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.