Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Beware global warming – and the lobbyists

It’s hard enough to persuade people how critical climate change is without hurricanes of hysteria and propaganda
Joss Garman

There is an unassuming strip of glass-fronted buildings a mile north of the White House which is now almost as important to the formulation of our national political culture as Fleet Street used to be. Our own politics have become so hard-wired to the US media that K Street — the home of America’s lobbying industry — now sets the parameters of political debate on both sides of the pond.
Imagine if, instead of 60 years ago, the Labour Party was trying to create a National Health Service today. The right-wing campaign to scupper the formation of an NHS would be run against the backdrop of UK media coverage of America’s simultaneous healthcare debate. Every “death panel” and “compulsory abortion” myth concocted on K Street would soon be digested by British correspondents in Washington before being tailored for a UK audience as an insight into the fallout from the introduction of “socialised medicine”. Fortunately, the NHS was created before K Street helped to create the political weather on this side of the Atlantic. But brace yourself because next up is climate change — and if you thought the US healthcare debate was skewed by lobbyists disseminating scare stories, then in the words of Ronald Reagan, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Over the coming months climate legislation will be discussed before the Senate. A vote is expected next year and a hurricane of hysteria is already forming, with Britain’s climate debate likely to be caught in the vicious tailwinds.
A television advert launched in the States by a DC-based group called CO2 is Green extolled the glories of pumping unlimited quantities of carbon into the atmosphere: “Higher CO2 levels than we have today would help the earth’s ecosystems and would support more plant and animal life.” Soon Americans will no doubt be faced with new evidence proving that climate change is a myth propagated by the Left and politically motivated liberal academics who seek to undermine the Western way of life from within.
To the likes of Richard Betts, of the Met Office Hadley Centre, all this is utterly alien. He told an Oxford university gathering of the elite of the climate modelling community this year: “We’ve always talked about these very severe impacts only affecting future generations, but people alive today could live to see a 4C rise.” A 4C rise could threaten the water supply of half the world’s population, wipe out up to half of animal and plant species, and swamp low-lying coasts.
In that company his was not a controversial statement, yet it bears no resemblance to the conversation currently happening between the elected and the electors.
As the US climate debate ramps up, this disconnect will become more stark. Prepare to be told, in contrast to the peer-reviewed science and indeed reality itself, that the glaciers are expanding, the polar ice caps are growing, global temperatures are dropping and sea levels are falling.
It has become evident in recent months that the British national conversation on climate change may not be robust enough to withstand a severe warping by the coming storm of unreason. The recent Populus poll for The Times found that only a quarter of people believe that climate change is the most serious problem that the world faces. This followed other research from Cardiff University that found that the number of Britons who don’t trust climate scientists to tell us the truth about global warming is up to 29 per cent — double the number who held the same opinion in 2003. The capacity of politicians, even if they were so minded, to enact the policies we urgently need is severely restricted by a national debate that is going in the wrong direction.
The climate debate here in the UK is still characterised to a great extent by misinformation, conspiracy theories and ideological prejudices. But why? When did science and progress become the enemy?
After all, it hasn’t always been like this. In the 1980s humans in predominantly richer countries were found to have been influencing the make-up of the atmosphere to the detriment of all mankind, but on that occasion there was a global collective will to act. The United Nations organised a meeting of political leaders in Montreal to agree a deal. And crucially, they stuck to it and it worked. Kofi Annan went so far as to describe it as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”. The crisis was the hole in the ozone layer, the cause was CFCs and the solution was a protocol that forced businesses and consumers to change their behaviour.
With the key climate conference in Copenhagen only a week away, why is it so different this time? The reason, of course, has nothing to do with scientific uncertainty and everything to do with the fact that, unlike CFCs, the CO2 emissions that cause climate breakdown are tied inexorably to the most powerful political, cultural and economic force of our age: consumerism. We greens need to accept that hundreds of millions of people around the world credit this economic creed with raising them out of poverty, improving their quality of life and extending life expectancy. But it’s a fact that the more we consume, the more we emit, and so demanding real action on climate change is to challenge the foundations on which our postwar world has been built, nowhere more so than in America. Thus the frenzied fightback against the climate science, one that in scale and content dwarfs the piecemeal efforts of the “ozone deniers” of 20 years ago.
Being a CO2 realist today means demanding policies that will force carbon emissions to peak in the next six years then drop dramatically, as the scientific consensus says we must. And yet, driven by turbo-consumerism, the trajectory of global carbon emissions remains pointed inexorably upwards with little sign of a plateau, let alone a reduction. What we’re asking for is so far outside the accepted parameters of debate that we might as well be living on a different planet.
Nasa, the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences — once we would have allowed these authoritative, trustworthy, dependable voices to shape those parameters. Instead, the scientists we rely upon have become a target for hackers and death threats. In the face of consumerism, these establishment institutions have been cast in the role of radicals. And the demonising of them is likely to become even more entrenched in the coming weeks and months as Obama’s climate Bill approaches that crucial Senate vote and those K Street “think-tanks” — the intellectual cosa nostra of consumerism — mobilise the forces of ignorance.
Joss Garman is a Greenpeace activist and was co-founder of Plane Stupid