Hot Politics - openDemocracy's debate on the politics of climate change

18 May 2005
World leaders - prominent political and religious figures, and others - say climate change is one of the most serious threats facing humanity. All the evidence from scientists says they are right.

Tony Blair has put action on climate top of the agenda for the leaders of the G7 richest industrial countries plus Russia when they meet in Scotland in July, and has pledged to make it central to Britain's forthcoming presidency of the European Union, the world's biggest trading block. The other political parties in Britain say they are even more serious about climate change than Labour!

But what does all this professed seriousness really mean? Britain, for example, talks a good game, but is in a mighty row with the European Commission because it wants to weaken its obligation under the Kyoto targets. Energy and transport policy in this country are a mess. Our carbon emissions rose by 1.5% last year. The three big political parties dance around difficult questions like whether or not there's a role for nuclear power.

Are the politics of climate change an example of what the eminent philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls Bullshit?

The stakes could hardly be higher. Recently, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the culmination of four years of work by 1,400 experts from 95 countries, showed that human impacts on the environment that supports us are already seriously undermining health and well being for many hundreds of millions of people. Climate change is likely to make the situation much worse.

So there's plenty of room for gloom. Maybe even the death of environmentalism?

One British campaigner taking part in a roundtable in the forthcoming openDemocracy debate says that for fifteen years environmental activists like him have pursued a tried and tested model for effecting social change against a backdrop of increasingly serious warnings from scientists. "And yet", he writes, "there is still no vocal mass movement on climate change in any country. Where are we going wrong?" he asks.

Catastrophism is big business. Few people do it better than the best-selling writer Michael Crichton. But Crichton is on the other team. He compares believers in global warming to Nazi eugenicists. His recent blockbuster State of Fear paints a picture of a vast worldwide conspiracy of environmentalist evildoers, out to destroy civilization as we know it.

You may laugh at what one veteran scientist and campaigner has called Crichton's horrific assault on sanity. But it is not a joke. Crichton has the ear of key players in the American ruling elite. His books sell millions of copies.

But there are signs of hope too. New political coalitions and movements may emerge, not least in the United States.

One such may be what the influential blogger Andrew Sullivan recently called an alliance of three Hippies, Hawks and Holies. The Hippies are environmentalists. Hawks are those concerned about dependence on middle east oil. The Holies are leading voices among America's thirty million or so evangelical Christians and from a hundred million or so from other religious traditions, who last May joined in a National Religious Partnership for the Environment in signing a document titled "Earth's climate embraces us all: A plea from religion and science for action on global climate change"

I would add another H to the list - the High Tech types. That's the scientists, technologists and others who "get" it. This group may include John Browne, chairman of the oil company BP.

BP did its own internal version of Kyoto - the small first step in cutting emissions. The company found that it was able to reach its initial target of reducing emissions 10% below 1990 levels in four years and add $650m in stakeholder value in the process. The overwhelming message, said John Browne "is that efficiency can both pay dividends and reduce emissions".

As John Browne also knows, US consumers cannot get hold of Toyota's fuel efficient hybrid car, the Prius, fast enough. By 2004, Toyota's market capitalisation exceeded the big three indigenous American car makers combined. According to High-Tech guru Amory Lovins, if all cars in the US today were Priuses, they'd save 15% more oil than the US got from the Gulf in 2002.

There are interesting signs of recognition of the scale of challenge from China too. As Pan Yue, deputy director of China's Environmental Protection Administration says in an interview re-published in openDemocracy, "one of the mistakes we make is to assume that economic growth will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding China's environment, raw materials, and population growth. But there won't be enough money, and we are simply running out of time".

Chinese activists taking part in the openDemocracy debate may agree with Pan Yue. Ironically they cannot be named.

So there are signs of gloom and signs of hope. What should one make of this? The apparent polarity can be imprisoning. Extremes create a sense of powerlessness that can in turn lead to cynicism.

One of the purposes of openDemocracy's debate on the politics of climate change is to help more people break through the sense of powerlessness or irrelevance, and find their own way to engage.

The challenges, I think, include a challenge to reason, and a challenge to imagine. Here's one example of each in will be a rich and broad debate.

First, reason. John Sterman of MIT will show how even highly educated adults ignore basic physical laws when thinking about climate change. Their beliefs make current "wait and see" policies seem entirely logical, but in fact violate basic principles of conservation of matter.

Second, imagination. Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 classic The Death of Nature writes about simply getting our heads around something as big as climate change. "It hasn't registed in our gut. It isn't part of our culture". Where, he asks, "are the books? The plays? The goddamn operas?"

Join scientists, writers, politicians, business people, activists and people who defy any category from China to Brazil, and from the US to Germany coming together on openDemocracy to propose and to challenge each other on the key issues. The debate runs from today until 10 June. Highlights will be presented to the G8 leaders at their summit in July.

To finish, a note of caution. We are, as Ian McEwan writes on openDemocracy, a quarrelsome species. I'd like to think we resemble dancing blue footed boobies - an extraordinary bird in the Galapagos islands - as much as we do McEwan's parliament of rooks. But it's far from sure we can we agree amongst ourselves.

Can the Americans - with than one in four of the dollars in the world economy (albeit some of them borrowed from the Chinese) and fewer than one in twenty of the people of the world's people - see eye to eye with the Chinese - fewer than one in thirty of the dollars and more than one in five of the people?

As The Economist - these days an arch global warming sceptic - put it back in 1843, "take part in a servere contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress"!

Caspar Henderson

OpenDemocracy's debate on the politics of climate change is at www.openDemocracy.net/climate_change

A version of this blog formed the opening address for openDemocracy's debate at the British Council in London on 21 April.

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