Published on Sunday, June 19, 2005 by the Observer/UK
Fiddling as the Planet Burns
There is nothing left to debate about climate change. It is happening and each of us must act
by Henry Porter
|The great lie in the climate debate is that there is still a debate worth having. Opponents of change insist that the human factors in global warming are not proven and that we must wait until we have hard evidence before taking drastic action, which is as about as silly as saying there are two equally valid views on the issue of whether pedophilia damages children.
What is so destructive about this stance is that it claims equal weight and equal airtime. The 'balance' in newspaper reports, especially in the United States, is, in fact, a bias against the truth and weakens the case for immediate action against emissions of C0<->2. And while we hum and haw, trying to persuade reluctant skeptics, the permafrost of the Arctic melts, sea levels inch up and the pH levels of oceans gradually drop because of the carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere.
The following quote comes from an article in the Daily Telegraph editorial pages last month. It captures perfectly the knuckle-headed entrenchment of the last century: 'Climate change is an important, perhaps vital, debate, but it remains just that. Warning of disaster has become a global industry, and the livelihoods of thousands of scientists depend on our being sufficiently spooked to keep funding their research. The worry is that many of these researchers have stopped being scientists and become campaigners instead.'
The author pretends to even-handedness, but his real message is that climate change is a scam to keep scientists in work. Yet it is not scientists who are distorting the evidence, but the US oil lobby and a co-operative White House. Last week, Philip Cooney, a White House staffer, was exposed by the New York Times for revising reports on global warming so that they cast doubt on the link between greenhouse gases and rising temperatures. Mr Cooney, who has no scientific training whatsoever, resigned and took a job with Exxon Mobil, which is, incidentally, the company that produces twice the CO<->2 emissions of Norway and is currently facing a consumer boycott in Europe.
Cooney no doubt contributed to the White House's successful efforts to sandbag Tony Blair's plan of action to tackle climate change at the G8 summit next month. You have to hand it to the Prime Minister that he accepts the advice of his scientific advisers and has done all he can in Britain's presidency of the G8 to focus world leaders' attention on the problem.
But his chum Bush remains a delinquent simpleton in such matters. In the second draft of the G8 communiqué, the phrase 'our world is warming' has been placed in square brackets, which means that the statement is disputed by the US and is likely to be excluded from the final document. American officials also pressed negotiators to delete sections which tie global warming to human activity and emphasize the risk to economies.
James Connaughton who heads the US organization which, without a trace of irony, is called the Council on Environmental Quality, sought to reassure journalists with this statement: 'It's very important to view [the deletions] in context, which overall is one of strong consensus about a shared commitment to practical action.' How is the likely deletion of 'we know that the increase [of the earth's temperature] is due in large part to human activity' a commitment to practical action?
US policy seems to be simply one of cynical prevarication; at the very least, Bush and the oil companies are hopelessly behind the times. Jeffrey Immelt, head of General Electric, the largest company in America, gave a far-sighted speech to the George Washington Business School last month and, though he did not attack Bush's policy, he made a very strong case for mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions. Immelt is not the kind of guy to follow some whimsical scientific fad. He is a hard-nosed businessman; his advisers have told him about the problems ahead as well as the opportunities, and he has acted. As a result, GE is doubling its investment in energy and environmental technologies.
The penny has dropped with big business. In New York, a syndicate of two dozen institutional investors managing $3 trillion in assets recently asked American companies to confront urgently the risks of global warming. Even the oil industry outside America has got the message. Lord Oxburgh, non-executive chairman of Shell, said in a speech at the Hay-on-Wye Festival: 'We have 45 years, and if we start now, not in 10 or 15 years' time, we have a chance of hitting those targets. But we've got to start now. We have no time to lose.'
Governments will follow these men because they are in thrall to corporate power. Even the proudly retrograde US government will eventually fall in line, though almost certainly not under Bush. In all this, there is a telling lesson. It is that national governments generally lag behind sensible opinion and are rather slower to act than smaller units of government. If you look locally in the US, enlightened individuals are acting.
On the West Coast, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has announced plans to reduce emissions in California to 2000 levels by 2010 and 1990 levels by 2020. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg has signed bills to reduce vehicle emissions, while plans to cap the pollution from power stations are well ahead of Federal policy.
No doubt the Prime Minister would like Britain to be in this vanguard, but let's not forget that at the beginning of the year the British government was applying to exceed the quota of C0<->2 emissions agreed at Kyoto by more than 2 per cent. Britain cannot say one thing to the US, while resisting Kyoto targets itself.
Equally, we cannot expect government to do it all for us. Industries have to take action before they are told to; town and country councils must not wait for government directives because they will be too late. It is a question of each of us engaging that smallest unit in the government of human affairs - the individual conscience - and acting. We don't have time for G8 leaders to agree on what we all know to be true.
Last winter, I attended the climate change conference at the new Met Office headquarters outside Exeter. In the end of the conference, there was an open session in which scientists talked about what they had heard over the previous days. I will never forget the solemn urgency of that session. Even the scientist were shocked by how advanced various manifestations of global warming were. I was sitting next to the woman who has done pioneering work on the pH levels of the oceans. Like the others, she had seen the abyss and it showed in her face.
I wish we could all have that experience, because the conviction of the masses is the only way things will change. But here's the catch. It involves sacrifice and a loss of what we previously regarded as our rights to travel and consume freely. If I criticize the backwardness of Bush and his oil lobby, it follows that I must take action on a personal level - retire my ancient Volvo, use energy-saving light bulbs, switch off the computer at night, do away with the dishwasher, make fewer journeys by air, install solar panels, get a bicycle.
As yet, I have done none of these things.
Henry Porter's new novel, Brandenburg, is published next week by Orion.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.