We need to talk about climate change

Published by The ipaper (22nd April, 2019)

Civil disobedience is rarely popular, especially when it leads to disrupted journeys, blocked roads and traffic jams. No doubt some passengers were annoyed when a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, was delayed one December day in 1955 by the refusal of Rosa Parks to shift from her segregated seat, despite the undeniable moral clarity of the stance that helped spark the civil rights movement in the United States.

And there is, without doubt, a priggish tone to the illegal Extinction Rebellion protests that have brought chaos to chunks of London and other cities over the past week. This could be seen in the movement’s self-righteous decision to shut down parts of the capital, the shrill warnings of impending doom and the suggestion that millennials could be ‘the last generation’.

I am old enough to remember when the 1980s were branded ‘the last decade’. And it is all too easy to mock the lines of protesters performing yoga, the dancing police officers, the absurd demand to become carbon neutral in six years, the hypocritical Hollywood actor flying in to join a protest against carbon emissions. ‘I plant a lot of trees,’ said Emma Thompson in a weedy response to her critics.

Yet even the most zealous green campaigner is imperfect, as confessed by Gail Bradbrook, the academic who co-founded this campaign. ‘I’m not going to paint myself as a saint on the green front,’ she told The Times, admitting to eating a few animal products and driving a diesel car. We can poke fun at other people’s failure to purify their lifestyles – an excuse for permanent inaction – or point out their fellow travellers include professional agitators from the far left. But it is far harder to confront the issues raised by these largely polite protesters: namely, that we need to talk about man-made climate change with utmost urgency.

This often seems such a mind-blowingly massive issue it gets pushed into the political graveyard amid focus on fixing schools, patching up hospitals and bickering over Brexit. Many key green voices have turned out to be like tomatoes – green on the outside, red inside – as they promoted unrelated issues. Even when David Attenborough, one of the few people still trusted in public life, unloads a barrage of scary facts about a spiralling disaster that threatens planetary catastrophe, people tend to nod agreement before turning to more pressing matters. So here is a simple question: do you believe that man-made climate change imperils our world?

You may be one of those people who dismiss data on rising temperatures, extreme weather patterns and melting glaciers. Perhaps you think your personal instincts outweigh overwhelming scientific consensus. Or maybe you are so angered by elitist failures that you fear this is some kind of weird conspiracy to dupe decent folk – or simply unable to remove ideological blinkers that stop you seeing what is in front of your eyes. Yet polling suggests growing numbers accept the escalating seriousness of climate change, and even in the United States two thirds of voters believe the cause should have higher priority than economic growth.

If you accept climate change caused by human beings threatens our world, than civil disobedience is a legitimate response. Missing that crucial meeting or being late for dinner cannot compare with global chaos and mass extinction. And so what if the protesters are middle class? It is the poorest people on the planet who suffer first and worst. Broadcasters and newspapers should stop sneering at activists and starting engaging with their arguments even if demands are unrealistic, hyperbole wearying and tactics irksome. These protesters are forcing vital issues back up the agenda. The key question is what can be done?

First, we must accept this is tough political terrain, something I studied in a post-graduate thesis after the first green surge in the eighties and then saw first-hand pushing the cause after David Cameron took over the leadership of the Tory party in 2005. His initial enthusiasm showed leaders can shape attitudes, rather than meekly follow popular opinion, but eight years later he was talking of ‘green crap’ to woo back the right as Ukip rose.

These are polarising policies when pushing up prices or spending on subsidies in face of wealthy vested interests. Note how Donald Trump attacks wind farms, sensing a wedge issue, while fuel tax hikes sparked gilets jaunes unrest in France. The far-right in Finland fought against green policies to come second in this month’s election, a template likely to be followed by other populist parties.

Second, it is neither desirable to demand the overthrow of capitalism, nor realistic in peacetime to demand total transformation of a democratic society in six years.

As the late Princeton economist and former Barack Obama adviser Alan Krueger showed, economic growth leads first to deterioration of environmental quality, then to improvement once a nation passes a certain point of wealth. Yes, there must be sacrifices. But ultimately solutions will come from concerted global action to drive rapid adoption of renewables, carbon taxes and smarter policies to harness the strength of markets to innovate. Yet again, this shows the need for multilateral response to major global problems, not retreating behind borders.

Cameron introduced some green policies by stealth and even after the end of his Coalition avoided the hard-line stance adopted by some key conservative leaders abroad. Theresa May defends her ‘fine record’ on climate change but ditched all subsidies for solar power and wind farms while expanding Heathrow airport. Now our emissions gap is widening and Britain is on course to miss carbon targets.

So even if these protesters stop traffic and are smug and self-righteous, they deserve credit for forcing focus back on the planet’s biggest issue at a time when Westminster is paralysed, politics broken and populism rampant. Besides, wasn’t it nice to hear birds singing in central London?

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