years. And yet carbon emissions are due to fall by 80% by that time. Just how is that going to work?

Historically, economic growth has been fuelled by carbon – almost every innovation we come up with involves substituting machines for human labour, which involves burning carbon somewhere along the line. Now we may be able to make machines which are less carbon intensive, but do you really think we will be able to get to zero carbon by 2050 whilst at the same time expanding the world economy by six or seven times? It seems staggeringly unlikely, given the state of the technologies we have available right now.

Then someone else popped the 3rd runway at Heathrow question. And this is what Miliband said: “It’s not inconsistent to support a 3rd runway because it is within a framework of holding our emissions by 2050 at current levels. I don’t think it’s realistic to freeze the amount of flying. We just have to have bigger cuts in other areas. Flying is going to become more expensive, but we can’t cut back on it or freeze it.”

Why exactly should flying be a special case? No sensible explanation was proffered. Why not driving cars? Or having copious supplies of hot water? Or eating meat? Or keeping pets? We are, by implication, going to have to cut right back on these so that we can keep flying.

Or was this just a case of an intelligent man talking gobbledegook?

If we were really serious about the problem, it’s economic growth that we should be freezing, at least until we have sorted out our problem with burning carbon. But we can’t do this because:
a) the governments have mortgaged off our future and are now totally dependent on economic growth to pay the bills over the next 20 years. Without economic growth returning, we are all effectively bankrupt.
b) no one will vote for hairshirt policies anyway so its democratically unacceptable.

But the carbon problem won’t go away. If emissions still continue to rise onwards and upwards through the 21st century, then our way of life will be under threat, we will be bankrupt and we will get hairshirt whether we like it or not. The climate sceptics keep pointing out (in their more effusive moments) that this is all some sort of Commie-inspired conspiracy to bomb us back to the Stone Age. And they may well be right, except that I don’t think it’s a conspiracy nor Commie-inspired. It’s unfettered economic growth that has got us into this pickle, and to really change things around, it’s the model of endless economic growth that is what has to be challenged. Without some alternative model of how the 21st century might pan out for us all, it seems just a tad unlikely that we are going to really get to grips with this mess.

And of course the problem is that the poor nations don’t want to stay poor and the rich nations can’t afford to stay where they are. Something has to give sometime, before the climate comes along and whacks us one. At the moment, cap and trade is the only game in town, but it seems rather unlikely to succeed because it avoids the really difficult issues which isn’t just the huge amount of carbon we are burning, but the vast differences in how much each country burns.

I have no doubt that Copenhagen will end up with smiles and photo opportunities and platitudes, but the underlying politics are ugly and about to get a whole lot uglier.