David Attenborough, like the Queen, is immortal and infallible and therefore the closest thing we have to a living god. Unfortunately, gods have little interest in the practical business of politics (or at least, only among themselves), which is where the problem lies with Attenborough’s call for action on global heating.
While it has become popular recently to refer to the problem as the Climate Crisis, this is a poor choice of wording. Presumably the previous preferred terms – ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ – are now less favoured because the one sounds like quite a welcome development while the other is far too vague. ‘Crisis’, by contrast, strikes a note of urgency.
That urgency, however, isn’t really shared among the public. It wasn’t a prominent issue in the recent general election, where the party committed to the most cautious policy on decarbonisation won a clear majority (albeit that hitting net-zero in 30 years is still committing to revolutionary change in transport and infrastructure). In the most recent Mori Issues Index, 18% mentioned the environment, pollution and climate change as one of the most important issues with only 5% putting it top.
What’s true of Britain is even more true of the rest of the world. Attenborough made the wildly naïve and misguided statement that China needed to announce it would curb carbon output and the rest of the world would fall into line and that one could hope it would happen. One can’t and it won’t.
In reality, China is committed to massive increases in carbon emissions. It plans to build 216 new airports by 2035, by which point it would have greater air traffic that the US. It produces more steel every two years than Britain has produced in its history. It burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined and is planning on opening so many new coal-fired power stations that even if every coal-fired plant in the EU was decommissioned, these new Chinese ones alone would more than offset the closed European ones.
But that’s only half of the naivety. Even if China was to plan to commit to start to cut its carbon output, it’s fanciful to believe that the US administration (for example) would feel any compunction to follow suit.
Besides, there’s an uncomfortable undertone to the preachings of old white men (or the almost religious denunciations coming from rich white teenagers). “What right”, representatives of developing countries might ask, “have white people to enjoy a high standard of living, based on already-high levels of energy consumption, not to mention all the damage done during their own industrialisation during the last 200 years, including the occupation and often misuse of the rest of the world, if the right to develop is to be denied to black, brown and yellow people?”
(These racial terms are of course not generally considered polite these days. In this context however, I think they rather highlight the hypocrisy and double-standards).
And it’s a good question. China might be on the ‘bad boys’ list now, with 29% of global CO2 emissions – much more than its 18.4% population share – but the USA, with only 4.2% of the world’s population puts out 16% of its CO2: a greater ratio still. By contrast, India, almost as populous as China, emits only a quarter as much carbon dioxide. (Interestingly, the UK is only a little above its ‘fair share’, with around 1% on both scores).
In any case, analysis is only scratching the surface of the problem. Even if there’s consensus that the world must ‘do something’ (which was about as specific as Attenborough got), and even if there were agreement on what the objective should be, there still comes the politically tricky aspect of getting there.
It’s in that policy detail that the devil lies. If it were easy, it would have happened already. No-one willingly puts the future of the planet and civilization at risk. Equally though, economies and societies are complex and delicate things and change can only be achieved if it isn’t so disruptive as to produce a political backlash against both the policies and the people implementing them large enough to displace both – and that goes for dictatorships as much as democracies.
Steve Mnuchin might have been unusually stupid in his language towards Greta Thunberg – his “study economics” comment not only sneered at, patronised and dismissed the entire environmental movement but also demonstrated a lack of understanding of the economics of externalities (one might also note that a Treasury Secretary running a $1trn/yr deficit during full employment having claimed his administration’s tax cuts would pay for themselves is not well-placed to tell others to study economics) – but beneath the media and technical ineptness is a valid point: decarbonisation comes with short- and medium-term costs and the faster the change, the greater the costs. Which someone must pay. Thunberg might complain about her childhood having been stolen (it wasn’t, though her old age might be), but radical change risks ‘stealing’ the lives of many millions of others: at best through unemployment or bankruptcies; at worst due to early deaths.
(That final point touches on the elephant in the room, namely that one major reason for the huge increase in emissions is the huge increase in population. One of John Rentoul’s top 10 zombie facts is the claim that the world’s population could fit on the Isle of Wight. That might have been true in 1950 but at the same, cosy, six-people-per-square-metre density, you’d now need an island the size of the Isle of Skye – there are three times as many people on the planet today as 70 years ago).
The business of politics is in managing differences but in order to be able to do so there first has to be some consensus of the terms of the discussion. As yet, on Global Heating, we’re not even close to being there, either on a global or a national level. Governments can, and should, keep educating the public and acting where there’s scope to do so but the reality is that large-scale carbon reduction is likely to mean making food, petrol, flights and heating more expensive (or rationed). This is why, to Attenborough’s apparent incomprehension, governments “refuse to take steps that we know have to be taken”.
Is there hope? Maybe. But it will not follow the more extreme policies (or targets, which imply policies) that Global Heating activists want, and that must mean that adaptation is a part of the solution as well as behaviour change. But unless there is realism on both sides – about what is politically possible as well as about the nature of the crisis – then the likelihood is future governments will have to impose dramatic controls after the event. But as in wartime, at least at that point the public would understand and accept the necessity.